There’s a notion that floats around social media in various forms, suggesting English teachers use symbolism to create meaning where none existed.
Had social media been around when I was in high school, I would have clicked “like” on this post. In elementary school, whatever the teacher said was correct. “This story uses colour as symbols to create moods.” Write that on the test and a good mark was guaranteed.
By high school, I was more rebellious and less invested in high marks (to the disappointment of teachers and parents). “We don’t know what the author was thinking when they said the curtains were blue, and it’s presumptuous to claim otherwise. Symbolism is just a way to push preferred or elitist interpretations of a story.”
A few decades and a few humanities degrees later, I take a more nuanced view. There may be symbolism in this story, and this is what it may mean. It’s not that I’ve been corrupted by the academic establishment. Now I consider symbolism from the perspective of an author, with fifteen books sold (that’s the number of copies, not the number of titles, but I’m still an author).
As an author, I put lots of symbolism into my writing. For example, in Ocean’s Lure, there is a scene where the characters go swimming together. I intended this scene to suggest a mutual metaphorical baptism – they are beginning a new life together. So, if in 200 years, an English teacher claims my swimming scene symbolizes baptism, they are correct. (While it may be arrogant to assume my book will still be around in 200 years, let alone taught in English classes, Jane Austen would likely be surprised to know how much attention her books get today. Did I just compare myself to Jane Austen? Shameless, I know.)
However, it’s also correct for a reader to assume there’s nothing related to baptism in my swimming scene. To understand the scene as a baptism, you need to be aware of and looking for symbols, and know something about contemporary Christianity. It also helps if you had a film studies professor who spent a semester drawing attention to swimming or water scenes in every movie. That’s a specific cultural background. In terms of Stuart Hall’s approach to the reception theory of literary criticism, I’ve encoded a meaning into the text. But whether the reader decodes that meaning depends on their cultural background.
To go further, the reader may decode an entirely different meaning. They might see the scene as symbolizing a death. It is in a metaphorical sense, so that might still work. Or they might see the scene as symbolizing famine, and be confused by its presence in the story. Of they might try to interpret my use of an ocean swim in light of this discussion of pools in American films:
To make things even more complicated, while I deliberately added symbolism to the book, I almost certainly unconsciously added other symbolism. If a reader points it out, I may recognize it, or not. In the end, every reader creates their own meanings from a story. The job of English teachers is to help readers understand there are many ways to consider a story, including looking for and analyzing possible symbols, consciously or unconsciously added by the author.
I put symbols in stories partly for those who seek them, and partly because it’s unavoidable, since language is ultimately symbolic. Colours, for example, are defined by physics. The colour red is a group of wavelengths of light. But the word red is completely abstract. It has a common meaning (a group of wavelengths of light) only because a group of people (English speakers) have decided it does. It’s a short leap from that to understanding red can symbolize power, and therefore it’s significant that my hero drives a red truck – and that it’s washed away in flood.
Not everyone may see the symbols, or understand them as I intended, but that’s okay. And I hope English teachers encourage readers to explore many ways to enjoy, appreciate, and criticize stories.
Others have discussed this…here’s a rantier take: http://www.chrisbrecheen.com/2013/03/5-reasons-i-absolutely-hate-that-what.html
And this fixed version, from https://jerz.setonhill.edu/blog/2018/07/20/the-curtains-were-blue-in-which-i-fix-another-meme/