Pink Houses, Yellow Wallpaper, and Green Lights: Your Guess Is as Good as Mine

(I apologize to any and all English teachers in advance. I really do love you.)

Last night we had dinner with a lovely group of people I haven’t seen in ages. Our conversation bounced from funny work stories and weddings to physics and Breaking Bad, took a strange detour into dirty Shakespeare jokes before coming back around to the terrible things teachers do to their students (several of us are teachers). After relaying a couple stories about eating in front of kids and not giving a crap, somehow, we ended up back at Shakespeare.

“I can tell you with absolute certainty that Shakespeare meant for the ghost of Hamlet’s father to be real,” said the one English teacher in attendance. I wanted to bring out that the uncertainty of Hamlet’s sanity (arguably one of the major themes of the play) puts even the existence of the ghost into doubt, since the ghost is what triggers his host of erratic behavior. However, I felt it unwise to argue with an English teacher.

My husband though is not so skittish. He recalled his experience in high school reading Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees as one long argument with his teacher. One major point of contention: the color of the famous pink house. She posed the question to the class, “Why did the author choose to make the house pink?” My husband, revealing himself as maybe not a literary scholar but certainly a budding skeptic, replied, “Because she wanted to add some descriptive detail and pink is very descriptive.”

BZZZZ! WRONG ANSWER! While many things in literature are up for interpretation, according to your garden variety English teacher, symbols are DEFINITELY NOT ONE OF THEM. Disagree with this sentiment and prepare yourself to do battle.

Following the relaying of this anecdote, my physics teacher friend piped up with three little words: “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Everyone groaned. 

“I don’t see why it had to mean anything more than her going crazy!” she said. “Because she was definitely going crazy.”

“Well it has to mean something. It’s called ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ for Pete’s sake!”

It definitely means something. I’ve just come to the conclusion, after years of reading and years of writing, that authors (and especially English teachers), have no business telling us what that something is.

Let me make one point clear: I’m a big fan of symbols. What I’m not a fan of is being dogmatic about them.

Oh sure, there has to be limits. I’m not calling for Anarchy in the UK Lit:

“The green light represents the color of dollar bills, therefore symbolizing Gatsby placing money above his aspirations of true love!”

“M. Night used the color red to symbolize life because red is the color of blood which is the essence of life!”

“Dorothy’s Kansas was black and white because Oz was real and Kansas was the dream world! It’s the Matrix with Munchkins, baby!”

(Okay all these are American examples sorry I failed at extending my comic metaphor.)

Maybe the author intends a certain interpretation. Maybe the entire work is constructed around that interpretation. But I’m going to be so bold as to say that’s her interpretation, and she has no business imposing that upon her readers, beyond the words she’s written in the book. Sure, it’s her book, I’ll grant her that, but that doesn’t give her the right to be dogmatic. If that was her goal, she would have become an English teacher, or included a decoder ring and handy glossary of literary definitions telling us exactly what her crap’s about. Instead, she spent 100k words getting us to think about what her crap’s about. If she could have said it in any less, she wouldn’t have written a novel. She would have written a term paper.

It’s like any work of art. I can stand in front of the wall that is Guernica in the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid and know the history behind the painting, know what Guernica is and what Picasso had painted about, but what I bring to my viewing is entirely my own. Maybe I can’t look at it and say it’s about any old thing (like making breakfast or slaying giants), but no one can tell me my reaction to it is wrong if I view it in complete honesty (and I stood in front of that thing for half an hour with tears dripping down my cheeks).

The best part is, you don’t have to know a thing about the Spanish Civil War to have an honest reaction. Some things are universal while some things are intensely personal. Often, the two overlap.

I say all this not because I’ve had battles with many an English teacher, but because I’ve noticed symbols cropping up in my own writing, completely without my bidding. I understand how fragile they are. Once I seize on one, try to pin it down, nurture it and extend it throughout the rest of the work, more often than not it disappears.

Symbols aren’t deliberate. They’re fungus, sprouting from the very makeup of the work, from the fertile ground of the subconscious. As the writer I can have a hunch about what it means, but anything more tends to kill the mystery and smacks of mental and emotional shoehorning. I try not to tell my reader how to feel or what to think. I trust her to be able to do that herself.

That being said (and here is where I add another disclaimer), we all owe a great deal to English teachers. Good ones show you how to approach literary criticism on your own terms, show you how to have a dialogue with the text, and open up new worlds of critical thinking and reflection. Without English teachers, I’d probably still be reading Illustrated Classics.

Possibly easier to read than the original.

(I promise I’m getting to that post about taking “Show, don’t tell” too seriously. The ideas are mostly there but need a good stitching together with a healthy dose of narrative logic. I swear, if tell myself I’m going to produce something my brain rebels and goes on hiatus. I’m reminded of the famous Douglas Adams quote: “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” I’d never make it as a freelancer. Even traditionally published novelist is looking unlikely.)

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4 Comments

Filed under books, fiction, writing

4 responses to “Pink Houses, Yellow Wallpaper, and Green Lights: Your Guess Is as Good as Mine

  1. emuse

    The thing I have the most experience with around this is poetry. And it’s amazing the spins other people will put on a poem. I always get a bit of delight from it: that these words that so clearly (to me) represent a moment in time in a relationship (or an idea that came unbidden and allowed itself to be written) but: they all mean something very specific to me. Yet 10 readers will think 10 different things about them.

    It’s fascinating and very cool.

    • It is super fascinating. I think the most important thing a writer can do to elicit reader interpretation is to make sure it means something to her before she sends it out into the world to be picked apart. Otherwise, it’ll never mean anything to anyone.

  2. Sometimes The Yellow Wallpaper is simply yellow wallpaper, nothing less, nothing more. After reading The Great Gatsby a number of times I still don’t know why Fitzgerald used some colors over others, and color is an important symbol in the novel. Maybe even Fitzgerald didn’t know. All I know is, that everytime I read The Great Gatsby, I end up being left with the wonder of it all.

    I think it is too early to introduce high school students to things like the symbolism in literary works. It destroys a good many of them from a love of reading great works of art. Why not just give them a little background and let them read the darn thing. Then let them do an essay of what they loved and what they hated about the work. The point I am making is that the focus should be on getting them to be lifetime readers, not literary critics.

    And never tell them they are wrong in their interpretation even if you believe they are. We each bring our own experiences to a work of art. All that matters was that you were deeply moved by Guernica. I think that would be enough for Picasso.

    • I waited to respond to this comment because I wanted to be sure I responded in the right way. I’m going to agree with you and say English teachers have great power over kids’ future reading lives, but I think it would be a great disservice to them not to teach them symbolism and junk. I am eternally grateful mine did. Granted, I came into the class already loving to read, so maybe I don’t count, but I bet the other kids gained from the experience as well. What they might not have gained is a love of reading. To tell you the truth, The Scarlet Letter was pretty hard to get through. And I absolutely hated “The Fall of the House of Usher.” I’m sure they didn’t inspire many kids to go out and buy a book. HOWEVER, I don’t know if that’s the goal of English teachers. You have to start earlier than high school to get kids in love with books. Like, preschool. Back when they eat more books than read them (I’m a preschool teacher so I get to make jokes like that haha.)

      Also, I want to say I wrote this from the point of view of a writer who hates to be told how to interpret a work of art. My husband and I argue about the themes of There Will Be Blood almost daily (sad I know).

      Lastly, I don’t think it’s necessary to even be able to interpret a piece of art to appreciate it. When I read Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel series Sandman for the first time, I’m pretty sure most of it went over my head. However, that didn’t prevent me from recognizing it as incredibly nuanced and pretty dang monumental in the meaningful department. I could tell he knew what he was talking about, and what I was able to absorb made me look differently at the world.

      But you’re right. Sometimes wallpaper is just wallpaper! It is really annoying to have people try to impose interpretations like that on you. And since we all graduated high school already (or at least I hope) then we reserve the right to abstain from picking something literally to shreds! (Get it? Get it? Literally? I’ll shut up now.)

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