How to Read Literature Like a Professor

How to Read Literature Like a Professor Summary and Analysis of Chapters 13 - 15


Often when a story or its characters or plot resonate with us, it is because some element of the text is representative of conditions or individuals in our society and world. More often than not such representativeness carries political implications as well - leading Foster to highlight the importance of understanding the political undertones of a literary piece. Foster distinguishes between overtly political writing which includes literature whose main intent is to influence the prevailing political thought/ideology and “political” writing that is more subtle and perhaps more effective. Political writing offers a perspective into the realities of the world and in doing so touches upon themes and problems that are collectively shared and thus relatable. Edgar Allen Poe for instance provides a criticism of the European class system and its elitism in his poems “The Masque of the Red Death” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Both poems look at the conditions and practices of the nobility, and emerge as commentary upon the systems of monarchy and aristocracy.

Political undertones can also be found in seemingly apolitical texts such as Rip Van Winkle. Because political considerations are closely entwined with social, economic, historic and cultural issues, it is unsurprising that many texts can be said to be political in nature. Consequently, Foster argues that knowing something about the political and social context in which the writer was writing is significant for it can add a dimension to the text which readers, in their own unique political settings, might not have realized.

In chapter 14 Foster analyzes the Christian trope found in works of European and American literature. The dominance of cultural influences brought by early European settlers has meant that Christian values have been deeply woven in our social fabric, the consequent of which is that we live in a Christian culture. This influence can be ascertained in works of literature as well, in fact, texts draw so heavily upon this religious tradition that knowledge of the Old and New Testaments is quite essential. It is important to note that the values that appear in a text, while technically “Christian,” need not take on a religious role but are more significant in revealing something about the character, plot, or theme of the story.

One of the more frequent Biblical archetypes used in literature is the figure of Christ, and Frost recommends familiarizing oneself with certain features of his character that appear in various guises in literary texts. These include qualities such as self-sacrificing, closeness with children, loaves, fish, water and wine, thirty-three years of age, crucifixion, and so forth. While some literary figures closely resemble Christ (Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea is replete with Christian imagery) others are more ambiguous, and indeed do not even have to embody the characteristic features of being male, Christian, or even good (in the latter’s case, the parallel to Christ figure becomes an irony). Allusions to Christ can have various effects, from emphasizing the character’s sacrifice by relating it to Divine sacrifice, ushering notions or hope/redemption/miracle or even portraying the character as much smaller by highlight the discrepancy between him/her and the figure of Christ.

Although flight is not a skill humans can lay claim to, our fascination with flying has remained with us to this day. It is unsurprising, then, that flight should feature so prominently in literature, and what is perhaps more pertinent is the literary implications it carries. Writers from the time of Greek mythology - and possibly well before - have ascribed various meanings and symbolic significance to descriptions of flight. Flying can represent freedom, escape, exuberance, largeness of spirit, even love, but if gone wrong it can also symbolize downfall (in the metaphoric and literal sense), danger, and helplessness. For the most part, however, flight according to Foster represents freedom and the motif is found and manipulated in various ways in different literary works.

Flight doesn't only have to appear in the literal sense, however: figurative flights are just as laden with meaning. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce presents his protagonist as someone who feels trapped by the social, religious, political and personal constraints and the struggle to throw off these fetters, so to speak, conveys a distinct sense of metaphorical flight that is further compounded by the images of birds, feathers and flying in the second half of the novel. Often, flight is also a stand-in for a freeing of the spirit or soul into realms that reach our furthest imaginations. Flying, then, opens a host of possibilities, for the character and text in question, as well as for the analytical reader.


The featuring of Christ in literature is a complex literary convention, one that has been in use for centuries. Readers can perhaps get a sense of how heavy and lasting this feature is when we consider Rosemary Woolf's research. Woolf draws parallels between the knight figure and Christ, arguing how the latter was represented in medieval culture (and perhaps even before) as the knight who embarks on the quest. This is certainly a fresh way to consider the importance of the journey and knight motif that Foster presents in the first chapter. More importantly, it underscores how pervasive Christ has been in literature, in forms that are perhaps not easily recognizable. This affirms Foster's argument, then, that literature that contains Christ symbolism may not be completely true to the persona that emerges in religious texts or scripture, which is to say, not all characteristics of Christ may be outlined. Woolf's studies can also help us see how perhaps many literary conventions - including but not limited to the quest/knight motif - trace their origins to Christianity.

Of course the relationship is never so simple - Christianity or its perceptions may in turn be informed by culture including literature. One should also note that there is a difference between overtly religious literature and literature that contains religious references - the latter is what Foster is referring to when discussing the Christ trope. The subtle difference between the two can be assessed by noticing for what purposes the character which resembles Christ is used - religious literature is likely to explicitly identify the cause as one of salvation or Divine intervention whereas this is not the central theme or indeed purpose of other literary texts. Robert Detweiler who studies the Christ trope in American Fiction makes an interesting argument, saying “Perhaps the creation of the Christ figure has to remain the task of the secular writer, for the religious novelist who attempts to work with it finds himself caught in an uneasy liaison: the doctrinal Jesus he propagandizes and the symbolic Christ he tries to fashion invariably get in the way of each other, so that eventually both the art and the all-important message of his story suffer.” While ultimate conclusions on the 'effectiveness' of the Christ persona - and even whether the question of effectiveness matters at all - rests with the reader, it is nonetheless interesting to consider how Christ fares in secular literature such as that which Foster analyzes.

Foster's analysis of flight echoes conclusions drawn by Swiss psychologist Carl Jung who identifies flying as symbolic of freedom, escape, attempts for liberation and so forth, pointing to the almost universal meaning that we attach with such actions. Foster discusses how flying can appear in various forms, through imagery, plot, themes and so forth but it is also helpful to consider other symbols that represent flight - and which carry more or less the same meaning as flying itself. These objects or symbols include the sky, birds, feather, wind, clouds and shooting stars to mention a few. Flying and its symbolism, then, can be communicated through indirect means and doesn't necessarily involve characters who dream of flying, or who fly themselves.

An important theme related to flying is also what it reveals about the human attraction to the unknown. Flying into the skies or heavens, in others words to realms that we are unfamiliar with and which are "foreign" suggests a basic human curiosity of what lies beyond the world we know as well as the tendency to seek out new territory. It is an example of man's consistent efforts to pursue knowledge, to assert himself or his presence in various spheres of life. In many ways flying is like traveling - but perhaps with more spiritual or metaphysical implications because of the otherworldly quality of the place of destination. An interesting assignment for literary students would be to compare the literary symbolism of ocean/sea journeys, land travels, and aerial flights.

Flight has also been a prominent trope in African-American literature and it is worth considering perspectives of scholars in this field because their analysis differs from Foster's and indeed from the common interpretations of flying. Scholars such as Guy Wilentz focus on folk legends of flight and resistance to argue that there are historic-culture specific symbolism associated with flying. In other words, different communities have varied understandings and interpretations of flight. For the African-American community, myths and traditions of flight have been specific to the escape/freedom from the shackles of slavery. This takes on even more complexity when we note that authors use 'slavery' in various ways in their works- it can be used to mean the actual physical ordeal that a community experiences, or even to mental slavery to self-perceptions/thoughts and/or to society’s perspectives and judgment.