Reading literature like a professor requires being able to decipher both the obvious and inconspicuous aspects of a story. Every detail of an author’s writing is intentional and each angle of the story is integral to the central message he or she wants to get across to the audience. These deliberate components that add more dimension to the plot can be found in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë.
According to Thomas C. Foster, every trip, whether it is a simple journey to the grocery store or a dragon-slaying adventure, is a quest. Each quest has five parts: a questor, a place to go, a stated reason to go there, challenges and trials, and the real reason to go. In The Great Gatsby, the questor is the narrator who is a young man named Nick Carraway. He is pragmatic and caring. After getting an education at Yale and fighting in the first World War, Carraway decides to move from Minnesota to the West Egg of Long Island, New York (a place to go) to get involved in the bond business (a stated reason to go there). He doesn’t experience any significant problems during his physical journey from Minnesota to New York, but he faces some emotional and relational difficulties as he tries to adjust to his new life. Because Carraway was brought up with a moral compass, he experiences quite a bit of shock and disgust when he sees the lack of ethicality in people like the Buchanans, who are drowning in wealth and incapable of feeling compassion, or Jordan Baker, a competitive golfer who doesn’t have a sense of integrity. His revulsion for the attitudes of the affluent heightens after the Buchanans essentially exploit Carraway’s friend, Jay Gatsby. After Gatsby’s death, Daisy doesn’t even extend the courtesy of attending the funeral of the man who went through great lengths to make her happy, and Carraway ultimately decides to distance himself from the rich. Nick Carraway grows the most out of everybody who was involved in the entire fiasco between the Buchanans, the Wilsons, and Gatsby. He initially moves to New York to build himself a fortune but ultimately sees the ugliness that wealth can bring (the real reason to go there).
In the novel Jane Eyre, the questor is a young woman named Jane Eyre who is orphaned after her parents die of typhus. Jane embarks in multiple quests but the biggest and most life-changing journey begins when she decides to leave Lowood to become a governess at Thornfield. Her stated reason to go is to experience the world. Eyre is at the receiving end of abuse and neglect for a significant portion of her life and never has the chance of experiencing a true adventure. When she is living at the Reeds’, she is isolated, neglected, and abused. Most of her childhood is spent behind curtains and in the nursery. When she finally leaves the cruel household, her freedom is restricted by the Lowood school, where she follows a strict schedule for eight years. Eyre’s desire to leave Lowood (and her stated reason to embark on the quest) stems from her longing for a sense of excitement and thrill. Like Carraway, Eyre doesn’t experience any physical challenges during her journey to Thornfield, but she faces some emotional and relational obstacles during her stay. Eyre’s feelings for Mr. Rochester, the master of Thornfield, is the main source of her challenges. First, Eyre tries to suppress her love for Rochester because she is convinced that he is going to marry Blanche Ingram. When Rochester finally confesses his love for Eyre and asks for her hand in marriage, Eyre learns the truth about the Thornfield mystery. She doesn’t marry him because he is already married to a woman who is hidden on the third floor of the building because of her psychological disorder. Although Eyre technically embarks on another quest after she refuses to become Rochester’s mistress, the entire process of meeting St. John Rivers and rejecting his marriage proposal seems to be another obstacle that was presented during Eyre’s true journey towards happiness. Although by going to Thornfield Eyre was able to experience more of the world, the real reason for her journey was to find joy through her love for Edward Rochester.
Another prominent element in both novels that Foster addresses in How to Read Literature Like a Professor is the use of biblical allusions and the presence of a Christ figure. In The Great Gatsby, one of the most distinguished biblical themes alludes to the Parable of the Lost Sheep, which is about a shepherd who leaves his flock of ninety-nine sheep to find the one that is lost. In this parable, Jay Gatsby resembles the shepherd, and Daisy Buchanan embodies the one lost sheep. The flock of ninety-nine that Gatsby abandons represents everything that isn’t Daisy; it represents his life. After meeting and falling in love with Daisy, Gatsby dedicates his entire being and livelihood to getting her back. Even though the more logical decision would be to protect the flock and to live his own life, Gatsby ignores all reason and practicality in order to pursue his blinding love for Daisy. Throughout the course of Carraway’s narration, Gatsby becomes a more distorted Christ figure as his obsession grows. In spite of Daisy’s numerous character flaws, Gatsby’s affection for her is unconditional and overflowing, much like how the Bible describes Jesus’ love for the sinners. He pursues her relentlessly until he makes the ultimate sacrifice: becoming the scapegoat for Daisy’s transgressions. After Daisy accidentally kills somebody while driving (who happens to be Myrtle Wilson, Tom Buchanan’s mistress), Gatsby takes the blame out of his love and desire to protect Daisy. His choice to become the scapegoat was automatic and unquestioned, despite her failure to fully commit herself to him by leaving her husband. This led to Gatsby’s demise.
There are a number of biblical allusions that are integrated into the narrative of Jane Eyre’s life. A notable allusion is the idea of forgiveness. Eyre forgives Mrs. Reed for the first time in the novel after she recovers from the trauma of the Red Room when she writes, “Yes, Mrs. Reed, to you I owe some fearful pangs of mental suffering, but I ought to forgive you, for you knew not what you did: while rending my heart-strings, you thought you were only uprooting my bad propensities.” This sentence directly mirrors the words of Christ that were spoken after his crucifixion. Towards the end of the novel, Eyre forgives the Reeds, especially Mrs. Reed, and she also forgives Edward Rochester for lying to her about his marriage. Although Eyre exhibits some similarities with Christ, it isn’t enough to refer to her as the Christ figure of the novel. Helen Burns, who was Eyre’s first friend at Lowood, more closely relates to Christ that Eyre does. Unlike Eyre, Burns blindly follows her beliefs. She has an unwavering faith in a God and finds guidance and truth through this trust and her prayers. Burns’ most similar quality to Christ is her tolerance and her acceptance. She is humble and shows a great deal of humility to Eyre and the other students at Lowood. When she is beaten for trivial reasons, she “turns the other cheek.” Helen Burns had both an intellectual and spiritual influence on Eyre. Burns didn’t focus on worldly or materialistic things and unlike Eyre, she didn’t need to find adventure on earth because of her belief in the existence heaven. Because her faith was so ardent and compelling, Burns was able to remain peaceful even in her final moments.
A physical detail in the setting that was deeply symbolic was the weather. In The Great Gatsby, the weather reflects the inner emotions of the characters but in Jane Eyre, it is used to foreshadow future events. A significant change in weather takes place when Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan finally reunite at the home of Nick Carraway. It rains during almost the entire encounter. According to Foster, rain can be used as a plot device. Gatsby and Daisy are forced to be in the same place because of the rain. When Daisy meets Gatsby for the first time in many years, Gatsby is all wet because of the rain. Because of rain’s isolating quality, Gatsby’s soaked clothes may represent his emotions during the years he spent without the love of his life. The rain may also be a sign of regrowth in the relationship between the two people because a heavy rainfall is often associated with spring and the blooming of all kinds of plants. Every time it rains in the novel, there seems to be a major change in Gatsby’s life. For example, he was able to meet Dan Cody because of an incoming storm. Gatsby’s initial encounter with Dan Cody acted as a catalyst and led him to build himself a fortune.
Foreshadowing through changes in the weather is prevalent in Jane Eyre’s story. The weather tends to be gloomy or somber when Eyre’s about to experience unhappiness. When the weather is bright, she is about to hear good news. In the very first chapter, Eyre cannot go on a walk due to the penetrating rain. Jane then describes the alienation and isolation she endures under the Reeds and later gets abused by John. An altercation between the two ensues and Eyre is sent to the Red Room, where she loses consciousness. The rain returns when Jane spends her first night at Lowood, indicating that she wouldn’t be happy there. Eyre later expresses that Lowood isn’t able to satiate her desire for adventure and decides to leave. The most symbolic storm in the novel occurs after Rochester proposes to Eyre. Shortly after Eyre accepts the marriage proposal, the storm forces the two to head back into the house. During the middle of the night, the chestnut tree which was the site of the proposal is struck by lightning and splits in half. This not only represents intense emotional turmoil for Jane but also foreshadows the end of her relationship with Rochester. Foster addressed the paradox of rain, which is its tendency to make a large mess in spite of how clean the rain itself is. While the storm represents a devastating turn in Eyre’s relationship, it also resembles the truth. Soon, all of the lies will be completely washed away and the truth will be clear but the rain will leave the land with nothing but debris and destruction.
Eyre’s sudden change in her social status is accompanied by a snowstorm. When she gets a knock at the of her humble home after running away from Rochester and taking a job at a school for poor children, Eyre discovers the Rivers’ true identity and finally hears some news about her uncle. St. John’s full name is John Eyre Rivers, which makes him Eyre’s cousin, and her uncle, who died a few weeks ago, left all of his assets to her. This is wonderful news to Eyre after a series of unfortunate events and she is more delighted by the discovery of family members than by the sudden improvement of her wealth. The snowstorm represents a fresh start for Eyre. After a snowstorm it seems like the entire outside world is covered in clean white snow, as if the earth has literally turned into a blank canvas. With the snowstorm and the joyful news, Jane is able to start anew with her family and her wealth, which she divides among her cousins and herself.
The elements of a quest, biblical allusions, Christ figures, and weather are only a small sample of ways authors enrich literature with meaning. Each story has a myriad of symbolic dimensions that are open for exploration and following the guide by Thomas C. Foster is only the beginning of learning how to decipher literature with the nuanced thinking and detailed observation of a professor. Whether the novel is as short as The Great Gatsby or as lengthy as Jane Eyre, each description is intentional and integral to the storyline.
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