Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Importance of Symbols

If a hammer and nails are a carpenter's bread of life, symbols are the same for a literature teacher or writer. How often I have heard students say, "I don't believe all this symbol stuff.  Do you really think writers purposely use symbols?"  And my answers are "Too bad" and "Yes."

We experience symbols throughout our lives and occasionally live in the moment, recognizing those symbols with an emotional reaction: repeating wedding vows as a commitment of love revisited, planning an event on a special occasion that we want to remember, recognizing objects or photos of those we have loved and perhaps lost.

Symbols are part of our lives and sometimes elicit an overwhelming emotion.  In my own experience I find some church hymns emotionally connect me to my faith and remind me of songs I shared years ago with my parents and grandparents.  Lots of emotional reaction there!

Writers use symbols, especially Christian ones in the Western world, to connect to readers in an emotional way.  Some symbols are more obvious than others, such as the scarlet letter in the book of the same title.  Others are more subtle--think of the amazing multitude of symbols in the Harry Potter books.

I wasn't thinking about symbols as I watched NBC Nightly News yesterday.  Recently a huge symbol--the One World Trade Center building--is rising over the other skyscrapers of New York City. It just overtook the top of the Empire State Building to become the tallest building in New York and the third tallest in the western hemisphere. Some of the workers and visitors were there on 9/11, a date fraught with symbolism for us all, but particularly for those who lost loved ones.

The amazing vista from the top--and a person has to climb stairs on the outside of the building to reach the current top, over 1,000 feet high--is vast and imposing, a panorama of modern urban life in the 21st century.

photo from
As one of the workers interviewed stated:  "There is a lot of emotion in this building."  That is particularly true since the iron workers are raising beams each day that have peoples' names scrawled on them by hand, naming the names of those who died on 9/11 and leaving messages about them.  These will become a part of this building of iron and concrete, in itself a symbol of strength and endurance.

photo from

But what brought my emotional reaction were the words of Harry Smith who said that when the building is finished it will be 1776 feet tall, a number that has symbolic meaning to all of us who call ourselves "Americans."


  1. I so agree! I realized that was a more engrained symbol for me when I heard the number of stories -- that eliciting the most emotional response. (My husband and I watch the movie version of 1776 every July 4th, every year for the last decade.)

    Also, for a few years before my husband and I got married, we wondered if we really needed to -- get married, that is. After we had done so, I realized that we really did. Going through the ritual embued with all the iconic symbols, the rings, etc, made a deep impact, unexplainable in a way and unexpected, but it did make a difference.

    We need symbols. We need to put up the Christmas tree (or whatever it is) every year. And literature helps us to recongnize that need whenever we get lost.

    I was so thrilled that you mentioned Harry Potter -- what I think of as todays mythology in a way (and borrowing from all the mythologies of the past as is traditional, I think....) When I first read the first book and Harry and Ron celebrate this intimate first Christmas together at Hogwarts, it renewed in me a love for the holiday -- not that I ever disliked it or anything like that -- it just reminded my spirit of the wonder, the beauty, the joy.... and she (Rowling) did that with symbols.

  2. I could not have said this any better, Paula. Thanks for reminding me that symbols are also very personal and your examples bring that reminder to the discussion too. We do need symbols. They remind us of who we are and keep us in touch with our various cultures, religions, histories, and literature.

  3. Thank You for this and for reminding me of the quaint (read positive) beauty of Monmouth -- and the resource that the library there is! (I've tried to do online research about the airport and not been especially successful).

    I'm so excited to delve into this mystery!

    Also, (how embarrassing when conversing with my HS English teacher!) is 'unexplainable' a word? Inexplicable, rather... sigh.

  4. Yes, "unexplainable" is indeed a word.