Years after our last assigned novel, years after our last English class, what’s left? Plots grow hazy, characters dissolve—but for many of us, the last thing to go, the residual hard core of our compulsory education in literature, is a strange set of symbols. Long after entire books have been forgotten, they live a strange life on their own, mummified, divorced from the context that once made sense of them. The canon of symbols varies for each of us, but it is likely to include Gatsby’s green light at the end of the dock, a scarlet “A,” a white whale, Holden Caulfield’s brass ring. They are objects that have little in common except for the fact that they are beloved of English teachers, a group whose fixation on symbols and symbolism rivals Dan Brown’s. Why? Not just because symbols are important—but because symbols are so teachable, and so testable.
I was an English teacher; and while my career wasn’t a lengthy one, I was in the classroom long enough to learn that teaching, whatever else it means, also means keeping score. Teaching means quantifying. I was fortunate enough to teach, and to be taught in, schools only minimally caught up in the slog of standardized test prep. But in any school, the need to quantify—as indispensable as it is—can subtly distort teaching itself. Nowhere is this distortion more evident than in the teaching of literary symbolism.
Much of the struggle in teaching literature, I learned, lay in finding something hard and testable in a subject so fluid and “soft”—finding a set of right answers in books designed to thwart right answers, to put our certainties into doubt. But symbolism meets the need perfectly. Symbols allow for a one-to-one correspondence between object and meaning. They allow for a set of answers to be written on whiteboards, penciled in on flashcards, memorized, repeated on tests. They allow students to be marked right or wrong. That’s why Cliff’s Notes and Spark Notes regularly come with handy indexed guides to symbols and their meanings—because those meanings are such a predictable feature of English tests. It’s why I sat through more than one English class that taught the great works of American literature as little more than a parade of objects to be deciphered—why, long after I lost the sparkling details of Jay Gatsby’s parties, I remembered that that green light at the end of the dock represented the far-off American Dream, or somesuch. And it’s why, when I became a teacher, I found the need to spell out right and wrong, to say something definitive and testable about what we’d just read, infecting my lessons despite myself. I’ve been blessed to study with much better teachers than I proved to be, who were able to lead courses on great books without turning them inert; but I’ve also seen, from both sides of the classroom, how symbols can become a teacher’s crutch.
That’s not to say that teachers invent symbols out of thin air, or invest innocuous objects with meanings writers never meant. Of course writers use objects to stand for ideas, the physical for the insubstantial. Often, they’re quite explicit about it. Take the famous “single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock.” Fitzgerald’s narrator memorably concludes that Gatsby “believed in the green light,” a statement impossible to make sense of unless we take the light to stand for something else: in this case, “the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.” Here, a writer has given us an object, invested it with a meaning, and then helpfully spelled that meaning out for us. And that prompts the question: why bother with the object at all? Why not strike through the green light and tell us directly that Gatsby believed in “the orgastic future,” or the American Dream, or what have you?
The short answer: because Fitzgerald is writing literature, not an opinion column. The longer answer: because we are embodied, flesh-and-blood animals; because we think even our highest thoughts in pictures; because even the most abstract idea can become more real and more moving for us if it, too, is assigned a physical body, something we can see or touch; because literature, in large measure, is the art of turning abstractions into flesh. The best writers can fix our attention on both symbol and meaning, both physical and abstract, at the same time. But the answer-key method of symbol interpretation breaks this link. It treats a symbol as an object to be decoded and discarded. In this view, the object is barely real at all: it is only a signpost pointing the way to the “real” meaning, which is to say the abstract meaning. The green light, we learn in English class, stands for Gatsby’s dream—and as soon as we memorize that fact, the light itself ceases to matter. With the meaning safely taught, all of the light’s qualities as an object in the world—its wavering shine, its bobbing reflection on the water—can be discarded.
In other words, to turn the experience of reading literature into something easily teachable and gradable is often to sacrifice literature’s imaginative hold on students. For the best writers, and the best readers, the physical and the abstract are equally real—but too many of us are taught that a writer’s significant objects are nothing more than puzzles set to stump high school students. If too many of us graduate with an animus against reading, perhaps it begins here.
A better approach might start by asking, again: why bother? The image that, for me, helped to answer that question was not a symbol in literature, but in film. In Krzysztof Kieślowski’s acclaimed series, The Decalogue, the second episode tells the story of a gravely ill man and his wife. The sick man is not expected to live; his doctors predict death, and his wife begins to plan a life without him.
His sudden recovery, near episode’s end, comes as a shock to everyone involved. We see him stirring, breathing deeply again, beginning to sit up in his hospital bed—and then the scene cuts to something entirely new. We see a glass of water, a plastic straw, and a fly drowning just under the water’s surface. The cup is presumably on the sick man’s bedside table, but the scene is cropped so close and last so long—nearly a minute—that it could take place anywhere. We watch the fly struggling and thrashing in the water, flailing to break the surface tension that holds it down, gaining a brief purchase on the straw only to fall off and back under, once and then again. Finally the fly grabs hold of the straw and stays there. This time, it does not slide back. It takes a step up, then another. It shakes the water off.
[A]rtists are no less capable, in a secular context, of finding great dignity in ordinary and vulgar symbols…
Now, if I were taking a short-answer test on symbolism in this episode, I’m confident that I’d get this one right: “The fly represents the man’s recovery from illness.” But while a conventional test would likely ask me what the fly symbolizes, the more telling question is: what is it doing there at all? The incident with the fly conveys absolutely no new information. By the time it appears, we already know that the sick man is recovering: we’ve been told just seconds ago, and we don’t need an animal parable to remind us of the fact. Just like Fitzgerald, Kieślowski has no qualms about providing a symbol and instantly spelling it out; the fly, like the green light, tells us nothing we didn’t know already. But even if the fly incident does convey something new, the camera lingers painfully on it, long past the moment when we could be expected to get the point.
Rather than simply stand for the man’s recovery—rather than simply transmit the fact that he has recovered—the fly is there to help us experience the recovery more fully. After all, a medical convalescence is long and drawn-out, and its most pivotal moments—processes inside the human body—must be invisible to us. We can’t simply be told that the man is better now: we need an image in order to feel the force of that fact, and because the slow process of recovery lends itself so poorly to images, the director borrows one from elsewhere. In this case, he finds it on the beside table: the story of the sick man, compressed to its essence, and reenacted in miniature by a fly. The story of the fly is there to pull and hold our attention: to move us, not to be decoded. And if we ignore its particularities, and treat it as the information-bearing answer to a test question, then it might as well not be there at all.
But the relationship between the symbol and the referent works in two directions. The fly helps us care about the sick man; at the same time, the sick man helps us care about the fly. Under normal circumstances, the death of a tiny insect, by drowning or any other means, is entirely beneath my attention; for all I know, a bug is drowning in a glass of water, or being stepped on, somewhere in my apartment building as I write this. I won’t give a second’s thought to that insect—but I gave almost a minute’s suspenseful attention to the insect captured by Kieślowski. The director made it matter to me by tying it to something that mattered to me already; he found an evocative link between a drowning fly and a dying man. Similarly, Gatsby’s green light stands out among all other artificial light sources I can think of, because an artist took the trouble to invest it with meaning. The conventional approach to teaching symbolism tells us that the symbol exists for the sake of the meaning. But it rarely dwells on the ways in which a powerful meaning can dignify and call new attention to the simplest object, even a fly.
So symbolism is not just a coded language—it is a way of building unexpected bridges between “low” and “high.” In fact, the work of investing ordinary objects with extraordinary meanings was crucial to the development of realistic literature as we know it. In his landmark study, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, Erich Auerbach ties the growth of realism to what he calls the “figural” worldview: the perspective in which the humblest events or objects can be assigned significance as signs, or “figures,” of a divine plan. “In this conception,” writes Auerbach, “an occurrence on earth signifies not only itself but at the same time another, which it predicts or confirms, without prejudice to the power of its concrete reality here and now” (emphasis added). A simple, earthly figure can point the way to a larger reality without becoming any less concrete; in fact, it earns our attention and respect as part of the connection. The best such writing, Auerbach maintains, “consists precisely in integrating what is characteristically individual and at times horrible, ugly, grotesque, and vulgar with the dignity of God’s judgment.” This is, at its origin, a religious view. But artists are no less capable, in a secular context, of finding great dignity in ordinary and vulgar symbols—such as the drowning fly.
I’m not so optimistic that I expect high school students to become conversant in Erich Auerbach and the history of figural realism. I’m not so unrealistic that I’d do away with English tests: comprehension has to be measured, grades have to be assigned, report cards have to be filled out. But if we’re aware of the ways in which the need to measure and score distorts teaching, then we can also look for ways to minimize those effects.
I’m concerned that, in the press to assign symbols clear, testable meanings, teachers too often rush past symbols’ earthy, physical, concrete reality: the qualities that turn them from mere signs into fully-realized objects, with a purchase on the sensual imagination and the gut. So if I ever teach another English class, I’ll hold off on naming the meaning of the green light or the drowning fly. Before we get to meanings, I’ll talk about qualities, and the discipline of paying attention to them. Close the book, and write down everything you remember about the green light, down to its distance, its size, its reflection. Turn off the video, and describe the fly: its struggle, its progress in the water and on the straw. Symbols like these have always had the power to move the attentive reader, to be as clear as the artist needs them to be, without being decoded. The real difficulty, I think, is in developing the attention.