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The silliness of looking for symbolism in literature

Posted by John Reed on

I hate people who look for symbolism in literature. I especially hate English teachers who did that and who tried to make me and/or my sons find symbolism.

In the vast majority of cases, there is none.

To Kill a Mockingbird

When I was a junior in college, my entire class was assigned to read To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. After we read it and discussed it in class, including many of our instructors urging us to find and discuss the symbolism in it, Harper Lee came to our college and addressed an assembly of our entire class. After her remarks, she took questions. Many were asking her about the symbolism of various things in the book.

She denied there was any symbolism. As the questions persisted, she became testier and said she was just trying to write a book that a publisher would buy and publish and hopefully sell the movie rights as well. She was a starving writer trying to make a buck, she explained. Starving writers have no time for symbolism and are darned sure not going to risk getting rejected to put hidden meanings into a book. She was just trying to write a good, salable story, she insisted.

Characters named after Confederate generals

In spite of those remarks, yet another student insisted on asking,

But what about the fact that a number of the characters were named after Confederate generals. Surely there must be symbolism in that?

In a voice as cold and angry as a red-necked, Alabama sheriff confronting a civil rights marcher, she said,

Those characters in the book were white trash. In the South, all the white trash are named after Confederate generals.

Stunned silence!

There were no more questions about symbolism. We were too busy cycling through the names of our Southern classmates in our minds trying to recall if any were named after Confederate generals.

I am a writer

Back then, I was just a college student. I turned out to be a writer. True, I write non-fiction, but I know what it means to try to make a living from writing. You do your best to write what the audience wants without being untrue to yourself. It is a way to make a buck.

English teachers apparently get bored having to teach the same books and plays year after year. To alleviate the boredom, they have apparently invented this symbolism-hunt game.

Charlie Brown

A Charlie Brown Peanuts comic strip once had Lucy “The Psychologist is in” psychoanalyzing a drawing Charlie Brown had made.

Do you always have the people’s hands behind their back to symbolize your shyness?

“No,” Brown said, “I just don’t know how to draw hands.”

I suspect that strip came from an incident in cartoonist Charles M. Schulz’s life where he was accused of that when the real reason was the one Brown gave.

Sgt. Pepper

Songwriters get more than their share of this symbolism crap. Perhaps the most extreme and comical example was the album cover for the Beatles album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The cover of the album is a crowded collage with cardboard cutouts of famous people as well as the sort of junk one might turn up on a scavenger hunt—a typical attempt at being artsy.

Next thing the Beatles knew, the public and critics were finding symbolism in the cover photo. God help us. One of the conclusions they came to was that the cover was crytpically signaling that Beatle Paul McCartney had died. McCartney himself appeared in public numerous times to refute that notion. No matter. The symbolism finders dismissed that McCartney as a double, so sure were they of their decoding of the symbolism of the album cover. McCartney seems to have finally put that interpretation to rest after 40 years, but he had a tough time of it.


My middle son appeared in a play called Robots written by David Largeman Murray at UC Santa Barbara in 2006. A number of people congratulated Murray for his symbolizing the AIDS crisis through the play. No such thought had ever occurred to him. Or me after I saw the play.


Even little old non-fiction writer me has run into this nonsense. Once, I got an email from a reader of my article on typos. He thought it was very clever of me to misspell the word “misspell” in the article. I checked, found he was right, and emailed him that I was not trying to be clever. It was just a typo on my part. I failed to do my normal spell check.

Go with it

I suspect there are many writers who have decided that they liked being thought so clever and who falsely took credit for various intricate symbolic meanings that never occurred to them when they were writing the work in question.

Beatniks in the fifties and songwriters in the sixties and thereafter in particular seem to be trying to take advantage of the propensity of the public to attribute all sorts of great genius to writers if they will only string words together in ways that seem to make no sense. For example, “Lucy in the sky with diamonds,” another Beatles song, was analyzed to death. Some noted that Lucy, sky, and diamonds have the initial letters LSD, a popular hallucinogenic drug of the time. True. And “Lucy in the sky with diamonds” also has the initial letters LITSWD which stands for absolutely nothing.

It is as if they are being called geniuses for creating Rohrschach ink blots. Rohrschach ink blots are created by spilling ink on a piece of paper. They are many things, but not evidence of genius.

Also reminds me of the numerology guys like Louis Farrakhan and the “experts” who are forever finding cracks in two nearby rocks that align with a solstice.

Does it matter whether the writer intended the symbolism in question?

Some would say the lack of intention of the writer regarding symbolism is irrelevant.

The hell it is!

The verb symbolize attributes motive to the writer. The pertinent definitions of the word “symbolize” are:

v.t. 3. to make into a symbol; to treat as a symbol

v.i. 1. to use symbols or symbolism

I do not deny that readers and teachers have the right to find analogies between a work of literature and other aspects of the universe. I also do not deny that trying to find as many plausible analogies between a given text and other aspects of the universe not directly cited in the text can be an amusing parlor game. If that’s what floats your boat, or saves you from the boredom of being an English teacher, knock yourself out.

I do deny that such is a worthwhile way to spend one’s time. And I sure as hell deny that we writers are producing Rorschach Ink blots in the form of fiction or non-fiction writing. Far from it. We are trying to get our ideas across as clearly as possible.

It is maddening to be complimented or criticized for “hidden” meanings in our works—meanings that never occurred to us and would not ever occur to us.

Indeed, Rorschach ink blots are literally meaningless blobs that are used by psychologists precisely because they reveal much about the beholder. They reveal absolutely nothing about the ink blot or its creator because there is absolutely nothing to reveal. The blots are just random ink spills that were deliberately selected for their lack of obvious meaning or recognizable shape. If a particular blot ever triggered the same interpretation in many people, it would have been dropped from the standard set of ten blots.

Indeed, it would be a lot easier to make a living from writing if all we had to do was string together intriguing words in ostensibly meaningless ways. Heck, a computer could do that all day.

Repressive regimes

I will agree that on occasions writers living or publishing under repressive regimes have written their works in a sort of code that can be understood by their target audience, but not by the censors of the repressive regime. Often the code takes the form of references to works that the intelligentsia are familiar with but that less educated government censors would not recognize. Perhaps this evidence of membership in the intelligentsia is the cachet that inspires too many pedestrian English teachers to play these games.

These regimes have been run by religious leaders, Fascist or Communist dictators, government organizations. Books like John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, written while he was imprisoned for holding religious services outside the auspices of the Church of England, come to mind.

But coded works published under repressive regimes make up only a tiny niche in literature, and not a very important one. The problem is that the existence of some actual symbolism in a few works has given millions of English teachers license to look for it in every piece of literature.

Teaching how to find symbolism

The teachers and professors who devote class time and give assignments that involve finding symbolism in literature should be horsewhipped and fired. Instead, they should be teaching the craft of writing.

Even so-called literature “appreciation” courses strike me as bogus. In fact, the reason we study classic literature is so we can use references to it as a shortcut to convey much meaning in few words. Truth to tell, it is also an affectation of the educated to signal and prove to each other that they, too, are educated—like the secret handshake of some restrictive club. Lawyers and judges are the most notorious players of this game, sprinkling references to obscure literary works throughout their briefs and opinions to show off their classical educations.

If you are a parent or other grown-up concerned about education in America, agitate to get those who run education institutions to put a stop to the idiocy of teaching students to search for symbolism in non-symbolic works and reduce the study of symbolic works down to the appropriate tiny amount of class and homework time for such a small segment of literature.

Last refuge

Samuel Johnson said in 1775 that,

Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

Symbolism is the last refuge of bored and/or incompetent English teachers.

Here are emails I got about this aricle.

I just read your article about  symbolism.  As an English teacher you would think that I would be  offended. However, I loved it! I hate the fact people tell my students that what they think about a book is wrong. Whatever someone learns or realizes from reading is personal and unique and as long as my students can explain how they reached a conclusion, I support it. I hate teaching symbolism and I try to avoid it as much as possible.   
I found your article  refreshing.
Esther Wilkey

Oh Mr. Reed, that someone can feel my pain!!! I am obligated to write a paper on the symbolic representation of flowers in two modernist texts! 10 pages!!
I mean, what can you say after "the common geranium here may mean that society is bloody and dead...why do I have to retreat in Odin and the Holy Grail. What the hell? I was told my paper stunk because my noted influences on the 'possibility' of symbolism (say psychoanalysis- too a screwy ordeal) were too obscure that I should look for wave and rebirth ideas - huh?! And that is not obscure. I tell you I am dying I am on the third re-write because I don't get what is wanted...
I really want to write about the effect the paper is having on my sanity..I could do it in metaphor if they like and they can interpret it into phallic and lady parts symbols as it suits their academic standing...

Drowning (symbolically :) in vetted resources of which, apparently, your page is not one.

Yours truly
l Reid

I don't know when you wrote your article, "The Silliness of Looking for Symbols in Literature," I could not find a date, but I find it relevent to my life at the moment. I am a first year English teacher and there is a curriculum map I must follow. I am currently in the midst of the required unit on symbolism, and I must say it is killing me slowly. I started off with "[redacted]" and I do feel that there is obvious symbolism in that story, but not enough to fill an entire unit. With the other short stories we are reading, I am having a much more difficult time. In "[redacted]" I am supposed to teach my students that the tree, growing in a desolate place, represents the unusual and out of place friendship shared between the two main characters. I just don't see it.

What infuriates me even more is that recently I was told by the teacher who oversees me during my first year that I spend too much time on grammar and writing skills and not enough time on things like symbolism and imagery. She tells me that 9th graders are not able to grasp at that age what a subordinating conjunction is and why they are used where they are used and how. She tells me instead to "Just tell them not to begin sentences with 'so' and if they do, you will take points off." How can they gain a solid command of the English language if they do not understand how it works? At any rate, just thought I would send you a note and say that I agree with you and that I am glad you feel my pain!

[name withheld]

Greetings from [redacted] High School,
I just spent a week trying to get 130 freshman to find the symbolism in three short stories that we read. They were to then write an essay in which they discussed the symbolism in each of the three stories. Allegory...I can buy, but most of the symbolism is a load of crap. I feel better now knowing I'm not alone. I enjoyed your thoughts.
Teacher of English (reluctant teacher of symbolism excavations)
[redacted] High School


It was so refreshing to find this article. I'm not a writer, but I am an avid reader and I've always thought what you so eloquently expressed. I just wish my 1972 Lit teacher could have read it in time to stop my comatose months of dissecting books and analyzing them to the point of hating the book for the sheer exercise of having to invent hidden themes.

Oprah had Cormac McCarthy on her show, I think to discuss The Road; it was one of his only interviews as he is apparently not given to speaking in public. Oprah kept trying to get themes out of McCarthy and finally he turned to her and said something like, "Sometimes a book is just a good yarn." End of discussion.

Thanks again for the article. I've bookmarked it.

Noel Ferre

Here is a a link a reader sent me. It has the responses that many famous writers gave to the question about whether there is symbolism in literature:

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