shutterstock_217661482When I first read the Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway in English class, I enjoyed it. Then came the class analysis in which my teacher left me with the feeling that I had just finished a


Suddenly, I found that I enjoyed the book far less.

  • I felt stupid that I didn’t pick up on all of the symbolism in the book.
  • I felt manipulated because Hemingway was supposedly putting hidden messages in his writing.

In another high school English class, I loved reading “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. My teacher didn’t pick this story apart with hidden meaning, but I remember that someone told me a story that a student had once asked Jackson if the story contained all of the symbolism that his teacher had said was in the story. Jackson reportedly told the student “no.” She had written the story to be what it appeared to be.

Since then, I’ve been skeptical of literary critics.

Recently, I found an interesting article, “Famous Novelists on Symbolism in Their Work and Whether It Was Intentional” on A 1963 high school student decided to go right to the source to determine whether his teacher knew what he was talking about when he uncovered all of the symbolism in novels. The student mailed a four-question survey to 150 novelists. He asked them:

  1. “Do you consciously, intentionally plan and place symbolism in your writing?… If yes, please state your method for doing so. Do you feel you sub-consciously place symbolism in your writing?”
  2. “Do readers ever infer that there is symbolism in your writing where you had not intended it to be? If so, what is your feeling about this type of inference? (Humorous? annoying? etc.?)”
  3. “Do you feel that the great writers of classics consciously, intentionally planned and placed symbols in their writing? … Do you feel that they placed it there sub-consciously?”
  4. “Do you have anything to remark concerning the subject under study, or anything you believe to be pertinent to such a study?”

Half of the authors responded to the survey. You can read the article to see some of the responses. My first take away from the author responses is that most authors don’t intend to inject symbolism into their writing, but the subconscious sometimes makes connections that the author might not realize while writing. My second take away is that when an author does try to create symbolism in his or her writing, it often comes across as forced or false. (However, that may be the symbolism that I’m reading into the responses!)

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