Symbols and Motifs

You’ll remember: High school English class. You’re reading a work by a so-called master: Malamud or Steinbeck or Golding, perhaps. It’s an allegory, but who really cares what that means. The teacher is making you go through the usual motions of picking apart symbols, motifs, and themes, but it doesn’t make any sense. All the examples of it seem so contrived. Surely the author didn’t actually intend for the book to be read this way. All of this can’t be intentional. At best you’re connecting nonexistent dots. The teacher is probably just making all this up to pass the time until the year ends and you can be someone else’s pain in the neck.

Well, surprise! You were patently incorrect! It was all intentional! Perhaps rose and moons are just flowers and spheres in your trite teenage romance novels, written in two days by an uninspired ghost writer, but guess what? These are allegories! Of course it was all intentional! And I really do mean all of it. The fact that the moon keeps popping up with Memo in The Natural? IT’S A SYMBOL. The way Lenny is described as animalistic in Of Mice and Men? IT’S A SYMBOL. The fact that the boar’s head in The Lord of the Flies is represented as the titular Beelzebub? It’s not just a plot thing! IT’S A SYMBOL.

Oh, by the way, this isn’t speculation. Writers do use symbols, motifs, themes…liberally. Take it from someone who knows. Motifs are a staple, and fun as heck to incorporate. Symbols, too. The subtler, the better. Symbols are no fun to put into a piece of writing if they just jump out at you like a mugger from the stereotypical alleyway, shouting, “Hey, look at me! I’m a metaphor for the protagonist’s father issues!” That’s just stupid. Of course the symbols aren’t going to look as such at first glace. Of course they’re going to be hidden. But they’re there. Weaving literary devices like motifs into books is the writing equivalent of hiding your Easter candy in your lunch bag to be surprised with later that day, or keeping a record of inside jokes with yourself. They’re fun, useful, and most importantly, they exist.

Let me follow this up with one last example. When The Hunger Games movie came out last year, I (naturally) found myself irritated with the eternal teenage fangirl pastime I saw occurring, of dividing up into teams based on which male love interest one prefers. You know the ones: Team Peeta, Team Gale, Team Who Gives a Crap. Anyway, I naturally placed myself on my preferred team: Team Roman Allegory/Social Commentary, because seriously: The Hunger Games is absolutely bursting with meaning. However, some people were irritated with this (and not just because I was being superior about not drooling over fairly unoriginal fictional characters)(Yes, I’m aware I was being pretentious and I refuse to apologize), because they thought The Hunger Games was “just a story”, apparently implying that if a novel has a double meaning it’s somehow …. worse? Or that I was just reading into it and finding meaning where there was none.

The thing is though, they were wrong. It’s not just a story. It is, I’ll concede, a compelling narrative and an excellent novel, but it is not just a story. There are layers upon layers of hidden meaning. For instance, if you know anything about Ancient Rome and the fall of Caesar, the allegory is blindingly obvious. President Snow is Caesar. The Capitol is Rome. The Districts are the various conquered states of the empire. Even the name of the country, Panem, is related: It’s derived from the Latin phrase panem et circuses, which translates as bread and circuses and was the Roman’s way of keeping the public happy with their increasingly poor governance. They provided the people with food and entertainment (the gladiator fights in the coliseum) so they wouldn’t revolt or question them. Oh hey, look at that, gladiator fights, between slaves or foreigners of the various conquered territories – I wonder if that’s in any way related to the fact that the central premise of the book is a bunch of kids from conquered territories fighting to the death. I can continue on about the minor details, too: Cinna the Conspirator who was killed for, surprise, conspiring against Caesar (hey, isn’t there a character named Cinna? Look at that), the presence of a Plutarch and a Portia, the fact that the rebels happen to be from the untamed North…

We can also go on about the themes of the usurpation of tyranny, and there is an excellent essay hiding somewhere in the relation between how the murder of Caesar was seen as a terrible thing at the time (regicide), while nowadays, we glorify those who would overthrow unjust rulers, and how that ties into the fact that Panem is formerly America, a country that was founded on and praises revolution. And don’t even get me started on the social commentary on reality television. Gorgeous, intricate, thought-provoking, and, oh hey look at that: entirely real.

Obviously there are layers. It is not just a story. Symbolism is real. Writers use it. Your teachers were right.


One comment on “Symbols and Motifs

  1. Prometheus says:

    Symbols and universal symbols (archetypal images) are indeed widely used and as you’ve said once you start discovering the meanings behind them you can see the wealth of meaning in each symbol. It is the best way to influence people on an emotional/unconscious level. Great article.

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