Picture, if you will, a dog.
No particular kind of dog. Just the first dog that pops into your head. I’ll wait.
Got a dog in mind? Good. Which of these specimens would you say is most like the dog you have pictured?
When I give my students this exercise, I ask a few volunteers to briefly describe the dog they pictured. Here’s a sample of real (paraphrased) answers I’ve gotten:
“My lab mix who is my best friend.”
“My dog that me and my dad take hunting.”
“My poodle who competes in dog shows.”
“My neighbor’s goofy fat dachshund.”
“My aunt’s stupid chihuahua that she carries around in her purse.”
“The doge meme.”
We all have a good laugh at the silly dogs in our lives. Then I ask my student volunteer: what does the dog you pictured mean to you?
Sometimes they get what I’m going for instantly and rattle off a few concepts like friendship, loyalty, or love. But if I need to prompt them, I might say, “You said your dog is a show dog. Why? Why does she compete in dog shows?”
It’s fun, my student might say. Or, we breed poodles for shows and we’re proud of her. It’s exciting to compete with other dogs. It’s a tradition in my family. As the student talks, I write on the board: fun, pride, excitement, competition, tradition. I’ll ask him which of those he thinks he associates most with the dog, and he’ll pick two or three.
Congratulations, I tell my student. You just created a symbol.
Symbolism, that great crutch of many a mediocre student paper, is one of those things that students find both fascinating and infuriating. Anything can be a symbol! And, ugh, anything can be a symbol. Everything’s a symbol! But sometimes it’s not a symbol! But how do we know when it’s a symbol? How do we know when the curtains are just blue?
A symbol is a thing that stands in for one or more of your big ideas: a picture of an idea. When you are reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain wants you to have a picture in your head of the Mississippi River whenever you think about Huck and Jim’s quest to find freedom. On the flip side, whenever you think about what freedom means to Huck and Jim, he wants you to immediately think also of the Mississippi River. In the world he has created, they are one and the same.
Sometimes symbols change their meaning, or have different meanings for different people (or characters). In Shakespeare’s Othello, Desdemona’s white handkerchief with the embroidered strawberries is the first gift Othello ever gave her, so to her, it represents his love for her. To Othello himself, the handkerchief is more complicated. It’s a family heirloom, passed down from his mother and father, so on one level it represents faithfulness in marriage. But the white cloth patterned with red also makes him think of Desdemona’s innocence and chastity. But once Iago has gotten his claws into Othello, he is able to twist the meaning of the handkerchief in Othello’s mind so that Othello comes to associate it with Desdemona’s infidelity and treachery. That the characters imbue a tiny scrap of cloth with so many layers of meaning is one of the many elements that makes Othello a great play, but it’s also something we all do, all the time. Think about the amount of meaning people make with flags.
So back to the dogs: you’ve pictured one, and whatever dog you pictured means something to do. Let’s play around with your symbols now. I ask my students to write down what the dog means to them at the top of a fresh piece of paper. Then they jot down a few actions – things the dog does, or that you do with the dog – and objects that they associate with their particular dog. We expand their symbols, giving them more layers of meaning as we add to the picture. The progression ends up looking something like this:
Their assignment is now to write a healthy paragraph (eight to ten sentences) about their dog that is actually about one of the concepts the dog now symbolizes, using their notes for inspiration. Students go to town on this paragraph. Realizing they are creating meaning makes them feel like magicians. And every so often, I get to read a touching and hilarious story about how my student fell in love for the first time after bonding with the girl over the Doge Meme.
PS: The curtains are almost never just blue. Sometimes they’re not that important. But the writer probably didn’t get you to picture blue curtains by accident.
Image sources: thelabradorsite.com, puppiesclub.com, westminsterkennelclub.org, telegraph.co.uk, akc.org, knowyourmeme.com