by Sandra Parshall
I’ll tell you a secret about symbolism in fiction: Most of the time writers don’t realize they’re using it.
If a symbol seems heavy-handed and obvious, the author probably used it deliberately. If the symbolism is more subtle, adding depth and texture to the story without hitting the reader in the face, it probably sprang from the writer’s subconscious and made its way to the page without examination. The writer might not recognize its meaning until an editor or reader points it out.
By now I’ve talked about my first novel, The Heat of the Moon, with a lot of people, but I’m still fascinated by readers’ insights and the layers of meaning they find in the characters, their relationships, and even the objects surrounding them. Last week I attended a book group discussion that left me feeling the 22 members knew my book better than I did.
The group leader, Polly, is a retired teacher who makes the kind of charts that most of us remember from high school English classes. I was so impressed that at the end of the meeting I asked if I could have the big sheets of paper she’d used to note important points made during the group’s discussion of my book. I’m referring to them as I write this.
Polly described The Heat of the Moon as “Rachel’s Journey of Self-discovery” and noted the themes of identity, mother-daughter conflicts, motherhood, and the meaning of family. Of course, I was well aware of these elements when I wrote the book and couldn’t have written it otherwise.
When the group moved on to symbolism, though, I was astonished at how much meaning they found in every aspect of the story. Here are a few things they picked up on:
The wounded wildlife Rachel is rehabbing – animals that are kept in cages. The readers saw a parallel with Rachel’s psychic wounds and the cage – Judith’s (Mother’s) house – she lives in.
The weeping cherry (a gift from Judith to Rachel), the tall yews (poisonous plants) that hide Judith’s house from onlookers, Judith’s perfect garden (which Rachel eventually tries to destroy), the flower arrangements that must be just right, the sycamores whose white trunks glow like ghosts in the late-day sun. The readers felt all of these contributed to the menacing atmosphere of the book and represented the destructive nature of the mother/daughter relationship.
The house itself, with its locked and/or forbidden rooms, its secret files and hidden boxes filled with old photos and records. This is Judith’s fortress, the setting of her contrived dream life for the dream family she has stolen from someone else. The dream crumbles when Rachel begins opening doors and venturing into forbidden spaces.
I don’t think the readers got anything wrong, and it was an extraordinary experience to hear a large group discuss The Heat of the Moon with such deep understanding and appreciation. I loved it, and I learned a few things about myself as a writer. I may reread The Heat of the Moon in light of this discussion.
For a bit I was concerned that thinking too much about symbolism in one book would make me self-conscious of any symbols that crop up in future work, but I know my mind well enough to realize that won’t happen. The area of my brain where such things percolate isn’t easy to access directly. It’s going to do its thing the way it always has, regardless of what I’m thinking on the surface level. Later, when the book is published, readers will tell me what it all means.