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.