A symbol works two ways: It is something itself, and it also suggests something deeper. It is crucial to distinguish a symbol from a metaphor: Metaphors are comparisons between two seemingly dissimilar things; symbols associate two things, but their meaning is both literal and figurative. A metaphor might read, "His life was an oak tree that had just lost its leaves"; a symbol might be the oak tree itself, which would evoke the cycle of death and rebirth through the loss and growth of leaves. Some symbols have widespread, commonly accepted values that most readers should recognize: Apple pie suggests innocence or homespun values; ravens signify death; fruit is associated with sensuality. Yet none of these associations is absolute, and all of them are really determined by individual cultures and time (would a Chinese reader recognize that apple pie suggests innocence?). No symbols have absolute meanings, and, by their nature, we cannot read them at face value. Rather than beginning an inquiry into symbols by asking what they mean, it is better to begin by asking what they could mean, or what they have meant.

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