When I was a middle/high school student, I had a flair for finding meanings in various literary constructions in the poems and short stories that we read. For most of these, I was spitballing because no one else in the class would raise their hand, but it was still fun to poke around at the possibilities. This stayed through college; I once jokingly told a friend that I could come up with all sorts of “deep” interpretations of a webcomic we both followed and did so. A joke cult became a comment on religion’s masquerade and a running gag of a purse was transformed to a comment on the menace of consumerism. It was a ton of fun and made up entirely on the spot.
I had the tables turned on me when one of my poems came up for critique in a poetry class. A classmate expounded on a complex interpretation related to art and the perils of taking its pursuit too far. It was incredibly insightful- and had nothing to do with anything I’d had in mind for the poem.
It’s tempting to say he was talking complete nonsense. If none of his interpretations were what I had in mind, it seems as if he should be completely wrong in reading them into the words.
To a certain extent, you can argue he was wrong, in that his take on the poem was completely unlike the one I’d had in mind writing it. It didn’t have any resemblance to what I’d thought that poem was saying. It’s the kind of situation that becomes a ready joke, something with which to make fun of English and arts majors.
But while the search for deeper meaning in art can veer into the ridiculous, as shown by people believing sunglasses were great art, I don’t think it’s futile to look for them. In fact, I think they’re crucial to figuring out why a narrative works and moves us.
It is true that symbols are, at least in works of narrative, malleable things. What a reader regards as a symbol might simply have been thrown into the story to provide a bit of sensory detail, to create a certain mood, or to make a sentence sound more pleasing to the ear. And the storyteller has full command over what is before those following the story, control reality will never concede.
I think here it’s worth taking a very cursory look at the etymology of the word “symbol.” According to Online Etymology Dictionary, “the sense evolution in Greek is from ‘throwing things together’ to ‘contrasting’ to ‘comparing’ to ‘token used in comparisons to determine if something is genuine.’ Hence, ‘outward sign’ of something. The meaning ‘something which stands for something else’ first recorded 1590 (in “Faerie Queene”).” So in one sense, looking for symbols in stories is a way of putting together two things. Most often, those two things involve something in the physical world and a reality that, while not necessarily having a physical presence, is something that is nonetheless real.
It’s tempting to relegate that combination to a philosophical exercise that can’t have any bearing on the real world, or at best lead only to ridiculousness, such as the discovery of meaning in a pair of sunglasses set down for no reason. But I think such a move goes too far in the opposite direction.
The search for symbols in stories can- if the person searching is willing- be extended to regarding the world with an eye to the things that might not have a tangible presence and seeing something else, another kind of being, in them. To give a quick example, there is no significance whatsoever to holding the door open for a complete stranger who might have trouble opening it. It makes the life of someone who will never be seen again easier, and only for a few seconds at best. It is not a lasting thing.
But an action like that can be a sign of someone’s ability to observe that someone will need help and take action. Or it might be the one bright spot in the day of the person having trouble getting around. It might be fleeting for both people and pass out of their respective memories within five minutes. But someone else might see it. These hypotheticals could go on, and yes, they are hypotheticals. On one level, that insignificant action is nothing more than an insignificant action. But there are things it can leave behind. It can be an outward sign of something that otherwise does not manifest in any normal physical way.
Learning how to pick up on things like that can be crucial to seeing the world as a place that has more in it than just the measurable. And since I happen to believe there are a lot of realities beyond just what we can measure physically, I think learning to look for symbolic meaning in stories can be a good way to start seeking those realities.
Just keep in mind that sometimes a pair of discarded sunglasses is just a pair of discarded sunglasses.