What Role do Symbols and References Play in Literature?

Symbolism has always been a complex thing for me to grasp. My freshman year of college for one of my education classes I had to listen to a podcast that discussed standardized testing. Please note that I was unable to relocate this podcast online, so I will be discussing from my own memory. From what I can remember about this podcast it told the story of how a poem was published within a Texas State standardized test. When the poet of the particular poem saw the questions that were asked in relation to her poem she could not even answer some of the questions. For example, one of the questions regarding symbolism asked, “What does the color red of the door symbolize?” In the podcast the poet explained that picking red as the color of the door meant nothing, it was just the first color to pop into her head. In Jennifer Galvao’s blog post “What I Mean to Say Is…” she explores an idea that I believe this particular poet was probably feeling when she came across the standardized test questions. Jen writes, “every time I choose a word in my writing, I am unknowingly trying to find that symbiosis between content and form- a way to express what I mean. At the same time, going back to the ‘plugged in’ idea, the word I choose sometimes bears a meaning that I did not intend.” Connecting Jen’s astute thought to the story told in the podcast, it seems to me that the creators of the standardized test selected a meaning behind the red door that the poet did not even intend.

Sometimes I think we, especially those of us that are English majors, think too far into the meaning behind certain things. I thought about this idea a lot over the past week during our class meetings. On Monday when we broke off into small groups to discuss Big Machine by Victor LaValle my group discussed the biblical references stated throughout the novel. One of my group members brought up an interesting question, “How would someone read this book if they did not have any prior knowledge on the Bible?” This was a really interesting question  and one that I never considered beforehand, most likely due to the fact that I have a pretty good understanding of the Bible. Our group got talking about how some of us take our knowledge of the Bible to another level. One group member talked about how if they come across a story that has a character named Cain, they automatically think it must be a reference to the story of Cain and Abel which is located in the book of Genesis. In the Bible Cain is known as a murderer, which prompts the idea that authors may use the name Cain to make reference to the fact that the character may be a murderer.

During class on Friday when reading The America Play by Suzan Lori Parks I thought back to the discussion that my group had on Monday. When it was read, “we begin to believe that characters in plays are symbols for some obscured ‘meaning’ rather than simply the thing itself,” I automatically thought back to what my group discussed in regard to the Cain and Abel reference. Is it fair to always think that the name “Cain” is a biblical reference and that a character named Cain must indeed be a murderer? I personally do not think so. If that is indeed the author’s intention then great, but if not then also great. The same thing goes for the red door that was discussed in the podcast. The poet admitted that she had no reasoning behind making the door red, there was no need to look into the symbolism behind it because no symbolism was intended by the poet.

After thinking a lot about these discussions and my thoughts on this topic over the past couple of days I still have some questions that I am unable to find an answer to. As intellectuals how do we know when we should be interpreting something as a symbol or a reference? Should we just always be on the look out and interpret symbols and references in our own personal way? Please feel free to share any thoughts.

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