How to Read Literature Like a Professor: Baptism

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "How to Read Literature Like a Professor" by Thomas C. Foster. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What does How to Read Literature Like a Professor say about baptism? What is a symbolic baptism?

A baptism in literature doesn’t always have to be religious. A literary baptism is when a character escapes a watery death and reforms their life as a result. How they escaped drowning is an important part of the character development.

Keep reading to learn what How to Read Literature Like a Professor has to say about baptism.

Baptisms in Literature

In How to Read Literature Like a Professor, baptisms are important symbols. When a character drowns or nearly drowns, it’s more than just a solution to a plot difficulty. The difference between death and rescue in a drowning scene means a lot to the character, as well as the story. When a character emerges from the water in which they almost drowned, that’s a baptism

Just like communion, it’s important not to think of baptism in terms of the religious practice. Instead, think of baptism as any death and rebirth that happens in water. The rebirth is both literal (the character survived a deadly situation) and symbolic (the character is given a new life). 

Another important characteristic of baptism is that the character has to receive it. The character has to change or reform as a result of their new chance at life

The means of rescue from the water is significant to the meaning of the symbol, as well. Did the character swim out herself? Did she grab onto something floating in the water? That could be the difference between a character with a strong will to change, or a character with good luck. Either should impact the reader’s understanding of a story. 

Example: Ordinary People 

In Judith Guest’s Ordinary People, two brothers sail out onto Lake Michigan. When they get caught in a storm, the older brother drowns while the younger, Conrad, survives. 

After this event, Conrad has to come to terms with his survival. He has to develop a new identity for himself since he is no longer just the younger, insecure brother of a great athlete. That version of Conrad dies with his brother, and it’s a new Conrad that comes back to land. Throughout the novel, Conrad faces his new reality and finds his new place in the world. 

This is a clear example of a symbolic baptism: Conrad is reborn when he survives the storm. 

How to Read Literature Like a Professor: Baptism

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  • How to get more out of the novels that you read
  • Why you should focus on memory, symbols, and patterns to understand literature better
  • Why sex scenes aren't always about sex

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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