Obviously stories may be read and enjoyed at face value, but I plan to challenge my students to practice the skill of peeling back the top layer of literary symbols to see what lies beneath. And as with an onion, some of the symbols may be multi-layered. Literary symbols gain their meaning from the context of the work. Practicing the skill of peeling back the layers becomes a way of making connections and exercising our imaginations.
As my students begin to explore literary symbols in the various genres that I have selected, they will also begin to learn to distinguish the differences, although sometimes subtle, between allegory, parable, and fable. The Sneetches and The Lorax are allegories in which the characters, and their actions, and in one case, the setting, cohere at a literal or surface level, giving the stories meaning; but at the same time characters, actions and settings are symbols or extended metaphors, cohering figuratively or abstractly to bring another, more significant meaning to the stories. There are political, social, and historical allegories as well as allegories that express ideas or human qualities such as greed or goodness. "A parable is a very short narrative about human beings presented so as to stress the tacit analogy, or parallel, with a general thesis or lesson that the narrator is trying to bring home to his audience" (Abrams 7). Parables sometimes end with a stated lesson or moral, but this is not always the case. The one-page Parable of the Eagle coheres to impart a lesson that may be interpreted as political or personal, but the lesson is not stated. Fables are short narratives, whose characters are often animals who talk, and through what they say and do, indirectly convey a moral that is usually stated at the end of the fable. Among the most familiar fables are probably Aesop's Fables: The Fox and the Crow, The Tortoise and the Hare, and The Wolf and the Grapes. Among my favorite fables is The Moth and the Star by James Thurber.
The Bear, in its original short story form, written during what is known as the Modern Period, following World War I, makes use of symbolism, but does not necessarily fit the genre of parable, fable, nor allegory. Like them, it may be read simply as a story about a boy hunting a tremendous, legendary bear that moved through the wilderness with the "irresistible deliberation of a locomotive" (Faulkner 281). But, if one considers what lies beneath the symbols--the agents and their actions, the objects, such as the gun and compass, and the setting--the story embodies Faulkner's 1950 Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech in which he clarifies his definition for enduring and significant literature: the writer must "leave no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed - love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice" (Bloom 109). The characters or agents, their actions, and the objects such as the gun and compass, and the deep wilderness in The Bear embody these verities.
Students will view the literal parts and pieces in Guernica for what they are, just as they will see from the illustrations and from reading the text that some of the Sneetches literally have stars on their bellies, and some don't. There is no question that, literally, it is a wolf waiting in the woods for the little girl with the red hood. But when one views the Guernica in its entirety and asks what is happening here literally, and what sounds are emanating from the figures, it becomes impossible to deny that both humans and animals alike are suffering torturously. Students will see the cataclysm in this mural, and I can count on them to suggest where this is going on in the world. The student, who viewed the poster in my classroom several years ago, knew immediately where the suffering that is represented in this mural was occurring; it was in his life. For him the tortured creatures symbolized his own tortured existence.
Practicing Language Arts CAPT skills
Also, among the skills that students will practice in my unit are strategies for answering the four questions on the Connecticut Academic Performance Language Arts Test that my sophomores will take in March. In a unit that I wrote in a YNHTI seminar several years ago on reading and writing children's literature, I used children's literature to effectively teach strategies for answering the questions that appear on the Language Arts CAPT. The parables, fables, and stories that I have chosen for my unit will be effective tools for teaching strategies for answering the Language Arts CAPT questions.