Wednesday, May 03, 2006
Did you really mean that?
When I was invited to contribute an essay on the television show Desperate Housewives to the anthology Welcome to Wisteria Lane, I was sure I would write about story arc or dialogue or social satire vs. soap opera. However, as I watched Season One from start to finish on DVD in one week, something else caught my eye, literally. The sets. Television is, of course, a visual medium, and I was blown away by the skill of the production designer in using this strength to the utmost.
My essay concentrates on how the houses both reflect and give depth to the characters of the Housewives. I found all kinds of symbolism in the lack of basements (until the second season), the choice of artwork and each abode’s window treatments. I even discuss the differences in their front doors and what it says about the characters’ balance between public and private life.
That got me to thinking about literary criticism. As an English major, I used to have a grand time finding Christ and other kinds of symbolism in works of literature, and occasionally I wondered if the author really meant it to be there, or if I was just making this stuff up. Since college I have talked with many people who have the same question.
One way to answer that was to analyze my own work. How much symbolism did it really include? I discovered that my symbolism works on two levels: the conscious and the unconscious. I often deliberately include small details, such as the kind of flower a character has on the hall table or the color blouse she chooses to wear on a given day. If a reader notices these things, it will add depth to the reading experience. If the reader doesn’t catch them, it won’t detract from the book.
However, my symbolism also functions at an unconscious level. My first book A Bridge to Love is all about bridges, real and metaphorical. I consciously made building those bridges the theme of the book. Oddly enough, I have a phobia about driving my car over high bridges; if I try, I find myself in the throes of a full-blown panic attack. One evening I was at a party chatting with a fellow soccer mom who’s also a psychiatrist. She had just read the book and was complimenting me on it. Then she said, “I see you’re working out your phobia in your writing.” My mouth fell open because I had never connected the theme of the book with my fear of bridges. I felt as though I’d been smacked up aside of the head. I also felt like an idiot: there was a heck of a lot more symbolism going on than I, the writer, had been aware of.
So what do you think about symbolism in writing? Is it really there or do the literary critics and English majors make it up to give themselves something to talk about?
Posted by Nancy Herkness at 7:00 AM