How to Read Literature Like a Professor

How to Read Literature Like a Professor Summary and Analysis of Chapters 25 - 27


In Chapter 25, Foster stresses the importance of putting oneself in the character's shoes when reading the text. In other words, to appreciate the multi-layered nature of the work the reader has to approach the story from the perspective of the characters that he/she encounters. To give an example, Foster cites James Joyce's "The Dead," particularly the dinner scene where the family gathers for a holiday meal. So as to appreciate the true significance of the meal itself, the reader should consider it from the perspective of Aunts Kate and Julia for whom the meal is not only of religious significance, but a time of extravagance that enables them to hold on to a fading gentility and memories of the more luxurious comforts of the middle class.

As outsiders, we are less likely to grasp the reason for their anxiety over the gathering unless we understand how and why it is so important in their lives. Foster recommends maintaining a certain balance between adopting only the characters' eyes and sticking to our own. He suggests a reading perspective that considers the historical and social context of the story to understand the background against which the text was written. This involves, to a considerable degree, knowing or at least attempting to discern the author's viewpoint or intent. The writer acknowledges, however, that such an acceptance need not imply agreement with that period or culture's values - whilst knowledge of Greek paganism and values would inform our readings of mythology, it doesn't entail an endorsement of the prevailing customs and beliefs such as enslavement, execution, concubines etc. Another example is Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, which seems to contain anti-Semitism. Foster doesn't decree what precisely readers' responses to such texts should be - that is a personal task each reader has to decide by him/herself.

In his chapter 26 Foster describes the prevailing and even dominating effect of literary irony. If a text is written in an ironic mode, than any symbolism, associations, or traditional uses of meaning go out the window. If the text explicitly discusses a journey or quest, for instance, a literary convention that suggests growth, self-knowledge etc., but at the same time makes use of irony, then one should expect the "quest" to meaning anything but that. The "ironic mode," first formally identified by literary theorist Northrop Frye, refers to a text in which the characters possess lesser autonomy, self-determination or free will than ourselves, which means we know something they don't quite realize themselves. As readers, we also can see consequences that elude the characters in the text. In T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland," the onset of spring ("April is the cruellest month") does nothing to revive or rejuvenate the wasteland described.

One of the characteristics of irony is its creation of the space between expectation and reality, resulting in a dual awareness on the part of the reader. Such effect or awareness is not always easy to achieve or grasp, however: at times the irony is so subtle so as to elude us of any double meaning or multiplicity to the text, character, or event in the literary work. Foster cites various examples to demonstrate this point. He also points out that irony is especially prevalent in modern and post-modernist works, which almost always challenge conventional expectations. Recognition of the use of irony can greatly reward the reading experience - it can add various dimensions to the work and challenges readers to constantly consider alternative interpretations.

In Chapter 27, as a synthesis of all the previous chapters and literary conventions described, Foster offers an analytical exercise in his final section. The text under consideration is Katherine Mansfield's short story, "The Garden Party." In addition to asking the reader to analyze the work by considering the story's message, themes, signification, literary tools and conventions employed, Fosters offers by way of example various readings of the piece, which he obtains through students and relatives, before finally providing his own interpretation of the work. The readings that Foster obtains vary from short accounts of what the story is about to more lengthy analyses of the metaphorical implications of Mansfield's work. Thus, a college freshman was able to identify the story's overall breakdown between the rich and working class, whilst a history major who had taken several of Foster's courses provided more details by identifying various themes such as an overtone of indifference, the decision to act or not, a character's struggle between her social and personal motivations and perceptions of reality.

Foster's third respondent, a graduate who took several courses in literature and creative writing provides the most comprehensive of all analyses noting not only the tension between social classes and tendencies to ignore the realities of the world, but also analyzing key metaphors such as that of birds and flight. Such imagery, pervasive throughout the text, conveys a general sense of insulation and ignorance. The respondent goes to consider how this metaphor is used to convey a character's personality and growth as the story progresses.

Foster notes how all his student-readings identify the observable phenomena of the story, which he argues is important before one can hope to analyze the more subtle aspects of the text. It is important for the reader to position him/herself in the more concrete aspects of the work so as not to produce analysis that is largely inventive and fanciful. For his own part, Foster provides what he describes as a reading at the "noumenal level," which captures the pith or essence of the story. One of the features that particularly stood out for Foster is the garden imagery as well as the use of term "ideal." The story's hyperbolic description ("perfect" day) right at the start seem to be quite suggestive, and the rather idyllic imagery used to describe the gardener and the flowers suggests a rather divine or angelic environment rather than a human one. Against this backdrop, Foster asks the question as to who is in charge - he identifies Mrs. Sheridan, the family matriarch as the head and goes on to equate her as the queen or goddess of this idyllic garden world. Her supervision of food, party decor and her children suggests to Foster parallels to a fertility goddess reigning over her kingdom.

Foster goes on to analyze other developments in the story including the increasing identification and relation between Mrs. Sheridan and the protagonist, Laura (her daughter), as well as the dark imagery associated with Laura's trip to her neighbors down the hill who belong to the working class. A host of other striking features accompany her journey, ultimately seeming reminiscent of Greek mythology -- in particular, the journey to the underground. Foster imagines that Laura and her trip represent the tale of Persephone and Demeter. The latter is the goddess of agriculture, fertility and marriage whose daughter Persephone, captured by the god of the underworld is forced to go down to visit Hell. Foster acknowledges other elements of the myth/story as well such as Laura's initiation into adulthood and acquiring of knowledge.

Foster concludes by noting that a literal understanding of the story without recognizing deeper allusions and imagery is still a great and necessary starting point - the reader has to be able to reach this stage to then identify more subtle implications of the text which would lead to conclusions similar or different from his own or his students', but which nonetheless will enrich the reading experience. Ultimately, Mansfield's short story contains several significations including a critique of the class system, initiation in adult world of death and sex, family dynamics, and a child struggling with her independent personality under the influence of her parents.


Foster's final few chapters emphasize the varying ways in which literature can be approached. The chapter "Don't Read With Your Eyes" highlights one of these ways: keeping in mind the characters standpoint/position and adds to other perspectives outlined in the book - socio-historic context, author's background, personal response and instinct. The point is not to overwhelm the student but rather to demonstrate how reading is a multi-layered, complex process. Literary analysis too, is similarly nonlinear. Rather than attempting to recall all approached to literature the reader should instead consider which approach is most meaningful for him/her, and keep in mind that alternative models and theories always exist. Such diversity points to the richness of even a single story or poem - as well as, ultimately, of our lives and human experience.

Although in his discussion of irony Foster describes characters as possessing less autonomy or freedom - of the audience knowing more than the characters - it is also entirely possible for an ironic piece to misdirect the reader. In his book Literary Irony and the Literary Audience, John B. McKee focuses on this particular mode of ironic writing. Pointing out that it is difficult to reach to a single definition of irony, he describes the type of deliberate irony that his work focuses on as cases where "misunderstandings are designed by the artist to form part of the process by which the reader comes to a final understanding of the art-work." Examples of such writing include Tom Jones, Gulliver’s Travels, and Tristram Shandy. It is also helpful to know that this sort of deliberate irony for readers (what McKee calls the "reader-victimization") emerged more or less with the emergence of the novel. Earlier works such as Shakespeare were likely to employ irony as Foster describes it - where characters misunderstand whilst the audience or readers recognizes the truth.

Irony can be used for various effects - it can be employed for comic purposes, satirical effect or to heighten tragedy. Whatever the intention, irony ultimately points to the human capacity for error - or for blindness. It underscores how easily men and women, blinded by their own narrow point of view, fail to recognize that they are part of a much larger/bigger world. It can also indicate our limited nature, our tendencies to overlook or not recognize everyday phenomenon. Irony need not be severe in its message, but it helps remind us of human fallibility, and the need perhaps for greater humility and understanding in our lives.

Fosters' students' analysis of Katherine Mansfield's "The Garden Party" can help demonstrate to the reader just how many readings of a text there can be - and how all are equally valid. Readers engage with texts for various reasons, because of different literary elements/conventions. The final students' analysis for instance reveals how the bird imagery particularly stuck out for her - and deeper study of this theme led to further insights into plot, characters, and structure. Although the student didn't focus on many other elements within the text - such as parallels to Greek mythology, or the Edenic references, her analysis was still quite rich.

As Foster shares his own perspectives of the story the reader should note how this is an example of multiple readings generating additional revelations, and a work becomes richer in light of all the different understandings/readings. Often the works we enjoy the most are ones that resonate most with us - literary analysis is a way of understanding how texts can be resonant for others. Such an understanding can in turn enable students to identify with works in novel ways, ultimately fostering appreciation of the work in question, and hopefully for the literary tradition as a whole.