A metaphor always requires two parts, two sides, to complete its equation. The critic I.A. Richards calls these two sides the “tenor” and the “vehicle.” The tenor, the main subject or the “general drift,” is usually a thing but can also be an idea, an emotion or some other abstraction. The vehicle is the concrete image that embodies the main subject, supplying it with weight, shape and substance. For instance, in “He carried his guilt like a heavy suitcase,” guilt is the tenor and suitcase is the vehicle.
Connecting this explanation with symbolism, McClanahan says:
The tenor is the general idea that requires concreteness before it can be fully understood; the vehicle is the embodiment of the tenor. In both metaphor and simile, the tenor is stated. In symbolism, it is not. In symbolism, only the vehicle shows itself. A symbol is a visible sign—an object or action—that points to a world of meaning beyond itself (emphasis added).
McClanahan gives some examples from classic literature:
* a raven symbolizing death in “The Raven,” Poe
* blood standing for courage in The Red Badge Of Courage, Crane
* a necklace symbolizing human vanity in Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace”
* laundry representing angels in “Love Calls Us To The Things Of This World,” by Richard Wilbur
If we look at C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe, we can see a number of symbols, not the least of which is Aslan himself.
Kathryn Ann Lindscoog in The Lion of Judah in Never-Never Land explains a statement by Dorothy Sayers:
She continues with the broader assertion that all language about everything is analogical and that we think in a series of metaphors. We can explain nothing in terms of itself, but only in terms of other things.
This statement reminds me of what McClanahan said about symbols. Yes, they do stand for some meaning beyond the literal, but to be effective in a story they must first stand for the literal, concrete things that they are. Before Aslan represents Jesus, he is a lion—completely fitting in a land of talking animals.
Another writing book that addressed the subject: The Art & Craft of Novel Writing by Oakley Hall has this to say in the opening paragraph in the section dealing with symbols:
We are told by his biographer, Leon Howard, that it was Herman Melville’s practice to let his mind play with concrete details until they became “luminous with suggestive implications.” Until they turned into symbols, in fact, which then formed a conduit between the concrete and the abstract, the particular and the generalization.
In other words, a writer includes an object in the narrative because the story demands it, but a connection to an abstract suggests itself. The author ponders the connection, explores enhancing the object, and a symbol is born.
I’d conclude, then, that, unlike theme, a symbol appropriately arises from within the story, but, of course, the author must be looking for opportunities to capitalize on its presence.
Originally posted as part of a series on symbolism at A Christian Worldview of Fiction