The Writer in the Jungle of Symbolism: Watch out, you're surrounded!
This picture of me taken by my son while were were on a hike in the wilds of the Florida Keys a few years ago can be milked so nicely for symbolism, I thought I'd use it again. Look at me, smiling in the jungle, but what is the meaning of that smile? And the white shirt? The relaxed pose? All this while the dead palm frond just behind me looks like a threatening hand? And why the jungle? Lots and lots of symbols can be conjured out of a jungle. But the truth is, I just stopped and turned around and he took the picture. No planning, no intended symbolism.
I think there is a truism here: Writer's don't think about symbolism as much as critics and professors of literature do. Hemingway said that a writer should never knowingly put symbols into his/her work but when the work is finished, it should be full of them. For example, in this picture you might think that I'm actually trying to look like Hemingway. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, I have the graying beard, and yes the adventurer's white shirt, and yes, I'm in the jungle and I may even have had drink or two. But no, Hemingway was the last guy on my mind. It just happens to be the way I look and the way I live.
And so it goes with writing. For example, Hemingway's justly famous story, "Hills Like White Elephants" seems to be about an unwanted pregnancy and a possible upcoming abortion, though Hemingway never mentions these things. Literary prospectors, mining the story for symbolic gold, have blasted out all sorts of fools gold ideas. Like the white hills resemble the shape of a pregnant woman's belly or, and here's a good one, the white elephant is, according to the dictionary, a property not worth the effort of owning and so would be the unwanted baby. I've been to white elephant parties and ended up with junk I saved for the next white elephant party, but I never ended up with a baby.
To my knowledge, Hemingway was never asked about the symbolism in this story and I doubt he would have answered anyway. My take on it is that Hemingway liked elephants, had recently been hunting them in Africa, liked the way the distant hills resembled them, and figured they gave the story the background mood he wanted; so he used them.
Here's what Hemingway actually said about the purported symbolism in The Old Man and the Sea:
So we need, I think, to be careful with the symbols, to go easy, not try too hard. If, as Hemingway said, we make our characters and places real enough and true enough, they can mean different things to different people. That is, the reader will find the symbols that meet his/her needs in the work of the artist. And that, after all, is the real purpose and joy of art.