Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Foster uses the image of the connect-the-dot drawing to symbolize how a reader’s capacity for pattern identification develops over time. When Foster first examines a connect-the-dot picture, he cannot immediately discern the image that the dots represent; he just sees a bunch of disconnected dots. He notes that some people are more adept at seeing the pattern within the dots right away, but most people need to practice working with the connect-the-dot pictures before they become more proficient at seeing the underlying image. The same is true in recognizing the underlying symbols, patterns, and references in a work of literature. Early readers may not immediately recognize that there’s much beneath the surface of details, plot points, dialogue, and character interactions. It may look to them like so many disconnected points or sentences. However, with practice, more experienced readers are able to discern that there’s a deeper layer of meaning hidden within those details. With time and practice, recognizing that deeper layer becomes easier and easier.
Foster uses the metaphor of mushroom hunting to symbolize the way a reader’s perception changes over time as they explore the deeper levels of meaning inherent within works of literature. To illustrate how perception can change over time, Foster includes the anecdote about the first time he goes mushroom hunting with his father as a child. Initially, he has difficulty picking the mushrooms out from the general foliage, but over time Foster’s ability to pick the mushrooms out and spot their specific shapes became more and more pronounced. In a parallel to Foster’s guidance to the reader, it is guidance from Foster’s father, who was adept at mushroom hunting, that teaches the young Foster how to spot mushrooms on his own. In the same way, readers may at first not have the ability to immediately spot symbols or patterns in the texts they are reading. However, over time, and with practice and the skilled guidance of teachers, readers can hone their perception and more easily narrow in on the conventions that give insight into the deeper meaning within their texts.
The Single Story
Foster uses the idea of a single story to symbolize the concept that all texts are in dialogue with each other. Throughout the book, Foster repeatedly notes that there is only one, large ongoing story, which encompasses all of literature, art, and history, and which is constantly ongoing. With this idea underpinning the rest of the text, Foster argues that there’s no such thing as an original story, as all narratives are part of the larger story, and all are constantly in dialogue with each other. He also illustrates the iterative power of symbols and patterns through this idea, suggesting that the meaning associated with symbols and different narrative designs has been honed and strengthened over many years as authors have returned again and again to the most archetypal of ideas. This also suggests that readers are a part of this developing story and have a hand both in creating it and in interpreting its ever-evolving meaning.