FINDING THE SYMBOL. I posted here about my experience of beginning ULYSSES and feeling that I had entered a world where “every word is meant to have associations and everything is a symbol.” It seems to me that Joyce has had an influence on how we read and how students are taught to read. The symbolic meaning is often taken as the primary meaning. Mary Jane commented to me that her experience in teaching college English in the 1970’s was that her students seemed to have come to believe in high school that reading poetry was a matter of finding symbols and guessing what the teacher thought the symbols meant. RAB in this post describes similar experiences with her students (“How many students have triumphantly announced that “the rose in this poem is a symbol of love” and then had nothing to say when asked why, or in what way, or what that possibility added to the poem as a whole?”) I fear that Joyce and modernists have had an influence on something else that RAB has encountered: “the common student assumption that poetry is, somehow, a secret language….” RAB points out that the student sentence in her caption (“An allegory is used to make the reader think one thing and then find out they were wrong and something else happened.”) shows that: “Clearly the student is seeing the writer as intending to mislead the reader, wielding a weapon of obfuscation and deception.”

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  1. My favorite statement on symbols: Samuel Beckett’s novel WATT, a very dizzying and difficult reading experience, but Like Faulkner’s THE SOUND AND THE FURY, WATT has “notes” at the end. The final note? “No symbols where none intended.” Terrific, eh? I really do love it. But it’s almost in the same class of helpfulness as the famous piece of paper, “The statement on the other side is true” on one side, “The statement on the other side is false” on the other. A high school friend of mine showed me that one. Okay, now I’m off-topic….

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