In school I always wondered about the professor’s comments regarding symbolism in fiction. In the short story, “The Blue Hotel,” I distinctly remember the prof pointing out that the color was important in that it symbolized something sinister. Something “off.”
“Who paints a house or hotel blue?” she asked.
The answer today, of course, is: lots of people. My best friend’s house was blue. My cousin painted her house blue. There was nothing sinister about either. This, of course, is not to say my professor was wrong. For the time the story was written she was likely correct.
Symbolism in our own work, and in our own time, sometimes escapes even ourselves. Yet, often, it is there.
In my novel, Legacy 627, there is a young man named Paul. He is the friend of one of my protagonists. It is no mistake that we see almost nothing from Paul’s point of view. We come to know him only through Rachael and her journal. He is an important character: sensitive and intelligent—a brilliant conversationalist. He is alone and sad, having lost both his partner/friend and his mother. He is also gay.
It is no accident that he lives on the periphery of my novel just as he does in his fictional life. His deliberate placement on that periphery is symbolic of what society has done — and continues to do — to him and to people like him. He is marginalized by those homophobes and xenophobes whose righteous bigotry would have him not exist at all, and he ultimately dies at their hands.
Why was this character in my novel at all? Because I have something to say. Sometimes you find the “saying” so important you must write it. Sometimes what you have to say — and what you do say — is so important and so timely you find a way. And sometimes symbolism is the best way, owing to the impact it can have.
Hitting the reader over the head isn’t nearly as powerful as reaching into his/her depths and finding that one nerve, that one chord of compassion that resonates and turns on an inner light, however dim.
Symbolism, I believe, accomplishes by stealth what shouting cannot ever hope to do. So whether you use symbolism directly or indirectly, it is a powerful tool when you have something to say. And, as a writer, you should always have something to say.