How to Read Literature Like a Professor

Author: Thomas C. Foster
Publisher: Quill, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2003

Explication. I loved it even before I understood what it was - an attempt to find the deep, inner meaning of literature by carefully examining its component parts: words, phrases, sentences, characters, etc. In school, I'd cheerfully pick apart the tangled skein of say, Shakespeare, or Tennyson, or Faulkner, or Conrad, discovering that a winter setting could mean death or dying, an immersion in water could represent rebirth, and that an allusion to another literary work added layers of richness that were, for me, literally thrilling.

Sometimes, though, it would get to be TOO much, like the time I held a protracted, er...discussion with my High School English teacher about Hemingway's frequent use of the word "very," and whether it was meaningful (the teacher's point of view) or just a habit of style (mine), such as the use of, say... elipses to signal a coming ironic twist.Of course, later I learned that nothing in literature is purely unintentional. Sometimes writers don't plan it that way, but lo and behold, that invisible guiding hand known as The Muse has touched their work, and their stories or poems turn out to be not only internally consistent, but will withstand close scrutiny on subjects the writers never consciously intended.

And sometimes the least likely writers create the most elegant and memorable stories. While it pays to know the period during which a writer worked, the writer’s personal history and influences, and the opinions of other critics and scholars of the writer’s work, there seems to be shockingly little connection between the nobility of the writer’s soul, and the nobility of his prose.All this comes rushing back to any erst-while student of English literature while reading HOW TO READ ENGLISH LIKE A PROFESSOR. A few chapters, and I was off and running on explications incomplete and never-done.

Foster’s brief reference to the choice of names in Henry James' DAISY MILLER (Daisy = summer, warm, life; Frederick Winterbourne = winter, cold, death) got me thinking of how much (potentially) more there was to that name choice: the daisy is also a flower of death (think "pushing up daisies"); the Miller (Daisy's last name) is a common moth (with all the self-immolating tendencies of those creatures); Frederick means "peaceful ruler, and the name has been born (no pun intended) by many European nobles; Winterbourne is not just "winter," but also "bourne," as in, "born in winter" (or, winter boundaries...). Well. You get the idea. And if you are familiar with the book, perhaps you’ll also see the possibilities.

Explication is genuinely FUN (contrary to the opinion of my math-inclined friends, who found it a waste of time because there was no "right" answer, there were only "consistent" answers). It’s like writing the story all over again. The only tricky part is that internal consistency. One major mis-match, and a brilliant theory can go up in smoke. (There you go, match, smoke – and I never planned it!)

Foster urges us to take nothing for granted in what we read, even when, in the final analysis, some of it should probably be taken for granted. He is like the senior detective on a crime scene: he makes sure we see the clues, understand the context, and make the connections.

It’s all about, he tells us, three things: memory, symbol, and pattern.

Memory: remember everything you’ve read; movies you’ve seen; characters you’ve met. You’ll read the book again, see the movie over and over, and meet the characters coming and going in various stages of life. And each time you encounter these references to books, movies, and characters past, your experience of the book/movie/character at hand will be all the richer and more profound.

Symbol: nothing is ONLY what it is. If a snake is a legless reptile that slithers on the ground, it is also a symbol of sin, of Satan, of dishonesty, a phallic symbol, a symbol of life, death, rebirth, poison, evil, healing, new life, and wisdom (all depending upon context). Again, depending upon cultural orientation, a snake can bring to mind the Garden of Eden and the Fall of Man, Medusa, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter and Cleopatra. Thus, when a book features a snake as a significant element – it’s probably not JUST a snake the writer is referring to!

Pattern: patterns are sequences of events or characteristics that we can recognize and even assign a name to. Boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. Hero goes off on a quest, symbolically (or genuinely) dies and is reborn, thereby saving his world. Patterns help us pick out the elements in a story that are important, and while we can enjoy them, not get distracted by the details that do not specifically move the story along. The hero eats Cheerios for breakfast. This might be an important story element, and it might just be there to provide verisimilitude. Recognizing patterns will help you distinguish between the two.

So, using your Memory, power to identify Symbol, and Pattern recognition, what things should you be on the look-out for as you read? With the caveat that Foster is writing to a student of western, largely Anglo literature (there will be some cross-over to other cultures, of course), Foster tells us to be alert to:

Trips, journeys, long walks, travels. They are all forms of the Quest, a device that leads the main character toward self-discovery. The Quest for the Holy Grail, an old theme in western literature, is an example of the ultimate “quest.”

Eating as communion. Again, while meals are sometimes simply ways of putting people in the same room so a conversation can be held, the act of eating together, from the Last Supper to TOM JONES’ infamous on-screen meal, has frequently represented a unifying act much more profound that merely breaking bread.

Ghosts and vampires are frequently more than scary characters. As the 1980s screen version of DRACULA demonstrated, vampirism has always carried as many sexual overtones as it has notes of horror. And ghosts, as Henry James so admirably showed us in THE TURN OF THE SCREW, are often merely the unseen projections of our own troubled spirits.

Patterns, archetypes and recurrences. “There’s no such thing,” writes Foster, “as a wholly original work of literature… Virtually everything in there (a story) is cribbed from somewhere else.” This is in part because there are limitations (at least, thus far) to human behavior. And in part because over human-kind’s relatively short history, we have learned that there are certain dynamics that simply work: good versus evil; the wicked stepmother; the battle for the soul of the young innocent; love lost and regained. In fact, Foster goes out on a much longer limb: “there’s only one story,” he explains. Look closely, and you’ll see it.

Look for The Bible, Shakespeare, and Fairy Tales and classic mythology (especially Greek) at the root of much of western literature. You’re really lost as a professor of English Lit if you don’t know these three. How many times have you encountered Adam and Eve, King Lear, Sleeping Beauty or Icarus in other guises in your literary travels? Probably far more often than you realize.

Pay attention to the weather, and to the season. Sun, rain, snow, ice, wind: they mean much more than a weather forecast in the context of literature. Depending on the setting, rain, for example, can be a cleansing, a rebirth, a drowning, or the signal of impending doom. Spring, summer, winter and fall all correspond to “seaons” of one’s life, and stages of development.

Know your symbology. Rivers, caves, mountains, bridges, deserts… most things, especially natural things, have been imbued by human imagination over time with symbolic meaning. Symbolism is an artifact of culture, of course, so be aware that a cave in western societies may mean something different from what it means in a poem from India, or a myth from Japan. (Ghosts and water in Japan are closely linked, for example, which is not as readily understood by western readers.)

EVERYBODY has a political agenda! I, especially, hate to say it, but even a story that seems to be completely without a “message” probably has one. THE LITTLE MATCHGIRL clearly had a “help the noble poor” message, but it’s equally true that THE LITTLE MERMAID advocates suffering in silence, and bearing all for the chance at an immortal soul. All writers, Foster tells us, are grounded in their time in history, and the events through which they themselves have lived and are living cannot help but inform their imaginations.

Christ figures. I remember seeing the movie “THE OMEGA MAN,” a last-man-on-earth-except-for-zombies kind of movie starring Charlton Heston, and being struck at the blatant cruciform pose of the main character as he dies at the end of the movie. From COOL HAND LUKE, to BILLY BUDD, to THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA, Christ symbols abound in Western literature.

Flight. Human being can’t fly. They almost all wish they could. Flight always means something.

Sex is everywhere. The rolling waves in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY say it all. While there is *real* sex in much literature – particularly these days – symbolic sex probably means more to the story as a whole.

“If she comes up, it’s baptism.” Baptism is a rebirth. Another chance, a new beginning, and forgiveness.

Geography. While it is true that writers often “write what they know” when siting a novel or short story, it is also true that both absolute and relative (“to the south”) geography have special meaning. Where the events of a story take place is rarely accidental. Think about “Gotham City,” for example.

Scars or physical handicaps. Just as physical perfection was required of the pagan kings in early history (as representatives of the land and its people, anything less would be asking for trouble), main characters are often “marked” with a scar (Harry Potter?), an infirmity (Richard III), or other physical characteristics that sets them apart.

Blindness, heart disease, and illness are not accidental. And they all mean just about what you think they mean.

Having written all that – and gotten us looking for THE MEANING of it all, the writer adds one fatal chapter: all bets are off when the writer introduces irony. If a road symbolizes a quest, and in general having a character “on the road” means a journey of self-discovery, then there is always a Samuel Beckett who puts his characters in WAITING FOR GODOT on a road, and then never lets them move.

Foster ends his book with an extensive reading list bound to make anyone but another English professor feel like an under-educated pretender.

While the author sometimes strains to keep his tone humorous rather than pedantic, the book is pleasurable enough to read that one is tricked into learning far more than might be expected at the outset. And for the closet explicators among us, the book is reassurance that we are not alone in our absurd delight in discovering the “hidden meanings” in what we read.


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