I am not a psychologist and I'm not going to pretend I know the first thing about the subject, but we all know that certain images raise certain thoughts or emotions in our mind - just look at advertising - and for the purpose of this discussion on how symbolism can be used as a tool in writing, that's all we really need to know.
As much as I intend, one day, to read the works of the classic psychologists, for now I'll borrow from Jean Rosier-Joans and others to consider Jung's Archetypes, that is, those basic, subconscious elements that shape behaviours and personalities (according to Jung). They are worth considering when developing characters, their goals and their values, and can be strongly linked to images, just like in dreams, if we intend to use archetypal elements as major themes in a story.
1. The Self is all that makes a person unique, whole, and capable of change. Symbols of individuality could be a butterfly, a rainbow or an egg. If a story's theme is about self-discovery, coming-of-age, reform or digression, strong solitary images (the rising and setting sun, phases of the moon, a bridge), may be useful.
2. The Shadow is that underlying part of the self that motivates. When writers dig deep into the souls of their characters, the shadow is what lives on the page. The sins and secrets, the dreams and desires of the shadow, drive the characters to think and act in surprising but inevitable ways.
3. The Anima or the Feminine represents how a man relates to a woman. The feminine can be symbolised as nurturing and loving; a full, round moon, a cool lake or a succulent fruit; or as something that suffocates and threatens, such as a fog, a dense forest, or a storm.
4. The Animus or the Masculine relates to how a woman interacts with a man. Any number of phallic symbols, such as a sword or tower, are common representations of the masculine.
5. The Persona or Mask is used to protect the ego from the negative influences of the world. Dialogue and narrative show the mask; point-of-view, internal dialogue and subtle descriptions of facial expression and body language expose the shadow. If deception or loss of identity is a major theme, costumes, disguises, or disfigurements may feature in the story.
These are the major five of Jung's archetypes (as I interpret them), but Jung suggested that archetypes are unlimited. Here are a few others:
The Paternal and Maternal archetypes highlight the protective nature of an individual.
The Child relates to vulnerability, and the need and desire to be protected.
The Hero is strong and victorious, and can also be linked to healing and peace-making.
The Wise Man is all-seeing and insightful.
The Trickster is mischievous but can also be linked to innovation and creativity.
The Adversary can be represented by death and dark symbols.
In the Art of Fiction, John Gardner describes how 'symbolic juxtaposition' appeals to the intellect as well as the emotion of the reader. He suggests rereading what we write with a view of discovering repetition of images, opportunities to use symbols in metaphors, and placing images and symbols close together, so that symbols might be pushed to the surface and made part of the effect. They shouldn't be too subtle, but they shouldn't steer the story so that the denouement seems contrived.
Exercise 58. Think of three basic symbols (e.g., an axe, the sun, a set of golden dentures) and what they could mean. Develop characters, a plot and setting around them. (Adapted from the Art of Fiction, by John Gardner.)
During Week 30, I'll look at using Contrast.