Symbolism

Jan. 6th, 2005 07:29 am
lullenny: (eats)
[personal profile] lullenny
The following is an excerpt from Part III of the book Making Shapely Fiction, by Jerome Stern. The first two parts are very much worth reading as well. The book is available in paperback.



Symbolism

Fiction writers can't help using symbolism; humans are always relating to each other symbolically. Such actions as shaking hands, kissing, and raising eyebrows symbolize relationships and attitudes. Clothing choices, like sandals with socks, or all-natural fibers, can symbolize a character's attitude toward society or a desired image. Foods, whether goat cheese rolled in mountain ash or proletarian black beans and rice, can manifest social aspirations. The progress of relationships can be symbolized by the giving of a book, a box of chocolates, a nightgown. A character's internal state may be expressed by the pictures on his walls.

Our culture has bestowed upon us a vast number of traditional symbols. Crucifixes, skulls, roses, and lambs. Fire, water, earth, and air. You can use these symbols conventionally as in movies where all the villains wear black and the good guys, white. You can redefine the symbols, even reverse them, so that in a particular work the hero wears black or the pitchfork is associated with good, not evil. Rain, often a symbol of life, in Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms becomes associated with death.

Traditional symbols can seem like clichés. If you dress you self-sacrificing heroines in white muslin and the unscrupulous, scheming women in red satin, readers may assume that the other elements in the narrative will be similarly unoriginal. Reverse symbols can be another kind of cliché, the clichéd anti-cliché -- the gruff pockmarked heroes and the baby-faced villains. Inverted symbols can be so obscure that no one understands them. Writers who get caught up with the "clever" symbols can be profoundly annoyed when no one notices them.

"Don't you see?" they say, " 'Maria went across the room.' Don't you get it? 'Across.' 'A cross! 'Maria.' 'Mary!' It's a prefiguration."

"Oh," you say. "Yeah."

You can successfully create your own symbols within the work. Images, objects, and actions gather meaning through their use in the narrative. Flannery O'Connor's pea-green ties and artificial legs and cast-iron statues become symbolic through her carefully phrased descriptions, how they are seen by the characters, and their function in the plot.

Symbolism is neither a variety of artificial decoration nor a secret cold. It's the word made flesh. It's the idea made visible. Writers are, after all, symbol-making animals.

See Archetype, Cliché, Imagery, Metaphor and Simile, Objective Correlative, Stereotype.

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