Famous Novelists on Symbolism in Their Work and Whether It Was Intentional

Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury
Evening Standard, Hulton Archive // Getty Images

It was 1963, and 16-year-old Bruce McAllister was sick of symbol-hunting in English class. Rather than quarrel with his teacher, he went straight to the source: McAllister mailed a crude, four-question survey to 150 novelists, asking if they intentionally planted symbolism in their work. Seventy-five authors responded. Here’s what 12 of them had to say. (Copies of the survey responses can be found at the Paris Review.)

McAllister's Letter

“My definition of symbolism as used in this questionnaire is represented by this example: In The Scarlet Letter there are four major characters. Some say that Hawthorne meant those four to be Nature, Religion, Science or other similar symbols in disguise. They apply the actions of the four in the story to what is presently happening or will happen to Nature, Religion, Science, etc.”

Ayn Rand: “This is not a ‘definition,’ it is not true—and therefore, your questions do not make sense.”

MacKinlay Kantor: “Nonsense, young man, write your own research paper. Don’t expect others to do the work for you.”

Question 1

“Do you consciously, intentionally plan and place symbolism in your writing?... If yes, please state your method for doing so. Do you feel you sub-consciously place symbolism in your writing?”

Jack Kerouac: "No."

Isaac Asimov: “Consciously? Heavens, no! Unconsciously? How can one avoid it?”

Joseph Heller: “Yes, I do intentionally rely on symbolism in my writing, but not to the extent that many people have stated…No, I do not subconsciously place symbolism in my writing, although there are inevitably many occasions when events acquire a meaning additional to the one originally intended.”

Ray Bradbury: “No, I never consciously place symbolism in my writing. That would be a self-conscious exercise and self-consciousness is defeating to any creative act. Better to let the subconscious do the work for you, and get out of the way. The best symbolism is always unsuspected and natural."

John Updike: “Yes—I have no method; there is no method in writing fiction; you don’t seem to understand.”

Norman Mailer: “I’m not sure it’s a good idea for a working novelist to concern himself too much with the technical aspects of the matter. Generally, the best symbols in a novel are those you become aware of only after you finish the work.”

Ralph Ellison: “Symbolism arises out of action…Once a writer is conscious of the implicit symbolism which arises in the course of a narrative, he may take advantage of them and manipulate them consciously as a further resource of his art. Symbols which are imposed upon fiction from the outside tend to leave the reader dissatisfied by making him aware that something extraneous is added.”

Saul Bellow: “A ‘symbol’ grows in its own way, out of the facts.”

Richard Hughes: “[Consciously?] No. [Subconsciously?] Probably yes. After all, to a lesser extent, the same is true of our daily conversation—in fact, of everything we think and say and do.”

Question 2

“Do readers ever infer that there is symbolism in your writing where you had not intended it to be? If so, what is your feeling about this type of inference? (Humorous? annoying? etc.?)”

Ray Bradbury:

Ralph Ellison: “Yes, readers often infer that there is symbolism in my work, which I do not intend. My reaction is sometimes annoyance. It is sometimes humorous. It is sometimes even pleasant, indicating that the reader’s mind has collaborated in a creative way with what I have written.”

Saul Bellow: “They most certainly do. Symbol-hunting is absurd.”

Joseph Heller: “This happens often, and in every case there is good reason for the inference; in many cases, I have been able to learn something about my own book, for readers have seen much in the book that is there, although I was not aware of it being there.”

John Updike: “Once in a while—usually they do not (see the) symbols that are there.”

Jack Kerouac: “Both, depending how busy I am.”

Questions 3

“Do you feel that the great writers of classics consciously, intentionally planned and placed symbols in their writing? ... Do you feel that they placed it there sub-consciously?”

John Updike:

[“Some of them did (Joyce, Dante) more than others (Homer) but it is impossible to think of any significant work of narrative art without a symbolic dimension of some sort.”]

Ray Bradbury: “This is a question you must research yourself.”

Joseph Heller: “The more sophisticated the writer, I would guess, the smaller the use of symbols in the strictest sense and the greater the attempt to achieve the effects of symbolism in more subtle ways. “

Ralph Ellison: “Man is a symbol-making and –using animal. Language itself is a symbolic form of communication. The great writers all used symbols as a means of controlling the form of their fiction. Some place it there subconsciously, discovered it and then developed it. Others started out consciously aware and in some instances shaped the fiction to the symbols.”

Jack Kerouac: “Come off of it—there are all kinds of ‘classics’—Sterne used no symbolism, Joyce did.”

Question 4

"Do you have anything to remark concerning the subject under study, or anything you believe to be pertinent to such a study?"

Richard Hughes:

[“Have you considered the extent to which subconscious symbol-making is part of the process of reading, quite distinct from its part in writing?”]

Jack Kerouac: “Symbolism is alright in ‘fiction’ but I tell true life stories simply about what happened to people I knew.”

John Updike: “It would be better for you to do your own thinking on this sort of thing.”

Iris Murdoch: “There is much more symbolism in ordinary life than some critics seem to realize.”

Ray Bradbury: “Not much to say except to warn you not to get too serious about all this, if you want to become a writer of fiction in the future. If you intend to become a critic, that is a Whale of another color…Playing around with symbols, even as a critic, can be a kind of kiddish parlor game. A little of it goes a long way. There are other things of greater value in any novel or story…humanity, character analysis, truth on other levels…Good symbolism should be as natural as breathing…and as unobtrusive.”

* * *

In case you were wondering, McAllister eventually became an English professor.

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Watch 10 Celebrities Read Edgar Allan Poe’s "The Raven"

by James Carling, Urbancanvas // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
by James Carling, Urbancanvas // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven,” published in 1845, has been inspiring fellow artists for nearly 175 years. From Christopher Walken to Neil Gaiman, here are 10 celebrities putting their own spin on Poe's iconic verses.

1. Neil Gaiman

Literary wunderkind Neil Gaiman is putting his love of all things creepy to good use this year by teaming up with Worldbuilders—a self-described "geek-centered nonprofit supporting humanitarian efforts worldwide"—to assist their group in their fundraising efforts by staging his own candelit reading of Edgar Allan Poe's classic poem.  

2. Christopher Walken

Everyone does a Christopher Walken impression, but rarely do they come close to matching the unique inflection of the real deal. For the Poe tribute album Closed on Account of Rabies (1997), Walken recited the classic narrative poem as various haunting sound effects moaned and whistled in the background.

3. James Earl Jones

There are very few actors whose voices are as iconic as James Earl Jones's. From Darth Vader in the Star Wars films to Mufasa in The Lion King, you always know when the veteran thespian—who had a stutter as a child—is behind a character because of the deep, theatrical boom of his voice.

4. Vincent Price

The legendary actor—and the creepy voice in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”—needs no introduction to horror fans (or to those who remember the old Tilex mildew remover commercials). The clip above isn't the only time that Price was recorded reciting Poe’s poetry. If you want more, check out the hour-long Halloween special An Evening Of Edgar Allan Poe (1970), during which Price reads “The Tell-Tale Heart,” "The Sphinx," "The Cask of Amontillado," and "The Pit and the Pendulum."

5. Sir Christopher Lee

Known to younger generations as the actor who played Saruman in The Lord of the Rings franchise, the late Christopher Lee has more than 270 acting credits to his name, dating all the way back to the mid-1940s. Of those credits, Lee has lent his skills and voice to numerous legendary characters, including Hamlet, Sherlock Holmes, and Dracula several times over.

6. Stan Lee

If Stan Lee hadn't gone into comics, he could very well have been a voice actor—at least based on his 2008 reading of "The Raven," a poem he said he at one point had memorized.

7. William Shatner

To the world, William Shatner will always be Captain Kirk. The character is so closely tied to the actor’s personality that it’s hard not to see them as the same person, which makes it harder to watch—or take seriously—a young Shatner reciting “The Raven” on stage during Dick Clark’s Magical, Musical Halloween (1983).

8. John Astin

Known primarily for the role of Gomez Addams in the television show The Addams Family, John Astin’s eyes and mustache add to the creepiness (and unintentional humor) of his dramatic reading of "The Raven," as he stands in full costume.

9. Basil Rathbone

Many recordings were made of this Shakespearean stage actor and star of many a Sherlock Holmes movie as he read the works of authors like Oscar Wilde, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and, of course, Poe. In the recording above, his voice fluctuates from calm and almost musical to loud and quite terrifying as things begin to escalate between man and bird.

10. Tay Zonday

If you're familiar with the Internet at all, then you probably know Tay Zonday. The deep-voiced YouTube celebrity rose to Internet fame with his song and music video "Chocolate Rain" back in 2007, and he has been using his natural voice to delight and unsettle audiences ever since.

An earlier version of this story ran in 2015.

12 Facts About William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

It’s safe to say that there are few people on Earth who don’t know the story of Romeo and Juliet. William Shakespeare's tragic story of two star-crossed lovers has been adapted hundreds—if not thousands—of times over the years, and not always exactly in the Bard’s own words. There have been musical versions, opera renditions, and more than 100 film and TV versions of the play. While George Cukor’s 1936 film, Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 movie, and Baz Luhrmann’s modern (for 1996) adaptation are some of the best known big-screen interpretations of the rivalry between the Montagues and the Capulets, West Side Story is yet another take on the tale. What is it about this 16th-century play that has had such a lasting impression on readers and audiences? Read on to find out more about William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet .

1. William Shakespeare wasn’t the first person to write about the Montagues and the Capulets.

The Montagues and the Capulets—the two families at the center of the family rivalry that makes Romeo and Juliet’s love an impossible predicament—were kicking around long before William Shakespeare got a hold of them. In “Divine Comedy,” the epic poem that took Dante more than 10 years to complete, he makes the following reference:

"Come and see, you who are negligent, / Montagues and Capulets, Monaldi and Filippeschi: / One lot already grieving, the other in fear. / Come, you who are cruel, come and see the distress / Of your noble families, and cleanse their rottenness."

Dante’s “Divine Comedy” was written more than 250 years before Shakespeare was even born.

2. Romeo and Juliet is based on an Arthur Brooke poem.

Cribbing ideas from other writers was a totally normal thing to do back in Shakespeare’s time, so it’s hardly surprising that the story of Romeo and Juliet isn’t exactly an original one. The Bard based his star-crossed lovers on the main characters in Arthur Brooke’s 1562 poem “The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet.”

Much like Shakespeare’s tale, Brooke’s poem is set in Verona, Italy. According to the British Library, “Brooke’s poem describes the ‘deadly’ feud between two wealthy, noble families—Capulet and Montague. Against this backdrop of ‘blacke hate,’ he tells the ‘unhappy’ tale of a beautiful youth, Romeus Montague, whose heart is entrapped by the wise and graceful Juliet Capulet.”

3. It wasn’t always called Romeo and Juliet.

When it was first published, Romeo and Juliet went by a much more descriptive—and much longer—title : The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.

4. The first publication of Romeo and Juliet is thought to be an unauthorized version of the play.

Romeo and Juliet was originally published in 1597, in the First Quarto. But Shakespeare scholars have long argued that this version of the play was not only incomplete, but unauthorized. The 1599 version, published in the Second Quarto, is the version of Romeo and Juliet we all know and love today.

5. The ending of Romeo and Juliet was hardly a surprise.

Romeo and Juliet kicks off with a prologue that tells the reader exactly where the play is going:

Two households, both alike in dignity,

In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,

From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,

Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes

A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;

Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows

Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.

The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,

And the continuance of their parents’ rage,

Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,

Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;

The which if you with patient ears attend,

What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

So much for suspense! What the prologue does do, however, is set the stage for the actors to fill in the details of the very broad strokes of the play’s first lines.

6. Juliet is just 13 years old.

We know that Romeo and Juliet are a young couple in love—but it’s easy to miss just how young Juliet is. In Act I, Scene III, Lady Capulet says that Juliet is “not [yet] fourteen.” She is actually just about two weeks shy of her 14th birthday. Romeo’s exact age is never given.

7. The couple’s courtship was indeed a whirlwind.

Romeo and Juliet,Act II- Scene-VI
Sir John Gilbert, Melhoramentos Edition // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Talk about a whirlwind romance! Given that we know Juliet is just 13 years old, her impetuousness might seem more understandable. But from the time they meet to the time they marry, Romeo and Juliet have known each other less than 24 hours.

8. There is no balcony in Romeo and Juliet ‘s “balcony scene.”

One of Romeo and Juliet's most iconic moments is what has become known as “The Balcony Scene,” which occurs in Act II, Scene 2. There’s just one problem: The word balcony is never mentioned in Shakespeare’s play. There’s a good reason for that, too: according to Merriam-Webster, the earliest known usage of the term, originally spelled balcone, didn’t occur until 1618—more than 20 years after Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet. According to the play, the scene takes place at Capulet’s Orchard when “Juliet appears above at a window.”

9. It wasn’t until 1662 that a woman played the role of Juliet.

A 17th-century image of Mary Saunderson, an English actress.
A 17th-century image of English actress Mary Saunderson.
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

As anyone who has seen Shakespeare in Love knows, back in the Bard’s days and up until 1660, all stage roles were performed by men. But in 1662, actress Mary Saunderson stepped onto the stage as Juliet; she is believed to be the first woman to play the iconic role.

10. One writer dared to give Romeo and Juliet a happy ending.

Irish poet and lyricist Nahum Tate, who became England’s poet laureate in 1692, had a penchant for messing around with Shakespeare’s words. In addition to rewriting Shakespeare’s King Lear as 1681’s The History of King Lear—in which he tacked on a happy ending to the tragedy (Cordelia married Edgar)—he did the same with Romeo and Juliet. Unlike his version of King Lear, which became quite popular, his alternate ending for Romeo and Juliet didn’t seem to stick.

11. One theater director eliminated Rosaline from the play altogether.

When we first meet Romeo, it is not Juliet but another woman, Rosaline, upon whom the young lothario has set his sights. But then he meets Juliet and all bets are off. When staging his own version of Romeo and Juliet in 1748, actor/playwright David Garrick opted to lose the Rosaline character altogether as he believed it lessened the impact of Romeo’s love for Juliet and made him seem too “fickle.”

12. Romeo has become shorthand for a male lover.

Romeo and Juliet has had a lasting effect on the English language, including its popularization of words like ladybird and phrases like wild goose chase. But Romeo, too, has his own dictionary entry: in addition to being defined as “the hero of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet who dies for love of Juliet” by Merriam-Webster, Romeo has also come to mean “a male lover.”

Mental Floss is partnering with the Paper & Packaging – How Life Unfolds® “15 Pages A Day” reading initiative to make sure that everyone has the opportunity (and time) to take part in The Mental Floss Book Club. It’s easy! Take the pledge at howlifeunfolds.com/15pages.

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