How to Read Literature Like a Professor

How to Read Literature Like a Professor Summary and Analysis of Chapters 16 - 20


Chapters 16 and 17 discuss sexual implications in literature. In chapter 16 Foster points out how Freudian theory has greatly influenced our capacity to uncover and realize the sexual potential of the subconscious, and more specifically, how this manifests itself in literature. The telling characteristic of such Freudian analysis is that reference to sexual behavior or character is rarely explicitly outlined - rather, it is contained within text that overtly seems to refer to something else. For this reason, settings (tall buildings are considered representative of male sexuality, rolling hills/landscapes indicative of female), objects (bowls, fires, lance) and even distinct activities (eating, fighting) can all be used by the writer to convey sexual notions.

The use of sexual imagery predates Freud, however, and as an example Freud offers the Grail legends of the knight whose quest is often one related to manhood and the coming together of the male and female (the 'Holy Grail' was traditionally an emblem of female sexuality). Often due to censorship laws, writers such as D.H Lawrence weren't allowed to explicitly include sexual scenes in their literature - yet they nonetheless managed to convey the impression they desired through other means, such as a dramatic exchange between characters or even wrestling in "Women in Love." But such forced disguise can often prove to be more effecting in that its coded nature allows for greater complexity and layers of meaning. This coupled with the reality of sex manifesting itself in various guises through our subconscious in turn affirms the effectiveness of an implicit rather than explicit sex scene.

In chapter 17 Foster continues the discussion on sexuality but points out that explicit references to sex actually mean everything but the act itself. He discusses how centuries of censorship that enabled black market texts on the subject have caused sex descriptions to become rather clichéd. Beyond this issue, however, a writer's deliberate attempt to describe a sex scene is usually indicative of various other themes relating to the character in question or the plot line. Henry Miller's works that are fairly replete with sexual imagery and acts are implicitly celebrating and claiming freedom from convention and restrictions. Lawrence Durrell's writing is often closely related to notions of sacrifice, psychological neediness, power, espionage and so forth. Female writers such as Angela Carter as also used sex as a means of subverting and commenting upon the dictates of a patriarchal world.

Another Christian motif that Foster believes to be prevalent in literature is that of drowning and baptism. A writer's decision to drown or else submerge and drench their characters can be revealing in many ways - and perhaps an even an extension of their own subconscious feelings and thoughts as Foster points out how a large number of writers met their fate (intentionally or unintentionally) in bodies of water. The case of a character being subsumed in water and re-emerging, either through rescue or fate, strongly suggests a rebirth of sorts - the type of symbolism contained in acts of baptism. Judith Guest's "Ordinary People" is an example of the use of such imagery where the protagonist Conrad struggles with the fact that he survives a drowning episode whilst his brother - who is stronger, more capable, and more loved - does not. Rebirth in this text suggests the pain associated with occupying a new life and position in the world, not least because it forces an entire shift in perspective on life, self, and the universe.

Often such symbolic experiences of baptism are also closely related to a character's growth or reformation, as is the case with Milkman in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon. Foster also points out that while submersion and survival in water is heavy with Biblical imagery, Christianity is certainly not the only religion to lay claim to this practice or to emphasize the symbolic importance of water. Moreover, while the act can be spiritual, it doesn't always have to be so and may simply mark a new start or birth. Drowning, on the other hand, implies the opposite of what re-emergence from water might. It can be a symbol of personal or social failure, condemnation, guilt, racial commentary, and even plot complication.

Chapter 19 discusses the significance of setting in a literary work. Writers make a conscious decision to select a particular place or context, and it is thus important for the reader to consider the implications of the choice made. Geography, then, is an important feature of literary analysis for it shapes and influences the plotline, and even the characters behavior or personality. "The Old Man and the Sea" is situated in the Caribbean for obvious reasons, but is also proximal to Cuba, which in turn captures the complex American-Cuban history and relations. Foster describes literary geography as revealing something about humans inhabiting spaces as well as spaces inhabiting humans.

How a particular landscape or city it described can be an extension of social or personal psychology, attitude, politics, economics, or any other subjects that affect human lives. Geography can help develop a character or his/her fate, as is the case with Milkman Dead in Morrison's Song of Solomon. He leaves a fairly cosmopolitan home to travel to his family's home country and on the way, in the hills and hollows, discovers a sense of responsibility and undergoes a personal maturation. Often setting itself becomes character as in Tim O Brien's Going After Cacciato, where the land of Vietnam, unfamiliar territory for American soldiers, becomes a formidable and defensive opponent. Foster also states that trips to the South usually have dramatic (tragic or comic) implications for the character in question.

The writer also describes specific characteristics of symbolic importance relating to particular types of landscapes - prairies for instance conveys a vastness and beauty, mountains - featured prominently in the works of the Romantic poets - relay a certain majesty and sublimity. Hills carry their own significance least of which is the concept of higher and lower levels of land - the latter can contain swamps, people, darkness, fields, heat, unpleasantness, life whilst the former can suggest isolation, life, death, thin air, purity, clear views to name a few. The list is not exhaustive of course, and depending on the writer, qualities can be interchanged. The dynamism of human experience is often a factor of the setting we inhabit, and it is worth paying attention to the story or poem's location.

Chapter 20 looks at the meaning that seasons carry in literature. The four stages have been used in many ways - by Renaissance writers such as Shakespeare who have applied the progression of year and time and its varying nature to human life (the onset of age, for instance, is reminiscent of Autumn and Winter) and even by modernist authors such as Henry James who has used seasonal imagery for his characters' names (and personalities) (Daisy Miller and Frederic Winterbourne). Foster argues that the literary appeal of seasons lies in their almost universal understanding - spring is linked with childhood, youth, rebirth, hope, summer with romance, fulfillment, adulthood, autumn with decline and tiredness but also harvest (both personal and agricultural), and winter with old age, resentment, and death. Once this pattern is recognized, it is easy to discern it in its various guises and nuances in literary texts. Writers can choose to modify (or build on existing modifications) the use of seasons which makes seasonal symbolism all the more complex. Ironic modes may very well undermine traditional expectations with these stages, while straightforward uses would uphold the meanings discussed before. Since seasons have been with us in literature from the time of Greek mythology, and will continue to play a role in our consciousness of our universe, it is worth considering and identifying key patterns that have developed over the years.


Foster’s reference to the Freudian movement can help identify the evolution of literature for the student. While it may very well be true that Freud identified objects/images that had sexual implications rather than their overt, assumed meanings and offered a fresh perspective with which to read literature, it may also be the case that literature – specifically modernist and postmodernist movements from the time of Freud onward - were influenced by Freudian thought enough to consciously incorporate covert sexual references in their works. In other words, one is perhaps likely to find closer parallels to Freudian theories on symbols of our sexual subconscious in more contemporary works than in earlier texts where sexuality was represented according to that period and society’s prevailing traditions. While sexuality can be represented in subtle and multiple ways, the reader should also be careful not to jump to conclusions or identify sexual acts where they may not exist. Analysis can be aided by researching the author’s background, writing style with other works, and socio-historic environment.

Although Foster asserts that explicit descriptions of sex are actually symbolic of other, deeper meanings, it is also true that such deeper meanings can in fact suggest something of sex/sexuality itself. It can be a commentary on how sex is viewed or treated by the society presented in the text. In Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, for instance, the protagonist’s allusions to sex can reveal something of how this theme is treated and come to be understood in modern Western American culture – not pedophilia itself, but subtle allusions to the general conception of sex and sexuality. What makes the story, and the narrator so intriguing is how otherwise ‘normal’ the protagonist is – despite his aberration he is still a product of, and shaped by, the society in which he resides. It can be argued then that in some ways the narrator’s perversity is an indictment of all of us –or at least of the society in which we participate.

The discussion on setting and environment in chapters 19 and 20 are closely related themes underscoring how literary conventions seldom operate in neatly distinguishable categories, for instance, themes of flight may arise because of the setting or location whilst Biblical as well as supernatural elements are closely tied. Setting and season – geographical location and the prevailing environment - are also similarly concurrent themes in a text and often an analysis of one necessitates, or leads to, an analysis of the other. Thus winter which can be symbolic of bitterness, difficulty, takes on different shades of complexity and meaning when it occurs in industrial London or mountainous highlands.

The setting of a work matters to reader as well because it can either be familiar or an insight into the foreign. Both have different and lasting impressions upon the reader’s interaction with the text. Part of literature’s appeal is that it transcends boundaries, and one of the most obvious, explicit ways in which it does this is to present settings and locations that are completely novel, but which nonetheless resonate because of common themes of the human experience. Great literature also has the capacity to express our homes and familiar societies in ways that ring true for us, causing us to relate not just to the work but also to our surroundings in deeper, complex, and perhaps more meaningful ways.

Just as setting informs the literary text, as Foster argues, so too can the text inform our relationship to our world. The task of the analytical student is to discern these resonances, to identify what features in the novel/poem elicit such responses with him/her so as to consider more deeply the literary conventions and tools the writer has employed in delivering this effect.