How to Read Literature Like a Professor By Thomas Foster

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How to Read Literature Like a Professor

  • By Thomas Foster

Every Trip is a Quest!

Eating: Acts of Communion

  • Whenever people eat together, it is a communion. This is not necessarily religious, but it is an act of sharing and peace.

  • A failed meal carries negative connotations.

Eating: Vampires

  • Literal vampires are easy to spot. You don’t need a degree in literary theory to notice when one character sucks blood out of another character’s neck!

    • The subtext here is usually sexual. It is a trait of 19th century literature to address sex indirectly.
  • Symbolic vampirism is trickier. A character can be selfish, exploitive, and place his or her ugly desires above the needs of another.


  • Frankenstein – monster created through no fault of his own, the real monster is the creator

  • Faust – bargains with the devil in exchange for one’s soul

  • Dr. Jekell and Mr. Hyde: the dual nature of humanity, in each of us there is evil

  • Quasimodo – the physical deformity reflects the opposite of the inner character

If it is a Square, It is a Sonnet!

  • My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun; Coral is far more red than her lips' red; If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head. I have seen roses damask'd, red and white, But no such roses see I in her cheeks; And in some perfumes is there more delight Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks. I love to hear her speak, yet well I know That music hath a far more pleasing sound; I grant I never saw a goddess go; My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground: And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare As any she belied with false compare.

References: When in Doubt, It is from Shakespeare!

  • Hamlet: heroic character who seeks revenge, plagued by indecision, is melancholy.

  • Henry IV: a young man who must grow up to become king, must mature to accept his responsibilities.

  • Othello: jealousy is his downfall.

  • Merchant of Venice: theme of justice vs. mercy.

  • King Lear: aging parent, greedy children, a wise fool.

…Or the Bible!

  • Garden of Eden: women tempting men, the apple symbolizes temptation, serpent symbolizes evil, a fall from innocence

  • David and Goliath: overcoming great odds

  • Jonah and the Whale: refusing to face a task and being “eaten” or overwhelmed

  • Job: facing disasters not of the character’s making, suffering, but remaining steadfast

  • The flood: rain as a form of destruction

  • The Apocalypse: Four Horsemen usher in the end of the world

  • Biblical names

Fairy Tales

  • Hansel and Gretel: lost children trying to find their way home

  • Peter Pan: refusal to grow up, eternal youth

  • Little Red Riding Hood: connects to vampire imagery

  • Alice in Wonderland / Wizard of Oz: entering a world that doesn’t work rationally or operates under different rules

  • Cinderella: orphan abused by adopted family

  • Snow White: evil woman who brings death to the innocent

  • Sleeping Beauty: a girl becoming a woman, a long sleep or an avoidance of growing up, saved by a hero

  • Prince Charming: rescuer, interchangeable in fairy tales

It is Greek to Me

  • Odyssey and the Iliad: men in a struggle over a woman, heroic journey home mirrors one’s self discovery

  • Achilles: a small weakness in a strong man

  • Penelope: determination to remain faithful

  • Oedipus: dysfunctional family, being blinded

  • Cassandra: tells a truth nobody wants to hear


  • Snow

    • Death
    • Paralysis
    • Isolation
    • Can be positive – holiday imagery

Is that a Symbol?

  • YES! But there is no definite meaning unless it is an allegory where characters directly match up to other things (characters in Animal Farm directly connect to the Russian Revolution)

  • Symbols have multiple meanings and are open to interpretation

Christ Figures (Her Too!)

  • Wounds on hands and feet

  • Agony

  • Self-sacrificing

  • Loaves, fishes and wine

  • Carpenter

  • Walking on water

  • Confrontation of evil

  • Rising from the dead

  • Disciples

  • Forgiving


  • Can be dangerous – Dedalus and Icarus

  • Can also symbolize freedom

It is ALWAYS about Sex…

  • Look for images of fertility for women and masculinity for men

  • Sometimes coded sexual images can be more intense than literal ones

  • In the past, authors have had to write about sex indirectly in order to avoid censorship

…EXCEPT When It Is about Sex!

  • When authors write directly about sex, they’re writing about something else, such as sacrifice, submission, rebellion, domination, enlightenment, etc.


  • Baptism is symbolic of death and rebirth into new life

  • Drowning is symbolic of baptism – IF the character comes up, symbolically reborn. But drowning can also represent a form of rebirth, choosing to enter a new, different life, leaving the old one behind.

  • Rain can also connect to baptism

‘Tis the Season!

  • Spring = fertility, life, happiness, growth, resurrection

  • Fall = harvest, reaping what we sow, both rewards and punishments

  • Winter = hibernation, lack of growth, death, punishment

  • Christmas = childhood, birth, hope, family

  • Look for irony! (“April is the cruelest month”)

He is Blind for a Reason!

  • Physical blindness mirrors moral, intellectual, or psychological blindness

  • Sometimes ironic – the blind can “see” the truth and the sighted can’t


  • Tuberculosis – a wasting disease, often associated with sexuality or passion (red blood coughed up is the sign)

  • Physical paralysis – mirrors moral, social, spiritual, intellectual, or political paralysis

  • Plague – Divine wrath, philosophical possibilities of suffering on a large scale, the isolation and despair created by destruction, the puniness of humanity in the face of an indifferent world

  • Malaria – means literally “bad air”

  • Venereal disease – reflects immorality OR innocence, when the innocent suffer because of another immorality

  • Fever – mysteriously carries off victims

  • Cancer – festers inside and worsens as it spreads, gnaws away at the victim, often mirrors the emotional state

  • AIDS – modern plague, tendency to be dormant for years, victims are unknowing carriers of death, disproportionately hits the young and the poor.

Is He Serious?

  • Irony is the most important device to look for

  • Failing to observe an ironic moment in literature will often lead to a COMPLETE MISUNDERSTANDING of the author’s intent.

How Do I Spot Irony?

  • Look for the unexpected or surprising –

    • In Waiting for Godot two men stand beside the side of a road and yet they never take a step. Also, “Godot” never shows up
    • In the movie The Social Network Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of facebook, has millions of “friends” on facebook but no actual friends in life
    • Huckleberry Finn repeats racist language that he was raised hearing, but acts with kindness and compassion to Jim, a runaway slave

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