Reading symbols

It may be mere idle speculation, but I can’t help wondering why it is we so clearly recognise Ibsen’s Wild Duck to be a symbol, and, equally clearly, recognise Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles not to be a symbol. Is it simply that we go to these works with different expectations, and that these expectations colour our responses? That’s certainly part of it, I think. It is also, perhaps, that The Hound of the Baskervilles makes perfect sense without the symbolism, but The Wild Duck doesn’t.

But this may be disputed. Why shouldn’t The Wild Duck make perfect sense if we see the wild duck as no more than the physical entity that it is? I think I’d argue that to see it as such wouldn’t be a particularly satisfactory way of looking at the work. The wild duck itself is not central to the plot, in the way the Baskerville hound is: if we were to see the wild duck but as a wild duck, we would be left wondering why so much attention is paid to something that the mere mechanics of the plot don’t really need. The introduction of the wild duck; the attention given to what is, merely in terms of plot, no more than an incidental detail; and also, in this case, the title itself indicating its importance; are all sufficient to convince us of an importance attached to this duck that quite transcends the plot.

Of course, it may be maintained that the Hound, too, is symbolic of something or other. But this would, I guess, strike most readers as foolish. Seeing the Hound purely for what it is, without any symbolic overtones, does not in any way diminish the impact of the novel; indeed, it may be argued that seeing the Hound as possessing more significance than the plot allows is to detract from the thing. I’m sure that hasn’t prevented over-zealous interpreters: I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there were to exist learned papers and theses pontificating on the symbolical significance of the Hound from Hell. But be that as it may, I think I’m on fairly safe ground when I say the Wild Duck is a symbol, and the Hound of the Baskervilles isn’t.

But now comes the tricky bit: if the Wild Duck is indeed symbolic, what is it a symbol of? This question is tricky not because it is difficult to think of plausible symbolic interpretations of the Wild Duck, but because identifying the symbol, or symbols, seems to diminish the richness of the work. It appears to insist on a single meaning, or a single set of meanings, when, before interpretation, a far greater wealth of possibilities seemed available. And even when we may come up with multiple interpretations of a symbol, the sum of the various interpretations seems less than the symbol’s potential. Ibsen’s Wild Duck seems a prime example of this. There are other examples too. As soon as you pin a meaning on the White Whale, on the Scarlet Letter worn by Hester Prynne, on Krook’s spontaneous combustion or on Kafka’s Castle, the potential of what these things may mean seems diminished.

Of course, there are exceptions. Sometimes, symbols can mean one thing and one thing only, and that meaning is fairly obvious. Bunyan, for instance, used to spelled it out: Giant Despair symbolised despair, the Slough of despond symbolised despond, Vanity Fair symbolised … Well, you get the idea. These symbols are intended not so much to suggest what isn’t explicitly stated, but to underline, and clarify, the author’s ideas. I suppose we may class these as “allegory”. But leaving aside such allegories, we are left with a problem: how should we, as readers, respond to symbols and to symbolism? Treating a symbol as something that signifies no more than what it physically is seems inadequate; and yet, various interpretations of what the symbol may mean seem reductive.

Perhaps – and I use the adverb advisedly, as I am not at all sure of what now follows – perhaps, I think, it might help if we were to think of symbols themselves in a different way. Perhaps we should accept that a symbol may carry various resonances, but at the same time, refrain from pinning the symbol down to anything, or any group of things, specific. Perhaps we should allow a symbol to gather different associations as the work proceeds, and try to see the connections and relationships between these various things that have been gathered upon this single symbol, but not insist upon any specific meaning for the symbol itself. Is that possible? Is it possible to see Kafka’s Castle as an obscure and distant presence; as an authoritarian and bureaucratic institution that may contain some great wisdom at its heart, but to which we are denied access; as a seemingly sinister and oppressive power; and so on, and so forth; but not think of this Castle as a symbol for God?

At this point, it seems reasonable to ask why writers employ symbols in the first place. That is not an easy question to answer, but I think we can answer the question of what writers don’t set out to do: they don’t set out to create a puzzle for the reader to solve. That is the realm merely of the whodunit. If symbols serve any purpose at all, it is to help the author communicate matters that language, by itself, cannot communicate.

At least, this is how it seems to me, immersed as I currently am in the late, symbol-rich plays of Ibsen. Much of literature, it seems to me, is an expression of that which words are not designed to express. For there are limits on what we may communicate with words: Sibelius had famously said that “Music begins where the possibilities of language end”. But that seems to imply that, as a mode of expression, music is superior to literature – that literature can only get us so far, but that beyond that point, it is to music that we must turn. But things are not, I think, so simple. The best authors are capable of communicating far more than words, unaided, can: they can force words to convey far more than merely their dictionary meanings. If Kafka had merely intended his Castle to represent God, he could simply have told us; that he didn’t tell us doesn’t mean he was playing games with us, but, rather, that what the Castle means is not something that can be put into words. It goes beyond “where the possibilities of language ends”.

And it is in this spirit I am trying currently to read Ibsen. The last twelve plays of his, the “Ibsen Cycle” as they are sometimes known, are often considered the epitome of dramatic realism, but that hardly begins to do them justice. For Ibsen was always a poet, even when writing in everyday prose, about everyday people, in everyday walks of life. Increasingly, as we go through the cycle, poetic images abound – symbols, pointing to that which cannot be expressed directly in words. And the symbols, after a while, become real, concrete. In The Master Builder, say, we find that Master Builder Solness is afraid of heights, and cannot climb as high as he builds. This is an everyday matter (fear of heights), but is treated symbolically: in some way that Ibsen doesn’t make clear, Master Builder Solness cannot live up to what he professes. But Hilde seems almost distraught by this. What she is presumably distraught at is Master Builder Solness’ moral pusillanimity, but she expresses her anger in more concrete terms: is the Master Builder afraid to climb up the ladder? Is he afraid to climb as high as he builds? And the symbol becomes a reality: Master Builder Solness, to prove himself to her, must physically climb up a physical ladder to the top of a physical tower. Is this “realism”? If so, one would need to stretch the definition of “realism” considerably, I think, to accommodate it.

And this is the world which the later plays of Ibsen seem to inhabit – a strange world in which metaphor and concrete reality seem to merge, and become one. We are invited to feel the resonance of the images, of the symbols, but as soon as we try to tie these images and symbols down to any specific meaning, they seem to fall apart. These plays are rooted in reality: Solness owns and runs a building firm, is unhappily married, and finds himself attracted to a young girl; and he is afraid of competition from the younger generation. All this is real enough, and could easily provide the basis for a television soap opera. But Ibsen’s vision seemed fixed elsewhere, and he could only express these visions through the use of poetic imagery, and of symbols. And when we read these plays, what we make of this vast array of symbols is crucial. I am still not sure how best to read these symbols: perhaps it varies for each different reader. But what we mustn’t do, I think, is to tie them down to anything specific: if Ibsen could have said in a few words what these symbols symbolise, he would, I think, have done so.

8 responses to this post.

  1. In the play “Brand”, for instance, Ibsen’s title clearly alludes to Zechariah 3:2.

    But the Biblical text, itself, is brimming with allusions to Satan (good and evil), God’s grace, human frailty and sin (Joshua the high priest), the destruction of Solomon’s magnificent temple (to Yahweh), Babylonian captivity, the restoration of Jerusalem and Judah, and the foreshadowed second temple (Joshua’s).

    Symbolic wheels within wheels.


    • Thank you for this, but I am curious:
      Would Ibsen have been likely to have known the King James Bible? From what i know, Ibsen did not know English – certainly not well enough to have read the Bible in the English language. He would have read the Bible in Norwegian, I guess, and, maybe, in German. And does the word “Brand” appear in the Norwegian or in the German translation?

      And even if it does, do we have evidence that Ibsen had intended the name of his protagonist to this verse from Zechariah ?


      • Thanks to Google, I can confirm that Norwegian, Swedish, Danish and German translations of Zechariah 3:2 all use the word “brand”. All would make the Biblical allusions I listed.

        A Biblical allusion in Ibsen’s title for the play is compelling because the play is full of Biblical allusions and the “brand” allusion fits exquisitely: Ibsen’s faithful priest builds a cathedral to God.

      • That’s interesting – thank you very much for that.
        Do we have any actual evidence that Ibsen was specifically referring to this line? It isn’t, after all, one of the better-known lines in the Bible.

        (Of course, I do realise that even if Ibsen had not specifically been referring to this line, the connection is an interesting one.)

      • Few Bible readers today are familiar with Zechariah 3:2. After all, I was unaware of Joshua, the high priest, or his connection with rebuilding the second temple. Certainly, references later in the chapter to “the branch” (Jesus?) and “every man neath his vine and fig tree” are better-known, if out-of-context.

        Of course, we cannot expect explicit evidence for Ibsen’s intention in the title “Brand”, any more than we can expect explicit evidence for countless other allusions in the play. For instance, Brand allowing his son to die under the overhanging glacier is a screamingly obvious allusion to patriarch Abraham’s aborted sacrifice of his only son Isaac.

        Genesis 22:2___And [Yahweh] said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.

        This allusion is blatant but not explicit. It would have been obvious to Ibsen’s Biblically-literate contemporaries but is less so today.

      • Perhaps. But whether or not Ibsen had specifically intended the allusion remains a matter of conjecture.

        But perhaps that’s not a big issue. The allusion, even if unintentional on Ibsen’s part, certainly adds resonance to the drama. But crucially, it does not guide the reader’s response to Brand.

      • An allusion in the title to Joshua, the high priest, confers a credibility on priest Brand consistent with my interpretation of the ending: a divine avalanche and rapture. This credibility would likely guide the response of any reader familiar with Zechariah, Joshua and the second temple. (Such a reader would likely reach my interpretation in weeks rather than years.)

        That the allusion is unintentional—in play is dense with Old Testament allusion—beggars belief since “brand” appear only once in all translations of the Bible. Of course, you are welcome to hold a contrary view.

      • Naturally, I hold a contrary view. The verse from Zachariah is not one of the better known verses from the Bible, and whether or not the allusion was deliberate remains a matter of conjecture.

        That Brand concerns itself deeply with religious matters is obvious: Brand is a pastor, after all, and takes his calling very seriously. So we should not be surprised by the various Biblical allusions in the play, deliberate or otherwise. But the Bible is so important a book in Western culture, that there are a great many works saturated with Biblical imagery, and Biblical allusions: it doesn’t follow that religious ideology is thereby endorsed. Nietzsche’s work, for instance, is saturated with Biblical allusions (Also Sprach Zarathustra, for instance): it hardly follows Nietzsche was endorsing any Biblical ideology.

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