So what is symbolism and is it bullshit? The problem with symbolism is that it is very complex, comes in many forms or levels, and most English classes barely cover it* (and when they do they do so poorly).
Is It Bullshit
and if it was an effective symbol wouldn't we already get it and not have to read or think to find out what they mean?
No, here is why -
When we see the McDonald's Golden Arches we know that they stand for McDonald's a fast food franchise; but it also stands for Capitalism, Gluttony, American Obesity and Poor Health Standards, and/or Western Commercial Imperialism (if you're into that sort of thing). Now some might say this is just a logo and a far cry from the sort of subliminal messages that are supposed to be laden in literature; things like phallic swords drawn, cigars waving in peoples faces and such.
Yes, it is not the most obscure symbol but it is a start. Everyone today may recognize all of the symbolism laden in a McDonald's sign but when people in a thousand years look back will they know it or will they have to look it up? Now that we have established that things can represent other things and that we don't always know what those things are, lets dive in.
(There are traditionally three levels of symbolism but I am going to give you four, because I am a Spinal Tap fan this list goes to zero†.)
Not traditionally considered part of literary symbolism but there is an underlying strata of metaphor that we use ever day and I think it's really really cool.
This is the level people play at when they are being profound or trippy or just confusing. This level is so hardwired in that many people loose sight of the fact that these things are metaphors and not real. The economy doesn't really go up and down, it increased and decreases in total worth, no altitude involved. You don't take the moral high ground, you take a position that is more defensible because it is considered 'good'; correction you don't actually take a "position" anywhere either.
Nothing actually dies when you kill time. (Except a little bit of your soul and self respect)
We have an amazing ability to understand that two things are alike when they have no literal likeness. This is incredibly useful because we humans handle all sorts of complex ideas ever day and can simplify them down to manageable symbols usually comparing our concepts to physical motions, actions, feelings, or spatial relations that can be processed by our more primitive brain parts. It lets us make words that represent things and ideas, and it lets us make writing that represents words.
They key to understanding symbolism is not just to understand these connections between the symbol and what it points to; but to also understand that it is just a metaphor, not literal. "A map represents the land but you can't build a house on it," as the saying goes. This level is so basic most people never think of it and that provides an opportunity for mind fucks both big and small as well as being the basis of a lot of the most memorable forms of magic in the fantasy genre.
Level 1 - Universal Symbols‡
What Adolf Bastion called Elementargedanken, "basic ideas". This is the most esoteric and least agreed upon level. This is the realm of people like Sigmund Frued and Carl Jung. There are numerous interpretations of which symbols reside here; too many and too involved to cover here. I will recommend if you are interested in researching this level the works of Joseph Campbell who not only is genius but describes them in terms of narrative and story.
The idea of Universal Symbols is that there are some elements in all places, in all mythology, in all storytelling that are so pervasive across the Earth, appearing in every culture and every time, that they must have an underlying meaning important to who and what we are as humans.
Even more debated than what these symbols are is the their cause. It could be that some concepts are simply experienced by everyone, the concept of 'Mother' for example is understood by everyone. Even if someone never knew their mother they still knew everyone elses mother, still saw the concept of a mother in the real world. Or these symbols could be part of how our brain is wired and that we naturally process the world around us into the same sorts of narratives.
Some hypotheses however have given this level a bit of a poor reputation; a universal subconscious where all our minds connect, or racial genetic memory of past events. This makes great SciFi but they are not the simplest and most plausible theories based on what we know of how the world works and until there is evidence to support them you may wish to avoid them in academic settings.
Level 2 - Cultural Symbols
Or "Volkgedanken", This is the level where symbols only mean something within the culture. Like the McDonald's sign mentioned above. Much of what you learn when reading the classics is this. All of the cultural baggage that is tied up in Hamlet seeing a ghost that has changed between then and now, or why going to a nunnery is such an insult.
These symbols are specific to one culture and one time, a Guy Fawkes mask today (anonymous hax0r2) is not what a Guy Fawkes mask was 10 years ago (a bad ass freedom fighter), which is not what it was before V came out (some silly ritual about burning straw men), which all is only loosely to do with the pro Catholic rebellion against the English Parliament a long while ago.
Level 3 - Personal Symbols
(Sorry couldn't find the cool german word for this =[ )
Personal symbols are the symbols that appeal to me, or you, or your teacher. Lets begin this section with a short rant...
If you are like me and have experienced the mixed blessing of the American higher education system then you have experienced the Personal Symbol level because in order to pass an English class you had to figure out what your teachers personal symbol was and then explain why everything was somehow related to it. The reason many people feel symbolism is bullshit is because all the symbolism they had to regurgitate WAS in fact BULLSHIT. No seriously, if you really think the Bible was trying to be about the Marxist dialectic or Shakespeare was exploring the changing role of feminism in the post modern life…
just give up,
Now, there is a cool side to this too. If someone finds meaningful personal symbolism in a piece of art that only makes the art better for them. Many personal symbols are layered on top of the lower levels which they tap into. A great piece of art can use the lower levels to be open enough to appeal to a wide variety of personal symbols (which is why great pieces keep getting reinterpreted by lousy college essays). And in a reverse, personal symbols used well can be added into your art to reach back towards the more universal symbol and it's wider audience.
at every thing;
For example; ants where a personal symbol of Salvador Dali based on a childhood experience with a dead bat. Most people seeing his painting don't see what he saw, they put their own meaning onto them, the personal is recast again and again. So long as the symbol stays open for reinterpretation it is a vibrant addition to any art piece.
These levels are themselves a metaphor, things are often not so cut and dry. For example; the universal meaning of rainy weather, light, or darkness could be placed somewhere between 0 and 1.
There are many themes and stories that occur independently all over the world but only once a culture has developed a certain technological level (agriculture brings myths of gods who die and become their staple crop), or only cultures in certain terrains or regions (tropical areas have more life/death cycles and sacrifice themes; the norther regions and desserts had more war cults and hyper masculinity). These lay between the universal and the cultural.
Where do you place a personal twist on a cultural symbol? Some one who hates the flag that was on their fathers casket, sees McDonald's as wonderful because it was the best their family could afford as a child, or hates the trapping of the religion they where raised in? These cultural themes become personal ones.
But What About...
How everything is supposed to be a penis and loving your mom?
That was Sigmund Freud who...
A) is very poorly represented today in only his most headline grabbing misinterpred fashion
B) had lots of issues (see: personal symbols) that he projected onto everyone else (see: claimed where universal).
But most importantly he said something that should always be remembered before you go to far into thinking about symbolism.
"Some times a cigar is only a cigar."~Sigmund Frued (Oh look that ties in to the image at the top comedically!)
* - At least in Amerrrica
† - Also a fan of 0, the most ground brakingly important number in the world.
‡ - To those who ask how we can know this level is real, people like Jung and Campbell spent their whole life studying cultures from all around the world and saw commonalities. No seriously these guys went and learned a shit ton about the world, and can lay it out pretty simply and clearly. The basic premiss though is that there must be a root cause for why everyone in the world developed the concept of a lightning wielding sky father and not one developed the peach cobbler wielding god of