I am a HUGE fan of symbolism in every artistic medium. I always look for it in literature and movies specifically, and I always include it in my writing, no matter how short the piece is. Symbolism is an essential part of my work, and the great thing about it is that a reader can choose to look for it and find it, or they can ignore it and still enjoy the piece.
I’ve had lots of people ask me how to layer stories with symbolism, some obvious symbols while others may not be so obvious. It might be best to answer this question through examples in both literature and film that I can show you through a series of blog posts. I’m going to start with an easy one: Harriet Craig.
The movie Harriet Craig (1950) with Joan Crawford and Wendell Corey is a prime example of good symbolism that doesn’t have to be noticed but adds to the enjoyment of the film. Quick synopsis: Harriet Craig is a cold, manipulative control freak wife who will lie to her husband, Walter, about anything in order to keep him all to herself and following her rules. She has no boundaries as to how far she’ll go to make sure her marriage stays in tact – and she covers her tracks well. Her husband is a trusting, loving man who doesn’t catch on to her scheming ways, though his friends and others see her for what she is.
That being said, Harriet has a lot of rules about her house and how it should be kept: make sure the blinds are closed by 11 a.m. every day so the sun doesn’t fade the furniture, keep the expensive vase away from the edge of the mantle, don’t sit on the arm of the chair, never throw anything (like a newspaper) down but instead place it neatly. She treats her husband more like a son and constantly chastises him. A couple of people mention that the house is cold and lifeless “like a thing that died and has been laid out”.
There’s a particular chair in the house that looks ornamental although it’s meant for sitting, but even more importantly it’s stiff and hard. If you watch
carefully, you’ll see that Walter can’t get comfortable on that chair, even with a pillow. Harriet, however, feels perfectly comfortable on it. This is representative of their differences in personality. Walter is a warm person and can’t stand sitting in the stiff chair, but Harriet is a cold person and feels right at home on it. The only time Walter is able to sit on the chair is towards the end of the movie when he rearranges the pillows and lies down on it once he has decided to take back control of his house. He takes control of his comfort in the chair just as he is about to take control of Harriet.
Little things like this are easy to put into your story as light but still important symbolism. Think about what your characters have in common or their differences. Now think about their environments, even their work. How can you implement this same tactic to insert a layer of depth in your story? The good thing about this type of symbolism is that it can be stated relatively outright and still not seem out of place. You don’t have to worry too much about presenting it artistically if you don’t want to; the point of it is to be more towards the surface of the story instead of buried deep inside.