One-Minute Book Reviews

March 21, 2007

Flannery O’Connor on the Purpose of Symbols in Fiction … Quote of the Day #14

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Classics,Essays and Reviews,Fiction,Literature,Novels,Quotes of the Day,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:15 pm

Flannery O’Connor on symbols in fiction …

“Now the word symbol scares a good many people off, just as the word art does. They seem to feel that a symbol is some mysterious thing put in arbitrarily by the writer to frighten the common reader — sort of a literary Masonic grip that is only for the initiated …

“I think that for the fiction writer himself, symbols are something he uses simply as a matter of course. You might say that these are details that, while having their essential place in the literal level of the story, operate in depth as well as on the surface, increasing the story in every direction.

“I think that the way to read a book is always to see what happens, but in a good novel, more always happens than we are able to take in at once, more happens than meets the eye. The mind is led on by what it sees into the greater depths that the book’s symbols naturally suggest. This is what is meant when critics say that a novel operates on several levels. The truer the symbol, the deeper it leads you, the more meaning it opens up.”

Flannery O’Connor in “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Selected and edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1969.

Comment by Janice Harayda:
Flannery O’Connor wrote these words more than three decades ago, when symbols might have scared off the common reader but not critics. Have you noticed how symbols now seem to scare critics, too? Newspapers and magazines regularly publish reviews that make no attempt to deal with symbols in long and complex novels that obviously have levels of meaning. This is often a sign that those publications are using weak or timid critics. It can also be a sign that that editors are allowing those critics to avoid dealing with books in all their complexity.

Mystery and Manners is one of the great books of the 20th century on the art and craft of writing. It is one of the few books on writing that I recommend to all fiction writers and readers who look for the “greater depths” in novel or short story. Another quote from Mystery and Manners appears in the March 12 post, archived with the March 2007 posts in and in the “Quotes of the Day” category.

(c) Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


  1. Literature is what lies between the lines of fiction.

    Comment by heehler — March 21, 2007 @ 10:32 pm | Reply

  2. Nice line. It can also be what lies between the lines of nonfiction and poetry.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — March 22, 2007 @ 9:55 am | Reply

  3. Nice line? Not exceptionally clever? …tough crowd.

    Comment by heehler — March 22, 2007 @ 6:43 pm | Reply

  4. Actually, it was exceptionally clever. But you see what happens when you read too much Mitch Albom? Or “The Power of Nice”? You start using wimpy words like “nice.” Any day now, I’m probably going to be telling people who leave comments here that they’re among the “Five People You Meet in Heaven” (as Mitch would say) …

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — March 22, 2007 @ 10:02 pm | Reply

  5. I graduated from one of the Seven Sisters colleges, in the days when that was the female Ivy League – yet I had no idea what a symbol was until, 3 years later in graduate school, I got up the courage to admit my ignorance and ask a graduate student of English. I still don’t recognize a symbol unless it comes with a capital S – or a critic points it out, so the entire discussion above conveys no information to my mind.

    Can anyone suggest a way to correct this abysmal ignorance?

    Comment by Azalea — August 17, 2009 @ 11:35 am | Reply

    • Have you considered doing what a lot of art and literary critics do and keeping a dictionary of symbols handy? There are many good ones, such as J.E. Cirlot’s 400+ page A Dictionary of Symbols” (Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1993). And most large libraries and many smaller ones have at least one in the reference section. These dictionaries can help if, for example, you see that a certain novelist or poet uses a certain image over and over — or just once in a very prominent way — and you don’t understand why. If you look up the image, it may shed light on that work, sometimes enough that everything clicks into place.

      In my experience, good dictionaries of symbols can help with those small S symbols, because there are so many — objects, shapes, colors and more — that even the best-educated critics can’t know them all. But maybe you’ve tried this or had something else in mind?

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — August 18, 2009 @ 1:02 am | Reply

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