Metaphorical Meaning

A topic that’s come up several times this week is metaphors and hidden meanings, specifically as they apply to stories. That, in my head, then jumped to pondering who’s “right” in cases where the apparent meaning of a story is in question, or has multiple possibilities, which then in turn jumps over to “does anyone have to be?”

Two specific examples; the story “Dissolved” over on Meg Sorick Writes. Interesting story, and deals with feelings that I’m sure most of us in a long term relationship have had at some point or another. Most of the discussion in the comments section has to do with the piece being a metaphor for losing oneself in a relationship, or becoming invisible to the other.

Of course, silly me, I come in and picture it as slightly more literal; that the character has been dissolved or consumed by something “other” that is now wearing the body, probably for overall bad reasons. Though it doesn’t have to be so; maybe it just wants to feel alive and the character’s feelings of alienation and isolation were an invitation. “I’m checking out, here; this space for rent!” I can conjure all kinds of suppositions beyond the initial one. But who’s “right”? And does anyone need to be? Can the story be enjoyed on both levels? Do the literal and metaphorical have to be at odds with one another?

Yes, I think to much. But I still think they’re important questions to ask.

The other major example that came up was relating to my own story, “My Daughter Came Back To Me.” One reader asked “was it all in her head?” Positing either the possibility that none of the story’s events occured or that, in fact, there is nothing wrong with the baby at all, and the protagonist is just off her rocker, hallucinating events that ultimately (may) lead to the death of her child.

I grinned, and pointed out two other possibilities; that there really is an undead demon baby that crawled out of its grave, or that mom is off her rocker, dug up the baby and has been hallucinating playing house with it. I take no specific party line as to which of the four is “true.” Any or all might well be. But regardless of your options, one is definitely not supposed to take our narrator’s words as literal, objective truth. Something is going on, but what that something might be is up to the reader to judge, I think.

And the message of the piece? Is it about grief, destroying all that is good in a person? The responsibilities and realities of the world breaking a person? That at any time your world can just get flipped upside down and all you can do is try to deal with it? Any or all. It’s whatever you want to make of it; so long as it gave you a bit of a shudder and made you stop to think about it, I feel like I did my job.

But that comes into one group of writers that drives me nuts. The ones who can’t seem to just tell a story and let it stand or fall on what the reader makes of it. That insist their piece has a great deal of important subliminal meaning that is only made apparent if you’re brilliant, and that sub rosa epiphany means only what the writer says it means and taking anything else away from it is akin to sacrilege. (You will frequently find this individual writing on a typewriter at the park, frequently wearing a beret, and sipping chai out of a cup that looks like Starbucks, but you discover is actually a knockoff who is somehow better for being local, organic, relatively unknown and even more overpriced than actual Starbucks, if you are foolish enough to engage.) Yes, I’m being a little facetious, here, but you now you’ve seen this guy somewhere, or at least someone that you mock in your head by casting him as this guy.

I’ve asked it before, and I ask it again. Is it wrong to just let a story be, and let it mean whatever it needs to mean to a given person, without someone coming along to explain to you precisely how wrong you are in thinking that it means Y, when very clearly it means X?

For the record, so far as my story goes, it is an undead demon baby, but it’s also about grief, and how it comes back to haunt you long after you thought you’ve put it away and dealt with it. So yes, I actually do have a party line in that area, but I’m not going to tell someone else who enjoyed it in a different way or took a different message from it that they’re wrong and must enjoy it the way I pictured it in my head. Because that just seems assinine.

What about you folks? Had you read either of the stories linked above? Got opinions on what they’re really trying to say, and do they differ from the “party line”? Some other story you’ve read that you took something from that others either don’t see or say isn’t there? Let us know down below. And if you’ve got something with a hidden metaphorical plot you want to share, feel free to drop a link in there, too!


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