Birds black as coal

I’ve never been particularly good at symbolism—at least not in my own writing.

When symbolism happens in my stories, it is entirely subconscious. I remember some years ago another writer commented on one of my stories that she was deeply envious of the symbolism I’d pulled off. When she explained it to me, I looked at the story and realized that the repeated symbolic occurrence of pastiche/patchwork was there beginning in the first paragraph and continuing to the final scene. But I hadn’t planned it or even been aware that I was doing it.

Even back in school I always had issues with the notion of symbolism in literature. I remember reading one time that snow is always symbolic of death, so if a birth scene happens during a snowstorm, the scene isn’t about the beginning of a new life, it’s about the inevitability of death. Or it foreshadows a premature death of one of the characters. Or something.

And my immediate thought was, “what if the person just happened to be born in December or January?” I was foolish enough to raise that question in class. I was told not to be ridiculous; literature is totally under control of the writer, so things should never happen due to chance. No good author would set a birth during a snowstorm without meaning to allude to death, you see.

Which seems more than a bit artificial. Sort of like saying that a painter can never use the color yellow except in a painting about joy. Yellow symbolizes joy or delight or summer, right? So an artist can never depict a sad person under a lemon tree? And why does yellow symbolize joy? When a book is very old, the paper pages turn yellow with age. Or someone’s skin turns yellow while experiencing certain health issues. Why can’t yellow symbolize decay?

The answer is that, of course, yellow can symbolize either, depending on how it is used. Or it may not symbolize anything. Sometimes a lemon is just yellow, right?

Similarly, crows and ravens usually are assumed to symbolize death, but in the real world crows can be aggressive, clever, or clownish. I’ve witnessed more than one incident of crows skirmishing with seagulls over the contents of a public trash receptacle. It’s impossible to walk around certain parts of town without witnessing such an occurrence with some frequency. If a story I read mentioned one, it would evoke a lot of memories. Depending on how it was described, it might symbolize petty squabbling between family members, or disproportionate responses, or scarcity of resources. And while death can certainly result from petty disagreements or competition, it doesn’t have to. Crows fight with other birds over dropped food and so forth. It’s just something that happens.

Symbolism can add verisimilitude to a scene or story. The reader doesn’t even have to consciously be aware of the meaning of the symbols in order for them to work. But paying too much attention to them, as either a writer or a reader, can be a distraction.

As an author I can choose the setting, period, and characters of my story. I decide which details to describe, and which to leave unmentioned. But that includes the ability to include details not because they have a traditional literary meaning, but because they sometimes happen in the real world in the setting which I have chosen for the story. I shouldn’t include details that don’t serve the story. However, they should be included only because they serve my story, not in accordance to some academic prescription.

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About fontfolly

I've loved reading for as long as I can remember. I write fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and nonfiction. For more than 20 years I edited and published an anthropomorphic sci-fi/space opera literary fanzine. I attend and work on the staff for several anthropormorphics, anime, and science fiction conventions. I live near Seattle with my wonderful husband, still completely amazed that he puts up with me at all.

2 responses to “Birds black as coal”

  1. indytony says :

    I concur with your assessment. The key to symbolism is to be clear (though a little subtle) and consistent.

    When I saw the tag “12 Days of Christmas” and saw this was about symbolism, I thought you were going to address the debate about whether the details in the song “12 Days of Christmas” were symbols for doctrinal truths taught to persecuted Christians. I touch on this a little in my blog post “The 12 Days of Christmas”

    • fontfolly says :

      This is merely the “4” in my countdown of 12 posts whose titles and topics are inspired by the verses of the 12 Days of Christmas.

      That a number of people believe an urban legend which is transparently false hardly qualifies as a debate. I see no point in dignifying that sort of mistaken notion by devoting a post to it when a link will do.

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