Interpreting symbolism in all (high and low) seriousness

Symbolism. God, that’s a big topic to cover. I mean, how do you even go about it? What’s the peppy, prepared angle on this topic? Without it dissolving into some kind of tract or tirade I mean. I do my best, week in and week out, to avoid either of those modes.

It would be easy enough, I suppose, to just harangue against the prevalence of symbolism in modern English classes. I could just lampoon the notion of finding symbolic value in “The Great Gatsby’s” valley of ashes or some excruciating rigmarole to parse meaning out of the lightning-struck tree in “Jane Eyre.” I could just say that symbolism is a silly and contrived thing in the field of literature and that we’re all better off not thinking about it too hard.

And this thought I am justly (and a mite unduly) riffing from an essay Saul Bellow published in The New York Times in 1959. The title was a poke in the eye and a jab in the ear: “Deep Readers of the World, Beware!” The basic point Bellow makes there is that if you read too hard into a book for symbols, then you’re a stuffy person who can’t simply enjoy literature.

But the other point Bellow makes (besides chiding deep readers) is the distinction between true symbols and contrived symbols. He talks about the wood shavings on Stephen Dedalus’s shoulder in “Ulysses” and compares it with the handkerchief in “Othello.” The wood shavings are contrived by “deep” readers; the handkerchief is inherently symbolic and integral to the play. That, among readers, there is a “high seriousness” and a “low seriousness.”

That is where I must break with Bellow.

Firstly, he’s trying to have it both ways with his meditation on symbolism. The symbols he finds in books and that he cares about—those are important. But the ones he misses, or the ones that provoke (or do not provoke) ambivalence? Screw ’em.

And Bellow’s reason for dropping something so inherently polemic is just that: polemic. The article came out one week before the release of “Henderson the Rain King,” one of Bellow’s great works, and one of his most symbolically dense.

I might add, this distinction between “high” and “low” seriousness, with the publication of one of his most significant books imminent, was Bellow’s way of guarding himself from being lumped into some lower caste, as he might have saw it (the wily anthropologist he was). Perhaps he didn’t want to get washed away in the subsequent speculation and expostulation surrounding “Henderson the Rain King.”

Now, I don’t disagree with most of Bellow’s assertions. The call he puts at the end to stop reading so deeply (and subsequently, stop writing so deeply) and hone in on the fleshy particulars of life is elegant. And there is a sense of waywardness to symbolism that leaves me tepid, as tepid as I imagine it made Bellow feel.

But there’s an erring simplicity to Bellow’s rebuke. I feel like too much gets swept away, precisely because when you try to stake some definitive point in the realm of literature, you’re doing it in terra incognita.

Because there’s no real basis for something so definitive. Literature—and as a nested subset, symbolism—is awash with a poignant relativism.

But before I get into that, let’s look at what actually constitutes symbolism.

I’m sure this is something you’ve heard before. A symbol, in a novel or a poem or any other literary piece, is something which stands for something else. The valley of ashes in “The Great Gatsby,” the lightning struck tree in “Jane Eyre,” the merry go round in “Catcher in the Rye,” Moby Dick in “Moby-Dick,” and so on and so forth.

We have symbols in real life too. The Sierra Club uses a picture of a pine tree to symbolize their environmental ethos. The Democrats have a donkey and the Republicans have an elephant. Stars and stripes, tied around the neck of a bald eagle, constitute America (so it goes). Symbols are a shortcut or an approximation. They can be an apotheosis as well.

Of course, the catch of all this is, however prevalent symbols are in real life, and in literature, they are not self-fulfilling. They do not independently actuate. Symbols are flat and passive, no matter how many times they are repeated. The dollar sign is one of our most potent symbols of currency, but I can’t rightly take a piece of paper, write “$5000” and expect that paper to magically turn into a five thousand dollar bill. Symbols alone are empty and hollow.

But the emptiness, the hollowness of symbols, is inherent to their design. Counterpose this with alchemy. The transmutation of common metals to gold, the quest for eternal life—those were strivings for qualities otherwise absent in commonplace articles. Let man be a crude signifier of immortality, the symbol through which immortality can swell.

Symbols must have meaning ascribed to them—otherwise they are leaden, dead things. Remember the flatness and the hollowness. Quite paradoxically, though, something as flat and hollow as “$” resonates like the echo in the deepest cavern. We depend on $. $ is in all our lives. We’ve all had $ problems at some point or another. Maybe some of us don’t care about $ on a personal level, but some of us certainly know what it is.

Symbols are a means of articulation, rather than an end in themselves. Bellow recognized that, in his rebuke of deep readers. Yet, he could not outright dismiss symbolism in literature (who can?) so he left off with a taunt that undercut his main point. The degrees of seriousness and validity in interpreting symbols cannot be reduced to such a trite dichotomy as “high” or “low.” Precluding personal interpretation is as close to a mortal sin as any—it’s akin to censorship.

Because symbols are not a universal constant, Bellow’s views on the handkerchief in “Othello” is as of relative importance as “Ulyssess’s” wood shavings. Symbolism will always be a terra incognita, and the lengths to which you may chart it is only limited by your scope.

Finally, if you have any doubts that symbols are a means of articulation, open to interpretation, remember this: Writing itself is a matter of symbolism. After all, every single discernable word in this entire sentence, in this entire paragraph, in this entire column is composed of symbols. When you learned the alphabet in preschool or earlier, you were learning what those letters symbolize.

And how you interpret my writing, really, is up to you. Good luck.

So, where do you stand on this so-called “high” and “low” seriousness of symbolism? Talk to Sean about this, or other interesting literary topics, at

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