How to Read Literature Like a Professor

How to Read Literature Like a Professor Summary and Analysis of 10 - 12 and Interlude


Chapter 10 analyzes the significance that weather carries in a story. Certain qualities are so closely associated with particular forces of nature, such as the concept of rebirth with spring, or purification through rain, that descriptions of the environment often have implicit undertones and meaning which a student should look out for. Focusing on one of the most common literary weather symbol - rain - Foster explains how this phenomenon is saturated with meaning thanks in part to the religious traditions of old - the Judeo-Christian-Islamic have repeated references to rain as a cleansing/purifier and Divine blessing in their texts and oral narrations.

Rain and its by-product, flood, are also a force to be reckoned with (as in Noah's experience) but for all its awesome and destructive nature, usually also signals a fresh start. Other meanings associated with rain include mystery and foreboding ("It was a dark and stormy evening"), unification (it discriminates against no one) and even misery. Rain is also the principle component of spring ("April showers") and spring in turn is the season of renewal and hope. Modernist writers such as Eliot often subvert these traditional perceptions through their use of irony, playing against our cultural expectations in a deliberate way, "April is the cruellest month."

Another important symbol closely linked with rain is rainbows, a motif that not only carries messages of optimism but also signals biblical discourse, a kind of interaction between God, the world and human. Snow, another variant of rain, is equally varied in meaning and symbolism. It is also a unifier, and can be clean, purifying, stark, cold, severe, a warm or else suffocating blanket.

In the Interlude, Foster takes a break from his analysis of literary conventions to consider the question of writer intent - do authors really intend their work to be so allusive or symbolic in meaning? The writer's short answer is yes, although he clarifies that no one really knows for certain. Many modernist writers such as James Joyce and T.S. Eliot deliberately intended every effect and meaning in their writing, and are thus referred to as the "Intentionalists." It is important to note, moreover, that several of these writers and their contemporaries were well versed with the classics, the ancient religious texts, and the series of works that make up the literary canon. Pre-modern writers too were largely well instructed in Latin or Greek, and extensive classical poetry and prose including Dante and Shakespeare. Readers were also expected to have considerable training in the literary tradition.

Foster reminds us of how long literary composition can take - a chapter can often involve weeks of deliberation and lateral thinking, a quality that almost makes inevitable references to outside texts, Biblical/classical parallels, familiar symbolism and imagery and other details that make a work of literature so pregnant with meaning.

In chapter 11 Foster described how violence in literature goes beyond the literal description of a physical tussle. One of the literary examples the writer chooses to draw upon is Robert Frost's "Out, Out - " (1916) which is an overtly violent poem - it discusses how a momentary lapse of attention causes a hand to be lost to a buzz saw. Yet the poem is not simply about the dangerous nature of farm machinery, instead, it can be seen as commentary upon the often violent relationship humans have with the universe, the unexpectedness yet inevitability of death, and the smallness of our lives. Foster distinguishes then between two categories of violence in literature - the specific injury causes by characters on themselves or others, and the narrative violence that causes harm in general. The latter category is what comes to affect plot and thematic development, and characters' fate.

Foster also argues that violence which carries deeper implications is more evocative than violence that just is - mystery novels for instance seldom elicit much emotion from readers with regards to incidents of death or attack because these serve merely as tools for the main concerns of solving a problem, answering a riddle/question, finding the culprits etc. In other genres however, a death is not merely an incident or tool, but an event pregnant with meaning - a ominous portend, a character's desperation, an indicator of a community or race's experience. In Toni Morrison's Beloved for instance, Sethe's act of killing her daughter is a commentary on the deep struggles and anguish faced by a race at a particular moment in the past.

Even violence without agency, that is, what doesn't happen between character to character, is often do deliberately plotted and crafted by the writer that is usually points to deeper meanings. The student's task is to always ask what the misfortune represents thematically, psychologically, socially, historically, spiritually and even politically. An act of violence will rarely encompass all the above considerations, but it will possibly contain enough layers of meaning to merit a deeper read.

In chapter 12 Foster articulates the formal conventions governing symbols. His main thesis is emphasizing the complex nature of a symbol in that they rarely have a single meaning. Literary devices that do have a clear, one-cut interpretation are referred to as "allegories" where one thing stands for another. In John Bunyan's The Pilgrim Progress, for instance, the protagonist, Christian, encounters characters such as Evangelist, Giant Despair, and Faithful. The names of the characters are clear in indicating the qualities possessed by these figures, and in turn, the qualities encountered by a human (or pilgrim) during his journey/life. The figurative construct has a specific meaning and message that it hopes to convey.

This is not the case with symbols, however. In E.M. Forster's A Passage to India, caves take on various meanings because they are viewed in different ways by the characters in the novel itself. They are mysterious and strangely alluring for all, but also oppressive for one, and a means of accessing the deepest levels of consciousness for another. The caves even stand in as symbolic indicators of the ills of colonialism and its hypocrisy. One of the effects of the ambiguity surrounding symbols is that it often means what we - the readers - understand it to mean. Foster uses the discussion on symbolism to point out how, as readers, we bring in a certain background and perspective that inevitably influences the reception of the literary text in question and results in an individuality that makes the reading experience so unique - and the meaning of the text so complex.

Symbols are further complicated by the fact that they are used in different ways by different writers; the river, for instance, is used by Eliot in "The Wasteland" to be a symbol of effects of a World War, of the disintegration of Western civilization and modern life, whereas in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn the river is both danger and safety, a route to freedom but also a means of peril and adventure. Foster also cautions against thinking that only objects or images can be symbols, actions and events can be equally symbolic as well.

To navigate the complex seas of symbolism, Foster recommends focusing on our instinctual, affective response to literature that can shed light on what we understand the symbol to mean. However we also can't ascribe meaning where there isn't any - our creative imagination has to work with the imagination of the writer. The best dialogues are ones that take place on account of our having exercised our symbolic imagination, when we learn to note possible meanings or ideas during our readings that the symbol in question might indicate, contextualize the text and author, and of course, listen to our feelings.


For deeper understanding of the importance of weather in literary texts, one might consult writer J.E. Cirlot who, in his A Dictionary of Symbols, notes how the interplay between climate and character psychology is one of the most frequently recurring tropes in literature. He says,

"The relationship between a state of mind and a given climate, as expressed by the interlay between space, situation, the elements and temperature, as well as level-symbolism, is one of the most frequent of all analogies in literature. The universal value of pairs of opposites, such as high/low, dry/wet, clear/dark, is demonstrated in their continued use not only in physical and material but also in psychological, intellectual and spiritual matters."

Cirlot's analysis then, also looks at weather as a psychological tool that can help a reader gain insight into the character(s)' state of mind. This is not always the case of course; when surroundings are completely distinct from inner thoughts and emotions then the writer is employing weather in an ironic way. At the same time, weather can itself affect thoughts or psychology - Dickens' characters, particularly the somber or more afflicted ones, can be seen as extensions of dark, cloudy London.

It is perhaps impossible to reach a conclusion on the question of writer's intent without taking a position with one literary school of thought over another - Foster's assertion that writers do intend the layers of meaning in their work makes the latter seem like Intentionalists and the literary text a deliberately crafted production. This is not always the case however, as Foster himself acknowledges - and while he does suggest that the time it takes to write a book/poem or the "amnesia" that the writer has to practice contributes to the layers of meaning he focuses less or at least does not explicitly refer to influences that the writer may not be aware of him/herself.

Writers, in other words, can be affected subconsciously by certain prevailing social or historic trends which make their way into their worked even if the author isn't interested in writing about them. At times this influence may be entirely unconscious - our categorization of movements of literature as 'modern' or 'postmodern' or 'Victorian' often occur when sufficient time has passed for scholars of literature to look back and judge a certain period or century from a more 'objective' viewpoint. Consequently, the reader would do well to keep in mind that literary classifications are often fluid terms in and of themselves, and far from rigid, completely authentic, categories.

Foster's discussion of the significance of violence as a literary convention undoubtedly highlights a frequent element of literature; but other possibilities and forms of violence might exist that have gone unexplored. In contemplating violence the shrewd reader would realize that not all violence has to be explicitly identified in the text or described in physical terms - in the introduction to The Violence of Representation, authors Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse identify violence as the suppression of differences or as the assertion of one authority/power over another. Thus, for instance, in Jane Eyre's repression by her aunt and other figures although never physical, is nonetheless analyzed as a form of violence. The theme of violence is also closely associated with politics - violence between sexes or classes or even within family can have political undertones. Politics, it should be noted, doesn't necessarily have to relate to government but is often also used to refer to competing ideologies.