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How to Read Literature Like a Professor

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Mary Grace Bedwell

on 6 July 2013

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Transcript of How to Read Literature Like a Professor

Topic by Topic Notes for How to Read Literature Like a Professor
Topic 1: Quests
Chapter Title: "Every Trip is a Quest (Even When It's Not)
Pages 1-6
A quest consists of five things
a quester
a place to go
a stated reason to go there
challenges on the way
a real reason to be going there
The real reason for a quest is always self knowledge, self discovers, self fulfillment... you get the point.
Crying of Lot 49
Lord of the Rings
Star Wars
Topic 2: Acts of Communication
Chapter Title "Nice to Eat with You: Acts of Communication"
Pages 7-14
Whenever people eat or drink together, it's communion, also known as "an act of sharing or peace." This communion doesn't have to be religious at all, and usually isn't
It works because food is something everyone likes and therefore has in common, so if a character is hung up around dinner time, be prepared to watch him get over it during the meal.
Examples in:
Tom Jones
Topic 3: Vampires
Chapter: "Nice to Eat
Classic traits for a vampire story:
older figure representing corrupt, outworn values
a young, preferably virgin female
a stripping away of her youth, energy, virtue
a continuance of life force for the older figure
death or destruction of the young woman
Many stories in the Victorian Era featured the Vampire because they couldn't talk directly about certain topics, like sex and sexuality, and used this character to bring these taboo issues to the forefront.
Ghosts and Vampires are never just stories about ghosts and vampires, and they don't necessarily have to have an actual Poltergeist or Dracula in them.
Marley in A Christmas Carol
Lady Catherine and Mr. Wickham in Pride and Prejudice
Topic 4: Sonnets
Chapter "If It's a Square, It's a Sonnet"
Pages 22-27
Sonnets have been written in every era since the Renaissance.
They are always 14 lines long, usually with about 10 syllables per line. THis makes the poem itself into the shape of a square (more or less)
Petrarchan Sonnets
This is the most popular type of sonnet.
It consists of two parts: one section of 8 lines and one section of 6.
The whole of the poem has a unified rhyme scheme.
Shakespearean Sonnet
Composed of a 4, 4, 4, 2 rhyme scheme (Three quatrains and a couplet)
Topic 5: Originality
Chapter "Now, Where Have I Seen Her Before?
Pages 28-36
There is no such thing as a real original piece of literature. We are influenced, no matter how much, by things we have seen before.
To make connections to past characters, think of new characters in generic forms. There are often ties in their plot usage and/or characterization.
Stories come out of other stories, and even history is a story, therefore there is only one story made into one massive "barrel of eels."
If you don't catch the references and connections, it's okay. These only help you understand the novel on a deeper level, so if you don't get it, then you are still able to appreciate the book you are reading for what it is and not what it is paying homage to.
Example: Going After Cacciato has a section much like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Chapter "When in Doubt, It's from Shakespeare"
Pages 37-46
Many references made, by situation of by quote, are references to Shakespeare.
Many well known quotes are attributed to the Bard, and are thus used often.
She's the Man is Twelfth Night
The quote "Something wicked this way comes" is in Harry Potter
Biblical References
Chapter "...Or the Bible"
Pages 47-56
They don't have to be used spiritually. and often attempt to convey morals.
Common biblical references:
the Fall
"east of Eden"
four horsemen
biblical names
Example: The Sun Also Rises
Miscellaneous Definitions
Literary Canon (Chapter 8) - A master list of works that somehow matter in society and our readings.
Metonymy (Chapter 8) - Rhetorical device in which a part is made to stand for the whole, as how “Washington” used to represent America’s position on an issue.
Last Chance for Change (Chapter 25) - giving a character one last chance to redeem himself or make a difference before it is too late (ie. they are too old, the chance will be gone, etc.)
Kid literature is a good way to make connections people will actually understand because most people are at least familiar with kid stories.
Hansel and Gretel is very widely used and has been interpreted many ways into many stories. Foster says “one child’s gingerbread is another’s drugs.”
We aren’t re-creating fairytales, but we make use of details and patterns to add depth and texture.
ALWAYS ASK WHY: Morals? Just depth? Why use this story?

Chapter: "It's Greek to Me"
Pages 64-73
Myth - the ability of a story to explain ourselves to ourselves in ways that physics, philosophy, mathematics, chemistry can’t
Don't be thrown off by the word "myth." It is the body of the story that matters, not the title we give to it.
The tale of Icarus and his encounter with the sun is a common one to teach morals.
Example: the film Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou? is a recreation of Homer's Odyssey
I can't italicize, bold or underline...
It's a punctuation free for all! :)
Topic 6: Weather
Chapter: " It's More Than Just Rain or Snow"
Pages 74-81
Foster says, “It’s never just rain. And that goes for snow, sun, warmth, cold, and probably sleet...”
Why Use Weather (Especially Rain) at All?
plot device
misery factor
democratic element
cleaning paradox (either clean [actual rain] or not clean [mud])
Rain is restorative. It restores the past, can show people what their looking for, can heal, and can make things clear. (Johnny Nash reference, anyone?)
symbolizes divine promise
peace between the heavens and earth
used to symbolize confusion
mental fog
allows room for later clarity of some description
Snow is magic, and authors can make it mean whatever they want!
Topic 7: Violence
Chapter " More Than It's Gonna Hurt You: Concerning Violence"
Pages 87-96
"Violence is one of the most personal and even intimate acts between human beings, but it can also be cultural and social in its implications. It can be symbolic, thematic, biblical, Shakespearean, Romantic, allegorical, transcendent.”
Violence has two categories:
the specific industry that authors can cause characters to visit on one another or on themselves
the narrative violence that causes characters harm in general
Writers kill off characters for the same set of reasons every time - make actions happen, cause plot complications, end plot complications, put other characters under stress
Meaning behind slavery in literature- allows victims no decision-making power over any aspect of their lives, including the decision to live; the only power they have is the power to die
Topic 8: Symbols
Chapter: "Is That a Symbol?"
Pages 97-107
Symbolism is found in what you find to be symbolic.
Allegory - things stand for other things on a one-for-one basis; mission - convey a certain message; Example - Animal Farm
Always remember that action, not just things, can be symbolic
Break down the work into smaller pieces and organize your thoughts and question the texts to best find symbols.
Topic 9: Politics
Chapter: "It's All Political"
Pages 108-116
Overtly political writing can be dull and boring, so it’s better to make your point with an enjoyable story like Ibsen and Marquez.
All writing is to some degree political, as everyone is influenced in their writing from their beliefs.
We can better understand the political significance of a work by learning a little bit about the social and political conditions of the time in which it was written.
Topic 10: Christ Figures
Chapter: "Yes, She's a Christ Figure, Too."
Pages 117-124
List of Possible Characteristics for a Christ Figure
crucified, wounds of the hands, feet, sides, and/or head
in agony
good with kids
has reference to the loaves, fishes, water, and/or wine in some figurative (but usually not literal) way
33 years of age
uses humble modes of transportation, like a donkey
walking on water
arms outstretched
unmarried, preferably celibate
spends time alone in the wilderness
confrontation with the devil with possible temptation
in company of thieves
buried (more often thought to be dead) with a resurrection
redeems an unworthy world
Alex in A Clockwork Orange
Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea
Topic 11: Flight
Chapter: "Flights of Fancy"
Pages 125-134
If a person in a novel can fly, they are almost always one of the following: a superhero, crazy, a ski jumper, fictional in more ways than this, a circus act, suspended on wires, an angel, very very very symbolic.
Flight is such a well used term because flight is equated with freedom.
Topic 12: Sex
Chapter: "It's All About Sex"
Pages 135-142
Sex is so popular because of Freud.
Man symbols - lances, swords, guns, etc
Woman symbols - chalices and grails (Yes, the search for the Holy Grail was all sex)
Sex is often in code in books, and many a time, the code sexual acts are much more intense and multi-purposed in literature than actual sex.
Chapter: "...Except Sex"
Pages 143-151
When writers write about other things, they most often are referring to sexuality to some extent, but when writers actually write about the act of sex, it’s never just about the sex, unless you are E.L. James.
Sex becomes heavily symbolic when used as the correct type of plot device.
Topic 13: Baptisms and Drowning
Chapter: "If She Comes Up, It's Baptism"
Pages 152-162
Characters go to the water for (a) wish fulfillment, (b) exorcism of primal fear, (c) exploration of possibilities, or (d) a handy solution for the author’s built up plot difficulties.
When a character doesn’t survive the encounters with water, they die (obviously), but if a character manages to make it, they are often reborn completely.
Surviving alone does not make it a baptism, the character must be ready t receive the rebirth. Sometimes, as in Song of Solomon, it takes a character three encounters with water to make it into anything significant (although that makes reference to the Holy Trinity)
The baptism is not always 100% about rebirth, as there are no absolutes in writing. They are also not always associated with spirituality. A character’s rebirth could juts turn him from a nice average Joe to a revengeful creature.
Topic 14: Geography
Chapter "Geography Matters..."
Pages 163-174
What is Geography? Rivers, hills, valleys, buttes, steppes, glaciers, swamps, mountains, prairies, chasms, seas, islands, and people, but mostly people.
Geography can be used as virtually any type of literary device, especially characterization.
Lawrence uses geography as a metaphor for the psyche, with the south being their subconscious. This is illustrative of how writers always send characters south to run amok. I’m not just talking south for spring break to go cray cray, but anywhere south: South America, Italy, India, Greece, Namibia. Going south makes characters have direct, raw encounters with their subconscious.
The sublime landscape has been made into a cliché, but it’s been so idealized that it is still used often.
Characteristics of Generic Landscapes
Low (valley, prairie) - swaps, crowds, fog, darkness, fields, heat, unpleasantness, people, life, and death.
High (mountains, mesas) - snow, ice, purity, thin air, clear views, isolation, life, death
Topic 15: Seasons
Chapter: "...So Does Season"
Pages 175-184
Seasons have been used for thousands of years, back to even the earliest mythology (Persephone’s months on earth vs. in Hades as a solution for seasons)
Common Meanings
Spring - Childhood and Youth
Summer - Adulthood, romance, fulfillment, and passion
Autumn - decline, middle age (thanks, Shakespeare and others), tiredness, harvest
Winter - old age, resentment, and death
Topic 16: Physical Marks
Chapter: " Marked for Greatness"
Pages 193-200
Physical deformity was, in the past, equated with moral deformity (enter Shakespeare’s Richard III), suggesting that one’s proximity to or from God was manifested in external signs.
This explains why hero’s are marked and differentiated from the GenPop in some way. Just look at Harry Potter’s scar.
Physical limitations are given because they mean something, often to allow the character to move on. “You give a guy a limp in Chapter 2, he can’t go sprinting after a train in Chapter 24.”
Topic 17: Blindness
Chapter: "He's Blind for a Reason, You Know"
Pages 201-206
Writing blind characters is a lot of extra work because everything that character does has to reflect his lack of sight, and people have to recognize it in him. This extra work can only mean one thing: if a character is blind, you know he is important, and his levels of sight and/or blindness go beyond the physical.
Seeing and blindness, if not always physical, are in many stories, so you’d think that a character that’s actually blind is no help. However, if an author wants the audience to know something important about the character, such as his ability to see past things, it must be introduced early on. Therefore, physical blindness is foreshadowing for something later.
Topic 18: Illness
Chapter: " ...And Rarely Just Illness"
Pages 213-225
Principles Governing the Use of Disease in Literature:
Not all diseases are created equal. (Cholera was worse than tuberculosis, but TB was way more popular in literature.)
Diseases should be picturesque. Don’t kill off a character in a nasty way. Be like Cleopatra.
It should be mysterious in origin.
It should have strong symbolic of metaphorical possibilities. (That’s why heart disease works so well.) This sometimes makes authors bring in objectionable illnesses just to make their point.
Malaria, or “Roman fever,” was useful because people thought it was from bad air and not mosquitoes, so it could become a metaphor for bad company, as in Daisy Miller.
Taboo diseases have to be treated with care, like syphilis was in A Doll’s House. Ten Points for Ibsen!
Writing disease that are currently in the social vernacular allows writers to save time, as readers will identify with a few symptoms instead of needing a medical dictionary written to get them through a story.
Every age has it’s special disease, and for us it’s AIDS. This is convenient because, as Foster puts it, “AIDS is the mother lode of symbol and metaphor,” especially when you look at it from every single political angle possible.
Heart Disease
Chapter: "It's Never Just Heart Disease"
Pages 207-212
Heart disease is perfectly metaphorical, and writers use it because we feel it and can connect, as the heart is what drives us.
Heart disease can symbolize loneliness, bad love, cruelty, cowardice, disloyalty, or lack of determination.
Topic 19: Reading with YOUR Eyes
Chapter: "Don't Read with Your Eyes"
Pages 226-234
Don't do it.
OPTION 1: Read as if you are there at the time the story was written to analyze it as the author intended.
OPTION 2: Deconstruction
Not entirely favorable.
This involves breaking the story up into individual segments and questioning everything about it until you have depleted the original purpose of the story, enjoyability.
Topic 20: Irony
Chapter: "Is He Serious? And Other Ironies"
Pages 235-244
What is Irony? - a sign used in a way other than the one intended for it. It makes great use of deflection.
Irony trumps everything. We have certain expectations behind, say, a rainy day’s meaning and connotations, but if the writer does not write to fit our mold, then the newfound meaning trumps what we used to know.
ironic mode - Northrop Frye’s way of describing characters that have a lower degree of autonomy, self-determination, or free will than most people, making simple things that we could do into a major struggle.
The main character of A Farewell to Arms walks into the rain after the death of his lover and child. The rain no longer has the cleansing effect we expected it to. That’s irony.
Modern and postmodern writers makes such use of irony that we come to expect it.
Irony doesn’t work for everyone. The multivocal nature of irony is nothing if you can’t see the layers.
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