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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Allegory or Symbolism?

As soon as we start writing something, we are most likely using symbolism whether we realize it or not. A symbol can be good or evil depending on the context. Rain, for instance, can symbolize rebirth or cleansing or a fresh start, but it can also, ironically, symbolize impending illness and even death. A flower can represent youth or love,but it can also symbolize the death of young men. (Example; "Where have all the flowers gone?")

Fire can symbolize light or life, but also hell or lust. Sky can allude to heaven pr fate; the sea can mean chaos, death, but also the source of life; a river represents life but can mean death when the river ends; a bridge, of course, represents a link between two worlds or life and death. When Amanda of "Sex and the City" crosses the bridge to meet her estranged husband, we know exactly what that symbolizes, and it's no surprise when they wind up reconciled and in bed having a great sex scene.

It's important to remember the difference between allegory and symbolism. Something that represents one thing only is allegory. Symbolism is much deeper and causes students to puzzle over the meaning. What exactly does that scene in the cave mean? What is the reason the color red pops up throughout a story? Why is it raining all the time? What is the meaning of that big fruit tree the characters are always sitting under?

Stories can have Biblical and mythical connotations. We like the new and different but we rely on the familiar. Rain, for instance, isn't just about rain. It could be Noah's flood type rain. It might be a blessing type rain. Rain can wash away sins and heal; rain can destroy cities, float arks filled with animals, or keep two people trapped in a cabin.

Sometimes symbolism can be found in characters' names or in characters themselves: the dark queen, the buffoon, the doppelganger, the wise old man.

The rosebud symbol in "Citizen Kane" represents Kane's lost innocence. Fog can represent confusion. Snow is the great equalizer in Joyce's "The Dead;" and it's a no-brainer figuring out the symbols in Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea." The sea. The old man. The boat. The fish. Hemingway never fails when it comes to symbolism and irony.

Movies have a great time with symbolism, too. So do the classic fairy tales. Once we're tuned in to that literary element, we can see symbolism in every poem or story we read and every film or play we see.

As writers, we mustn't go out of our way to put symbolism in our work; however, if there are certain images that seem to appear and dominate our thinking, it might indicate our story has a deeper meaning and truth that can be enhanced through a symbolic level.

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