I wish authors would write study guides!

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Question suggested by Barbara H:

My husband is not an avid reader, and he used to get very frustrated in college when teachers would insist discussing symbolism in a literary work when there didn’t seem to him to be any. He felt that writers often just wrote the story for the story’s sake and other people read symbolism into it.

It does seem like modern fiction just “tells the story” without much symbolism. Is symbolism an older literary device, like excessive description, that is not used much any more? Do you think there was as much symbolism as English teachers seemed to think? What are some examples of symbolism from your reading?

I agree, English teachers often read far more into a book than the author ever intended to put across. I am sometimes baffled by the detail we are supposed to to obtain from single sentences in books. I cannot believe that the author spent that many hours thinking of all of the different connotations that could be gained from their choice of words on each page.

This was confirmed to me on reading the insightful autobiography of Amy Tan, The Opposite of Fate. I love Amy Tan’s book, and they are now frequently studied in American schools. In The Opposite of Fate Amy Tan describes how she was interested to read some of the study guides for her novels, and how they were filled with symbolism which she never intended to be there. I wish I had a copy here to give you some examples, but unfortunately I don’t so you’ll have to read it for yourself! If you’re a fan of Amy Tan, then you will love it, although it will probably lost on you if you don’t know the plots of her books.

Edited to add: Kim kindly found me this quote from The Opposite of Fate:

In page after chilling page, I saw my book had been hacked apart, autopsied, and permanently embalmed into chapter-by-chapter blow-by-blows:plot summaries, geneaology charts, and — ay-ya! — even Chinese horoscopes.

It sums up exactly what I was trying to get across – Thank you Kim!

I recently read the Cliffs Notes study guide for Beloved by Toni Morrison, and was shocked by the number of things you can supposedly draw from the text. For example, the family live at 124 Bluestone Road. Can anyone who has read the book guess as to what this might symbolise?

Apparently it can be taken to symbolise three things:

  • The number 124 apparently “emphasizes the incompleteness of the family”. The number 3 is missing from the sequence, just as Sethe’s third child is missing from the family.
  • The numbers 1 + 2 + 4 = 7,  the number of letters on Beloved’s headstone.
  • The joining of Sethe (1) with Halle (2)  leads to four children (4)        1 – 2 – 4

I can almost understand that the first example could have been intentional by the author, but the second two just seem a bit far fetched, and even if they were written intentionally by the author, are we, the readers expected to pick up on these things without having to read a study guide?

I would love to know which symbolism Toni Morrison intended to be present in her book. I love reading, but normally only read for the enjoyment of the story. I don’t seek out symbolism, and in most cases it passes me by. For this reason I would love all authors who place symbolism in their novels to write a study guide for their books, so we can clearly see all the clues which were intentionally placed there. If they put the effort of adding symbolism into their books, then wouldn’t they like to have all their hard work appreciated by the every day reader, who doesn’t want to spend hours re-reading each word slowly, searching for hidden meanings?

I urge all authors to summarise the main points they were trying to get across to us in an extra chapter at the end of their book, or on their website. That way we will be able to fully appreciate their message, and not be mislead by the authors of study guides who read far to much into everything!

What do you think? Do you think most study guides are fully of random thoughts which the author did not intend?

Do you ever spot symbolism in books?  Do you like it?

I’d love to know your opinions!

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  1. Liyana says:

    I do spot symbolisms, but only because I took Literature a few years ago. It’s quite fun to spot symbolisms and read more into a story sometimes. The most obvious symbolism is the one that’s hiding in plain sight.

  2. Jackie says:

    Liyana – Thank you for taking the time to comment on my blog. I guess that taking Literature helps a lot. I studied chemistry at university, so that is probably why I’m not very good at that sort of thing. I think I’d like to take a course in litereature one day, so I can see what I’m missing out on.

  3. Bluestocking says:

    LOL! I know what you mean. But part of the filun of reading is interpreting all kinds of things into the text. Here is mine

  4. Now I think Beloved is spoiled for me forever!

    And to think I am all for symbolism.


    Symbolism in writing

  5. CoversGirl says:

    Those Cliffs Notes examples sound very … imaginative. I should think that writing a novel would take a very, very long time if authors worked that amount of meaning into everything.

    I rarely spot symbolism and don’t look for it, but a website summary of the author’s intentions would be interesting to read. Another good idea would be for writers of study guides to ask the author a few questions! After all, they know the book better than anyone else could.

  6. Jackie says:

    Bluestocking – Yes, it can be great fun to add extra meaning int some things – I’m off to have a look at your BTT.

    gautami tripathy – Have you read Beloved? It is packed with symbolism, so much so that I don’t think it can be appreciated with just a single reading. I didn’t really like it when I finished it, but after reading about it I had a much better understanding of it, and actually think it is a great piece of litereature now. I have to admit that I can never look at the number 124 again without thinking of missing children!

    CoversGirl – Thank you for visiting my blog! I think you make a great point, and it would actually make the study guides much more saleable. So many ‘normal’ readers would buy the study guide if they knew that the author had made some contribution towards writing it.

  7. Margot says:

    I am in total agreement with you. I read because of the strength of the story. I don’t want to slow down and search for hidden meanings. If the story is very good and makes me think about it, then I may ask myself the deeper questions. Therefore I join with you in calling on authors to publish study guides if they want us to see something hidden in the story. Good post. No opposing viewpoint from me.

  8. Matthew says:

    Excellent answer, Jackie!

    I think only careful, meticulous readers could read into these symbols. In most cases, readers would understand the story without fully grabbing the symbols, but the level of appreciation would be compromised. Toni Morrison would be the prime example. Not all books are endowed with layers of meaning and implications, but symbolism can be a great device to describe things that are very intangible, like death. Symbols can also be very subjective entities. Sometimes I cannot read into any symbols in a book just simply because I lack the personal experience that would put me in tune to the author’s meaning.

    By the way, I alluded to Beloved as well. The house 124 is highly symbolic throughout the book.

  9. Simon S says:

    Really really good answer Jackie, I wish I had thought of this hahaha. I love reading some authors books about their books, Atwood and King are very good at this. Having met a few authors I know they have lots of meanings behind words but they also just want to write a good story that people will escape with and enjoy.

  10. Heather says:

    It seems like more and more that publishing houses are going this way (and I think they work in concert with the authors, at least to some degree) to develop discussion guides which can serve as a compass for what the intended meaning(s) of the book were. Mostly I’ve been finding these on the publisher’s websites.

  11. Jackie says:

    Heather – It’s great to hear that publishing houses are planning to do this in the future. I have never seen anything like this before. Perhaps I’m reading the wrong books, but apart from a few author interviews I haven’t seen any analysis of books and their intended meanings written by the author.

    Has anyone else come across anything like this?

  12. Jen says:

    I think the question is though – how many authors actually would be able to write study guides for their own books? Do authors really remember what they were thinking when they wrote the book enough to write a study guide for it? Sure they might have had something in mind when they wrote it, but I think in the end the reader comes up with a lot more than the author ever intended.

  13. Jackie says:

    Simon – I haven’t read an Atwood book about her books, perhaps I’ll read a few more of her novels, and then try to find one, maybe then I’ll have a greater appreciation for her work.

  14. Jackie says:

    Matthew – I agree, it is almost impossible to appreciate Toni Morrison’s work without understanding the symbolism. When I finished reading Beloved I didn’t like it at all, it was only after thinking about it for a few weeks, reading up about it, and studying the guides/notes that I came to realise how powerful it is. I have a much better understanding of it now, and would write a very different review for it if I had the time to do it.
    Thank you for your thoughtful comment!

  15. Jackie says:

    Jen – I would have thought that with the help of the study guide publishers they could join forces to produce an excellent book. The author would then gain the extra money from the sale of the guides, the guides would be more accurate, and readers would have a better understanding of the messages the author was trying to convey. Win – win – win!!!!

    PS. Thank you for taking the time to leave your first comment on my blog – I really appreciate new visitors!

  16. Sandy says:

    Sorry…I’m late today. Crazy day, and now I just want to collapse. Anyway, I was not well schooled in the art of deciphering subtle symbolism. I love it when it smacks me upside the head, but if I have to work that hard to figure it out, I’m not sure I’m interested. I have read Cliffsnotes on a couple of classics (Wuthering Heights, Pride & Prejudice) just to make sure I was getting it.

  17. Kim says:

    This is so interesting and such a coincidence, as I have just picked up Amy Tan’s “The Opposite Of Fate” for a re-read!
    She is very funny, especially when she talks about this topic of symbolism and the shock she felt when reading CliffsNotes of “The Joy Luck Club”. I thought you might enjoy this sentence as you no longer have a copy of the book:
    “In page after chilling page, I saw my book had been hacked apart, autopsied, and permanently embalmed into chapter-by-chapter blow-by-blows:plot summaries, geneaology charts, and — ay-ya! — even Chinese horoscopes.”
    I, too, love Amy Tan’s work and this book, in particular, is excellent. Have you read “Saving Fish From Drowning”? – I’d love to know what you think of it, if you have.
    I don’t think some authors do put the symbolism into their work that reviewers then credit to it and that some writers are more inclined to fill their work with lots of symbolism, whilst others not so much.
    I often miss symbolism, if I am honest. First time this happened was when I read an essay on Othello, which postulated that Iago was homosexual and was in love with Othello. This argument was then supported by examples of the symbolism in the play which pointed it out – Didn’t see it myself, but then, what do I know??

  18. Jackie says:

    Sandy – I haven’t read any notes about Wuthering Heights yet. Do you gain anything from reading them?

    Kim – Thank you so much for adding the quote! That is just what I was looking for!

    Yes, I have read “Saving Fish From Drowning” and was a bit disappointed with it. It is her weakest book by far. It was a departure for her, in that it didn’t really contain much Chinese folklore. It also had far too many characters, and long descriptions of what happened to every single one of them for the rest of their lives. I gave it 3/5, so I’m afraid I don’t recommend it at all.

  19. Rebecca Reid says:

    I like symbolism – -which is one reason I loved Beloved: while the numbers might not mean what you say, it’s fun to find connections all the same. Morrison liked symbolism, I think!

  20. Beth F says:

    I pretty much gave up on English classes because of symbolism. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. On the other hand, sometimes when reading a book I see something in it that is symbolic for me — I like discovering things like that, whether the author meant it or not. But I wouldn’t go shoving it down people’s throats and telling them that they didn’t understand the book if they didn’t understand what 124 meant. Jeeze.

  21. Dorte H says:

    I am an English teacher, and of course I find symbolism in some texts. But only when it´s there, I trust, and certainly not in factual information like this “the family live at 124 Bluestone Road”.

    When a short story has three short, discrete references to Cinderella, however, and we meet a great old lady who has an encounter with a man behind her prudish daughter´s back, I do see symbols. And I do try to make my students see them too :)

  22. Jackie says:

    Beth – I agree, words mean different things to everyone. I hate to think how many times I’ve just assumed a cigar is a cigar! I’m sure that even after reading the study guide I haven’t picked up on a lot of the symbolism in Beloved, but I don’t mind. Life is too short to read the same book over and over again!

    Rebecca – I think Toni Morrison loves symbolism too! I’ve been reading some of her interviews on the internet today. She is so interesting, it has inspired me to read a few more of her books.

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