How to Read Literature Like a Professor

How to Read Literature Like a Professor Irony

Books - "Howards End"

In E.M. Forster's novel "Howards End," books, which are conventionally sources and symbols of knowledge or enlightenment, bring about the protagonist's downfall. Leonard Bast is a working class man who strives to better himself by reading socially approved books on art and culture, attending lectures and concerts etc. His attempts to ascend the social ladder are successful, but bring about misery and wretchedness rather than happiness. In the end, when the character collapses of a heart attack, he finds he has pulled a bookcase over on himself.

"We would normally see his love of books as something that is affirming of values, improving, and educational - all of which we know as positive virtues. As Leonard collapses, however, the last thing he sees are the books from the bookcase he has pulled over on himself. We sense the disjunction between what books ought to be and the function assigned to them here by Forster" (p 241, Chapter 26: Is He Serious? And Other Ironies).

Rain - "A Farewell to Arms"

Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms is a ironic work, a theme suggested by the title itself. "A Farewell" was a poem written by George Peele about soldiers enthusiastically responding to call to war, and the opening two words of the poem were "To arms!" By joining these two phrases Hemingway created a title very different in meaning.

Rain, which is traditionally seen as purifying or uplifting, is used in an ironic sense in this novel. The protagonist, Frederic Henry, after experiencing the death of his lover and her baby during childbirth, walks out into the rain. Foster describes how,

"Frederic Henry walks out into rain in a season that is still winter but comes on the heels of a false spring. There's nothing cleansing or rejuvenating about the whole thing" (p 237, Chapter 26: Is He Serious? And Other Ironies).

Road - "Waiting for Godot"

In Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot the quest or journey motif is overturned on its head. The play presents two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, besides a road that they never take. Although they return to the same spot every day, the person they wait for does not ever come; nor does the road offer anything interesting for them.

Foster analyzes the irony in the story:

"Of course we catch on pretty fast and soon understand that the road exists for Didi and Gogo to take, and that their inability to do so indicates a colossal failure to engage life...Here are two men, Didi and Gogo, who wish to find possibilities for change or improvement, yet they can only understand the road they wait beside passively, in terms of what it brings to them. We in the audience can see the implication that eludes them (this is where our expectations concerning roads enter the equation), so much so that we may want to scream at them to walk up the road to a new life. But of course they never do" (p 236, Chapter 26: Is He Serious? And Other Ironies).

Arrow - "The Arrow of Heaven"

In G.K. Chesterton's "The Arrow of Heaven," traditional expectations of what an arrow is and how it should perform are undermined. The mystery story relays the killing of a man by an arrow. The victim, however, was in a high tower with higher windows, which would make a straight shot impossible except if it was from the skies or heaven. The solution turns out to be surprisingly straightforward, however: the arrow was used to stab the victim, which could be done by anyone in the same room or in close proximity. We are blinded to unusual uses of an arrow because of our preconceptions of how an arrow normally works.

"Our expectations about the arrow, like those of the characters in the story, point us in one direction, but Chesterton deflects the meaning away from those expectations. Mysteries, like irony, make great use of deflection. The arrow itself is stable; arrows are arrows. The uses to which arrows can be put and the meanings we attach to them, however, are not so stable" (p 239, Chapter 26: Is He Serious? And Other Ironies).