Ridiculous thread name aside, I'm here to talk to you about something really dear to my heart. No, it's not Jesus.
This post is all about symbolism, and its ups and downs.
A lot of you reading this should remember symbolism from high school English/Literature classes, whether you studied the ideas of loss of innocence in Lord of the Flies
, revenge and procrastination in Hamlet
, or how one's greatest dreams can be one's downfall, as in The Great Gatsby
. You might not have enjoyed all of these books and plays (though I certainly do, save for a couple), but they're all genuine examples of how symbolism is used in literature. I'm probably going to rehash a lot of what you learned/are learning here, so hang on for a bit.
Symbolism comes in two flavours: what we Tropes would probably call Faux Symbolism
, essentially stock symbols like crosses, hearts and such, and internal symbols, which are specific to a single story or series and are reinforced throughout the book.
is a terribly, terribly
inaccurate name for stock symbolism, I'll admit, but stock symbols and Faux Symbolism too often overlap, so they really have to be distinguished here. Stock symbols are ones you can consistently rely on to mean the same thing: crosses mean Christian metaphor or sometimes medical aid, stylized hearts represent love, and the brain represents intelligence and knowledge. Simple stuff that most audiences will understand, though this kind of symbolism gets used a lot
. So much that it can often seem to really mean nothing and just be "there", hence the intrusion of Faux Symbolism into this territory. Here's where internal symbolism comes in.
Internal symbolism is the real core of a story built with intentional symbolism. This is stuff like Piggy's glasses and the conch in Lord of the Flies
, and the light at the end of the pier in The Great Gatsby
. It's totally meaningless in other stories, but in these it has serious purpose. And no, you really cannot argue that English teachers are just B.S.ing you with contrived meanings. Stories are created to tell something, to have meaning. Without meaning, a story is useless, despite any entertainment value it may have. Symbols are how authors bring these themes to the surface, whether it be portraying the protagonist as a messianic figure or using a digital watch to represent connection to civilization - internal symbolism, again, is story specific. This internal symbolism opens the gate for stock symbolism, which does work if used well, like many other tropes.
When it comes to writing, I'm heavy on the symbols. I write not only to entertain, but to advance English literature (that sounds very egotistical... :P) and to make a point, or many points as it usually ends up. Now, here I come to one of the hardest parts of literature to swallow: Artistic Unity
Artistic Unity isn't something I hear about often. I'm not sure if it has other names or something, but that's how I know it: Artistic Unity, the idea (or rule, really) that everything
in a story has to have a purpose, to advance the theme, plot or characters.
Does this get you frustrated? Are you thinking, "Screw that, why the hell should I let some literary rule restrict my writing?" I used to think that, actually, but then I realized something. I realized that hey, what bad does artistic unity do? It trims the fat off of a story, and in some ways challenges writers to find purposes for various events in their stories. Everything has to have a meaning, a purpose. It may not apply to life, but it sure applies to literature. Ask yourself: is there anything that just "happens" in your works? Be honest. Could you take that part out, and not have a gaping hole to fill in regards to plot? If so, then get rid of it. So Malcolm likes older weaponry? That's normally just a "fun fact" about the character. Symbolically, applying to the rule of Artistic Unity? Have it represent something like old-fashioned ideals, and perhaps use a foil character to contrast this, reinforcing the symbolism, thereby creating depth and internal symbolism. Easy! You have a character recite some Shakespeare? Why that specific part? In Aldous Huxley's Brave New World
, John the Savage recites Miranda's line from The Tempest
, "O brave new world, that has such people in it!" as a reflection of the original work (where Miranda, a little girl, was naively looking on at some shipwrecked, corrupt nobles), stating the title, and representing the character's thoughts and views, in this case, John's misunderstanding of the "civilized" dystopia he is now in, in comparison to his life on a "primitive" reserve. That kind of thing, in totally accurate literary terms, is called a "Word Bomb" my some. Definite meaning, theme and purpose, all there. That's about all there is to it.
Artistic Unity reinforces and is reinforced by internal symbolism, which in turn allows stock symbolism to fit in the story. Symbolism adds depth to a story, and Artistic Unity, though it can seem harsh, makes you think a lot harder about your own work. Like Socrates, keep on asking, "Why?" and you can make your story not only entertaining, but deep and meaningful, and true fun to write, from a literary perspective.
Remember my catchphrase: "Artistic Unity is God!!"