Don’t Mention the Symbolism

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This white-hot sun symbolizes the rage with which overuse of symbolism fills me. (Photo by Pixabay on

The other day I went to look up the quote about angel food cake from the end of To Kill a Mockingbird. In the search results, I saw a bunch of study-aid/cliffs-notes style sites addressing the question, “What does the angel food cake symbolize?”

The passage in question is this, when the sheriff is explaining to Atticus why he won’t tell the town what Boo Radley did:

I never heard tell that it’s against the law for a citizen to do his utmost to prevent a crime from being committed, which is exactly what he did, but maybe you’ll say it’s my duty to tell the town all about it and not hush it up. Know what’d happen then? All the ladies in Maycomb includin’ my wife’d be knocking on his door bringing angel food cakes.

The answer the study aids give as to what the cakes symbolize is usually something like this: “the cake symbolizes the townspeople’s compassion.”

This isn’t technically wrong, but it’s way too fancy for my taste. Saying that’s “symbolism” is really over-thinking matters. It’s no more a symbol than any other gift is.

I always hated this “what does [x] symbolize?” question, and I think that nine times out of ten, it’s just a subtle way of asking “Did you actually read the book?”

Well, in English Lit class, that’s something the teachers have to establish, so it’s hard to blame them for asking it. But I wish they could find a different way to do it, because symbolism is an actual thing in literature–but it’s not near as commonplace as English classes would lead you to believe.

True symbolism is subtle, and you have to be alert to notice it. The angel food cake in Mockingbird doesn’t “symbolize” compassion, it’s just an instance of it. Any five-year-old kid could tell you that bringing somebody a cake means you want to show your appreciation for them.

Actually, this is not a bad test for deciding whether something is literary symbolism. If a kid could immediately tell you what something “symbolizes” out of context, then it’s not really a symbol.

In Richard Armour’s hilarious satire of literary analysis, The Classics Reclassified, there’s a note on symbolism in Moby Dick (I’m paraphrasing from memory):The book is full of symbols and allegories. The whale stands for something. The sea stands for something. The reader has to stand for quite a bit, too.” I think this nicely sums up the way most readers feel about books that rely too heavily on symbolism.

Based on this, you’re probably thinking that I hate symbolism. I don’t. I’ve written stories that used symbolism. I just object to the lazy style of literary analysis where everything is a symbol, and a symbol of the most obvious things to boot.

I think we need a better term than “symbolism”. My suggestion is “reinforcement”.

In my opinion, the best use of symbolism in a story is to reinforce the core thematic elements of that story. For example: say you have a story about a guy who goes insane. You might reinforce this by having him look in a cracked mirror that distorts his reflection. It represents his figurative “cracking up” by having him (well, his reflection) literally “crack up”.

That’s just one example. You can use all sorts of things to reinforce a theme—if you write romance, have a rose bush that blooms when the lovers are together and dies when they’re apart. (Yes, I know that’s awfully hackneyed. Now you see why I don’t write romance.)

The point is, all this sort of stuff gets called “symbolism” by authors, literary critics, and academics. But that name is misleading, because it starts artists off thinking about the wrong problem—i.e. “What symbols can I create?”, instead of “How can I reinforce my theme?”

This can lead to pretentious, incoherent art where lots of stuff symbolizes other stuff, but none of it makes much sense or seems meaningful. So instead of asking “What does this symbolize”, lit critics and academics ought to be asking “How does this reinforce the theme?”


  1. You make a good point. It’s interesting, too, that often readers (or teachers) find symbolism in something the author didn’t intend. As it’s said in writing, sometimes a blue curtain is just a blue curtain.

  2. I hated high school English classes. What did the author mean that the sky was blue … or the flag was red … or whatever. I just wanted to scream. Maybe the author just wanted to write a story. Did you ever think of that?

    When I got to college, I could take a test and if I did well enough I would not need to take English 1A and/or 1B. One of those classes dealt with the mechanics of writing and the other with literature. I did well enough to pass and not have to take either 1A or 1B. And I didn’t take a single English class in college. I simply cannot stand the “what did the author mean” discussion that goes on in those classes.

    And I still believe that most stories are written simply because the author wanted to write a story. Yes, sure, there may be some things littered through some stories that are symbolic … but not to the extent they try to teach it in literature courses in high school or college.

    Ok … you struck a nerve with me. I’m done. (By the way … both my father and brother were English majors. My dad even got a Masters degree in English. Yet more evidence I was adopted.)

    1. I completely agree. Once in a while a writer might throw in a symbol just for the fun of it, (or, depending on their circumstances, because they need to get around censorship) but to hear some English teachers tell it, every single thing in every story is a symbol. And that’s just exhausting.

  3. Hear, hear, Berthold! Some people just have a need for a puzzle, I guess, but when it gets to the point where a cigar is no longer just a cigar, what’s the point in communicating anymore if words mean whatever the recipient wants them to?

  4. It is interesting and pretty funny to think of the symbolism that the author didn’t intend. I love how no two people can really read the same book because each reader brings something different to a book or gets something different out of it.

    1. “No two people can really read the same book”–I never thought of it like that, but you’re right! That is interesting.

  5. I think deliberately created symbols (or reinforcements, as you say) can be too obvious, but story elements that come from the author’s subconscious can be interesting discoveries for the reader. Of course, readers all bring different things to the reading experience, so not everyone will pick up on the same subtleties. And I agree that the kind of analysis that happens in the classroom can be the kiss of death to enjoying a piece of writing.

  6. Taking umbrage here, stuffy old English teacher who tortured my students. What is the purpose of a story? Is it just to entertain?, frighten? make you laugh? make you cry? If any author doesn’t have a purpose in mind, its just letters jumbled together making gibberish. In literature this is called, drumroll, dreaded word coming here: The theme! In regular language: What was the point of the story. If you’ve ever watched a movie or read a book and thought, “That was a waste of time.” That was most likely because there wasn’t a theme or point to the story. Sometimes the theme is obvious or easy to grasp. For a deep meaning theme symbolism is used to make the reader work for it. Students hate to work, or think about things that’s why they fight understanding symbolism.

    That said, it wasn’t until I was teaching Psychology and trying to teach my students the purpose of analysis to understand themselves and others that a light bulb went off. It was by analyzing stories and searching for something other than plot and characterization that I realized this is the very skill Literature teachers taught. An unexamined life is not worth living, the old saying goes. Reading without examining what you’ve read, just means you wasted your time. Okay lecture over.

  7. Berthold mentioned the point I made earlier. He uses the word reinforcement, which works. Also reinforcing his idea that symbolism can be misinterpreted to the point where even the author scratches his head at what is said about the story. Look at the symbolism used in the Book of Revelation. Boy have rapture theologists and evangelicals come up with the most illogical interpretation of a symbolically written book they insist must be interpreted literally.

    1. Great example! And you are correct; interpreting something literally can sometimes be much, much worse than looking for symbolism.

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