Hmm, this character is holding an apple; is it a symbol for original sin or health and learning? What about this marlin being eaten by sharks? Does it symbolize corporate bosses extracting value from the working man, or does it represent unfair taxation demolishing a paycheck?
If you’ve ever had trouble deciphering symbols like these, then this podcast is for you. We talk about how symbols are interpreted and how that interpretation can change the story. Then we discuss some well known symbols, including that damned marlin caught by an old man at sea. And, of course, we talk about Shakespeare, because how could we not?Download Episode 198 Subscription Feed
Have a question or comment for our hosts? Send it to [email protected]
Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Mary. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Wes: Welcome to the Mythcreant podcast. I’m your host Wes, with me today is Chris and Oren.
Wes: Okay, I’ve got a green light on the end of my desk, I’ve got a white handkerchief in my pocket, and let’s see, what is that outside? A lighthouse. Okay, check. I think we are ready to talk about symbols.
Oren: Okay, so you have a handkerchief, a green desk and a light, a green light, and a lighthouse.
Chris: So the green light is go, right?
Wes: Yeah, why not? So I’m going to be, I need to get my frustrating soap boxing out of the way as quick as possible on this podcast.
Chris: Yeah, yeah, do the soap boxing, that’s great.
Wes: Cool. So, here’s the thing, in this podcast, I’m going to try really hard to keep us talking about what symbols are, as, basically a literary element. Now, if frustrated listeners will remember what I had to say about themes and what that word means and how it’s casually applied. Which it’s fine it’s casually applied that way, and we often talk about how something symbolizes something else, but we’re specifically talking in this podcast today about like how a symbol is meant to function and what that means for readers or viewers, and also the symbolic baggage that gets attached to kind of popular elements over time. That’s kind of what we’re talking about. And so, really to think about this, I think back to my own high school English experiences where you’d be assigned a text and you’re told to read it and then there’s a question, like “identify all of the symbols and explain what they mean.” And I’m just like, I don’t think that’s the proper approach at all, because if I’m reading a text, I’m reading it through my lens, and I can attribute symbolic significance to things in the text based on my own reading experience. And that is the true power of a symbol, in my opinion, is that symbols are not this equals that.
Wes: If they are that, it’s not a symbol, that thing just literally represents the other thing. If it’s a symbol, that means that there’s multiple interpretations. So, if you’re reading a story where a lot of things are representing other things on a one-to-one basis, that’s basically just an allegory. And that’s the author making sure that you get the point, not a point, the point. And so like “Animal Farm” and fairytales; those types of stories, even myths, often incorporate these things, where “this is that, because we need to make sure you understand how this thing works, because I’m trying to teach you something”.
Chris: So, you’re saying that symbols, you think of as inherently kind of subjective?
Wes: Yes. They have to be, to be a symbol, I think so.
Chris: Okay. Or they’re not, you wouldn’t consider them a symbol?
Wes: Right. Because, for anyone that’s thinking back to high school, I read Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” and you know, in that story, he goes out fishing and he catches a marlin. And so then you get asked the question, “okay, what is the marlin a symbol for?” And if there’s an answer key for that, it’s not a symbol. The only way there could be a proper answer is if Ernest Hemingway made it explicit what that marlin represents. Not what it symbolizes, what it represents. And so, I think the marlin maintains symbolic status, just like the sharks that attack it and eat most of the flesh from it, because we’re just told a story and we’re allowed to put any symbolic significance onto the marlin or the sharks as we want. Like if you wanted to read the sharks as the Wall Street capitalists taking away the earnings of the hardworking man, you could do that. You could argue that, because you’re reading it through that lens. And that’s why symbols are fun and frustrating because we all get to talk about the things in the texts that are meaningful to us from our own perspectives, and as long as you can justify it with the text as a strong basis, I think it’s totally legit.
Chris: Right. So from that meaning, anything in a story, anything at all could be a symbol?
Wes: As long as it physically exists in the story. That’s the big caveat, right? So thoughts and descriptive language, those don’t count. It has to be a physical object, or a physical action that happens.
Chris: Right. Whereas if you were doing like some kind of descriptive metaphor, that doesn’t physically exist, the description is just making a comparison?
Chris: It’s not actually in the story.
Wes: Yeah, because symbols unfortunately get taught along with metaphor and simile, and metaphors and similes are figurative language, and symbols are not figurative language. If anything, it’s a rhetorical strategy, because if you’re doing a metaphor or simile, that’s the author getting to say, “this is like that”, or “I’m going to say this is that”. Whereas a symbol, it’s like, great Gatsby, he throws parties and then he gets sad and he walks to the end of his dock on the water and he stares out across the water, and there’s the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. And Fitzgerald doesn’t tell us the green light is “just like his longing to achieve the American dream”. He never says that, but the light’s there and we know that he goes and he interacts with it, and so we can read it as his longing to be with Daisy or maybe it’s a larger commentary on the American dream, or it’s maybe something about the nostalgia for his childhood. It could be all kinds of things, but the author is allowing us to just experience it on our own terms. And I just love that!
Oren: Are you sure that Fitzgerald never said what that meant somewhere? Because I remember when I read “The Great Gatsby” in high school, my English teacher was taking a very “the author is not dead approach” and had apparently read all of Gatsby’s correspondence where he talked about what stuff meant to him and wanted us to come up with those same answers.
Wes: That is so wrong! That makes me so angry.
Oren: It was frustrating when I was going through it. I did not particularly enjoy that class.
Chris: My question then though, would be, if symbols are inherently subjective, what role then does the storyteller actually have in either including or not including or any intention when writing a story towards putting symbols in their work?
Wes: I mean, I think the thing that we, and we’ll get to this in a minute when I talk about symbolic baggage and particular items, but the point is, that you can’t plan for everything; you don’t know what your readers are going to consider to be a symbol. However, what you can plan for, if you are considering using items in your story with symbolic meaning, then those items get interacted with by the characters, ideally more than once, in a meaningful context; and at that point, the reoccurrence of a symbol is considered a motif. We can then look to the moments where that thing shows up and then see if there’s a larger theme, we can pull from that. But stand-alone symbols can be a little trickier because, if you include in your story the fact that there’s a storm coming on the horizon, it’s kind of hard to not associate storms as symbolic representations of change and chaos. So, are you really wanting to potentially prime your readers for that when there’s not one coming? That’s something to keep in mind.
Chris: Certainly understanding the common connotations with different things and symbolism, would be valuable for a storyteller, just like understanding all the nuances that come with any word.
Wes: Yeah, exactly.
Chris: You can’t make the right word choices if you don’t understand the exact nuances the words have for a lot of people. Similarly, if you’re going to include things that have obvious symbolic meaning, it’s better if you know what that meaning is.
Oren: I hate it when I have to know what other people think. Why do I have to consider other people’s wishes? Why can’t I just use my own experience and assume it’s the only one?
Wes: But the power of the symbol is it lets you largely rely on what you think about it. And I think you’ll probably see what somebody is trying to do, like a case in point, a symbol from a short story I’ve talked about on here before, Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden Party”. Young Laura is helping her family set up for a garden party, and there’s a really nice moment where she’s talking with her mother and her mother gives her her hat. And so Laura now has the mother’s hat and it’s kind of this, I guess, fancy hat it’s black, it’s got some gold trim, blah, blah, blah. But that hat, we can argue, has a symbolic meaning, even though Mansfield doesn’t draw any attention to it, other than the fact that Laura puts it on her head, looks in the mirror and likes how she looks. That’s all we get. But we all kind of know that the possessions that we have kind of acquire a power because they’re associated with the character. And in that story, you could say the symbolic meaning is that Laura’s growing up, she’s acquiring more responsibilities, the matriarch of the family just kind of bestowed a personal item onto Laura. And so, even though the writer is not explicitly saying any of that, we can use what we know about family and relationships to talk about that moment as having symbolic significance.
Oren: In my experience, especially in visual mediums, symbols are something that like… it tends to be something that you don’t consciously notice but can influence how you’re viewing something anyway. There are exceptions; I definitely noticed in Tim Burton’s “Alice”, when, as part of the destroying of Alice’s agency, she’s told she has to carry a sword, which is a giant phallic symbol, and just do what it says and accept it. I’m like, okay, that made this whole thing a little grosser than it already was. But for the most part, and maybe this is just because I have a poor visual imagination, but I don’t usually see, for example, you mentioned in your show notes that a clock can be a representative of mortality, or it can be a symbol for mortality, I think was what was in your show notes.
Wes: Yeah, yeah I put that in there.
Oren: I would never see a clock and be like “hm, a symbol of mortality, interesting, hm”. That would never occur to me in the moment.
Wes: Yeah. Lots of things don’t occur to us in the moment, but possibly affect us anyway. I think of water crossings in terms of that. A water crossing can have symbolic meaning because it’s a transition, and transitionary moments happen to us all the time in life, when you move house, you start a new job, you pick up a new show to watch, and transitions can coincide with changes. And so if I’m reading a story and the character is walking around the city of bridges, like Venice or St. Petersburg, or something like that, then I’m like, okay, they’re crossing bridges, and also what’s happening? How is this bridge crossing maybe playing into the plot a little bit more? Is it revealing something about the character? What does he think about when he’s crossing this bridge here, as opposed to when he’s brooding in his apartment? Spoiler alert, I’m talking about “Crime and Punishment”.
Oren: I mean those scenes kind of bridge one to the other.
Wes: But you’re right, Oren. Every time I check my phone to see what time it is, I’m not suddenly reminded that I’m going to die. Not every day.
Oren: Depends on what’s on Facebook, I guess.
Wes: But there’s still that symbol of things, nothing is paused, something’s moving and running, running forward.
Chris: Right, like the idea of a countdown for instance, is always used. There’s a lot of movie scenes that have a little clock ticking in the background. And it generally raises tension, right? Because you have a sense of something… just the reminder of the passing of time, the fact that it passes makes you think that something’s coming or that the time could be running out.
Wes: Yeah. Or if you’re watching a show and the main character, she’s always checking her watch, she always wants to know what time it is. And maybe that’s never directly explained, but that behavior is a symbol, and we could talk about how that gives us a different understanding of her character.
Oren: I do think it behooves storytellers to understand how subjective symbols can be. Which isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s one of those things that a storyteller can’t count on people to view a symbol the same way that they do. Like “The Old Man and the Sea”, just to go back to that one, the sharks attacking the marlin. Well, that could be a symbol for the way that that the employers steal value from their workers. Or it could be a right-wing symbol for how the socialist left wants to take all your money, out of your paycheck and it’s like they’re sharks, and they’ve destroyed your marlin paycheck, and now they’re going to go build shark roads.
Oren: Or if you see a trampled or destroyed flag that could be a symbol of trampled civil rights. if the flag represents that to you, or it could be a symbol of freedom, if you don’t particularly like states that much. So that’s the sort of thing where it’s useful to think about that if a symbol is important to you and a story you’re telling that not everyone’s going to see it the same way.
Wes: Yeah, and strong writers are definitely aware of the context in which they’re writing and the audience they’re writing for; you do your homework.
Chris: Right. I also think when we’re talking about something subjective like this, there’s a certain level of importance that is difficult for storytellers, on making sure that the story does not need the symbol to succeed.
Chris: Honestly, I feel like if somebody wrote some of these symbolic stories today and the readers read them, they’re going to just be like, “Oh, this story just doesn’t seem like a big deal, this doesn’t necessarily seem important”. And trying to work in symbols as forms of communication when they are inherently not an effective means of communication will result in some really awkward stuff happening in the story. Like why did we just spend this entire scene with the protagonist looking at clocks? That’s so random. Why did that just happen?
Wes: Right. But if you had other, active plot elements happening and there were clocks, a clock was ticking in the background, like you mentioned; that’s a better use of that symbol.
Chris: Right. It’s like you already need to have all the plot together and then details that would otherwise just be kind of coincidental can be changed to things that could have extra symbolic meaning. It’s like, okay, well, I need to just do a quick description of how my protagonist is going from one part of the city to the other, so maybe my protagonist can also just happen to cross a channel or go over a bridge. But at the same time, I feel like there’s definitely, especially when symbols are so often praised in a lot of these classic works, there can be too much temptation to make your story about the symbols. But symbols aren’t an effective means of communicating a particular message and they can’t stand by themselves.
Wes: No. And because they’re subjective, they should be viewed that way. I completely agree with you. Because you can ascribe symbolic meaning to anything. The reason why they talk about them being so well established in the classic texts, I think it’s just because those things have just been analyzed to death. But then, the thing though that you can get from that is then a symbol allows you to look at an older story through a different lens. I’ve read some very interesting write-ups on how William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, you can read the symbolic elements in that is a condemnation of colonialism. And I’m just like, oh, so looking at these symbolic items through that lens actually enriches the story because suddenly I’m looking at it with a different perspective. I think that’s a part where symbols can really offer a lot in forcing you to maybe look at something a different way. And one of the ways to do that is to continue to have conversations with different people and understand that the color white means something very different across different cultures. But if you didn’t know about that, then you might read white as being this color… people wear white when they get married and it’s pure and it’s for celebration, but then in other cultures, white is the color you wear to a funeral. So swapping notes on symbolic associations can definitely have value.
Chris: Yeah. There’s also just some value in knowing who your audience is, and knowing who are you planning on marketing this work for? And certainly those decisions can be fraught. If we look too hard at catering to our typical audience, we can certainly marginalize some people in doing so. But at the same time, there does sometimes have to be strategic choices that are made.
Wes: I think strategic choices that every writer should keep in mind is always be careful with using any weather event and also be very aware of what time of day it is, because it’s really hard to not, immediately, for me, but I think this applies: sunrise and sunset have strong symbolic associations, because we see them thrown on us in visual mediums constantly. It’s like sunrise, new beginning; it’s sunset, it’s coming to a close. It’s almost impossible to divorce that. I think what we’re really advocating here is, be deliberate with your description and also discreet. Don’t go overboard.
Chris: Here’s my other question for you though Wes: there are some symbols that are just obvious; so obvious, they kind of feel almost literal. Like for instance, you could use a wall, would typically represent a boundary, but it could also represent a non-physical boundary. And a scar often represents trauma, it might not be physical trauma. And we have a lot of symbols that are very well-known and very literal, like eyes being the opening to the soul or mind. And if we’re thinking of symbols as purely subjective, without any known translation, what is the place for symbols that are obvious? Is it the kind of thing where, should people try to use them to communicate or not, or are they in a different category?
Wes: Yeah, at that point, I guess we’re talking kind of cliched symbols, and those are things that exist. Like the eyes, a window into somebody’s soul. That has such a strong association at this point that it’s not interesting. Maybe it’s a symbol, but it’s not interesting. I don’t think that’s something that would be worth spending a lot of time on and subverting that, you could do. Is it worth it? I don’t know.
Chris: I guess, I wouldn’t normally take any symbol that is so well-known and so obvious and necessarily say that it’s always going to be cliche. Certainly there are certain statements that you could make about the eyes at this point that seem overdone. For instance, you could take that same symbol and probably implement it a little bit more subtly.
Wes: Yeah, you’re right.
Chris: And I do think that it’s too easy to praise subtlety when so many storytellers, what they actually need to do is communicate more clearly and more effectively. And so what I don’t want to do is any time a symbol gets to the point where it’s just kind of very dumb, done a lot, or on the nose or so much that it’s very, very well-known and assume that once it becomes clear, once that symbol doesn’t feel subjective anymore because it’s been used that way so much that now it’s automatically cliche and it’s no longer something that you should put in your work.
Wes: I think the difficult thing with a lot of this is when they’ve been used that frequently, the language around it often can contribute to good effect or to detrimental effect. And it’s because, saying “the eyes are the window into the soul”, that’s a metaphor. You’re not just talking about somebody noticing someone’s eyes. So the language around the symbol, in the text, if the writer is couching that symbol in metaphorical language, then that offers opportunities to add something more explicit or fresh in the description. And you’re right, subtlety can definitely not work in the writer’s favor, but definitely the language that you’re using around it and how the narrator’s describing it has a big impact. And I suppose my thought was, with the obvious symbols, it could lend itself to lazy narration that employs cliched metaphor to explain the symbol.
Chris: Right. I think the key here is that, to understand that if it’s cliché, it’s no longer poetic. But for instance, here’s a good example: let’s say we took flowers or roses. Obviously roses are pretty obvious symbols of love; there’s really no way to get around it. They almost communicate in a way that will not necessarily feel symbolic, it will just feel literal. Like you have a character put a rose somewhere, your character comes up and puts a rose on a grave, gives it to somebody else, or something, there could be another more subjective place. It’s incredibly clear what’s happening there. We don’t have to define it, it’s not deep anymore.
Wes: No, it’s not at all.
Chris: But at the same time, the rose is still inherently functioning as a representative of something else, a representation of something else that’s more subjective, right?
Oren: For me, the tulip will always be a symbol of the dangers of capitalist excess. So go look up the great tulip bubble if you want to know why. Just a fun example of weird symbolism regarding flowers.
Wes: It’s kind of interesting. I was mulling over, when I was thinking about examples from literature of some symbols, and one of the older ones would be the Scarlet letter. And I was considering what that means. And I was like, okay, well, I don’t think that’s a symbol because the ‘A’ stands for adultery and it’s a physical representation of the alleged crime she committed. But then throughout that story, I’m kind of thinking about the roses example you’ve offered here too Chris, throughout that story, we actually see how Hester Prynne’s attitude towards that physical object changes. She never explicitly states that she’s reappropriating it or anything like that, but through her actions and behavior towards it, you can see that it somehow has gone more from the literal representation of her affair to actually, you could argue it is a symbolic point of pride for her or something like that. So I think that these things can exist on a symbolic kind of like one-to-one, this-refers-to-that relationship. But if it’s important to you to use that in the story, then how the characters’ attitude towards it changes is an important thing to consider doing.
Oren: Okay, here’s a question from a speculative fiction perspective. Would a staff, a robe, and a hat to indicate a smart wizard person, would that be a symbol or is that too literal or too common?
Wes: I think that works. But that was one that I was kind of thinking is something that has a lot of symbolic baggage. If you have a story and somebody walks up with a staff, a big old, awesome hat and some sweet robes, you’re like “Awesome, it’s a wizard!” And it’s not that those aren’t symbols, I just don’t think that they’re very good ones. But then that can take a kind of significance when that wizard, she takes on an apprentice and that apprentice gets to wear that hat and use that the staff. And then suddenly the clothes don’t only represent the apprentice becoming the wizard, but also acquiring the knowledge and status of her mentor; there’s more to talk about there. And clothes have always kind of served as a symbol of status or station. So you can do powerful play with that, but the characters have to be involved.
Chris: So what I seem to be gathering here is the idea that symbols are generally thought of being a matter of, I guess subtext is kind of a good word right there. Something that is hinted at, they’re never explicit, and if you use something that is like a symbol, like roses, in a very non-subtext manner, because the rose is incredibly clear, we know what it means; then it doesn’t really feel symbolic anymore because it’s no longer in subtext.
Wes: Yeah, it’s just something that’s happening.
Chris: Like if you saw a character buy red roses for herself regularly and put them out on the table, it’s almost so obvious, that it doesn’t feel symbolic anymore.
Oren: All right, so I have a question. What would you say would be symbolic of the end of something, perhaps like a 30-minute audio recording? What would we use to symbolize the end of that? Because it’s about to become very relevant!
Wes: Oh geez. We already talked about sunsets, so the sun is setting on our podcast.
Chris: A little cliche though.
Wes: It is, but again, my caveat with those things is, and I’ll rattle off a few more here, these carry symbolic baggage, so therefore they might not be great symbols, but also, it’s hard to not read them with having some kind of meaning, like the roses. So, I said water crossings, I said any weather event, time of day, the sun, the moon, the stars, a crown, a scepter, clothes, boats. I mean, boats are symbols of voyages, literally, but we are kind of primed to assume that a voyage would have a symbolic importance of self-discovery or something like that. It’s hard to get away from that.
Oren: You know Wes, I don’t appreciate you calling out my RPG design habits like this.
Wes: And food is the last one, because if you’re familiar with Judeo-Christian theology, then there’s the fruit that Adam and Eve eat, and so it’s like “Oh, an apple, yeah, that represents sin and temptation”. But then it’s like “Oh no, but wait, apples we also associate with learning and schools and stuff like that”. Food is definitely a powerful symbol, so keep that in mind if you’re writing a lot of food into your stories beyond just appealing to imagery.
Oren: All right. Well with that, we will put the sunset down on this podcast.
Wes: Sounds like we’re dying!
Oren: Those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website mythcreants.com. I promise we’re not dead, and we will talk to you next week.
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