Human language is, of course, symbolic in nature. A word is a symbol. Those instruments at the end of your arms you call hands, if you’re an English speaker. That’s not what a person born and raised in Beijing or Finland or Somalia calls them. Different symbols representing the same things.
Metaphor 1 (building on the understanding of one thing to understand another) is intrinsic to language and thus, the workings of the human mind. Symbolism is such a fundamental characteristic of communication that it spans disciplines from psychology and neuroscience to art history to linguistics and, (this was where we were headed the whole time) literature and storytelling.
Once in a while an author will want to tell one story, but can’t for personal or political reasons. Or, more practically, a writer understands that the story they want to tell just won’t capture the imagination of the audience. If you are interested in Stalinism and how it came to be, how and why it evolved, you might go study history and Russian culture and politics and then take twenty years to write the definitive historical treatise on that very large subject. A well written history will not have much symbolism in it, although there will be an attempt to analyze metaphors that were relevant to Stalin and his time. So then, you can’t get away from it, even in a history.
So okay, we’re going to write a novel now. We want to tell the story of Stalinism, we want to draw people in and make them really understand totalitarianism, to feel it in the gut. How many hundreds and thousands of ways could this be approached? We sit down and discuss those possibilities at length and decide that nope, none of that will do. Not clear enough for our purposes. Boring, to be blunt. We need some construct that will bypass people’s preconceived notions and show them the truth before they realize what’s coming.
Hey. What if we forget about Soviet Russia completely and set the story…. in a farmyard?
Animal Farm is an allegory: a narrative built out of a great big steaming pile of symbolism and metaphor. And it works for a simple reason: it’s easier to get people to read a slim novel about farmyard animals with revolutionary ideas that go sour than it is to get them to read a six hundred page historical treatise.
You can approach your story by means of allegory, if you’re skilled enough. In the end, if the allegory is well enough written, if you manage to really get the attention of your readers and make them think, a few of them will go off and read the history on their own. And then your job is done.
Orwell’s Animal Farm is an extreme case of an author consciously using metaphor and allegory to tell a story. There are many, many examples of this out there. Dare I mention The Crucible? Well there, I did it. An excellent example of an allegory, in which Arthur Miller tells one story on the surface but another one just below. In A.S. Byatt’s Angels and Insects, the main characters have a Victorian fascination with insects, They spend a lot of time studying the behavior of red and white ants, which turn out to mirror their own society just about perfectly.
An author can set out to use symbolism in a conscious way to tell a particular story, but mostly? Writers do not set aside part of their writing time to work out symbolism and tuck it into the corners. That doesn’t mean there isn’t any symbolism, because the subconscious has a lot to do with writing fiction, and the subconscious is all about metaphor. That’s really where dreams come from, after all.
Many authors are surprised when a critic points out a metaphor they weren’t working toward and didn’t see for themselves. Sometimes the observation is not welcome. There are authors who have been publically peevish about this subject. J. R. Tolkien was very put out by the suggestion that Lord of the Rings was an allegory for WWII. In fact, he denied allegory completely:
“As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical… It was written long before the foreshadow of 1939 had yet become a threat of inevitable disaster, and from that point the story would have developed along essentially the same lines, if that disaster had been averted.” source
But I would argue that the use of symbolism in fiction functions mostly at the subconscious level. When an author has to reach for it, it’s likely to feel strained; when it comes without conscious thought, it works best. This is my generalization, but I’m guessing it’s pretty close to the mark.
If Wallace Stegner were still alive, I would like to ask him about his narrator in Angle of Repose. This is a man with a degenerative bone disease, wheelchair bound, who can’t turn his head to the left or right. He’s got a kind of tunnel vision. Why did Stegner give him these disabilities? Did he mean us to see a physical manifestation of the historian’s inability to take in the whole picture? My guess is that after the fact, Stegner would have said, oh look at that, that works out neatly.
Do you have to notice the narrator’s limited field of vision to appreciate the story? Of course not. Do you feel nudged by the author into recognizing the symbol and what it’s supposed to represent? Does it make you feel unobservant to have it pointed out to you?
If you answered that last question with a yes, let me just suggest something. Most authors know that every reader will take away from a story just what they need and want. Do I hope that my readers notice subtle connections and underlying motivations? Of course. If they don’t, my first assumption is that I could have done a better job. But then there’s always the possibility that the reader was tired, or just didn’t like my style, or for some other reason didn’t connect to the story. Or it could be both things: my fault, and the reader’s. But none of that matters. I write the best story I can. Symbolism will sneak in there, small and large. Sometimes readers will see symbolism where I don’t. It doesn’t matter if I agree with them or not; it’s their reading. I’m happy to know that that person was interested enough to sit down and turn the pages.
Now, as a reader myself, I can get irritated with a writer who is too heavy handed, with a certain sentence structure or metaphor or dialog tag. But in most cases we’re talking here about personal preference, and nothing more than that.
In closing, I like a good allegory now and then. It’s like finding an easter egg in a dvd, a small surprise that makes you think a little differently about the story, look at it from another angle. Or not.
Byatt, A. S. (2003). Angels & insects: Two novellas. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
Miller, A. (2016). The crucible: A play in four acts. NY: Penguin.
Orwell, G. (2010). Animal farm. NY: Rupa.
Stegner, W. E. (2006). Angle of repose. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
Tolkien, J. R. (2005). The lord of the rings. MA: Mariner Books.