On Symbolism (& Hidden Meaning)

April 20, 2011 — 4 Comments

At the Notre Dame Women Writers’ Festival, a woman asks me and another writer:

“Okay, so do writers actually go through their writing looking for places to stick a symbol in?”

My dad reads my book and says:

“You’ll have to explain your symbols. I took a class on James Joyce in college, and everybody said how the apple meant this and that, but to me, the apple was just an apple.”

My daughter reports her take on To Kill a Mockingbird:

“I love it, but I don’t get all the symbols, I just read for the plot. I didn’t know that the dog that was killed was supposed to represent Tom Robinson. Oh wait, the dog’s name IS Tom Robinson! Duh!”

(Is the dog’s name Tom Robinson? I don’t recall.)

So: symbols. I forget that people still talk about them, look for them, try to figure them out. Huh.

It’s naive of me to express such surprise when I teach college students who are always searching for the ‘hidden meaning’ in a poem or story. Or always trying to hide the meaning in their own work. Where’s Waldo*?

In fact, the hiding and revealing of meaning may be the single most important tug-of-war my students and I engage in during a semester. They want hidden meanings; I want clarity.

Once I get clarity, I want layers. Layers of meaning!

Maybe we can think of hiding meaning as a squirrel hides a peanut. The giant Indiana squirrel buries the nut in my planter. The peanut is under the soil and the viewer sees something like this:

The peanut** is safely hidden.

In a workshop, the class will muse about all the things that MIGHT be in the soil:

Student A: I kinda think there’s a dollar in there.

Student B: But if you read the description of the planter, it’s clear that there’s a tuna can in there.

Student C: Then the first character starts talking about her chapstick, so I think the chapstick is in there.

Student Author: That’s it! You got it! It’s chapstick in the soil!

And everyone in class can sit back and relax – for the hidden meaning has been found.

But what if we imagine that a story or poem has multiple layers: flowers on the surface, roots in the topsoil, rocks deeper down, and even a different type of dirt deeper down. And what if the reader had a clear cross-section view of all the layers, and all the cool ways they connect:

Peanuts*** & more!

Clarity! Suddenly our layer of soil is revealed to have other layers, a whole interconnected system working together: the flowers on top stretch toward deeper, darker layers of soil, reaching downward toward rocks (er, peanuts)  – and upward toward air and light. Each element means something in relation to the other. None is hidden. All are out in the open, working together in a complex system.

Still, one wonders: is a peanut just a peanut? Does a peanut ever mean more than a peanut?

Sounds like a good topic for another post…tune in soon.


* I have hidden a reference to Ralph Waldo Emerson in this question. Can you find it?

** ‘Peanut’ is a symbol for ‘meaning’.

*** By ‘peanuts’ I mean ‘rocks.’

4 responses to On Symbolism (& Hidden Meaning)

    Karie Pfaffenberger April 20, 2011 at 6:51 pm

    Is “Waldo” above or below the asterisked “Where’s Waldo?” comment?


    Hmm…are you teasing? I can’t tell. I was trying to make a probably lame joke that my reference to ‘Where’s Waldo’ actually invoked Ralph Waldo Emerson just by virtue of the name and my brain’s determination. Which made it ‘hidden.’

    Karie Pfaffenberger April 21, 2011 at 5:25 pm

    Oh. You fooled me big time– I actually thought you were serious! (I was looking and looking for a much more obscure reference, and when I couldn’t find one, I thought I’d ask for directions. Waldo search and finds always stumped me as a kid.)


    Hee hee! Sorry about that…

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