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About How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster:
Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor is a series of short essays that show readers how to “read between the lines” and make great books come alive.
Based on Professor Foster’s years as a teacher of literature, Foster explains how authors use the English language to accomplish their goals and how we can recognize literary ideas in a wide range of works. The tools he offers can be applied to any book—from the classics to the latest blockbusters.
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Summary and Analysis of How to Read Literature Like a Professor
A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines
By Thomas C. Foster
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2016 Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Chapter 1. Every Trip Is a Quest (Except When It's Not)
Through the broad outline of an imagined story involving a young man's trip to a grocery store, the meaning and applicability of the quest narrative (including a knight, a dangerous road, a dragon, an evil knight, and a princess) is presented. Such a traditional narrative is present in works as varied as Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, and Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. Although a quest narrative can be interpreted in any number of ways, the central meaning of such a story is always the same: The hero's journey is undertaken to obtain self-knowledge.
Chapter 2. Nice to Eat with You: Acts of Communion
When characters in a drama or story eat together, such as in Henry Fielding's Tom Jones or Raymond Carver's story "Cathedral," it's not simply an arbitrary event like the same people attending a party or a baseball game. The act of sharing a meal is meant to demonstrate their basic connection with one another. In many texts, when characters eat a meal together, it is highly symbolic, representing religious "communion" among people, whether for good or bad.
Chapter 3. Nice to Eat You: Acts of Vampires
The vampire, such as the one in Bram Stoker's Dracula, is historically an untrustworthy fellow who is dangerous, alluring, attractive, and out to get something from the main character. In most cases, the vampire seeks to nourish himself on the youth or innocence of another. However, this idea does not always take the form of an actual vampire. In Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Henry James's "Daisy Miller," and Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, the specter of power and exploitation of the innocent can be seen in wholly human — albeit, vampire-like — characters.
When a reader comes across actual vampires, ghosts, and various otherworldly figures in literature, he or she should take a moment to think about what human forces they might represent — evil, power, death, loss of virility, seduction, selfishness, abuse, or some other harsh aspect of natural life.
Chapter 4. Now, Where Have I Seen Her Before?
All works of literature are based on the concepts and books that came before them. There is no such thing as a work of dramatic art that does not have its roots in the ideas, symbols, and stories of other writers. True "originality," in this sense, does not exist in literature.
In the novel Going After Cacciato, author Tim O'Brien tells a wonderfully original story about the journey of a squad of soldiers amidst the violence and alienation of wartime Vietnam in a way that would, at first glance, seem perfectly unlike any other story ever told. To the informed reader, however, the very reason O'Brien's novel appears so unique is because of the variety of literary allusions and references contained therein. These range from Alice in Wonderland to Sacajawea, and from Hemingway to "Hansel and Gretel," and a clear understanding of O'Brien's novel depends upon the reader realizing this. Other books that demonstrate this "intertextuality" — the dialogue between various works — include T. C. Boyle's story "The Overcoat II" (a reference to Nikolai Gogol's "The Overcoat") and William Trevor's "Two More Gallants" (a reference to James Joyce's "Two Gallants").
Chapter 5. When in Doubt, It's from Shakespeare ...
Works based partially or completely on the plays of William Shakespeare are various and wide-ranging, including Moonlighting; Death Valley Days; Kiss Me, Kate; West Side Story; Woody Allen's A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy; Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury; Huxley's Brave New World; and countless other novels, plays, poems, and films. In a great deal of English fiction written between the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries, Shakespeare's stories and characters, particularly those of Hamlet and Macbeth, are retold or reimagined in new ways.
Chapter 6. ... Or the Bible
Works that demonstrate direct or indirect allusions to the Bible include Toni Morrison's Beloved, Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider, the fiction of James Joyce, much of William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Milton, and James Baldwin, Steinbeck's East of Eden, Beowulf, The Faerie Queene, and Shakespeare himself, among many, many others.
Familiarity with the stories of the Old and New Testaments is second nature to some readers in America, but a deeper intimacy with the Bible can only improve one's comprehension and appreciation of literature. Religious influence does not stop at the Bible, however; the works of Salman Rushdie, for instance, are influenced by the stories in the Koran.
Chapter 7. Hanseldee and Greteldum
Since popular grasp of massive works like the Bible and those by Shakespeare has weakened over time, children's stories have increased as a source of inspiration for modern writers. Folk tales and children's literature are reliable ways to communicate universal ideas and metaphors to readers. Familiarity with stories like those found in Grimm's Fairy Tales and the children's books of C. S. Lewis, and even Dr. Seuss, will help readers form a deeper understanding of literature.
Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber uses fairy tales in an ironic way to skewer modern sexism. Other writers who make use of these stories include Robert Coover, John Barth, Tim O'Brien, Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon, and leagues of other major writers.
Chapter 8. It's Greek to Me
Classical mythology — be it Greek, Roman, Norse, Old English, Native American, or otherwise — is a body of narrative and thought that is essential to comprehending modern or contemporary English language literature. The word "myth" in the study of literature has little to do with truth or falsity (as in "That's not real, it's only a myth"), but simply refers to these tales that have been passed down through the ages, such as the stories of Odysseus, Icarus, Helen, Achilles, Aeneas, and Oedipus, among others. Allusions to such myths can be seen in works by James Joyce and Toni Morrison, but also in the films of the Coen Brothers, such as O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which is a retelling of Homer's epic poem The Odyssey.
Chapter 9. It's More Than Just Rain or Snow
Precipitation of any kind, or the presence or use of water, can be employed in a variety of ways, almost none of which are as simple as they might seem. Whenever a reader sees that rain or a snowstorm is closing in on a village, or is harrying the main character, they must pay close attention because the writer is likely using it for a particular symbolic or metaphoric purpose.
Water and shifts in weather provide symbolism, mood, atmosphere, plot devices, metaphors, and a whole range of other meanings. We can trace this use of rainy weather from the Bible, to Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens, and through to contemporary works of film, television, literature, or poetry.
Chapter 10. Never Stand Next to the Hero
Just about all of literature, with the possible exception of lyric poetry, is character based. Because of this focus, the main character will almost always experience a major trial, after which he or she is changed in some significant way. Plot is shaped by character, and character is shaped by plot, and both components are necessary to keep the story moving. Therefore, the people who do the physical suffering or dying in stories — those who are extinguished or snuffed out as a result of the hero's journey — are usually those closest to the main character: the best friend, the wife or husband, the child, teacher, or neighbor.
Interlude: Does He Mean That?
Writers as varied as T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound make use of the symbols and ideas explained in the previous ten chapters, and they do so with great deliberation and intention. To know every last bit of Greek or Roman mythology, or every Bible story, is not necessary so much as is getting into the habit of thinking outside of the story directly in front of you so that you can make connections to works and ideas outside of the text itself. This kind of intellection is called "lateral thinking."
Lateral thinking is necessary on the part of both the writer and the reader in order to form a richer understanding of literature and storytelling. It involves the use of tangential material (such as myth, legend, Bible stories, and folk tales) often unrelated to the plot, but very relevant to the ideas and themes of the story. A lateral thinker (reader or writer) will make use, at one time or another, of all of the stories and symbols discussed in the previous ten chapters.
Chapter 11. ... More Than It's Gonna Hurt You: Concerning Violence
Every writer — from Shakespeare to Faulkner to Robert Frost to Toni Morrison — makes use of violence in his or her work. In general, there are two categories of violence: violence that characters subject themselves or others to, and which may mean anything; and "authorial violence" used by writers deliberately to advance plot and thematic development.
Though it is impossible to generalize about the meaning of violence in literature, readers would do right to assume that it means something and is never used wantonly or arbitrarily.
Chapter 12. Is That a Symbol?
Symbols of all kinds exist in just about every work of literature, and they can be anywhere and mean any number of things, depending on the individual reader and their experience and knowledge. Symbols can be objects, actions, events, and images and require a reader's interpretation and creative intelligence. The mysterious symbol of the Malabar caves in E. M. Forster's A Passage to India, for instance, demonstrates both the significance and range of meaning that a single symbol can hold. Experts have studied the issue of Forster's caves for a long time, and no single interpretation has won out over others. The river is invoked in works ranging from Mark Twain's novel Huckleberry Finn, Hart Crane's poem sequence The Bridge, and T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land. In each work, the river signifies something different, and requires the reader to use her creative intelligence to interpret the meaning. Foster recommends using past literary experience, digging into the context of the work, brainstorming ideas, asking questions of the text, and listening to one's instincts.
When a symbol hardens into a single, undeniable meaning, however, the story becomes an allegory, wherein characters and things directly represent ideas and do not require readerly interpretation. An example of this is George Orwell's Animal Farm. The point of the novel is to convey a very specific point — that revolutions fail because those who come to power are quickly corrupted by it.
Chapter 13. It's All Political
As in life, politics are an important part of the literary experience. Though not as strong an element in literature as are themes taken from myth, religion, and epic poetry, politics can exert a powerful influence over the meaning of a work. To understand a book better, it is often fruitful to look into the political climate in which the author was writing. It may tell you something. But be prepared for it not to. ...
Writers ranging from Virginia Woolf to Charles Dickens to Sophocles may or may not have been writing out of a desire to make a definite political statement when they composed their major works. Dickens' A Christmas Carol can be seen as a refutation of Malthusian economics, for example, but at the same time, the very heart of that story has more to offer than the outlines of some obscure or common political debate.
Chapter 14. Yes, She's a Christ Figure, Too
Since the religious culture of the West has largely — though not exclusively — been defined by Christianity, it is very common to see Christ figures pop up in literature. Louise Erdrich, Flannery O'Connor, and Ernest Hemingway have included such figures in their work. It is not necessary for such characters to demonstrate extreme similarity to Jesus — sometimes only a few Christ-like characteristics are present. So if a character — whether man or woman — demonstrates traits in common with Jesus (born of a virgin, working as a carpenter, showing great generosity and kindness in the face of adversity, etc.), that character may be interpreted to be a Christ figure.
Chapter 15. Flights of Fancy
Authors such as Toni Morrison, Gabriel García Márquez, and Fay Weldon have made use of flight, birds, wings, feathers, and a whole range of flight-related symbols in their work. The main appeal of this being, despite the airline and skydiving industries, natural flight is an impossibility for mankind and its use in literature can highlight a character's need for freedom. Or, with the use of irony, the impossibility of their finding liberation.
Chapter 16. It's All About Sex ...
Though sex has been considered culturally taboo and often challenging to represent straightforwardly in literature, its presence is nonetheless obvious in works as old as the Old English Grail legends. Non-erotic symbolic objects, especially in pre-Victorian literature, are often employed, out of necessity, to represent sexual instincts.
These days, sexual activity, infidelity, deviance, and romance are a mainstay of modern literature in the works of authors such as Ann Beattie, D. H. Lawrence, and Henry Miller. Following the influence of Freud, however, themes of sexual frustration, virginity, or defilement can often be displaced onto other symbolic objects.
Chapter 17. ... Except Sex
In literature, sex scenes may be difficult to write without sounding overwrought, clinical, or awkward. Many authors do it regardless, including Lawrence Durrell, John Fowles, Vladimir Nabokov, Djuna Barnes, Mina Loy, Doris Lessing, and Anthony Burgess. Though western culture has progressed in terms of the willingness to allow sex to be described openly, it is nonetheless not easy to do and often is employed to represent ideas other than "love" or "romance." Therefore, it is important for readers to know that the appearance of sex or sexuality often represents something else in a work of literature. Frequently it has to do with the stage of development of the characters involved and where they are headed in the story.
Chapter 18. If She Comes Up, It's Baptism
The use of water and the occurrence of dunking characters into lakes, oceans, and rivers is a very old and helpful symbol in literature. Plunging a character into water almost always represents baptism, that is, a major transformation or purification for the character.
In Judith Guest's Ordinary People, for instance, when two brothers go out to sea to fish, a storm hits with the result that the younger, weaker brother survives. This is the crux of the story, since the younger brother, Conrad, now has to deal with the guilt of having lived, even though his stronger and more accomplished elder brother was perceived as having been his superior.
Chapter 19. Geography Matters ...
Geography can be an important aspect of symbolism and atmosphere in a story. The shape of a character's surroundings is as important as the shape of the character himself. Rivers, mountains, meadows, cities, oceans — these all have a profound effect on the meaning of the main character's journey. Mainly, it has to do with who's "up" (or north) and who's "down" (or south). We can't imagine Huckleberry Finn taking place in the Arctic, or The Old Man and the Sea happening in Death Valley. In general, the north represents rightness, peace, or success, whereas when characters travel south it is so they can get into trouble and do wrong.
Chapter 20. ... So Does Season
In just the way that geography matters, so does the time of year. Seasons may indicate either the age or the level of happiness of a character. We can't imagine Shakespeare's comedy being called A Mid winter Night's Dream, nor would we want to since we know the play is about joy, growth, love, and humor, all symbols of summer and warmth. In Henry James' story "Daisy Miller," the names of the characters stand in for the seasons and their meanings. "Daisy" represents youth and life, whereas her antagonist Frederic Winter bourne represents old age and decline.
Interlude: One Story
Foster believes that there was and is only one single story in all of literature and drama, the "ur-story." In all its forms, this story seeks to explain the human experience and what it means to be alive.
Despite the great variety of tales and adventures, the meaning of literature boils down to one main idea: We are all part of one gigantic story. In the same way that it is impossible for our existence not to influence and be influenced by the lives of others, so it is in literature that the themes and characters are subsumed into one another. Great diversity is found within this unity of literature, but the similarities offer a deep understanding of all that is shared by humanity as well.
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Table of Contents
Direct Quotes and Analysis,
What's That Word?,
About Thomas C. Foster,
For Your Information,