Is That a Symbol?

How to Read Literature Like a Professor - Thomas C. Foster 2003

Is That a Symbol?


That’s one of the most common questions in class, followed by the answer I generally give. Is that a symbol? Sure, why not. It’s the next question where things get hairy: what does it mean, what does it stand for? When someone asks about meaning, I usually come back with something clever, like “Well, what do you think?” Everyone thinks I’m either being a wise guy or ducking responsibility, but neither is the case. Seriously, what do you think it stands for, because that’s probably what it does. At least for you.

Here’s the problem with symbols: people expect them to mean something. Not just any something, but one something in particular. Exactly. Maximum. You know what? It doesn’t work like that. Oh, sure, there are some symbols that work straightforwardly: a white flag means, I give up, don’t shoot. Or it means, We come in peace. See? Even in a fairly clear-cut case we can’t pin down a single meaning, although they’re pretty close. So some symbols do have a relatively limited range of meanings, but in general a symbol can’t be reduced to standing for only one thing.

If they can, it’s not symbolism, it’s allegory. Here’s how allegory works: things stand for other things on a one-for-one basis. Back in 1678, John Bunyan wrote an allegory called The Pilgrim’s Progress. In it, the main character, Christian, is trying to journey to the Celestial City, while along the way he encounters such distractions as the Slough of Despond, the Primrose Path, Vanity Fair, and the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Other characters have names like Faithful, Evangelist, and the Giant Despair. Their names indicate their qualities, and in the case of Despair, his size as well. Allegories have one mission to accomplish—convey a certain message, in this case, the quest of the devout Christian to reach heaven. If there is ambiguity or a lack of clarity regarding that one-to-one correspondence between the emblem—the figurative construct—and the thing it represents, then the allegory fails because the message is blurred. Such simplicity of purpose has its advantages. George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) is popular among many readers precisely because it’s relatively easy to figure out what it all means. Orwell is desperate for us to get the point, not a point. Revolutions inevitably fail, he tells us, because those who come to power are corrupted by it and reject the values and principles they initially embraced.

Symbols, though, generally don’t work so neatly. The thing referred to is likely not reducible to a single statement but will more probably involve a range of possible meanings and interpretations.

Consider the problem of the cave. In his masterful novel A Passage to India (1924), E. M. Forster has as his central incident a possible assault in a cave. All through the first half of the work the Marabar Caves hover over the story; they keep being referred to, they’re out there, remarkable in some ill-defined way, mysterious. Our independent and progressive heroine, Adela Quested (does that name strike you as symbolic at all?), wishes to see them, so Dr. Aziz, an educated Indian physician, arranges an outing. The caves turn out to be not quite as advertised: isolated in a barren wasteland, unadorned, strange, uncanny. Mrs. Moore, Adela’s mother-in-law-to-be, has a very nasty experience in the first of the caves, when she suddenly feels oppressively crowded and physically threatened by the others who have joined her. Adela notices that all sound is reduced to a hollow booming noise, so that a voice or a footfall or the striking of a match results in this booming negation. Mrs. Moore, understandably, has had enough of caves, so Adela does a bit of poking around on her own. In one of the caves she suddenly becomes alarmed, believing that, well, something is going on. When next we see her she has fled the scene, running and falling down the hillside to collapse into the arms of the racist English community she so vehemently criticized before. Badly bruised and scraped and poked by cactus spines, she is in shock and utterly convinced that she was assaulted in the cave and that Aziz must have been her assailant.

Was that cave symbolic? You bet.

Of what?

That, I fear, is another matter. We want it to mean something, don’t we? More than that, we want it to mean some thing, one thing for all of us and for all time. That would be easy, convenient, manageable for us. But that handiness would result in a net loss: the novel would cease to be what it is, a network of meanings and significations that permits a nearly limitless range of possible interpretations. The meaning of the cave isn’t lying on the surface of the novel. Rather, it waits somewhere deeper, and part of what it requires of us is to bring something of ourselves to the encounter. If we want to figure out what a symbol might mean, we have to use a variety of tools on it: questions, experience, preexisting knowledge. What else is Forster doing with caves? What are other outcomes in the text, or uses of caves in general that we can recall? What else can we bring to bear on this cave that might yield up meaning? So here we go.

Caves in general. First, consider our past. Our earliest ancestors, or those who had weather issues, lived in caves. Some of them left us some pretty nifty drawings, while others left behind piles of bones and spots charred from that great discovery, fire. But the point here might be (no guarantees, of course) that the cave, on some level, suggests a connection to the most basic and primitive elements in our natures. At the far end of the spectrum, we might be reminded of Plato, who in the “Parable of the Cave” section of The Republic (fourth century b.c.) gives us an image of the cave as consciousness and perception. Each of these predecessors might provide possible meanings for our situation. The security and shelter suggested by some Neolithic memory of caves probably won’t work here, but something along the lines of Plato’s cave interior may: perhaps this cave experience has something to do with Adela getting in touch with the deepest levels of her consciousness and perhaps being frightened by what she finds there.

Now, Forster’s use of the caves. The locals cannot explain or describe the caves. Aziz, a grand promoter of them, must finally admit he knows nothing of them, having never visited the site, while Professor Godbole, who has seen them, describes their effect only in terms of what does not cause it. To each of the characters’ questions—are they picturesque? are they historically significant?—he offers a cryptic “No.” To his Western audience, and even to Aziz, this set of responses is not helpful. Godbole’s message might be that the caves must be experienced before they can be understood or that every person’s caves are different. Such a position might be borne out by the example of Mrs. Moore’s unpleasant encounter in a different cave. Throughout the early portions of the novel, she has been impatient with other people and resentful of having them—their views, their assumptions, their physical presence—forced on her. One of the ironies of her Indian experience is that in a landscape so vast, the psychological space is so small; she came all this way and can’t get away from life, England, people, death closing in on her. When she gets inside the cave, a crush of people threatens her; the jostling and brushing seem overtly hostile in the dark enclosure. Something unidentified but unpleasant—she can’t tell if it belongs to a bat or an infant, but it’s organic and not nice—rubs across her mouth. Her heartbeat becomes oppressive and she can’t breathe, so she flees the cave as quickly as she can and takes a good while to calm down. In her case, the cave seems to force her into contact with her deepest personal fears and anxieties: other people, ungovernable sensations, children and fecundity. There is also the suggestion that India itself threatens her, since all the people aside from Adela and herself in the cave are Indians. While she has tried to be Indian, to be comfortable and understanding of the “natives” in ways other members of the ruling British have not been, she can hardly be said to have mastered the Indian experience. So it may be that what she runs into in the darkness is the fraudulence of her attempt to “be Indian.”

On the other hand, maybe she doesn’t have an encounter with Something at all. Perhaps what she meets in the cave is instead Nothingness, albeit some years before Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and the existentialists of the 1950s and 1960s articulate the dichotomy between, in Sartre’s terms, Being and Nothingness. Could it be that what she finds in the cave isn’t death per se but the experience of the Void? I think it quite possible, if by no means certain.

So what does Adela’s cave stand for? She has, or seems to have, all of the responses that Mrs. Moore does, although hers are different. As a virgin on the edge of spinsterhood who has been shipped halfway around the world to marry a man she doesn’t love, she has some very understandable anxieties about matrimony and sex. In fact, her last conversation before entering the cave is with Aziz regarding his own married life, and her questions are probing and even inappropriate. Perhaps this conversation brings on her hallucination, if that is what it is, or perhaps it provokes Aziz or some third party (their guide, for instance) into whatever he does, if anyone does anything.

For Adela, the horror of her cave experience and its booming echo ride roughshod over her soul until she recants her testimony against Aziz during his trial. Once the mayhem dies down and she is safely away from the Indians who have hated her and the English who now hate her, she announces that the echo has stopped. What does this suggest? The cave may bring on or point up a variety of inauthentic experience (another existential concept)—that is, Adela is confronted by the hypocrisy of her life and her reasons for coming to India or agreeing to marry Ronnie, her fiancé, by her failure to take responsibility for her own existence. Or it may represent a breach of the truth (in a more traditional philosophical tradition) or a confrontation with terrors she has denied and can only exorcise by facing them. Or something else. For Aziz, too, the caves speak through their aftermath—of the perfidy of the English, of the falseness of his subservience, of his need to assert responsibility for his own life. It may be that Adela does panic in the face of Nothingness, only recovering herself when she takes responsibility by recanting in the witness box. Perhaps it’s all about nothing more than her own self-doubts, her own psychological or spiritual difficulties. Perhaps it is racial in some way.

The only thing we are sure of about the cave as symbol is that it keeps its secrets. That sounds as if I’m punting, but I’m not. What the cave symbolizes will be determined to a large extent by how the individual reader engages the text. Every reader’s experience of every work is unique, largely because each person will emphasize various elements to differing degrees, and those differences will cause certain features of the text to become more or less pronounced. We bring an individual history to our reading, a mix of previous readings, to be sure, but also a history that includes, but is not limited to, educational attainment, gender, race, class, faith, social involvement, and philosophical inclination. These factors will inevitably influence what we understand in our reading, and nowhere is this individuality clearer than in the matter of symbolism.

The problem of symbolic meaning is further compounded when we look at a number of writers emphasizing various, distinct elements for a given symbol. As an example, let’s consider three rivers. Mark Twain gives us the Mississippi, Hart Crane the Hudson-East-Mississippi/generic-American, and T. S. Eliot the Thames. All three are American writers, all from the Midwest (two from Missouri, no less). Do you suppose there’s any chance of their rivers standing for the same thing? In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), Twain sends Huck and the escaped slave Jim down the Mississippi on a raft. The river is a little bit of everything in the novel. At the beginning it floods, killing livestock and people, including Huck’s father. Jim is using the river to escape to freedom, but his “escape” is paradoxical since it carries him deeper and deeper into slave territory. The river is both danger and safety, since the relative isolation from land and detection is offset by the perils of river travel on a makeshift conveyance. On a personal level, the river/raft provides the platform on which Huck, a white boy, can get to know Jim not as a slave but as a man. And of course the river is really a road, and the raft trip a quest that results in Huck growing to maturity and understanding. He knows himself well enough at the end that he will never return to childhood and Hannibal and bossy women, so he lights out for the Territories.

Now take Hart Crane’s poem sequence The Bridge (1930), which plays with rivers and bridges throughout. He begins with the East River, spanned by the Brooklyn Bridge. From there the river grows into the Hudson and on into the Mississippi, which for Crane embodies all American rivers. Interesting things begin happening in the poem. The bridge connects the two pieces of land cut off from one another by the river, while it has the effect of bisecting the stream. The river meanwhile does separate the land on a horizontal axis but connects along a vertical axis, making it possible for people at one end to travel to the other. The Mississippi becomes of central symbolic importance for Crane because of its immense length, bringing the northernmost and southernmost parts of the nation together while making it virtually impossible to move from east to west without some means of traversing the river. His meanings are quite different from those of Twain. Together the river and the bridge constitute an image of total connection.

And Eliot? Eliot uses the River Thames prominently in The Waste Land, written in the immediate aftermath of World War I and of a more personal breakdown. His river carries the detritus of a dying civilization and features, among other things, a rat trailing along the bank; the river is slimy, dirty, its famous bridge falling down (in nursery rhyme form), abandoned by its nymphs. The river is shorn of grandeur, grace, and divinity. In the poem’s past, Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Leicester carry on their dalliance on the water, but their modern counterparts are merely sordid and seedy. Clearly Eliot’s river is symbolic; equally clearly, it symbolizes things having to do with the corruption of modern life and collapse of Western civilization that do not come into play with either Twain or Crane. Of course, Eliot’s work is heavily ironic, and as we’ll discuss later, everything changes when irony climbs aboard.

You will have noticed in these last pages that I assert meaning for these uses of caves and rivers and symbols with considerable authority, and indeed I have a pretty strong grasp of what they mean—for me. The authority I bring to these readings is that of my own background and experience. I incline, for instance, toward a reading of The Waste Land based on its historical context (a historicist reading, if you will) in which the poem cannot be divorced from the recent war and its aftermath, but not everyone comes at the poem from that angle. Others may approach it chiefly in formal terms or on biographical grounds, as a response to violent personal and marital upheaval. These and many other approaches are not only valid but produce readings of considerable insight; in fact, I have learned a great deal not only about the poem but about my own shortcomings from alternative approaches. One of the pleasures of literary scholarship lies in encountering different and even conflicting interpretations, since the great work allows for a considerable range of possible interpretations. Under no circumstances, in other words, should you take my pronouncements on these works as definitive.

The other problem with symbols is that many readers expect them to be objects and images rather than events or actions. Action can also be symbolic. Robert Frost is probably the champion of the symbolic action, although his uses of it are so sly that resolutely literal readers can miss the symbolic level entirely. In his poem “Mowing” (1913), for instance, the activity of mowing a field with a scythe (which, mercifully, you and I will never have to do) is first and foremost just what it is, a description of sweeping a field clean of standing hay one stroke at a time. We also notice, though, that mowing carries weight beyond its immediate context, seeming to stand in for labor generally, or for the solitary business of living one’s life, or for something else beyond itself. Similarly, the speaker’s account of his recent actions in “After Apple Picking” (1914) suggests a point in life as well as a point in the season, and the memory of picking, from the lingering sense of the swaying ladder and the imprint of the rung on his foot soles to the impression of apples on his retinas, suggests the wear and tear of the activity of living on the psyche. Again, the nonsymbolic thinker can see this as a beautiful evocation of an autumnal moment, which it is and pleasurably so, but there is more than just that going on. It may be a little more obvious with the moment of decision in his “The Road Not Taken” (1916), which is why it is the universal graduation poem, but symbolic action can also be found in poem after poem, from the terrible accident in “Out, Out—” to climbing in “Birches” (1916).

So, what are you to do? You can’t simply say, Well, it’s a river, so it means x, or apple picking, so it means y. On the other hand, you can say this could sometimes mean x or y or even z, so let’s keep that in mind to see which one, if either, happens here. Any past experience of literary rivers or labor may be helpful as well. Then you start breaking down the work at hand into manageable pieces. Associate freely, brainstorm, take notes. Then you can organize your thoughts, grouping them together under headings, rejecting or accepting different ideas or meanings as they seem to apply. Ask questions of the text: what’s the writer doing with this image, this object, this act; what possibilities are suggested by the movement of the narrative or the lyric; and most important, what does it feel like it’s doing? Reading literature is a highly intellectual activity, but it also involves affect and instinct to a large degree. Much of what we think about literature, we feel first. Having instincts, though, doesn’t automatically mean they work at their highest level. Dogs are instinctual swimmers, but not every pup hits the water understanding what to do with that instinct. Reading is like that, too. The more you exercise the symbolic imagination, the better and quicker it works. We tend to give writers all the credit, but reading is also an event of the imagination; our creativity, our inventiveness, encounters those of the writer, and in that meeting we puzzle out what she means, what we understand her to mean, what uses we can put her writing to. Imagination isn’t fantasy. That is to say, we can’t simply invent meaning without the writer, or if we can, we ought not to hold her to it. Rather, a reader’s imagination is the act of one creative intelligence engaging another.

So engage that other creative intelligence. Listen to your instincts. Pay attention to what you feel about the text. It probably means something.