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Copy of How to Read Literature Like a Professor
Transcript of Copy of How to Read Literature Like a Professor
by Thomas C. Foster
"If It's Square, It's a Sonnet"
Common since English Renaissance
Other forms, such as sestinas, villanelles, or rondeaus, are not as easily recognized
Sonnets are fourteen lines long with iambic pentameter, and geometrically square
Their appearance tells as much about the structure as does rhyme scheme or other elements
Steps in identifying a sonnet:
1) Read the poem first!
2) Analyze poetic effect, particularly form
Two parts to a sonnet:
Petrarchan - Octave (eight lines), Sestet (six lines)
Shakespearean - Three Quatrains (four lines) and one Couplet (two lines), divided into two groups of meaning
"An Echo from Willow-Wood"
by Christina Rossetti
Two gazed into a pool, he gazed and she,
Not hand in hand, yet heart in heart, I think,
Pale and reluctant on the water's brink,
As on the brink of parting which must be,
Each eyed the other's aspect, she and he,
Each felt one hungering heart leap up and sink,
Each tasted bitterness which both must drink,
There on the brink of life's dividing sea.
Lilies upon the surface, deep below
Two wistful faces craving each for each,
Resolute and reluctant without speech: —
A sudden ripple made the faces flow,
One moment joined, to vanish out of reach:
So those hearts joined, and ah! were parted so.
Two units of meaning, an octave and sestet, arranged into sentences
Rhyme scheme: abbaabba, cddcdc
Octave: Sets up anticipation for what is about to happen ("brink" of parting)
Sestet: Water literally and figuratively reflects the parting
Sonnet form takes on its own meaningful role, mirroring the contained tension of the story
"Sonnet on His Blindness"
by John Milton
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent, which is death to hide,
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He, returning chide;
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask; but Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, "God doth not need
Either man's work, or His own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve Him best.
Is kingly. Thousands at His bidding speed,
And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait."
Octave: Milton reflects on his life and his inadequacy stemming from his blindness
Sestet: Milton consoles himself with God's mercy; he resolves his fear by bearing his burden to the best of his ability
Rhyme scheme: abbaabba, cddcde (last line adds interest, as Milton looks onward toward the future)
Sonnet form presents a conflict, resolution, and hope for the future, in only fourteen lines
"It's Greek to Me"
Literature often borrows characters, plots, and themes from the mythology of Ancient Greece.
The audience can relate to myth as part of the "one big story" on a cultural basis.
Not all myths are Greek. (For example, African and Native American tribes had their own bodies of mythology to explain phenomena.)
The parallels of mythology to modern works add depth and understanding.
Example: Omeros by David Walcott
Character names: Helen, Philoctetes, Hector, Achille
Themes: heroism, loyalty, sacrifice, loss; emphasized in everyday life (sometimes through irony)
Invokes Homeric hero
Omeros = Homer
Example: J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings
Frodo, the main character, must resist temptation to fight against lust and power beyond his control (the "sirens" of his quest).
"Sirens" distract the hero from his mission, lure him in, and trap him. They are attractive but ultimately dangerous and superficial.
Theme: one can only find fulfillment by refusing to "take the easy way out."
Climactic fiery mountain = Olympus (success) or Tartarus (defeat)
...Or the Bible
Literature is teeming with Biblical references and elements. Characters set out on a quest with religious basis, authors derive titles from Biblical stories, and some authors choose to focus on religion directly.
Prezi by Anne Talkington
Other authors are less straightforward. Biblical references can be ironic if invoked in a work about destruction.
One of the most popular references is the Fall from Innocence (Adam and Eve, Eden).
Biblical implications within a work stand out by their "resonance."
Example: "Sonny's Blues" by James Baldwin
The story ends when Sonny's drink "shimmers like the very cup of trembling." This reference to Isaiah calls to mind life's trials yet to come, looking forward to both promises and struggles. The story itself, a tale of two brothers accepting familial duty and moving toward reconciliation, is a modern portrayal of the conflict and misunderstanding between Cain and Abel.
Example: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
At the conclusion of the novel, Bronte quotes the Book of Revelations. The line "Surely I come quickly" appropriately applies to St. John Rivers as a missionary completing his earthly mission.
It's More Than Just Rain or Snow
The weather of a story is more than a setting.
Based in the story of Noah's Ark, the flood is one example of rain. Characters can drown or be submerged in water. Yet, it is a natural force for change, or salvation.
Major elements that accompany literary rain are plot (forced situations), atmosphere (discomfort or misery), equal judgment (everyone is subject to a rainstorm), cleansing, mud-creating, restoration and new life, fertility, illness and death, allusions (Noah and the rainbow). Rain is often used in a paradox!
Fog is the opposite of clarity, often symbolic.
Snow imagery is accompanied by implications of "clean, stark, and severe," yet insulating, "inhospitable, inviting, playful, suffocating, filthy, and abstract." Like rain, snow represents equality in that everyone is subject to a snowstorm.
Example: Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
Morrison's rainstorm adds a twist to the paradox of rain. Hagar experiences rain as a force of self-discovery, or re-discovery. In this sense, the rain makes a point that her attempts to change herself were in vain. Hagar responds with distress and exhaustion; she experiences the filth, illness, and death associated with rain.
Example: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Before his suicide, Svidrigailov passes through a rainstorm and a "milky fog," which also hold significance on a number of levels. It signifies the confusion and turmoil within Svidrigailov's mind based on the confusion and turmoil he creates. He is "cleansed" of his selfish, lustful life, but his final actions are irrational. He is "hollow," with nothing to fill the void of materialism, and desperate.
Is That a Symbol?
Interpretation of symbolic meaning often relies on the reader's perspective. Each education, gender, race, class, faith, social involvement, and philosophy contribute to the reader's analysis. Allegories have more limited interpretations because the author wants to make a specific point with his work.
The same symbol may represent something different in another work, depending on the writer's message and reader's interpretation. For example, rivers appear in Mark Twain's writing (Mississippi), Hart Crane's writing (Hudson-East-Mississippi), and T. S. Eliot's writing (Thames).
Interpreting symbols requires past knowledge. For example, caves are primitive and can represent the subconscious. They are not special at first sight, but they hold unique mystery for each visitor. Either danger or nothingness lurks inside the cave. In E. M. Forster's A Passage to India, each character enters a personal "cave." Mrs. Moore becomes claustrophobic in the foreign land. Adela finds torment in the existing relationships in her life - her personal marriage, and the larger relationship between the Indians and the British.
Historical and biographical background are two methods of symbolic interpretation.
Actions can be symbols, as in Frost's poem "After Apple Picking."
Read a work instinctively first. Then analyze symbols by breaking the work down, asking questions, and using your imagination in conjunction with the author's creativity and imagination.
Another Example: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The letter represents Hester Prynne's shame and guilt, but also her confession, humility, virtue, tenderness, hope, repentence, redemption, acceptance of personal and social responsibility, and ability to accept the consequences of her actions.
Yes, She's a Christ Figure, Too
We can trace our culture back to its European Christian influence.
The cultural systems and values that appear in Western literature often stem from Christianity. Understanding Christianity is one step toward understanding the literary works.
One major element of Christian-influenced literature is the Christ figure.
Some characteristics of/ elements that distinguish Christ figures:
1) crucified; hands, feet, side, and head wounded
2) in agony
5) loaves, fish, water, wine
6) thirty-three years of age
7) unmarried, celibate
9) traveled by foot or donkey
10) walked on water
11) outstretched arms
12) spent time alone in wilderness
13) confronted and tempted by devil
14) associated with thieves
15) aphorisms and parables
16) buried and arose on the third day
17) twelve disciples, betrayed by disciples
Analysis means reading a story to discover its message. Religion gives a background, but does not mean that readers should exclude the possibility of other messages or beliefs.
Example: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
Warning: Not all Christ figures are literal, and some are ironic! Sybolism is important in identifying Christ figures.
Santiago, an old fisherman plagued with bad luck, has the trust of only one boy (child and disciple). He sets out to sea alone, where a large catch pulls him into unknown waters (wilderness). He injures his hands and his side. On his journey, he finds strength in aphorisms. After three days, he comes home from his disappearance (resurrection). On the walk from his ship, he carries the mast like a cross, then succumbs to exhaustion while lying with his arms extended. His return, and his huge fish, restore hope.
As with symbolic interpretation, not all Christ figures are specific.
The function of Christ figures ranges from emphasis on sacrifice, to redemption, to hope, to miracles, to de-emphasis (irony).
Example: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
Aslan, the lion, is a Christ figure. He is the ultimate king of Narnia. The four children, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, carry out his work as his disciples. Edmund betrays Aslan to the White Witch, who sacrifices him on the Stone Table (crucifixion). Yet, Aslan returns (resurrection), filled with righteousness and forgiveness, to save Narnia from the White Witch's cruelty.
Chapter 17: . . . Except Sex
Sex scenes that are merely sex scenes are pornography, and have been overused since the Victorian era (despite censorship). Pornography or not, the literary descriptions of sex are limited.
Symbolically, sex represents ideas such as freedom, power, sacrifice, and desire. The point the author makes may be emphasized more on the scenario than the sex itself. Some additional elements in focus include "pleasure, submission, rebellion, resignation, supplication, domination, or enlightenment."
Sex in literature also has political implications. It may represent erasure of class or gender boundaries, openness to new ideas, or revolution from conservative art and religion.
The babies that result from sex are symbolic as the product of the situation.
Example: A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
Burgess uses sex as one illustration of gang activity. He does not present the sexual acts with clarity. Rather, they provide background to the cruelty of the main character.
Example: Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Scarlett O'Hara witnesses and experiences sex. Her multiple partners represent her unconforming independence as a "lady," and her unfulfilling relationships. Her children parallel their fathers. She develops a strong relationship with Rhett Butler, manifested in their child, Bonnie. Bonnie's death precludes their destruction, and her all-too-late realization that she had been chasing in vain after the love she already had.
Chapter 20: . . . So Does Season
Season can represent youth or age, and satisfaction or lack thereof (popular in Shakespeare's works).
Winter = "anger, hatred, old age, resentment, death"
Summer = "passion, love, adulthood, romance, fulfillment, warm, rich, liberating, hot, dusty, stifling"
Spring = "childhood, youth, 'purging' winter"
Example: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Mary Lennox arrives at her uncle's English mansion in the midst of winter. Her uncle is reclusive and mysterious. He had locked himself away as he locked the garden away following the death of his wife. When Mary brings him to the garden once again, his coldness is replaced with the season of flourishing flowers, warmth, and beauty.
Example: "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" by W. H. Auden
The poem plays upon the irony of the pastoral poem (death in youth, mourning in summer); Auden's twist adds further irony. Yeats died on a cold winter day, as an old man who lived a fulfilling life. The appropriateness of season is not romanticized.
The meanings of the seasons is innately understood as a matter of culture. Authors can play upon our expectations.
The seasonal associations date back to mythology explaining the cycle of death, rebirth, growth, and harvest. Even religious celebrations (saturnalia, Easter) are seasonally appropriate.
Autumn = "decline, middle age, tiredness, harvest, celebration; 'reap what you sow;' prepare for hibernation, or 'big sleep'"
Chapter 21: Marked for Greatness
Body shape or deformity tells nothing about the character of real people, but in literature, physiognomy is one form of characterization. Authors distinguish characters in ways that coincide with the plot and theme.
Despite connotations of judgment implied by Shakespeare or the Puritans, authors use a "mark" to set their characters apart as symbolically different. If an author made the effort to emphasize a character's feature, the mark is most likely important!
Example: Oedipus Rex by Sophocles
Oedipus is "marked" by his ankles, hence his name ("Wounded Foot"). His feet represent fulfillment of a prophecy, which the characters cannot evade, and true identity hidden by rash decisions and failed self-discovery. The play with Oedipus' self-inflicted blindness, which not only completes the theme of "sight vs. insight," but also represents a mark of "atonement, guilt, and contrition."
A wound can represent psychic, cultural, and spiritual as well as physical damage and limitation.
A deformity can also represent a less moral side, as in the case of Frankenstein.
Example: Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery
As an adopted child, Anne wants nothing more than to belong to a family and community. She characteristically "stands out." One of Anne's distinguishing features is her bright red hair. Red is symbolic of passion, and although Anne is not "passionate" in one sense, she is independent and impulsive. When she attempts to dye her hair and must cut it (because the dye has colored it green), she learns a lesson in humility. As Anne matures, she learns to make the best of her faults, and is driven to succeed in whatever she does.
It's Never Just Heart Disease . . .
The literary heart is a romanticized symbol of emotion.
Therefore, heart failure = "bad love, loneliness, cruelty, pederasty, disloyalty, cowardice, lack of determination, pain, suffering, regret" - the opposite of love or sensitivity, on an individual or social scale. In addition, the "heart" of the matter represents its core.
The element of the heart expresses "humanity" through the relationship between the characters' physical and emotional sides. Emotional illness is manifested physically.
In summary: Heart trouble signifies something in a character's life, and a character's difficult life may meet its suitable end through heart failure.
Irony - Even if characters excuse their actions with "heart problems," especially if regarding their relationship, then the truth behind their claims is greater than they realize.
"The Man of Adamant" by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The man, with a heart of stone, confines himself to a cave to remain clear of all of the world's sinners. He trusts no one. A limestone drip inside of the cave literally hardens his heart into stone.
"The Story of an Hour" by Kate Chopin
Mrs. Mallard has a weak heart and a discontent marriage. Upon hearing of the death of her husband, she imagines a long, healthy, free life. Ironically, her rejoicing is cut short by a sudden shock to the heart - her husband, presumed to be dead, returns home from work. Her family and friends believe she was overjoyed; however, her oppression and grief have killed her.
. . . And Rarely Just Illness
Illness can occur "physically, morally, socially, spiritually, intellectually, or politically." The illness, such as paralysis, often mirrors a story's themes (such as conformity).
Although modern medicine has removed much of the mystery of disease, and actual illness is not "picturesque," literature uses illness to make a point that is often shrouded with picturesque mystery.
Example: The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe
Roderick Usher and his twin sister Madeline are the last of a dying family, or falling house. Roderick is unstable, and the mysterious Madeline is near death. Both are respectively "ill," and live in constant, unconsolable fear. The demise of each parallels that of the other. When Roderick buries Madeline, believing she has passed, she returns for him. Both collapse, and literally, their secluded house crumbles.
For this reason, authors turn to diseases such as consumption over more disturbing diseases.
The irony of consumption's contagion is that it affected everybody, especially the devoted caretakers. It's symbolism lies in the "wasting away" of the victims. Consumption is so common that many authors simply allude to it as they convey their point.
A plague is a useful literary description of the "illness" of a society.
Malaria, or "bad air," can afflict characters in a harmful or stifling situation.
Inherited diseases (often venereal) coincide with the theme of accepting consequences.
AIDS - secretly attacks, and kills with certainty
Social and political - homosexuals, developing world, artistic circles, religious groups
Specific to modern works with the timeless themes of the "suffering, despair, and courage" of humanity.
Fever - vague and indefinite (mysterious)
Not specific to any one plot or theme; gives the author freedom to make his point
May represent something bigger than the character - life, fate, or God
Example: Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell
Melissa "wastes away" from the tuberculosis of a harsh life and difficult relationship. She selflessly highlights the idea that she has served her purpose in life. The smallpox of Leila Hosnani are a form of punishment/retribution, or simply a symbol for life's struggles for all.
Chapter 26: Is He Serious?
And Other Ironies
The moral of the story: "Irony trumps everything!"
Irony can misuse symbols to make a point. The point stands out because it is opposite of the reader's expectations.
Ironic Mode (Northrop Frye) - The audience encounters characters, heroes, who are "smaller than life" rather than "larger than life." The heroes are not lifelike because of their incompetence or attitude opposite of "carpe diem."
The situation, combined with the audience's prior knowledge and feelings of resolutions the characters should make, creates irony. For example, characters looking to change the path in their lives but passively standing beside a road is ironic.
The "road not taken"
Example: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
The title itself is a combination of two phrases about war - "A Farewell" and "To Arms!" Yet, the story is about the end and destruction of the supposedly "glorious" war. A rain shower accompanies death rather than life, as mother and child both die in childbirth, vs. the expected mother-child bond. Finally, the rain occurs in winter rather than spring, and the joys of new spring are overshadowed by the remnants of war.
Example: "A Day's Wait" by Ernest Hemingway
A boy with a fever is ill at ease. His father is evidently not worried, and the boy quietly tries not to worry his loving father. At last, the boy is overcome with anxiety about his temperature and asks his father when he will die. The boy, ironically, is actually mistaken about the severity of his fever; he had confused the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales, and his worry had been useless. He had been preparing to accept a death which would not come.
Signs are established in literature, but the author's intended meaning, and the context, adds irony. Interpreting irony is like solving a mystery.
Because irony relies on the reader's prior knowledge, it adds depth to the work. Irony lies in the unexpected.
Verbal vs. Dramatic Irony:
Verbal irony is the original Greek irony - the "weak" eiron "outsmarts" the "pompous" alazon. The modern alazon is not a character, but an "assumed innocence" that succeeds in the role of one who "doesn't get it."
Structural/dramatic irony refers to unexpected outcomes.
Wilde's works are filled with both types of irony.
More examples of irony: death by a heart attack under a collapsed bookshelf - lack of fulfillment in romantic and scholarly endeavors (taken beyond their implications of fulfillment); a doctor who is an enemy rather than a healer; a deceptive or depraved Christ figure.
Irony is most common in modern works.