To avoid this question being overly broad, I will connect it to a specific book. In Catcher in the Rye, Holden frequently wonders where the ducks in Central Park go for the winter. When I read the book I felt that this idea made him a more rounded character. It showed he was naive and uninformed, but also that he cares for the well-being of others, especially more vulnerable creatures. Various online sources suggest that the ducks symbolize his desire to protect innocence and/or his fear of change.

But this led me to wonder about symbols in a larger sense. How do we ever know if an author truly intended something as a symbol? And how do we know we are interpreting it as they intended? Couldn't an overly zealous reader point to a bunch of random items in a book like this and call them symbols, to the point of it being ridiculous? Like what if I said that taxicabs symbolize his free will, and the carbonation bubbles in Mr. Antolini's highballs symbolize Holden's ability to keep rising to the surface after being knocked down? And maybe the girl's skates symbolize the cyclical nature of the world? How are these rather absurd "symbols" to be shown less valid than the ducks?

TL;DR Without the author specifically saying that a certain item symbolizes another, what makes some symbolic interpretations more valid than others?


1 Answer 1


There's no simple, definitive formula to answer that question.

Sometimes, occasionally, the author tells us. Like in "The Scarlet Letter", there is a scene where we are told there is a rose bush blooming amidst the austere setting of a prison. This certainly sounds like A Symbol. And indeed the writer than says, "It may serve, let us hope, to symbolize some sweet moral blossom ..."

But usually it's up to the reader to figure it out. I recall many classes in school where the textbook or the teacher found deep and elaborate symbolism in objects or events that I thought were quite straightforward. Sometimes I think the search for symbolism and deep themes by English teachers gets, well, silly. But I suppose someone could reply that no, the symbolism is obvious, and if I don't see it I must just be too uneducated or narrow minded.

It reminds me of an article I once read by the writer Isaac Asimov. He said that he attended a lecture by a professor of philosophy in which, to his surprise, the speaker referred to one of his (Asimov's) books, and found deep symbolism in it. After the lecture he went to talk to the speaker and said that his interpretation of the book was wrong. The speaker insisted he was right. And so, Asimov says, he dropped what he thought was the clincher argument: "I think I know the book. After all, I am the author." To which the lecturer replied, "So you're Mr Asimov? Nice to meet you. But just because you wrote the book, what makes you think you know anything about it?" (Quotes are not exact, quoting from many years old memory.)

  • If a reader or critic finds symbolism in a book, is that symbolism real to the reader or critic whether or not the author indended it? If an author intends a specific few examples of specific symbolism in their story, are those examples always valid symbolism and always the only symbolism in the story, no matter what the reader or critic may think is the symbolism is in the story? Iguess diferent people would give different answers to those questions. Dec 11, 2022 at 17:47
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    @M.A.Golding Perhaps it's a fine point, but I think it depends on how you word it. Like if I said, "Star Wars is an allegory about the struggle between MAGA Republicans and the Democratic Party", I think the straightforward reply would be, "No, it's not." But if someone said, "In the movie Star Wars, I see an analogy to the struggle between" etc, one could only say, "Well, if you see that, okay. I don't." That is, one could make a comparison between a story and some external events. It would then be up to you to justify the comparison, to show that they have enough ..
    – Jay
    Dec 11, 2022 at 21:58
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    ... in common for the comparison to be meaningful. But that would be quite distinct from the author's intent when writing the story. (Of course if a writer intends a story to be an allegory, he could do it badly.) I'd say the "true" meaning of a story is what the author intended, but I suppose one could quibble over that endlessly.
    – Jay
    Dec 11, 2022 at 22:00

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