How to Read Literature like a ProfessorThomas C. FosterChapter 12: Is That a Symbol? Merritt Harris Summer Reading AP Lit
If you find a Symbol: Ask yourself “What does it mean? What does it stand for?” (Foster 97). Some symbols are straightforward with their meaning while others have multiple meanings. Everyone may see a symbol as representing a few different ideas, and that’s okay. However, “never limit the range of one meaning in a symbol” (Foster 98). REMEMBER: If you find a “symbol” that has one meaning then it is probably not a symbol, its an allegory.
Signs that it is a Symbol: • Symbols normally “involve a range of possible meanings” (Foster 98). • Example: • “A white flag represents either “I give up/surrender” or “we come in peace” (Foster 98). • Symbols are usually repeated throughout a novel several times. • “Symbols normally aren’t lying on the surface of the novel, you have to look for it” (Foster 100).
To determine the meaning of a Symbol: To determine a symbols meaning an individual must “use a variety of tools such as: asking yourself questions, use past experience, and preexisting knowledge” (Foster 100). Analyze the whole meaning and point of the novel so you can pin point the significance of the symbol. “Symbols will be determined to a large extent by how the individual reader engages the text” (Foster 103).
Experience The more experience an individual has with reading the more likely it will be for them to better interpret various symbols. REMEMBER: Practice makes Perfect! The more we read the more we learn about analyzing text.
Symbols are different in every novel: • Just because you read two novels that use a river as a symbol does not mean you can short cut into thinking both novels have the same symbolic meaning. • Example: • “Mark Twain, Hart Crane, and T.S Eliot all use a river as a symbol in their various works, however; the river has diverse symbolic meaning in each work” (Foster 104).
Mistakes we usually make about Symbols: • Readers automatically look for images and objects when searching for symbols which is a common mistake. • “Symbols are not just images and objects within a novel; actions and events can also be symbolic” (Foster 105). • Example: • “Robert Frost uses a lot of actions as symbols such as the action mowing in his poem “Mowing” (1913) where this action symbolizes the solitary business of living one’s life” (Foster 105).
Last but not least: As a reader if you come across something you think could be symbolic “associate freely, brainstorm, take notes, and then you can organize your thoughts better” (Foster 106). Next, “question the author and ask why he uses certain images, objects, or actions and find what makes them significant” (Foster 106). Lastly, “the more you exercise the symbolic imagination, the better and quicker it works” (Foster 107).
Bibliography Foster, Thomas C. How to Read Literature like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading between the Lines. New York: Quill, 2003. Print.