What Even is Symbolism

Every few years, this meme circulates yet again:

Novel: “The curtains were blue.”

What your literature teacher thinks the author meant: “The curtain represents his immense depression and his lack of will to carry on.”

What the author actually meant: “The curtains were literally blue.”

I get it. I do. Literature is hard. It’s not like maths, which has only right and wrong answers.  And being forced to analyze a book’s symbolism in English class is a little like being made to eat cheese puffs when all you want is chocolate. Yeah, cheese puffs are good, but you don’t want them right now, okay?

If you’re forced to eat too many cheese puffs when you don’t want them, maybe you’ll never like them but that doesn’t make cheese puffs bad.  Some of them are really yummy, as long as you try them when you’re actually in the mood.

But cheese puffs – I mean symbolism – it’s not just for college professors.  I used symbolism just now and you weren’t confused, right?  If I were to end this discussion with “So don’t be afraid of the fancier meals just because they have cheese puffs,” you’ll already know that I mean. “Don’t be afraid of highbrow literature just because it uses symbolism.”

That’s really all highbrow literature does.  Introduce a concept, usually an abstract one (symbolism).  Make a connection to a concrete idea (cheese puffs).  Link these things in several ways (disliked, forced on students, but actually good).  That’s it.


How to Feel Smart in 5 Easy Steps

So, how do you read a highbrow literary book when it’s probably not going to use this decade’s memetic language like I am?

1. It’s okay to ignore some stuff. Not every oblique reference the book makes is going to be vital to understanding or enjoying the book. You might have known what Fortnite is, but if your reaction was “what’s that?” you could easily have just assumed “it’s a thing kids would rather be doing than being in class” and kept reading.  It didn’t have to slow you down.

2. If a thing is important to the book, the author will explain it, or else they haven’t done a very good job. The Harry Potter books never flat out say “socks are freedom”, but I dare you to find anybody who read Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets (or watched the movie) who doesn’t remember “Master has given Dobby a sock. Dobby is free.”  This is very nearly an outright explanation.

3. If the thing doesn’t make complete logical sense, and it’s repeated, it’s probably important. How many times did I repeat cheese puffs, and did you notice that I’m doing it again? If it’s not repeated, it’s not important.  The Harry Potter books also use comedy to make us remember socks.  But A Christmas Carol uses ambiguity, and that’s the most common way literary novels make us remember things.

Christmas Past is described like a candle?  Wait, why?  Is it literally a candle and if not why does it look like one?  The book never explains this outright; this is a way to make you think about it, and therefore remember it.  If you’ve ever felt stupid for not getting something in a literary novel, this is why.  You’re not actually missing anything. The author wants you to remember the weird thing, and to think about it, before giving you all the pieces.

4. The book will give you all the pieces as it goes on. There’s no reason to know that socks are freedom in Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone, and there’s no reason to know why Christmas Past looks like a candle when we first meet it. But as we read on, I start to think, “man, Scrooge really wants to extinguish Christmas Past’s light the more they talk, he keeps thinking about it” until you start to get that Scrooge wants to shut it up because it’s showing him true things about himself.

5. The symbolism might never be stated directly, but the theme will be, and the theme of a book will help make the symbolism clear. Both A Christmas Carol and the Harry Potter books state their theme multiple times in several ways. “It is required of every man … that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide.” That doesn’t directly tell you why Christmas Past would be a candle or light would be truth, but it gets to the heart of what Scrooge’s problem is.  If you’re trying to puzzle out why Christmas Past is a candle, and Scrooge wants to extinguish it, and we already know that Scrooge has no compassion for others, and it is showing him all about how he used to care about other people, that’s a puzzle you can start to piece together.

And that’s it!  That’s all you need to do.


But How Do I Know I’m Right

You don’t!

No, okay, it’s not that simple… except it kind of is.

Rereading Harry Potter, I know Dumbledore had deep regrets that he expressed as “not being free”, and that a sock is how Dobby is freed, and reading that joke in Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone that what Dumbledore most desires is socks – it’s still funny, but it’s also completely heartrending, and I’m not crying, you’re crying.

The symbolism we’re first taught in schools isn’t the hard-to-pin-down stuff, it’s the generally accepted and no longer controversial symbolism, like the light in A Christmas Carol.  These can be considered “true” answers – they have a lot of in-book evidence and occasionally corroboration from the author.

Yet sometimes there is no corroboration, no author’s statement, no answer.  And that’s okay too, sometimes that’s part of the fun.  But “The curtains were literally blue” is the equivalent of saying, “Bah!  It’s just a bunch of puzzle pieces, it doesn’t LOOK like anything.”

Now I want cheese puffs…


Written by Heidi Frost

H K Frost has published several short stories and articles such as 2012 in the National, organizes the Dubai Writers’ Group, and spends far too much time on armchair film criticism.