Symbolically Stalin

Human language is, of course, symbolic in nature. A word is a symbol. Nobody confuses a written or spoken word with the thing it is meant to represent. The multitude of languages in the world is concrete evidence that the word (symbol) is not bound to the thing. 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.

So at the most basic level of communication, symbolism or, to look at this more practically, metaphor,  is all you’ve got. And it doesn’t stop there. Metaphor (building on the understanding of one thing to understand another)  is so intrinsic to language and communication and the workings of the human mind that it’s a major area of study that spans disciplines from psychology and neuroscience to art history to linguistics and, (this was where we were headed the whole time) literature and storytelling of all kinds.

Once in a while an author will want to tell one story, but can’t for personal or political reasons. Or, they realize 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, what it evolved into, its evils, 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 may 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. 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 a great big steaming pile of symbolism and metaphor, and the barnyard is an allegory. You may dislike symbolism and allegory, but you’d have to concede one fact: 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. In the end, if the allegory is well enough written, if you manage to really get their attention, 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. Or one part of a novel can be highly allegorical. In Byatt’s Angels and Insects, the main characters have that Victorian fascination with insects and 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.

So sure, 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.

8 Replies to “Symbolically Stalin”

  1. This wouldn’t have been sparked by a recent post at Romancing the Blog, would it?

    I was commenting over there earlier in the week, trying to explain to people who said they didn’t like it, why symbolism is a Good Thing and not something that only has a place in Serious Literature. I also said, as you have, that I think it’s pretty much an unavoidable thing, because of how language and the subconscious work. Later in the week there was another post at RtB, about how, as far as one reader is concerned, a lot of description in novels is superfluous. Some people seem to want the plot and nothing but the plot.

  2. Laura — There’s nothing intrinisically wrong about the idea of minimalist romance, but I don’t know of any novels that would fit that definition, at least not in the Raymond Carver model that I think of. Do you know of any such romances? Maybe it would help if people who are sure they don’t like description and want only plot could provide examples of novels that fit that bill.

    My guess is that to some extent, it’s a terminology problem. Symbolism is (to me, at least) a basic building block of communication but for some people the word must evoke some pretty unpleasant, badly taught literature classes where they were made to feel dopey if they couldn’t immediately identify all the subtext and thematic elements. Certainly I sat in enough classes like that, but I had more good teachers than bad ones.

    When I was teaching I often had undergraduates get cranky when I asked them about symbolism in a story, sometimes to such an extent that they seemed to be saying “you can’t make me see it.” And they were right, I couldn’t. If somebody wants to swallow a truffle whole who’s to stop them? But they will miss the complexity and fullness of flavors and textures as the chocolate melts on the tongue, and that’s a shame.

  3. Though not a big fan of a lot a description, I wouldn’t begrudge the reader who enjoys it, maybe the setting is new/unfamiliar to the reader, whatever, myself as a reader I have the option of skimming if need be, no hard feelings toward the author if the stories good(Anne Rice springs to mind)
    That would be an interesting exercise, a book with no descriptive..or a film where all ya hear are voices, say in a fallout shelter, in the dark..hmmm

  4. Wolfy » that would be an interesting exercise — but you could still have a ton of description. Maybe you can’t see anything, but you can still hear and smell and feel.

  5. That would be an interesting exercise, a book with no descriptive..or a film where all ya hear are voices, say in a fallout shelter, in the dark..hmmm

    Scripts for films and plays are almost like that, as is implied by you thinking about “a film,” so if you wrote a script and made sure there were no stage directions in it you’d be part of the way towards your goal. Of course, you’d have to make sure that the characters didn’t describe anything to each other.

    It would be very minimalist, and totally dialog-based, and like Rosina I can’t think of any romance that’s like that, but I suppose it could be done, and I wouldn’t have any ideological or other prejudice against the idea. I just think it would be extremely challenging to do well.

    It would also be very, very interesting to discuss people’s perceptions of the characters, because if there really was no description, there’d be no way of telling if they were tall, short, ugly, handsome, fat, muscled etc. So it would be interesting to find out if that lack of description helped readers to enjoy the romance more or less.

  6. Of course, you could do this most easily with a script — but then a script isn’t meant to be a finished product. The writer has to leave description to the director, who makes casting decisions and picks designers who will put together the physical setting, costumes, makeup, etc.

    Someday when I have nothing to do I’ll see if it might be possible to write at least a short story in nothing but conversation, as between two people on the phone. The hard part would be keeping the characters from describing things to each other, as Laura has pointed out.

    This was done in a very limited way in the film You’ve Got Mail, when the two characters communicated only by email and all descriptions of self and setting were forbidden.

  7. Very interesting. I love fairy tales and nursery rhymes, and often wonder about the origin of the symbolism of such apparently simple stories or plot lines. I wonder things like, who thought up that first “three sisters, at least one is hard done by, having to deal with a stepmother or father” situation? Just seems to spring up so much in fairy tales. Well, maybe not that one exactly. But there are lots of youngest sons fighting monsters to gain wealth and there are princesses being stranded through no fault other than birth, and princes doing their very best to get to the princesses, with no other motivation apparently than someone said she was there to “get at.”

  8. One of my 12th grade students said to me, upon returning a very popular library book, “I really liked it but it didn’t have a lot of symbolism in it”. Although maybe I’m doing a poor job of conveying it, he clearly regarded this as a negative. Did I mention that he’s taking English AP this year? His teacher was somewhat gratified that he would say such a thing about a book that he enjoyed. I think she’s just glad that something she taught him stuck.

Comments are closed.