Allegories: The Ups and Downs

Cruciblecover
Cover of The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Image taken from Wikipedia. Fair use.

Lately I’ve been reading Arthur Miller‘s classic play The Crucible with my 11th grade Honors students, and I’m loving the experience. Reading it aloud in class with them has reminded me of when I first discovered the play as an 11th grade student myself, and its powerful characters with strong moral themes still resonate with me today. In fact, I tend to get so caught up in the action of the play, in the brilliant character dynamics and the almost otherworldly setting of early Puritan America, that I almost forget a few things. I forget that the play was written much later than it takes place—within the last century rather than in the 1600s—and that the author wrote it as an allegory for the social and political climate of his own time.

Now, why would I gloss over such an important historical detail, and one that is well established as the greatest influence for the writing of the play? Maybe it’s because allegories get a bad rap sometimes—and, sometimes, they deserve it. Oftentimes, when we think of allegories, what comes to mind is childish fairy tales with thinly veiled symbolism and much too didactic moral messages. I am reminded of stories like the Chronicles of Narnia—a series which, though I enjoy and respect it to a great degree, is understandably considered by some readers obvious and simplistic in its symbolism. Of course, I’m also reminded of some of my own science fiction and fantasy writings from five or more years ago that I kind of cringe to remember, because the Christian symbolism was similarly thinly veiled and rather unoriginal. (Heck, I know someone in a Christian writers’ community who even used the word “allegories” in the title of an independently published graphic novel. It’s like some authors aren’t even trying to hide it.)

The point is that allegories are sometimes looked down upon these days, because when they’re too obvious, they can come across as preachy and pretentious—a moral message disguised as a work of fiction rather than a genuine creative work itself. I saw an internet article once that, when poking fun at heavy-handed symbolism in a popular contemporary novel, jokingly called the author “C.S. Lewis.” And that got me thinking. First, my English major nature thought things like, “Well, if you think C.S. Lewis’ symbolism was so heavy-handed, then maybe you should go read ‘Young Goodman Brown‘ by Nathaniel Hawthorne and be glad for C.S. Lewis. And if you think that’s too much, then you should go read The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, in which pretty much every character’s name equates to some moral concept like ‘Charity’ or ‘Despair’ or ‘Faithless.’ But once I let my snarky English major side calm down a bit, I got to thinking, “well, aren’t there right and wrong ways to do symbolism and allegories in ways that today’s audiences will accept?”

And the answer is that, of course, there are. After all (though I personally haven’t seen it yet), wasn’t there recently a very popular movie in which the characters were just living embodiments of emotion? And aren’t some of the superheroes I like, the Green Lanterns and their multi-colored associates, based largely on the same thing, harnessing their powers from will or fear or hope and rage?

It’s not that symbolism—or direct thematic conveyances of emotion—are entirely shunned in today’s culture. It’s just that those elements have to be coupled with others, too—like good characters and a good story, which every compelling work of fiction should have anyway.

I remember writing a paper on the allegorical nature of The Faerie Queene, and how it (or at least the part we read in class, because the whole thing is super long) is pretty much just a Christian knight battling monsters who represent different sins, and using supernatural help to overcome them. My professor recommended a book called The Allegorical Temper, which I ended up citing in my paper. I don’t have exact quotes handy anymore, but the author’s consensus was that allegories only work if they’re stories as well. They shouldn’t be only moral messages, but they should be able to function on two levels, as messages conveyed through a good story. If a character represents an idea, then the character shouldn’t completely disappear into that idea; they should still be a well-developed, fleshed out character who is enjoyable and compelling to read about, like any other character should be. Then whatever underlying messages are present may still come through, but without overpowering the story for what it’s supposed to be.

Animal Farm
Copy of Animal Farm by George Orwell. Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

In hindsight, I’m not sure I can say that The Faerie Queene meets that goal particularly well. Obviously, more than a few direct allegories have been good enough to make their way into the classic canon of literature, and yet they vary in how much they actually tell a story beyond just the allegory. I recently started rereading George Orwell‘s Animal Farm because I’ll be teaching it too later in the year. Of course, my memory may be flawed because I haven’t read it in a decade, but I seem to remember the symbolism in that book being fairly thinly-veiled as well. Different animals correspond directly to different people or social classes involved in the Russian revolution, and the plot is narration-heavy without a lot of room for extra character development. The anti-totalitarian theme—a political message if not necessarily a moral one—comes through very directly, and the entire story seems to be there to serve that theme.

But again, consider The Crucible. It’s well known that Arthur Miller wrote it as a caution against the militant McCarthyism sweeping through 1950s America. Thus, the judges conducting the Salem witch trials within the text of the play are analogous to the anti-Communist courts of Miller’s era, and the town of Salem can be seen as a warning against America following a similar path. But that’s about it. That’s where the allegories end. John Proctor, the main hero of the story, doesn’t directly represent goodness or sin or anything like that. He’s a well-developed, realistic character with both good and bad traits, who just acts in accordance with his personality based on the events of the story. Abigail Williams, the main antagonist, isn’t directly representative of any one person or philosophy in Miller’s time. She’s just the villain, acting on evil motives but not on the author’s determination to drive home a moral point. The characters have lives and stories of their own that stretch beyond the text of the page and can exist independently of the author’s anti-McCarthyist sentiment.

To summarize: if you’re ever trying to write an allegory, or any story with an above-average amount of symbolism, know how to do it well. Include your symbolism and the themes and meanings you want it to represent, but don’t lose sight of writing a good story beyond that. Develop your plot and characters first and foremost so that the deeper messages can really come through in an engaging, compelling, and powerful way.

Philosophy in Writing: Crafting Your Story

 In this final installment of my Philosophy in Writing series I would like to review and put everything together instead of discuss of anything new. In my first post I talked a lot about what means can be used to show both your philosophy and the intended message of the story. I specifically talked a lot about symbols and how important they are in any story. The symbols you choose are most obvious vehicles of your philosophy and it is important to think very carefully about them. Whether something is symbolized as good or evil, light or dark, or any of the other limitless possibilities will ultimately determine how the reader will interpret your story, and thus, what message you send. For this reason I emphasized the importance of being intentionally implicit or explicit in your symbolism and philosophy. Obvious symbols may be easier to interpret correctly, but as I pointed out, Tolkien believed an implicit truth is more likely to have longer lasting effects on the reader. In the case of Tolkien, his symbolism and philosophy was so deeply embedded into his writing that there are still aspects of his writing that prompt debates between scholars.

                This leads me into yet another topic that I brought up; the author’s intent. As an author you want your ideas and concepts to be understood clearly but this will not always happen because every reader brings some amount of subjectivity and presuppositions to what they read. You have to balance the explicitly obvious ideas that you are presenting with the more subtle implicit ones to be most effective in communicating your overall goals. The reader is, in essence, the final piece of your story. You write as much for them as for the story itself, and your work will, ideally, have an impact on their lives an change the way they think about the world. This is a huge responsibility to bear, but it is also a great privilege that we have as writers. Even if only a few people ever read your works, you will still impact those people in some way.

ImageNow, along the lines of author’s intent I discussed the importance of experimenting with different ideologies and systems of belief than your own. Diversity to your style will not only attract a larger audience of readers, it will also allow you to understand people groups in a much more intimate way; even if you disagree with them, you will at least gain a common ground to begin with and can find a connection there. What’s more, it will improve your over-all writing style and allow you to write characters with more depth and diversity of emotions and reactions because of their unique view of the world. Learning about different philosophies or beliefs and the concepts that must be accepted to make them work will not only improve your writing, but also strengthen your own views on life, or maybe even change them (and this is not necessarily a bad thing). In conclusion, philosophy is as important in shaping your story as it is in how you story will be understood, and as such it should be embraced and utilized to its fullest extent in the writings of every good author.

Dead Flowers

Kind of a depressing image, but a powerful one for me.
Kind of a depressing image, but a powerful one for me.

Well, it’s been a crazy couple days. Finals week + long plane trip sitting behind screaming Russian twin babies + Jewish/Gaelic wedding + severe lack of sleep + adjusting to a 2 hour time zone difference + 5 siblings all excited to see me and wanting to talk my ear off = exhausted me. So this week, I’m taking a break from my current series on deficiencies in my writing (and how I fix them), and I’m going to give you all another one of my short stories. This one is a short piece I wrote earlier this year, one of my rare 3rd person stories, and is an amalgamation of three very painful relationships I went through in the past few years, all tied up into one story of a relationship between a man and a woman. I hope you enjoy.

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He had given her the rosebush a few months ago, when the flowers were just beginning to open. She could just barely see the soft red petals starting to show through the new green buds. With a soft exclamation of delight, she set the pretty blue pot on the little antique table beneath the window, right next to her favorite chair. The plant was beautiful, she said. She loved it. She threw her arms around his neck, and to his surprise, left a soft kiss on his lips. Their first kiss. He responded in kind, drawing her closer, wrapping his arms around her waist as the sunbeams streamed through the window and bathed the little rosebush in golden light. The barely opened blossoms seemed to be drinking in the warmth of the happy couple even as it absorbed the warmth of the sun. It was a beautiful day.

Days passed. The little rosebush was taken good care of by its mistress. She carefully watered it every day, letting the cool water sink into the soft dark soil with delight. She gave it just the right amount of sunlight, too, and gently trimmed the newly formed thorns that threatened to scratch her hands when she came close. She would sit there sometimes, staring dreamily at the new flowers, talking to them as if they could really hear her. The buds opened fully over the course of several days, and the vibrancy of the deep red petals seemed to fill the little sitting room with a bright, lively color that it had been missing before. Sometimes the man would come to visit, and he would sit on dilapidated green velvet couch next to the plant’s table, and the woman would sit on his lap, her head on his shoulder. She would look over at the delicate roses, smile at him, and then lean in to kiss him again. They would sit there for hours, whispering things the rosebush couldn’t hear, smiling and laughing together. Sometimes it seemed like the plant’s leaves were going to burst out over the edge of the pot and trail along the table towards the couple, as if longing to share in the happiness that seemed to glow and fill the whole place with warmth. The whole room was alive, thriving and growing alongside the two young humans and the little rosebush near the window.   

I love roses....
I love roses….

One day, the rosebush wasn’t watered. It waited patiently, anxiously for her to come in with her plastic green cup and speak to the flowers as their roots thirstily soaked up the moisture. But she didn’t even come in the room. As the sun sank in a rosy glow of orange and purple, the little bush drooped a little, curling in its leaves ever so slightly. She hadn’t even come in to say hello. She came in at the right time the next morning and gave the little plant some water, but it was like she hadn’t even noticed that she had forgotten to come in the day before. She didn’t speak to the rosebush this time, either. Just poured out the water over the fragile blooms and left. She hadn’t even noticed the way the flowers sagged. The rosebush was sad as she left, maybe even a little hurt. What was wrong? She had never forgotten before.

That night, the man came over again. He didn’t kiss the woman this time, though. The two humans sat on the couch, a slight distance between them. The rosebush watched anxiously, nervous even though it didn’t know why. The man started talking, but the woman interrupted him. Within moments they were arguing, her face flushed a bright pink, and a slight red crept above his collar. The plant cringed slightly, drawing back into its’ pot, confused as the woman burst into tears. The man wrapped his arms around her, looking embarrassed. He played with her hair, told her he was sorry. He shouldn’t have yelled at her like that. She sniffled slightly, but told him it was ok. He looked around, and plucked a flower off the rosebush, tucking it behind her ear and smiling. They should just go to dinner and forget this ever happened, he said. She smiled slightly, and he led her out of the room, her hand in hers. The rosebush perked up noticeably as they left. Everything was ok now.

And everything was fine, for a while. She came in every day to give the rosebush water, and she confided in it again like it was her best friend. The man came over almost every day, and they would sit on the couch again, happy and smiling. The little plant especially loved the times when the man would stand up, bow, and ask the woman to dance. They would sway back and forth in the middle of the room, their arms wrapped around each other as the music played softly in the background. The leaves on the rosebush would sway back and forth in time with the music too, sometimes, seemingly glowing with something akin to happiness. The bush grew healthier and more vibrant every day, the leaves becoming greener, the petals brighter red, and new buds appearing on the stems, thriving under the loving care of the woman. She seemed to glow herself, always smiling and happy. Together, they were absolutely perfect.

Don't forget to water your flowers, people.
Don’t forget to water your flowers, people.
(Shutterstock Images)

She forgot to water the plant again one rainy day, months later. The little bush didn’t mind. It thought she’d just come in and bring the water the next day, like she did before. But this time was different. She came in and sat down on the couch, staring listlessly out the window, her arms wrapped around her knees, tight against her chest. The plant was confused. It had never seen her like this before. She didn’t say anything, didn’t move, didn’t make a sound. Just sat there for hours and then left without so much as glancing at the little plant. All the flowers began to droop, worried about her. Something was wrong.

Days passed. Hot, sunny, cloudless days. She still didn’t water the rosebush, or even move it out of the burning light that hurt the little plant, made it sick. She didn’t even remember to trim back the thorns. She still came into the room, but it was like she didn’t even see her plant. She would just curl up on the couch, motionless. She never made a sound, just stared out the window or at the wall with eyes that didn’t see anything. It was like she had forgotten that the rosebush even existed, and that’s what hurt the plant most of all. Its leaves began to curl up, folding in on themselves, and it wasn’t just because of the heat or the lack of water.

The man came over sometimes, but the plant could tell things were different. They didn’t cuddle on the couch anymore, and if he kissed her, it was just on the cheek. He never asked her to dance, either. It made the little plant sad. The air seemed cold now whenever the two humans were together. They would sit for long periods of time without even speaking to each other. They didn’t even notice the rosebush, its petals slowly becoming dry, the leaves turning brown. Every time the man left, walking out the door without so much as an “I love you,” another petal drifted gently through the air to land on the table, dry and colorless. But they never noticed, never even looked as the rosebush slowly died.

The day came at last when everything ended. He came over again, but they didn’t sit in frigid silence this time. They began to argue. Hot, angry words flew through the air, tossed back and forth in passion. The rosebush couldn’t even shrink back in fear as it watched the couple get up in each other’s faces, screaming, crying, unhappy. It didn’t even have the strength to feel sad as the two people bitterly let loose all their frustration, their complaints, their pain. And then, in the space of a sentence, it stopped. The rosebush couldn’t tell who said it, but that didn’t change the facts: it was over. He would never come over again. She wouldn’t say “I love you” anymore. She collapsed on the floor, sobbing, bumping into the table as she fell. He jammed his hat on his head and walked out the door without a second glance, not even looking back as the pot on the table wobbled slightly, then rolled off the edge and onto the floor with a loud crash. Pottery shards littered the floor, and the plant lay there, lifeless, its leaves crumpled into dust. She continued to cry violently, surrounded by pieces of broken pottery and desiccated roses. Everything was gone now. Everything was dead. Just like the flowers.