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?


Ann Roth said...

Neat topic, Nancy. Human beings are wired to learn and live according to myths and stories, each filled with symbolism.

As writers who tell stories we can't help but incorporate these same myths and stories in our own unique ways. Whether we're aware of doing so or not, we do use symbolism. And whether readers realize this or not, they relate to those symbols.

Gail Dayton said...

Symbols and themes. I wish I could do them deliberately, but most of mine seem to be the unconscious sort...

Nancy Herkness said...

Thanks, Ann! I think you're absolutely right that we relate to symbols whether we realize it or not.

Gail, I don't start out with a theme in my books. It usually weaves itself in subtly as I type . At some point, it hits me over the head and I say, "Eureka! This book is about building bridges!" I guess that's when I become conscious of my subconscious. -G-

JoAnn Ross said...

As a former lit major (whose honor thesis was on the Bronte sisters as feminists) , I think it's a little of both. Jenny Cruise incorporated one of my books into her published doctoral thesis, and when I saw all those charts and arrows showing what I'd done, I told her that if I'd known ahead of time I'd had to do all that technical stuff, I'd have NEVER been able to write the book.

However, I do tend to start my books with a theme. It may change, but since I never know what my plot's going to be, a theme gives me something to hang my story on when I'm just beginning. As for symbolism, sometimes it's fun to play with symbols in the writing. And sometimes, to quote an old adage, a cigar is just a cigar. :)

Nancy Herkness said...

JoAnn, I wrote a thesis on Gerard Manley Hopkins in which I used colored pencils to show how the sound of the words intensified the emotion of the poems. It looked really pretty--and the professor loved it--but I did wonder what ole Gerard would have thought of the whole thing. I'm not sure whether he smoked cigars...

Sharon Schulze said...


I, too, always wondered if the symbolism pointed out in class for the book du jour had been intentional. I admit I usually thought it was something teachers and profs. mentioned to either get us to think, or so they'd have more to talk about :-).

I was quite surprised when I realized that there is symbolism in my work. I never consciously put it there--and generally don't notice it until well after I've finished writing the book. I think if I tried to do it, I'd feel so self-conscious it would make things really awkward.

I'm better off not knowing until later.