Essay: How to Read Literature Like a Professor

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  • Subject area(s): Literature essays
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  • Published on: July 16, 2019
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  • How to Read Literature Like a Professor
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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

Foster develops the point that writing with an understood political agenda is unappealing to those outside of the time and place the writing is occuring. He states that all writing is political to an extent because it incorporates a social problem or the solution. To recognize the elements in the literature one must examine how the lives of characters fit into the culture.

14 – Yes, She’s a Christ Figure, too

Foster explains how important it is to recognize characteristics that reflect Jesus. In Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, an old fisherman is pure of heart but suffers great physical strife and even sleeps in a bed in the shape of a cross. This is an example of the connection between the character and Jesus, however many characters are more loose linked. Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine highlights a woman that is selfish, an alcoholic, sex worker, and mother who dies in a blizzard then returns as a ghost. Foster shows how it can often be difficult to make the connection but one must let go of their personal beliefs to see all the ways that Christ is reflected in literature.

15 – Flights of Fancy

People have dreamed of flying. Again bringing in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon to explain that the “flying African’ myth is a reflection of the want for freedom in the face of captivity. And Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus, a woman is trapped because of her ability to fly and is forced to perform in a circus. Also, flight is symbolic in death– like in the Christian image. Flight is associated with freedom.

16 – It’s All About Sex

Sex is a symbol and Foster shows the how this subtext can be traced back to Sigmund Freud. Freud made sex a part of literary scholarship. Like when knights were searching for a Holy Grail, they were really looking for something connected to female sexuality. Then in the 1950s, film directors used curtains closing to convey the message of sex to the audience. Sexual acts are symbolized by a plethora of things– trains going into a tunnel or keys being placed in a lock. These scenes are indirectly represented because of the censorship of sexuality throughout time.

17 – Except Sex

Foster explains that senses that are actually about sex are hard to write, and this is another reason authors choose to not write them– also the last few decades have been the only ones that allow for authors to write about sex without censorship. While sex is hard to understand in terms of literature, more often than not, sex is about more than just sex.

18 – If She Comes Up, It’s Baptism

Baptism is often seen in literature when a character emerges from water alive– more symbolic than anything. Foster puts focus on Morrison’s Song of Solomon, were Milkman gets wet three times– also an allusion to to Christian baptism. Milkman emerges a better man than before, and this shows the strong connection between baptism and character development. However, every time a character gets wet it may not represent baptism. Drowning then has its own set of meaning– like in African American literature. It is connected to the Middle Passage and has taken on mythic associations.

19 – Geography Matters

Foster develops the point that the destination is very important to a work of literature. Writers like William Faulkner and Thomas Hardy are associated with a location. Though, most authors include a variety of destinations in a work, and readers must pay close attention to this fact. These settings carry symbolic significance and can develop the atmosphere and shape characters. It can move the plot, like in E.M. Forster’s A Room with a view and A Passage to India were the disconnect between characters and the setting act to progress the story. Geography is also “a metaphor for psyche” where the external setting is a reflection of the internal of the characters, and they travel to find their own impression. Foster also makes the point that authors send characters south “so they can run amok.” Lots of geography have specific meanings in specific literature. Hills and valleys also have significance. High places represent purity or isolation, while low places are associated with crowds or dirtiness. Geography has a range of usage and meaning.

20 – So Does Season

Season also plays an important role in literature. Shakespeare’s sonnet 73 is about a man that compares his coming age to a shift from fall to winter. Henry James also uses this when he calls two of his characters Frederic Winterbourne and Daisy Miller– contracting cold winter with the warmth of spring. Seasonal events also help to create an atmosphere within the story, but because the seasons can have mixed meanings. This gives writers the freedom to experiment with the representation of the seasons, and different cultures have different associations with the seasons.

21 – Marked for Greatness

In this chapter, Foster explains how physical differences often hold symbolic meaning. Historically, physical aberrations are connected with moral shortcomings, and they often hold symbolic meaning. Scars give a sense of a characters history and can reveal their past. Like in Oedipus Rex, Oedipus’ lack of knowledge is his flaw and it leads to blindness. Mary Shelley’s monster in Frankenstein is made out of bits of machine– this shows the heighten fears of the cultural shift of the time.

22 – He’s Blind for a Reason

The chapter begins by focusing on Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, where Oedipus suffers from a lack of self-awareness. This causes him to fulfill a prophecy that he kills his father and marries his mother. In the play, Sophocles shows shows how Oedipus blinds himself in despair and this connection to his lack of foresight. Blindness has more meaning than the physical disability. Foster also shows that texts have symbolic importance when they incorporate blindness in their stories

23 – Illness/Heart Disease

Foster develops the point that part of the reason why heart disease is considered to hold symbolic meaning is because that the heart is considered the emotional hub of the human body. It is associated with romantic love, and therefore heart disease is connected with loneliness, cruelty, and cowardice. However, heart trouble doesn’t always come in the form of heart disease– like in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Man of Adamant.” A man moves into a cave to escape the culture pressures, and his heart turns to stone. While heart disease isn’t the sole illness in literature, different ones have their own group of associations. Plus, the potential nature of illness carries an important reason for how and why it even appears in text. While symbolic meaning is never one meaning, many illnesses often have a particular meaning. The bubonic plague, allows for themes of tragedy and apologies to be developed. And many illness have particular importance in certain areas like the AIDS epidemic.

24 – Don’t Read with Your Eyes

Foster emphasizes the point that a reader should not read with their eyes– to not read only from their own perspective, but to consider the experiences all the characters within the book. For example, through James Baldwin’s story “Sonny’s Blues,” a math teacher whose brother is a heroin addict, Foster is able to show how influential the reader’s point of view really can be. The main question of the story is weather or not Sonny can be stripped of his addiction. Foster gives the advice to avoid looking at the story from their own eyes, but rather look at it through the characters. However, a problem arises when looking through different texts through different perspectives– especially when the text is very old. This is especially true when reading literature from the Ancient Greeks.

25 – It’s My Symbol

In this chapter, Foster explains how the meaning of symbols can be subtle, and the direct meaning of a book can be lost in the constant search for the secondary meaning of the text. Readers must not be overly forgetful of the main purpose of the text. He then discusses the issue of private symbols– those that don’t have a common meaning and only to try to decode their meaning. Foster uses the example of W.B. Yeats, who used many private symbols that are made of complex and abstract imagery. And modern literature poses a challenge as well because most texts exist in a totally new and unseen world, but this gives readers the change to interpret what we read as we read them. However, complex literature is always connected in some way to other texts, and this is why all literature can be decoded.

26 – Is He Serious?

Foster focuses on how irony changes the nature of the literature we read. He uses the example of rain– typically has a predictable set of meanings, but can take on a new meaning when used ironically. Foster explains that writers like Beckett and Hemingway both lived when irony was a dominating force in literature and to understand that is to look for a sign of its significance. Irony is mostly “a deflection from expectation.” It can also be used to corrupt the moral value, institutions, or movements. Like in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, a sadist is subjected to punishment and robbed of his free will because the government intentions to make an example of him. This character meets the same fate as Christ. Others condricate irony and say it doesn’t work to the advantage of all texts, but when it does it can add layers of depth to a story.

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