Thomas C. Foster, the author of How to Read Literature Like a Professor begins his novel with an introduction. Foster recollects an experience in the classroom where professors and students read the same story, but the professor has a better understanding of what the author is trying to portray. Literature professors are more experienced with the language of reading and can pick up on patterns, the grammar of literature, and other aspects of a piece of literature. On the other hand, students are just beginning to develop those skills to analyze literature the same way.
In addition, Foster differentiates the reactions when a student reads a novel in comparison to when a professor reads it. Student readers tend to respond on emotional levels as a professor will focus on the elements of the novel such as why did this happen or is this situation familiar to me? According to Foster, the three elements that distinguish a professor from others are; memory, symbol, and pattern.
Professors use their memory of other pieces of literature to make connections. Literature is always symbolic to professional readers. Pattern recognition is also key to understanding a text. Foster wants to provide beginning readers an insight into what professional students of literature do to analyze a text by being able to come to the same conclusion that a professional would come to by themselves.
In the first chapter, Foster begins a hypothetical story about a 16-year-old boy going to a store. Using this made-up story Foster explores how the characteristics in the story are elements of a quest.
The perception of a quest typically consists of a knight, a dangerous road, a Holy Grail, a dragon, one evil, and one princess. Since this list is the common perception of a quest, Foster uses these qualities to demonstrate how this story is an example of a quest. According to Foster, there are five things that a quest consists of. Although, the real reason for a quest never involves the stated reason. Foster states, ‘The real reason for a quest is always self-knowledge’ (Foster 3). Foster then uses the novel Crying of Lot 49 to demonstrate another quest. He breaks down the elements of a quest and illustrates the qualities. Foster concludes this chapter by explaining that every trip or journey does not have to be a quest, but it is good to know what to look for when a quest does occur in a novel.
In the second chapter, Foster discusses the importance of meals in literature. In other words, the act of eating is most commonly portrayed as an act of communion. Communion is viewed as a traditional Christian act but Foster shy’s away from that stating that communion does not always have to be related to a religious act. Foster discloses, ‘whenever people eat or drink together, it’s communion (Foster 8). He proclaims that breaking bread together is an act of sharing and peace. Although, people such as thatmafi leaders mafia leaders invite enemies over for a meal to kill them. Therefore, meals do not always have to be an act of communion. To illustrate this, Foster uses the eating scene in Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749). The main character, Tom, and his lady friend, Mrs. Waters dine at an inn inappropriately eating their food. However, the action or theme is not necessarily significant, the meal is still shown as a shared experience. Foster uses another novel to help readers better understand the significance of a meal. Raymond Carver wrote Cathedral (1981) about a gentleman who seems to have some internal conflicts, especially with those different from himself such as minorities or individuals with disabilities. His wife’s friend who is blind is invited to dinner which tests this man’s intercharacter’snal conflicts with those different from him. The meal is an opportunity as well as an eye-opener for the gentleman as he realizes that they both have similarities in their experiences of life. Lastly, Foster examines the different outcomes such as a meal turning for the worst. With this in mind, meals can have very different purposes in literature.
In chapter three, Foster demonstrates the leader’s inclusion of supernatural characters in literature. Although, people see supernatural characters such as vampires and ghosts as just an element to scare the readers it is not essentially the purpose. Foster utilizes Dracula (1897) to demonstrate how the Vampire’s attack on young women is related to themes of seduction, unwholesome lust, and danger. Vampires are vampires, but they also signify selfishness, exploitation, a refusal to respect the autonym of other people, and more. Furthermore, this applies to ghosts and doppelgangers as well. When ghosts are used in stories they are typically representing something other than themselves. Ghosts can be a representation of a problem in the main character’s life as well as possibly needing to fix internal conflicts. For example, Foster talks about Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898) which is about a governess who fantasizes that a ghost is taken possession of the kids in her care and her delusion smothers them with protectiveness. One might portray that the story is about fatherly neglect or smothering maternal concern. In conclusion, ghosts and vampires are never just about ghosts and vampires.
Foster goes on to argue that such ubiquity is significant and can be explained in part by the value that a Shakespearean reference adds to a literary work.
In chapter eight, Foster indicates children’s literature and where writers should pull their sources from. Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island, and isisCat in the Hat are just some examples of storylines that could be used. These stories help make other pieces of writing more relatable and give children/parents a sense of familiarity so that children can better understand. Angela Carter’s stories in The Bloody Chamber (1979) rip off the band-aid to old, sexist fairytales and present feminist revisions. She changes our expectations about stories like Puss-in-Boots and Little Red Riding Hood to make us see the sexism inherent in these stories. Foster discusses the effects of borrowing works from earlier times as, the irony that can appear in various guises. In addition, according to Foster, we as readers want different created storylines but we also want a sense of familiarity so that we can make sense of it.
Foster writes an Interlude proposing a question regarding authorstheauthors the are losing intent to make their writing alluding and symbolic. Foster explains that authors do intend to do that with their writing. James Joyce and T.S. Eliot are wha arelossare lossdangerous dangers called ‘Internationalists,’ they are writers who try to control all aspects of their creative output and intend virtually every effect in their work. Foster prompts us to remember how long literary composition can take. For example, a chapter can involve weeks of deliberation and critical thinking.
In literature, violence is usually an underlying metaphor for something deeper. In chapter eleven, ‘… More Than It’s Gonna Hurt You: Concerning Violence, Foster discusses that violence is one of the most personal and even intimate acts between human beings. Although there are other ways violence is used in literature such as cultural, symbolically, romantic, and more. Violence is everywhere in literature. A literary example that Foster chooses to use is Robert Frost’s ‘Out, Out – ‘ (1916. This poem is about a momentary lapse of attention. A boy puts his attention elsewhere and then ends up getting his hand cut off by a buzz saw which leads to death of blood loss. The underlying meaning of this poem is to draw attention to child labor and the dangerousdangers of power tools. In conclusion, Foster wants readers to always ask what the misfortune is.
Readers ask themselves multiple times as they are reading, ‘Is that a symbol or is this supposed to signify something.’ In most cases it is. Foster explains in chapter twelve, ‘Is that a Symbol,’ that there is rarely a single meaning to something. E.M.In Forster’s A Passage to India, caves have multiple meanings because they are viewed differently by the characters in the novel. For example, in loss dangerous the beginning the cave is considered mysterious, then it was considered strange and uncanny. So as demonstrated an item or an event will most likely have more than one meaning. Foster recommends listening to your instincts and to pay attention to what you feel about the text. It probably is indicating that it means something.
In chapter thirteen, Foster emphasizes the importance of understanding political references in literature. Political writing’s main purpose is to influence the prevailing political views. Political writing provides a perspective to the reality of the world by making known the problems occurring and are relatable. Edgar Allen Poe criticizes the European class system in his poems The Masque of the Red Death’ and ‘The Fall of the House of Usher.’ Edgar Allen Poe believes that what Europe represents is degrading and decaying. In other words, Poe suggests that it is inevitable and that it leads to corrupt social organization. Moreover, it is simply political. In conclusion, Foster states that knowing about knowing the political and social context in writing is significant because writers add their political views and settings without the reader realizing it.
In chapter fourteen, ‘Yes, She’s a Christian Figure, Too,’ Foster analyzes the Christian relation in European and American literature. Early European settlers brought Christian value
that has been embedded into our society which means that we live in a Christian Culture. When reading aspects of the bible and Christian-like figures it does not particularly need to be viewed religiously rather it should be viewed to better understand characters, plots, and themes. Foster highlights the characteristics of a Christ figure such as the fact that the person does not have to be male or does not even have to be Christian. Christ-likerepresentslike represents figures representthatrepresent sacrifice, redemption, and hope.
In chapter fifteen, ‘Flights of Fancy’, Foster discusses flight. We as humans have always had the desire to fly. Flight in literature has multiple meanings. The topic of flying within literature goes back to stories from Greek mythology such as Daedalus and Icarus. Flying can represent freedom, escape, love when it goes wrong, danger and helplessness. In most cases, flying is seen as representing freedom. An example of flying in a literary sense, James Joyce, ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ represents an individual who is dealing with internal conflicts. The person feels trapped by all aspects around them such as political, social, and religious. Later on, in Joyce’s novel, there are images of birds, feathers, and flying which refers to metaphorical flying, of escape. In conclusion, Foster states, ‘These flights of fancy allow us, as readers, to take off, to let our imagination take flight’ (Foster 134).
In chapter sixteen, ‘It’s all about sex,’ Foster highlights how Freud’s theory has influenced the uncovering and realization of the sexual potential of the subconscious, and more specifically how this relates to the literature. In literature sex doesn’t always look like sex. Objects or events are depicted to represent the act, sexuality, fertility, or other things that add richness and depth to the work.
In chapter seventeen, … ‘Except Sex,’ Foster continues discussing sexuality. Ironically writers use other ideas to describe sex, but when they bring up the actual acts it very rarely means actual sex. As readers, you learn to pick up on the signs and eventually know that there is something more going on. Throughout the centuries there has been a censorship of the dmakingmakingmaking making lovemakingakinglovemaking in literature. John Fowle who writes ‘French Lieutenant’s Woman’ has a famous sex scene that occurs between the two-main character, Charles and Sarah. Although, there is only one sex scene even though the novel is about love and sex; the scene is short and sweet. With all that being said, sex scenes or acts of sexual activity can have a larger meaning in literature.
In chapter eighteen, ‘If She Comes Up, It’s Baptism,’ Foster indicates what drowning and Baptism signify in literature. Bodies of water are sometimes the greeting of one’s fate. Baptism and drowning are associated with rebirth whether it is religiously or related to change. Judith Guest’s ‘Ordinary People’ is an example of rebirth, a character struggles with the fact that he survived a drowning incident while his brother does not. In this text, rebirth is associated with new life and perspective in the world as this incident has changed the character’s views about life and the world. Baptism is associated with either growth or reformation which is shown in Toni Morrison’s ‘Song of Solomon.’ This piece of literature is important because submersion and survival in water contain contaicontaincontain contain Biblical imagery. These acts can be spiritual. Moreover, drowning can be a symbol of failure, guilt, condemnation, and more. In conclusion, baptism and drowning have a large impact on symbolism m in literature.
In chapter nineteen, ‘Geography Matters,’ Foster brings attention to the importance of locations in literature. Geography is an important feature when analyzing plotlines and/or characters. ‘Geography is a setting but can also be psychology, attitude, finance, or industry; anything that place can forge in the people who live there.’ (Foster 166). Geography can define or even develop a character. Mark Twain wrote ‘The Adventurous of Huckleberry Finn’ taking place in the South where there is much controversy between blacks and whites, as Jim is trying to escape slavery, he is instead floating directly towards danger as Huck and Jim float down the Mississippi River. Mark Twain chooses the Mississippi River because he uses it as a platform to demonstrate that the river is much like society and develops Jim and Huck’s relationship on that river.