Hi everybody! Today we’re going to look at figurative language – specifically, why people choose to use it. I’ll discuss different types, how to recognize them, and how to use them in later posts, but I think that before we get to knowledge and skills, it’s important to reflect on purpose. This will help provide a foundation for understanding the knowledge and skills once we start exploring them.
As always, follows are great, hallelujah, but what I would REALLY love is if you left me a comment. Maybe your favorite example of figurative language and why it’s so interesting or meaningful, or something you don’t understand that you’d like me to explain in a future video. Or further discussion of some of the points that I raise in this one. Or even just a comment to say hello. I love all of that.
The internet is an amazing thing. It gives us access to all kinds of information and enables us to connect with many different people from all over the world. In a lot of ways, that’s fantastic. And in some other ways, it sucks.
While I do not actually agree with Mr. Theodore Sturgeon as to the ratio (I think that most stuff is actually pretty decent), because the internet is soooo huge and has soooo much ON it – according to the article on Starry, linked below, “as of 2016, Cisco estimated global internet traffic to be 1.1 zettabytes per year” and “the internet has almost doubled in size every year since 2012” – that means that even if we’re only talking about a tiny fraction of the internet, that’s still an awful lot of…
Well. You know.
The development of the internet as a way to share information, combined with the creativity that, I would argue, is inherent in human nature, led to cross-cultural sharing and the resultant production and proliferation of meme culture. Overall, I think this is awesome. A vast number of memes are going to be incomprehensible to any one person, because so many of them rely on prior familiarity with very specific, sometimes obscure source material. An example of this is the “Loss” meme. If you don’t know it, you won’t get it. (There’s a link at the end of the post, in case you’re interested.)
However, other memes, such as the Distracted Boyfriend, provide the relevant context. You don’t need to know that the original image is a stock photo by Antonio Guillem, or that it was taken in 2015, or that it’s part of a series. The facial expressions of the people in the photograph clearly illustrate a situation that is familiar to pretty much anyone with a basic understanding of human interactions.
A well-crafted meme is, first and foremost, relatable. Many use humor to underscore the point. But a lot of them are not all that well crafted. Memetic novelty quickly gives way to derivative mimicry, with each subsequent iteration becoming more and more clichéd. And, of course, because it’s the internet, some of them are just … wrong.
That brings us to what was actually the seed for this video (post): the blue curtains.
There are a few variations on this meme, but they tend to illustrate the same basic ideas, all of which are heavily flawed: that the author’s intended meaning is the definitive one, that authors include details that have neither reason nor significance, that English teachers just point out symbolism without having any reason for it, and that, by extension, English teachers don’t know what they’re doing.
It might surprise you to learn that the last one is actually the least bothersome to me. That’s because I feel pretty secure in my professional abilities; I know that (for the most part) I know what I’m doing. And when I’m trying something new, and I don’t know what I’m doing, I know how to learn, and I know how to look for support.
So let’s look at the other points, and why they are flawed.
First of all, the idea that the intent of the author trumps all other meaning. Briefly: no. Less briefly: It is broadly accepted, and has been for some time, that it’s more complex than that.
For one thing, the readers’ prior experiences will shape their experience of the text. I encourage my students to avoid overall descriptors, like “this text is confusing,” and instead frame that as their experience: “I found this text confusing.” From there, we can look at what in the text prompts that experience, and what about the students’ prior experiences and expectations influenced it as well. Thus, what about this text do you find confusing? Sometimes it’s vocabulary. Often it’s sentence structure. Once we get past that, it may be a lack of familiarity with text structure: how does this work together? where is it going?
For another, just as readers bring their culture and their experiences to a text, authors are likewise shaped by their own culture and experiences in ways that influence their act of creation. In many cases, art is created as a deliberate response to specific events, such as Animal Farm or Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Guernica.
However, in other cases, the artistic creation may be in response to a range of experiences and culture in general, such as in The Great Gatsby. While Fitzgerald said that he wanted to write something beautiful, the years following the first World War were marked by rapid economic growth, which created social restlessness. Those elements also show up in the novel, as do parallels to Fitzgerald’s sudden success combined with uncertainty and lack of self-confidence. While it’s not definitively clear that Fitzgerald intended Gatsby to be commentary on social class, wealth, or success, the influence of those experiences is strongly suggested by the text itself.
Second, the implied idea that the curtains being blue has no significance. Here, I do want to point out that there’s an important distinction between significance and symbolism. In the above version of the meme, the English teacher thinks that the curtains represent the depression of… either a character or the author; it’s really not clear. Using this word, however, does make it clear that the teacher is observing symbolic meaning.
And not everything has symbolic meaning. I actually have blue curtains in my living room, where I am currently typing this.
I paused to take that picture to share with you. Now, is there another layer of meaning to those curtains? Does their blue-ness have some kind of figurative implication? Are they an allegory for humanity’s longing for exploration, given that blue is often used to represent the sea and the sky?
However! The response in the meme, that the author just meant that the curtains were blue, implies that there is no meaning to the existence or color of the curtains, which goes too far in the other direction. Art is deliberate. If a work includes the sentence “The curtains were blue,” then it matters that there were curtains, and it matters that they were blue. Good writers don’t include details without reason. When creators are masters of their crafts, there are no throwaway notes in a symphony, no throwaway brushstrokes in a painting, and no throwaway words in a novel.
And that’s consistent with real life. We may not always be able to perceive or understand the reasons, but there are always reasons that things happen the way they do. Why are the curtains in my living room blue? Because I purchased blue curtains. Why did I purchase blue curtains? Because they coordinated with the blue tones in the sofa and the various throw pillows that we had. Why did we have that sofa and those pillows? Because they had been given to us, and new furniture can be really expensive, and hey, I’m a teacher, not some YouTube big shot. So the fact that the curtains are blue actually tells you a lot about who I am and what I value, if you know why the curtains are blue.
That brings us to English teachers, and their apparently terrible habit of finding symbolism everywhere.
Oh no. Stop the presses. Raise the alarm. Man the lifeboats. Call 911. What ever will we do?
In the meme, just as there is no reason either asked or given for the existence and color of the curtains, the teacher’s thoughts about symbolic meaning are also presented without any justification. But you see, that’s not how it works. “Because I think so” isn’t a valid critique. Listen up: If you ever hear me do that, call me out. Ask me what in the work causes me to think so. Ask me for my “evidence from the text,” to “use the language of the standards,” as we’re supposed to do.
If your teacher thinks there’s symbolic meaning in a text, I am completely confident that there are reasons behind that interpretation. And when teachers provide examples, they also provide explanation.
You just weren’t listening.
Reading and writing give us the opportunity to explore why we think what we do, and why others might perceive the same event in a different way. It isn’t easy. But it’s a way to develop a deeper understanding of ourselves and of others. It builds empathy.
And that can make us better people.
I would love to have a comment from you, to know what you think about all of this. Maybe some of your favorite examples of symbolism. I’m including a whole bunch of links to articles and posts that I found helpful in creating this.
You can watch a video version of this post on my YouTube channel.
2 thoughts on “The Blue Curtains”
“In the great green room there was a telephone…”
Clearly, if the telephone is the first thing mentioned in the room, it must be of enormous significance. Will someone use it to call for help? Will it ring with news of untimely, tragic death? Perhaps the telephone (and the fear of its someday ring) signals that Little Bunny is a metaphor for all of us; resisting the ultimate bedtime — the grave. Better a bowl full of mush than the unknown abyss.
But the telephone is never mentioned again anywhere else in the book. The only conclusion to be drawn is that the author is an idiot, and that is why “Goodnight Moon” was such a colossal failure.
Or maybe the telephone means nothing at all and just conveniently provided a good long “o” sound to create a nice balance with long “u” sounds, thereby helping to set up a nice rhythm to get the kiddos to sleep:
… red balloon
And also later helping to set up:
Perhaps the telephone doesn’t have any hidden meaning at all. It’s not even a telephone. It’s just a convenient vehicle for a long “o” sound that was needed right then and there.
Now my honest opinion: Many English teachers waste time on symbolism when they should be teaching students how to build a good piece of writing from the ground up. It’s actually easier for everybody to spend class time shooting the breeze about why the eye was the “bluest” instead of just “blue”; easier still to let the teenagers talk about how the book makes them feel. And then the leave the classroom not knowing anything about writing so much as a shopping list. (Except perhaps a reminder that the peaches are so cold.)
Better — in my view — to focus more on shorter pieces of writing and take them apart extremely methodically and carefully to get at why they are successful, with “successful” defined as “universally loved by millions.” There’s no hidden symbolism in “Jolene.” It’s not a metaphor for how the patriarchy fools women into fighting each other to distract them from how the real enemy is the oppressive male. (Although an essay making such a claim surely would earn an “A.”) But there’s much to be learned from “Jolene” about how to build a character (actually three characters) with relatively few words.
While I accept that what you offer is your honest opinion, your opinion is phrased as a judgment, and I am confident that it presents an inaccurate representation of English classes – and of English teachers. It may be correct that “many” English teachers spend too much time on symbolism, but that is ONLY because “many” is a conveniently vague word. How many is “many”? Ten? Fifty? A hundred? A thousand? I mean, a thousand definitely seems like “many” to me. But according to Zippia (https://www.zippia.com/english-language-arts-teacher-jobs/demographics/) there are almost 1.5 **million** language arts teachers in the USA, so a thousand would be less than a tenth of one percent!
And while I would also disagree that an essay claiming that “Jolene” is “a metaphor for how the patriarchy fools women into fighting each other to distract them from how the real enemy is the oppressive male” would “surely” receive an A (much less that it would “earn” such a grade!) the more significant point is that English classes are typically less concerned with whether there “is” a metaphor, and more concerned with what sorts of meaning can be revealed using the text as evidence for the claims.
In short, this comment makes claims that it does not support with evidence. And that, in English class, would not earn an A.