So you don’t have time to read How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster

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AP English-- Schulman


So you don’t have time to read How to Read Literature Like a Professor

by Thomas C. Foster.

Here’s the Table of Contents with key passages:




  1. Every Trip Is a Quest (Except When It’s Not)

“The quest consists of five things: a) a quester, b) a place to go, c) a stated reason, d) challenges and trials en rout, and e) a real reason to go there…The real reason for quest is always self-knowledge” (3).

Keep this in mind when we discuss Beowulf, Heart of Darkness, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight




  1. Nice to Eat with You: Acts of Communion

“Whenever people eat or drink together, it’s communion…in the real world, breaking bread together is an act of sharing and peace…As with any convention, this one can be violated, A mafia don may invite enemies to lunch and then have them killed… So too in literature” (8).

Keep this in mind when we discuss Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter




  1. Nice to Eat You: Acts of Vampires

“You don’t need fangs and a cape to be a vampire. [These are] the essentials of the vampire story: an older figure representing corrupt, outworn values; a young preferably virginal female; a stripping away of her youth, energy, virtue; a continuance of the life force of the old male; the death or destruction of the young woman” (19).

Keep this in mind when we discuss The Things They Carried, Heart of Darkness,


The Picture of Dorian Gray, Metamorphosis, Native Son


  1. If It’s Square, It’s a Sonnet

“No other poem is so versatile, so ubiquitous, so various, so agreeably short as the sonnet…The miracle of the sonnet is that it is fourteen lines long and written almost always in iambic pentameter…Ten syllables of English are about as long as fourteen lines are high: [so it makes a] square…When you start to read poem, then, look at the shape” (23-27).


  1. Now, Where Have I Seen Her Before?

“As you read it may to remember this: there’s no such thing as a wholly original work of literature. Once you know that, you can go looking for old friends…stories grow out of other stories, poems out of other poems. And they don’t have to stick to genre. Poems can learn from plays, songs from novels… Sometimes influence is obvious…Other times, it’s less direct and more subtle…” (29, 33).

Keep this in mind when we discuss EVERYTHING!




  1. When in Doubt, It’s From Shakespeare…

“He’s everywhere; in every literary form you can think of. And he’s never the same: every age and every writer reinvents its own Shakespeare…[But] it’s worth remembering that comparatively few writers slavishly copy bits of Shakespeare’s work into their own. More commonly there is this kind of dialogue going on in which the new work, while taking bits from the older, is also having its say…The new writer has his own agenda, her won slant to put on things” (38, 44).

Keep this in mind when we discuss The Picture of Dorian Gray


  1. Or the Bible


“[Many authors take] motifs, characters, themes or plots [from the Bible] but some just need a title… More common than titles are situations and quotations…language and imagery…Then there are all those names… Well, I’m not [a Bible scholar]. But even I can sometimes recognize a biblical allusion. If I hear something going on in a text that seems to be beyond the scope of the story’s or poem’s immediate dimensions, if it resonates outside itself, I start looking for allusions to older and bigger texts” (50-54).

Keep this in mind when we discuss Heart of Darkness, Frankenstein, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Metamorphosis, Native Son, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter




  1. Hanseldee and Greteldum

“[Writers use] Kiddie lit… for parallels, analogies, plot structures, references, that most … readers will know…Of all the fairy tales available to the writer, there’s one that has more drawing power than any other, at least in the late twentieth century: Hansel and Gretel. Every age has its own favorite stories, but the story of children far from home has a universal appeal…Fairly tales, like Shakespeare, the Bible, and mythology… belong to the one big story…” (59-62).


  1. It’s Greek to Me

“Myth is a body of story that matters…Greek and Roman myth is so much a part of the fabric of our consciousness, of our unconscious really, that we scarcely notice…Recognition (of mythological allusions] makes our experience of literature richer, deeper, more meaningful, so that our own modern stories also matter, also share in the power of myth” (65, 66, 73).

Keep this in mind when we discuss, Heart of Darkness, Frankenstein, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Metamorphosis, Mourning Becomes Electra, The Canterbury Tales



  1. It’s More Than Just Rain or Snow

“Weather is part of setting…[it serves] as a plot device…if you want a character to be cleansed, symbolically, let him walk through the rain to get somewhere…Rain is also restorative. This is chiefly because of its association with spring, but Noah once again comes into play here…Rainbows represent the divine pact between human, nature and God…Fog, for instance, almost always signals some sort of confusion…And snow, like death, is the great unifier in that it falls upon everyone” (75-81).

Keep this in mind when we discuss Heart of Darkness, Frankenstein, The Canterbury Tales, Native Son




  1. More Than It’s Gonna Hurt You: Concerning Violence

“Violence is one of the most personal and even intimate acts between human beings, but it can also be cultural and societal in its implications. It can be symbolic, thematic, biblical Shakespearean, Romantic, allegorical, transcendent…Authors rarely introduce violence straightforwardly, to perform only its one appointed task, so we ask questions. What does this type of misfortune represent thematically? What famous or mythic death does this one resemble? Why this sort of violence and not some other?” (88, 96).

Keep this in mind when we discuss Beowulf, The Things They Carried, Heart of Darkness, Frankenstein, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Native Son




  1. Is That a Symbol?

“Sure it is…Symbols., generally, don’t work so neatly. The thing referred to is likely not reducible to a single statement but will probably involve a range of possible meanings and interpretations…The other problem with symbols is that many readers expect them to be objects and images rather than events or actions” (98, 105).



  1. It’s All Political

“Political writing [is writing that engages the realities of its world—that thinks about human problems, including those in the social an political realm, that addresses the rights of person and the wrongs of those in power…Nearly all writing is political on some level…Knowing a little something about the social and political milieu out of which a writer creates can only help us understand her work, not because that milieu controls her thinking but that is the world she engages when sits down to write” (110-11, 116).


  1. Yes, She’s a Christ Figure. Too

“No matter what your religious beliefs, to get most out of your reading of European and American literatures, knowing something about the Old and New Testaments is essential…Christ figures don’t have to hit all the marks. Don’t have to be male, Don’t have to be Christian. Don’t even have to be good. But if a character is a certain, exhibits certain behaviors, provides for certain outcomes. Or suffers in certain ways, you literary antennae should begin to twitch…” (118, 122).

Keep this in mind when we discuss The Things They Carried, Heart of Darkness, , The Picture of Dorian Gray, Metamporphosis, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Native Son, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter




  1. Flights of Fancy

“What does it mean when literary characters fly?… It’s really pretty straightforward: flight is freedom…[There are] different kinds of freedom (128-9).

Keep this in mind when we discuss Native Son




  1. It’s All About Sex…

“Sex doesn’t have to look like sex: other objects and activities can stand in for sexual organs and sex acts…So landscapes can have a sexual component. So can bowls. Fires. Seashores…Part of the reason for all this disguised sex is that, historically, writers and artists couldn’t make much use of the real thing…Even in our highly permissive age, sex often doesn’t appear in its own guise.” (136, 141-142).

Keep this in mind when we discuss Heart of Darkness, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Mourning Becomes Electra, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Native Son, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter



  1. Except Sex

“Drives you crazy, doesn’t it? When authors are writing about other things, they really mean sex, and when they write about sex, they really mean something else. If they write a bout sex and mean strictly sex, we have a word for that. Pornography…You just know that these scenes mean something more than what’s going on in them… Sex can be pleasure, sacrifice, submission, rebellion, resignation, supplication, domination, enlightenment, the whole works…” (144, 15051).

Keep this in mind when we discuss Native Son, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter




  1. If She Comes Up, It’s Baptism

“A young man sails away from his known world, dies out of one existence, and comes back a new person, hence is reborn. That’s the same patter we see in baptism: death and rebirth through the medium of water…” (155).

Keep this in mind when we discuss Heart of Darkness, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter




  1. Geography Matters…

“Landscape sets a story in motion… Geography can also define or even develop character…Here’s a general rule: whether it’s Italy or Greece or Africa or Malaysia or Vietnam, when writers send characters south, it’s so they can run amok….they run amok because they are having direct, raw encounters with the subconscious… Geography can also be a conveyor of theme… It’s place and space and shape that brings us to ideas and psychology and history and dynamism. It’s enough to make you read a map” ( 166-174).

Keep this in mind when we discuss Heart of Darkness, Frankenstein, Mourning Becomes Electra, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Native Son



  1. So Does Season

“For about as long as anyone’s been writing anything, the seasons have stood for the same set of meanings. Maybe it’s hardwired into us that spring has to do with childhood and youth, summer with adulthood and romance and fulfillment and passion, autumn with decline and middle age and tiredness but also harvest, winter with old age and resentment and death” (178).

Keep this in mind when we discuss Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Canterbury Tales, Native Son, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter





  1. Marked for Greatness

“Quasimodo is a hunchback. So is Richard III (Shakespeare’s). Mary Shelley’s better-known creation, not Victor Frankenstein, but his monster, is a man of parts. Oedipus has damaged feet. And Grendel—well, he is another monster. All characters who are as famous for their shape as for their behavior. Their shapes tell us something, and probably very different somethings, about them or other people in the story…How many stories do you know in which the hero is different from everyone else in some way, how many times is that difference physically visible? Why does Harry Potter have a scar?…”Physical markings by their very nature call attention to themselves and signify some psychological or thematic point the writer wants to make” (193,5, 200).

Keep this in mind when we discuss Beowulf, Frankenstein, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Mourning Becomes Electra, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter




  1. He’s Blind for a Reason, You Know

“…Something important must be at stake when blindness pops up in a story. Clearly the author wants to emphasize other levels of sight and blindness beyond the physical. Moreover, such references are usually quite pervasive in a work where insight and blindness are at issue” (202-3).

Keep this in mind when we discuss The Canterbury Tales, Native Son



  1. It’s Never Just Heart Disease…

“In literature there is no better, no more lyrical, no more perfectly metaphorical illness than heart disease…The afflicted character can have any number of problems for which heart disease provides a suitable emblem: bad love, loneliness, cruelty, pederasty disloyalty, cowardice, lack of determination. Socially, it may stand for these matters on a larger scale, or for something seriously amiss at the heart of things” (208-9).

Keep this in mind when we discuss Heart of Darkness, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Mourning Becomes Electra, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter




  1. And Rarely Just Illness

“Since illness is as much apart of life, so too is it a part of literature.. [Illness in literature has] strong symbolic or metaphorical possibilities…”

Keep this in mind when we discuss Heart of Darkness, Frankenstein, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Metamorphosis, Native Son, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter




  1. Don’t Read with Your Eyes

“The formula I generally offer is this: don’t read with your eyes. What I really mean is, don’t read only from your own fixed position…Instead try to find a reading perspective that allows for sympathy with the historical moment of the story, that understands the text as having been written against its own social, historical, cultural, and personal background” (228-9).

Keep this in mind when we discuss EVERYTHING!




  1. Is He Serious? And Other Ironies

“Now hear this: Irony trumps everything. Consider roads. Journey, quest, self- knowledge. But what if the road doesn’t lead anywhere, or rather, if the traveler chooses not to take the road…We know what should happen when we see a journey start, or when the novel cycles through the seasons and ends in spring, or when characters dine together. When what should happen doesn’t [we have] irony…Irony—sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, sometimes wry or perplexing—provides additional richness to the literary dish. And it certainly keeps us readers on our toes, inviting us, compelling us, to dig through layers of possible meaning and competing signification. We must remember: irony trumps everything. In other words, every chapter in this book goes out the window when irony comes in the door” (235-44).


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