All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.Oscar Wilde
In his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde lays out his manifesto for artists. Among the tenets he mentions is the quote above about surface and symbol. In this, Wilde touches on “the meaning” behind any work of art, pointing out the “danger” in interpreting an artist’s creation. Often, the danger is very real, but sometimes, simply ironic.
The Gospels of Mark and Matthew make frequent allusions to the prophecies of Isaiah in stating the case that Jesus is the fulfillment of these prophecies. However, when one more closely examines the prophecies themselves, it becomes apparent that they are not predicting a future redeemer of humankind, but rather foretelling the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians and the exile of the tribe of Ephraim, which occurred around 721 BCE. Since both Gospels were written in the wake of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, readers can draw parallels between the two events to better understand the “meaning” the authors intended for their readers to take away from the narrative.
Often, allegorical content needs a common point of reference or shared set of circumstances to indicate what was intended. In the case of Matthew, his audience appears to have been comprised of educated Jews exiled in Egypt, who were well-versed in Jewish history and traditions and knew the scriptures Matthew was quoting. To an audience without such a background, the intended meaning of the author is obscured, which is most likely what Matthew wanted. Many of the “predictions” throughout the Bible, including the Book of Daniel and the Revelation of John, were written during or after the events they were predicting and couched in metaphorical language to allow the author to comment on contemporary events without fear of retribution by the existing power structure.
John Hudson, author of Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, points out an example of hidden allegorical content in Midsummer Night’s Dream. Under his interpretation, the changeling boy Oberon and Titania argue over is representative of the Jewish Messiah, transformed into the Christ of the Pagan mystery religions. It’s a restatement of the Flavian hypothesis that claims that Christianity was an invention by the Romans to lead Jews away from Messianic revolts. The play uses allegorical elements because that idea could have gotten the author killed in Elizabethan England.
I believe we are witnessing the death of the tribal patriarchal system that has dominated human society for generations and the reemergence of the goddess in our conscience. In ancient times every god had a counterpart goddess who tempered the harshness of the masculine deity and provided guidance and wisdom. With the rise of monotheism and the formal establishment of the Church, the patriarchy became entrenched in our culture, establishing a very rigid and unyielding definition of masculinity. Gender fluidity and pansexuality is nothing new to humanity, it was simply frowned upon and outlawed by the patriarchy, which subjugates women and encourages men to become monsters.
Many signs point to a recognition of this new consciousness emerging. The film Knives Out, for instance, begins with the death of a patriarchal figure which throws his family into turmoil, and ends with his replacement by a young female, who’s looking down upon the family from a balcony. It’s presented and plays out as a murder mystery but the juxtaposition of the beginning and ending situations gives the film a deeper meaning than the surface indicates. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that we are in the middle of a change in epochs from the Age of Pisces to the Age of Aquarius. The #metoo movement also appears to be a manifestation of this consciousness as femininity once again asserts itself throughout society.
In my own work, I’ve come to recognize metaphorical and allegorical elements I wasn’t always aware of creating. The character of Rebecca Asher, for instance, has become a metaphor for the play which bears her name, Rebecca Too. Perpetually a work in progress, the script was my first attempt at writing a full-length play, and has yet to be produced, while the sequel to it, Another Mother, won the play writing award from The Essential Theatre in Atlanta and had a full production in August 2017. Even though Rebecca Too has yet to be produced, it has spawned a novel and, more importantly, was the inspiration for my Expanded Universe of Fictional Atlanta, where all my work since 2017 has been set. In the stories, Rebecca has emerged as a pivotal figure whose influence far exceeds her short life.
There’s certainly no requirement for a writer to instill a work with hidden meaning, just as there are no hard and fast rules for writing. Readers will take whatever message they choose from a work, though, so anything a writer can do to move readers in a particular direction can help to convey the message a writer wishes to leave with the audience. I’m always fascinated whenever I spot hidden elements in a work, or when I understand an allusion an author is making. It adds to the enjoyment of a story, providing a deeper context for the static words on the page. Equally, I like to put elements into my work that readers may or may not pick up. In Another Mother and Rebecca Too, as well as various stories, I make references to wolves, which is a type of signature for me.
Despite the peril, an audience is well-advised to look beyond the symbol of a given work. As artists pass into the great void, only their creations remain to hint at what was meant. Numerous meanings are often lurking just beneath the surface waiting for the reader or viewer to discover. Despite Wells’s caution, one should never be afraid to dive in.