How to Read Literature Like a Professor

How to Read Literature Like a Professor Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

The Pilgrim's Progess (Allegory)

Foster cites John Bunyan's 1678 work The Pilgrim's Progress to give an example of an allegorical work. In Bunyan's tale, characters represent a particular thought, theme, or idea largely relating to religion and one's journey. For instance, the main protagonist, Christian, is actually meant to represent followers of Christianity seeking truth - other fictive characters and allegories include Faith, the Evangelist, Despair, etc.

"Their names indicate their qualities, and in the case of Despair, his size as well. Allegories have one mission to accomplish - convey a certain message, in this case, the quest of the devout Christian to reach heaven" (p 98, Chapter 12 - Is That a Symbol?).

Caves - A Passage to India (Symbol)

Foster identifies caves as a prime example of symbols in E.M. Foster's A Passage to India. Here caves can take on multiple meanings according to various characters' interactions with them. Possible meanings include: a means of accessing innermost subconscious; colonialism and hypocrisy; fear and darkness.

"The only thing we are sure of about the cave as symbol is that it keeps its secrets...What the cave symbolizes will be determined to a large extent by how the individual reader engages the text" (p 102-103, Chapter 12 - Is That a Symbol?).

River (Symbol)

Foster cites the example of river as symbol to illustrate how writers choose to emphasize various aspects of symbolic interpretations of a single symbol. River, for instance, is used to represent both danger and safety, journey and self-growth, freedom and escape in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In Hart Crane's poem "The Bridge," the river is a connector as well as divider between the northern, eastern, southern and western parts of America - in short, an important network.

"The problem of symbolic meaning is further compounded when we look at a number of writers emphasizing various, distinct elements for a given symbol. As an example, let's consider three rivers. Mark Twain gives us the Mississippi, Hart Crane the Hudson-East-Mississippi/generic-American, and T.S. Eliot the Thames" (p 103, Chapter 12 - Is That a Symbol?).

Mowing - "Out, Out - " (Symbol)

Robert Frost accords symbolic value to an action (rather than an object or image) in his poem, "Out, out - ". Here Foster considers how mowing can be a stand in for labor, solitude, and even the fragility of human life.

"...mowing carries weight beyond its immediate context, seeming to stand in for labor generally, or for the solitary business of living one's life, or for something else beyond itself" (p 105- 106, Chapter 12 - Is That a Symbol?).

Road - "The Road Not Taken" (Symbol)

Another instance of symbolic action is decision making such as indicated by the persona in Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken."

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

In this poem, the divergence of paths or the road motif comes to represent human decision making, and the persona's words comes to represent, largely, the significance of moments of decision in human lives. The words become symbolic of themes such as free will, agency, freedom and independence amongst other human concerns (p 106, Chapter 12 - Is That a Symbol?).