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INFERRING MEANING: Themes & Symbols

By

James Scott

Edited by

Mary Beardsley

ISBN: 1-58049-369-6 Copyright © 2005 Prestwick House, Inc. All rights reserved. No portion may be reproduced without permission in writing from the publisher.

P.O. Box 658 Clayton, DE 19938 www.prestwickhouse.com 1 (800) 932-4593

TABLE OF CONTENTS

READING FOR LITERAL AND THEMATIC LEVELS OF MEANING ......... 6 FABLES The Fox and the Grapes........................................................................ The Frog and the Ox ............................................................................. The Swallow and the Doves .................................................................. The Man and the Snake ........................................................................ The Lion's Share .................................................................................... The Wolf and the Lamb ........................................................................ The Hare and His Friends ..................................................................... The Lion in Love ................................................................................... The Old Man and Death ........................................................................ The Miser and His Gold ........................................................................ Hercules and the Cart Driver ................................................................ The Wind and the Sun .......................................................................... The Crow and the Pitcher ..................................................................... The Young Thief and His Mother .......................................................... PARABLES First Parable of the Kingdom ................................................................ Second Parable of the Kingdom ............................................................ Workers in the Vineyard ....................................................................... The Prodigal Son ...................................................................................

7 9 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

25 27 28 29

MYTHS King Midas ............................................................................................ 31 Daedalus and Icarus .............................................................................. 33 Oedipus, The King ................................................................................ 35 ALLEGORIES Dr. Heidegger's Experiment - Nathaniel Hawthorne ............................. 37 STORIES The Emperor's New Clothes - Hans Christian Anderson ...................... The Gift of the Magi - O. Henry ............................................................ The Blanket - Floyd Dell ....................................................................... Looking Back - Guy de Maupassant ...................................................... The Father - Bjornstjerne Bjornson ...................................................... The Third Ingredient - O. Henry........................................................... The Bet - Anton Chekhov ...................................................................... The Blue Hotel - Stephen Crane ...........................................................

41 46 51 54 58 63 71 76

READING FOR LITERAL AND THEMATIC LEVELS OF MEANING

In many stories the reader may find two levels of meaning. The first level in any story is the literal level. This level is called the plot. If you were to list each incident in the plot as it happened, you would have the literal level. To determine the literal level you do not have to guess at the meaning or draw any conclusions--it is all there right in front of you. The second level of meaning is called the thematic level, or just theme. The theme is the idea behind the story. Sometimes it is very easy to see the idea behind the story, but other times it may be more difficult. Theme is usually expressed indirectly, as an element the reader must infer, or figure out. Frequently, theme is a universal statement about the human condition, rather than a simple statement dealing with characters or occurrences in the story. Two examples of theme might be: "People usually fear the unknown" or "Death may strike at any moment." Symbols are common objects that represent or stand for more complicated subjects. For example, a story about fearing the unknown might feature a person unwilling to swim in the ocean. The symbol is the ocean, which is dark and mysterious; therefore, the ocean stands for the unknown. The purpose of this book is to give you some strategies for distinguishing between plot and theme and to provide you with stories on which you can practice. Please note: The book begins with very easy selections, but the stories do become increasingly more difficult.

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FABLES

Long before the invention of the printing press, stories were told and sung by wandering poets. The stories that these poets told were meant to help pass the long, dark, lonely nights of winter. In addition to entertaining the audience, the stories these poets told often had a hidden meaning. As you might guess, the hidden meaning was meant to instruct the audience. Like the poets of old, we hope that you will enjoy the literal level, or plot, of the fables, parables, and stories we have selected, but we also hope you will be able to recognize the thematic level of meaning. The fables in this selection are usually attributed to Aesop, a Greek slave who lived from 620 to 560 B.C.

THE FOX AND THE GRAPES

One hot summer's day a fox was walking through the woods when he came to a bunch of grapes just ripening on a vine. "Just the thing to quench my thirst," he said. Drawing back a few feet, he took a run and a jump, and just missed the grape bunch. Turning around again, with a "One, Two, Three," he tried again, but still without success. Again and again he tried, but at last he had to give up. Walking away with his nose in the air, he said, "I am sure that those grapes are sour anyway."

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Inferring Meaning:

Now we will outline the plot, or literal level of meaning, in this fable. 1. A fox is walking through the woods. 2. He sees a bunch of grapes on a vine. 3. He makes several running jumps at the grapes, but he cannot reach them. 4. He walks away saying that the grapes are probably sour anyway. At this point, although some may have trouble putting it into words, most of you probably recognize the idea behind this fable. Incidentally, the idea or theme in a fable is usually called "the moral." With this in mind, which one of the morals or themes below, best describes the story, The Fox and the Grapes? A. B. C. D. People find it easy to be brave at a distance. People speak ill of something they cannot get for themselves. People generally do not like cruel tyrants. Although it may be fun, people should not try to take things that do not belong to them.

If you do not spot the best choice right away, what you should do is begin by eliminating the choices that are most obviously incorrect. This fable has nothing to do with courage or with cruel tyrants, so we know the answer is not A or C. In addition, while the fox is trying to take something that doesn't belong to him, he is not having any fun doing it--in fact, he is getting frustrated. So that eliminates D and leaves us with B. B is obviously the best choice. The fox tried to get the grapes but couldn't, so he felt that the grapes probably weren't any good anyway. A fox, of course, is a wild creature known for its cleverness, but in this story the fox is a symbol, because the fox is meant to represent a type of person. In the same way, the grapes may be a symbol for any object in life that we may want but cannot get.

8

Theme and Symbols

THE FROG AND THE OX

"Oh, Father," said a frog to his father at the side of a pool, "I have seen a terrible monster! It was as big as a mountain, with horns on its head, and a long tail." "Don't worry," said the old frog, "that was only Farmer White's ox. It isn't so big either; he may be a little taller than I, but I could easily make myself quite as broad, just you see." So he inhaled, and blew himself larger and larger. "Was he as big as that?" asked the father. "Oh, much bigger than that," said the young frog. Again the old one pulled in air and asked the young one if the ox was as big as that. "Bigger, Father, bigger," was the reply. So the frog took a deep breath and blew and blew and blew, and swelled and swelled and swelled. Then he said, "I'm sure the ox is not as big as..." but at this moment he burst.

Questions: 1. In this story, the old frog is a symbol for A. all people. B. all men. C. only people who try to make themselves look too important. D. only older people who are always giving advice. 2. In this story, bursting apart represents someone who is A. killing oneself. B. destroying another. C. looking foolish. D. failing at a job. 3. What is the moral of this fable? A. People who try to make themselves look too important end up destroying themselves or looking foolish. B. A frog can never be an ox. C. It is alright for a person to try to look important, but don't forget your friends. D. Looking important to people is meaningless, if you neglect God's opinion.

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