Lorna sat down on the beach, failing to grasp the significance of her husband's words. I'm leaving. I want a divorce. We can talk about the kids. We can avoid a court case, can't we? She looked over at the family playing nearby and couldn't help but notice that the tide had now come in and started to demolish their sandcastle, the loving home the little girl had spent so many hours creating.Oh yes, that complicated subject in writing: symbolism. It can make a piece of writing sail, but it can also bring it crashing to the ground! It depends how it's used, and that's the difficult part. I prefer symbolism that hides beneath the surface, stuff that we often miss on a first reading. I don't like to get the feeling that the writer has deliberately put the symbolism in. Do you know what I mean?
The above example of symbolism, featuring Lorna on the beach, is far too obvious to my liking. I wrote it especially for this post, to demonstrate how I don't like to write. (That's a sandcastle we made on the beach in Greece over the summer, by the way). Did the text strike you as grating though? I ask this because stuff that annoys me will often be described as "beautiful" by a friend who's read the same piece. Yes, my friends, the reading experience is a very personal thing.
This is what Robie Macauley and George Lanning said about symbolism in their book Technique in Fiction:
“Symbols are not bright devices to be hung on the tree of the story. Nor can they be fabricated in an attempt to give the fiction an air of deep significance. They are serious and useful only when they are born from the narrative itself, when they come from the same well of imagination as the story.”
I tend to agree with this. Look at these other examples and tell me whether you agree with me that there is a "crash of symbols". I've made up these excerpts to help illustrate my point:
1) Tina told him she felt much better about her life. The sun suddenly came out from behind the stubborn clouds as they walked into the park. Later, near the fountain, he dropped and smashed the bottle of wine he'd been carrying. She knew then what he was about to announce.
2) The terrible news of the killing had come on a Friday morning. Mr Panguy had opened the letter from the consulate with a butter knife that had been left on the breakfast table. He'd noticed the droplet of jam on the blade as he sliced open the top of the envelope, and had been careful to ensure it didn't touch the contents.
3) He didn't want to fight her anymore. He decided he needed to be with her, in every sense of the word. Yes, she was right: commitment was everything. The vines they lay next to seemed to be on top of them all of sudden, the feelers actually now wrapped around his legs, around his arms, even curling up around his groin.So, tell me what you think of those passages. I'd be interested to see whether you think they work or not.
In the meantime, for perhaps THE BEST LAUGH you will have this month, and while you meditate further on the question of symbolism, I invite you to watch this excellent video that a journalist friend sent me a few months back. I really encourage you to watch it right to the very end! It's one of the best videos I've seen on YouTube. It puts the whole question of symbolism right into context. Click twice on the play button.