Of all the literary devices examined within the book, symbol and metaphor are arguably the most important. Although they have similar meanings, there is an important distinction between them. A symbol is something that, within the context of a literary work, has a different meaning or meanings from its literal or primary one. A metaphor, meanwhile, is a figure of speech in which an idea is conveyed in an indirect, non-literal way. For example, in a particular poem flowers might be a symbol of natural beauty, or female sexuality, or renewal (or all three!). The “flower of youth,” on the other hand, is a Biblical metaphor for virginity.
Foster stresses that objects, images, and even acts and events within literature usually have a symbolic meaning beyond their literal significance within a text. Once readers get accustomed to using the symbolic imagination—in other words, being alert to symbolic meaning—their understanding of literature will be transformed.
The importance of identifying symbol and metaphor underpins almost all the different reading strategies covered in each distinct chapter of the book. The chapters on quests, eating scenes, vampires, the Bible, seasons, and so on all primarily deal with symbolic or metaphorical meaning, even as they examine very different frameworks for how to identify symbols and what these symbols signify. In Chapter 3, for example, Foster explores how certain symbolic objects link Dracula to Twilight, thereby creating a shared plane of meaning within which these two very different texts explore the same themes (such as sexuality).
Foster also addresses symbol specifically in Chapters 12 and 25. In Chapter 12, Foster stresses the benefits to be gained from confidently naming things as symbols, and reminds readers that symbolic meaning is rarely definitive. He argues that the answer to the question “Is that a symbol?” is usually yes, but that what a particular thing symbolizes does not usually have a single right or wrong answer. Chapter 25, meanwhile, highlights the challenge that comes when authors use “private symbols,” meaning symbols whose significance is unique to that author or text. Although these symbols can be difficult to decipher, it is possible to understand their reading by trusting your instincts and relying on your knowledge of other works of literature.
Symbol and Metaphor ThemeTracker
Symbol and Metaphor Quotes in How to Read Literature Like a Professor
The professor, as the slightly more experienced reader, has acquired over the years the use of a certain "language of reading," something to which the students are only beginning to be introduced. What I'm talking about is a grammar of literature, a set of conventions and patterns, codes and rules, that we learn to employ in dealing with a piece of writing.
Memory. Symbol. Pattern. These are the three items that, more than any other, separate the professorial reader from the rest of the crowd.
Because there was so much the Victorians couldn't write about directly, chiefly sex and sexuality, they found ways of transforming those taboo subjects and issues into other forms. The Victorians were masters of sublimation.
We want [a symbol] to mean something, one thing for all of us and for all time. That would be easy, convenient, manageable for us. But that handiness would result in a net loss: the novel would cease to be what it is, a network of meanings and significations that permits a nearly limitless range of possible interpretations.
The more you exercise the symbolic imagination, the better and quicker it works. We tend to give writers all the credit, but reading is also an event of the imagination; our creativity, our inventiveness, encounters those of the writer, and in that meeting we puzzle out what she means, what we understand her to mean, what uses we can put her writing to.
Fiction and poetry and drama are not necessarily playgrounds for the overly literal. Many times I'll point out that a character is Christlike because he does X and Y and you might come back with, "But Christ did A and Z and his X wasn't like that, and besides, this character listens to AC/DC."
Literary geography is primarily about humans inhabiting spaces, and at the same time the spaces inhabiting humans.
We—as readers or writers, tellers or listeners—understand each other, we share knowledge of the structures of our myths, we comprehend the logic of symbols, largely because we have access to the same swirl of story.
The primary meaning of the text is the story it is telling, the surface discussion (landscape description, action, argument, and so on). There comes a point in our literary development when we nearly all lose sight of that fact.
What is a sign? It's something that signifies a message. The thing that's doing the signifying, call it the signifier, that's stable. The message, on the other hand, the thing being signified (and we'll call that the signified), that's up for grabs. The signified in other words, while being fairly stable itself, doesn't have to be used in the planned way. Its meaning can be deflected from the expected meaning.
There, just inside the door, stood a wide, shallow tray full of pots of pink lilies. No other kind. Nothing but lilies—canna lilies, big pink flowers, wide open, radiant, almost frighteningly alive on bright crimson stems.
A reader’s only obligation, it seems to me, is to the text. We can’t interrogate the writer as to intentions, so the only basis of authority must reside in the text itself.