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How to Read Literature Like a Professor Part 2

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Susan Shank

on 4 August 2017

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Transcript of How to Read Literature Like a Professor Part 2

It's all political
Yes, she's a Christ Figure, too
How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Part 2
A. Two types of political “writing”
1. Primary intent is politics (socialism, fascism, anti-Semitism, authoritarianism)
2. Writing that engages the realities of its world (human problems)
B. All writing is political on some level
C. Works engage with their own specific period which can make them political
D. Writers are men and women interested in the world around them
E. Some issues
1. Individualism/self-determination vs. Society’s conformity/stability
2. Power structures
3. Relations among classes
4. Justice and rights
5. Interactions between sexes and various racial/ethnic constituencies
A. Culture is so influenced by its dominant religious systems that
whether a writer adheres to the beliefs or not, the values and
principles of those religions will inevitably inform the literary
B. Regardless of belief, Old and New Testament knowledge is
essential when studying literature.
C. Characteristics of a Christ figure
1. Crucified, wounds in hands, feet, side, and head
2. In agony
3. Self-sacrificing
4. Good with children
5. Good with loaves, fish, water, wine
6. Thirty-three years of age when last seen
7. Employed as a carpenter
8. Uses humble mode of transportation – feet or donkeys
9. Walks on water
10. Portrayed with arms outstretched
11. Spent time alone in the wilderness
12. Confronted the devil, possibly tempted
13. Last seen in the company of thieves
14. Creator of many aphorisms and parables
15. Buried but arose on the third day
16. Has disciples, twelve at first, although not all equally devoted
17. Forgiving
18. Redeems an unworthy world
19. Unmarried, preferably celibate (sometimes)
C. Readers must put aside belief system while reading
D. Does not need to have all characteristics (otherwise he would be Christ)
E. Writer uses Christ figure to make a point and the parallel deepens our sense of the
character’s sacrifice if we see it as somehow similar
F. Thematically, it deals with redemption, or hope, or miracle
G. Ironically, it makes the character look smaller rather than greater
Flights of Fancy
A. Human beings cannot fly
B. If it does fly it is . . .
1. Superhero
2. Ski jumper or crazy
3. Witch or demon
4. Fictional
5. Circus act
6. Suspended on wires
7. Angel
8. Heavily symbolic
C. Myths of flying
1. Comic book superheroes --Superman, Spiderman, Batman
2. Daedalus and Icarus (see earlier section of notes)
3. Toni Morrison's Flying Africans
4. Quetzalcoatl (Aztec god) as a snake with feathers
5. Angels with wings and harps (flight and music is property
of birds, denied to humans)
6. Spiritually, flight is one of the tempations of Christ
D. Symbolizes freedom, escape, return
home, largeness of spirit, love, flight of
E. Flight is freedom
F. Interrupted flight is generally a bad
thing; act of falling from vast heights
and surviving is miraculous, and as
symbolically meaningful, as the act of
flight itself
G. Usually not literal flying, but might use
images of flying, birds, etc.
H. Freeing of spirit or soul taking wing is
seen in terms of flight.
I. Irony trumps everything
It's all about SEX (thanks to Freud)
A.Sex doesn’t have to look like sex
B.Other objects/activities can stand in for sexual organs and sex acts
1. Stairs
2. Curtains blowing in the breeze where two lovers once stood
3. Waves crashing on the beach
4. Fireworks
C. Sexuality can be encoded in reading; while writers are encoding it in their writing
D. Female imagery
1. Chalice, Holy Grail, bowls
2. Rolling landscape
3. Empty vessels to be filled
4. Tunnels
5. Locks
E. Male imagery
1. Tall buildings
2. Lance, swords, guns
3. Train
4. Keys
F. Reason for seeking to bring together males and females
1. Fertility
2. Need to restore the kingdom to a healthy state that the aged king cannot provide
G. Reasons to disguise sex
1. Hayes Code -- living bodies could not get horizontal together (twin beds in master
2. Censorship
3. Can work on multiple levels and be more intense than literal descriptions
4. Protect innocents
Except sex
A.When writers deal with sex, they avoid writing about the act itself
B.Even when writers write about sex, they’re really writing about something else
C. Act can be pleasure, sacrifice, submission, rebellion, resignation, supplication, domination, enlightenment, etc
If she comes up, it's baptism
A.Drowning or not has profound plot implications
B. A number of writers met their end in water, so maybe tossing characters into the water is
1. wish fulfillment
2. exorcism of primal fear
3. exploration of the possible
4. a handy solution to messy plot difficulties
C. A rescue from water might suggest passivity, good fortune, or indebtedness; being saved brings luck and coincidence, serendipity rather than planning
D. Baptism is symbolic of death and rebirth as a new individual
E. Drowning (or near drowning) is symbolic baptism, IF the character comes back up 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 (Odysseus’ mother – Anticleia)
F.Heraclitus said, “One cannot step into the same river twice.” River suggests the constantly shifting nature of time: all the little bits and pieces that were floating by a moment ago are somewhere else now and floating at different rates from each other.
G. Traveling on water – rivers or oceans – can symbolically represent baptism
For example, a man sails away from a known world, dies out of one existence, and comes back a new person, hence reborn (Odysseus). 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.

H.Not every character gets to survive the water.
I.Some choose to drown and therefore choose not only his/her relation to the world around him/her but his/her manner of leaving it (control over society)
J.Rain can be symbolic baptism as well – cleanses, washes but lacks submersion
K. Sometimes the water is symbolic too – the prairie has been compared to an ocean, walking in a blizzard across snow like walking on water, or crossing a river from one existence to another.
L.Noah – drowning and restoration of life
M.Every drowning is serving its own purpose: character revelation, thematic development of violence or failure or guilt, plot complication or denouement
N.Rebirth/baptism can be implied when a character is renamed
O. Baptism by fire -- fire can also be seen as cleansing and restorative -- it burns away old life, singes perceptions, and offers rebirth and new insights (mythological -- the phoenix who is reborn out of its ashes.)
Geography matters
A.Every story is a vacation, and where is this one going to take place?
B.Literary geography is typically about human inhabiting spaces, and at the same time the spaces that inhabit humans.
1. Geography is setting, but it’s also psychology, attitude, finance, industry, etc.
2. Geography can define or even develop character (all the summer reading choices)
3. Geography can, and frequently does, play a specific plot role
C. When writers send characters south, it’s so they can run amok (raw encounters with
the subconscious.
D. For poets, geography becomes not only a way by which the poet expresses his psyche
but also a conveyor of theme
E. Pay attention to directions
1. North (up) -- Heaven; purity; enlightenment, clarity, hope; characters may see clearly for the first time; issues become resolved, heightened sense of self; looks down below a sees problems but can also see solutions to problems --old and new.
2. South (down) - Hell; characters go south to run amok (raw encounters with the subconscious) ; journey into self; psyche; the heart of darkness, despair, things become foggy and unclear; loss and confusion; encounters with the subconscious.
3. East -- rebirth, renewal; life (sun rises in the east); East of Eden -- new life even though will be one of despair outside of paradise.
4. West -- death, despair, desolation (sun sets in the west)
F.Low places = swamps, crowds, fog, darkness, fields, heat, unpleasantness, people,
life, death.
G.High places = snow, ice, purity, thin air, clear views, isolation, life, death
So does season
A. Seasons
1. Spring = youth, fertility, life, happiness, growth, resurrection (Easter)
2. Summer = adulthood, romance, fulfillment, passion
3. Autumn = middle age, harvest, decline, tiredness, reaping what we sow, rewards
and punishments
4. Winter = old age, hibernation, lack of growth, death, punishment, resentment
5. Christmas = childhood, birth, hope, family
B. Irony trumps all
Marked for greatness
.A. Physical marks or imperfections symbolically mirror moral, emotional, or psychological
scars or imperfections of the character. Shakespeare suggests that one's proximity to or distance from God is manifested in external signs.
B. One of the initial steps of the quester is that the hero is marked in some way. He may
be scarred or lamed or wounded or painted or born with a deformity, but he bears
some mark that sets him apart (The Unhealable Wound)
C.Character markings may be indicators of the damage life inflicts or the way life marks all who pass through it. (Harry Potter)
D. The oddity of a name, the way it calls attention to a physical problem, suggests that this aspect of identity will come into play (Oedipus)
E. Landscapes can be marked as well (during times of war, failed crops, etc.)
F. Monsters
1. Frankenstein's monster – monster comes from man’s forging an unholy alliance with dark
knowledge; science without ethics
2. Faust – bargains with the devil in exchange for one’s soul
3. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – dual nature of humanity that is in each of us, no matter
how well-made or socially groomed, a monstrous Other exists
4. Ouasimodo (Hunchback of Notre Dame) or the Beast (Beauty and the Beast)
represent ugliness on the outside, beauty on the inside. The physical
deformity reflects the opposite of the truth.
He's blind for a reason
A. Physical blindness mirrors psychological, moral and intellectual blindness.
B. Sometimes the blind can see things in the spirit and divine world, the truth of what’s actually happened, truth to which
our hero is utterly oblivious. (Tiresias, the blind seer, in The
Odyssey and Oedipus Rex)
C.When a character is blind, every move, every statement by or about that character has to accommodate the lack of sight; every other character has to notice and behave differently.
D.Ironic, blind see and sighted are blind
E.Metaphorical, failure to see reality, love, truth
F.Darkness (blindness) vs. Light (sight)
G. Blindness is usually introduced early, before it is even needed
It's never just heart disease
A.Heart is symbolically the center of emotion
B. Emblem of bad love, loneliness, cruelty, disloyalty, cowardice, lack of determination
C. Socially, it may stand for these matters on a larger scale, or for something seriously amiss at the heart of things
D. Emphasis is on humanity, not misdeeds
E. When emotional trouble becomes the physical ailment, the cardiac episode appears
F. More commonly, heart trouble takes the form of heart disease
Is he serious?
And other ironies
And rarely just illness
Don't read with your eyes
A. Tuberculosis or Consumption
1.Not all diseases are created equal
2. It should be picturesque (again TB -- bizarre beauty like a martyr)
3. It should be mysterious in origin -- again TB/Consumption -- unaware of transmission
4. It should have strong symbolic or metaphorical possibilities -- wasting disease
B. Physical paralysis can mirror moral, social, spiritual, intellectual, political paralysis
C. Plague – divine wrath; the communal aspect and philosophical possibilities of
suffering on large scale; isolation and despair created by wholesale destruction; the
puniness of humanity in the face of an indifferent natural world
D. Malaria – literally means “bad air”; metaphorical possibilities
E. Venereal disease – reflects immorality OR innocence, when the innocent suffer
because of another’s immorality; passed on to a spouse or child; men’s exploitation
of women
F. AIDS – modern plague. Tendency to lie dormant for years, victims unknowing
carriers of death, disproportionately hits young people, the poor, etc. An opportunity
to show courage resilience and compassion ( or lack of); political and religious
G. Generic fever -- represent randomness of fate, harshness of life, the unknowability of the
mind of God, the playwright's lack of imagination, or any other array of possibilities
H. Cancer – terminal illness that usually has no cure. Weakens character and shows the
value of a shorter life span.
I. Mental Illness – madness, depression, bipolar, anxiety, schizophrenia, PTSD – society is
not comfortable with these issues. May represent unstable behavior and morality,
ranging from sinful thoughts to hypochondria, to obsessive thinking and mania

A.Enter the reality of the book (not your own perspective); find sympathy with historical movement of story; text has its own social, historical, cultural, and personal background
B. Try to read and take the works as the author or storyline intended to be taken
C. Don't read from your own fixed position.
D. If you want to put pressure on a character to cause him to change or crumble, take him away from his home, make him inhabit an alien world
E. Last chance for change in astory -- can this person be saved?
F. Readers raised in a monotheistic culture have trouble with violence, carnivorous diet, blood sacrifices, looting, multiple gods, and concubines. Cannot look at stories through lens of our own popular culture.
G.. Don’t have to accept the values of another culture to sympathetically step into a story and recognize the universal qualities present there
A.Irony trumps everything. Look for it.
B. Irony chiefly involves deflection from expectation
C. Double hearing or dual awareness
D. Irony doesn’t work for everyone – sometimes hard to recognize
It's my symbol and I'll cry if I want to . . .
A. Common pool of figurative language such as images, symbols, similes, and metaphors
B. These symbols are secondary . The primary meaning of text is the story it is telling, the surface discussion. The symbols provide texture and depth to the work.
C. Use what you know to decipher symbols.
D. Every work teaches us how to read it as we go along
E. You know more than you think you do
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