AP English Literature » Foster's How to Read Literature Like a Professor|
Foster's How to Read Literature Like a Professor
Essential Question: Do Literature teachers just make this stuff up?
Objectives: 1. Students will be able to readily apply literary devices and writing techniques to literary analyses.
Notes from Online: 1. Every Trip is a Quest (except when it’s not):
a. A quester
b. A place to go
c. A stated reason to go there
d. Challenges and trials
e. The real reason to go—always self-knowledge
2. Nice to Eat With You: Acts of Communion
a. Whenever people eat or drink together, it’s communion
b. Not usually religious
c. An act of sharing and peace
d. A failed meal carries negative connotations
3. Nice to Eat You: Acts of Vampires
a. Literal Vampirism: Nasty old man, attractive but evil, violates a young
woman, leaves his mark, takes her innocence
b. Sexual implications—a trait of 19th century literature to address sex indirectly
c. Symbolic Vampirism: selfishness, exploitation, refusal to respect the
autonomy of other people, using people to get what we want, placing our
desires, particularly ugly ones, above the needs of another.
4. If It’s Square, It’s a Sonnet
5. Now, Where Have I Seen Her Before?
a. There is no such thing as a wholly original work of literature—stories grow
out of other stories, poems out of other poems.
b. There is only one story—of humanity and human nature, endlessly repeated
c. “Intertexuality”—recognizing the connections between one story and another
deepens our appreciation and experience, brings multiple layers of meaning to
the text, which we may not be conscious of. The more consciously aware we
are, the more alive the text becomes to us.
d. If you don’t recognize the correspondences, it’s ok. If a story is no good,
being based on Hamlet won’t save it.
6. When in Doubt, It’s from Shakespeare…
a. Writers use what is common in a culture as a kind of shorthand. Shakespeare
is pervasive, so he is frequently echoed.
b. See plays as a pattern, either in plot or theme or both. Examples:
i. Hamlet: heroic character, revenge, indecision, melancholy nature
ii. Henry IV—a young man who must grow up to become king, take on
iv. Merchant of Venice—justice vs. mercy
v. King Lear—aging parent, greedy children, a wise fool
7. …Or the Bible
a. Before the mid 20th century, writers could count on people being very familiar
with Biblical stories, a common touchstone a writer can tap
b. Common Biblical stories with symbolic implications
i. Garden of Eden: women tempting men and causing their fall, the apple
as symbolic of an object of temptation, a serpent who tempts men to
do evil, and a fall from innocence
ii. David and Goliath—overcoming overwhelming odds
iii. Jonah and the Whale—refusing to face a task and being “eaten” or
overwhelmed by it anyway.
iv. Job: facing disasters not of the character’s making and not the
character’s fault, suffers as a result, but remains steadfast
v. The Flood: rain as a form of destruction; rainbow as a promise of
vi. Christ figures (a later chapter): in 20th century, often used ironically
vii. The Apocalypse—Four Horseman of the Apocalypse usher in the end
of the world.
viii. Biblical names often draw a connection between literary character and
8. Hanseldee and Greteldum--using fairy tales and kid lit
a. Hansel and Gretel: lost children trying to find their way home
b. Peter Pan: refusing to grow up, lost boys, a girl-nurturer/
c. Little Red Riding Hood: See Vampires
d. Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz: entering a world that doesn’t work
rationally or operates under different rules, the Red Queen, the White Rabbit,
the Cheshire Cat, the Wicked Witch of the West, the Wizard, who is a fraud
e. Cinderella: orphaned girl abused by adopted family saved through
supernatural intervention and by marrying a prince
f. Snow White: Evil woman who brings death to an innocent—again, saved by
g. Sleeping Beauty: a girl becoming a woman, symbolically, the needle,
blood=womanhood, the long sleep an avoidance of growing up and becoming
a married woman, saved by, guess who, a prince who fights evil on her behalf.
h. Evil Stepmothers, Queens, Rumpelstilskin
i. Prince Charming heroes who rescue women. (20th c. frequently switched—the
women save the men—or used highly ironically)
9. It’s Greek to Me
a. Myth is a body of story that matters—the patterns present in mythology run
deeply in the human psyche
b. Why writers echo myth—because there’s only one story (see #4)
c. Odyssey and Iliad
i. Men in an epic struggle over a woman
ii. Achilles—a small weakness in a strong man; the need to maintain
iii. Penelope (Odysseus’s wife)—the determination to remain faithful and
to have faith
iv. Hector: The need to protect one’s family
d. The Underworld—an ultimate challenge, facing the darkest parts of human
nature or dealing with death
e. Metamorphoses by Ovid—transformation (Kafka)
f. Oedipus: family triangles, being blinded, dysfunctional family
g. Cassandra: refusing to hear the truth
h. A wronged woman gone violent in her grief and madness—Aeneas and Dido
or Jason and Medea
i. Mother love—Demeter and Persephone
10. It’s more than just rain or snow
i. fertility and life
ii. Noah and the flood
iii. Drowning—one of our deepest fears
i. plot device
iii. misery factor—challenge characters
iv. democratic element—the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike
i. rain is clean—a form of purification, baptism, removing sin or a stain
ii. rain is restorative—can bring a dying earth back to life
iii. destructive as well—causes pneumonia, colds, etc.; hurricanes, etc.
iv. Ironic use—April is the cruelest month (T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland)
v. Rainbow—God’s promise never to destroy the world again; hope; a
promise of peace between heaven and earth
vi. fog—almost always signals some sort of confusion; mental, ethical,
physical “fog”; people can’t see clearly
i. negatively—cold, stark, inhospitable, inhuman, nothingness, death
ii. positively—clean, pure, playful
11. …More Than It’s Gonna Hurt You: Concerning Violence
a. Violence can be symbolic, thematic, biblical, Shakespearean, Romantic,
b. Two categories of violence in literature
i. Character caused—shootings, stabbings, drownings, poisonings,
bombings, hit and run, etc
ii. Death and suffering for which the characters are not responsible.
Accidents are not really accidents.
c. Violence is symbolic action, but hard to generalize meaning
d. Questions to ask:
i. What does this type of misfortune represent thematically?
ii. What famous or mythic death does this one resemble?
iii. Why this sort of violence and not some other?
12. Is That a Symbol?
a. Yes. But figuring out what is tricky. Can only discuss possible meanings and
b. There is no one definite meaning unless it’s an allegory, where characters,
events, places have a one-on-one correspondence symbolically to other things.
c. Actions, as well as objects and images, can be symbolic. i.e. “The Road Not
Taken” by Robert Frost
d. How to figure it out? Symbols are built on associations readers have, but also
on emotional reactions. Pay attention to how you feel about a text.
13. It’s All Political
a. Literature tends to be written by people interested in the problems of the
world, so most works have a political element in them
i. Individualism and self-determination against the needs of society for
conformity and stability.
ii. Power structures
iii. Relations among classes
iv. issues of justice and rights
v. interactions between the sexes and among various racial and ethnic
14. Yes, She’s a Christ Figure, Too
a. Characteristics of a Christ Figure:
i. crucified, wounds in hands, feet, side, and head, often portrayed with
ii. in agony
iv. good with children
v. good with loaves, fishes, water, wine
vi. thirty-three years of age when last seen
vii. employed as a carpenter
viii. known to use humble modes of transportation, feet or donkeys
ix. believed to have walked on water
x. known to have spent time alone in the wilderness
xi. believed to have had a confrontation with the devil, possibly tempted
xii. last seen in the company of thieves
xiii. creator of many aphorisms and parables
xiv. buried, but arose on the third day
xv. had disciples, twelve at first, although not all equally devoted
xvi. very forgiving
xvii. came to redeem an unworthy world
b. As a reader, put aside belief system.
c. Why us Christ figures? Deepens our sense of a character’s sacrifice,
thematically has to do with redemption, hope, or miracles.
d. If used ironically, makes the character look smaller rather than greater
15. Flights of Fancy
a. Daedalus and Icarus
b. Flying was one of the temptations of Christ
c. Symbolically: freedom, escape, the flight of the imagination, spirituality,
return home, largeness of spirit, love
d. Interrupted flight generally a bad thing
e. Usually not literal flying, but might use images of flying, birds, etc.
f. Irony trumps everything
16. It’s All About Sex…
a. Female symbols: chalice, Holy Grail, bowls, rolling landscape, empty vessels
waiting to be filled, tunnels, images of fertility
b. Male symbols: blade, tall buildings
i. Before mid 20th c., coded sex avoided censorship
ii. Can function on multiple levels
iii. Can be more intense than literal descriptions
17. …Except Sex. When authors write directly about sex, they’re writing about
something else, such as sacrifice, submission, rebellion, supplication, domination,
18. If She Comes Up, It’s Baptism
a. Baptism is symbolic death and rebirth as a new individual
b. Drowning is symbolic baptism, IF the character comes back up, symbolically
reborn. But drowning on purpose can also represent a form of rebirth, a
choosing to enter a new, different life, leaving an old one behind.
c. Traveling on water—rivers, oceans—can symbolically represent baptism. i.e.
young man sails away from a known world, dies out of one existence, and
comes back a new person, hence reborn. Rivers can also represent the River
Styx, the mythological river separating the world from the Underworld,
another form of transformation, passing from life into death.
d. Rain can by symbolic baptism as well—cleanses, washes
e. Sometimes the water is symbolic too—the prairie has been compared to an
ocean, walking in a blizzard across snow like walking on water, crossing a
river from one existence to another (Beloved)
f. There’s also rebirth/baptism implied when a character is renamed.
19. Geography Matters…
a. What represents home, family, love, security?
b. What represents wilderness, danger, confusion? i.e. tunnels, labyrinths,
c. Geography can represent the human psyche (
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