While there are still other kinds of titles that will be listed in my taxonomy, I wanted to move to the last category, the Metaphysical/Symbolic title. This kind of title expresses something essential to the meaning of the work, frequently in a high poetic language.
The Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck
For Whom the Bell Tolls Ernest Hemingway
The Sound and the Fury William Faulkner
Everything that Rises Must Converge Flannery O’Connor
The Red Badge of Courage Stephen Crane
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter Carson McCullers
The Song of the Lark Willa Cather
It seems to me that this kind of title is not as suitable for a short story. They seem to be too weighty for short fiction, though there are always exceptions.
Sometimes these titles come from a larger literary work. Shakespeare and the King James version of the Bible seem to be inexhaustible sources for titles. Faulkner used both – along with The Sound and the Fury, from Macbeth, he used Absalom, Absalom, from the Book of Samuel. The verse goes as follows:
And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept: and as he went, thus he said, O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!
Interestingly, there is also a novel entitled My Son, My Son, by an author named Howard Spring.
A good title of this kind will attract the reader because of its beauty. Ideally, it will also take on greater meaning once the book has been read. In Crane’s book, the red badge of courage – a war wound – takes on an ironic note, as Private Fleming receives his wound while retreating from battle. In Hemingway’s book, in contrast, the verse from John Donne is reinforced as Robert Jordan sacrifices himself for a larger cause.
While the books I listed above are all from sixty or more years ago, this kind of title is still in use. Anthony Doerr’s novel of this year, All the Light We Cannot See, tells the interwoven story of a sightless French girl and a young German soldier during World War II. The light we cannot see is literal, referring to the girl’s blindness, but by the end of the book takes on a symbolic meaning as well.
My own novel, The Garden of the World, has a title with multiple derivations. It comes from a poem by Andrew Marvell, and it is also found in Leaves of Grass. However, I was mostly thinking of the way the phrase was used in American culture. In the nineteenth century, the great unknown center of the continent was sometimes called “The Great American Desert,” and sometimes called “The Garden of the World.” Henry Nash Smith’s book Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth discusses the way these notions wove their way into narratives of western expansion. Imagining the land as a garden to be discovered served to entice and attract those who pushed westward. And the Santa Clara Valley, where the novel is set, has been called The Garden of the World as far back as the 1850s, and notably in the 1888 promotional book Pen Pictures from the Garden of the World.
I was also thinking of the way California has frequently been imagined as Eden, in everything from popular histories – Everyman’s Eden – to academic studies – Contested Eden: California Before the Gold Rush – to Woody Guthrie’s sardonic ballad Do Re Mi.
California is a Garden of Eden
A Paradise to live in or see,
But believe it or not, you won’t find it so hot
If you ain’t got the Do Re Mi.
California as Eden, and the vineyard as an epitome of that notion. Yet the title of the novel finally refers to the garden of the world. Eden might be the garden of god, but the only garden we’ll ever live in is the fallen, the postlapsarian, the garden of the world.