Essay: How to Read Literature Like a Professor – Thomas C. Foster

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  • How to Read Literature Like a Professor - Thomas C. Foster
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A “Faustian bargain” is when the hero of a story is offered something he desperately needs or wants in exchange for his soul. Foster provides an example of this, showing it may not always mean a literal soul, but something representative of a soul, like dignity or self-respect. This phrase originates from Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus.

When Foster says “language of reading”, he means the way someone understands a piece of writing. For example, a teacher or professor has a better language of reading than a student because we are just being introduced to it whereas they have been experiencing it since they were our age. Because of this, they understand concepts that authors are trying to convey and try to translate these concepts to us in a way we understand.

A literature professor reads different from a lay reader in the way that a lay reader will pick up the emotions that the author is trying to give and they will laugh or cry with the characters, whereas a literature professor will look deeper and ask themselves what made this emotion happen, have they seen this before, and other questions like that. They will focus on the meaning behind the emotions and where the inspiration for it could’ve come from when a lay reader will look at it and just admire the emotions written on the paper.

The three items that separate the professional reader from anyone else are memory, symbol, and pattern.

Chapter 1: Every Trip is a Quest (Except When It’s Not)

A quest consists of five things. First and foremost, the quester, or the person who you are following along the quest. The second is the place to go, or the place that the quester needs to make his or her way to by the end of the quest. Third is the stated reason to go, which is why the quester believes they are making this journey even though there is going to be a different reason in the end. Fourth would be the challenges and trials that our quester will run into. These provide a sense of danger and the action aspect of our quest. Lastly, you need a real reason the quester is going. The real reason never involves the stated reason for the quest.

The real reason for the quest is always self-knowledge. This is why questers are usually young and immature.

Foster’s overall point about journeys or trips in literature is that they may not always be a quest, because sometimes the writer simply needs to get the character to and from wherever they may be going with no challenge. Foster wants us to pay attention anytime a character hits the road in case something occurs that could hint to a quest beginning.

Chapter 2: Nice to Eat with You: Acts of Communion

Communion can mean several things, but to Foster it means the sharing of intimate thoughts and feelings. Though many people mistake communion to only be religious, he wants to say it doesn’t have to be religious, and that quite frankly, the meal happening doesn’t really matter. The meal is just the setting that brings the characters together.
Foster suggests authors often include meal scenes to reveal conflicts and reveal how characters feel about others. He also believes they include meal scenes to show the growth of the characters throughout the novel.

Whereas a meal that goes well is considered a success and portrays a good sign, a failed meal does the opposite. A failed meal is when the dinner turns ugly or doesn’t happen at all, such as when two people are having dinner and somebody unexpected shows up and ruins the meal for everyone.

Chapter 3: Nice to Eat You: Acts of Vampires

Literal vampirism could be best described as a character like Dracula who is literally a vampire. He sucks blood and turns virginal women into his followers and rips them of their innocence and usefulness.

Symbolic vampirism can still include literal vampirism, but it also includes other things such as selfishness, exploitation, refusal to respect the autonomy of other people, and several others. These are just the basic parts of symbolic vampirism, but when you think of literal vampires (such as Dracula) they portray these qualities boldly and proudly. Dracula doesn’t care about the effects he has on those he bites, and he doesn’t care who he has to use to get his next meal.

The essentials of a vampire story are usually an old, corrupt man who is on the hunt for young, innocent females. He wants to take away her youth to give it to himself. These represent the exploitation mentioned earlier by denying her rights to place his desires over them.

Chapter 4: If It’s Square, It’s a Sonnet

A sonnet is roughly square because visually, it’s going to be fourteen lines. Each of those fourteen lines will have ten, or close to ten syllables, and ten syllables in English look to be as long as the fourteen lines are high. This creates the visual representation of a square.

Knowing that a poem is a sonnet can help you understand the meaning of the poem because of parts of the first 8 lines and parts of the last 6. Whatever the rhyme scheme of the first 8 lines ties them together, and is then followed by the rhyme scheme that unifies the last 6 lines. It forms a basic pattern that can help to understand the poems meaning.

Chapter 5: Now, Where Have I Seen Her Before?

When Foster says “there’s no such thing as a wholly original work of literature” he means that however new and inventive a character or a storyline may be, there will always be bits and pieces of other plots and other characters mixed in. You may begin to read a book and think, “Oh, wow. That girl really reminds me of Ophelia from Hamlet.” And guess what, you’re probably right, because odds are the author took inspiration from Shakespeare and mixed together a concoction of various characters, one of those being Ophelia. With so many pieces of literature out there, there is no longer such a thing as wholly original work.

When Foster uses the term intertextuality he means it how critics speak about dialogue. Intertextuality is the ongoing interaction between poems or stories, which correlates with how there is no such thing as wholly original work because intertextuality is ongoing due to the fact that authors take bits and pieces of others’ work to produce a new character or novel.
Benefits and values of picking up on parallels between works of literature is that you can understand the different points that you may have missed originally. You can pick up on how others read the same scene but in a million different ways and truly broaden your literary horizons.

Chapter 6: When in Doubt, It’s from Shakespeare

In literature, everyone seems to reference Shakespeare at least once in their writing. This is because Shakespeare is so easily accessible and all of his stories have something unique about them. His stories have been redone millions of times for every age and every era so they’re so easily understanded by the masses.

Shakespeare manages to influence writers by providing them with the plotlines and language to use over hundreds of different mediums. He provided citations and interesting words that mean things hard to describe and it makes it much easier to influence writers of all ages to write and reference Shakespeare.

Chapter 7: …Or the Bible

The Bible is so often alluded because of how popular it has been throughout history and how easy it is for writers. Everyone enjoys using the Bible, even non-Christians use ideas from the Bible for their books.

Some of the most common ways the Bible is alluded to is with things like gardens, serpents, plagues, floods, loaves, fish, betrayal, denial, slavery, milk, and honey.
By knowing and understanding Bible allusions, you can find the deeper meanings lying behind the words. For example, when you read about betrayal, you can think about the story of Cain and Abel and what the meaning was of that story. Or when a piece of literature references a massive flood, you could think back to Noah’s Ark.

Chapter 8: Hanseldee and Greteldum

Authors borrow from “kiddie lit” in their books because it’s always relevant. Not only that, but everyone knows about the stories. Everyone around the world has heard the story of Sleeping Beauty or of Rapunzel, and because of that, it’s easiest to use these characters and plots for inspiration.

Writers allude to “kiddie lit” by taking bits and pieces of it to put into their story. Foster uses the example of using ideas from “Hansel & Gretel” and putting them together to make something new. Rather than having siblings, have young lovers come up lost because their car broke down. Foster explains that the point isn’t to recreate that fairy tale, it’s to add a new depth to your story. It’s to allow people to look at it and understand that they’ve heard this before, but you’ve used the basics to complete a brand new story.

Chapter 9: It’s Greek to Me

When Foster says “myth”, he doesn’t mean untrue. He means the “shaping and sustaining power of story and symbol.” He doesn’t want people to think that just because he uses the word myth he’s automatically saying it’s untrue because to him, he means that a myth is simply story.

Writers allude to mythology because it has the stories that are so deeply carved into society and the stories that we’ve all heard a million different times in a million different ways, but yet we know it all comes back to the original story in mythology.

Writers allude to mythology in several ways, but the ones that stick out the most are by using the allegorical format or by using parallels. By parallels, Foster explains the story of Odysseus compared to the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou. Even though these stories take place centuries apart, we can still tell that there are clear similarities, and Foster calls this an ironized parallel.

Chapter 10: It’s More Than Just Rain or Snow

Weather can be symbolic in literature depending on what weather is occurring. For example, when a writer uses “dark and stormy night”, you can get the feeling of mystery and you know something negative is going to happen. Whereas when a writer says it’s sunny out, you can infer that things will go okay.

Weather can serve as a plot device in a few different ways. First, it can bring characters together to kickoff the rising action. If two characters are stuck together in a rainstorm, they’re bound to bond. Weather can also trigger emotions in the reader to provide empathy for the characters. It can make you feel sad or lonely because of the way the author wants both you and the characters to feel.

Foster explains the meaning of rain is clean and restorative, and when it’s mixed with sun it makes a rainbow. A rainbow is “divine pact between human, nature, and God.” Fog is almost always confusion and snow is a lot like rain; clean, severe, and paradoxically warm. It’s inviting and suffocating, to an extent.

Interlude: Did He Mean That?

According to Foster there are more than one reason to believe that the symbols, allusions, and patterns found when reading critical are not accidental. He does, however, say that no one can ever know what the writer truly intended unless the author says it themselves. There are “intentionalist” time periods where intentionalists wrote and intentionally controlled every piece of their writing. He provides the example that when he is writing something he doesn’t just sit and write it, he keeps it and thinks of how to approach the certain situation.

The benefit of picking up on these little things is increasing your understanding and even your liking towards the book. Even if something isn’t intended, it makes it more enjoyable to be reading and think, “Oh wow! That was symbolized earlier in the book,” even if the author didn’t mean to. Also, you may understand the symbol of something more than the actual thing and therefore it can help you understand the novel better.

Chapter 11: …More Than It’s Gonna Hurt You: Concerning Violence

In literature, violence isn’t just violence. Violence is personal and even intimate at times. Depending on the violence, it can even by cultural or societal. It can be symbolic or thematic, or even biblical. In real life, violence is simply aggression, but in literature it can be a metaphor for the way the book will end.

There are two categories of violence in literature. The first is “the specific injury that authors cause characters to visit on one another or on themselves”. This includes usual violence like shootings, stabbings, drownings, poisonings, bombings, starvations, and other things like that. The second is “the narrative violence that causes characters harm in general”. This means that death and suffering authors include in their work for plot or thematic development where they are the ones responsible, not their characters.

When reading violence, a critical reader should ask him or herself if the two types of violence are even comparable. They also need to ask the reasoning behind the violence and where does the need for this violence come from? Readers need to ask and answer these questions when reading violence to make clarifications to his or herself.

Chapter 12: Is That a Symbol?

The difference between symbolism and allegory is pretty cut and dry. In general, a symbol does not mean only one thing. It means multiple things to multiple different people. Allegory, however, means one specific thing. One thing stands for one other things and that’s that, no thought about it.

A reader’s understanding of a symbolic meaning is impacted by their life. Every reader is different has had different experiences, different knowledge. The way I pick up a symbol and understand it could be completely different than the way Foster would understand the symbol.

Foster says that many people expect symbols to only be objects or images, but they can also be events and actions. Foster uses the example of Robert Frost’s poem “Mowing”. He talks about how even though he is seemingly only mowing a field, it actually is representing his independence and solidarity in his life.

When a reader is approaching symbolism in text, they shouldn’t say it means one specific thing. They should think to themselves several different things that the symbolism could mean. Once they brainstorm those ideas, they should keep them in mind to see which one of them happens eventually, or if any of them happen at all.

Chapter 13: It’s All Political

Primarily, authors include social criticism in their writing through some kind of representation of movements, beliefs, or issues through their characters. For example, in Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, Scrooge has a very real attitude towards poor people. Foster explains to readers that political commentary that is straight to the point ends up being rather dry and boring, and doesn’t work well everywhere.

Writers include social criticism in their writing to make it more interesting. Foster talks about how when an author includes things from the reality of our world, it forces readers to really think about our world and what our role is in the events happening all around us.

Writers address several political issues. Most of the common ones tackled are power structures, relations among classes, issues of justice and rights, interactions between sexes, and interactions among different racial and ethnic groups.

Chapter 14: Yes, She’s Christ Figure, Too

There are several characteristics of a “Christ figure”. The eighteen characteristics Foster gives us are crucified, wounds in the hands, feet, side, and head, in agony (which, to be completely honest, I think the first one would be pretty agonizing), self-sacrificing, good with children, good with loaves, fishes, water, and wine, thirty-three years of age when last seen, employed as carpenter, known to use humble modes of transportation, believed to have walked on water, often portrayed with arms outstretched, known to have spent time alone in the wilderness, believed to have had a confrontation with the devil, possible tempted, last seen in the company of thieves, creator of many aphorisms and parables, buried, but arose on the third day, had disciples, very forgiving, and came to redeem an unworthy world. Though this list seems very extensive and a bit comedic, these are characteristics that we can all remember characters having.

Foster says that not all of the characteristics need to be expressed for a character to be a “Christ figure”. He references Flannery O’Connor for examples and then says that if you start to think of a character that isn’t male, Christian, or good, they can still be a Christ figure. You are then stepping into irony territory, though.

Foster says the use of Christ figures is for when a writer wants to make a certain point. He says that “perhaps the parallel deepens our sense of the character’s sacrifice if we see it as somehow similar to the greatest sacrifice we know of.” Basically, Christ figures are used to deepen the meaning behind the character’s actions.

Chapter 15: Flights of Fancy

The reason so many authors toy with the idea of flight in their writings is because it’s something humans are not physically capable of. When a writer talks about superheroes flying or levitation or stories like Icarus, it’s representing the human desire to fly.

The general symbolic meaning for flight is freedom. The freedom could be from circumstances or a burden the character has. Foster also addresses the occasions when a character is given “the power of flight” without even leaving the ground. This is referred to as the flight of the soul and characters with this symbolize spirit and love.

When a flight is interrupted or failed in literature, it’s generally a bad thing. Foster says that it’s a bad thing given what the opposite of flying is: falling. He clarifies that, of course, not every crash ends badly, but in general when you’re reading a story and someone’s flight is prematurely ended, you’ve got some kind of negativity to expect.

Chapter 16: It’s All About Sex…

In literature, sex and gender are symbolized by all sorts of things. Female sex symbols are things like a chalice, the holy grail, bowls, tunnels, and images of fertility (obviously). Whereas male sex symbols include dangerous or intimidating things like blades and tall buildings. Foster references to a young male knight that enters manhood when he finds the chalice, which represents a female sex symbol. It translates to a man having sex and losing his virginity is also seen as a right of passage to manhood.

Up until mid 20th century, sex was censored in literature. In movies, married couples even had to sleep in separate beds. So when authors began to use sex symbols rather than sex itself, it became a bit of a loophole. Literary writers could use these symbols to portray their ideas that would otherwise be censored.

Chapter 17: …Except Sex

When writers write about sex, they are just trying to develop the plot of their story. Foster speaks of examples of politics and how sex can play into corruption. He speaks about interpretations of sexual acts in literature and how writing directly about it isn’t what it seems.

Literary writers stay away from writing actual sex scenes because first of all, it’s difficult, and second of all, it’s called pornography. Writing a sex scene is difficult because you’re either repeating the same exact terms over and over again or you’re using cheesy metaphors that make you come off as squeamish and inept.

Chapter 18: If She Comes Up, It’s Baptism

In real life, baptism is your rebirth. Well, in literature, that’s also what water symbolizes. People are submerged into it and when they escape, they are a new person; reborn.
In literature, when a character drowns it usually means they are going through character revelation or are a part of thematic development of violence or guilt. When a character drowns in literary works, it also creates a plot complication, according to Foster.

Chapter 19: Geography Matters…

Geography can reinforce theme by providing tools for specific interactions between characters to take place. An example would be how vital the Mississippi River is to the story The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because if it weren’t for the river, Jim would not have experienced such discrimination.

Geography can represent a character as all of their attributes. For example, in the Bean Trees, the geography makes the main character feel trapped because the mountains block the sunrise and sunset. When the geography is changed, the main character can develop a more optimistic outlook.

Geography can be a character by giving information towards a character through details. For instance, in ‘Going After Cacciato’ by Tim O’Brien, the land itself becomes the enemy when it restricts the Vietcong Soldiers from escaping

Chapter 20: …So Does Season

Interlude: One Story

Chapter 21: Marked for Greatness

Chapter 22: He’s Blind for a Reason, You Know

Chapter 23: It’s Never Just Heart Disease

Chapter 24: …And Rarely Just Illness

Chapter 25: Don’t Read With Your Eyes

Chapter 26: Is He Serious? And Other Ironies

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