I went to a visiting art installation in San Francisco a little over a week ago that I found to be quite extraordinary. The exhibit is called “Intrude,” and it consists of five giant inflatable white bunnies in various poses that light up at night. They are truly a sight for sore eyes, as they bring back the joy of childhood innocence. But when one reads the sign stating the artist’s objective for the project, one will see how these inflatable statues of these cute creatures represent more than that.
Artist Amanda Parer has explained how these creatures are viewed more as pests in her native country of Australia, where they’ve been a destructive, ecological nuisance since first being brought over by white colonists in the late 1700’s. In other words, they have been intruders for the past couple of centuries. Hence their sizes, to acknowledge the white elephant in the room that is the environmental impact these colonists have caused by bringing them over. But at the same time, even the artist acknowledges how contradictory the viewpoint is as otherwise described in the previous paragraph.
Which brings me to today’s topic. Symbolism is a powerful skill to use when in storytelling. Whether in a contextual form like books or in a visual medium like TV and film (or in Parer’s case, art), they bring a new light to the story being told, by going a little deeper than the surface.
How fascinating it is when something – whether an object, a hand gesture, an animal, etc. – can represent something else that’s far more ingrained in what can otherwise be perceived through the naked eye. It’s the most humble of storytelling mechanisms that, while limited in appearance or action, really help the plot along in the long run.
It’s a trope that I’ve seen of less use in today’s time, where audiences – in particular the move-going audiences – are more for being spoon fed exactly what is happening, and then rarely ever given something to actually think about. That’s not to say that’s always the case, but it most definitely is noticeable in a majority of films nowadays.
Perhaps it’s fair to say that when symbolism is used in such a medium, depending on what it is and to what extent it’s used, it might actually be easy to miss, especially in films where already so much is happening. I think when it comes to using symbolism in a written form, it’s a bit easier, for the writer has control over what it is you’re “seeing” in each scene.
I think symbolism does more than just give additional depth to storytelling. Because the storytellers are, more of than not, humans, it also feeds in the psyche a lot of us, whether a writer or not, have about putting meaning to many things visual. Think about it. There are established symbols we are bred to know, such as when a street light turns green, one can proceed with driving. But then there are visuals we give meaning to, such as how eating a banana straight out of the peel can automatically be viewed in a much more inappropriate light. That’s the psyche we constantly have fueled, whether we are fully aware of it or not.
That’s what this aspect of storytelling does, especially when done well. Such an example can be found in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, where a character in each of the six linked stories have a birthmark somewhere on their body, in the shape of a comet. That was his way of showing how it’s the soul reincarnated in different lives.
Of course, there have been instances where one may think they’re looking at symbolism at its finest, when really they’re overusing that aspect of their psyche and are misinterpreting it altogether. That’s where analyzing symbols can become tricky. It’s good to have an open mind like that, but it’s also wise to note when it’s a stretch too far.
I may have mentioned before in my piece about analyzing books in the classroom on how I had the experience of how a book I read once suggested that Santiago in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea supposedly resembles the crucifixion of Christ at one point, based on how he’s posed. That can just as surely be an example of symbolism gone too far.
But going back to how a visual can mean more than one thing to someone is probably what makes a truly engaging use of symbolism. That’s what Parer managed to execute with her “Intrude” exhibit. While she, as a native Australian, may never shake away the distinction as the pests they are to her country, she also has the mindset to see how a majority of folks outside of Australia may seem them in a more pure light, in happiness and innocence.
In a way, that’s kind of what I did in my first novel, A Moment’s Worth (spoilers up ahead for those who still haven’t read it). I use origami cranes as little symbols sprinkled throughout the novel. While I have my own intention as to what they’re to represent, to the reader, perhaps they’ve interpreted in a different way. In my case, that is something I fully encourage.
Symbols are a unique device to use in storytelling. While they’re not as frequented in the various stories told in today’s time, when they are used and when done right, they bring a new depth to the narrative, in the most serene way possible.
A Moment’s Worth is now available through the following venues: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, iTunes. Please leave a review if you can, for my goal is to get a total of at least 20 reviews on all venues (so far, I’ve gotten 12 reviews so I’m already just past the halfway point to my goal). Check out its Goodreads page, which includes two trivia quizzes for all who’ve completed reading it already.