To a lot of readers, literary symbolism is that thing in high school English class that the teacher went on and on about instead of talking about the story. Then some of them turn into writers, and come to the understanding that literary symbolism isn’t some sort of academic game of “Gotcha!” – it’s just another tool in the toolbox, a way of deepening and enriching the theme of the story without having to take the reader’s attention away from the plot and the setting and the characters.
Sometimes the gun over the mantelpiece literally goes off in the third act. And sometimes the gun over the mantelpiece is there to keep the reader aware of something else in the story that goes off in the third act instead. That second gun is a symbol.
There are two sorts of symbols. One sort consists of symbols drawn from several thousand years of human culture – mostly Western culture, for reasons having to do with imperialism, colonialism, the established literary and artistic canon as set forth in freshman-year survey classes, and the fact that if you’re reading this blog, then English is at least one of your secondary languages. The other sort are drawn from the writer’s own mind and are hand-made on purpose for a particular project: the billboard with the picture of the eyeglasses in The Great Gatsby, the scent of honeysuckle in The Sound and the Fury.
The primary risk involved in deploying the first sort of symbol is that of misunderstanding. The audience for our work grows more global every day, and there is no guarantee that the reader’s load of cultural baggage is the same as the one the writer brought to the story. There’s no telling what references are going to leave a non-native-English-speaker in a position similar to that of a college freshman somewhere in Iowa struggling with Crime and Punishment in translation, and having to rely on the introduction and the footnotes to make sense of the social implications of all those first names, last names, patronymics, and multiple layers of nicknames, and who calls who what when.
A secondary risk associated with the use of established cultural symbols is that they can change meaning over time, or across distance, and the world is not always kind enough to post warnings when you’re going over one of those borders. A fairly dramatic case in point, of course, is the swastika, which prior to the 1930s was known in a number of world traditions as a good-luck symbol – Kipling employed it in his bookplates and on the bindings of his books until 1935, as an homage to his roots in British India, for example; it also appears in prehistoric petroglyphs (drawings and symbols on rock) in the North American Southwest. By the end of the second World War, however, the former good-luck symbol had acquired such a burden of negative association that it has been effectively desecrated for good in the minds of Western audiences. A writer coming from one of the world traditions where the swastika has retained a good portion of its former meaning is going to have a hard time making a case for its use, no matter how benign their intent may be.
For the second sort of symbol – the handmade-for-the-occasion kind – the primary risk is that of obscurity. Even a reader from the same time and place as the writer is not going to have access to the inside of the writer’s head, or to the writer’s private stock of significant images. The writer has to work the meaning of the symbol into the very story whose meaning the symbol is intended to explicate or reinforce, which is a task not much different from crossing a deep ravine by means of a bridge which you’re building beneath you as you go across. The fact that writers do it all the time, and that readers get the intended meaning more often than not (even if they don’t have the critical vocabulary to explicate it later), is in fact a tribute to the collective intelligence of all of us, writers and readers alike.
I don’t have any words of wisdom about secret techniques for making this part of the writing job any easier . . . just an acknowledgement that it really is hard work, and full of pitfalls and unexploded land mines, but that it’s one of the things that, if you carry it off, will give your story that sense of extra layers beneath the surface which can lift it above the other submissions in an editor’s stack.