Famous Novelists on Symbolism in Their Work and Whether It Was Intentional

Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury
Evening Standard, Hulton Archive // Getty Images

It was 1963, and 16-year-old Bruce McAllister was sick of symbol-hunting in English class. Rather than quarrel with his teacher, he went straight to the source: McAllister mailed a crude, four-question survey to 150 novelists, asking if they intentionally planted symbolism in their work. Seventy-five authors responded. Here’s what 12 of them had to say. (Copies of the survey responses can be found at the Paris Review.)

McAllister's Letter

“My definition of symbolism as used in this questionnaire is represented by this example: In The Scarlet Letter there are four major characters. Some say that Hawthorne meant those four to be Nature, Religion, Science or other similar symbols in disguise. They apply the actions of the four in the story to what is presently happening or will happen to Nature, Religion, Science, etc.”

Ayn Rand: “This is not a ‘definition,’ it is not true—and therefore, your questions do not make sense.”

MacKinlay Kantor: “Nonsense, young man, write your own research paper. Don’t expect others to do the work for you.”

Question 1

“Do you consciously, intentionally plan and place symbolism in your writing?... If yes, please state your method for doing so. Do you feel you sub-consciously place symbolism in your writing?”

Jack Kerouac: "No."

Isaac Asimov: “Consciously? Heavens, no! Unconsciously? How can one avoid it?”

Joseph Heller: “Yes, I do intentionally rely on symbolism in my writing, but not to the extent that many people have stated…No, I do not subconsciously place symbolism in my writing, although there are inevitably many occasions when events acquire a meaning additional to the one originally intended.”

Ray Bradbury: “No, I never consciously place symbolism in my writing. That would be a self-conscious exercise and self-consciousness is defeating to any creative act. Better to let the subconscious do the work for you, and get out of the way. The best symbolism is always unsuspected and natural."

John Updike: “Yes—I have no method; there is no method in writing fiction; you don’t seem to understand.”

Norman Mailer: “I’m not sure it’s a good idea for a working novelist to concern himself too much with the technical aspects of the matter. Generally, the best symbols in a novel are those you become aware of only after you finish the work.”

Ralph Ellison: “Symbolism arises out of action…Once a writer is conscious of the implicit symbolism which arises in the course of a narrative, he may take advantage of them and manipulate them consciously as a further resource of his art. Symbols which are imposed upon fiction from the outside tend to leave the reader dissatisfied by making him aware that something extraneous is added.”

Saul Bellow: “A ‘symbol’ grows in its own way, out of the facts.”

Richard Hughes: “[Consciously?] No. [Subconsciously?] Probably yes. After all, to a lesser extent, the same is true of our daily conversation—in fact, of everything we think and say and do.”

Question 2

“Do readers ever infer that there is symbolism in your writing where you had not intended it to be? If so, what is your feeling about this type of inference? (Humorous? annoying? etc.?)”

Ray Bradbury:

Ralph Ellison: “Yes, readers often infer that there is symbolism in my work, which I do not intend. My reaction is sometimes annoyance. It is sometimes humorous. It is sometimes even pleasant, indicating that the reader’s mind has collaborated in a creative way with what I have written.”

Saul Bellow: “They most certainly do. Symbol-hunting is absurd.”

Joseph Heller: “This happens often, and in every case there is good reason for the inference; in many cases, I have been able to learn something about my own book, for readers have seen much in the book that is there, although I was not aware of it being there.”

John Updike: “Once in a while—usually they do not (see the) symbols that are there.”

Jack Kerouac: “Both, depending how busy I am.”

Questions 3

“Do you feel that the great writers of classics consciously, intentionally planned and placed symbols in their writing? ... Do you feel that they placed it there sub-consciously?”

John Updike:

[“Some of them did (Joyce, Dante) more than others (Homer) but it is impossible to think of any significant work of narrative art without a symbolic dimension of some sort.”]

Ray Bradbury: “This is a question you must research yourself.”

Joseph Heller: “The more sophisticated the writer, I would guess, the smaller the use of symbols in the strictest sense and the greater the attempt to achieve the effects of symbolism in more subtle ways. “

Ralph Ellison: “Man is a symbol-making and –using animal. Language itself is a symbolic form of communication. The great writers all used symbols as a means of controlling the form of their fiction. Some place it there subconsciously, discovered it and then developed it. Others started out consciously aware and in some instances shaped the fiction to the symbols.”

Jack Kerouac: “Come off of it—there are all kinds of ‘classics’—Sterne used no symbolism, Joyce did.”

Question 4

"Do you have anything to remark concerning the subject under study, or anything you believe to be pertinent to such a study?"

Richard Hughes:

[“Have you considered the extent to which subconscious symbol-making is part of the process of reading, quite distinct from its part in writing?”]

Jack Kerouac: “Symbolism is alright in ‘fiction’ but I tell true life stories simply about what happened to people I knew.”

John Updike: “It would be better for you to do your own thinking on this sort of thing.”

Iris Murdoch: “There is much more symbolism in ordinary life than some critics seem to realize.”

Ray Bradbury: “Not much to say except to warn you not to get too serious about all this, if you want to become a writer of fiction in the future. If you intend to become a critic, that is a Whale of another color…Playing around with symbols, even as a critic, can be a kind of kiddish parlor game. A little of it goes a long way. There are other things of greater value in any novel or story…humanity, character analysis, truth on other levels…Good symbolism should be as natural as breathing…and as unobtrusive.”

* * *

In case you were wondering, McAllister eventually became an English professor.

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Annotations in Copy of Shakespeare's First Folio May Have Been John Milton's

GeorgiosArt/iStock via Getty Images
GeorgiosArt/iStock via Getty Images

It's a well-known literary fact that William Shakespeare had an enormous influence on "Paradise Lost" poet John Milton, and new evidence suggests that super fan Milton—who even wrote a poem called "On Shakespeare"—might have owned his idol's first folio.

The folio, which contains 36 of Shakespeare’s plays, was published in 1623—seven years after the Bard’s death. An estimated 750 first folios were printed, with only 233 of them known to have survived, including one with annotations written throughout it. As it turns out, those scribbles might be Milton's.

According to The Guardian, Cambridge University fellow Jason Scott-Warren believes that Milton wrote those important annotations. Scott-Warren read an article about an anonymous annotator written by Pennsylvania State University English professor Claire Bourne. The Folio copy in question has been stored in the Free Library of Philadelphia since 1944, and Bourne was able to date the annotator back to the mid-1600s. (Milton died in 1674.) It was Scott-Warren who noticed that the handwritten notes looked similar to Milton’s handwriting.

"It shows you the firsthand encounter between two great writers, which you don’t often get to see, especially in this period,” Scott-Warren told The Guardian. “A lot of that kind of evidence is lost, so that’s really exciting.”

If the writing does indeed belong to Milton, it’s not the first time the poet has left notes on another writer's work; he supposedly marked up his copy of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Life of Dante as well. Scott-Warren and Bourne plan to pair up to find out if Milton left annotations on any other notable works.

"It was, until a few days ago, simply too much to hope that Milton’s own copy of Shakespeare might have survived—and yet the evidence here so far is persuasive,” Dr. Will Poole, a fellow and tutor at Oxford's New College said. "This may be one of the most important literary discoveries of modern times."

11 Scrumdiddlyumptious Roald Dahl Facts

Ronald Dumont / Getty Images
Ronald Dumont / Getty Images

A world without Roald Dahl would be a world without Oompa Loompas, Snozzcumbers, or Muggle-Wumps. And who would ever want to live in a world like that? Celebrate the author with these gloriumptious facts about the master of edgy kids' books.

1. Writing was never Roald Dahl's best subject.

Dahl held onto a school report he had written as a kid, on which his teacher noted: “I have never met anybody who so persistently writes words meaning the exact opposite of what is intended.”

2. Making up nonsensical words was part of what Roald Dahl did best.

When writing 1982’s The BFG, Dahl created 238 new words for the book’s protagonist, which he dubbed Gobblefunk.

3. Roald Dahl's first profession was as a pilot.

And not just any pilot: Dahl was a fighter pilot with the Royal Air Force during World War II. And it was a plane crash near Alexandria, Egypt that actually inspired him to begin writing.

4. Roald Dahl got into some 007 kind of stuff, too.

Alongside fellow officers Ian Fleming and David Ogilvy, Dahl supplied intelligence to an MI6 organization known as the British Security Coordination.

5. Roald Dahl's first published piece was accidental.

Upon recovering from that plane crash, Dahl was reassigned to Washington, D.C., where he worked as an assistant air attaché. He was approached by author C.S. Forester, who was writing a piece for The Saturday Evening Post and looking to interview someone who had been on the frontlines of the war. Dahl offered to write some notes on his experiences, but when Forester received them he didn’t want to change a word. He submitted Dahl’s notes—originally titled “A Piece of Cake”—to his editor and on August 1, 1942, Roald Dahl officially became a published author. He was paid $1000 for the story, which had been retitled “Shot Down Over Libya” for dramatic effect.

6. Roald Dahl's first children's book was inspired by the Royal Air Force.

Published in 1942, The Gremlins was about a group of mischievous creatures who tinkered with the RAF’s planes. Though the movie rights were purchased by Walt Disney, a film version never materialized. Dahl would go on to become one of the world’s bestselling fiction authors, with more than 100 million copies of his books published in nearly 50 languages.

7. Roald Dahl read Playboy for the articles.

Or at least his own articles. While he’s best known as a children’s author, Dahl was just as prolific in the adult short story sphere. His stories were published in a range of outlets, including Collier’s, Ladies Home Journal, Harper’s, The New Yorker, and Playboy, where his topics of choice included wife-swapping, promiscuity, suicide, and adultery. Several of these stories were published as part of Dahl’s Switch Bitch anthology.

8. Quentin Tarantino adapted a Roald Dahl short story for the big screen.

One of Dahl’s best-known adult short stories, “Man from the South” (a.k.a. “The Smoker”), was adapted to celluloid three times, twice as part of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (once in 1960 with Steve McQueen and Peter Lorre, and again in 1985) and a third time as the final segment in 1995’s film anthology Four Rooms, which Quentin Tarantino directed.

9. Roald Dahl's own attempts at screenwriting were not as successful.

One would think that, with his intriguing background and talent for words, Dahl’s transition from novelist to screenwriter would be an easy one ... but you would be wrong. Dahl was hired to adapt two of Ian Fleming’s novels, the James Bond novel You Only Live Once and the kid-friendly Chitty Chitty Bang Bang; both scripts were completely rewritten. Dahl was also hired to adapt Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for the big screen, but was replaced by David Seltzer when he couldn’t make his deadlines. Dahl was not shy about his criticisms of the finished product, noting his “disappointment” that the film (and its changed title) shifted the story’s emphasis from Charlie to Willy Wonka.

10. Roald Dahl made an important contribution to the field of neurosurgery.

In 1960, Dahl’s four-month-old son Theo’s carriage was struck by a cab driver in New York City, leaving the child suffering from hydrocephalus, a condition that increases fluid in the brain. Dahl became very actively involved in his son’s recovery, and contacted toymaker Stanley Wade for help. Together with Theo’s neurosurgeon, Kenneth Till, the trio developed a shunt that helped to alleviate the condition. It became known as the Wade-Dahl-Till valve.

11. Even in death, Roald Dahl's sense of humor was evident.

Roald Dahl passed away from a blood disease on November 23, 1990 at the age of 74. Per his request, he was buried with all of his favorite things: snooker cues, a bottle of Burgundy, chocolate, HB pencils, and a power saw.

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