Symbolism, Part 1

Symbolism is a writing device I believe is under-utilized today. To use symbols most powerfully, I think, a writer must develop them intentionally—something that happens best when the need of and purpose for symbols is grasped from the start.

So what is the purpose of symbolism? From Rebecca McClanahan in Word Painting:

A symbol is a visible sign—an object or action—that points to a world of meaning beyond itself. Although symbolism works by the power of suggestion, a symbol is not the same as a meaning or a moral. A symbol cannot be an abstraction. Rather, a symbol is the thing that points to the abstraction.

I might add that a symbol ought not to be explained within the story. Perhaps this is the reason some writers steer away from symbols—there’s a risk that readers might miss the meaning.

Of course, there is also the risk that the symbol won’t work—that it will be clumsy or ineffective, inappropriate or too transparent. McClanahan continues:

An object or action may come to symbolize a world greater than itself, but first it must justify its existence—as an object or an action—in the world of the story … For a symbol to work effectively, the real world must precede the symbolic … A symbol means more than itself, but first it means itself … when a symbol grows organically from its source—character, setting, conflict, plot, language and from our own passions—it can enrich our writing. But when it feels forced, self-conscious or merely placed over a piece of writing, it brings the whole house down with it.

That makes a lot of sense to me, but perhaps we need to explore a little more about “transparent” symbols.

First, symbolism does not equal allegory. Quoting Rebecca McClanahan in Word Painting again:

Allegory is a story or description where each element—each person, place, thing and idea—is metaphorical. In addition to providing one-on-one correspondences, the elements “add up” to something greater than the sum of their parts, some overriding idea or message.

Such a work makes no attempt to hide the point of the story. In my opinion few people can write really good allegory. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is perhaps the most famous and the best example.

Bunyan’s main character, Christian, is on a journey, which he begins at the urging of Evangelist, from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. On his way, he bogs down in the Slough of Despond, meets friends Faithful and Hopeful, travels the King’s Highway past places like the Hill Difficulty and Vanity, and so on. At one point he is captured by the Giant Despair and taken to Doubting Castle. You get the picture. There is never a question what Bunyan is saying underneath his story because the meaning can hardly be said to have stayed underneath.

Few people that I know relish an allegory. I’m not sure why that is, but I would have to count myself in that category, though once I began reading Pilgrim’s Progress I was pleasantly surprised by how entertaining the story was.

When an author uses symbolism that is transparent, I think the story borders on allegory. Transparent symbolism would be the use of an obvious symbol that the average reader would immediately understand at the abstract level. The cross is an obvious symbol, for example.

Is the use of transparent symbolism good? bad?

Neither, in my point of view, just as allegory as a kind of story is neither good nor bad. It is by the execution of the device, not its inclusion, that a story should be judged.

But there is the added point about writing to a target audience. Does the target audience appreciate or even anticipate allegory or transparent symbolism?

Here the issue is, does the work meet the expectation. If a reader does not expect transparent symbolism, and a story comes loaded with it, the reader is apt to feel duped, as if the story was a lure to bring the reader in, only to have the author deliver a truckload of message.

Obviously stories that do not utilize symbolism can fall into the same trap, but ones that rely on symbols to indicate a larger truth are most open to this predicament, perhaps more so for Christians writing in a Christianized culture.

Originally posted in a series on Symbolism at A Christian Worldview of Fiction


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