Sometimes Blue is just Blue

Subbing in a high school language arts classroom recently, my thoughts turned toward symbolism in literature. And the fact that I don’t use it heavily in my own writing made me ponder a few things.

For those of you whose stint with literature in high school isn’t as recent as mine, let me refresh your memory.

The teacher would stop the reading of a story, play or novel and stare over the tops of reading glasses and ask, “Why was the room blue?”

Most of the time, I’m guessing the author made the room blue because they liked blue. Or maybe it reminded them of their character’s eyes or the bright orbs of the husky next door.

“Because the woman’s getting depressed.” This from the geeky person who always raised her hand when the teacher asked a question. (Hermione Granger or even me back in the day.)

Blue often symbolizes depression. Which I totally don’t get because a blue sky can make me content and happy faster than just about anything else.

The Story

The two freshman classes were reading “The Scarlet Ibis” by James Hurst.

This story of two brothers is set in the 1910s. It’s narrated by the older brother, and chronicles the brothers’ journey to make the sick and invalid younger brother “just like all the normal boys” when he starts school.

The Symbol

You might guess from the title that the symbol is the ibis. What the heck is an ibis? Glad you joined the freshmen in asking such an important question. An ibis is a tropical bird.

However, if you look up different meanings for the color red or scarlet, you might see that it is often used to symbolize things: like blood, for example.

In the story, a scarlet ibis shows up in the tree outside of the boys’ home and drops to the ground: dead. The younger (invalid) brother is highly affected and decides to bury the bird. His mother warns him that to touch it would bring the death curse on himself. So he manipulates it with a rope.

This is foreshadowing, of course. And when the final image of the story in the younger brother bleeding from his nose beneath a red bush, it’s clear that the author used the bird and the color of its plumage as a symbol.

Sometimes the symbols are obvious. Other times they’re more obscure.

If they’re obscure, I tend to wonder if they are reader created rather than author intended.

After all, if I’m going to use symbolism, wouldn’t it be most effective if it was clear and plain?

Literary fiction is rife with symbolism. The genres I write? Not so much.

This reflection made me wonder if readers enjoyed the odd symbol now and again. Would they want the woman to be wearing a green shirt when she learned a new skill? Did they understand the plot and arcs better when symbols were used?

I can only speak for myself. A well-done symbol is fine, and even interesting or enlightening when it’s well-executed. Making the murderer wear black just because black is the color of death? Not so much.

There must be a point to it. A point other than using symbolism for the sake of symbolism.

Is symbolism important to you when you read? Does it add to your enjoyment? Does it add extra dimension to the story? Or is it something you pay very little attention to?

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Sequels: Good, Bad and Ugly

There’s nothing new under the sun. This is actually a paraphrase of Ecclesiastes 1:9.

Hollywood isn’t the only clown in town that seems to think if something was a blockbuster, it should have a sequel. Books in a series are more popular than ever.

In fact, I enjoy reading a series. After all, if I love the characters, I happily follow their trials and triumphs. Unfortunately, “happily ever after” isn’t much of a story.

Recently, we went to see Red 2 at the theater. I will agree that Red wasn’t a stellar movie, but it was funny and lots of things got blown up. Those two elements keep the men I live with enthralled, entranced and engaged.

The story in Red seemed fresh. A retired CIA man gets bored and starts flirting with a girl via phone. Unfortunately, there’s an old case that he worked on that people are getting killed over (because of political aspirations). The targets unite, discover the root problem, blow up plenty of cars and buildings and ride off victorious. Each character has their own sub story, as well, which keeps things interesting.

None of these things can be said of Red 2. The relationship seems stale until there’s a threat to the retired agent’s life. The team thinks they’re completing one mission, but instead, their mission has a mission of his own. Thankfully, there was humor and lots of explosions because the story was dreadful.

This is a problem with sequels. It isn’t enough that we love the characters. They need to be involved in something we can find believable. It can’t be a lame “I liked it better when we were running for our lives” theme. At least, not if you want to engage me.

Another series that seemed to fail to rise to the occasion was The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini. This irked me because I looked forward to each successive installment as much as my son, who was in the target audience.

I’m not going to rehash the plot of this series. Let’s just say that he could have told the story in two books. Very few people I spoke with appreciated the addition to Eldest of the cousin’s story. Was it essential for the whole town to move and become Eragon’s army?

Also, this was a case where the hero got a sucky deal. Seriously. I despise when an author ends a series by having the person who saves the world end up with – nothing, nada, zilch. He doesn’t get to be with his family, he loses his brother, the girl he loves can’t love him in return and he leaves the land he just delivered from oppression. Wow. “You’re welcome. I’d love to save your day and then lose everything I worked for. Happy day!”

In fact, I would rather see the hero dead if he’s not going to get anything. I disagree that Eragon having the dragons and being the one to train future riders redeemed the ending. I don’t care if it was prophesied to end this way in the first book.

A hero should walk away with more than the knowledge that he did the right thing. Even if that’s all we earn in real life for some good deeds, it isn’t an acceptable ending for a series.

I remember finishing Inheritance and thinking, “I waited expectantly for this? I read all these thousands of pages only to have him leave it all behind in the end?”

Perhaps you found Paolini’s ending satisfying or thought all the extra information included that made his series stretch from the predicted trilogy to a four-book cycle made sense. I’d love to have a conversation about that (or another series you found successful or repugnant).