Literary Symbolism: The Greats Did It, Why Can’t I?

By: Aryanne Ferguson

Reader, how do you make use of symbolism in your writing? Is it something you include from draft one, or does it evolve from themes you notice while revising? Is there a place for symbolism in modern literature?

At one point I tried to write a short story about candle magic. Each candle’s color gives the act of lighting it a different meaning. In my story, the main character burned various candles to prevent a wiccan/witch/voodoo priestess-type from stealing a Christmas tree from the town square. I realize that wiccans, witches, and voodoo priestess are very different, but back then I had the tendency to make up whatever I wanted and call it magical realism. The candle magic was my (super overt) attempt to inject symbolism into my story. Horrible implementation, but I was inspired by the greats:

  • The green lantern in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby
  • Rosebud in Thomas Keneally’s novel Schindler’s List
  • The titular raven in Poe’s iconic poem

A big problem with my failed candle magic story is that I’d describe a scene where the character is—for example—jealous of his aunt who won the lottery. Then I’d mention that a green candle was burning in the background. No one likes being hit over the head with symbolism, but if I’d ever finished that story a few concussions may have resulted. I like to think that I write for an intelligent audience, and there’s no use insulting their intelligence by pointing out things they already know.


So what about you, Reader, any attempts at tackling symbolism? … or candle magic?

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