One of the concerns I’ve had about symbols is the idea that readers might miss them. I found some applicable thoughts on the subject in Oakley Hall’s The Art & Craft of Novel Writing. First his quote of Flannery O’Conner (Mysteries and Manners):
The fact that these meanings are there makes the book significant. The reader may not see them but they have their effect upon him nonetheless.
And this quote of John Steinbeck (East of Eden):
About the nature of the Trasks and about their symbol meanings I leave you to find out for yourself. There is a key and there are many leads. I think you will discover the story rather quickly for all its innocent sound on these pages. Now the innocent sound and the slight concealment are not done as tricks but simply so that a man can take from this book as much as he can bring to it … Your literate and understanding man will take joy of finding the secrets hidden in this book almost as though he searched for treasure, but we must never tell anyone they are there. Let them be found by accident. [emphasis added]
And I thought I was being so original in comparing symbols to treasure! 🙂
The quote from O’Conner and the Steinbeck line I emphasized take care of my “what if they miss it” concern. Too often if I let that worry drive my writing, then I produce transparent, correlative symbols. It’s like saying I’m hiding some thing, then setting it out in plain sight. Someone expecting a challenge will be disappointed.
If I write a good story and embed it with symbols, no one will be disappointed. The reader who wants a good story will have it, and the one who wants a challenge will have that too.
I conclude that symbols only work if the story itself is strong enough to stand as though the symbols did not exist.
A good example of such a story is The Year The Swallows Came Early, a middle grade novel by Kathryn Fitzmaurice.
The author used what I’ll call book-end symbols. Chapter 1 is entitled “Coconut Flakes” and the metaphor at the bottom of the first page explains it:
And that our house was like one of those See’s candies with beautiful swirled chocolate on the outside, but sometimes hiding coconut flakes on the inside, all gritty and hard, like undercooked white rice.
While mention of coconut occurs on several other occasions, the most memorable instance is in the last chapter entitled “Caramel”:
Because even though he’d picked that chocolate by pure chance, it just so happened that when I bit into it, I tasted soft easy-going caramel, and no coconut flakes.
So coconut pictures the hard things in life, but by looking at chocolate candies no one can tell if the inside holds coconut or caramel.
This is a great illustration of an author creating a symbol from an object that was integral to the story. The candy was first candy. But it came to represent more to the character, then through her, to the readers.
Symbols add depth. They suggest the theme of the story. They give readers more to think about. And yes, they might be missed. But in a strong story with well crafted symbols, readers with varying levels of expectation will have a satisfying reading experience.
Much of this article was originally posted as part of a series on symbolism at A Christian Worldview of Fiction