The Stories Begun

{January 25, 2011}   Symbolism

I want to talk about symbolism today, and how purposeful it is or isn’t.

I’ve had particular two experiences with symbolism that have me thoroughly convinced that English classes in general and college especially are a bunch of bunk (to put it concisely).  The first was the Thesis o’ Doom (as I lovingly termed my Senior Thesis) and the second was 2010’s NaNoWriMo project.  First, though, I think I need to define my experience with English classes and why I think they are quite so ridiculous.

Symbolism is one of the first things placed on the altar of verbal dissection in an English class.  It’s probably the easiest literary device to identify in a manuscript as well as being the easiest to dissect ad nauseam.  Teachers tend to encourage the line of discussion, “What did the author intend by this or that?”  Pages upon pages written about centuries old works by long-dead authors after hours of discussion clog the hard drives of proud students and weigh down the desks of busy teachers by semester’s end.

All I can say is: What a load of crap.

Yes, I will admit that some symbolism is purposeful.  Some is wildly accidental.  I will present two distinct experiences  I have had with this as proofs, but please keep in mind that these are these easiest and most accessible.  These are nowhere near the only ones.

Distinct Experience One: Thesis o’ Doom (Senior Thesis, Fall Semester 2009)

Stefan was born in Spring of 2008, when my well-meaning sister checked out a book from the library for  me.  It was a novelization of “Beauty and the Beast” and I felt the author did several disservices to her characters.  I liked the book, but it wasn’t all that great.  Having previously felt that I could not possibly tackle my favorite faerie tale without doing it a disservice, I now felt that I could not leave it alone.  If I could not be brilliant, I could at least fix the faults I had found in the novel my sister had so nicely found for me.

Well, I certainly fixed some of them.  Others, I could not fix in time to turn in my thesis.  Others, still, I created.  Such is the nature of writing.  But, one thing I did manage was to inadvertently create three phases in the story that echoed the Fates of Ancient Greek legend.  My beauty was a maid, then a mother, then a wise “crone.”  The gifts she received that revived her prince also echoed these phases.  It was completely unintentional.  I was following an age-old plot.  Occasionally, I would throw in a twist from a similar plot from another culture.  Very occasionally, I would take an element and would imagine it in a different incarnation, but I doubt there was a single thing that I could truly call “original” in that plot.

And yet, none of this symbolism was present in some twenty-two originals that I read, even the Greek based one.  I created it entirely, if unintentionally.  I purposely chose to return to the pagan roots of the symbolism.  There was much that I did purposely highlight within the piece (the connection between cats and dragons and the good and evil they represented), but never did I intend the maiden-mother-crone cycle to occur.  Yet it is one of, if not the strongest symbols in my thesis.  I am proud of how neatly it fell into place, but I can take very little credit for it.

Distinct Experience Two: NaNoWriMo 2010

I started this project with one story, one image, and one symbol.  It was simple:  the moon as the benevolent mother.  As the project went on, the moon remained the benevolent mother, but the main character also understood the poison of the child within.  All of a sudden, the moon and it’s light became a spreader of poison and parasitic dependence.  It wasn’t that the moon had changed at all.  Or that the story, image, or symbol had changed.   What had changed was that a layer had been added to the symbol.  Pregnancy can be seen two ways: life or death.  It entirely depends upon the fate of the mother and the story took on a dual meaning.  It was incredible to see the dark pall that swept over the joy and love that had originally permeated the soul of the story.  I love the new version, the version I really cannot take credit for.  It just happened as I went.

It is so very easy to guess at what an author meant, but–from my experience alone–I am inclined to say that no author means all that we assume.  In fact, I am willing to bet there will be some authors in the next life that greet academics with a handshake and a smile, saying, “Thank you so much!   I had no idea I was so profound as that until you came along!”

Go make some dead author’s day. 😉



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