Name _________________________            Date ___________      Period _____


The Key to Finding, Understanding, and Explaining Symbols             


Step One – On your own paper, write down the title of the work you are trying to understand.

The title is the key to understanding any work.  The author chose the title to help you unlock

the meaning of the work. 


Step Two –Next (on the same paper), make a table like the one below, creating as many boxes as necessary. Write down each word of the title and every definition listed in the dictionary for each of those words (except articles: “a,” “an,”  “the,” and prepositions).  Remember, the title of a work is the key that unlocks the symbols and meaning of that work.

Word from Title

All Definitions of the Word




Add numbers as needed.



Add boxes as necessary.



Step Three – Next (on the same paper), make another table. Make a table with five columns.  Title the first column “Repeated Words,” the second “Definitions,” the third “Repeated Images,” the fourth “Repeated Actions,” and the fifth “Possible Reasons for Repetition.”


Write down words that are repeated in the work.  Then write down images that are repeated.  (For example, an author might not repeat the word “bird,” but will repeat the image of a bird by writing words connected to a bird like “flight,” “feather,” or “soar.”)  An author might also use synonyms – “thin,” “skinny,” or “slender” to create a repeated image.  Finally, write actions that are repeated.  Do you see characters doing the same things again and again?  If so, the author is telling you to pay attention to those actions.


Repeated Words


Repeated Images

Repeated Actions

Possible Reasons for Repetition






(Add as many boxes as needed.)

Step Four – Define each word in the “Repeated Words” column.  You might see some hidden meanings.  For example, the main character in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is named “Huckleberry.”  By looking up the word “huckleberry,” you learn that a huckleberry bush grows everywhere like a weed, but is also has value because it has edible fruit.  Also, during the time the novel was written people who were street people or bums were called huckleberries. (Old slang definitions can be found in the Online Etymology Dictionary at


Step Five - Try to come up with possible reasons why the author repeated words, images, and actions by looking at your emotional reaction to the repetitions and by researching historical connections.  The Internet is useful for finding historical or cultural connections. For example, the color red usually signifies danger and the number three signifies Christianity.  To find other symbols, you can use the Online Symbolism Dictionary at  Write down the possibilities.  If you cannot find a reason, just draw a straight line on the table.


Step Six – Next, look at the repeated items to see if there are connections to human needs like the needs for food, shelter, water, life, love, or God.  If you see connections, ask yourself what the author could be teaching you about those human needs.


Below your table, write down the possible lessons or themes of the work.


Step Seven - Look at how and why each character is changing and how that change is connected to a repeated item.  Remember that sometimes places and ideas, as well as people, can be characters.  Nature can be a character.  Love can be a character.  A river can be a character because a character is something with qualities that can make it similar to a person. Write down more lessons the symbol helps teach the characters in the poem, novel, or story and therefore also the readers of the story.


Step Eight - Look up the characteristics of the literary movement this author was part of and write how the repeated items teach the themes of that movement.


Step Nine - Decide whether the conflicts in the selected work are between characters, between a character and nature, between a character and God, between a character and fate, or between a character and himself or herself.  Then write down what ended the conflict.  How does the conflict end? Is the end of the conflict happy or sad?


Step Ten – Look at everything you have written down.  You will probably have found many symbols and now you understand their meaning.  Write down the most important thing about life you have learned.  This is a major theme of the work: an important lesson about life that it teaches.  Now you have used the key, made observations, made conclusions, and unlocked the hidden meaning of a work of literature!


©2010 Gale Sperry,,  All rights reserved.