There was this guy who got sent to prison. Wandering around the yard on his first day, he noticed that a man would shout out a number–“a hundred and twelve” or “thirteen” or “seventy-eight”–and everybody within earshot would laugh and laugh. Perplexed, the new prisoner asked one of his colleagues what everybody was laughing about. “Jokes,” the old prisoner said. “Remember the prison-issue joke book you got when you got here–along with the the prison-issue khakis and prison-issue toothbrush?”
“Yes,” said the new man.

“Well, we’ve all read through the joke book so many times that we know all the jokes by number. So instead of telling each other the jokes, we just call out the number to the joke we want to tell. Saves a lot of time.”

Eager to fit in, the new inmate stood up on a bench in the prison yard and yelled, “Forty-six!” Everybody stopped and stared. Nobody laughed. Near the corner of the bench the man heard one prisoner say to another, “Some guys don’t know how to tell a joke.”


I taught my way through Vanderbilt’s PhD program, and when we discussed symbolism, I always told the joke about the prison-issue joke book. It was my way of explaining what T.S. Eliot called “the objective correlative.” Here’s how Eliot himself explained it:

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.

When I taught literature, I was very interested in symbolism and the objective correlative. It certainly gives you something to talk about with freshmen and sophomores. Step 1: “What do trees symbolize in All Quiet on the Western Front?” Steps 2-14: “Here on page [fill in blank], the author mentions a tree. What do you think he’s trying to get across here?” In other words, you learn the formula (the set of objects, the situation, the chain of events) and thenceforth, whenever you encounter the formula, you crank out the meaning or the emotion.

Now that I write literature instead of teaching it, I find that I’m much less interested in symbolism than I used to be. It’s very possible that I’m misreading Eliot (he was surely smarter than I am), but the idea that a set of objects or a situation or a chain of events can be the formula for an emotion strikes me as being about as artificial as calling out the numbers of jokes in a joke book and expecting the hearer to laugh.

I’m not opposed to symbolism per se: I wear a wedding ring that symbolizes a commitment that has nothing to do with the ring. That’s how a symbol works; we all agree that a thing means something that it doesn’t really mean, and it serves as a helpful shortcut. Anyone (including me) can see that I’m married simply by glancing at my left hand. In certain social settings, that’s helpful information. So, yes, I like symbolism just fine. But I also think it’s important for a writer (and, for that matter, a reader) to realize that fiction and poetry really do their work on us not by assigning meaning to an object or situation (the way we assign meaning to a wedding ring) but by uncovering the meaning that inheres in a situation.

Let me give an example from one of my own stories. In The Secret of the Swamp King, Last Camp sits at the Big Bend of the River Tam. It’s the very end of the civilized world. Anybody who crosses the river is leaving civilization behind and entering into a whole different world where a whole different set of rules applies. That looks for all the world like some kind of symbol. One could easily imagine an author saying, “I want to symbolize this idea of stepping out of the known and into the unknown…hmmm…oh, I’ve got it! I’ll have a river that represents the boundary between the known world and the unknown world.” In fact, it worked the other way around. I had been reading about the settlement of Georgia, and I got to pondering a treaty in which the Creek Indians ceded the land between the Oconee and Ocmulgee Rivers to the United States. Settlers could live as far as the east bank of the Ocmulgee and they would enjoy all the protections of US citizens. But if they crossed the river (as some did), they were on their own. If they got sideways with the Creek Indians, they couldn’t expect any help from the government. That idea–of crossing the river and leaving the protections of the “civilized” world–was the germ of much that happens in The Secret of the Swamp King.

The work of the writer is not to assign meaning, but to observe long enough that meanings reveal themselves. A well-told story reminds us that transcendence is forever peeping out between the cracks of the mundane. Symbolism is a kind of shorthand, and it has its uses, as the prisoners with their prison-issue joke book knew. But fiction works differently. The fiction writer has to tell the whole joke, from setup to punch line, and trust the narrative  to do the work.

  • Canaan Bound
    3:46 PM, 11 January 2011

    I really do appreciate this, JR. And I’m glad you’ve come to your senses.**
    I think there’s real danger in approaching literature like you did. In my high school experience, this style of teaching took every ounce of joy out of reading. After graduation, I quit reading novels altogether, and didn’t pick them up again for many years.

    The Lord of the Flies, A Tale of Two Cities, Red Badge of Courage, The Scarlet Letter, and countless others…all ruined by the process of “finding symbolism”. Not that I thought there was anything wrong with the novels, per se…in fact, I probably would have enjoyed them had I been able to read them on my own. But in the process of dissecting the stories to finding “hidden meanings”, the enjoyment was sucked right out. And once the enjoyment was gone, I didn’t care much one way or another how the stories ended, or what became of their unfortunate characters.

    Let me clarify: I don’t harbor ill feelings toward my teachers for this mistake. I understand that there are standards to teach, and I respect their attempts to teach students how to look deeper. I just wish they had known that in trying to get me to engage literature, they disengaged me. In looking for hidden meanings, I ended up missing the real one every time.

    It’s been more than a decade since then, and I can now say that I love reading fiction (of my own accord). I’ve made a LONG list of books to read, and many of those from my high school days are on it. I suspect I will truly enjoy them, but I won’t be looking for symbolism. I’ll just let the stories do their work on me.

    **Please do take this in jest.

  • Amy
    4:48 PM, 11 January 2011

    Interesting, Canaan Bound. I had much the same reaction to Literature in high school. Being told what the author was thinking, or dissecting passages really took the magic out of reading those particular books for me. Our sons are being taught literature in the same fashion and now I see that it is an important process, the purpose of which is not always to enjoy the book, but to learn about the art of writing. From sentence structure to theme/character development, to yes, incorporating symbols. I mean, who enjoys their Algebra text? But it is an important tool to learn mathematics. I would be a much better English student now. 🙂

  • Jess
    6:02 PM, 11 January 2011

    Aha! So I am NOT alone. I wrote a poem about dissecting literature in order to find symbols but I was too chicken to send it to my English teacher. I still have the poem, though, because I still think it is true. I have put a lot of thought into this. One of the thoughts is that although I would be honored to write a book that “the school people” would deem good enough for their curriculum, I also don’t really know if I would want to subject my creation to something that teaches kids to dissect it and interpret it each in the same way. However, sometimes I find knowledge in my schoolwork that helps me enjoy something I would never have enjoyed before. Different things work with different pieces of literature, and it is all very confusing. But I think I would lean more towards letting the symbols reveal themselves at the right times in the readers’ lives, in the right way.

  • Jess
    6:12 PM, 11 January 2011

    And right after I post that, I read in my literature lesson that “‘The Road Not Taken’ by Robert Frost is widely misunderstood. Often, readers take from the poem what they wish it said rather than what it actually says.” Um.

  • Drew
    7:42 PM, 11 January 2011

    Well, I have to say that one of the things I really enjoy about literature is the process of “finding symbolism,” though I will hastily add that have little patience for the deconstructionists’ attempts to find symbolism where it doesn’t exist. (The poster child for such nonsense being a book I read several years ago that purported to reveal all the sexual imagery that Lewis put in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.)
    I recently finished JR’s “The Charlatan’s Boy,” and one of the things I liked about it is that though it appears on the surface to be a series of episodes, in fact it is a “joke” that takes the whole book to tell. To use JR’s own phrasing above, the meaning “is forever peeping out between the cracks” of Grady’s story. (The ending, by the way, is so effused with joy, that I am surprised I did not weep.)

    So while I enjoy tracking meaning in symbols scattered throughout a story, there is danger in focusing so much on a writer’s nifty literary tricks that we lose sight of the truth in the tale. Literature study can be like Cameron in “Ferris Bueller,” standing way too close to the Seurat and getting hypnotized by the dots. Sometimes you gotta stand way back from a story to see the meaning.

  • Canaan Bound
    7:54 PM, 11 January 2011

    Amy, I completely get what you’re saying…and I almost agree. But that analogy doesn’t really work for me. I LOVED math. Esepcially Algebra. And I liked the challenge of using my own logic to figure out a problem rather than reading the text that “taught” me “how” to solve it. Geometry proofs were my fave.
    Also…I should confess that there is a bit of hypocricy in my last post. As a Kindergarten teacher, I have to teach children how to think critically about a work of fiction (just basics, really – think character, setting, conflict/resolution, etc.). But I always try to read books once or twice through before taking them apart, solely for the purpose of enjoyment. Theirs and mine.

  • Canaan Bound
    7:54 PM, 11 January 2011

    Amy, I completely get what you’re saying…and I almost agree. But that analogy doesn’t really work for me. I LOVED math. Esepcially Algebra. And I liked the challenge of using my own logic to figure out a problem rather than reading the text that “taught” me “how” to solve it. Geometry proofs were my fave.
    Also…I should confess that there is a bit of hypocricy in my last post. As a Kindergarten teacher, I have to teach children how to think critically about a work of fiction (just basics, really – think character, setting, conflict/resolution, etc.). But I always try to read books once or twice through before taking them apart, solely for the purpose of enjoyment. Theirs and mine.

  • Patrick
    7:59 PM, 11 January 2011

    Writing is art. Writers are artists. Once your artwork is released to the public it is no longer solely yours. You no longer get to say “this is what I meant” “you’ve misunderstood”. Once it is in the form of fiction the reader gets to decide what it means to them as they read it. In that way truths are uncovered in their own minds. We should wish that our stories become their stories, that our symbols get interpreted through their perspectives. That is how a story lives and breaths and becomes a valued gem that becomes an heirloom to generations.
    When an artist or professor makes claims about meanings- when they tell how something SHOULD be understood- they tell the reader “you don’t count” “you are too dull to get this” and really alienate the readers from these worlds they otherwise would have enjoyed if given the opportunity to explore it on their own.

    Jonathan’s river has deep meaning to him because there is history behind it in his mind. What of the minds that do not hold that same history lesson? Unless that history is replayed in the fiction, it becomes some other symbol with some other meaning. And it is all good so long as the artist has let his artwork be a gift to the world, and not something s/he intends to continue to control and dictate to others how it SHOULD be. Once we have created we have to let it go, and let it live it’s life. Tell the joke the way you want to tell it. If people laugh or cry from whatever punchline their mind arrives at- It was a success! Whatever the reader thinks the specific message was is irrelevant as long as it meant something important to the reader. The punchline they SHOULD have gotten out of it could never be that powerful.

    These are all my own opinions. I’m barely a reader or a writer, but I tend to be quite opinionated and believe myself to be right. 😉 Thanks for the blog space!

  • Drew
    8:11 PM, 11 January 2011

    Now I’ll backpedal, sort of, and speak up for those agonizing literature classes that suck all the joy out of books. (Heh. Although the ones I took had the opposite effect!) I do think it’s important to teach students to look for symbols and meaning and other literary techniques. It’s a bit like learning to read all over again, and there’s this “alphabet” you first need to comprehend. Once you have that alphabet figured out, then you really get to *read*.
    I’m an avid birder, and have somehow managed to train my eyes to quickly see birds in the landscape, while those I’m out hiking with will often struggle for many minutes to see what I spotted right away. I’m asked how I spotted them so fast, and usually say that when you look at the tree, you remove all the parts that are “tree” and what’s left is “bird.” (I think that concept comes from Annie Dillard, so I won’t claim that as an original.) This isn’t something that I worked at developing; it just came with experience.

    I think reading is like that. The more you read, and the more experience you have with finding and discovering symbols and meaning in a story, the better you get at it. You train yourself to easily see the thread of meaning in a sea of words. Literature classes are good for something. But with experience you don’t need the training wheels.

  • Jess
    8:17 PM, 11 January 2011

    Patrick, you are good at explaining things that I find difficult to put into words. Is there any way I can hire you to rewrite my Biology course? 😉

  • Drew
    8:30 PM, 11 January 2011

    Patrick, I both agree and don’t agree. (Because I am nothing if not wishy-washy.) I recall Flannery O’Connor being annoyed by the literature professors who interpreted Tarwater’s “friend” (in The Violent Bear it Away) as being ‘the voice of reason.’ I believe she said something like “What’s this world coming to if people no longer recognize the devil when they hear him?”
    Does this mean that O’Connor didn’t write well enough for her readers to pick up this meaning? Or was she right in that people no longer recognize the devil? (i.e., their experiences do not give them the proper equipment to see that meaning?)

    Now, I immediately understood that the voice of Tarwater’s friend was definitely not “reason.” But was that because I was already familiar enough with O’Connor to know what she’d meant?

    I’m a strong proponent of authorial intent, and if people assign meaning to a work that the author had never intended, I am likely to come down on the side that says “that meaning is wrong.” (Likely, but not always. It depends on how far from the author’s intent that meaning is.)

    But if I were to accept that meaning exists only in the self, doesn’t that suggest that there is no meaning that can be shared? And I reject that notion.

    But I swear we’re getting into something existential here, and I don’t know if I have the energy!

  • Drew
    8:35 PM, 11 January 2011

    By the way, wouldn’t it be easier if I could just write “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” and y’all would understand me perfectly. 🙂
    Or “Forty-Six!”

    • Jonathan Rogers
      12:07 AM, 12 January 2011

      Well, I see yall have been having a good time here without me today. For some reason I haven’t been getting notifications of comments today, so I didn’t even realize that anybody was reading or discussing this post. I’ll probably have to circle back around later this evening (it being almost supper time now), but I wanted to make a couple of quick comments.
      First, I should say that the hard and sometimes dull work of learning how to see symbolism and figurative language–the work of the literature teacher–is noble and necessary work. I didn’t mean any disrespect to teachers of literature. I did mean, however, that the literature teacher’s approach to literature is quite different from a writer’s approach. I like what Flannery O’Connor said about her stories being discussed in literature classes. She said she imagined them like little frogs splayed out on a dissection table. Patrick is right when he says that when one publishes a book it’s out of one’s control. Nevertheless, I do think I have some useful insights when it comes to the meanings that might be found in my stories. I once had a fellow congratulate me on my cleverness in naming the River Tam. It is a little known fact that the Creek Indians’ name for the Altamaha River in South Georgia was Tama. So little known, in fact, that I didn’t know it myself until the man told me. But I gladly took credit for the cleverness.

      All right; I’m out of time. I’ll try to come back later tonight and make a few more insightful and illuminating remarks. Meanwhile, you might read the article that Drew was referring to when he spoke of “Darmok and Jalad and Tanagra,” written by Father Thomas McKenzie on the Rabbit Room.

  • Patrick
    2:19 AM, 12 January 2011

    Jess, Thank you for the compliment, but I got a D in high school biology so I doubt I could rewrite it in a way that would be helpful.
    Drew, you completely misunderstood what I wrote. Just kidding 😉

    … and then I yelled out, “Forty-two!” and all the Douglas Adams fans laughed and laughed because of our shared experience.

  • Andrew
    4:45 AM, 12 January 2011

    This might be a discussion for a different post, but I’m interested in the symbol of river as boundary between the known, controlled, civilized world and the unknown, mysterious, and dangerous world beyond. The interesting thing to me is that you say the meaning was discovered after or was revealed by the symbol.
    It seems like we are limited to (or extended to) thinking of abstract or complex concepts in terms of concrete, observable phenomena that we have experienced with our five senses.

    When I was a kid I had a pet goat that we mostly kept in a banyard, but ocassionally we would tether her to a stake to allow her fresh grazing areas elsewhere in the yard. One day I found that she had stretched her rope from the stake part-way around the base of a walnut tree, and was straining toward a clump of clover, just beyond reach. I saw that if she went back around the tree, then straight toward the clover, the rope would allow her to reach it easily. As it was her rope was making two sides of a triangle — if she took the hypotenuse, she could have the whole clump. So I tried to pull her away from the clover, to lead her back round the tree so she could reach it. This made no sense to her, of course, and she strained against me, her collar almost choking her. Only by grabbing her by the horns could I force her back around the tree. Then she could run straight for the clover and she began munching (with no sign of gratitude).

    I pictured this as a symbol of God’s leadership. It might sometimes appear that God is directing me away from what is good, even when he’s leading me toward what is best in the only way possible. With ignorance and short-sightedness, I might stubbornly strain against obedience, to my own detriment.

    So an abstract concept–God’s omniscience and loving guidance overcoming my sinfulness–was revealed to me by a concrete experience: a goat on a rope. Is it even possible to understand abstract truths that cannot be symbolized by the concrete? For me whenever I try to conceive of something abstract, in my mind it requires a concrete symbol.

  • EmmaJ
    11:55 PM, 12 January 2011

    Patrick, in the spirit of friendly discussion, I’m going to have to respectfully disagree.
    I do agree that authors ought not to be heavy handed with their readership when it comes to the telling of the story – the reader’s journey of coming to the intended point or punchline is what makes the arrival at that destination so valued. I don’t enjoy reading authors who don’t respect me enough to allow an element of subtlety to their writing; grabbing readers by the hand and dragging them to one’s conclusion is never very inspiring or memorable in any positive sense. Conversely, I love C.S. Lewis, especially, for the way he tells the story and brings me around to the point when I least expect it. Bad writers hog tie their readers and drag them through the bush. Good ones leave crumbs for the mindful adventurer to follow.

    Once the story is written, however, I don’t think there’s anything bossy or heavy-handed about the author saying that one thing was meant and not another. That the meaning does lie with the author and his/her intent, whatever nice ideas the reader may have. While many ideas may come to readers’ minds and they are fully at liberty to speculate, draw lessons from the text, etc., the right to define what was actually intended stays with the author. If we say otherwise, it seems we are left in a dreadfully silly predicament in which real communication ceases to be possible.

    We would never tolerate that philosophy in verbal communication. For example, perhaps you might tell me a story about a mistake that you made which resulted in a parking ticket, intending that I might glean a useful lesson from your mistake and not receive the same penalty. Imagine if I responded with, “I see! I understand completely and I totally get your point – you mean that I should never wear stripes and polka dots together! Oh, and white after Labor Day… I always suspected that was out of bounds, but now I know for sure. Thanks for opening my eyes to those important truths through that fascinating narrative.” Of course, you would chuckle and remark on my clever and imaginative interpretation. Ha ha. Just kidding. I rather suspect you would instead shake your head and patiently explain to me once again that you meant nothing about fashion at all; the point is that I should be careful to avoid parking in front of fire hydrants. That was what you intended to convey, and no sensible person would call you bossy or heavy-handed for insisting on being interpreted according to your intention.

    The only reason that I’ve taken the time to write up my thoughts and respond to what you’ve said is that words and communication are such a vital part of human existence. Whenever I’ve encountered this kind of interpretive ethos, I’ve found it disturbing. To me it seems like the danger is at least sloppy scholarship, and can be as damaging as losing out on the lessons of really important works. It’s a complete disaster in Bible study, for example.

    I have to argue for the existence and value of the SHOULDs, that if that the author intended to say is worth knowing, it’s worth discovering. Readers who don’t find that particular meaning can’t say they’ve understood the text.

    Writing IS art, writers ARE artists, but whether we’re talking about paintings or books, even when the artist shares that work with others, he/she remains the ultimate authority on the intended significance. I certainly don’t want to entrust anything I’ve created to an audience that believes otherwise.

    Now, if I have misinterpreted what you have said and responded to an argument that you had no intention of making (oh, irony), feel free to set me straight.

  • EmmaJ
    2:28 AM, 13 January 2011

    That goat story is quality stuff, Andrew.

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller
    6:46 PM, 13 January 2011

    Interesting discussion. A couple of my thoughts as I read through the post and comments:
    *Re. Authorial intent: Readers can use story events and characters as metaphors without the permission of the author. Hence, a story might mean something to me that the author never intended.

    *About creating symbolism: Symbolism should arise, not from the significance to the author but to the character. The best example I know of in contemporary literature is a middle grade book written by Katherine Fitzmaurice called The Year the Swallows Came Late (I think I have that right.) Yes, there was some bird imagery, but there was also a wonderful symbolic use of candy that the protagonist herself embraced. Rather than me trying to explain it, get a copy of the book and read it. I think it’s masterful.

    *Which brings me to this point: Symbols don’t need to be dissected to have impact. In fact, because the human mind creates patterns naturally, we often see without realizing we have seen.

    *In response to this: It’s a complete disaster in Bible study, for example. Interpreting fiction isn’t the same as Bible study. No inerrancy, for one thing. 😉 But also, readers most often aren’t coming to fiction for the conscious purpose of finding truth, though I suspect they would be upset if it’s not there.

    *And to this: he/she remains the ultimate authority on the intended significance But with fiction, the author should never have to explain that significance. The goal for the writer, as I see it, is to be clear enough about the significance that it can’t be missed but circumspect enough that it can. C. S. Lewis was the master. Christians know at once that Aslan is a Christ figure. Non-Christians may miss that fact. The difference? Shared symbolism, or perhaps a better term would be typology.

    Again, thanks for the thought-provoking discussion.


  • sally apokedak
    12:50 AM, 14 January 2011

    Well, in an effort to understand what a writer really means instead of guessing at it…
    I’m pretty much lost on this post. I cannot figure out why a story would be better if you looked at the river first and decided to write a story about crossing the river and leaving the protections of the “civilized” world, than if you wanted to write about stepping out of the known and into the unknown, so you went …hmmm…oh, I’ve got it! I’ll have a river that represents the boundary between the known world and the unknown world.

    How is one story different from the other? Both are about the crossing from known to unknown and both have a river for a boundary between the two worlds.

    I am not trying to be dense or argumentative. I’m quite sure, Jonathan, that you are saying something important, and I’d love to understand it. If you feel like trying one more time for those of us who would never, ever, ever want to take an author’s words and interpret them in a way the author didn’t intend…. 🙂

  • Jonathan Rogers
    1:02 AM, 14 January 2011

    Sally, Becky, and the rest of you: This is one of them ill-conceived and half-baked posts that you hear so much about. One of these days I’m going to back up and start over again and make clear what I was talking about. But it won’t be today. I do appreciate the fact that you’re sufficiently interested to want to make sense of it.
    The long-come-short: I was really talking about the positive possibilities that inhere in paying close attention to the “real” world. Why I came at it from a negative approach (“Don’t make stuff up” I appeared to be saying) I can’t explain. It was a rhetorical error. We’ll boomerang back around soon, I hope.

    Seriously, thanks for asking and continuing to ask.

  • sally apokedak
    1:48 AM, 14 January 2011

    In regards to author intent—I agree that words have meaning and authors know what they mean when they write something.
    In fiction, though, it’s a little sticky. If you are a really good writer, then your characters will feel like real people to the readers. They feel like friends. In fact, we often know characters better than we know real life friends, because we often see into the mind of the characters and hear their thoughts.

    More than that, we identify with the characters. We become them, in some sense. We feel what they feel. So it is very easy for us to read into them our own emotions and desires. Not everything is told in a novel. We don’t see every minute of every day. We don’t hear ever thought in the character’s head. So we fill in the blanks. And a good writer will allow the reader to fill in blanks. The writer has a clear idea of what goes in those in those blanks, but he generously lets the reader have room to fill in some of those blanks. Because the more the reader can fill in, the more he owns the character. And the more he owns the character, the more he loves the character.

    I’m guessing, of course. heh heh

  • sally apokedak
    1:52 AM, 14 January 2011

    Oh, thanks, Jonathan. I’ll wait for enlightenment.

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