Chapter 7 Symbolism


Symbolism is everyone's favorite element. I think that is because, along with its novelty, it comes the most naturally to us. Symbolism is a part of our daily lives and is an important part of the way we perceive the world. We tend to use short cuts in the way we think about things, which generally manifests as stereotypes, but we also use this sort of thinking in a much more creative way to establish meaning in our lives. Today, I read a passage in the text by the Puritan Roger Williams A Key into the Language of America in which he translates and explains the language of the Native American peoples. He translates a word, Cowauwaunemun, that essentially is a response to someone who the speaker of the word disagrees with theologically that translates roughly to "You are out of the way." He points out afterwards that this is "a phrase that much pleaseth them, being proper for their wandering in the woods, as similitudes greatly please them." He is essentially pointing out here that the natives enjoy the symbolic value of being lost in the woods as a representation of being lost in the mind. This is something common to all cultures. We enjoy the manner in which ideas become more and more resonant through comparisons. In our own culture, the cross is one of the most ubiquitous symbols in Western Civilization; however, we often don't think of the gruesome details of the cross when we see it, the fact that it was a torture device, used by the Romans to prolong a death sentence in order to make an example to others who may have designs on breaking the law and in effect to symbolize the penalty of crossing the great and powerful Roman empire. We think of it as a reminder of our faith and the love and mercy that God through Christ shows us every day and maybe even of our family and the the religious practices that we share with them, which can itself be symbolic for the active love rituals we take part in with family. The book makes an important distinction between two different types of symbols, the conventional and the literary. I used both in the previous lines. The cross is an example of a conventional symbol, symbols widely recognized in a society or culture, and my reference to religious practices being a symbol of familial closeness and love is a literary symbol, which can include traditional or conventional symbols but may also be established internally by the context surrounding it. Writers use both of these. The symbols you will most likely be interested in analyzing will be the literary symbols that the author builds in the work through ongoing contextual flourishes. However, I would also point you towards authors' use of conventional symbols as they often use them in interesting ways, giving them new meaning by using them to establish literary symbols.

Another important thing to keep in mind is that symbols are always tied to the people, objects, or events that the authors use to establish them by suggesting that they mean more than what they do literally. So, when speaking of and analyzing symbolism, you should always focus on a specific thing. Don't use them on a macro level suggesting that a story or an author symbolizes something. In the case of the story symbolizing something, that is just too big and over-general; you should narrow your topic and make your symbolic analysis specific, which will lead to much more interesting and rewarding analysis. In the case of an author symbolizing something, that is incorrect. Symbolizing is not an action done by someone. It is a contextual resonance that emanates from something or someone. An author creates symbolism; they don't symbolize.

The book also discusses allegory, a close cousin of symbolism. The book describes allegory by contrasting it with symbolism (as most text books do) and does this by pointing out that symbols have a wide array of interpretations implied by the author whereas allegory has a single, fixed meaning. The book also points out how allegory, in its purest use, uses literal objects that are not real and do not exist beyond their abstract meanings, pointing out how in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, he meets people who are embodiments of spiritual values, like "Mr. Worldly Wiseman." Allegory was a common literary device used by religiously-influenced writers who mostly were writing before the 18th Century. However, allegory can also be used by modern writers in much more dynamic ways using real symbolic objects, people, and settings that actually exist. In fact, arguing that something may be an allegory can be an interesting thesis because it would be making a claim about a larger connection concerning the primary symbols in a text.  

Complete another discussion board by using the bold words from the chapter on symbolism and the corresponding assigned stories. Make sure that when you respond to another student and create your response post that it is as substantial as your personal post. Build on their idea or add another quote as evidence of their idea; in fact, it may be by adding another quote, you do build on their idea. I think that would be a good way of guaranteeing a substantial response post, which is important because I will be counting off this time for insubstantial response posts. Look below for my example of a personal post using symbolism:

In his short story "Battle Royal," Ralph Ellison uses a female body, which often works as a conventional symbol of male desire, to symbolize an impossible choice, which adds resonance to the symbol by subverting the possibility of desire. As the young, African-American boys are forced to be entertainment at the party, the older, white men bring out a naked woman, presumably a stripper. The narrator tells us that he cannot help the faint stirrings of desire welling up within him, but those are soon taken over by a feeling of confusion and of being threatened. He tells us, speaking of the men who were pillars of the community, that "some threatened us if we looked and others threatened if we did not"(229). The natural feelings of desire in the young men become a weapon to be used against them by the men. The men symbolize authority among other things. The young woman symbolizes many things as well but primarily it seems that she is status; she represents power in that she is the prize of powerful men, and she is controlled by them. This is further resonated by the conventional symbol emblazoned upon her hip, the American Flag tattoo.  In this way, Ellison sets up a group of interacting symbols that together resonate and symbolize the impossible position that African-Americans were in at this time in America, which harkens back to his Grandfather's "curse." What sort of choice is that, one between regret and powerlessness or danger and impotent rage? 

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