When I hear the word symbolism, I’m reminded of my anthropology training. There’s a theory in anthropology called symbolism that basically says human beings ascribe meanings to symbols in their cultures that reflect their values and life ways. In the same way, an author might assign meaning to symbols in their fiction, and a reader could assign yet another meaning that’s very different. Each reader brings their own set of experiences to the fiction they read, just as each writer brings theirs. That’s part of the magic of fiction – that it can speak to various people in many different ways.
Now, I’m guessing most authors don’t plan their fiction with symbols in mind. These things tend to emerge organically as the writer writes. It’s just innate in us as humans. It happens whether it’s intended or not. I recently read that people used to ask Shel Silverstein what the meaning of The Giving Tree was all the time and he said there wasn’t one. It’s an excellent example of an author’s intent being vastly different than all the meanings the readers want to ascribe to the work.
In Hush Puppy, there’s a secret notebook shared between the two main characters that becomes a symbol of the trust between them. The notebook becomes pivotal at the climax of the story, when the trust has been destroyed. I assure you it wasn’t planned that way when I wrote it, but there it is, plain as day, when I look back at it now.
Think back to the last book you read. What symbols spoke to you and what did they say?
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