How to Read Literature like a Professor Chapter 12: Is That a Symbol?

How to Read Literature like a
Thomas C. Foster
Chapter 12: Is That a Symbol?
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
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).
 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
 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
 “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
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.

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