Thursday, February 25, 2010

You Guessed Wrong

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.

Bull crap!

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.


  1. The beauty of art in general is that it is open to individual interpretation. Even if the author had implied one specific meaning for a symbol, a reader is not incorrect in finding additional layers, even if they were not consciously intended.

    I would think a good teacher would laud such creative thinking.

  2. I wish I had read that book so I could tell you what the tree really meant.

    It's funny when in critique groups people praise me for symbolism I never even thought about.
    I think readers have an inherit need to add meaning to everything in literature, whether the author intended it or not.
    So maybe the takeaway is to throw random crap into your novel so readers have something to latch onto.
    "ooh...when the bird landed on the windowsill and started chirping...I totally get it. It's the Herald of Adventure. Nice."
    And I'm like "it was just meant to show they left the window open."

  3. In college I was lucky to have a 'wicked cool' (that was her favorite word) teacher her taught me to love 19th Century American Lit. She was of the opinion that there wasn't a single meaning to the symbolism within the books nor was there a single theme. Everything - and boy did the class discussions prove this - was up for interpretation . . . by the reader. We had some great discussions in that class. And, if a professor can make an American Lit phobe love American Lit, well . . .

    Then, there's my personal theory that sometimes, there is no theme at all . . . except the themes English professors think are in the book. : )


  4. Interesting point, although I'm not sure we have to dispose with the idea of author's intent to acknowledge it. One of lit profs once wrote this about what he calls "multilayered discourse":

    "Some literature (though by no means all) possesses the quality of being multilayered. When literature possesses this quality, it allows and perhaps even invites readers to assimilate the text in multiple ways and at the level(s) at which readers’ experiences (including previous contact with literature) equips them to experience the text. T. S. Eliot has provided a good framework by which to understand this quality of literature: 'In a play of Shakespeare you get several levels of significance. For the simplest auditor there is the plot, for the more thoughtful the character and the conflict of character, for the more literary the words and phrasing, for the more musically sensitive the rhythm, and for auditors of greater sensitiveness and understanding a meaning which reveals itself gradually.'"

    There's also the idea of multiple-intended meanings, of the author writing something so rich that he wants you get several things out of it.

  5. UGH.


    I HATE it when teachers do that! In my own classroom, I make a point to NEVER tell a student that an interpretation is wrong. I may say I disagree, but never that they are wrong, not matter how wild. Not only do I think that one thing can be interpretted many ways (and that authorial intent plays only a part of the role in symbolic interpretation) but also that discourages kids from thinking on their own and encourages them to blindly accept a teachers words.


    On a side note: does anyone remember the old anecdote about Mark Twain mouthing off a teacher for incorrectly telling her students about symbolism in his book?

  6. On a different, yet similar, note, I wrote a paper during my senior-year English class that argued for Antigone as the tragic hero of the play of the same name. My teacher told me that I was wrong and gave me a C on the paper as a result.

    Hence why I dislike symbolism and trying to figure it out.

    I'm with Andrew on this, by the way. There may be symbolism in my writing but I most often don't intentionally put it there.

    The bit about Mark Twain doesn't surprise me though. It's totally in character for him.

  7. I wonder, does it take confidence or blindness or narrow-mindedness to proclaim someone's interpretation of art as "wrong"?

  8. I think the experience you described is commonplace and that turns so many young readers off reading. It is so sad.

  9. Wow, a teacher can have SUCH a huge impact on whether we end up enjoying a certain book, or literature in general. My favorite teacher was ALL ABOUT finding symbolism in books, but he was clear that there were virtually infinite ways one could interpret a "slovenly, drunken and reeling thing" such as a novel. That's what makes them rich--they're not frigging riddles or trick questions for pop quizzes, they're works of art.

    This same teacher was at a poetry reading by Auden once. After Auden read his poem, a student rasied his hand and asked why he chose to use a particular symbol. Auden replied that the student had interpreted the phrase wrong, and it was not symbolic in that way at all. The student argued. Auden responded, "Look, I wrote the poem."

    The student replied, "Yeah, well I READ it."

    Ha! I love this story. Art is born of the mind of the creator, but it lives in the eyes of its beholders. "Art" with a single interpretation isn't really art, is it? Isn't it more like a dry demonstration of a concept or statement?

    Oh yikes, I might be getting in hot water with some modern art profs in academialand now.

  10. Symbols can always mean more than one thing. And, since they're symbols, each reader can infer his or her own meaning from it, and those inferences can differ widely. There's beauty in that ambiguity.

  11. Yup, I had one of those English teachers. Which is why I wound up in the arts, and I wouldn't change that for anything. But I do wish I'd taken at least one college-level writing course.

    I guess that's why I love art so much. Symbolism is relative to our own personal experience. I doubt most artists, writers included, care if the symbolism in their work is understood differently by different people. That's the beauty of creativity--it's open to interpretation.

    Great post!

  12. I barely remember my English classes in school because they always seemed to impossible. For a long time, I thought reading and writing involved understanding some secret code that I could just never figure out. It wasn't until I started writing fiction and having people connect emotionally with it did I realize that it wasn't about playing a guessing game. It was about communication, and that made things so much easier for me. I suddenly loved reading and writing because I understood it's function for the first time.

  13. "Art is born of the mind of the creator, but it lives in the eyes of its beholders."

    --Don't forget that creators are also beholders once they've created. All authors also morph into readers of their own works, unless some just spew out words and never look at them again. To me, a creator's opinion on her own work is no less valid than anyone else's. It's a bit more valid because the creator has inside information the outside reader can never have. Though I also recognize that intention doesn't necessarily equal execution.

    In the anecdote about Auden you've cited, to me it sounds like both parties behaved stupidly, just for different reasons. Auden should have recognized that maybe he hadn't executed what he thought he had, and the student shouldn't have been so presumptuous about what Auden thought. Just like Auden was only a single opinion on his own work, the student was only a single opinion on Auden's work.

    W.r.t. the main post, I think there's intended symbolism and unintended symbolism. I'm a very allegorical writer, and I use symbolism a lot. But a couple of times readers of my works pointed out some meanings I never intended but seemed valid to me once people explained their reasoning.

    I like when others point out something about my work that I didn't consciously notice but was nevertheless there all along. Generally, I work hard on knowing my writing like the back of my hand. But I also like being surprised, even by myself, so I leave myself some outs, some areas where I don't want to know everything....

  14. Thank you for your great comments, everyone! I'm very busy this morning, but I'll responding to comments later in the day. So keep them coming!

  15. well said, Glam. You know, one time my sweetie was reading an earlier novel of mine and said, "I love the whole symbolism of the heavy coat".


    then I read it again and went, "hmmm..." I guess there is some symbolism of passing a burden there.

    so,if I as the author didn't even realize it - who is to say who's right or wrong?

  16. I once wrote a story with a hero whose name was similar to the punch line of a joke I had never heard. My brother read the story and told me later that he kept waiting for me to include the joke. There's no way we can know how our readers are going to interpret what we write. Just do it and hope for the best.

  17. I feel like I've lucked out with great English teachers my whole life. It seems to me most of them were open to different interpretations.

    I love it when someone finds symbolism in my stories that I didn't realize was there. It makes me feel like inside I'm really a literary genius.

  18. I think there are times when we feel it is more or less important to know what the author/creator intended. Art should stand alone apart from the creator, sure, but sometimes you want some context.

    Another story about my teacher. Before T.S. Eliot died, my teacher hunted him down and knocked on his front door to ask him what the heck he meant by the "soda water" line in The Wasteland.

    Eliot answered the door. My teacher asked about the line, and Eliot gave him a concise, specific answer.

    But he was so geeked that T.S. Eliot answered the door and talked to him that he totally forgot what he said.

    And you know what? I think maybe it's better that way. The mystery and excitement of ambiguity--and even irreconcilable paradox--can make a piece so much more alive than a tidy, cut-and-dry explanation.

  19. I'd been reading classic lit long before college (homeschooled, so didn't have high school English teachers to contend with), and thought I had a good handle on how I enjoyed and interpreted (when necessary) it. I was so excited to take an actual Literature class in college...only to have the professors tell me I didn't know what I was talking about, I wasn't "getting it", and that I needed to see things their way to get decent grades on my tests (I use plural pronouns because it wasn't just one professor, or one class). I also objected to the need for "interpretation" of "everything" - sometimes a tree is just a tree. None of my profs could/would accept that as valid.

    I was on the fence over whether to get an English or History degree...and those classes made it easy to go for the history degree instead. I gave up on college lit classes after only a few.

    I quite enjoy the classics, and I enjoy modern literary fiction occasionally too. But yes, I absolutely think that narrow interpretations, or the insistence that one is "right" and others "wrong" could easily turn people off of the genre (and classics) for good.

  20. I'm going to agree with F.P. that there is both intended and unintended symbolism. In my last book, there are symbols that mean specific things, and to think they mean something else gives the story a different meaning. If I have done a poor job employing my symbols, or a reader doesn't share my cultural frame of reference, my point won't be communicated well. But as long as the reader enjoys the story, that's okay with me. I've read stories where I knew I was missing some of what the author was saying, but I still liked the stories.

    Of unintended symbolism, I have two stories. First, Lady Glamis read my last MS and in that book there is a scene involving a poisoned apple and a queen. "Did you mean all the Snow White images?" Glam asked. "Huh?" I said. But it's there, sure enough; I just wasn't aware I was doing that. So Glam's reading experience was actually richer than what I intended, so again: Win!

    In one of her novels ("Still Life," maybe), Antonia Byatt has a character taking classes on poetry from a prize-winning poet whom she admires immensely. She sees symbols in one of his longer poems that he denies as being there. She doesn't argue with him, but she keeps thinking that he's just being thick because the symbolism ir right there on the page for all to see. I have a feeling Byatt based this on a real experience she had at university.

    In my WIP, there are images I'm throwing in because they seem right at the moment I'm writing them, but I have no idea right now if I've built any sort of symbolic framework. I know that clothing (hats, especially) comes up a lot in this book, as does whiskey. I'll be interested to see what readers think when that day comes. But whereas my last book had a lot of deliberate symbolism running through it (trees, weather, colors, etc.), I'm not really working consciously with symbols at all with this new book. But I assume they're in there, all over it. Language, after all, is nothing but a system of abstract symbols, and stories are systems of interacting symbols. So we'll see.

    Also, I had a couple of those awful English teachers, too. I might suggest that literary fiction isn't the enemy of pleasure so much as literary theory is.

  21. @F.P.: I think I know exactly what you mean when you say, "I leave myself some outs, some areas where I don't want to know everything." I like there to remain some mystery for me in my stories, too.

  22. I became an English teacher in large part because I knew I wouldn't be the hand-slapping, "You're WRONG" type. Whenever people say to me, "Doesn't it get old teaching 'To Kill a Mockingbird' for the eighteenth time?" I just smile. After all, when a student sees something in the book I never did, it makes the book brand new to me all over again. I would have given you a gold star sticker for your chestnut tree observation ;)

  23. I'm a reformed literary fiction hater. I can clearly remember a lot of hand slapping from my english teachers about the meaning of literary works. Nowadays ( starting almost two years ago), I started to give literary fiction another try and I haven't been disappointed after enjoying books by Sebold, McCarthy, Atwood & Niffenegger among others.

  24. Scott, it's like a perfect diamond. What can you say about it but things like, "Oooooh ahhhhh, it's so beautiful!" End of discussion. But an imperfect diamond? People could debate the imperfections in lengthy tomes; imperfections tend to generate lots of discussion, lots of ideas. Especially with respect to selling, gaining and keeping readers, writing's very much about generating the elusive "buzzing." At least it should be to sustain a readership.

    I think many classics are great, but they're not perfect. If they were people probably would have ooooohed and ahhhhhed and then forgotten about them. Humans love tinkering with things, even mentally with the stories they're reading....

    I deliberately leave holes in my work, in my crystal lattice, a la mineralogy. Basically, I deliberately leave flaws, naughty writer that I am lol. About the mystery need--I definitely know what you mean. For me, my life's become so boring, I feel the need to entertain myself with my stories, to find out new stuff about me, whom I'm very bored living with all these years.

  25. I had problems in school finding books I enjoyed because of the interpretation requirement. I loved Jonathan Livingston Seagul, until we picked it apart to find all the political symbolism. I didn't get it. Took me years to pick up another book by the author.


  26. I agree with wholeheartedly on this. My favorite example is the Bible. It means different things to different people and that's just the way it should be.

    But I have to admit my favorite line in your post is: "I think I choked on a piece of cinnamon sucker because it was such a powerful symbol..." This made me laugh. :)

  27. I've never understood teachers who choose to treat literature as if it were algebra, in which Y = death, now solve for X.

    Frankly, the entire field of lit crit would have closed up shop decades ago if there were only one way to read a text. The real rightness/wrongness is in the ability to use a consistent hermeneutic that fits the verbal cues the author has left. So while it might be interesting to do a Freudian reading of Dickens, it very well may not be something one could persuasively argue.

    Still, had your new interpretation of Jane Eyre come up in grad class and your could consistently argue it, the prof would laud you and push you to publish!

  28. There's nothing like a bad english teacher to ruin a good book. I had a succession of them, and it wasn't until well after school that I realised the merit of To Kill A Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye.

  29. I had both Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea in a lit class in college.

    At one point in WSS, I forget her name but the wife that was locked up, you know the main character is bleeding from her head watching the hut burn down.

    My lit professor said, "Why do you think she's bleeding? I'll tell you why...It's her period."

  30. Very well said. I've had that experience too. Teachers can intimidate students with their interpretations which are often just their own opinions. I would have really appreciated a teacher like Beth who didn't insist that symbols meant x and nothing else. Please.

  31. Rick: For the most part my teacher was great. She was just a little stubborn in some areas.

    Andrew: Hah! You would know what the tree really means, yep! I like your example there about the window and the bird. I've had readers pick up on things I didn't intend consciously, but subconsciously I like to boost my ego and say, why yes, I did mean that.

    Scott: Wow, she does sound like a great teacher! I think writers intentionally put themes in their books, but it's nice to know that we don't have to know what it is to enjoy or appreciate the work.

    Loren: I have written multiple meanings in my work before. My current novel's title means about 3 different things - at least that's what I've intended. Whether or not that's what people see and get out of it - that's up to them. I like the quote you gave!

    Beth: You sound like such a great teacher, really! I'm glad to hear that there are teachers out there like you helping students love and understand great literature.

    Matthew: Wow, a C? Yikes! Have you ever tried to intentionally put symbolism in your work before and had it work? Or do you avoid it? Or just not pay attention at all? I'm interested!

    Yat-Yee: I wonder, too! Probably all three.

    Southpaw: It is sad, I agree. It's sad to hear of teenagers these days saying they hate to read. This is why I think Stephanie Meyer and J.K. Rowling have done us all a good service and sparked some huge interest in reading amongst those that wouldn't have cared otherwise.

    Genie: It is art, yes! And the beauty of art is that when the artist lets other see it, they're giving others the right to interpret it how they will.

    I'm not sure that the student in your story should have been SO disrespectful of the author, although it does prove a good point.

    Simon: Beauty in the ambiguity, absolutely!

    Tere: Thank you for your comment! I'm interested to know why you ended up in the arts - you mean non-writing arts?

    Davin: It's sad that you had a bad experience with your English classes in school. Overall I had a great experience. You hit it on the head about a "secret code." That's exactly what I felt for such a long time - that every great piece of literature was just something to figure out. A part of me loved that, but another part of me loves it even more now that I know it's more about communication, like you say. I didn't skip you. I could never do that. ;)

  32. I agree with you 100% I even prefer to interpret musical lyrics however I like. I know there are songs that have been written with a point in mind but I prefer to choose the ones that mean the most to me.

  33. FP: Oh, I agree with you that creators become beholders of their own work. They have to, in my opinion. I read some of my earlier works that I've forgotten about, and it's so much fun to read it with a new eye, as if I wasn't the one who wrote it.

    I carefully craft my symbolism, but yes, I've had many experiences where readers point out things I never intended to do. It's kind of fun.

    Tess: That's great that your husband picked up on something like that! It's fun to see things you didn't mean - it always makes me feel smart. :)

    Chuck: I'll never admit how much hope I cradle in my heart as I write!

    Annie: I know! Isn't it the best ever! But then I always get disappointed when no one seems to pick up on the stuff I did on purpose. Sigh.

    Jamie: Wow, that's kind of sad about your experience! But I think it's good that you enjoy literature still. You didn't let the experience ruin the art for you, I hope.

    Scott B.: Oh, yes, you're right! I definitely mean literary theory more than literary fiction. Good point. And I still can't believe you didn't pick up on the Snow White thing. Poisoned apples! Of course, I watch way too much Disney lately...

    KLo: I LOVE your comment! This is why I read things over and over again. It's always a different experience every time.

    Crimey: It makes me so so so happy to see that some damage has been undone!

    Donna: Awww, well I'm glad you finally did! I haven't read that author yet.

    Erin: It's true! And choking on cinnamon sucker is NOT fun! But the great symbol made it all worth it. Maybe that's why I remember this so much - the tears in my eyes from hot cinnamon. :)

    Laurel: I'm laughing because that happened in college for me! I had professors telling me I needed to write and publish. Not because of Jane Eyre, but other literary theory I kept arguing about. :)

    Alexa: I still haven't read all of To Kill a Mockingbird! I've got to do that soon. :)

    BA: Hah! Well, there's one interpretation!

    Lois: I've always thought you should be a teacher. I think you'd be great!

    Laura: I don't see anything wrong with interpreting song lyrics! Some of them are just confusing and beg for different interpretations. And then there's some that you can't tell what they're saying. ;)

  34. You are so right! The beauty of writing is that each reader will get something unique and new out of it depending on their experiences. Nice post!

  35. I like to read Jane Eyre as if Emily had written it. (I personally suspect she had a large hand in it---I mean, look at the books Charlotte wrote after Emily died.) What did the blasted chestnut really mean, Andrew? It meant don't get engaged without asking your intended who's living in their attic!

    Emily was full of common sense stuff like that. Even 160 years later, it's still sound engagement advice.

    Just so you all know, that happened during the scene in which Rochester declares his passion for Jane. It's where he follows her to the garden after he's announced his engagement to Blanche to freak Jane out. He catches her by the chestnut and gives her some b.s. speech about his great love and how Jane will have to leave him when he gets married, then says, "Psyche! I really mean you!" She promises to marry him, it starts to rain, and they run in the house and scandalize the housekeeper with their intimacy. The next morning Jane discovers the chestnut tree has been split by lightning in the night.

    I suspect Charlotte actually used it for tension (Jaws theme music) and nothing more. But of course anything can be a symbol to the right reader. ALL good literature is layered.

  36. I was a teacher. (If you forget.) I'm glad to be writing now. I have a picture of you on my blog today. Heehee.

  37. I'm taking a course in short fiction. This week's assignment was to write a 4-page story having something to do with food. I wrote it Tuesday afternoon, set it aside and reread it Thursday. Holy cow, it was full of symbolism--symbolism that I hadn't noticed or intended in the first draft. I'm guessing that as we write we tend to unconsciously tap into symbolic imagery and archetypes.

  38. It seems I've lucked out regarding high school English classes; my teacher (who I also had last year) often begins the first literary analysis discussion of a semester by telling us that a key quality of literature is multiplicity of meaning, so no interpretation is ever "wrong" if it has basis in the text. So, regarding that tree, your opinion is right, your silly teacher's opinion was right, and I can add without contradiction that something splitting in two when Jane and Rochester get engaged also represents the falsity of the attempted marriage, and symbolically foreshadows their subsequent separation, and...

  39. Nisa: I agree with you - and that is one of the reasons I write. When I could finally accept that my writing would be viewed differently than what I intended, it suddenly became more exciting!

    Victoria: Fantastic! Thank you for explaining that scene. I'd forgotten the exact order of it all! Hmm, interesting about Emily helping with that. :)

    Lois: Okay, I totally forgot that you were a teacher!

  40. MG: I LOVE it when that happens! That happens to me all the time, and I'm always amazed at how things connect themselves in my story that I didn't intend. That's usually the best stuff I write - what I don't carefully plan. :)

    KG: Yep, exactly! And yes, my teacher was right, too. Definitely the great thing about layers!


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