In literature, symbols are objects, characters, circumstances, or events which contain a deeper meaning in terms of the plot.
In The Hoosier School-Master, one literary symbol stands out clearly: the inimitable bull-dog, which comes to represent the tenacity Ralph Hartsook must exemplify if he wishes to survive as the new school-master of Flat-Crick. Accordingly, Ralph is warned about his chances of lasting out the winter by the most powerful trustee on the school board, Jack Means.
Jack also owns a bull-dog, Bull, a ferocious creature who presents an intimidating threat to anyone courageous enough to come within distance of its jaws. Throughout the story, the bull-dog is a symbol of tenacity and unwavering determination. Bud Means, Jack's oldest son, is a bully, one of the 'untamed and strapping youths' of Flat Crick. Like a bull-dog, he 'thrashed the last master' and ran him out of town. However, Bud's unflagging persistence in intimidating Ralph is unsuccessful. The new school-master refuses to submit to systematic pressure; he realizes that he has to be even more tenacious than his student if he wants to keep teaching.
Indeed, Ralph refuses to be cowed by Bud's persistent challenges to his authority; yet, instead of resorting to physical violence to hold his own, Ralph tries to appeal to Bud's pride and sense of honor.
"You won't thrash me, though," said Ralph.
"Pshaw! I 'low I could whip you in an inch of your life with my left hand, and never half try," said young Means, with a threatening sneer.
"I know that as well as you do."
"Well, a'n't you afraid of me, then?" and again he looked sidewise at Ralph.
"Not a bit," said Ralph, wondering at his own courage.
"Why a'n't you afraid of me?" he said presently.
"Because you and I are going to be friends."
"And what about t'others?"
"I am not afraid of all the other boys put together."
"You a'n't! The mischief! How's that?"
"Well, I'm not afraid of them because you and I are going to be friends, and you can whip all of them together. You'll do the fighting and I'll do the teaching."
Although Ralph finds his challenges increasing in scope as he immerses himself into the daily routine of teaching, he vows that he will never give up. He will be as tenacious and determined as Bull, the bull-dog, when he takes hold of something.
He thought that what Flat Creek needed was a bulldog. He would be a bulldog, quiet, but invincible. He would take hold in such a way that nothing should make him let go.
Indeed, the whole town soon comes to realize that, even though the fledgling school-master is no fan of 'lickin' and larnin,' (corporal punishment), he possesses 'a heap of thunder and lightning in him.' It is this fiery persistence to succeed that captures Mirandy Means' attention:
Mirandy had nothing but contempt for the new master until he developed the bulldog in his character. Mirandy fell in love with...
Interestingly, Mirandy's mother is equally persistent in her machinations to snag the eligible bachelor teacher for her daughter. Like a bulldog, she has her heart set on having Ralph for a son-in-law, and she does everything she can to win him over.
The symbol of the bulldog continues as the story progresses.Three problems soon occupy the attentions of our school master: he must figure out how he can win Hannah's love without inflaming Bud's jealousy, continue to cement his authority in the classroom without resorting to physical violence, and resolve his precarious position in the wake of the robbery without implicating himself. If you refer to Chapter Seven, you will see once again how the symbol of the bulldog comes into play. This symbol of dogged determination is a pervasive element throughout the story.
It is astonishing how much instruction and comfort there is in a bulldog. This slender school-master, who had been all his life repressing the animal and developing the finer nature, now found a need of just what the bulldog had. And so, with the thought of how his friend the dog would fight in a desperate strait, he determined to take hold of his difficulties as Bull took hold of the raccoon. Moral questions he postponed for careful decision. But for the present he set his teeth together in a desperate, bulldog fashion, and he set his feet down slowly, positively, bulldoggedly.