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 one thing, the event makes no sense being in the story if its significance is not felt; for another, Bellow introduces this episode as an “experience that was especially relevant to mourning.” Similarly, the bells that chime around Woody’s apartment on a Sunday morning certainly have sensual impact—thinking of church bells ringing will put readers into the state of mind that Woody is in that first Sunday without his father—but they also symbolize the larger concept of organized religion, which Bellow acknowledges when he uses the line, “he had some connection with bells and churches” to take readers into Woody’s past, when he was studying for the seminary.
On the other hand, it is easy to see what Bellow was getting at when he criticized those readers who take a work to be a package full of symbols, rather than an organic entity unto itself.” There are, it should be said, many things in the story that point readers toward a larger significance but do not reach a level of dual meaning that would make one categorize them as symbols. Woody’s one-time job pulling a rickshaw at the 1933 World’s Fair is mentioned several times, and so it might seem that there is an implied connection between his life and the Chinese character that he plays for cash: this job does show him to be the hard worker that he proves to be later in life, but that is just consistent characterization, not symbolism. Riverview Park is described in more detail than most things along the streetcar route—Bellow mentions the Bobs, the Chute, and the Tilt-a-Whirl—but nothing else in the story implies that this amusement park is supposed to represent life (although if that Bellow’s point then his comment about “the fun machinery put together by mechanics and electricians” would make more sense). The blizzard that Woody and his father travel through might be considered symbolic of the freezing of their relationship that is to come, but the story works well enough without giving it any extra significance. Just considering the blinding snowstorm as the sort of extreme weather that writers often use for setting, to make a story all that more gripping, explains it without over explaining it. It would be easy to make too much of minute details like these and blow their significance out of proportion. This is just the sort of thing that Bellow’s 1959 essay warned against.
On the other hand, there are aspects to “A Silver Dish” that are so striking that it would be off the mark to make too little of their symbolic significance. Woody and his father wrestling on the floor of Mrs. Skoglund’s front room is one. Physical competition between a father and son almost always implies the Freudian concept of the Oedipal complex, in which the son tries to overcome the father, taking his sexual power from him and winning his sexual identity. Freudian interpretation is the one area that most often makes readers and writers feel that critics are going too far in the search for symbols, stretching the given facts to fit a predetermined meaning, and it was at its height when Bellow’s essay was published. Still, when Bellow has a father and son grappling for what is stuffed down the front of the older man’s underwear, it is difficult to avoid seeing how well the Freudian interpretation fits.
One other act in “A Silver Dish,” which echoes the wrestling bout in the way that it brings the two main characters together physically again, comes when Woody takes off his shoes and crawls into the bed of his dying father to hold the old man’s arms. This action is clearly meant to indicate more than just the effort to keep the father from pulling out his intravenous tubes. It shows a comfort and intimacy that the father and son never shared when the old man was vibrant; it shows Woody climbing closer to death, wrestling it to save his father’s life; it shows Woody, now sixty years old, coming to recognize his own approaching mortality. There are many interpretations that work, but the one thing that cannot be said about such a striking, prominent gesture is that it is meant to stand only for itself. From one perspective, everything in a work of fiction must mean something beyond itself: it would be quite naïve to ask readers to please not question why the author chose to include one element or another in story. On the other hand, it is easy to see what Bellow was getting at when he criticized those readers who take a work to be a package full of symbols, rather than an organic entity unto itself. A reader who insists on torturing the slimmest connections out of each object and gesture and calling it a symbol will miss out on the fun of reading. But symbols exist, and they always will, even when the author is not aware that they occur; it is a fact that writers just have to live with.
David Kelly, Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 22, Saul Bellow, Published by Gale Group, 2010