Essay: How to Read Literature Like a Professor

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  • Subject area(s): Literature essays
  • Reading time: 11 minutes
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  • Published on: July 16, 2019
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Book Connection — Hamlet

1 – Every Trip is a Quest

In this Chapter, Foster explains how quests are always about self-knowledge. He shows how, even small tasks, can result in the growing of that knowledge. He takes the reader through a story and explains how each element applies to a quest, and how those same elements can be applied to many other stories not traditional seen as a quest. He focuses on The Crying Lot of 49 as it gives him the ability to show how those key elements can apply. He also finishes the chapter by describing how rules of literature are continually broken and instances are “never” or “always” true.

2 – Nice to Eat with You / Communion

Foster explains the importance of eating and the communion of eating in this chapter. He writes about how communion is not only for religious purposes, but is a sense of coming together. He speaks of two scenes of eating, and how they each hold meaning other than eating. Eating is a way to hide taboos and how many human natures are ritualistic and a way of coming together. Foster talks about the eating in “Cathedral” and how the intimacy of the act can change a person.

3 – Nice to Eat with you / Vampires

Foster talks about how “vampires” are not the scariest thing to happen in literature, rather they represent the things even scarier about human nature. Foster writes about Dracula and how it represents selfishness, exploitation, and a refusal to respect the autonomy of other people. Vampirism is never about vampires but actually the evil truths of humans- and this often appears inside of most stories of nonhuman forms. This is shown in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and in A Christmas Carol. These stories were meant to symbolize various aspects of our reality. Also, Victorian writers were able to use these characters as a way to write about sexuality with symbols and how the destruction of people relies on societies– almost acceptance– of placing the desires of oneself about another.

4 – Now, Where Have I Seen Her Before?

In this chapter, Foster writes about how no work of literature is wholly original or wholly its one. However, all works play on other stories and incorporated elements of past writings to make the story complete. This is because it allows for authors to establish more of the story without saying as much. Foster explains that all stories intersect in some way. Understanding these patterns and this histories within new stories often makes the narrative more fulfilling to read. He talks about the novel Wise Children and how it uses parallels from Shakespeare, and by seeing this connection, it makes the story more deep to the reader.

5 – When in Doubt, it’s from Shakespeare

Chapter 5 focuses on just how influential Shakespeare is. He is used in almost every written work and his ideas are constantly recycled. Authors favor his stories and ideas because the stories are recognizable and people respect those who use Shakespeare to their advantage. The structure of his stories gives authors the freedom to change the details but never stray away from main ideas.

6 – …or the Bible

Foster develops the point that the Bible has planned a fundamental role in shaping the literary references used by authors. He shows how modern western literature is pomeintal filled with quotes and stories with biblical origin. He uses Toni Morrison’s Beloved as a prime explain because within the story it is told that an escaped slave is found by four white men on horses– who represent the Apocalypse. This is foretold in the Gospel of St. John when four horsemen arrive to signify the beginning. Outside of the Judeo-Christian world, religious references are seen to dominate culture. Though, when we pay attention to these references, a deeper meaning of the text is able to be understood.

7 – Hanseldee and Greteldum

Authors frequently borrow from the cannon that already exists in their world– an elusive list of all texts that critics feel are essential to understand the history of English literature. While it poses obstacles for readers to pick up on references of uncommon works, many authors chose to borrow stories and themes from children’s literature. Foster explains that the most appealing is the story of “Hansel and Gretel.” It follows classic themes and is recognizable because of the morally straight forward plot it follows. It gives vibrancy to literature that would otherwise be cluster with unknown references and easily confused by the modern reader.

8 – It’s Greek to Me

In this chapter, Foster explores the world of myth and its meaning in literature– a role similarly played by Shakespeare, the Bible, and fairy tales. These stories have a place in a culture and they are used to provide a sense of community. Foster explains how Richard Wagner used Germanic myths as inspiration for his operas. While Western cultures typically associated myths with Greeks and Romans, stories from those cultures are still deeply ingrained into our society. It’s why the flying people of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon are associated with the story of Icarus and not with the myth of “flying africans.” Authors always base stories off of these myths, and shows how their reworks, like of the Bible and Shakespeare, are deeply important to our culture of literature.

9 – It’s More than Just Rain or Snow

In this Chapter, Foster explains how “weather is never just weather,” and why it has such an important symbolic meaning. It can be used as a plot device and it can force characters into actions otherwise considered by them. Foster shows this by explaining how in Thomas Hardy’s “The Three Strangers” the prisoners that are escaping death row are forced to find shelter together because of the rain– forcing their interaction. Rain can also be seen as a cleansing of sorts, a way for character’s to “wash away” wrong deeds, but then also a way to bring on illness. Rainbows are also important and have strong ties to the Biblical story of Noah– a sign of how. Fog is used for mystery and danger, but snow has the largest range of meaning. It can act in a restorative way or lead to a very threatening situation.

10 – Never Stand Next to the Hero

Foster shows how being close to the hero often leads to death. Like in The Iliad, Patroclus is Achilles best friend, but one day Patroclus decides to wear Achilles armor into battle– where he is killed. The plot device is so powerful that it happens all the time. To many it seems cruel to use death as a way to further the story, but Foster makes not that characters aren’t real people and literature isn’t that fair. E.M. Forster explains that some characters are “round” (those with complexity and capable of growth) while others are “flat” (simplistic). Creating flat characters saves the story from over complication and the relationship between the two types of characters give authors the chance to play the plot in a continuous motion.

11 – More than It’s Gonna Hurt You

Toni Morrison’s Beloved focuses on a singular act of violence and it shows how much broader its meaning is. While violence may be meaningless in the real world, literature gives it new meaning. It is seen in two categories: violence that characters do to one another and then harmful events that happen to characters. It tends to carry major symbolic meaning, like in Women in Love. Physical fights between Gudrun and Ursula symbolize clashes in the social structure of industrial capitalism. While in Fay Weldon’s The Hearts and Lives of Men characters who fall to earth after their airplanes explode symbolize a fall from innocence. The difference between these two types of violence highlight the fact that the acts will never mean the same, but will mean something.

12 – Is that a Symbol?

Symbols are everywhere in literature– they don’t have one specific meaning and those that do are actually allegories. In Animal Farm, the allegory is clear in that the book hopes to convey a message about the interaction of political power and revolution. Symbols, however, are open ended, and the meaning of them depend on the reader. Actions and events and objects all offer opportunity to act as symbols and the poet Robert Frost is best at symbolic action. He often centers poems around the symbolism of actions, like mowing a field with a scythe. It is important to avoid statements about symbols, but readers should trust their knowledge of literature when figuring out their meaning. There is no science to finding the meaning of symbols.

13 – It’s All Political

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