Before we can identify the layers of meaning in literary symbols in a story, we establish the literal relationship of these symbols to each other and their meaning within the context of the story. Sophisticated readers have learned to do this automatically as they read, and often "connect the dots," that is, recognize the literal meaning and symbolic meaning almost simultaneously.
For my students the first step in this process is to establish the literal relationships between the symbols within the context of the story. This can be achieved through graphic organizers that establish a sequence of events or cause and effect, that is, how an initial action by an agent or character precipitates another action, and the unfolding of this action to its conclusion. This graphic organizer must include significant characters, their actions, significant objects, and the setting. Students will include important text along with the actions as they unfold. Sequence of events and cause and effect graphic organizers are available on the Internet for those who do not already have them among their teaching tools.
Another effective graphic organizer that is very useful for establishing relationships is the story board, also available on the Internet. Students retell the story in frames of simple sketches that include the agents, their actions and interactions, significant objects, and the setting. These frames must be accompanied by the essential, abbreviated text. All of these graphic organizers lend themselves to team or group activities where students collaborate on what must be included in the literal story. Upon completion, comparing these team-generated graphic organizers is illuminating and often precipitates highly animated discussion among the teams about the necessary components of the literal story.
In both cases, in the sequence of event, and cause and effect, and in the story board graphic organizers, it may be useful to keep a separate list of the characteristics or qualities of the agents. For example, in the two paragraph fable, The Moth and the Star by James Thurber, the young moth who chose to fly towards a star, instead of the typical street lamp every night, can easily be seen as independent-minded and a non-conformist. In fact, his father scolded him roundly for not conforming and following the lead of his brothers and sisters flying into street lamps and getting their wings badly burned, and the father may even be perceived as kicking the moth out, "Come on now, get out of here and get yourself scorched! A big strapping moth like you without a mark on him" (Thurber 261).
Students will also answer the question, "Within the sequence of events, (a.) when does the action begin to create a problem or conflict, (b.) when does the problem become most urgent, and (c.) and when does it get resolved?" Students may identify the answers to these questions next to the part of the sequence where they occur. This should also be part of the story board graphic organizer. In The Moth and the Star, the problem is introduced almost immediately when, in the second sentence, the young moth tells his mother that his heart is set on a star, "and she counseled him to set his heart on a bridge lamp instead." Because the moth is independent and non-conforming, he spends his entire long life trying to reach the star, and according to the fable, when he became old he really believed that he had reached the star, and "This gave him a deep and lasting pleasure, . . . while his parents and brothers and sisters had all been burned to death when they were quite young" (261 ).
As with most fables, the lesson or moral is stated at the conclusion. Students will begin by deciphering the literal meaning. The moral stated at the end of The Moth and the Star is: "Who flies afar from the sphere of our sorrow is here today and here tomorrow" (261). A few simple questions may help in deciphering the literal meaning of the moral: To whom in the story is the moral referring? What is the action in which this agent (or character) is engaged, according to the moral? What is the sphere of sorrow in the fable? Why is it referred to as a sphere of sorrow? And why is this character here today and here tomorrow?
Whether or not there is a stated moral at the end of the story, students will rely on their sequence of events or story board graphic organizers to discern the literal relationship of the symbols to one another in the context or setting and, as I have stated, sometimes the setting, itself, is symbolic, as in Little Red Riding Hood and The Little Girl and the Wolf, where the little girl, "on her way through a wood meets old Father Wolf" in Charles Perrault's parable, and "a big wolf waits [for her] in a dark forest" in Thurber's parody. Clearly the woods and dark forest are significant symbols as settings for the little girls' encounters with the wolves. Objects are significant symbols in their relationship to the story as well, as in Little Red Riding Hood, the little girl is carrying a basket of cakes with some butter tucked in; in The Little Girl and the Wolf, the little girl also has food in her basket, but tucked in among her goodies is an automatic weapon, causing a dramatic change in the outcome from the original story.
It may seem elementary to deconstruct what appear to be simple fables, parables, and allegories by Dr. Seuss, but if my students are to study symbols and the complexity of their meanings, it is necessary that they practice deciphering the literal relationship of the symbols in a story before they begin to imagine their relationship in layers of meaning.