The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Too Stupid for Symbolism: A Critique of Literary Criticism

Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

ImageBack when I was about 13, a relative bought me the boxed set of The Chronicles of Narnia for Christmas.  I read the books and I was captivated by them.  The books follow Narnia from its creation to its destruction—and yes, I cried like a baby at the end of The Last Battle

Years later, I was talking about my favorite childhood books to a friend—someone who knew I was a hard-core agnostic who hadn’t been to religious services more than five times in my entire life—and asked how I could like them, what with all the religious symbolism.  “Religious symbolism?” I replied, “What religious symbolism?”   As it turns out, all those years I had been missing Lewis’ point.

I’ve taken a lot of English classes in my life, and every single one of them has insisted on dissecting literary pieces within an inch of their lives.  And in spite of years of extensive reading and a fairly decent knowledge of the world around me, nine times out of ten I totally miss the alleged symbolism.  So I started to wonder: am I just too stupid for symbolism?

Back in college, I took a literary criticism class.  We learned a form of critique called “New Criticism,” which involved  breaking apart poetry and dissecting its meaning based on changes in rhythm, stress patterns, and rhyme scheme.  I don’t remember much more about it, except that it reminded me of something that came out of that school in Dead Poets Society, before Robin Williams came along.  I also remember one day having a class discussion about a piece—and for the life of me, I no longer remember what it was—and the instructor asked us what we thought it meant.  I raised my hand, along with several of my classmates.  The instructor called on someone, and he said that he thought the poem was about God, and the instructor agreed.  Maybe you can chalk this one up to my religious upbringing again, but I had thought the poem was about communism!

I have no problem reading multi-faceted interpretations into a piece of literature.  What I have a problem with is the idea that there is one right way to interpret a piece of literature.  Furthermore, is it necessary to understand a piece of literature on both a literal and a symbolic level?  When I read The Chronicles of Narnia as an adolescent, I didn’t understand the religious allegory behind it.  Does that mean that I enjoyed the stories less?  No, of course not.   What aggravates me is the idea that there’s only one “right” way to read a piece of literature.  Yet for some reason, in many literary circles, that idea still persists.

I’m a big believer in the idea that, once a piece of writing leaves the author’s hands, it’s up to the readers to interpret it as they will, to bring into it their own world views and life experiences.  So if some people choose to look at the Narnia universe as Christian allegory, fantastic.  I just don’t look at it that way.

Or maybe the joke is on all of us.  Maybe we, as readers, just keep trying to interpret meaning where there isn’t any.  Then it becomes a vicious cycle: people expect symbolism, so everyone keeps trying to see it to avoid sounding stupid, and as of yet nobody has called us on it.  It reminds me of another story: The Emperor’s New Clothes.

Of course, I could just be misinterpreting the symbolism.

Selected Book Releases, January 4-10

January 4

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
by Daniel H. Pink

A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation
by Daniel Menaker
Beneath the Lion’s Gaze: A Novel
by Maaza Mengiste

January 5

by Elizabeth Gilbert
Impact by Douglas Preston

Noah’s Compass by Anne Tyler

Not My Daughter by Barbara Delinsky

Stephenie Meyer: The Unauthorized Biography of the Creator of the Twilight Saga by Marc Shapiro

I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay
by John Lanchester

The Five Greatest Warriors: A Novel by Matthew Reilly

Guilty Pleasure by Lora Leigh

Remarkable Creatures
by Tracy Chevalier

An Irish Country Girl by Patrick Taylor

Homeland: An Extraordinary Story of Hope and Surviva
l by George Obama

Iron River by T. Jefferson Parker

All Things at Once by Mika Brzezinski

Outstanding!:  47 Ways to Make Your Organization Exceptional
by John G. Miller

Roses by Leila Meacham

The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton

Aspire by Kevin Hall

The Rhythm of Success
by Emilio Estefan

Blacklands: A Novel by Belinda Bauer

Snapped by Tracy Brown

The Power of Women by Susan Nolen-Hoeksema

Thereby Hangs a Tail by Spencer Quinn

Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter by A.E. Moorat

The Language of Life
by Francis S. Collins

Hunting Booger Bottom by Michael Waddell and Mike Schoby

The Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Shaw

Moregasm by Claire Cavanah and Rachel Venning

Genuine Lies by Nora Roberts

Sinner Takes All by Tera Patrick

The King and Dr. Nick: What Really Happened to Elvis and Me
by George Nichopoulos with Rose Clayton Phillips

January 7

Freedom by Daniel Suarez