Do Authors Use Symbols on Purpose?

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In 1963, a high-schooler named Bruce McAllister decided he would prove to his English teacher once and for all that the symbols she was asking students to find in books like The Scarlet Letter were not actually put there on purpose by authors.

So he sent a survey out to 150 authors asking if they intended to use symbolism in their books. Their replies—many of them replied, even very famous ones—run the gamut of possible responses and reveal a lot about their philosophies and writing styles.

Ralph Ellison’s is probably the best, though you have to hand it to Ayn Rand for taking the time and effort to write back to a teenager only to say, ““This is not a ‘definition,’ it is not true—and therefore, your questions do not make sense.”

McAllister grew up to become a successful science-fiction author and—what else?—an English teacher. (Via a nice Mental Floss summary of the story.)


Lauren O'Neal is an MFA student at San Francisco State University. Her writing has appeared in publications like Slate, The New Inquiry, and The Hairpin. You can follow her on Twitter at @laureneoneal. More from this author →