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How to Read Literature Like A Professor

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When a character goes on a journey or mission in a story its is always a quest of some sort. Foster states that a quest usually consists of five things, a quester, a destination, a reason, challenges along the way and a “real reason”. Typically the read reason is the never stated but rather it’s a ways of self exploration for the quester. When we go further into the novel we start hearing less of the reason and rather we learn more about the quester and what they learn/experience through their journey.

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Anytime characters have food together it is considered a communion. This is not always a based upon the bible but rather an act of creating a temporary community with one another. In Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones they are talking about eating in a very sensual way during the dinner. This comparison is showing how eating together can bring people just as close as sex can.

Foster says that many times the monsters that you see in stories don’t make us feel fear because they are monsters that eat people but rather the way a monster acts that reminds us of monsters closer to home. For example vampires, they hunt in the shadows and slink in the dark. This reminds us of people such as murderers and rapists who prey at night. Ghosts also symbolize darkness by doing things such as teaching a lesson, reminding people of the past, and even ghosts who are dopplegangers showing people that true evil can exist in anything. Take A Christmas Carol for example, it shows Scrooge that darkness, pain and suffering exist everywhere in the world.

The only way to get better at things is with practice. Analyzing literature can be very difficult. One thing in literature is intertextuality which is when texts have many similarities. This happens because as Foster puts it there is only one story. It is a universal stories and connects texts from the ancient epics to stories of today regardless of genre, time and place. If we find the parallels and intertextuality in our readings it can lead to a greater understanding of the stories themselves.

Shakespeare’s plays are often used in literature today. It can be difficult to identify Shakespeare in everyday literature because they often stray far from the original. Shakespeare is very popular because quoting him can make an author seem intelligent and emit a sense of authority because many people have read Shakespeare and he is arguably the most famous and influential author ever. Lastly Shakespeare deals with universal issues that many people can relate to making him very popular amongst authors.

The Bible is a text that is also often used in literature because it is so widely known. It doesn’t also mean that the text is religiously symbolic but rather it is more like Shakespeare where the messages and storylines are so ingrained in our literary culture that you can’t possibly avoid it. For example in Toni Morrison’s Beloved a slave kills her daughter instead of letting her be taken by four men on white horses. You could easily say that those four men symbolize the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from the Bible but Foster argues that they simply symbolize an apocalypse. Foster also says that it could be difficult to identify inspiration from the Bible if one is not familiar with it but when you read more you can start seeing the trends. Once again Foster emphasizes the important of reading lots and a wide variety of things.

Similar to Shakespeare and the Bible Greek myths are extremely popular to take inspiration from in modern day literature. They are extremely embedded in our culture and people often can mistakenly say modern literature is based upon them. Greek myths have a way of appearing in unlikely scenarios such as Indiana Jones films and Percy Jackson novels. Authors often take a Greek myth and transport it to a completely different scenario.

Foster starts off by asking why it’s seems to be so cliche to start off a story with “It was a dark and stormy night” because in his mind weather is never just weather. It often has symbolic meaning and offers a greater purpose than just being weather. It serves as a means to force characters to do things they would otherwise have not done. Foster uses Tom Hardy’s The Three Strangers as an example. They are three escaped death row prisoners who have to seek shelter because of heavy rain. This shows how rain can often bring people together and almost act as a character in its own sense. Weather also symbolizes things. For example rain can symbolize terror or cleansing, fog can symbolize mystery and threats while snow can mean a variety of things from danger to hope.

It’s important to remember that characters are just characters and not real people. Sometimes they are based on real life people but they are always figments of the writer’s imagination and the way we interpret them are based on us. It is important to understand and remember that so that we can shape characters in a more well rounded way to actually analyze them well. We can become more invested in their fates and sympathize for the characters. Authors create flat characters so that they can save space and create more interest for the readers. INTERLUDE: Authors are always intentional when they add aspects such as symbolism, intertextuality, archetypes etc. to their texts. For example James Joyce, T.S. Elliot and Virginia Woolf are very open about using those techniques in their texts.

Violence is a big part of literature. Foster identifies two types of violence. Violence inflicted on a character by another one and violence that happens to a character in order to further the plot. Foster says that when a character dies of a heart attack that is technically classified as violence. Violence is always meaningful except in one instance; mystery stories. Violence is almost always symbolic. For example in D.H. Lawrence’s The Love the death of a character Banford represents sexual order being restored because he was a sexual predator.

Foster says that when you think that something is symbolic it most likely is. We all interpret things differently and many times things can have multiple symbolic meanings which makes them allegories. For example in George Orwell’s Animal Farm the whole story is considered an allegory because almost every character has a symbolic meaning as well as the farmhouse setting. We shouldn’t invent a meaning out of nothing but we also shouldn’t doubt ourselves. Foster emphasizes that reading is a constant act of imagination and it takes time and experience to control that imagination.

Literature tends to have lots of political messages in it but it can be hard to decipher because authors don’t like being straightforward with it. Foster says that political messages don’t appeal to people unless they live in the same time or have the same views as the author. One example of the way authors can hide political messages is by making rich characters despicable in order to portray that wealth should be distributed equally. Finding political messages can be difficult and it’s easier by understanding the author’s background, their historical context and sociocultural traditions. Foster also argues that most texts address the political world around them in some way.

Christianity is extremely universal. Many authors are Christian or come from a Christian background that can influence their literature. Foster understands that not everyone is Christian but it’s important to recognize some aspects of it. For example understanding who Christ is and what he went through so we can recognize characters meant to resemble him regardless if their good or bad.

A lot of times symbolism is hidden but one instance of a very straightforward example of symbolism is flying. Flying almost always symbolizes freedom. The author may not directly make the character fly, in order to confine to realism, or add a bit of irony in the flight such as Angela Carter’S Nights at the Circus where her character flies but only indoors.

Sex is not just sex in literature. It’s a very big part of human nature, something that hasn’t changed since the beginnings of time thus it’s included very often in literature. Many authors include sex as a form of symbolism and in literature it often is hidden due to the taboo surrounding it. For example in D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love the two male main characters wrestle in a sexual manner. It was hinting at homosexuality but due to the time period the author was most likely uncomfortable putting that directly into the novel. Sex could also be disguised to protect “innocents” as the book says. One such example is Charles Dickens who added a lot of innuendos and suggestive actions so that he could simultaneously protect the children and entertain the adults in his novels.

Sex is something that is very hard to put into words and describe on paper. People also argue that it is too intimate of a human act to be able to depict. That is why a lot of times it can symbolize different things. Angela Carter for example writes many detailed sex scenes in her novels which at a glance can be scene as another simple scene but she loves to use them to “upset the patriarchal apple cart” (157). The book suggests that some sexual scenes or novels can very much be less about sex and more about other issues. But it can often be difficult to decipher what those alternative meanings may be as they are often many. A sex scene between the old for example holds lots of potential for interpretation but it almost impossible to extract all the different possibilities as there are just too many.

A big form of symbolism found in novels is falling into water in them emerging. It almost always symbolizes rebirth and can add a tie between literature and religion. In Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon the main character steps into a stream, is given a bath and then swims with a women thus he gets wet 3 times. There is a parallel between this and baptism as in some religious sects the ceremony is performed with the believer getting submerged three times. The main character also changed in various ways for the better. He is no longer sexist, and he’s responsible and nicer: rebirth. In another one of Morrison’s novels she had a gang escape from prison during a flood of “biblical proportions” (166) and when the emerge from the water they come into their new lives. Characters don’t always survive though. Drowning is also a big form of symbolism in literature. Unlike rebirths however each drowning serves its own purpose and meaning.

Geography plays a huge role in literature. It can shape a character, based on the physical aspects of geography as well as the things such as politics, economics, culture etc. Geography can also be a character as wel. In Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato, the american soldiers don’t know what they’re up against because Vietnam is a strange and foreboding place for them. The physical geography offers many challenges. The soldiers also end up bombing and destroying a village because a shot comes from within. Foster argues that the target was not the community of people but rather the village itself because that’s where the threat came from. A big pattern in literature is sending characters to the south so they can be free because the South is often seen as more astray. Things like the cardinal directions, left, right, up and down really do matter.

Weather and seasons are extremely important. People act differently during each of the four seasons and there are different festivals, holidays and customs performed such Christmas, the harvest, Easter, summer breaks etc. “Seasons can work magic on us, and writers can work magic with seasons” (192) This quote also is a way to summarize how the various seasons can symbolize and be metaphors for different things as well. Lastly just like many aspects of literature seasons can also be something hidden or not explicitly mentioned making it harder.

Interlude: one story- Stories can be written and interpreted in a plethora of ways but none of them are 100% original. Writers know and understand that nothing is ever completely original but they also make the conscious effort to not regurgitate all of the literature they’ve ever read in their life so as to make the writing more special and various. Intertextuality and archetype are introduced once again in this chapter. They pretty much mean similar qualities in texts and finding inspiration in famous texts and repeating a specific story/reinterpreting that story in your own manner. These two things are extremely common in literature and they can explain why we see so many patterns in literature.

Focus on the physical deformities, differences and aspects of characters. They can almost always tell you about the character. Physical markings are almost always signs of symbolism. Scars are a big one. Mental and physical scars can bring up lots of details about a characters past, character, personality etc. In The Picture of Dorian Gray there is a character who is beautiful on the outside but extremely twisted and corrupted on the inside and in The Hunchback of Notre Dame there is a character ugly and deformed on the outside but kind and intelligent on the inside. The books really show the ironic approach to beauty and the goodness of a person authors choose to take in literature. The scars/imperfections may be introduced earlier in the story and we should pay attention because it could prove to be important later on.

Following the trend of physical disabilities, blindness is a big form of symbolism in novels. Many time the blind man will know more about people and the future than sight abled peoples. The author also reiterates in this chapter that introducing a topic early in the plot is much more efficient and we should pay attention to it. It can set up the stage for later issues and be very crucial to our understanding of events further down the line.

The heart has a huge symbolic meaning in literature. Characters often get punished for loving too much or too little and its symbolic for humans controlling our emotion levels. It doesn’t always have to be about love either. In Colin Dexter’s The Wench is Dead the main character has very bad luck with women and ends up dying of a heart attack. The character has a history of drinking and the heart attack symbolizes how nothing is good in copious amounts. Disease also has lots of meaning as well. The three four rules we are left with concerning illnesses are as follows; diseases aren’t created equal, the diseases are picturesque, they are mysterious and it has strong metaphorical/symbolic possibilities. Foster ends off by saying how the use of diseases has disappeared over time and modern authors don’t use it as much saying the cure had detrimental effects in literature.

We should read literature with an open heart. We should let go of our own judgements and read literature at the level it is intended. Foster says letting go of our own personal perspectives will allow us to interpret the character as what they are, characters and not as real life people we are meeting. It will allow us to analyze better and learn more. On the contrary Foster says that many people disagree with this way of thinking and that it is also okay to read based on your own perspectives. For example with writing about the Holocaust or ancient Greece it’s ok to think that its to harsh and severe and hate characters in that context.

Foster says that not all symbols are extremely evident upon reading. Foster says the best formula for understanding texts and symbols are to keep reading and to have more faith in yourself. Everything can have a meaning and instead of focusing on what you do not know to find that meaning use the information and techniques you do know. It’s easier to analyze literature the way see fit and the way in which it makes the most sense to you. Every reader has something intelligent and useful to add.

“Irony trumps everything” (252) not in the way in which it overpowers everything but rather it is a combination of everything else. A good way to understand irony it to first analyze it in the way it’s written on the page whether its a road, bird, shadow etc. and then further your understanding of the object by applying the authors irony to it. This ties into deeper reading. On surface level we want to analyze something the way an author leads us. More advanced reading is a combination of interpreting the text and then stepping back to see how the author manipulated us to get to that point.

In this chapter there is the short story “The Garden Party” that Foster tells us to read and analyze. He gives two interpretations from students. He shows how the two students have various thoughts on the story and how neither one are equivalent to how he personally views it. Foster ends up by saying this deeper analyzation of the story is not necessary to understand it but it’s just an added bonus.

Postlude: Foster furthers the emphasis on not wanting to be wrong in your interpretations of a text. He says to trust your own instincts and have confidence. You can listen to other people’s opinions but it’s also important to stay your ground when needed and not be too easily swayed. He also says that we shouldn’t worry too much about always being right because of signs and clues left by the author. The text is what holds the authority and you shouldn’t rely on the author to understand the text.

Envoi: The envoi is the send off to a person on a mission and in this instance the reader. He also says that once you have mastered some techniques it’s easier to grasp others. Lastly he stresses having fun with reading because it’s not all about decoding.

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