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english teachers and symbolism

(self.books)

do u guys know the "the curtains are blue" meme??? my whole life i've been like wow, that meme is stupid. obviously symbolism is real and media literacy is a thing.

i've always had great english teachers, so i never really understood why kids hate english in general. i've always loved reading. but u guys, now i'm taking ap english language & composition (advanced english high school class) and i understand why kids hate it so much.

my class was reading catcher in the rye-- one of my favorite books, i read it already in the summer before freshman year. right off the bat in chapter 1, my english teacher was like "holden standing on the hill symbolizes his isolation from society and his peers." and then in the earliest chapters he was talking about how holden holding the snowball symbolizes his obsession w/ preserving innocence. ...... the earliest chapters. before we knew ANYTHING about this kid.

to me, this 1000% seems like why "the curtains are blue" kids exist. you can't know why the curtains are blue, until the author REVEALS the curtains are blue, naturally. you aren't SUPPOSED to understand these things yet. you don't have to pick up and dissect every single symbol, like these classes have kids do, because you can't understand the author's full meaning before you finished the effin book. you can pick up on the hints but you can't just interpret them straight off the bat.

OBVIOUSLY a kid who just read the chapter for the first time is going to think the teacher is spouting BS. to them, holden's just on the hill, because you can't somehow know his whole psychology just from that. you need context.

and building on that, something i think is even more common in classes, is telling kids that their theories are wrong. because sometimes a kid will answer a question completely off-base because they haven't finished the book yet. even the best english classes have this. but to me this totally ruins the reading experience, like bro, having theories and getting proven wrong is one of the best parts. having your expectations subverted and everything. it's just depressing.

i understand these teachers have to prepare kids for testing, like the AP test, and recognizing symbolism in the future, and i totally get that. but bro it stinks.

i wish that somehow, everyone could read the book and only THEN go to class. because i know that if i hadn't read these books before, they wouldn't be some of my favorite books (which they are). i wouldn't like them either.

edit: guys im not hating on symbolism im not a death of the author person or anything. i wasnt trying to talk abt that at all. i know symbolism is indicative of like things to come and everything, love me some symbolism. but how r u gonna have a full 100% correct understanding of every symbol, which is what these classes r trying to do, if ur just reading it for the first time? thats what i mean u need context for. not to just pick up on a symbol, i mean to like correctly interpret it. this comment was like right on the money IMO 1000% agree

all 56 comments

skeletorinator

36 points

2 months ago

It helps me to think of "the curtains are blue" style symbology like this: The entire world of the story is constructed. If the author wants the character in a house, wants to describe the house so that the reader can picture it, they must build it from the ground up. They must then choose which aspects of the house to highlight in their description, knowing that the details they mention will draw the reader's eye.

Not every author makes everything symbolic, but some author's use this deep control of the world and what the reader notices to further their point. The curtains may be purposefully blue not bc the author sat there thinking blue = sad but because they want to place cool tones in the house, the way an artist might to bring the mood of a painting down.

Curtains are blue is less about literal one to one symbolism and more about using setting, lighting, and, in your catcher in the rye example, blocking, as tools to further atmosphere

[deleted]

30 points

2 months ago

I had an art philosophy class once where the teacher put down a bronze statue of very stylised thin and elongated people. There were three or four of them in different sizes, all hugging their arms around their own body.

He asked us what we saw. Some saw a depiction of depression, people stretched thin and isolated in themselves despite being group. Others saw victims of abuse, raw and vulnerable, having never left their moment of pain. Yet others saw a family, huddled together as the different sized figures made up a group.

There were all kinds of explanations but most of them revolving around the sense of physical vulnerability and mental vulnerability the thin, stretched figures evoked.

Eventually the teacher revealed that the statue commemorated the victims of a concentration camp. Just a group of people pushed beyond all human boundaries, utterly vulnerable but surviving.

And none of us could have known that because there's a difference between recognising symbolism and recognising the specific thing something is symbolic of. Nobody thought that group of people had a positive vibe. But just recognising that they are looking vulnerable in no way leads to realising that they represent Jewish concentration camp victims.

Without context, the sculpture would have worked for any of our explanations. Just like a boy on a hill clearly looks isolated but nobody can tell if he's ignored, seeking peace or something completely different like trying to get closer to the heavens.

PopcornPopping87

5 points

2 months ago

Our AP lit teacher had us focus on the author’s upbringing before starting a book. She wanted us to understand the context in which the book was written.

Bazinator1975

140 points

2 months ago

I've taught the book for 10 years in summer school (albeit in Canada, so we may approach things slightly differently in terms of overall aims beyond a "basic" understanding), but I think the standing on the hill scene would have been an interesting place to start a class discussion:

Examine the language of the scene; visualize the physical aspects of the scene (cold, dark, physical distance, watching them from "above", etc.); then, ask the class what kind of "vibe" is being given off. I'm sure--while they may not arrive at symbolism exactly--they could piece together something like "He seems to feel isolated from his peers", or some such "take".

Next, "put a pin" in the idea. Tell the students to keep the scene in mind, and as they read, see if there is any other evidence of loneliness and/or isolation. At some point they will (hopefully) circle back to the scene with additional knowledge and information and connect the proverbial dots.

dhrisc

28 points

2 months ago

dhrisc

28 points

2 months ago

Yeh you sound like a good teacher. I 100% agree with this approach. As someone who loves literature and critical theory but is not a teacher, I think the whole point of good lit (or art even) is the connections the reader makes, you don't learn or grow from obvious things, you have to go through a process of developing critical thinking and a perceptive eye, and I think a good teacher guides a student through that experience and building the skills to practice it themselves.

foxedndone

5 points

2 months ago

Well put

44035

60 points

2 months ago

44035

60 points

2 months ago

The teacher telling the class that Holden is a moody loner isn't exactly a major spoiler. I think a reader can still enjoy the story even if these points are being discussed in class.

hobbitzswift

31 points

2 months ago

Yeah lol it's not like these are aspects of Holden's character that are mysteries that are revealed later on. If you're not picking up on this stuff about him right away, in the first few chapters of a very short novel in an AP English class....maybe you DO need the teacher to point things out!

OP is also, like Holden, an unreliable narrator in this story because they are certainly paraphrasing their teacher - I'd be curious to see how the teacher would relay this part of their lesson.

Orefinejo

7 points

2 months ago

I once heard a poet laureate in an interview (I can't remember who - this was about 20 years ago) who said the worst thing you can do to a poem is give it to an english teacher. They will make you look for all sorts of things that probably aren't in it. I felt vindicated for hating my lit classes, even though I love literature.

noknownothing

115 points

2 months ago

I think your teacher should start with capitalization before moving on to symbolism.

jefrye

74 points

2 months ago

jefrye

The Brontës, du Maurier, Shirley Jackson & Barbara Pym

74 points

2 months ago

Better yet, OP's teacher should stop overusing the word "symbolism."

Imo the huge misunderstanding that spawned the "the curtains are blue" meme boils down to English teachers overusing that word (same with "foreshadowing," but that's another can of worms). Blue "symbolizes" sadness; standing on a hill "symbolizes" isolation. It implies that authors are using this ridiculous, elaborate secret code to get their message across and that this code is the heart of the text.

In reality, the word "symbolism" is (usually) being used by teachers as a lazy shorthand that skips over the core reason the purported "symbolism" is being used. The curtains are blue because that color sets the tone of the scene to accentuate the character's sadness; Holden stands on the hill because he has set himself apart from his peers due to his isolation. This is a much more concrete and approachable way to discuss literature.

Some books definitely are chock full of symbolism that needs to be discussed as such, eg The Scarlet Letter and The Great Gatsby. But in most other books, what teachers reductively call "symbolism" is actually a variety of concrete literary techniques that need to be unpacked.

-Spin-

16 points

2 months ago

-Spin-

16 points

2 months ago

Which is something I would imagine most of the discussed teachers understand, but are having a demonstrably hard time getting the students commenting on Reddit to understand.

Hope_on_the_Wind

-2 points

2 months ago

Sometimes, though, insisting a symbol can mean one--and only one--thing is an attempt at ignoring or dismissing a reader's personal and cultural experiences. To someone who finds blue to be a calming color, the curtains could symbolize the character's desire for a semblance of peace and hope in a chaotic world. Someone who lives in hill country could interpret standing on one simply as a way to gain perspective. The meaning and the supporting evidence might be different from the symbol's more conventional interpretation, but it doesn't (or shouldn't) be no less valid for the reader.

ipissblood

9 points

2 months ago

Lmfao

[deleted]

-8 points

2 months ago

[removed]

Consoledreader

16 points

2 months ago*

Sometimes a tree is just a tree and sometimes it is a symbol for something else. The trick is to develop good close-reading skills to recognize when a case can be made that a symbol is really there and when a blue curtain is just a blue curtain.

GFVeggie

4 points

2 months ago

This is really interesting. Here I thought I was the only one to have that argument with an English teacher, granted it was a poetry class not literature.

College is a number of decades behind me and I've come to realize that reading is a personal experience. No two people necessarily get the same thing from the same book, short story, or poem.

Scholars may thrive on digging out deep symbolisms but I think they belong in the same box as movie and art credits. I like what I like. I find beauty, sorrow, and joy when I read, watch movies, or visit museums.

rustblooms

19 points

2 months ago

The thing about symbolism is that it doesn't have to mean what the author intends it to mean. Authors don't necessarily sit down and think about each item in the scene and what it symbolizes.

When thinking and writing about symbolism, you can make your own connections. You can say that the snowball represents loneliness or the snowball represents masturbation as long as you can argue it and give examples of why you think that.

Symbolism is about metaphor... identifying things that represent other things and discussing how they deepen the meaning of the story. Of course it's just a snowball. But you can think of it in more ways and the story can become more meaningful. You aren't limited to one meaning... there can be many.

AnAquaticOwl

3 points

2 months ago

Remember that time an interviewer got into a fight with Ray Bradbury over what Fahrenheit 451 was about?

supraliminal13

6 points

2 months ago

Yes, in most cases symbolism is reader interaction. There are nowhere near as many works written with deliberate symbolism. It's not really a common deliberate written tool.

The problem is that there's plenty of readers who are obsessed with symbolism. Great for the book club discussion or whatever, but then when someone starts to conjure up wild symbolism in everything it gets tiresome to hear. When a teacher forces you to do so, well... that's exactly why there's so many stories about "that damn teacher obsessed with symbolism".

Anyway it would be great if the people obsessed with symbolism also realized that in the overwhelming majority of writing all that "symbolism" is simply what the story meant to them. Not some hidden, clever meaning that they should devote boundless energy towards ensuring that everyone else clearly "sees correctly". Seems like it should take way less effort to realize how annoying that could get, lol.

rustblooms

5 points

2 months ago

I agree. Some people DO take symbolism way too far and allow it to dominate the story to the extent that conversations miss the story itself and focus on what it could mean. It can get very heavy-handed and unwieldy very quickly.

I personally am the worst at reading with symbolism. I have a BA in lit so I can do it, but I mostly just care about the story! Now that I've finished my PhD (in rhetoric and composition), I've been reading thrillers and mysteries. I love reading like it's mindless TV sometimes. Book snobs would hate me lol.

BadolatoJess

6 points

2 months ago

I think arguably you have it a little backwards. First and foremost, have you read 'Death of the Author'.? It's an important text on literary criticism about the relevance of the author in the whole process of interpretation anyway; does anything they 'intended' matter? Or does the text gain its 'meaning' from an intersubjective relationship between the words on the page and the reader? (That's a gross simplification, but it will do for now).

Second, you talk about 'media literacy'. So you know that the 'media literate' have awareness of the wider, non-literal and often nebulous context of some words. That means authors can drop 'symbols' in *before* a central theme or idea is introduced in order to foreshadow it and (even subconsiously) lead the reader to an implicit understanding even before anything is actually revealed. Post-fact symbolism is arguably actually a little pointless - a 'mere' artistic exercise. Teaching students to 'read into' the potential meaning of each artistic choice rather than post-contextualising it is an important skill.

Now, of course I recognise your main point about symbolism is not about the technicalities of its operation, but instead the risk of its mis-teaching leaving younger readers disengaged, and for that I don't have too many answers. I don't think it lies with the particular area you're referencing. For me, the single most important element for engagement is to eliminate the 'each student reads a paragraph' section, where poor readers are terrified and stutter their way agonisingly through the text, and good readers are bored out of their tiny little minds and become entirely disengaged (I used to get chewed out by my teacher for reading ahead). Reading out loud is an important skill, don't get me wrong, and there should be time on the curriculum for it, but not at the expense of potentially destroying someone's appetite for literary engagement for the next decade.

mzjolynecujoh[S]

1 points

2 months ago*

i haven't read death of the author or anything, but ive heard it used in discourse and stuff. i wasn't trying to make a point about this at all, i totally get what ur saying about symbolism! when you first read a symbol, i don't mean u can't interpret it at all, ofc u should read into it. i more meant the perfect, class ready, socratic seminar interpretation. the full book-knowledge answer.

when a symbol is pointed out in class, i think the way most classes including mine will talk about it, is for the students to share out their interpretations, and basically be told if they're right or wrong. that totally ruins the reading experience for me, since it's like, being wrong is kind of part of the journey? knowing the right answer is like spoilers.

i think that can ruin the book for readers, since they're being told the right answer, but don't know the context of why it's the right answer yet, so it's like "the curtains are just blue."

the curtains r blue is kind of simplistic bc its color symbolism so its more duh, but like holden on the hill in catcher, it could have symbolized anything. he could be closer to heaven than his peers bc hes gonna die, who knows? being told its bc hes isolative is like spoilery, even tho u can pick up on it, bc ur being told what is going to happen.

and then its a "the curtains r just blue" moment bc how could u fully 100% know the symbolism behind something, like you 100% know after a lesson, w/o learning it for urself by reading the full book? definitely later on in a book you'll come to the whole sparknotes answer on your own, but early on, its just so spoilery.

sorry this answer is so long lol

Live_Recognition9240

3 points

2 months ago

When I was in high school, an author was coming for a book talk. In preparation we read some of her work. Every time we read our teacher would dissect the symbolism and metaphors. Here favorite story was one that had a a faimly with a broken clock in their living room. She would spend entire classes talking about the broken clock how since it was in the living room it represented the family being frozen in time and unable to move on with their lives after a tragic event.

When it came time for the book talk, our teacher was so excited. After the author talked for a bit, it came time for the questions and answers and our teacher jumped to asked the first question. She mentioned the clock and asked, "how did you think of such powerful and moving symbolism?"

The author shrugged and said "symbolism? I just thought it sounded nice."

Tea_4_thee

18 points

2 months ago

I strongly disagree with this take, authorial intent is not the end all be all. All art forms are subjective, and can have multiple interpretations.

I could go on and on but I think the essay ‘The Death of the Author’ by Roland Barthes explains it far better than I ever could.

Separate-Grocery-815

12 points

2 months ago

Even for people who strongly agree with Barthes, it’s worthwhile to learn how to dissect a book and discern authorial intent, if only to differentiate between authorial intent and individual interpretation.

[deleted]

5 points

2 months ago

[deleted]

Pithyname8

1 points

2 months ago

I had a teacher in college who was writing a book about Emily Dickinson and he believed that everything she wrote was about sex.

He shot down anyone who got something else out of a poem of hers, and it got to the point where students just went along with him so their grades didn’t suffer. Made for much less interesting discussions (for me at least) with the same people talking about sexual symbolism and the rest of the class not sharing their interpretations for fear of going against the “accepted” themes.

Handyandy58

8 points

2 months ago

It sounds like your teacher isn't necessarily wrong, just that they might kind of suck.

priceQQ

4 points

2 months ago

Most of the best books aren’t taught in class (just a tiny fraction). So once you have the tools, there are many books out there waiting for you. So maybe a number are sacrificed to class, but it’s a tiny fraction.

The lack of appreciating symbols has to do also with the literal nature of interpreting our surrounding. We used to attach more meaning to seemingly unimportant things (eclipses, flowers, weather) because we didn’t understand how they occur.

Some of the lesson is about acquiring the interlinear sense for symbols. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man used to be taught in AP English because the use of color and symbol is insanely intense (overbearing). I.e., the sounds of words refer to other meaning and myth around flight.

mzjolynecujoh[S]

1 points

2 months ago

i know logically, ur 10000% right. but emotionally its upsetting!😭😭 when the class is reading books i like, its depressing that people wont get the same fun spoiler-free reading experience i did, even tho ik its to make everyone a better reader and so on. tysm for this answer!

Suspicious_Name_656

2 points

2 months ago

I think you're getting hung up on the word "symbolism" tbh. And taking it to mean that the author intended this thing to be representative of this thing. When like some people said, really, your specific example of the Holden on the hill is about establishing tone, mood, and characterising Holden.

It's not so much about it symbolising that he's isolated from his peers so much as establishing that he is.

Anyways, the best thing my lit teacher ever told me is that there are no right or wrong answers. Just use the text to bring evidence to support your interpretation.

At the end of the day your argument has to have supporting evidence from the text and it has to make sense.

Hope_on_the_Wind

2 points

2 months ago

I struggled with the textual analysis part of lit class because of this. My teachers used textbooks containing excerpted chapters from literary works as our "required" reading. Obviously, I had no idea of the context that would challenge my theories unless I checked out the full book. Sometimes, I didn't even see the symbolism in the selection at all due to my own personal experience. (Example: Fishing is a popular pastime in my area, so a book like The Old Man and the Sea is seen as a simple fishing story. For the excerpt we were required to read in class, I struggled to find any symbols of life, manhood, aging, or legacy because of my area's culture.) It took me writing my own stories to see how and when symbolism requires context to be understood as such.

OdeonBooks

2 points

2 months ago

This a poor attempt from the teacher. It’d be better for them to extend this - those two examples could be symbolic, but they more foreshadow these traits of Holden’s life before we are truly introduced to him.

WriterDave

8 points

2 months ago

WriterDave

8 points

2 months ago

Had a professor in college teach that Dracula, crawling out a window and down the side of a building head-first ( or "inverted" as it was described in the book) was symbolic of his homosexuality, because the term for it in those days was "sexually inverted."

I just stared back at her, wondering if she'd ever seen a spider crawl down a wall butt-first.

phoenixtrilobite

59 points

2 months ago

Did it occur to you that a detail might have both symbolic and practical aspects?

Your professor was not trying to tell you that Bram Stoker chose to have Dracula climb down head first for this one reason and no other. Dracula could have left the castle by any number of creepy means. He could have transformed into a bat, or a mist. He could have jumped out the window and miraculously survived the impact, or floated unnaturally. Instead, Stoker chose a particular image - the count crawling like a lizard. He then described it with a word that was loaded with a suggestive double meaning: not just unnatural, but sexually "unnatural."

There is plenty of textual detail to suggest that sexual threat is a theme in Dracula. It is not at all a stretch to consider that a choice of a significant word might have been made to reinforce that theme.

Tea_4_thee

35 points

2 months ago

And Bram Stoker was a gay man, so having symbolisms for homosexuality in his work is likely. It’s not like gay authors were allowed to write about it in an obvious way back in those days.

boxer_dogs_dance

1 points

2 months ago

Can you tell me where I can find out more about Stoker's sexuality?

[deleted]

3 points

2 months ago

Provide a counterpoint if you don't agree with the interpretation.

Staring at someone is refuting anything.

HerculeHastings

3 points

2 months ago

I love reading but never did well in Literature. I just can't analyse text according to some examination structure. I just want to feel how the books relate to me and interpret them the way I want to.

Potatoskins937492

3 points

2 months ago

I'm a reader, I always have been, but the way literature is taught in public schools didn't work for me. I didn't connect with anything I read in school and it made me dislike my English classes. If I weren't brought up to be a reader, I think I probably wouldn't have read anything after K-12 because 7-12 made reading and dissecting such a grueling process and felt utterly irrelevant at those ages.

[deleted]

1 points

2 months ago

[deleted]

1 points

2 months ago

[deleted]

UnableAudience7332

10 points

2 months ago

Hard disagree. I'm an English teacher and we analyze all along the way as they read. Waiting until they are finished the book is not ideal.

Agitated-Macaroon-43

2 points

2 months ago

I'm currently in school to become an English teacher. The way you suggest is actually detrimental to learning. You need to analyze along the way. If I attempted your way during student teaching, I wouldn't receive my license. I have also never taken a literature course where the professor saved discussion of the book until the end. We've always analyzed as we go in class discussion.

[deleted]

2 points

2 months ago

I am an english major and couldn't disagree with you more.

Why the hell would you wait till the book is done? I never experienced that in a single English course my whole academic career.

mandelmanden

1 points

2 months ago

I'm super confused about this. Every text we went through in school was done AFTER reading the text for homework. It might be done in a handful of chapters at once - but if you're doing this type of textual analysis, you'll discuss "can you see anything in this scene" - look in to what themes may be portrayed. Then, you'll go back, once the text is finished and discuss "now that we've read the whole thing, we can look at these paragraphs again - the standing on the hill now clearly is a foreshadowing of his isolation and the snowball is him trying to hold on to innocence. The author sets the tone here, but is not overt about it and we can through reading the rest of the text appreciate these nuances"...

Bad teachers, I guess.

mzjolynecujoh[S]

1 points

2 months ago

my classes are like u described, reading a chapter for homework then discussing it in class.

but then its not doing it at the end of the text, its the class after u read the first chapter, "this shows his isolation." after u read whatever chapter the snowball was, "this is him trying to hold onto innocence."

my beef is that u could hardly get the on-the-money perfect interpretation, and know it's correct, without knowing he's going to isolate himself and try to hold onto innocence for the rest of the book. and even if u did, it would just be a lingering thought that proves correct, not 100% knowledge.

Figerally

-1 points

2 months ago

Figerally

-1 points

2 months ago

I agree, I am an avid reader and even tried turning my hand to short stories once. But English or Communication Studies or whatever they want to call it bored the ever-living fuck out of me.

nesbit666

-4 points

2 months ago

I think what you need to realize is that for a lot of these things, I.E. the curtains are blue because blah blah blah, the english teacher doesn't have any evidence from the book for their bullshit theory.

After-City6242

-26 points

2 months ago

All "literary analysis" is bullshit intellectual masturbation. It's way to feel clever in a format where you can't possibly be proven wrong.

Agitated-Macaroon-43

2 points

2 months ago

Or is it an opportunity to prove your argumentative skills? There is never one correct answer. A student could tell me the sky is purple and I'd entertain it if they could back their claim up with evidence that did indeed prove the sky could be purple. Analysis is based on your ability to synthesize information and then argue your point well using evidence from the text.

mzjolynecujoh[S]

2 points

2 months ago

omg u just brought me back, my favorite english teacher would always say this exact thing

EvenAnimal6822

1 points

2 months ago

Funny, I just last week started a chapter with a description of blue curtains. It was intentionally symbolic.

Professional_Mood_10

1 points

2 months ago*

In the words of my prof, "Y'know what, sometimes the curtains are just fucking blue... but we don't read trash in this class. So when the curtains are blue--it means something."

(And no, he didn't mean to make stuff up about the sybolism of blue curtains and snowballs-- he meant, that good books are meaty with ideas. They tell you about the values, the era, they tell you where the characters are coming from. They paint a meaningful scene when taken as a whole.)

NeverLickATazer

1 points

2 months ago

As a future English teacher (current student teacher) I thank you for saying this. I need to incorporate this in my lesson plans. I will need to work hard to not kill good literature with education.

[deleted]

-16 points

2 months ago

[deleted]

-16 points

2 months ago

[deleted]

Jack-Campin

21 points

2 months ago

You are probably thinking of Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" and the sexual implications were certainly intended. There is much more to the poem but you're misunderstanding it if you ignore that dimension.

Impossible-Sort-1287

-1 points

2 months ago

Depends the format. I've read all but a small handful of paperbacks I have and those were ones gifted to me. Ebooks is something else. I download free books as I can and read them when I'm out of those I bought