The Three Types of Symbolism

Ah, symbolism. A key to understanding texts. Also immensely irritating, and an excellent way to alienate keen readers from the close reading of texts.

I’ve learned to appreciate a good symbol, but it wasn’t always thus. Pretty sure I snorted in recognition when the following meme was first doing the rounds:

what-the-author-meant-what-your-english-teacher-thinks-the-author-meant

I also really despise this meme. “What the author meant” is not an interesting question. Any English teacher worth their salt isn’t going to ask anyone that question. You get what you get out of a text, you back it up with examples, you connect it to your own experience of life.

But what the author meant? Uninteresting and irrelevant. Any story is a collaboration between a storyteller and their audience. A good storyteller will expect intelligence. They will expect an audience to contribute their own meaning.

A good storyteller will likely make use of universal symbols, and perhaps create their own temporary symbols, to be used across the story at hand. These ‘temporary symbols’ are known as motifs. In that post I talk about different types of motifs. Motifs are a subcategory of symbol.

But it’s worth breaking down the different types of symbol as well. I like Erich Fromm’s categorisation. I don’t know if this is Fromm’s own terminology or if it originally comes from elsewhere, but he uses these three categories of symbol it in his book The Forgotten Language.

ERICH FROMM’S THREE TYPES OF SYMBOL

The Conventional Symbol

The best known of the three.

The word ‘table’ stands for a piece of furniture with four legs and a flat top. There is no inherent relationship between the object and the word ‘table’. (Or between the signifier and the signified, in the language of semiotics.) English speakers simply agree, by convention, that the word ‘table’ refers to that particular piece of furniture.

In short, the thing table has nothing to do with the sound ‘table’. Apart from onomatopoeia and mimesis, human language works via conventional symbols.

Pictures can also be conventional symbols e.g. flags. Flags do have a story behind them, but their design is ultimately a convention, especially since most people don’t know the stories behind flags of countries (unless it’s our own).

The Accidental Symbol

This is the opposite of a conventional symbol in that it is based on individual experience, but again there is no intrinsic relationship between the symbol and that which it symbolises.

If someone has a horrible experience in a certain place they will learn to connect the name of the place with negative emotions. A word from psychology has in recent years hit mainstream in relation to the language of trauma — accidental symbols which provoke a strong negative memory are known as triggers.

In contrast to the conventional symbol, the accidental symbol cannot be shared by anyone else except as we relate the events connected with the symbol. For this reason accidental symbols are rarely used in myths, fairy tales, or works of art written in symbolic language because they are not communicable unless the writer adds a lengthy comment to each symbol they use. In dreams, however, accidental symbols are frequent.

— Erich Fromm

The Universal Symbol

In a universal symbol there is an intrinsic relationship between the symbol and that which it represents. The universal symbol is probably what your English teacher is talking about when close reading a text. 

Universal symbols, as the label suggests, are understood across time and culture. This is because universal symbols link the external world to the internal, sensory one. Emotions and sensory experiences endure. Stories heavy in universal symbolism also endure.

Fromm offers ‘the outskirts of a city’ as an example of a universal symbol. No matter where you grew up, if you find yourself alone on the outskirts of a city, the emotions you experience are probably the following: desertion, strangeness, the mood of lostness and anxiety.

Fromm also offers the example of fire — a symbol of power, energy, grace and lightness, but also of the related sensory experience.

These days I love a good universal symbol myself. As evidence I offer:

Regarding Fromm’s categorisation, I have reservations about categories in general because many things exist along spectrums. But it’s still a useful starting point.

PROBLEMS WITH ANALYSING SYMBOLISM IN ENGLISH CLASS

As Erich Fromm says:

A symbol is often defined as “something that stands for something else.” This definition seems rather disappointing.

If we leave our definition at that, we won’t be saying anything insightful.

Instead, let’s go one step further:

It becomes more interesting, however, if we concern ourselves with those symbols which are sensory expressions of seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, standing for a “something else” which is an inner experience, a feeling or thought. A symbol of this kind is something outside ourselves; that which it symbolizes is something inside ourselves. … The world outside is a symbol of the world inside, a symbol for our souls and our minds.

In the ‘blue curtains’ meme above, the hypothetical English teacher is clearly talking about the concept of the universal symbol and how it applies to the inner, human experience.

But when taken completely out of context, the ‘blue’ may instead be what James Wood calls ‘off-duty detail’.

We shouldn’t mistake off-duty detail for universal symbolism. Nor should we dismiss the concept of symbolism outright. It’s not woo-woo. It’s not idiosyncratic. Your English teacher isn’t making this stuff up as they go along. These symbols are as old as storytelling itself, and as universal as the formulas of trigonometry.

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Header photo by Aryan Singh

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