Symbol, levels of

Symbol, levels of - All of our metaphorical ways of relating to aspects within and outside of stories are symbolic: They assume that we can hold in our heads some idea or image which stands in place of some other idea or thing.

Symbolic ideas and images represent other ideas and images—letting us write about the search for meaning in life (Moby-Dick), the search for America’s place in history (Moby-DickHuck Finn), the search for freedom in society (Moby-DickHuck Finn1984), etc.

Symbols are basic building blocks of meaning in literature. One way in which we can describe fiction is by placing it approximately in either the symbolic or realist mode. Stories in the symbolic mode, like Melville’s great whale-tale, use lots of symbols; everything in the book—people, places, smaller stories—stands for something else, at least in some way. Devices like metaphor and conceit clue us into this symbolic aspect of the story (and, here, the allegorical aspect, since many—though not all—elements have a straightforward, one-to-one correlation with some other, mythological element). Stories in the realistic or representational mode, like Hemingway’s or David Sedaris’, show real life using few metaphorical devices, few symbols.

Not all symbols have answers that can be explicated. In fact, the best, most powerful symbols often have so many other ideas associated with them that we can keep talking about what they “mean” or “represent” forever. Moby-Dick, the whale himself, is one of these symbols, as is his whiteness, as is the sea in the book Moby-Dick, as is Ahab’s “monomania.” In the works of Franz Kafka, the Castle, the Law, and the Father are three enormous symbols whose meanings are still debated, every day, by readers all over the world

These are highest-level symbols. There is no one “right” interpretation of them. Books and college classes can be taught around them as long as people read English-language novels.

To use an analogy, a type of logical metaphor:

Moby-Dick : symbolism :: real life : realism.

You can’t get more “real” than real life. And it’s hard to find another book more symbolic—full of ideas and counter-ideas—than Moby-Dick.

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