Famous Novelists on Symbolism in Their Work and Whether It Was Intentional

I read this great post on John Green's Tumblr, titled Famous Novelists on Symbolism in Their Work and Whether It Was Intentional:

"Reading is not a game of Clue; books are not a mystery that you have to solve by putting all the pieces together. That’s not the point. Find the meaning you want to find in it. That’s what we do with books because that’s what we do in life."

[John adds this:] If the point of reading is merely to understand precisely what the author intended, then reading is just this miserable one-sided conversation in which an author is droning on to you page after page after page and the reader just sits there receiving a monologue.

That’s not reading. That’s listening.

Reading is the active co-creation of a story, complete with all its symbols and abstractions. 

I thought about what John said. It set a small fire in my brain, and this is what came out:

English teachers who forced me to find symbolism and meaning in books make assigned reading in high school absolutely miserable. It was bad enough that I couldn’t just enjoy the story and spend time with the characters, but they also made me go on some kind of treasure hunt where I had to find something the teacher/school/board of education/someone-who-was-not-me decided was the “correct” thing to find.

As a result, I hated many classic works of literature, and actually resented them and the people who wrote them. I'm pretty sure that's the opposite of what any teacher would want their students to take out of any class, especially an English Literature class, but it's what happened to me.

Years later, when I was in my mid-twenties, I spent the summer rereading the books I’d hated in high school, because I figured they were classics for a reason and maybe as an adult, I'd be able to see why. I read:

Great Expectations - still hated it.

A Separate Peace - liked it, didn’t love it, but that’s a big improvement over how much I despised it when I was in school.

1984 - Loved it. Loved it, loved it, loved it.

Brave New World - Read it just after 1984. Loved it.

Romeo and Juliet - Hated this when I was 14 (who, at 14, is mature enough to appreciate it? What a huge FAIL it is to teach this to 9th graders), and was moved to tears by it as an adult. Went on a bit of a Shakespeare tear as a result, and did Julius Caesar, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, and Macbeth. Still didn’t understand all of it, but loved every second of it.

All Quiet on the Western Front - When your authoritarian Cold Warrior English teacher isn’t somehow making this book all about how fucking great Reagan is, it’s just amazing.

There were others, but you get the idea, right? I even grabbed the Cliff's and Spark Notes to get some "education" from the books when I was done reading them, but I can't recall anything the notes said, just what the book gave me when it was all done… I think that says a lot.

When I was a kid, I was already an avid reader, so these (hopefully) well-intentioned teachers couldn’t turn me off from reading in general and forever, but both of my siblings still won't pick up a book if you gave them a hundred dollars to do it. I understand that educators want to encourage students to dig into stories and see what they can find in them, and that’s a great exercise, but forcing them to find what some board of education has decided is the One Right Thing To Find does those kids (and did this kid) a huge disservice.

And not that it matters, but I'm going to reread The Great Gatsby just as soon as I finish A Clash of Kings, because it feels like the right thing to do.

Afterthought: I love teachers. I'm on record stating that my heroes are teachers, and I believe that teachers do not get the salary or respect by American society that they should get. I'm not attacking teaching or teachers at all with this post; I'm just recalling the experience I had with a small number of teachers in the 80s, who I'm sure were doing their jobs they way they thought was best for their careers and their students.


163 thoughts on “Famous Novelists on Symbolism in Their Work and Whether It Was Intentional”

  1. Summer reading, at least in the district I taught in, didn’t come from the English department. It came from the district. But yeah, the selection is often pretty uninspired.

  2. I’m an English and German teacher in Germany and I also deal with the frustrations that students have with symbolism. The problem is that symbolism requires you to have knowledge. Intertextuality is a concept that needs you to know more than one text. If I want to show them how awesome the figure of Sherlock Holmes has been revived in “The Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco or “House M.D.”, they need to know all those works. And that’s why students sometimes feel “left out” and frustrated talking about symbolism.
    Still: School is a process and if I manage to unlock the understanding of the other layers of meaning that texts might have in store for them, then I feel content about letting them out into the world and re-read all the works they hated in school and let them rediscover them. Maybe it must be like that.
    P.S.: The movie “Name of the Rose” did poorly in the U.S. I’d advise you to watch it, as it is very entertaining and well made! :)

  3. Oooh, The Great Gatsby is fantastic. Not sure how I feel about Luhrmann making it into a movie, especially with DiCaprio.
    Macbeth was also a favorite of mine, but we had a totally awesome “Dead Poets Society” teacher for British Lit my sophomore year in high school that made everything come alive. We spent a month each on Macbeth, Beowulf, the Canterbury Tales, and a few poems (The Seafarer by Ezra Pound was so much fun!). That was pretty much it, that was the year of British lit. It was amazing and all due to our great teacher.
    One book that I absolutely loathed freshman year but totally loved by senior was Wuthering Heights. Funny how tastes change, or maybe a more grown-up mind.

  4. Not to mention, thirty seconds before seeing Juliet he’s ready to kill himself over Rosaline. As a high school teacher myself, I don’t see much difference in 14 year old girls and boys today. :)

  5. Here’s the thing though…(again, from a high school teacher, who is also an English major)… Tolkien once said the same thing (sort of) when people asked him about the impact of WWI on Lord of the Rings. But the reality is, I don’t think that you can read Lord of the Rings and not think that WWI must have had an impact on his writing. Despite being a huge fan, I think he was fooling himself in suggesting that it didn’t impact his work.

  6. Well said.
    This is my exact philosophy. As said a few times, I teach high school, am an English major, and used to teach English until I wormed my way out of a department that forced us to teach certain books to classes (I hated teaching Tom Sawyer as much as the grade 11s hated being taught it). English teachers hate some classics too (I can’t stand Portrait of an Artist), and while there are teachers as Wil described, I agree with the above comments, that good English teachers are not presenting symbolism and such as the end all and be all, but as the possibilities to be found in literature. Some students find literature pointless, until they recognize that they CAN search for meaning in it. And any good teacher will allow their students to realize that there are many different interpretations and ideas in literature. There is no “right” way to read anything.

  7. The idea that learning is not always “fun” is something that someone needs to let higher ups know in Canada’s education system at the moment.

  8. Boo! Typepad ate my comment. Short version: My most hated book in school was “The Little Prince” by Saint-Exupéry because we interpreted it to death, but I just decided to give it another try. Booya!

  9. Well said, Deepgame, good to put the logical and reasoning side to craft of writing. I an engineer who understands the value of rules and understanding how the mechanics of things work, but also the passion,love and joy that can come from employing those mechanics in a ceative way.

  10. Thanks dear blog reader for making it this far. Thanks Wil for opening up the subject. So many good comments from many people. I would like to add that I was pretty poor in High School English. School was a pretty mechanical place for me, I was deeply into Science and Maths, an uncommunicative nerd. But after a few years at work, I went back to (make up ground and)learn from college from a guy who was wholly passionate and skilled at conveying the ‘magic’ through careful selection of reading. I am an engineer, but I get the passion and emotional side as well. I just recently turned 48 and have just read ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ by Robert Pursig – it brilliantly combines comment on the ‘art’ and ‘science’ nature of thinking, I love the book. There can be brilliant creativity in the most scientific of things. I program computers and remember the kick I got from using a disk-sector-editor to turn a gigantic, threatening gargoyle into a gigantic, threatening, Garfield in one of my text based adventure games. See the humour in ‘Zork’, if you look in the mailbox.

  11. Dickens never gets better. Ever.
    I loved Gatsby and I think it definitely gets better with age (I’ve read it again a couple of times since high school). I still read Wuthering Heights at Christmas every year, it never gets old. Love and revenge intertwined, brilliant.
    I think it’s better to enjoy the book first, the subtext comes later. Or maybe never. But if you enjoy it, who cares? I studied English Lit in college and thankfully, my professors weren’t able to kill my love of the written word.
    And since you are reading the classics, I know it’s a “girly” book, but I highly recommend Pride and Prejudice. I firmly believe it is one of the most finely-crafted books in the English language. Outside of Shakespeare, it is some of the most eloquent language out there.

  12. When I was roughly 10 years old, my father insisted (as he did every summer) that I read several books and write reports on each. These books reports were separate from those required for turning in at the start of the fall semester. I hated it. I resented the time I needed to spend reading and writing versus playing and running around with my friends.
    This particular summer, the book of my pointed impatience and hatred was “Pride and Prejudice.” Picture it: a ten year old girl, at the BEACH, told she cannot play or even leave the house until her reading is done for the day. To say I loathed this novel is an understatement. I can clearly remember my plan to burn the pages at the end of the summer.
    I re-read this novel when I was 18, and again when I was 25. And it is now one of my favorite books of all time. There is no way that the ten year old me could ever have understood, never-mind truly appreciated, the subtle nuances of the dialogue, the description of society, the resulting relations. Elizabeth, to a 25 year old me, was an intelligent, fiery, brilliant and independent female- someone to be respected and even awed for her sense of spirit in a time period when being an actively thinking and outspoken female was verboten.
    I am so glad I had the presence of mind to reread a much hated and feared work of literature as an adult. I understand fully the power of the written word, but I believe every student should be told that a book hated today is very likely a book truly loved in the future.

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