The Importance of Symbolism


Whenever the term “symbolism” comes up in my English class, I hear a collective groan that is normally synonymous with detention or the suggestion of a looming research paper due date. My seniors tend to get over it once I force them to read a novel and create their own symbol to represent it, but in the meantime, getting “buy in” for this concept during a guided reading is like performing a root canal while deep sea diving the Mariana Trench. My classes can walk the grounds of Old Main, and I can point out different images that may signify something, but the effect is seldom much better.

If we watch a film together, however, the students instantly and innately grasp symbolism. I’m beginning to wonder if this visual-spacial requirement has to do with all the technology of our postmodern age, or if it smacks of this generation’s lack of connection with the self.

Or maybe they’re just hormonal teenagers that aren’t ready to consider that a tree entirely dead on just one side represents duality and dichotomy.

Half Dead Tree

Jumping to that conclusion is easy until I have the dream conversation with them. This usually happens after we’ve read Conrad or Hawthorne or have discussed Palahniuk. (Yes, I teach Palahniuk. Bite me.) Nearly everything we dream is symbolic, and as our dreams are the playground of our unconscious minds, symbolism must then be deeply couched in what makes us individuals. It’s only when we consider this connection that we can understand how grasping this “English trope” truly enhances and affects our lives.


This morning, after three days of rain (something we don’t get much of in my part of Arizona) and no sign of it letting up, I decided to go for a run (something I don’t usually do). This would just be insanity if I didn’t understand the rejuvenating aspects of water, or the concept of symbolic baptism that I’m always explaining when we discuss The Count of Monte Cristo. I was one with my body and nature, which is a pretty big deal for Captain Cyberspace here. None of the things that have been bothering me lately mattered.

I was clean, empty, free.

At least I was until I had to get into my car and realized that it looked like something from an episode of Hoarders. With symbolism in mind, I began to wonder if this cluttered death trap did not represent me in some way. They say a master of symbology can walk into a person’s bathroom, take a gander, and tell everything there is to know about him or her.

As someone who considers himself pretty adept at reading signs, I decided my car represented all the baggage, the proverbial “junk in the trunk” I’ve been carrying around. So I cleaned it all out. I had basically given up on it after the kids destroyed the upholstery, but it really isn’t so bad. Driving it like that had been getting me down, but it wasn’t until I realized that I was still connected to the rolling junkyard that I had the motivation to do something about it.


These sunrises I’ve come to take for granted living in the Southwest? They mean something too.

I want to say to my students that they’re living the most epic movie they will ever see–life. Each of them is a main character, and just because life isn’t scripted doesn’t mean that the images that dominate our lives don’t contain some deeper meaning. Reading literature isn’t just about literacy; it’s about learning how to live. I want to say these things, but this is what makes me “the eccentric weirdo”. Sometimes, especially lately with the Common Core Standards cramping my style, I feel like I’m surrounded by an army of Gertrude Steins. They chant their insipid mantra, “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose! A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose!”


Really? Is that all you see?

I see love, life, romance, vigor, the heart’s true bloom. I see passion and innocence juxtaposed within Nature, which enables us to understand human nature. I see something as delicate and evanescent as a dream. I see everything that makes life worth living.

I see beauty.

Keats wrote, “Beauty is truth, and truth beauty–that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

When one understands symbolism, the beauty of the world is not merely skin deep. Decode, decode, decode! Smell the roses. Watch the sunrise. Dance in the rain. Clean your hoardermobile.

We could all use a little more beauty, a little more truth.


Filed under Education, Family, Rants, Reading, Writing

13 responses to “The Importance of Symbolism

  1. Boy, that hits home. I drive a bright orange Suzuki Reno hatchback that is festooned with various zombie decals and magnets, including window clings on the interior rear passenger side window of dripping bloody handprints that started out red and are now faded to a ghastly white (as well are now permanently bonded to the window thanks to constant exposure to direct sunlight). My backseat under normal circumstances looks post-apocalyptic. If I was farther south I’d just rent it out to the producers of Walking Dead and save the prop guys the hassle of dressing it. In a couple years when I trade that in some kid is going to think it’s the most awesome thing ever.

    ” Yes, I teach Palahniuk. ” Thumbs up. I just finished up the audio version of Damned last week. Pretty sure that one more outburst of manicial laughter at the stoplights and I was going to get pulled over. I will never look at popcorn balls the same way again.


    • I think your zombiemobile sounds cool compared to my death trap with no radio, a glove box secured by bungee cord, and a window that I had to rig to the inside of the door using caveman engineering (literally a rock and stick) because I won’t pay $600 to have the regulator replaced. When I trade that sucker in, the dealer is going wonder what the hell is banging around the inside of the frame and shaking the car at every stoplight.

      I need to get down to your blog and finish reading your el presidente posts. I’ve really been enjoying your work lately. Keep it up, man.


  2. Nergal Enki

    Good Lord, I’ve been keeping up on your posts but nothing has ever struck me as this has.
    I appreciate that there is someone out there still teaching the beauty of the world. Someone who can see more than the physical sight. Someone who is still teaching Palahniuk XD.
    Keep up the great work! And I plan to buy your book soon.


    • Thanks for your kind words. Writing that post was a bit interesting because I did it at my parents’ house with my father eyeballing all the images I was selecting. Without the text, I’m sure he’s wondering what the hell I was up to.

      My school is really pushing for 70% informational text in the classroom. That’s like replacing Shakespeare with my blog -.-

      Be sure to let me know when you read the book. Remember, the cheapest way to get it is directly through the publisher, and the link is at the top of the menu. Happy reading!


  3. TAE

    “Each of them is a main character (…)”
    That’s basically what I tell my good friends when they’re especially downtrodden (especially the ones who are having a “how can I go on without him” moment). I tell them that they are the protagonist, that this is their story, and they have to decide what kind of character they want to be. It’s an empowering thought, and I have found that it puts on pretty much the right amount of pressure for them to straighten their backs.
    I’ve been at that spot, and I found this to be a good motto. It’s not that everybody _does_ live that way, it’s that everybody _can_ if he or she decides to.
    I have to admit that I was the one grunting at symbolism in school. If the reader doesn’t get the symbol the symbol isn’t there, but I agree that one should be open to symbols and find one’s own. It’s a bit like looking at a painting. Everybody finds his or her own truth. But (though I grunted) I think it’s important to open kids’ eyes to symbolism. You’re the enabler of deep and personal interpretation. Kudos.


  4. petit4chocolatier

    Well said!


  5. holdontoyourpants

    Dear Captain Cyberspace,
    This post is fantastic, and absolutely true. I always loved english and writing, but it wasn’t until I spent four years studying Art and Art History that I really began to grasp symbolism- I think it is something that once you start to look for you see in everything, and, as such, you become more perceptive to everything you see around you. Perhaps you should do a lecture on phallic symbolism, seeing as it is everywhere, I am sure your students will become much more heightened to the ‘under-belly of man’.
    Thanks for another great read!


    • You’re very welcome. We’re reading Macbeth right now, and I have to point out things like “the milk of human kindness” and the idea that the witches having beards represents their dominance, but they jumped right on the dagger vs. the sword as phallic symbols and the dagger as a possible representation of impotency.

      I’d like to teach Dracula someday, but that would get me fired…


      • holdontoyourpants

        Aw, come on, Dracula is a great story! Also, “milk of human kindness” is now going to be added to my regular vocabulary.


      • Of course it is. A group of men arguing over who gets to plunge a big, hard shaft of wood into a prone woman until she bleeds and is saved? Classic Victorian porn.


      • holdontoyourpants

        I am sure they will be teaching Twilight in Jr. High English soon enough.. they should be educated on its predecessors (ie: the REAL literature that inspired them) by High School, no?


  6. Pingback: The important of Symbolism | Sıla Güven

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