Saturday, June 30, 2012

Symbolism and follies

I am on page 212 of revision.I realized the other night, while going back in the manuscript to check a detail, that I actually have symbolism in here. So what? you say. Isn't that par for the course with novels?

I have ranted in the past about all the English classes in high school where symbolism was such a big deal. Here.
Here are some of the more ridiculous examples I remember from high school English:

  • Holden Caulfield's hat was a symbol for his hunt for...what was he hunting for again? 
  • Oh, yeah. And "Holden" could symbolize his efforts to "hold on." (Hold on to what? Being a brat?)
  • Ethan Frome and the sled being a need to escape. I thought that one was quite obvious, actually. 
Symbolism is defined as the practice of representing things by symbols or by investing things with a symbolic meaning or character. 
James McAvoy and Keira Knightley in Atonement

The broken vase in the beginning of Atonement. The moors in Wuthering Heights. Lady Mary's stuffed dog in the second season of Downton Abbey. Harry Potter's scar. They all represent something about the characters or the plot that is deeper than it initially appears. 

I find that symbolism can be read far too much into. Sometimes it's blue because the author typed "blue" and it doesn't mean anything more than that. If the symbol is not chosen well, it comes across as forced and doesn't work. Or perhaps it's not associated well with what it is meant to represent or it's not clear. 
I once wrote a short story in college where Post-Its stuck to the wall were supposed to represent my main character's inner turmoil. 

Yeah. Right. 

I wrote about a Greek folly in my story. A folly is an ornamental structure. Follies were often built in large English gardens in the 17th and 18th centuries. Sometimes they looked like Greek or Roman temples, meant to represent a particular god or a virtue. 


Lady Edith sitting in the folly on Downton Abbey

One of my characters has a folly in his garden. It's a partial Greek temple, basically the ruins, which stand on a hillside at the end of his gardens and overlooks the estate. My characters seem to believe that it's an actual Greek ruin--shades of Elgin's Marbles--now residing in a very English setting. 

Elizabeth Bennet standing in a folly in the 2005 P&P

Here's where symbolism comes into it. It's foreign. It stands out. It was forced to come to a new country. But it still looks majestic in the garden. It's the focal point of the garden. People in the story are fascinated by it. It symbolizes one of my characters really well.

What overzealous examples of symbolism do you remember from lit classes? Do you notice symbols when you read or no? What kind of symbolism do you have in your own work? And have you ever seen a folly? 


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