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The Benefits and Perils of Symbolism

January 14, 2012

Symbolism is a useful tool for any writer, and one that often comes without a great deal of effort. Symbolic representation is ingrained in our brains, so when we write it is used subconsciously in our descriptions and narrative. Literature classes frequently focus on picking apart the symbolism in a passage or work as a whole. The teachers of these classes typically say that the writer has purposefully chosen this symbolism to enhance his storytelling; however, many times even the writer does not recognize when he is adding symbolism to his work. It is important to know as a writer when you are using symbolism so that you can fully develop it to reach its fullest potential. When reading, however, it is best not to stretch symbolism to its extremes as it is often used simply and can easily be over-examined.

Here is a paragraph from Discordant Tones:

     For hours, silence lay like a smothering blanket upon the occupants of the cell. The light cast upon the floor by way of the sole window marked the passage of time like a clock, the golden beam moving in a painfully slow arc across the stones. As time went on, the light dimmed until it vanished altogether, and the Futurians were left in near-absolute darkness, the only spattering of illumination provided by the few stars not obscured by grim, overbearing clouds.

On the surface this paragraph describes the achingly slow passage of time experienced by a group of people imprisoned in a cell.

Taking into account symbolism without regard to external context, it might say something about hope, depression, or even death.

Hope: There is always “light” throughout the paragraph, whether it is sunlight or starlight. This means that there is always the chance for escape. The “beam” of light is “golden” because it represents hope and salvation. Even when night falls, there is a “spattering of illumination” cast by the “stars.” Hope is not lost as long as the characters can pull themselves out of the dark and reach for the light.

Depression: “Silence” indicates that they are keeping to themselves. They do not want to interact with others, a sign of sorrow and depression. They just want to hide from the outside world beneath a “blanket,” and they wish to “smother” their unwished-for thoughts. They don’t want to feel anymore. The movement of the light is “painfully slow” because they feel trapped in time as much as place. Eventually the light “vanishes altogether,” leaving them in the “darkness” of their thoughts and emotions. They do not think they can escape from the cell or their sorrowful thoughts. Not only is it dark, but the night sky is covered with “grim” and “overbearing” clouds that weigh down the characters and prohibit them from picking themselves up from their depression.

Death: The “silence” of the cell shows that there is no life contained within it. The occupants have had their life “smothered” out of them. Theirs was an agonizing death as shown by the “slow” and “painful” extinguishing of the “light.” They tried to hold off death but their life force “dimmed” and eventually “vanished altogether.” All that is left in the cell is “darkness,” devoid of life. The “grim” clouds stand testament to the characters’ demise.

What did I actually want it to say? The paragraph means exactly what it states: the imprisoned characters are not talking to one another as day slowly gives way to night. There was also meant to be a sense of foreboding and foreshadowed depression as well as a sprinkling of potential hope lurking in the distance if the characters can manage to find it.

I did not sit down and think about the symbolism I could use before I wrote the paragraph. The symbolism developed in concert with the description I was giving. Symbolism is a part of our way of thinking and therefore transfers quite readily to the written page. If the writer uses symbolism without thinking too much about it, then the readers will easily identify with it and will not have to struggle to discover an underlying meaning.

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