So, today was all about symbols. After we talked about theme yesterday, I mentioned that one of the best ways to figure out what kind of ideas an author is writing about in their story is to identify and “decode” some of the symbolism.

For instance, in yesterday’s story, “To Build a Fire,” it was mentioned in class that the fire itself (which you know is important to the story because of the title) symbolizes something like the man’s “life forces” or maybe “will to live.” His lunchtime fire, when he is feeling excited and confident, is a vigorous and forceful blaze. But the fires he makes after stepping in the spring are progressively weaker and more anemic, until the last tiny twigs extinguish in a sad puff of smoke. A few minutes later, the man is dead. In this case, the fire is a concrete, physical detail in the story that is meant to focus our minds on the abstract mental and physical strength of the man.

I gave a two-part definition of the word “symbol” in class today–the first definition is more specific and precise, but the second definition might be easier to remember when you’re actually reading a story. Here they are:


1) an object (graphic, spoken, physical, etc.) that represents an abstract idea or concept

2) something that suggests more than its literal meaning

After we talked about all this, we embarked on an activity to help focus our minds on symbolic “objects.” Each member of the class got a piece of paper and a set of pens with which to draw a symbol. The only guideline was that the thing they drew must have some meaning beyond the thing it actually represented. For example, I might draw a heart on a piece of paper, and everyone knows it’s a heart, but in my drawing it symbolizes the abstract idea “love. ”

After everyone was done drawing, I set the papers out around the room, gallery-style, and put a number on each one. Students then went around the room appreciating the great art that had been produced, and, on numbered sheets of their own, jotting down notes about what they thought each picture “meant.” When they had all had a chance to look around, we discussed the students’ interpretations. Of course, many students had interpretations that differed from the artist’s original intent. We argued about who “owned” the true interpretation of symbols–the person who creates the symbol, or the person who interprets it? Personally, I think the interpreter is the one who matters, but many students begged to differ, and they have a point.

Anyway, most classes didn’t get all the way through this gallery phase, so we’ll finish this up tomorrow, and also discuss the final term of the week, “tone.”



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