If you’ve ever set foot in a literature class, you know all about symbolism. A bird isn’t a bird. It’s freedom. That flower she’s growing? The love she’s nurturing in her soul or whatever. The rainstorm? Cleansing the land. On and on and on. It can be carried on to ridiculous extremes, and many students begin to treat it as a joke. I was no exception. My class would instantly label everything as a symbol for something completely random, trying to satirize our teachers’ attempts to find meaning in everything.
Symbolism is tiresome because we have to write essays on it and because teachers try to force it. Some things don’t contain any extra meaning, and that’s ok. When they do, it should give the reader a flash of extra understanding. Symbols should add flavor and depth to a work, providing a scavenger hunt for an eager reader to embark on. They should be fun.
Symbols aren’t the sole possessions of so-called ‘classic literature’ either. Stock symbols are embedded in our consciousness and appear all over in popular culture. The Jesus figure, mood-related weather, meaningful injuries… Overdone, these become clichés. Done right, they lend familiarity. I explained the whole love triangle in The Hunger Games and its inevitable conclusion using motifs and symbols once. If you know what to look for, they can foreshadow a lot.
What about using symbolism in your own work? I wouldn’t overdo it. Not every closed window signifies imprisonment, and every bath doesn’t wash something from the character’s soul. Most things are what they are. Overdoing the meaning on everything will either slow the readers down as they try to untangle it or go over their heads completely. (Ignore this if the whole purpose of the work is to be symbolic.) However, associating a character with a particular color, throwing in a meaningful observation…. theses can be fun little ‘Easter eggs’.
Sometimes symbols pop up in my work when I don’t try to include them. Maybe Jung was right about subconscious archetypes after all. A character is far less of a sleaze after falling into a river (being hit by a river really, but that’s a long story). A child’s toy becomes more and more battered as she’s forced to grow up. The headquarters of a defunct and outdated organization is powered by old and decrepit machinery.
In a nutshell, symbolism is like sprinkles. It can add some fun and color, but it can also be laid on way too thick.