Seeing the Signs: Symbols in Literature and Life

Seeing the Signs: Symbols in Literature and Life

by Alexa Van Dalsem April 07, 2015

The way I remember her, Mrs. Mell was a formidable, five foot tall (maybe), redheaded woman. What she didn’t have in height, she made up for in teaching acumen, knowledge, and demands on my fellow seventh and eighth grade English students and me. Under her tutelage, my understanding of literature, analytical skills, and ability to write were transformed and molded.

One of Mrs. Mell’s most dreaded and, probably, most effective teaching strategies was the pop essay. We read several John Steinbeck novels in eighth grade—The Pearl, The Red Pony, Of Mice and Men—and throughout the year, before we were barely settled in our seats, she’d tell us, “Take out a piece of paper and a pencil. You have one hour to write an essay on . . .” And then we wrote, following the essay structure she drilled us on, on a topic of her choosing about one of the Steinbeck books.

The essays began as a surprise, and stuck around like a bothersome acquaintance. We wrote and rewrote and rewrote some of the essays until they got close (enough) to Mrs. Mell’s standard for the perfect essay. To this day, I never want to read a Steinbeck book again, especially The Red Pony, but I certainly know how to write an essay.

Mrs. Mell taught us more than writing—she taught us the beginning skills of analyzing literature. I was a reader from an early age and read as much as time allowed. Mrs. Mell pressed my reading further with questions. Is there more to this character, this event, this thing than his/her/its appearance? What do they mean? Is this a symbol or foreshadowing? This way of thinking about books started in seventh grade and expanded through high school and college.

I remember reading a book in a cozy window seat of my grandparent’s house on a warm, sunny day in high school. From that seat, there was a wide view of the Pacific Ocean, the horizon, the beach and harbor, and the small island rock where the seals spent the day sunning and barking. I looked up from book and couldn’t figure out, at first, why it wasn’t snowing. In the book, it was winter and snowing heavily.

The way I read books affected the way I read life. If there were symbols and foreshadowing in books, why not in life? Throughout adolescence, I read and searched for symbols and signs in books, and when I looked up, I looked for the same things in life. I wasn’t surprised to find what I thought were symbols and signs, but I hoped that they were as real as they were in books.

While thinking about this blog post, I found an article about the answers famous writers gave to a 16-year-old in 1963 who was “was sick of symbol-hunting in English class” and “mailed a crude, four-question survey to 150 novelists, asking if they intentionally planted symbolism in their work.” Amazingly, he received answers from the likes of Jack Kerouac, Ayn Rand, Richard Hughes, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Ralph Ellison, and Saul Bellow. His questions were:

Do you consciously, intentionally plan and place symbolism in your writing?

Do readers ever infer that there is symbolism in your writing where you had not intended it to be?

Do you feel that the great writers of classics consciously, intentionally planned and placed symbols in their writing? 

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

Some of the answers are quip (do your own research!), and others are thoughtful. Most of the authors say that the symbolism in stories is unconscious. Saul Bellow wrote, “A ‘symbol’ grows in its own way, out of the facts.” The authors recognize that readers infer symbols the author didn’t intend.

I like Joseph Heller’s response that “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.”

About the great classics writers and symbolism, Ralph Ellison responded, “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.”

Iris Murdoch wrote in response to question four, “There is much more symbolism in ordinary life than some critics seem to realize.”

Whether conscious or subconscious, or a combination, books are guided by an author, someone conducting the story. I looked for symbols in life, but until college didn’t think about how they might get there—by an Author. Of all the books that I read, I read very little of the Bible until Sophomore year of college when it was a required curriculum text.

The Bible is filled with symbols and signs and with people seeking after signs, asking for signs, interpreting signs. Symbols and signs of Christ are scattered throughout the Old Testament—Abraham, Isaac and the ram, David and Goliath, Daniel and the tigers come to mind.

There are Christ’s parables as symbols of his teachings and the dove as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Luke 21: 25-27 gives signs of things to come:

And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.

As a Christian, I still seek signs and symbols in my life. My mind is quick to analyze events and coincidences for more than the appearances. When my second child was born, due to marital events, I thought she’d be my last baby. I had signs, though, to “trust Me,” and when my daughter was almost four, I had a third child.

He was born on the April 13—the fourth generation of a boy in my mom’s family to be born on the thirteenth (for which he bears the same first name as the three other thirteenth babies), the thirteenth grandchild on one side of the family, born in the thirteenth year of my husband’s and my marriage, had we not had a short break. We had planned for months to give him the middle name, Beckett, and come his birthday, he was born on the same day as Samuel Beckett. This is hard not to see as symbol and a sign of God’s faithfulness.

There are other smaller signs and symbols that I read in life: my current office number is the same numbers as the months of my children’s birthdays. There is the reappearance of certain names in the people I meet and befriend. There is the reoccurrence of certain songs. As with literature, I believe some of these are the Author’s design, and some are my reading.

Some are evident in the moment, and some are hindsight. Some of the signs I think I can read, and others I’m not so sure what they mean. I agree with Ralph Ellison that we are symbol-making and –using animals and with Iris Murdoch that there is more symbolism in ordinary life than we give credit to. Life is poetic, if we choose to see it. I’m not sure without books and their example, without Mrs. Mell and her demands on my writing and reading, that I would have come to see this.

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Alexa Van Dalsem
Alexa Van Dalsem


Alexa Van Dalsem, a grant writer by trade, writes short stories, poetry, a personal blog and, most recently, short movie scripts. In her free time, Alexa enjoys playing with her family and spending time in the great outdoors of her home state, Colorado. Alexa's short story "Black Leather Shoes" was featured in Ruminate's Issue 01: Chewing on Life

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