How to Read Literature Like a Professor

How to Read Literature Like a Professor Summary and Analysis of Chapters 7 - 9


The theme of intertextuality continues on in chapter 7 where the writer discusses the literary significance and influence of the Bible. Foster points out how pervasive scriptural influence and reference has been, a fact that might be accounted for by the Bible's nonsectarian nature. Those outside of the Judeo-Christian world can also recognize Biblical imagery or quotation because of how popular scriptural allusions are. Although Foster opens the discussion through an analysis of Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987) and James Joyce' Araby (1914), much of what we know about Biblical use in literature has come from writers and poets before mid-twentieth century that were well instructed in religion. Classics such as Beowulf, Paradise Lost, and The Canterbury Tales all draw heavily upon religious and scriptural themes and motifs.

Contemporary writers possess a reasonable understanding of the Biblical tradition as well - many modern poets who produced spiritual poetry used biblical language and imagery. These include T.S. Eliot, Adrienne Rich, Geoffrey Hill, and Allen Ginsberg, all of who wrote on biblical subjects as diverse as redemption, disciples, Lenten consciousness and the Day of Atonement. However religious references need not be paying homage to the faith or tradition - modern and postmodern texts often draw upon biblical sources in an ironic mode, emphasizing differences and challenges rather than similarities and continuity of belief/ideas.

A classic example would be Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses (1988). Although the work was directed towards the Islamic tradition, the concept of challenging an ancient, well known religious tradition through literary irony applies just as much. Foster also identifies key literary areas where the Bible asserts itself, each carrying its own significance. These include general aspects such as theme, archetypes, plot, but also more specific features of the text such as titles, situations and quotations, and names (Jacob, Rebecca, Mary, Joseph). Foster clarifies that it isn't necessary to be a Bible scholar in order to identify these parallels, but the reader can detect allusions to older/bigger texts by noting moments in the text that seem to indicate something outside the scope of the story or poem. The author terms this the 'resonance test,' and to illustrate its use references his experience of James Baldwin's story "Sonny Blues" (1957). A particular phrase in the story, "like the very cup of trembling" was quite resonant - and while Foster didn't attempt to learn its significance during initial readings, he eventually discovered that the description came from Isaiah 51:17.

Although this piece of knowledge isn't necessary to enjoy or even appreciate the work's ingenuity, the biblical dimension adds a certain depth to the seemingly simple story of Sonny and his brother. The story becomes reminiscent of distant antecedents, timeless myths and archetypes.

In chapter eight Foster outlines yet another literary source for allusion but one that is likely to be understood by a much wider audience - children's literature. While references to Shakespeare and the Bible can make the text in question seem more highbrow or complex, allusions to tales as familiar as Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island, and fairy tales enable the story to be more accessible and relatable. In much the same way that writers draw on the well established works of Shakespeare to challenge reader's expectations of what will follow, so too do writers drawing on children's tales subvert original plotlines and character profiles to retell the story. Angela Carter series of stories in The Bloody Chamber (1979) challenge sexist underpinnings in traditional fairytales and instead present feminist revisions of these works.

Foster also points out that one of the effects of borrowing from earlier works of literature is irony that can appear in various guises. If a student can detect fairytale references (or others) then he/she should also be aware of the text taking on an ironic mode. Foster also makes a subtle point about what readers expect and want from a tale - novelty but familiarity too. If a text can achieve the harmony of providing a story that is unique but also reminiscent of tales, images, themes encountered from other texts, then, the writer argues, a certain depth and resonance is added to the text and to the reader's experience of it.

Foster seals the discussion on intertextuality by expounding upon yet another important literary influence - that of Greek mythology - in chapter 9. Although 'myth' is widely misunderstood as referring to a story or narration that is untrue, Foster uses the term to refer to the phenomenon of sustained story and symbol. A mythological story is thus relevant to the student of literature insofar as it influences and shapes a particular text or poem. Myths are especially significant in representing the story of a particular community a time, yet a story that contains universal elements in that it allows us unique ways to explain and ultimately read ourselves. Foster focuses particularly on the lasting influence of Greek mythology on the European and Euro-American cultures, an influence so strong that it has seeped into popular consciousness through daily references such as city or high school names (e.g. Troy, Athens, Remus).

Foster also explains that the sustained use and prevalence of mythological stories even in modern texts (such as parallels between the story of Crete and Daedalus and Toni Morrison's 'Song of Solomon') can be explained by the universality and reliability of themes - while particular plotlines might not be relevant in present contexts, human emotions such as wrath, neglect, loyalty and honor are still very much at play. Again, writers who wish to convey an ironic effect may overturn the similarities, an effect that is achieved largely because of how recognizable these myths are in popular consciousness.


The analysis in the last section regarding Shakespeare and intertextuality is equally true of allusions to the Bible and Greek mythology. Both fall under the category of myth (a long standing historic body of story) and as such, both can be seen as expressions of human nostalgia. Consequently, such references that suggest continuity in the human trajectory can help reveal something of our own existence and lives.

In the case of the Bible, specifically, this recollection and attempt to draw in the past to the present has implications other than nostalgia because of the very religious nature of this text. In other words, a biblical reference might be an affirmation of the messages and lessons brought down by the Prophets and sages of old. It can also be a subtle acknowledgement of the Divine and the variety of ways in which images, stories, and characters are used are indicative of how religion is constantly negotiated and reworked not just by communities and periods but also by individuals and characters.

The relationship between the Bible and literature, however, is not as linear as Foster's discussion might suggest. The author talks about the variety of ways in which Biblical imagery or words manifest themselves in literature, and while this influence certainly exists, as research in Biblical studies and related fields suggest, literature is often itself a commentary on the Bible, and a tool of analysis. Both traditions then inform each other, a symbiotic relationship that is perhaps less evident in other sets of mythological works. What this means for the student is to recognize that Biblical allusions, in addition to lending authority to the text/story (if used un-ironically) are just as indicative of the English-speaking world's understanding, shaping, and interpretation of the religious tradition (Jeffrey, 1992).

The other tradition identified by Foster as featuring in many literary texts, Fairytales, also merits consideration of what it can say/tell us about the story. Foster points out that writers may employ children's stories to reach out to a wider audience - but they may also be paying tribute to the adage that wisdom is often contained in the simple or in children. Fairytales exert an influence not merely because they have been sustained as a body of literature, or because they are easy to understand, but also because they carry a strong appeal of imparting valuable lessons and knowledge despite their seemingly childish or simplistic nature. Authors like Tim O'Brien who reference children's stories writers such as Lewis Carroll seem to be paying tribute to this very fact.

Fairytales also represent a kind of literary nostalgia, but one that is more personal and individual. References to children's literature may point to the child in each and every one of us - and the universal desire to return to a time of innocence and simplicity (although of course not every childhood is a a carefree one). Nonetheless, one of the possibilities that children's literature or fairytale references suggest is underscoring the naïveté, childlike inexperience that is always present in us no matter our age, because of the very fallibility of human nature. Thus a text that contains such allusions might be suggesting that the character - or society - for all its developments, still retains and manifests its original state of childishness. Writers can employ this in various ways - to convey a positive, endearing aspect of a character/society, or to comment upon its naive foolishness/blindness.