When first exposed to Shakespeare, I raised my hand and challenged the teacher: "You're reading too much into it," I said. "No one is going write that way."
We were arguing about symbolism. I had a notion that writers wrote, that it was fluid and not a tortuous process in which sentences were constructed like tonka toys. I turned up my nose at the idea that some writers mixed words with the deliberateness of an artist mixing oils on a palate. My belief was that English teachers were trying to justify their jobs by putting fur on ducks and calling them dogs.
In short, I was an idiot.
Time passed, and so did my appreciation for literature. Nothing helps one appreciate the deliberateness of writing though like engaging in writing itself. What I discovered was that Bradbury did indeed deliberately use the 'hot' and 'cold', 'summer' and 'winter' motifs in "Something Wicked This Way Comes". I acknowledged that in "Grapes of Wrath" that there were all manner of religious allusion as well as a sound undercurrent of Marxist respect for the dignity of the proletariat. I came to believe and accept that Hemingway in all his glorious simplicity and pared back narrative created the most basic metaphor for life in "The Old Man and The Sea".
What I also learned was that symbolism, motifs, and foreshadowing, while enriching the novel, did not necessarily have to detract from the narrative. In important works of art, they were actually intrinsic to the narrative.
In my unpublished novel "Palpable Illusion", I have carefully inlaid a Norse mythology motif [by the way I am not comparing myself to Shakespeare, Bradbury, Steinbeck, or Hemingway]. It echoes the idea that the corrupt may seek redemption, but until they forsake that which makes them corrupt (in the case of the Norse gods that would be power) that redemption is impossible. To illustrate how I introduce the motif, here is a scene from the beginning of the novel.
“Promises were made to be broken,” said James Maloney, the man driving.
“Promises were made to be broken,” Maloney repeated, nodding toward the giant twin cooling towers of a nuclear power plant.
These few lines are a direct reference to Wagner's Odin (king of the Norse Gods), who breaks his promises to two giants who build his royal palace--a break that leads to the fall of Asgard and the arrival of Ragnarok (the end times). The line is actually used several times throughout the novel. It is also the first line spoken by the villain of the story and it is an obvious clue as to his character.
Now, will readers catch the allusions to Norse mythology that run through the novel? Maybe not. Probably not. But they are there, and in my opinion, they enrich the work. They allow it to operate at different levels. They add to the motivation of the characters, they solidify the theme. They do not interrupt or distract.
What about the works of modern popular writers? Do Laurell K. Hamilton, Robert B. Parker, or Jim Butcher use symbolism? What about Dan Brown? Clive Cussler?
Graham Greene, the English novelist who gave us "The Power and the Glory", wrote that he considered his work to fall into one of two categories: literature and entertainment. Literature was deliberate, thoughtful. Literature attempted to be uplifting and to address the human condition. Entertainment was a diversion. It was meant to be disposable.
I've looked at my own writing that way. Sometimes I try and write literature. Sometimes, I just try and tell a story.