My husband is not an avid reader, and he used to get very frustrated in college when teachers would insist discussing symbolism in a literary work when there didn’t seem to him to be any. He felt that writers often just wrote the story for the story’s sake and other people read symbolism into it.
It does seem like modern fiction just “tells the story” without much symbolism. Is symbolism an older literary device, like excessive description, that is not used much any more? Do you think there was as much symbolism as English teachers seemed to think? What are some examples of symbolism from your reading?
Oh good heavens. I don't think symbolism is ever going to be outdated. Nor is allegory, themes, or any other of the subjects we all chafed at learning in high school literature class.
First of all, I have to take a short tangent to point out that "modern fiction" is a slippery character. While mine is not the English degree in my family (there are two), if I recall correctly, "modern fiction" pretty much covers anything written after we left serialized storytelling to soap operas and comic books. Kafka and Woolf, both from the 1920s, are considered to be "modern fiction" - as is William Golding, Whassisname Hemingway, and William James (whom I have never successfully read).
Golding's Lord of the Flies (which I hated) is highly symbolic. Shipful of lost boys stranded on an island with no adults to tell them what to do. Literary study of what happens in society if there is no higher authority to praise the worthy or punish the unworthy. Even the title references Beezlebub, itself a symbol of the evil that will run rampant without authority.
Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea also contains symbolism, although English teachers use the book more to illustrate themes. If the theme of the book is man's place in relation to nature, the fish stands in as a symbol for all of nature.
Getting away from high school English class, however, let's look at some other varieties of "modern fiction"....
Here's one few would expect to find high-falutin' things like symbolism and theme in: Mercedes Lackey's Fairy Godmother. In this book, Elena - a failed Cinderella figure whose prince still thinks girls have cooties and certainly isn't holding a ball anytime soon - accepts a job as a godmother's apprentice. As she meets the Fairy Queen, whose approval she needs in order to start working magic, she is warned of all of the things which might befall a godmother and her region.
"It was one thing to be warned about the evil magicians, and to remember all of the things she had read and heard. It was quite another to see them at work, in rapid succession. And some -- were horrors.
Some of the horrors were blatant -- entire countries laid to waste, the inhabitants made into hopeless slaves, afraid to do anything but obey because of the cost of disobedience. Some of the evil ones were precisely as she might have expected, gloating despots squatting on thrones they had no right to, torture and exploitation the hallmarks of their reigns.
But some were subtle, and once Elena realized what she was seeing, the implications were chilling. Often the evil one was not on the throne itself, but was the power behind it, whispering into the monarch's ear. The effect was insidious; rather than creating despair for all, the dark one created factions, pitting the privileged, wealthy, and titled against those beneath them, placing the effort of exploitation one layer below the monarch. This kept despair from being total, for there was always the hope -- 'But when the King learns of this...' -- even though the hope was destined never to be fulfilled. These spiders spun a cunning web, beginning as they always did by eroding conditions gradually, with rights converted to privilege, then the privilege revoked on one pretense or another, always for an excellent reason, always on a 'temporary' basis, until the next 'privilege' was taken and the previous grievance forgotten."
No matter what your politics are, it seems obvious that this passage is symbolic - whether Lackey meant it to be or not - of what a particular faction in US politics claimed was happening through most of the 2000s - and of several historical and political precedents before then.
And that's part of the thing - the writer of a book only does about two-thirds of the work of creating meaning with his or her words. Each reader will read and interpret those words slightly differently. What the writer intended is important, but what the reader sees is equally important. This will upset several people, I know, as there are roots in that belief that extend far into identity politics and political correctness - to wit, that it doesn't necessarily matter whether you intended your words to offend (although if you did, shame on you). If they DO offend, feelings are hurt, people are upset, etc etc, and you need to step up and handle it with something other than complaining that since offense wasn't intended, it shouldn't exist.
Want to give some acknowledgement to other bloggers who've answered this question. Pop over and read their responses if you find this interesting.
Some genre fiction, particularly fantasy, is practically built on symbolism. (This occurred to me as I scrolled past the His Dark Materials trilogy in my LT catalog.)
Another blogger writes:
The Book Lady's Blog points out that Piggy's glasses in my hated Lord of the Flies are symbolic of the intellectualism and civilization - just as Piggy's girth and slow pace are symbolic of the inability of that intellectual, civilized world to adjust to the rules of the "new" anarchic universe the boys find themselves in. Really, go and read her post.