How to Read Literature Like a Professor

How to Read Literature Like a Professor Summary and Analysis of Chapters 1 - 3


Foster chooses to discuss the quest motif first, indicating that this feature is often one of the more fundamental conventions of literature. The significance of the quest can perhaps be gauged by the fact that it is associated with any trip or journey described in a text or undertaken by a character. Foster defends this position first by laying out in broad terms the stages that make up a quest, and then describing how any significant trip written about is simply a modification or form of these basic stages. Foster explains what a quest consists of first by drawing on traditional, medieval terminology and then in more general terms.

Typical perceptions of a quest involve a knight, a dangerous path, a Holy Grail, a dragon, an evil knight, and a princess. After setting out these characters Foster proceeds to analyze the features that make up a quest in more structural terms - the quest then consists of a quester, a place to go, a stated reason to go to that place, challenges and obstacles en route, and the real reason to go there. Foster points out that the real reason for a quest never involves the explicitly stated reason presented in text, rather, the real reason is always related to self-knowledge and the process of discovery.

To illustrate how the quest can take on many shapes and forms, Foster analyzes the storyline of Crying of Lot 49, a twentieth-century novel by Thomas Pynchon. Crying of Lot 49 certainly doesn't fit into traditional images of the quest motif - instead of a knight, the protagonist is a young married woman, her trip takes place in modern California and her challenges or dragons include amongst other things, a mentally unstable therapist and a possible postal conspiracy. Despite such differences, Foster argues that the book is essentially a quest novel whereby the protagonist's stated goal for travel fades away and concludes with a profound shift in perception and understanding of the self. One of the most telling features of the story, according to Foster, is the character's name, Oedipa, which goes back to the tragic figure of Oedipus the King (ca. 425 B.C) whose true failure was that he didn't know himself.

Foster concludes the chapter by acknowledging that in some cases a trip can simply be a trip, that is, it doesn't have to have any deeper meaning such as that associated with a quest, but it is valuable for the reader to be alert when encountering a journey of any kind.

The second chapter discusses the literary significance of meals. More specifically, the act of eating together can be read as an act of communion. Foster is quick to point out, however, that 'communion' may not necessarily involve the traditional, Christian acts we associate with the term, but can be interpreted in literature in a variety of ways. The crucial thing to remember about communions is that it is meant to be an act of sharing and peace or goodwill. A personal act such as breaking bread that is shared with others necessarily implies a certain intimacy, friendship, connection. Foster also states that the act of describing a meal scene is a challenging task for the writer - and if it is included in a literary work then there have to be significant reasons for it.

To describe how varied literary interpretations of communion can be, Foster draws on the meal scenes presented in Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749) and Raymond Carver's Cathedral (1981). The first includes a dine-in at an inn where Tom and Mrs. Walters devour their meal unabashedly. Although the setting and thematic positioning of the meal doesn't appear to be significant or indicative of traditional notions of communion, it nonetheless involves a shared experience of desire. In the movie version the decadent scene is actually a stand-in for a sexual experience between the two characters. In Cathedral, on the other hand, where a blind man is invited for dinner, the meal becomes an opportunity for the protagonist to overcome his biases against certain people and identify, through eating together, the qualities that reveal the humanity of his comrade and the similarities in their experience of life.

Foster also considers situations where a meal takes an unpleasant turn, or doesn't happen at all. Such cases are just as significant for they indicate clearly to the reader a certain wrong or injustice that is being orchestrated through the violation of the principle of respecting the ones with whom you break bread. Foster references Anne Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982) and James Joyce's "The Dead" (1914) to illustrate how even tense or late dinner parties can still be symbolic of communion, and how, in each cases, the characters are brought together, in a literal and metaphoric sense, around the dinner table.

In chapter three Foster discusses the literary significance of the use of fantastic or supernatural figures such as vampires and ghosts. According to Foster, such figures in literary texts are rarely only used to give readers a scare. Instead, they are often also symbolic of darker principles such as exploitation, selfishness, domination and so forth. Foster draws upon the classic example of Dracula (1897) to demonstrate how the Vampire's attack on young women is closely related to themes of seduction, unwholesome lust, and danger not to mention other evils. Figures such as Dracula or ghosts then are foreboding markers that indicate to the reader how amiss state of affairs are, on a human character as well as social level. Such darkly fantastic creatures are thus emblematic of the evil that is contained in human souls and the evils of society at large. Foster also argues that ghosts and vampires and the like may not have to take literal forms - they can be used as a narrative vehicle to illustrate the phenomenon of a consuming spirit or vampiric personality.

An example that Foster expounds upon is the character of governess in Henry James' The Turn of the Screw (1898) who fantasizes that a ghost possesses her wards, and in her delusion smothers them with protectiveness. Here the motif of a ghost (which may or may not be real) can be read as a commentary on the psychological state of a mother figure as well as fatherly neglect. In another James novel, Daisy Miller (1878), the fate of young Daisy at the hands of her cold love interest, Winterbourne is a case of a vampiric personality manifestation. The story also indicates the stifling and consuming nature of a society that operates on rigid social customs. Foster concludes by pointing out how the vampiric, ghostly or spooky spectre has appeared throughout the ages, as during the naturalistic movement of the late nineteenth century down to the twentieth century works of writers such as Franz Kafka and D.H. Lawrence. The recurrence of this motif, according to Foster, is simply indicative of exploitation and selfishness in various guises and remains a literary convention that will continue to haunt us so long as we do wrong by our fellow men/women.


Foster's identification of the quest tale is an important recognition of a theme that pervades literary texts, but the significance of the 'journey' may go well beyond literature itself. The book's allusion to medieval quest imagery such as the knight and the Holy Grail is not the starting point for this subject - indeed quest is an older tradition that reaches back to the classical age. In her work, The Idea of the Labyrinth: From Classical Antiquity to the Middle Ages, Penelope Doob traces the historic roots and usage of the journey motif that has become a part of our collective consciousness.

Some of the earlier usages of the quest was related to matters of the Divine - often labyrinths or mazes would consist of twelve concentric circles, alluding to the planetary movements or structure. Critics have also analyzed the quest as man's recognition of the confusion and disorder that often dominates the world and human life, but which is ultimately part of a Divine system of perfection and order as suggested by the workings of Nature. The quest then becomes a symbol of the universal endeavor to find the right path, the clear road or meaning. As a long-standing tradition, it also points to an impulse that is at the basic unit of what it means to be human.

Doob's book is also illuminative in highlighting the different forms that a quest tale can take. The author distinguishes for instance between the quest that is a physical journey, and one that is intellectual. Foster doesn't quite reflect on how the road or journey need not be an explicitly physical one; the paths that our thoughts, intellectualism, emotions and beliefs take can be as significant in implications as a physical quest. Intellectual labyrinth, then, is also a feature of the quest that readers would do well to keep in mind. Doob's research doesn't merely focus on literature: it consults manuscripts, illustrations, carvings and drawings in Church buildings, to name a few. What this suggests is that the quest is as much a cultural feature as it is a literary one - it's centrality over the ages in human lives makes its appearance in literary texts all the more telling.

Another equally significant literary and cultural theme is food - the subject of Foster's second chapter ("Acts of Communion"). While Foster is right in stressing the implications of a meal scene and the communal bonds it forms, according to writer Victoria Best, his analysis doesn't quite go far enough. Best argues for instance how acts of communion or shared meals differ from culture to culture, and thus how implications vary as well. Thus in a text that is centered around French society, a meal scene vividly described is an indication not just of communion between the eating members, but also of the French attitude towards food which is regarded almost as a work of art. Whereas it involves aesthetics in French society, food in British literature might be more significant in drawing family and friends together because of the war-time rationing and scarcity. In other words, according to Best, there are "different understandings of what constituted communion in the first place."

A discussion on vampires and ghosts, and perhaps other supernatural elements might be remiss without a consideration of Gothic literature. This genre has its own implications altogether, but some are contained in the features that Foster chooses specifically to focus on, that is, vampirism. Foster rightly argues that the vampire is a symbol for human exploitation, sexuality, selfishness amongst other ills, but it is also seen as a more extreme "perversion" of reality and normality. Paradoxes such as "living dead" and "heroic antagonist" associated with literary vampires are indicative of deeper impulses within the human psyche for the dark, the abnormal, and the perverse.

In A Parasitic Perspective: Romantic Participation and Polidori's The Vampyre, Scholar J.P Telotte traces the first appearance of the vampire in literature, describing him as "a fundamental perversion of normal human participation in the world" (10). Telotte sees the vampire as a reflection of society's perception of the world and man's place in this world. Efforts to fight the vampire in a story, then, can be symbolic of efforts to fight against perversion and uphold the ideal form of living or participating in this world.

Yet another interesting perspective is offered by a scholar tracing the development of the ghost story in The Blood is the Life who argues how "...the ghost story became a vehicle not only for entertainment but also for expression for the uneasy fluctuations of the belief on the part of the cognitive minority no longer content with the Christian supernatural yet appalled by the new scientism whose presuppositions they sought to reject or soften." Thus in several ways the ghost is also - even indirectly - a symbol of struggles between religion and practicality, faith and reason. A reader or student of literature is not expected to know or adopt the viewpoints put forward by the scholars, but understanding the various dimensions of a literary trope such as vampire or ghost can add meaning as well as shed some light on the historic/social conditions in which the text was set.