How to Read Literature Like a Professor

How to Read Literature Like a Professor Summary and Analysis of Chapters 4-6


In chapter four Foster introduces poetry, specifically the sonnet form, which he chooses for its prevalence, its versatility, and ease in identification. The sonnet, in other words, is the mode of poetry most likely to be encountered by a literature student, and knowledge of its structure, use and effect is thus quite essential. Foster describes the square geometry of the sonnet as its most distinguishing feature - sonnets are fourteen lines long and written in iambic pentameter which is a regular rhythm comprising of stressed and unstressed syllables. Usually lines in the poetry will have eight to ten syllables and such consistency combined with the standard 14-line length yields a square verse. Although Foster concedes that poems can and should be read for enjoyment without an in-depth understanding of its structural features, he also points out that much of the 'magic' or effect of the poetry is conveyed through its organization.

The writer states that the sonnet can be thought of as having two units of meaning that are related but with a certain shift between them. The sonnet thus breaks into two parts, the first comprising of eight lines and the second of six lines (given the ubiquitous use of the sonnet since the 1500s, many variations of this division exist, but the majority can be said to follow the aforementioned form). To illustrate these features and the implications they have on the content, Foster analyzes Christina Rossett's 'An Echo from Willow-Wood' (ca. 1870). The first eight lines (the octave) are written in a pattern that stresses the basic concept of the potential for separation of two lovers whilst the last six (the sestet) marks the transition in meaning and actualizes the possibility of separation into a reality. Foster concludes by pointing out how Rossetti manages to pack a lot of meaning relating to complex human feelings in a highly dense and constrained form. The vessel of the poem - the sonnet form - thus becomes part of the poem's meaning.

Chapter five discusses the recurrence of familiar figures, archetypes and images in literary works. This follows the familiar idea that literature builds upon other literature and stories grow out of other stories. Foster discusses this point primarily by analyzing Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato (1978). He demonstrates ways in which various events and parts of the story are inspired by other stories read by the author, stored in memory or personally experienced. An example is the character of Sarkin Aung Wan, the protagonist's love interest, who recalls the figure of Sacajawea. The act of drawing upon other texts is a largely conscious and purposeful process by the writer and indicative of the creative process at large. One of the reasons why such borrowing occurs is because in actuality there is only one story - that of the human experience. Writing merely seeks to represent and comment upon this in various guises.

Critics often refer to the links between literary works and texts as ‘intertextuality’. According to Foster, when a reader can recognize patterns and/or similarities within a text then the reading experience is significantly improved and the multiple layers of meaning revealed. Intertextuality can also be used to challenge reader expectations; Foster describes how author Angela Carter in her novel Wise Children (1992) uses characters that are highly nostalgic of Shakespearean characters, but as the novel progresses, behave in ways that challenge traditional Shakespeare plotlines. The author draws on earlier texts but also uses this as a literary strategy to affect the reading experience and expectation.

Understanding intertextuality and how to use it in analysis of literature is a very useful skill to have, and one that is steadily developed over time through practice, extensive reading, and knowing what one should be looking for. While this isn't crucial to enjoy a work of literature, it nonetheless allows for a deeper understanding of how complex and rich a story can be.

In chapter 6 Foster extends the discussion on intertextuality to focus exclusively on Shakespeare and the Shakespearean tradition. Knowledge of Shakespearean works is important because of their ubiquity - literary texts and indeed other art forms including film, poetry and of course theater have drawn inspiration from, or else directly borrowed storylines, characters, and dialogue from these Old English plays. Our familiarity with phrases such as " All the world's a stage / And all the men and women merely players," "And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest," and "The quality of mercy is not strained, It droppeth as the gentle rain from Heaven" to mention only a few, indicate the prevalence of Shakespeare not only in literary circles but popular culture as well. Foster goes on to argue that such ubiquity is significant and can be explained in part by the value that a Shakespearean reference adds to a literary work.

Shakespeare bestows a certain authority and credibility to the writer's work in part because of it is so universally recognizable. Foster also asserts that Shakespeare provides a platform for writers to develop, exchange and bounce ideas. A reference to a popular figure such as the tragic hero Hamlet can be far more effective in conveying a character's internal struggle or personality than an entire passage of description devoted to this task. Moreover, the engagement and dialogue that texts in each era have with Shakespearean works are telling indicators of features of that particular period - whether writers model their works after Shakespearean plays or characters, or else challenge them, ultimately inform us of how perceptions and social conditions have evolved over time. As readers, we participate in this creation of meaning and utilize our imagination that is integral to this creation process.


When it comes to poetry, the appearance or structure of the writing is perhaps as significant as the story it contains which is why Foster is write to highlight the sonnet form. Even modern poetry, which hopes to break away from conventions and is written in a free-style with seemingly no conventions, is significant in itself for what it indicates of rejecting tradition, setting new trends etc. Another feature of the sonnet that deserves attention is the beat or sound conveyed through its iambic structure or rhythm. When reading a poem, it is best to read aloud and notice if the manner in which the syllables are sounded relate to the meaning of the words - in a somber poem perhaps, the stressed syllables would relate to heavier and shorter words whilst in a more ironic or satirical poem, longer words, broken up into several syllables each indicating its own meaning might be found.

Closely related to the subject of sonnets is Shakespeare, yet another reason for recalling his influence on literary conventions as Foster describes. Although the sonnet predates this Elizabethan writer, scholars have focused exclusively on the Shakespearean sonnet to point out ways in which this form developed further. Some suggest that the sonnet as we know it today was a modern theme which Shakespeare paved the way for - earlier it was restricted in the form it could take on, and the themes it could discuss.

With Shakespeare's lively language and adherence to the structure of the sonnet allowed the stories/dialogue/text to take on a greater intensity. In other words, Shakespearean sonnets allowed for economy of words whilst maximizing meaning. Borris Ford in The Age of Shakespeare states how the Shakespearean sonnet "encouraged the association of compression with depth of content and variety of emotional response to a degree unparalleled in English". Thus, when reading a sonnet, it is wise to keep in mind that there may be several layers of meaning embedded in the text than might otherwise seem on a first reading.

Foster's argument that literature often contains echoes from previous or other works is not a new idea - as the author himself points out, writers before him have described how stories are built upon other stories. There are debates however, over the extent to which one must be familiarized or learn to identify intertextuality when reading a book. Not all professors, in their analysis of texts, focus on external influences (although resonance to certain archetypes or features commonly features in studies). For a reader, or even student of literature, it is even more unclear whether one should be trained in seeing these resonances or recurring imagery. Certainly they are not, as the author himself concedes, critical to enjoying the subject. But such features need not even guide analysis at a high school or college level.

Foster's book is directed towards students of literature and its attempts to be accessible and easy to read suggests that a more professional audience (such as graduate students) is not the target. In light of this, then, one does well to consider requirements of a college level English course where students are normally expected to write a paper with their own, individual thesis and analysis. This analysis then rests largely upon the features of the text that are of interest to the student him/herself and certainly doesn't require a working familiarity of external influences. Often students are expected to analyze the story for itself, rather than in more generic ways that speak of the tradition/conventions of literature as a whole.

In assessing a literary convention, one must always ask: “What are the implications of this convention to the story/text I am reading?” So too is the case with the literary feature of Shakespearean influence. Towards the end of the discussion Foster points out that authors may include references to the Bard in order to lend authority to the text, to make it sound more significant perhaps or more complex. This is certainly true, and furthermore, references to earlier works can also be seen as manifestations of the human impulse for nostalgia and connection.

Our interest in the past and in the lives of those gone before us is in some ways an attempt to seek a connection with fellow persons who may not share the same time or context as us, but who nonetheless share in the human experience of participating. Whether the text recalls a Shakespearean element, or characters in the text themselves, such recollection can be broadly viewed as an understanding that we are not so very different from our predecessors, nor are the themes, feelings and events that guide our lives very unique.