I remember it clearly. My mom had made cinnamon suckers - Christmas tree shapes, teddy bears, and reindeer. I was probably eating way too many of them. Snuggled up in the armchair with a blanket and a copy of Jane Eyre, I had my first experience with truly understanding symbolism. Maybe it was a little late - my Senior year in high school - but for some reason I remember this experience so vividly it is always what I go back to when I think of great literary symbols.
This is purely from memory, and since I haven't read Jane Eyre again for several years now, you'll forgive me for wrong details. There was a chestnut tree. Lightning split it in two at some point in the story, soon after Jane and Rochester's engagement. Not a good sign, right? I remember a scene with Jane or Rochester looking at that tree split in two, and like a hammer smashing over my head, I thought, "Oh! I get it now!!!!" I think I choked on a piece of cinnamon sucker because it was such a powerful symbol, so beautifully done and well-crafted. I wanted to write something like that one day.
Imagine my surprise when my English teacher told me I as WRONG about the symbol, that it didn't represent both Jane and Rochester's impending doom, but only Rochester. He even compares himself to the tree at one point, and that proved the author's intention of the symbol.
Of course, I believed my teacher at the time, but I sure don't now. It drives me nuts when readers try to insist that an author meant only one thing in their writing. The beauty of symbolism is that it can have multiple meanings and layers depending on the reader. I'm sure I'm not the only one who has had an English teacher try to insist on one meaning for something, am I? Is this why so many students have such a bad literary experience as teens? Is this why literary fiction gets a bad rap?
I used to view literary fiction as a box filled with puzzle pieces. And even worse, if you don't particularly enjoy puzzles, some of them don't fit together properly where they should. Now I'm with Scott when he says:
I embrace the slovenly, drunken and reeling thing that is the novel.
What a beautiful way to look at it instead of some stiff, uppity being that will slap your hands if you guess wrong. I guess my point is today that if you're turned off by literary fiction - I'm speaking mostly of classic literature here - give it another try. There are no right answers. In fact, there doesn't even have to be answers. The best part of Jane Eyre for me wasn't the symbol of the chestnut tree - it was reading that book and then reading The Wide Sargasso Sea to get Rochester's viewpoint of the story. That was fun.