In a 1959 essay published in the New York Times called “The Search for Symbols, a Writer Warns, Misses All the Fun and Facts of the Story,” Saul Bellow takes literary critics to task for reading too deeply, asserting that close scrutiny can in fact be a threat to fiction. He presents a hypothetical situation: a professor, asked why, in The Iliad, Achilles drags the body of Hector around the perimeter of Troy, answers that it is because doing so fits a pattern of circles, from shields to chariot wheels, that run throughout the story. To support his thesis the imaginary professor points to the fact that Plato, who was himself an ancient Greek but had no other relation to the author of The Iliad, favored geometric patterns, particularly the circle. Bellow submits to readers that the real answer is the simple one: Achilles circled the walls of Troy with Hector’s carcass because he was angry. He says that the deep readers, who spin off symbolic importance from every little object mentioned in a work, are those who prefer meaning to feeling. Bellow’s point is well taken: the search for symbolism certainly does distract a reader from nakedly experiencing a work of fiction. Still, the nature of literature is that, unlike life, the objects and events one encounters are certain to have some meaning greater than themselves, so it is more than a little disingenuous to blame the readers who want to explore possible meanings.
By the time he published the story “A Silver Dish,” almost a quarter of a century later, Bellow seemed to have warmed to the idea of the responsible use of symbolism. How much of this is because he developed a more secure artist’s hand over the year and how much is attributable to the fact that the short story form itself calls out for the compression that symbolism can allow is hard to say. The fact remains that “A Silver Dish” requires readers to have an appreciation of the symbolic if they are going to make meaning from it.
To start with, the title is symbolic. Titles are always symbolic, if we take “symbolism” to mean using one idea to represent another. A title is expected to mean much more than it says. In this particular case, three words are used to carry the same approximate meaning as thirty pages of text.
A well-formed title is transparent, at least until the other options of what it could have been are considered. “A Silver Dish” could have been called “The Bells” or “A Theft” or “A Death in the Family,” but any one of these would steer the story’s reader into a different direction. Something as simple as the use of “a” instead of “the,” for instance, raises the tone of the story from the particular to the mythical. Describing the dish as “silver” in the story is just good, concrete, descriptive writing, but mentioning it in the title tells readers that there is something special about its being silver: as it turns out, the item in question is silver plated, a counterfeit, a sham. And the fact that the title is no more specific about the item than calling it a “dish” shows that Bellow is intentionally being general, when he could have referred to it properly as a plate, platter, or tray, just as easily as he identifies the cabinet it is stolen from as an “étagère.” These choices are used to signify something to the reader. Where writers disagree with critics is in determining just how much this signifying can be considered symbolism.
There are certain elements in “A Silver Dish” that are clearly symbolic, even though Bellow seemed to think that he could mute their symbolism by making the story’s protagonist , Woody Selbst, aware of them. The first and most obvious of these is the buffalo calf that Woody has seen dragged underwater in Uganda. Watching the parent buffalos in their bafflement about the disappearance of their child taught Woody something about mourning. How do readers know this? For...
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