Foster admits that, up until this point, he has been focusing on symbols that have rather obvious meanings. However, symbols are not always so straightforward. In John Donne’s “The Flea,” the flea functions as a conceit (or extended metaphor), symbolizing sex. Because this metaphor is repeated throughout the poem, structurally uniting it, the reader is able to eventually figure out what the flea means in symbolic terms.
Foster has already emphasized that reading a wide range of literature can give readers intertextual clues that will help them figure out symbolic meanings. In this passage, he shows that sometimes the clues exist within a single text. At first the meaning of the flea may be unclear to the reader, but by the end of the poem the reader will likely have picked up on the metaphor.
Often, English professors and advanced students can get so wrapped up in searching for the secondary meanings of a given text—that which is not conveyed directly on the page—that they will almost forget about the surface-level facts. Although the secondary layer is obviously important, Foster cautions the reader to never become too dismissive of the primary function of a text, no matter how skilled a reader they become.
The difficulty of synthesizing surface-level and deep reading is obvious from the fact that even many professors are not able to do both at the same time. While it might be hard to pull off both reading techniques simultaneously, Foster argues that the reader should at least try not to abandon their “primary” reading of literature.
Foster returns to the problem of texts that use figures and imagery from outside the common pool of symbols. How does one approach a text that uses “private symbols”? The only answer Foster gives is simply to try. Use the sources available to you, including your knowledge of preexisting literature. Some writers do make it difficult, such as W.B. Yeats, who employed “an entire visionary system” of private symbols, much of which consists of complex, abstract imagery. However, although no reader will be able to decipher this system on first glance, with practice and perseverance, patterns—and with them meaning—will begin to appear.
Foster’s advice here may not seem particularly helpful. However, there are some elements of literary analysis for which there is no framework. After all, if all aspects of literary interpretation were explainable in advance, this would leave no room for surprise, and would make the study of literature more akin to a science. As Foster argues here, the best formula is to simply have faith in yourself and your instincts.
Modernist literature can be particularly intimidating and impenetrable, and part of the problem is that every modernist text exists in something of a world of its own. As a result, “The only thing that can really prepare you to read Ulysses is to read Ulysses.” This point, however, can be interpreted in an encouraging light; books teach us how to interpret them as we read them, and no one approaches a book like Ulysses with the right tools in advance. Furthermore, Foster insists that “you know more than you think you do.” Even readers who have not necessarily read much literature will have a bank of movies, TV shows, news items, and songs to draw upon, all of which are relevant and useful for deciphering works of literature.
Some books—Ulysses being the quintessential example—are so complex and multifaceted that scholars can dedicate their entire careers to figuring them out. Although this might seem discouraging, in fact it shows that even those with advanced reading skills and specialized knowledge can still be surprised and moved by new information about a book. This is why collaborative literary interpretation (such as the discussions in an English classroom) is so important, and why every reader has something valuable to say.
Even the most complex and unusual works of literature are connected in some way to other texts (as well as to the wider world). For this reason, every text—when given “a little time and imagination”—can be analyzed and decoded.
No work of literature was born in a vacuum; every text was produced by a person with experiences that on some level compare to that of the reader. Thus interpretation is always possible.