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how can you tell when an author purposely uses symbolism, or if it is coincidental?

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Sometimes you can't. Most artists do not like to explain their symbolism for precisely that reason - so that any viewer can draw a meaning important to them. I find, personally, that intentionally symbolism is foreshadowed, repeated, and more complete. So if the analogy starts falling apart, it might not be there.
I had an English teacher who made us watch 'Babe' and insisted that EVERYTHING was symbolic. She would stop the tape every 20 seconds to discuss the symbolism of the farmers red shirt or whatever else she thought was symbolic. In some cases she was right and it could have been chosen for that particular piece of symbolism, but mostly she was just so very wrong. Symbolism, as Blackhole has said, when chosen by the author is often made very obvious through repetition or through over-exaggeration . If the example you are looking at fits with the theme of the text then it is likely that it is supposed to be like that. If instead you are getting symbolism of alien abductions in a classical style text you may be reading too far into things
Haha, nice Bible reference :)

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Waylander, I agree with you. Same thing with my English teacher and The Lion King. The lion is brown so that must mean something! Sometimes you're just reading things into it that aren't there.
Well as far a cinema and animation goes, your teachers are right about one thing: EVERY single thing in a production is chosen upon. No matter how small: If it's there, it means something. The same is true for every word in a novel, but that doesn't mean every sentence is some epiphany toward the main plot or symbolism. Every single sentence should have a purpose: to illustrate a character trait, to transition emotion, etc.. Even the length of sentences change intentionally based on what the author wants you to experience. (Notice that action sequences in good novels have quick, short sentences; while romantic, idealistic, or thoughtful sections have longer more wordy sentence to set mood.) So the fact that Scar is a darker brown than the other lions actually does mean something, and was chosen for a purpose. It probably wasn't anything more than "be suspicious", but teachers like to over-teach :) And really, there's nothing wrong with that - unless they're just straight wrong. That said, WATCH the movie first. You can talk about it after :D
Definitely I agree with you. Scar's green eyes mean he's jealous and evil and all that. And he uses his left hand to swipe at other lions for a reason, and the army of evil animals marching is a Nazi reference (see, I have watched it:D) Just some things that are written on a larger scale than Disney animation are occasionally incongruous with the symbolism they're supposed, or not supposed, to serve. I was just trying to exaggerate the over-teaching in the earlier post.

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