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How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster.
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What is the difference between reading like a student and reading like a professor?

Students:

  • Focus mostly on the plot and characters in a story.
  • Respond to the story first on an emotional level.

Professors:

  • Focus mostly on memory, symbol, and pattern in the story.
  • Accept the emotional response, but look deeper to find the universal truth displayed.

The combination of using memory, identifying symbols, and recognizing patterns allows a reader to analyze literature in a new light—the way a professor would. If you ignore memory, symbols, and patterns in literature, you will not be able to appreciate a book for everything that it says between the lines.

This book teaches you:

  • The conventions of literature: Character types, plot structures, themes, symbols, archetypes, and more.
  • The skills to find and analyze them on your own.

Memory

When you read with a powerful memory, you actively look for how the text corresponds to other literary works. You mentally flip through the things you’ve read before and look for similarities (or differences) to the structure, theme, or characters of what you’re reading now.

For example, as you watch the movie Pale Rider starring Clint Eastwood, you might be reminded of the movie Shane from 1953.

These similarities are what critics call intertextuality. Authors use references and parallels to draw connections to previous literary works.

Intertextuality in literature deepens the meaning of the text by drawing on the reader’s expectations.

Example of Memory: Going After Cacciato

A great example of intertextuality, an author referencing previous literature, occurs in Tim O’Brien’s novel Going After Cacciato. The novel has three interwoven stories: one, the history of protagonist Paul Berlin’s war experiences; two, an imagined trip to Paris in search of their fellow soldier Cacciato; three, the present night in which Paul Berlin is remembering the first story and inventing the second.

In one part of Berlin’s fantasy trip, he and his squad fall down a hole in the road. They end up in an otherworldly network of tunnels. One character even states that they need to fall back up. As a reader, you are invited to relate this part of the story to when Alice falls down the rabbit hole in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

Now that you have made that connection, your reading of the story will be nuanced by that awareness. You might expect that the tunnels the characters find themselves in will be some kind of wonderland for them.

Memory: Sacred Texts

In order to truly read literature like a professor, you need to be on the lookout for intertextual references to “sacred texts,” like Shakespeare, classic fairy tales, ancient myths, and the Bible.

Using recognizable themes or plots from these sacred texts gives the author the chance to use the reader’s associations to say more in their own work with fewer words. And for the reader, recognition of these references enhances the experience of reading current literature, because the modern stories share in the power of the sacred text.

How authors utilize the common sacred texts:

Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s work provides a source against which writers can challenge ideas and struggle through timeless questions.

For example, Athol Fugard’s play “Master Harold” … and the Boys uses Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II as a device. Fugard mimics Shakespeare’s plot—in this version, Harry must turn away his black friends in an effort to grow up and become responsible. Fugard invites his audience to question whether choosing to regress toward racism is really the mark of growing up. He challenges Shakespeare’s values, and gives the audience the chance to do the same.

Fairy Tales

Fairy tales are popular choices for authors to reference because they’re an assumed body of knowledge. Most readers can relate to and recognize the classic fairy tales.

For example, an author could adapt the plot of “Hansel and Gretel” in their work. The story of children far away from home, lost in a forest, and captured by some evil witch in a strange place—you’ve probably seen a version of this in something you’ve read.

Myth

References to mythology in literature show that the story goes beyond what is on the page—it is really a story about humanity’s noble yet primal motivations.

For example, Derek Walcott’s Omeros uses parallels to The Iliad and The Odyssey to tell the story of a community of Caribbean fishermen. He knows this community intimately and wants to tell their story in a way that highlights their struggles, as well as their triumphs. The narrative guide of the classic myths allows Walcott to show the nuances of the fishermen’s condition by associating their story with an ancient epic.

The Bible

Many authors use the Bible to highlight the differences between religious tradition and modern life, or to enhance the reader’s awareness that the story speaks to the tensions and struggles that have existed since the beginning of man.

For example, Ernest Hemingway used the title The Sun Also Rises, which alludes to a passage from the Bible that is about hope and life’s endless cycle. But Hemingways’ book is about hopelessness—it’s about infertility and the feeling that the future will never come. Hemingway’s ironic biblical reference is meant to highlight a key theme for the reader.

Symbol

When you read with a symbolic mind, you constantly look for metaphors and analogies. You not only see things for what they actually are, but also what they might represent.

Common symbols and their associations:

  • Vampires, ghosts, and monsters represent the darker side of reality.
  • Flight represents freedom.
  • Weather illustrates a novel’s atmosphere and themes.
    • Rain represents cleansing, regeneration, or misery.
    • Fog represents confusion.
    • Snow represents inhospitality or coziness, depending on the story.
  • Seasons are symbols for a character’s age, his place in the cycle of life, or his emotional state.
    • Winter is the season of anger, unhappiness, old age, and death.
    • Spring is the season of naivety, possibility, birth, and childhood.
    • Summer is the season of love, passion, and adulthood.
    • Fall is the season of tiredness, reflection, personal harvest, and middle age.

Some symbols in literature are less commonly used, even unique to a particular novel or author. While it is more challenging to interpret the meaning of a symbol you’ve never seen before, you can still draw on your experiences with previous works of literature as a guide.

And symbols aren’t always objects. Some actions that are commonly used as symbols are:

  • Violence: Acts of violence in literature are always a symbol for some greater kind of personal or societal suffering.
  • Sex: Authors include sex scenes in a novel when they are trying to illuminate other themes, such as submission, rebellion, or fertility.

When interpreting symbols in literature, think of it as an imaginative and intellectual exercise. In order to read like a professor, you have to be able to look beyond the symbol and draw conclusions about how the themes of the novel could be represented there.

Example of Symbol: Passage to India

In E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, a progressive woman named Adela is taken on an outing to the Marabar Caves by an Indian man named Dr. Aziz. In the cave, Adela has a confusing experience. She runs out of the caves bruised and scared, feeling as though she’s been assaulted. She later discounts her own story, unable to be sure of what transpired in those caves.

The mysterious caves in the story are clearly symbols—but that’s the only thing that’s clear about them. Readers can infer a variety of meanings from the caves. Here are just a few:

  • Considering caves as the dwellings of our earliest ancestors, you might read the caves as a symbol of the most primitive elements of human nature. Maybe Adela was scared when confronted with the most basic element of her own nature.
  • Perhaps Forster was implying that every person’s cave is different. Throughout the beginning of the novel, the caves are only described very vaguely, as though they must be seen to be understood. The reader could interpret the caves as standing for our own, individual fears.
  • Adela’s cave could symbolize her fear of matrimony and sex. She is on the cusp of an arranged marriage and comes out of the cave feeling as though she has been assaulted. Perhaps this is a symbol of her feeling the marriage is being thrust on her.
  • The caves could be a racial or cultural symbol in some way.

A Passage to India is a great work of literature because of its networks of possible meanings and significance. The fact that every reader can bring his own experience to the book and come away with a different interpretation of the caves speaks to the power of its symbols.

Pattern

When you read to observe patterns, you recognize the similarities between life and books. You look beyond the plot to see how the drama and characters illustrate a truth of human experience.

One of the main benefits of the similarities and connections between literary works is the emergence of archetypes. “Archetype” really just means “pattern,” or the original on which that pattern was based.

Common archetypes and their associations:

  • The Quest
    • Any time a character goes on a trip and learns about herself along the way, that is a quest narrative.
  • Meals
    • Any time characters come together to share a meal, that is an act of communion.
  • Sacrifice of Secondary Characters
    • Many secondary characters or sidekicks die in the course of a story. This is a common pattern employed by authors to create the need for revenge.
  • Political and Social Criticism
    • Any story that includes a consideration of the class relations, power structures, sex and race relations, or ethical dilemmas of its time is a political criticism.
  • Baptism
    • Any time a character emerges from water in which they nearly drowned, it is a symbolic baptism. That character has been reborn with a new identity.
  • Injuries and Disabilities
    • Scars: Physical deformities are given to characters to mark them as different.
    • Blindness: If you see a blind character in a story, know that the author is alerting you to the theme of sight and blindness—insight and ignorance.
    • Disease: Authors give characters illnesses that symbolically highlight their own moral or emotional shortcomings.

Example of Pattern: The Crying of Lot 49

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon follows the pattern of a quest narrative. In the novel, a young woman named Oedipa travels from San Francisco to Southern California to execute the will of her former lover. Along the way, Oedipa meets a lot of strange and scary characters and ends up in a lot of dangerous situations. By the end, Oedipa has learned to rely on herself and trust...

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How to Read Literature Like a Professor Summary What It Means to Read Literature Like a Professor

A literature professor is always looking for meaning and significance beyond the text of a novel, poem, or play. Here’s an example:

In the play A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, the protagonist, Walter Lee Younger, moves his African American family into an all-white community. A white man named Mr. Linder comes to Walter with an offer: He wants to buy the Younger family out of their claim on the house. Although the offer is insulting, Walter Lee is forced to consider it. This is one of the play’s primary dramas.

Imagine you’ve just read the play. Would you be surprised to hear your literature professor say that Mr. Lindner is the devil? Would you have come to that conclusion on your own?

If not, that’s okay. That means that you, the student, and your professor have read the same story, but not in the same way. Your professor has had practice analyzing literature and finding its conventions and codes. She has the skills to remember instances of bargaining with the devil in other stories, and connect that pattern to Mr. Lindner through common plot devices and themes.

So what is the difference between reading like a student and reading like a professor?

Students:

  • Focus mostly on the plot and characters in a story.
  • Respond to the story first on an emotional level.

Professors:

  • Focus mostly on memory, symbol, and pattern in the story.
  • Accept the emotional response, but look deeper to find the universal truth displayed.

Memory, Symbol, and Pattern

Memory: When you read with a powerful memory, you actively look for how the text corresponds to other literary works. You mentally flip through the things you’ve read before and look for similarities (or differences) to the structure, theme, or characters of what you’re reading now.

  • Example: Watching Pale Rider starring Clint Eastwood might make you think of the movie Shane from 1953.

Symbol: When you read with a symbolic mind, you constantly look for metaphors and analogies. You not only see things for what they actually are, but also what they might represent.

  • Example: The monster in Beowulf is not only an actual monster, but also a representation of the dark side of human nature which can only be overcome by achieving a higher version of ourselves.

Pattern: When you read to observe patterns, you recognize the similarities between life and books. You look beyond the plot to see how the drama and characters illustrate a truth of human experience.

  • Non-literary example: A good car mechanic can use pattern recognition to diagnose a car. They can see that if these things are happening, it is probably caused by this. Then they know to check that.

The combination of using memory, identifying symbols, and recognizing patterns allows the reader to analyze literature in a new light. If you ignore memory, symbols, and patterns in literature, you will not be able to appreciate a book for everything that it says between the lines.

Non-literary Example of Memory, Symbol, and Pattern:

Imagine you meet a man who is very hostile towards his father, but gentle and loving towards his mother. You might not think much of it. But then, you meet three more men who show the same behavior. You have recognized a pattern.

Now, you might start to think of where you have seen behavior of this pattern before. Your memory calls to mind the story of Oedipus, who killed his father and married his mother. The men you met didn’t actually do those things, but your symbolic mind can draw the connection.

This is how Sigmund Freud came up with the term Oedipus complex. He “read” his clinical patients and interpreted their behavior patterns. Then, his memory and symbolic imagination corresponded their behavior to a drama he had read before. His psychoanalytical revelation mirrors the way that you will learn to read literature in this book.

By the end of this book, you will have

  • Learned the conventions of...

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How to Read Literature Like a Professor Summary Memory: Compare Texts

Readers who are new to literature might feel as though everything they read is new. But really, there is no such thing as a new story.

All literary works are alive and involved with each other like eels in a barrel. Each time a new eel is created, it squirms its way into the barrel. It is new, but it’s also an eel just like every other one that ever has been or ever will be in the barrel.

Just because an author can’t create anything purely original anymore, doesn’t mean that modern literature is derivative or unimportant. Rather, new literature gains significance from the harmony and dissonance it strikes with what came before.

Once you understand that all stories—no matter the genre—exist together as part of one big story, you can begin to see the patterns and recurrences between them. This is what critics call intertextuality. Authors use references and parallels to draw connections to previous literary works.

Intertextuality in literature deepens the meaning of the text by drawing on the reader’s expectations.

Example: Going After Cacciato

A great example of an author referencing previous literature is Tim O’Brien in his novel Going After Cacciato. The novel has three interwoven stories: one, the history of protagonist Paul Berlin’s war experiences; two, an imagined trip to Paris in search of their fellow soldier Cacciato; three, the present night in which Paul Berlin is remembering the first story and inventing the second.

Paul Berlin’s fantasy trip to Paris is made up of a bunch of stories, each based on or influenced by some novel, story, or historical figure from the past. Tim O’Brien, as the author, knows this. But Paul Berlin, the character, doesn’t. He is simply making up stories the way everyone else does—by drawing on other stories.

For example, in one part of Berlin’s fantasy, he and his squad fall down a hole in the road. They end up in an otherworldly network of tunnels. One character even states that they need to fall back up. As a reader, you are invited to relate this part of the story to when Alice falls down the rabbit hole in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

Now that you have made that connection, your reading of the story will be nuanced by that awareness. You might expect that the tunnels the characters find themselves in will be some kind of wonderland for them.

Analyze Intertextuality Like a Professor

Don’t worry if you aren’t able to catch allusions to intertextuality right away when reading literature. The worst thing that happens is you miss the references and enjoy a good story anyway.

It takes a lot of practice and knowledge of other books to begin to make connections and consciously look for layers beyond the text on the page. When you do, you will enrich your reading experience and give yourself the opportunity to see the way an author might play with your expectations based on literary references.

  • Example: In Wise Children, author Angela Carter uses the character Tiffany to subvert expectations and surprise the reader. First, Tiffany goes crazy and supposedly drowns. The reader might draw the conclusion that Tiffany represents Shakespeare’s Ophelia. But later, Tiffany comes back to teach her cheating lover a lesson. Now, the reader might think of Tiffany as more closely related to Shakespeare’s Hero character. Here, Carter uses intertextuality to delight and double-cross the reader.

Sacred Texts

In order to truly read literature like a professor, you need to be on the lookout for references to “sacred texts,” like Shakespeare, the Bible, classic fairy tales, and ancient myths.

Using recognizable themes or plots from these sacred texts gives the author the chance to use the reader’s associations to say more in their own work with fewer words. And for the reader, recognition of these references enhances the experience of current literature, because the modern stories share in the power of the sacred text.

Shakespeare

Authors in every time period have reinvented Shakespeare in their own works. You see Shakespeare’s plot devices, themes, and language adapted in plays, movies, and literature from every age.

For example, Jane Smiley’s novel A Thousand Acres is a rethinking of King Lear. Although the time and place are much different, the themes of greed, love, and misunderstanding are still the same.

There are some surface reasons that authors choose to use Shakespeare for inspiration:

  1. His plays are great—from the characters to the plots.
  2. The language is astounding—from the grandiose speeches to the witty dialogue.
  3. His work has taken on the quality of a sacred text—it has authority.
  4. Using Shakespeare references proves that the author has read Shakespeare, and catching the references makes readers feel accomplished.

However, the use of Shakespeare goes beyond the surface in some ways as well, making his intertextual references deeper than many others. Shakespeare’s work provides a source against which writers can challenge ideas and struggle through timeless questions. The new literature has a chance to have a say in the dialogue opened up in Shakespeare’s classics.

  • Example: Athol Fugard’s play “Master Harold” … and the Boys uses Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II as a device. In Shakespeare’s classic, Prince Hal must grow up and become King Henry. To do this, he has to turn his back on an old friend. Fugard’s plot is similar. In an effort to assume responsibility, Master Harold must turn away his black friends. Fugard invites his audience to question whether choosing to regress toward racism is really the mark of growing up. He challenges Shakespeare’s values, and gives the audience the chance to do the same.

Authors know that Shakespeare is the most well-known writer in history, so they rely on a reader’s awareness of Shakespeare to deepen the meaning of their own work. This allows reading to be a creative...

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Shortform Exercise: Draw on Your Literary Memory

When you read a novel or watch a film, you want to keep your eyes open for any references to or adaptations of the sacred texts. Practice looking for intertextual references of Shakespeare’s classics.


In the musical film West Side Story, two New York City street gangs are in conflict. The Jets are led by Riff after Tony leaves the gang, and The Sharks are led by Bernardo. One night, Tony and Bernardo’s sister, Maria, meet at a dance and fall in love. Both The Sharks and The Jets are furious, and the conflict reaches a boiling point. Just before Tony and Maria are able to run away together, Tony is shot and killed. Maria holds him in her arms as he dies. The tragedy of Tony’s death is enough to end the conflict between the rival gangs.

This is a musical adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s classic plays. Write down which one you think it might be.

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How to Read Literature Like a Professor Summary Symbols Part I: Recognize and Interpret Metaphor

Even readers who are new to literature usually know to ask themselves, “Is this a symbol?” The next question they might ask is, “what does it mean?”

One problem with symbols is that they can mean so many different things to different readers. In fact, it is the mark of a great piece of literature when readers and scholars can come to different, even conflicting, interpretations.

(The exception to this rule is allegory. Allegories convey a particular message by associating a symbol with one specific meaning.

  • Example: Paul Bunyon’s The Pilgrim’s Process is an allegory in which the main character, Christian, is traveling to the Celestial City. This is meant to directly convey the devout Christian getting to heaven. There is no ambiguity that allows for a different understanding of the story.)

Another problem with symbols is that different authors can use the same symbol in many different ways. For example, let’s look at three different rivers from three different authors:

  1. Mark Twain uses the Mississippi River in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to symbolize both danger and safety. Although Huck and Jim are mostly safe from the dangers they flee on land, they also battle the dangers of river travel.
  2. Hart Crane uses American rivers in his poem The Bridge to symbolize connectivity. Although rivers cut off two pieces of land horizontally, they also connect other lands vertically.
  3. T.S. Eliot uses the River Thames in The Wasteland to symbolize the decay of modern life in Western culture.

The final problem with symbols is that they aren’t always objects. Actions can also be used as symbols. For example, Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” is literally about deciding between two paths. But it has become a universally used graduation poem because it can symbolize choosing your direction in life.

When interpreting symbols in literature, think of it as an imaginative and intellectual exercise. You should actively bring yourself to the encounter with the text. Use your instincts about how the text makes you feel, and don’t be afraid to use those feelings to infer meaning from symbols. Associate the symbol with everything you can, then toss out the associations that don’t seem to apply.

Remember: A symbol’s literal meaning within the narrative will always be its primary purpose. The metaphorical meaning is secondary to that. If a novel is unsuccessful at telling the story, no amount of symbolism will change that. On the other hand, if a novel presents a great story and a variety of figurative symbols and imagery, that is the sign of a great piece of literature.

Example: A Passage to India

In E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, a progressive woman named Adela is taken on an outing to the Marabar Caves by an Indian man named Dr. Aziz. In the cave, Adela has a confusing experience. She runs out of the caves bruised and scared, feeling as though she’s been assaulted. She later discounts her own story, unable to be sure of what transpired in those caves.

The mysterious caves in the story are clearly symbols—but that’s the only thing that’s clear about them. Readers can infer a variety of meanings from the caves. Here are just a few:

  • Considering caves as the dwellings of our earliest ancestors, you might read the caves as a symbol of the most primitive elements of human nature. Maybe Adela was scared when confronted with the most basic element of her own nature.
  • Perhaps Forster was implying that every person’s cave is different. Throughout the beginning of the novel, the caves are only described very vaguely, as though they must be seen to be understood. The reader could interpret the caves as standing for our own, individual fears.
  • Adela’s cave could symbolize her fear of matrimony and sex. She is on the cusp of an arranged marriage and comes out of the cave feeling as though she has been assaulted. Perhaps this is a symbol of her feeling the marriage is being thrust on her.
  • The caves could be a racial or cultural symbol in some way.

A Passage to India is a great work of literature because of its networks of possible meanings and significance. The fact that every reader can bring his own experience to the book and come away with a different interpretation of the caves speaks to the power of its symbols.

Vampires, Ghosts, and Other Exploitative Characters

In literature, scary characters like vampires and ghosts are almost always a symbolic representation of the darker side of our reality.

Think about Dracula: An old, dangerous, alluring man who preys on beautiful, unmarried women. When he finds a victim, he uses her life force to become younger and more alive. Read that way, it seems that Count Dracula is about a lot more than just a cheap scare.

Beyond the literal interpretation of vampirism (sucking blood and the rest), vampirism should be read symbolically to mean exploitation of others, seduction, and a lack of respect for others’ autonomy.

Similarly, literary ghosts are always about more than scaring the reader. Often, they are meant to present a lesson. For example, in A Christmas Carol, Marley’s ghost is there to teach Scrooge about ethics.

Doppelgangers and evil twins are scary, of course. But they also show the dual nature of humans, like Dr. Jekyll’s other half, Hyde. Even a respectable doctor has a dark side that is capable of evil.

The Victorian era of literature was particularly full of vampire and ghost stories because mythical characters were a convenient way to write about subjects that were considered taboo at the time—like sex. Victorian authors translated these taboo subjects into symbolic forms, like vampires, to avoid censorship issues. Can you see how a man sucking the blood of a woman might be representative of a sexual encounter?

Even today, writers use scary things to symbolize the dark side of human nature and experience. But **the difficult...

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How to Read Literature Like a Professor Summary Symbols Part II: The Symbolic Significance of Setting

Every good story needs a setting, the time and place in which the story takes place. In literature, the setting is not only the backdrop for the story but an integral part of the story itself. The setting of a particular story informs the mood of the story, the attitude of the characters, and the presentation of the themes.

Weather

When you begin reading a poem or a novel, take notice right away of any weather that is mentioned. Weather is never only about weather in a piece of literature.

Weather can also act as:

  • Plot device: The weather can force characters to do something, such as come together to get out of the rain.
  • Atmosphere enhancement: The mood of the story is indicated by the weather conditions.
  • Democratic element: All characters, just or unjust, are affected equally by the weather.

The most popular weather condition employed by authors in literature is rain. Rain has many associations that you should be aware of as a reader:

  • Drowning: Humans are land creatures, and as such have a fear of drowning. When an author employs rain in association with flooding or drowning, she speaks to the reader’s primal fear.
  • Misery: For an author, having characters stuck in the rain is a great way to make them even more miserable than they already were.
  • Cleansing: When a character walks through the rain, it is usually a symbol that they are being cleansed.
    • Example: In Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Hagar goes to shops and salons in an effort to fit the “white” ideal of beauty. On the way home, she gets caught in the rain, ruining her new clothes and hairstyle. She has been symbolically cleansed of her false standards of beauty.
  • Mud: Just as rain can cleanse, it can also create mud that leaves you literally or metaphorically stained.
  • Restoration: Rain can bring nature back to life and restore new growth.
  • Rainbows: Rainbows symbolize a divine peace—a harmony between God, people, and nature.

Of course, other weather has associations, too.

  • Fog is a symbol of confusion. When an author puts fog over a scene, it shows that things are ethically, mentally, or emotionally murky.
  • Snow can symbolize inhospitality, starkness, severity. On the other hand, snow is sometimes used to invoke playful, warm, and cozy images.

There are too many possibilities for weather to cover in one book. The most important thing is to learn to see weather as something to analyze as a purposeful choice on the part of the author.

Geography

Every time an author sits down to write a story, one of the first questions he asks himself is where will this story take place? An intelligent reader will recognize the geography of a novel as a conscious choice on the author’s part to deepen the story’s meaning.

In literature, geography is not only about the earth’s physical features, like hills, rivers, and seas. Literary geography is about the ways in which a specific place forges the people who live there.

Geography informs a novel’s:

  • Atmosphere
    • Example: In Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the narrator describes the geography of the landscape in detail before ever getting to the house or the characters. By illustrating the dreary geography, he sets the mood of the story before it even begins.
  • Character development
    • Example: In Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees, the main character moves from her small hometown to the vast West coast. Her nature is reflected by this move—she opens her mind to new people and experiences and embraces personal growth.
  • Plot
    • Example: In E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View, the protagonist, Lucy, travels to Florence, where she falls in love and sheds off the societal stiffness she is used to. Forster’s use of geographic change is the prompt for the novel’s plot.

Characters go traveling in a lot of literary works, and often they travel south. There are a couple of different thematic elements you should look for in a novel when a character goes south:

  1. Moving geographically south can be a symbol for going deep into the psyche. In “the south” (meaning any place south of where the character started), characters encounter new political ideas or philosophical viewpoints. Often the author is suggesting that those ideas were there all along, in the character’s subconscious.
  2. Writers send characters south so that they can get into trouble. Whether the consequences are tragic or comic, the warmer climate and wider horizons associated with “the south” allow characters more room to run amok.

Hills and valleys are another form of geography that have somewhat specific thematic implications.

  • Valleys and low land are associated with crowds, shadows, unpleasantness, swamps, and heat.
  • Hills and high places are used to signify snow, ice, clean air, good views, and isolation.

As a reader, you should also consider an author’s personal geography when reading their work. For example, poet Theodore Roethke was largely influenced by his background in the Midwest. To truly understand and appreciate his poetry, the reader should understand how that midwesterness influenced his thematic concerns and artistic voice.

Season

Many authors of literary works have used seasons symbolically to enhance the reader’s sense of themes and characters. Over the course of literary history, the seasons have been used so often and so consistently that each season carries ingrained meanings and associations.

Autumn:

  • Middle-age
  • Harvest
  • Reflection
  • Tiredness
    • Example: In Robert Frost’s “After Apple Picking,” the speaker is tired after bringing in a huge harvest. This is inherently autumnal: as we reap the rewards of our efforts, we also reflect on the energy we’ve used and the time that has passed.

Winter:

  • Old age
  • ...

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Shortform Exercise: Recognize and Interpret Symbols

Geography influences a novel’s atmosphere, characters, and plot. Practice using the analytical skills you’ve learned in this chapter to analyze geographical symbols.


In Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a young boy, Huck, and an escaped slave, Jim, travel down the Mississippi River on a raft.

In what ways is traveling into the Deep South thematically relevant for Huck and, especially, Jim?

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How to Read Literature Like a Professor Summary Symbols Part III: Actions as Symbols

For most readers, recognizing objects as symbols comes easy, but it can be quite difficult to understand that actions can act as symbols, too.

Authors choose the actions that happen in a narrative carefully—each action must serve the plot in a novel, but some will also illuminate larger themes.

Violence

Violence is prevalent in literature, but it is important to know that acts of violence are always a symbol for some greater kind of suffering. The range of possibilities for what that suffering might be is too large to generalize. The answer might be psychological, spiritual, historical, social, or political.

  • The exception to this rule is mystery novels. In a mystery, the murder is clear-cut because the complexities lie in the uncovering of the truth.

In literary violence, the complexities lie in the significance or thematic meaning of the violence itself.

There are two kinds of violence in literature:

  1. A specific harm that characters inflict on each other or themselves
  2. General harm that is caused by the author as part of the narrative

The only real difference between these two kinds of literary violence is that in the second type, there is no guilty party other than the author. Even an “accidental” act of violence in a novel has been carefully planned by the author, with a specific purpose in mind.

Whether violence is inflicted by a character within the story or the author crafting the story, the reader should look carefully at what the violence might signify beyond the specific harm done to the specific character.

Go Down, Moses

William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses is a great example of violence as metaphor in literature. In it, character Ike McCaslin finds out that his grandfather had a daughter by one of his slaves, Eunice. Years later, completely blind to the wrongness of his actions, the grandfather also gets his daughter Tomasina pregnant. Eunice responds by killing herself.

As a reader, of course, we see Eunice’s violence toward herself as a literal act of personal despair. But Faulkner also challenges us to see it as a powerful metaphor for the lack of humanity in slavery. Eunice has no control over her own life or the life she brings into the world. The only choice she is given is the choice to die.

The title Go Down, Moses helps the reader grasp this metaphor. In the Bible, Moses is asked to “go down” and “set my people free” from Egypt. In the story, no one appears to go down and set Eunice free. Therefore, she has to set herself free in the only way she’s able.

Sex

In literature, sex and sexuality are used symbolically in two different ways:

  1. Encoded sex: The author uses symbolic imagery to imply sex in a scene, but the reader never sees the sexual act take place.
  2. Explicit sex: The author uses a sex scene to symbolize a larger theme in the story.

Encoded Sex

Sex is often disguised in literature and in film. At first, the primary reason for sexual symbolism was censorship. Artists were not allowed to depict sex on the page or on screen, so they had to find other ways of getting the point across.

  • Example: In the film North by Northwest, Cary Grant kills the villain and saves Eva Saint from falling off a rock cliff. The scene then cuts to a sleeping compartment on a train, where Grant is pulling Saint up into the bed. The next shot, which ends the film, is of a train entering a tunnel. This is an example of sexual symbolism.

Once Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900, literature began to change. Suddenly, writers began to realize that they could encode sex into their work. And readers learned that sex might be encoded into their reading, as well.

  • Example: In Ann Beattie’s “Janice,” a young woman named Andrea has an affair. Her lover buys her a bowl, which she begins to obsess over. For some reason, she will not allow her husband to put his keys in her bowl. This is an example of a sexually coded image. Andrea’s bowl represents her identity as a sexual woman. It was gifted to her by a lover. Now, Andrea can’t allow her husband’s keys to enter her bowl. Keys, too, are a common sexual symbol for male sexuality, especially when associated with a lock.

Even in our age of explicit sexuality, readers should be on the lookout for images and scenes that evoke sex and sexuality, even in things as common as keys in a bowl.

Explicit Sex

Censorship ended in the United States in 1959. Less than a century later, most sexual writing has become either cliché or pornographic. So authors only include sex scenes in a novel as a literary device, when they are trying to illuminate other themes, as well.

When analyzing a sex scene, you really can’t go wrong. Just like in life, sex can mean many things and have many consequences, such as

  • Passion
  • Submission
  • Rebellion
  • Resignation
  • Domination
  • Enlightenment
  • Childbearing
Examples:

In John Fowle’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the character Charles is a young man who is about to enter into an arranged marriage, which he dreads. One night, he finds himself in the hotel room of a woman named Sarah, who is not his intended. He carries her to the bed and “ninety seconds” later, they have made love. For Charles, Sarah is not just a woman, she is all the possibilities that he is giving up in life by getting married. Charles is only given a short chance to explore those options, literally and metaphorically.

In Henry Miller’s novels, there are a lot of explicit sexual scenes. Miller uses these sex scenes to celebrate his freedom from censorship and claim his freedom as a writer.

In...

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How to Read Literature Like a Professor Summary Patterns Part I: Know the Archetypes, Find Them Everywhere

We’ve already covered this notion, but it is worth saying again: All literature exists as part of one big story. Nothing is really new. Although every piece of literature is different, it still interacts with every written work that came before it. In fact, even if an author attempts to avoid referencing any other novels, that avoidance is an interaction in itself.

  • Example: Imagine you are directing a western movie. If your hero is the silent type, he will remind the audience of John Wayne. If he’s a big talker, he’s more of a James Garner-type. If you have one of each, your movie will be reminiscent of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

One of the main benefits of the one big story is the emergence of archetypes. “Archetype” really just means “pattern,” or the original on which that pattern was based. No one knows the original use of archetypes, just like no one knows exactly where ancient myths began. They predate written history.

It doesn’t really matter where they come from, when they began, or how often they’re used. Archetypes grow in strength with each use in literature. They create an aha! moment for the reader—a satisfying moment when we recognize a pattern between what we’re reading now and what we’ve read before.

Archetypes and common patterns are always with us, because they’ve been a part of our collective consciousness for so long. They help writers and readers understand each other because we share knowledge of these archetypes and their role in the one big story.

Trips and Quests

Anytime a character begins a trip, you should be on the lookout for a quest narrative. This is one type of archetype.

Example: In The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon, a young woman named Oedipa travels from San Francisco to Southern California to execute the will of her former lover. Along the way, Oedipa meets a lot of strange and scary characters and ends up in a lot of dangerous situations. By the end, Oedipa has learned to rely on herself and trust her own self-knowledge.

In this novel, Thomas Pynchon presents an example of a classic quest narrative.

Structurally, every quest consists of

  • A quester: In this case, Oedipa, a young woman with many problems in her life
  • A place to go: San Francisco
  • A stated reason to go there: To execute a will
  • Challenges along the way: Oedipa goes through a nightlong exploration, a dangerous visit to her therapist’s office, and a mysterious postal conspiracy
  • The real mission: The real reason behind any quest is the search for self-knowledge

The stated reason to go on a quest is often in search of a “holy grail.” This can be as simple as going to the store to get a loaf of bread. Throughout the quest, the stated goal falls away and the real mission is revealed: the character learns about himself.

Questers are often young, inexperienced characters. This is because older characters would either already have self-knowledge or be too late to ever get it. In comparison, young characters have a lot of learning and development left to do.

(Shortform note: For more on the quest archetype and the hero’s journey, read our summary of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.)

Shared Meals and Communions

Whenever literary characters share a meal together, it is an act of communion. The act of communion is another archetype.

Consider writing a meal scene. It is very difficult, because eating is boring and food has been described a million ways before. So, if an author includes a meal scene in a literary work, there is almost always a compelling reason for doing so—to symbolize a communion between characters.

Although the word “communion” has religious connotations, it is important to realize that not all communion is a religious or holy experience. Rather, breaking bread together is a symbolic way of expressing, “I am here with you because I like you and want to create a community.” That is the kind of communion we are talking about.

  • Example: Think of scenes where soldiers share rations together as comrades or a little boy shares scraps of food with a stray dog. The reader gets a sense of loyalty and companionship.

In contrast, some meal scenes relay the opposite message. In these cases, the failed meal is a symbol of bad relationships or negative feelings.

  • Example: Imagine a mafia don who brings his enemies together for a meal, only to have them killed. The assumption that one should be kind to his dinner guests is violated here, and the mafia don is presented as an evil character.

Example: James Joyce’s “The Dead”

The story “The Dead” by James Joyce is a great example of the full effect of a meal scene as communion. The story centers around a dinner party. At this party is a man named Gabriel Conroy, who thinks he is superior to all the other guests at the table. Over the course of the meal, there are many moments of tension that shock Gabriel’s ego and show him that he is just one of the group. As Gabriel puts his ego in check, he is able to share a meal with his fellow guests and make a speech of gratitude at the end. The reader is part of Gabriel’s evolution from self-made outsider to grateful sharer of the meal.

James Joyce’s illustration of the meal itself mirrors the plot of the story. He puts great detail into bringing the meal to life for the reader. In this way, he asks the reader to pull up a chair and join the party closely. Joyce describes the food on the table as though describing armies in rank for battle. This conveys a sense of conflict to mimic the tensions in the conversation at the table.

Secondary and Minor Characters

Minor characters may also be archetypical. A story’s plot is intimately connected with its characters.

There is a cyclical way of looking at it: **The plot is driven by the nature of the character, and the nature...

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Shortform Exercise: Identify the Quest Archetype

Every quest narrative includes a quester, a place to go, a stated reason to go there, challenges along the way, and a real mission that reveals itself in time. Practice identifying these elements in a story.


One day, a young boy named Kip agrees to go to the grocery store to buy a loaf of bread for his mom. He chooses to ride his old, one-speed bicycle, of which he is deeply ashamed. When he gets to the store, he is humiliated to see the girl he loves, Karen, in the parking lot. She’s hanging out with a guy named Tony, who has an expensive sports car. Moments later, in the bread aisle, Tony decides to enlist for the military. He has learned his lesson: that he’ll never get what he wants in this town, where people only care about how much money your family has.

In the box below, identify the following elements in this quest narrative: The quester, the place to go, the reason to go there, the obstacles faced, and the self-knowledge acquired:

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How to Read Literature Like a Professor Summary Patterns Part II: The Injured Character Archetype

In life, physical deformities, illnesses, and handicaps are simply that. In literature, however, authors use maladies like scars, diseases, and blindness to enhance the themes at issue in their work.

Scars and Disabilities

You should see physical imperfections in literature in symbolic terms to classify a character as different. When you read of a character with a physical marking or handicap in a novel, know that the author means to call attention to the nature of the character or a thematic concern of the novel.

In Elizabethan literature, physical deformity was equated with moral or spiritual depravity. As politically incorrect as it might seem now, a character with a handicap was a sign of God’s displeasure in an Elizabethan novel.

  • Example: Shakespeare’s Richard III had scoliosis, an external symbol of his morally twisted ways.

Things have changed in modern literature. Not all physical maladies should be read as a representation of moral shortcomings. Instead, you should see physical markings as:

  • Indication of the damage the character has endured in life
    • Example: In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Sethe’s back is covered in a network of scars from being whipped in slavery. The scars on her back are a visual representation of the terrors she has been through.
  • Differentiation or identification of character
    • In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, the audience knows that Oedipus has wounded feet from being bound as a baby. In the play, Oedipus is ignorant of his own identity, but his scars differentiate him to the audience right away. It is not until much later that the scars help him prove his identity within the play’s narrative.
  • Physical representations of a theme
    • In Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, the character Jake Barnes has a physical mutilation from the war. Although it is never described directly, the reader comes to find out that he has lost his genitals. Hemingway uses Jake’s injury to symbolize the destruction of war—the destruction of life and reproductive possibility.

Blindness

Writing a blind character into a story comes with a lot of complications to the author—such as how the character will move around and be a part of the narrative. For that reason, when you see blindness in a novel, take notice. A blind character is a sign that themes of metaphorical blindness, sight, or insight will be issues in the work.

Many novels have themes of blindness versus sight, but not all of them have a blind character. So why do some authors feel the need to add a blind character into their writing? Simply put, to make the theme more obvious for the reader.

Once you see a blind character in a novel, you’ll instinctively look out for metaphorical blindness, as well. As a result, you’ll be more observant of the language and imagery that the author uses to depict that theme throughout the story.

  • Example: In James Joyce’s Araby, the very first sentence contains the word “blind.” That alerts the reader to be on the lookout for other references to blindness versus sight. Throughout the story, the main character is using his sight in different ways: peeking out from behind “blinds,” being “blinded” by his own tears, and mentally envisioning himself as a hero.

Without a direct mention of blindness in a story, readers might not know the right questions to ask while reading—like why is the author making use of language related to sight and blindness? By making the theme more obvious with the use of a blind character, the author is guiding the reader on how to read the novel.

Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex

For example, in Oedipus Rex, the title character kills his father and marries his mother. Because Oedipus is blind to his own identity, he is blind to his crimes—he even volunteers to hunt down the criminal. He summons someone to come in and help him shed light on the mystery. And when this information specialist arrives, we see that the specialist is literally blind.

While it is the information specialist that lacks sight in the literal sense, it is Oedipus who is figuratively blind to his own circumstances. When the truth finally comes to light (another use of language that suggests sight in the metaphorical sense), Oedipus is so distraught that he blinds himself.

In Sophocles' later work Oedipus at Colonus, we see that Oedipus has suffered through his blindness for years. But he has come to earn favor in the eyes of the gods, and he dies a respectable death. Finally, Oedipus has developed a kind of vision that he never had while he actually had use of his eyes.

Heart Disease and Illness

When reading a novel, take note of any illnesses given to the characters. The author has chosen to give the character an illness for a particular purpose, and often the kind of illness is a good indicator as to what that purpose is.

Most authors are interested in exploring the humanity of their characters, and a physical illness can be a telling symbol to signify a character’s internal shortcomings.

Here are the principles that govern the use of symbolic disease in literature:

  1. Some diseases are less useful than others.
    • Example: Syphilis was a common disease in the late nineteenth century, but it didn’t show up in many works of literature because of its negative connotations. Victorian sensibilities did not allow for the use of disease with such taboo origins.
  2. The disease should be picturesque.
    • Even though consumption, or tuberculosis, was a terrible illness, it was a common choice among authors because of its presentation. The sufferer becomes pale with dark eye sockets, the way a martyr would be painted in medieval times.
  3. The disease should be mysterious.
    • In the Victorian age of literature, diseases like consumption could spread through whole families without anyone knowing how it was passed on. This gave illness and...

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How to Read Literature Like a Professor Summary Advice for Readers

Irony Changes Everything

An intelligent reader will always be on the lookout for irony in literature—when an author plays against expectations. When irony is in play in a novel, every other chapter in this book is irrelevant, because the author will invert the typical meanings of symbols and archetypes.

Some modern writers, like James Joyce and Angela Carter, deal almost exclusively with irony. So as you become more familiar with their work, you will be ready for them to go against your conventional expectations. But how can you spot irony in other works of literature?

If there is a disconnect between your expectation of a story and the reality of how it plays out, it is most likely ironic. The conversation between the expectation and reality deepens the meaning of the work.

Think of irony like jazz music. Before a soloist takes off on a jazzy improvisation, he begins by playing the melody straight. That way, when he starts riffing on that melody, the audience can hear how his changes enhance and play against the basic melody. That kind of dual hearing is what irony does in literature. Our expectations are the melody, and the irony is the solo.

Some kinds of irony in literature:

  • Verbal irony: When a character says something that means something else (sort of like sarcasm).
    • Example: In Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, a character observes that a widow’s hair is “quite gold from grief.” This is ironic because normally we would expect someone who is grieving to grow gray hair.
  • Ironic mode: The characters have less free will or knowledge than the reader does. In most literary works, characters are equal to the audience in terms of autonomy and knowledge. But in ironic mode, characters struggle against conflicts that the reader could easily overcome.
  • Structural or dramatic irony: The author goes against the reader’s expectations of the plot or the overall structure of a story.
    • Example: In Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, two characters stand by the side of a road for the entire play. As we know, roads are normally associated with trips, and trips normally suggest a quest. But Beckett’s characters never go anywhere and the road never brings anything to them, either. Because Beckett knows the reader’s expectations of a road, he has the freedom to do the opposite and create irony.

Read With an Open Mind

In order to read like a professor, you’ll have to learn to read without your own biases and the fixed position of being you in the year that you are in. Instead, you should try to read every novel as it was intended to be read.

As a reader, you should remain open-minded enough that you can sympathize with the historical moment in which a novel was written. And sometimes the social, historical, or cultural background of that novel will clash with what you know or feel to be true.

For example, Greek epics have many unsympathetic qualities, like concubines and violent slaughter. But there are plenty of valuable lessons to learn from these works if you can read like a citizen of ancient Greece and put those things aside.

Unfortunately, some literature will have racist undertones or sexist remarks. And sometimes, you will want to reject those works rather than try to sympathize with the author. That is your prerogative as a reader. However, you should always give the novel a chance with an open mind before you decide to reject it.

Example: “Sonny’s Blues”

At the end of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” the main character shows forgiveness and understanding to his brother, a reformed drug addict, by sending him a drink. Today, many readers know that alcohol can be dangerous to a recovering addict. But in 1957 when the story was written, that information was not widely known. And more importantly, it isn’t helpful in understanding the story.

“Sonny’s Blues” is a story about the main character’s redemption, not Sonny’s. And as the reader, if you can’t differentiate your own knowledge about addiction from what was known at the time, you risk missing the touching message at the end of the story.

There’s No Such Thing as Being “Right”

So far in this book, we’ve learned to find and interpret symbols, allusions, and more. But a lot of readers wonder—did the author really intend to put all of those things in their text?

The truth is that (with the exception of some authors who have actually talked or written about their work) there’s really no way to know for sure.

Many modern writers, such as James Joyce and T.S. Eliot, employ their symbols and references so intentionally that we can confidently say that they mean every inference that the reader can find. Their use of mythic structures is so complex that we know it can’t be spontaneous.

Before 1900, almost all writers would have received some amount of classical education. And their readers would, too—even more than the average reader today. So it is fair to assume that references to Shakespeare and other classic works were fairly deliberate.

We must also remember that an author spends a lot of time composing their novel, which gives them plenty of time to consider every angle and bring in a great deal of related material.

That said, a reader’s obligation should not be to the author of a particular work but to the text itself. If you...

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How to Read Literature Like a Professor Summary Your Turn to Read Like a Professor

On your own time, read the story “The Garden Party” by Katherine Mansfield.

(Shortform note: You can find the story online for free here.)

When you’ve finished the story, answer the questions below. Read carefully and practice all of the strategies for interpretation that you’ve learned from this book. Write or type your answers to stay accountable, and don’t look at any other sources for help.

  1. What does the story signify? That is, what do you interpret as the story’s meaning?
  2. Why do you think that? What elements of the story gave you that interpretation?

Once you’ve answered the questions for yourself, compare your own answers with some of these other interpretations:

  • The story is about the indifference of the family in the story to the working class living down the hill.
  • The story is about the young girl’s guilt over having a party while others mourn, and the indifference of the upper class to the struggle of others.
  • The story uses the metaphor of birds and flight as a means of showing the family as insulated from the lower class. One character is described as a butterfly and the party guests are described as birds. The family home is similar to an aerie up high on the hill. Throughout the story, the main character is trying her wings and gaining some independence, but ultimately chooses to stay in her lofty moral high ground.

If your responses were anything like these interpretations, you should give yourself a good grade. Here is another, more in-depth interpretation of the story:

When Laura goes down the hill to visit the house of the dead man, she has actually gone into Hades. Laura is a representation of the mythical character Persephone.

That makes Mrs. Sheridan, Laura’s mother, a representation of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and fertility. The proof? Throughout the story, Mrs. Sheridan has a fascination with flowers and her children.

Laura’s adventure down the hill mirrors Persephone’s trip to Hades in many ways:

  • When Laura crosses the broad road at the bottom of the hill, it is reminiscent of crossing the River Styx into Hades.
  • Hades has a three-headed dog at the gate, and Laura meets a dog at the gate in front of the dead man’s house.
  • The Golden Bough, which is the admission ticket into Hades in the myth, is replaced by the gold daisies on Laura’s hat.
  • In the myth, Persephone comes across a woman named Sibyl, who has a cave full of written oracles. In Mansfield’s story, Laura meets an old woman who has newspapers at her feet.
  • Laura’s brother, Laurie, is a representation of Hermes from the myth. In the myth, Hermes escorts Persephone out of Hades in a chariot. In this story, Laurie comes to pick up Laura from the dead man’s house.
  • Theme: The myth of Persephone is about a young woman acquiring knowledge of death. The same could certainly be said about...

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Table of Contents

  • 1-Page Summary
  • What It Means to Read Literature Like a Professor
  • Memory: Compare Texts
  • Exercise: Draw on Your Literary Memory
  • Symbols Part I: Recognize and Interpret Metaphor
  • Symbols Part II: The Symbolic Significance of Setting
  • Exercise: Recognize and Interpret Symbols
  • Symbols Part III: Actions as Symbols
  • Patterns Part I: Know the Archetypes, Find Them Everywhere
  • Exercise: Identify the Quest Archetype
  • Patterns Part II: The Injured Character Archetype
  • Advice for Readers
  • Your Turn to Read Like a Professor