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Theme and Symbol in A.S. Byatt's "The Thing in the Forest"

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Jeff Clapp

on 3 October 2013

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Transcript of Theme and Symbol in A.S. Byatt's "The Thing in the Forest"

Theme and Symbol in A.S. Byatt's "The Thing in the Forest"
Basics of Byatt's Story
Theme
Interpretation
Interpreting a story is not like decoding a message.
Symbol
In literature, an image which has both
literal and thematic meaning is a "symbol."
Byatt's Characters
Byatt's Settings
Byatt's Plot
Byatt's Narrator
A.S. Byatt's story is perfect for exploring these ideas.
The story uses a central symbol to lead the reader directly to the the story's themes.
The literal meaning is part of the story's plot,
just like objects are part of the real world.
The symbolic meaning points us toward the story's themes.
Some symbols stand alone, and some are linked in patterns.
Lone Symbols
Linked Symbols
Sometimes a story contains just one or two highly significant symbols.
These images often show us how to interpret a work of literature, bringing the work's themes together in a comprehensive way.
For example, think of White Cat's toy scimitar.

It is not just a piece of characterization. It also shows us that Ha Jin regards violence as part of human nature--and suggests that the Red Guards' actions may just be a new form of innate human cruelty.
Thinking about symbols can strongly influence your interpretation.
Symbols can be organized into large patterns.
ARCHETYPES are sets of symbols that persist through many works, and which structure our understanding of everyday life.
In an ALLEGORY, all (or most) of a work's images are symbolic.
In a MYTH, the whole work is symbolic.
New myths almost never arise, and very few allegories are now written. Archetypes, however, are all around you all the time.
Major Archetypes
Archetypes can sometimes seem like something you have to memorize. But actually you probably know about many of them already.
"Theme" describes the KIND of meaning literature offers.
It is not pure information, like what a bus schedule offers.
Nor is it advice or argument, like what a philosopher offers.
Instead, a story's themes are the attitudes it explores, the topics to which it pays sustained attention.
Themes of Ha Jin's "In Broad Daylight"
All individuals must become part of groups.
White Cat has grow up and begin to understand adult life.
Crowds can be dangerous and cruel.
The villagers are provoked into violence.
China's Cultural Revolution merits careful scrutiny.
While village life has always been difficult, Ha Jin's Red Guards seem cruel.
Themes of Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"
Death is part of lived experience.
The story carefully narrates what it feels like to approach and experience death.
The American Civil War was fought by true believers.
Even though Bierce fought for the North,
he describes his slaveholding protagonist in heroic terms. Then he kills him.
It is like passing from one place to another,
learning more and more along the way.
To find a story's themes, I ask this question:
what does this story care about?
Always pay attention when an author divides a story for you.
The Nine Parts of "The Thing in the Forest"
The Reader's Time
Tension
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
1) Exposition:
The Girls, The Train
2) Rising Action:
The House, The Forest
3) Climax 1: The Monster
4) Exposition: After the War
5) Rising Action: Meeting Again
6) Climax 2a: Primrose Returns
7) Climax 2b: Penny Returns
8) Falling Action:
Penny Returns Again
9) Falling Action:
Primrose Tells Her Story
Byatt's characters grow up
over the course of the story.
Penny and Primrose represent opposite approaches to life.
Throughout the story, Byatt provides lush, vivid descriptions of places. The descriptions always correspond closely to Penny and Primrose's moods and perceptions.
Byatt's settings are highly archetypal--so much so that they actually APPEAR in literature within the story.
What themes does this plot imply?
Byatt chose an all-knowing, third-person narrator.
Because the narrator knows everything that is happening in the story world and within both protagonists' minds,
the narrator can show how two people could remain deeply connected over distance and time.
Also, Penny's and Primrose's two points of view already provide the kind of stereoscopic effect that a more prominent narrator provides.
Byatt's Symbol
Although she uses many archetypal symbols, The Thing is the central symbol of the story. What does it represent?
Partially Man-made
Life-Destroying
Only Temporarily Killable
We can safely say that Byatt's monster symbolizes war.
But what does she want to tell us about war?
Byatt's Themes
Byatt's central symbol, the Thing, suggests that her story is about how war is foul and disgusting.
"What does this story care about?"
The experience of war never fades. It determines the shape of entire lives.
Although people may be totally different from one another,
traumatic experiences can bind them together forever.
Or:
It is like getting to know a person.
There is always more to know.
The myth of Sisyphus
The story has two protagonists,
which is very unusual.
But that doesn't help us understand any of the story's characters or its plot.
theme 1
theme 2
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