This is what I know. I am seventeen years old and trying to approach the ponderous task of getting into college. As I glance over essay topics, apathy sets in, as I begin to think that I am boring, dull, prude, torpid. Rather than experiencing the flood of an inchoate mass of ideas, I begin to think that I’ve never done anything worth any merit in my life and as I desperately try to scroll through experience, my mind strays further and further away from the concrete. Drifting into what seems like nothingness, I feel like I’m falling into a rabbit’s hole just like Alice. Hopefully, I will find my source of inspiration here, amidst an imaginative, chaotic world. But this isn’t a fairytale. I survey the landscape, and there isn’t a crazy White Rabbit or Mad Hatter or Red Queen in sight. Is this my destination? Do I even have a destination? Am I going mad? Clearly, I need to stop watching psychological movies at midnight.
There appears to be a forest nearby. Perhaps I will stumble upon a spring of water that imparts immortality to its drinkers. Or encounter a talking beaver under the radar. Endless possibilities, that’s what I say. Just have to remember to keep an open mind. I soon find myself drenched in tacit words, profound, unspoken. I wait like a transparent eyeball, silent and inconspicuous. I think to myself, Today is where my book begins; the rest is still unwritten.
Thursday, August 19, 2010
How to Read Literature Like a Professor
Chapter One: Every Trip is a Quest (Except When it’s Not)
A quest is a literary structure and involves five things: a quester, a place to go, a stated reason to go there, challenges and trials en route, and a real reason to go there. The real reason for a quest usually doesn’t involve the stated reason. The real reason for a literary quest is almost always self-knowledge.
Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory entails the story of several knights in their quest to find the Holy Grail. These quests ultimately reveal more about the characters themselves, for Lancelot cannot achieve the grail as a result of his adultery with Guinevere. The only knights to achieve the grail are Percival, Bors, and Galahad. Don Quixote, the titular character of a novel by Miguel de Cervantes, decides to put into practice the chivalrous ideals he has read about in books along with his friend, so the two of them embark on an adventure to defend the weak and destroy the wicked. Oftentimes, however, Don Quixote’s imagination overcomes him, and he ends up harming others more than helping, but his blinding dedication to chivalry reveals his madness and innocence. In Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck Finn and Jim travel down the Mississippi on a raft in order to find freedom. Huck’s quest for freedom includes escaping the pressures and customs of civilized society while Jim desires to freedom from slavery. Along their journey, Huck learns to discard his preconceived stereotypes and notions about slavery and begins to see Jim as an equal human being.
Chapter Two: Nice To Eat with You: Acts of Communion
Whenever people eat or drink together, it’s communion. In literature, a meal scene indicates that characters are getting along. If a well-run meal portends good things for community and understanding, then a failed meal serves as a bad omen. In Bernard Malamud’s novel, The Natural, the protagonist, Roy Hobbs, engages in monumental eating binges and subsequently experiences bellyaches, one of which impairs his performance on the baseball field.
Chapter Three: Nice to Eat You: Acts of Vampires
Vampirism involves selfishness, exploitation, a refusal to respect the autonomy of other people, and also includes characters such as ghosts and doppelgangers. Ghosts and vampires are seldom ever about ghosts and vampires. Washington Irving’s short story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” features a Headless Horseman. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the ghost of Hamlet’s father demands that Hamlet avenge his murder and seek revenge on his uncle, Claudius. Heathcliff, in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, is suspected of being a vampire by his housekeeper in the final chapter of the novel.
Chapter Four: If It’s Square, It’s a Sonnet
A sonnet is a poem that is fourteen lines long and almost always written in iambic pentameter, meaning most lines will contain ten syllables, giving the sonnet its square shape. A sonnet consists of two units of meaning, closely related, but with a shift of some sort taking place between them. A Petrarchan sonnet uses a rhyme scheme that ties the first eight lines (the octave) together, followed by a rhyme scheme that unifies the last six (the sestet). A Shakespearean sonnet, on the other hand, divides up units of meaning by four: the first four lines (or quatrain), the next four, the third four, and the last two (a couplet). Even with this arrangement, the first eight lines have some unity of meaning as do the last six lines.
Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 116” illustrates the division of meaning between the first eight lines and the last six lines. The first quatrain defines love as perfect and unchanging, and the second quatrain uses a guiding star as a metaphor to describe love. The third quatrain describes the endless duration of the effects of love while Shakespeare in his last two lines claims that if he is in error, no man has ever been in love. John Milton’s “On His Blindness” is an example of the Italian, or Petrarchan sonnet, despite the fact that the poem does not divide cleanly into eight lines and six lines. In the first section, the speaker tries to frame his audacious question, and in the second section, a figure named “Patience” delivers the response.
Chapter Five: Now, Where Have I Seen Her Before?
There’s no such thing as a wholly original work of literature. There’s only one story that consists of collective experiences, memories, and lessons, much like Carl Jung’s concept of the “collective unconscious.” Intertextuality is the ongoing interaction between poems or stories. John Steinbeck’s East of Eden draws a lot of material from the story of Genesis. The musical West Side Story retells the story of Romeo and Juliet. Anthony Hecht wrote a parody on Matthew Arnold’s poem, “Dover Beach.” Billy Collins’s poem, “Sweet Talk,” borrows material from several paintings such as Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, and Delacroix’s Odalisque.
Chapter Six: When in Doubt, It’s from Shakespeare…
If we examine any literary period between the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries, we can’t help but notice the dominance of the Bard in all of them. Many authors have borrowed their works’ titles from Shakespeare’s plays. Quoting Shakespeare seems to give a work a sacred-text authority. William Faulkner borrowed the title for The Sound and the Fury from Hamlet, Act V, Scene V. He also utilizes the symbolism for the image of the walking shadow in this soliloquy to represent the Compson family’s former greatness. Ray Bradbury also borrowed his title for Something Wicked This Way Comes from Macbeth. Aldous Huxley borrowed the title for Brave New World from The Tempest.
Chapter Seven…Or the Bible
Many writers borrow titles, enriching motifs, characters, themes, and plots from the Bible’s content. Common biblical stories with symbolic implications include the Garden of Eden, David and Goliath, Jonah and the Whale, Job, the Flood, and the Apocalypse. In Paradise Lost, John Milton narrates the story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God and places it within the larger context of Satan’s rebellion and Jesus’ resurrection. In his “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” John Donne describes spiritual love, the kind of unconditional love that transcends the boundaries and separation that he and his lover will soon experience. Anne Bradstreet, in “Upon the Burning of Our House, July 10th, 1666” echoes an idea of Solomon in Ecclesiastes 1:2 when she says, “All’s vanity.” She also borrows from the book of Job with the line, “I blest his Name that gave and took.” Nathaniel Hawthorne alludes to Matthew 13:45-46, which speaks of a merchant “who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it,” when he reveals that Hester Prynne’s daughter is named Pearl. The Byrds, in their song, Turn! Turn! Turn!, echo messages from the book of Ecclesiastes with lyrics such as, “To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven.”
Chapter Eight: Hanseldee and Greteldum
Many authors borrow material from the “literary canon,” an unofficial master list of works; much argument goes into what and who is in the canon. Metonymy is the rhetorical device in which a part is made to stand for the whole, as when “Washington” is used to represent America’s position on an issue. Writers attempt to make use of details or patterns, portions of a prior text to add depth and texture to a story, to bring out a theme, to lend irony to a statement, to play with readers’ deeply ingrained knowledge of fairy tales. Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream possesses many qualities of a classic fairy tale, for it includes an enchanted forest filled with fairies and hobgoblins that delight in making mischief. When Oberon, the Fairy King, and his servant, Puck, intervene in human affairs, the fate of a young couple is magically transformed. J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan details the story of a mischievous young boy who defiantly refuses to grow up, has the ability to fly, and lives out his existence on a magical island of Neverland along with his group of comrades, the Lost Boys.
Chapter Nine: It’s Greek to Me
Myth is a body of story that matters. Three main types of mythologies (Shakespearean, biblical, and folk/fairy tale) work as sources of material, of correspondences, of depth for the modern writer, to enrich and enhance the reading experience. Of the three, biblical myth probably encompasses the greatest range of human experience. Often, mythical characters act out some of the most basic, primal patterns known to humans. Foster claims that there is no form of dysfunctional family or personal disintegration of character for which there is not a Greek or Roman model. William Faulkner and Leo Tolstoy may have drawn inspiration from these models for the novels The Sound and the Fury and Anna Karenina, respectively. Edgar Allan Poe may have looked to these models for the inspiration of family disintegration as a result of incest in his short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Freud looked to the Greeks and the Romans to come up with the concepts of the Oedipus and Electra Complexes.
Chapter Ten: It’s More Than Just Rain or Snow
Weather is usually never just weather but usually symbolizes fears-perhaps of drowning, death, life, renewal, or cleansing and can even serve to establish mood and atmosphere. Weather can also be used to create irony as it does in T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” in which Eliot begins by calling April “the cruellest month.” The main function of the image of the rainbow is to symbolize divine promise, peace between heaven and earth. Fog almost always symbolizes some kind of confusion or implies that people cannot see clearly, that murky waters obscure their view. In James Joyce’s The Dead, snow is the great, indiscriminate unifier, covering “all the living and the dead.” In William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, water symbolizes both cleansing and purification for Caddy’s sin of promiscuity and her loss of virginity at an early age but symbolizes death for her brother Quentin who commits suicide by drowning.
Interlude: Does He Mean That?
“Intentionalists” are writers who attempt to control every facet of their creative output and who intend almost every effect in their works. Lateral thinking consists of the way writers can keep their eye on the target, whether it is the plot or the dénouement of the novel, and simultaneously bring in an adequate amount of relevant material.
Chapter Eleven…More Than It’s Gonna Hurt You: Concerning Violence
Violence is one of the most personal and intimate acts between human beings and can be symbolic, thematic, biblical, Shakespearean, Romantic, allegorical, or transcendent. Violence usually falls into two categories: the specific injury that causes a character harm, and the narrative violence that causes characters harm in general. The first includes shootings, stabbings, drownings, poisonings, and bombings while the second consists of suffering that authors introduce into their work for plot or thematic development. Violence is extremely prominent in mystery novels. However, mysteries generally lack density while literary fiction, drama, and poetry are chiefly concerned with symbolic layers. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the feud between the Capulets and Montagues reigns supreme in Verona. At one point, Paris poses the question, “Can vengeance be pursued further than death?” At the end of the play the image of violence turns into one of hope as the violent deaths of Romeo and Juliet are looked upon as “poor sacrifices of our enmity.” S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders describes the story of two opposing social groups, the less fortunate boys who defiantly call themselves “greasers,” and the “socs,” the rich society kids. Throughout the novel, the desire for violence and the desire for reconciliation are often in conflict with one another. At one point, Johnny, a greaser accidentally kills Bob, a soc, by stabbing him. Eventually, the novel’s protagonist vows to rise above his life of violence and assist other underprivileged children, for he has realized the pain and futility of gang rivalry.
Chapter Twelve: Is That a Symbol?
If a symbol can stand for only one thing, the author is employing allegory rather than symbolism. Allegories convey certain messages by having things stand for other things on a one-for-one basis. Symbols, on the other hand, involve a range of possible meanings and interpretations. Caves typically suggest a connection to the most basic and primitive elements in our natures and represent secrets. An individual's education, background, philosophical inclination, previous reading experience, and other factors will influence his/her interpretation of a text or the aspects of a text that he/she emphasizes. Sometimes writers emphasize various, distinct elements for a given symbol. In the works of Twain, Crane, and Eliot, the river carries a different meaning. Symbols do not always take on the form of an image or object; events and actions can also be symbolic. When trying to determine what a symbol stands for, associate freely, brainstorm, and take notes. Then organize your thoughts under different headings and reject or accept certain ideas based on whether they seem to apply.
In Moby Dick, Herman Melville employs several cases of symbolism, for the whale symbolizes nature, God, and the implacable universe; Ahab symbolizes man’s conflicted identity, civilization, and human will, and Ishmael represents a poet or philosopher. The title of J.D. Salinger’s novel, The Catcher in the Rye, holds significant symbolic implications. When his sister, Phoebe, asks him what he wants to do with his life, he replies with the image of a “catcher in the rye.” He envisions a field of rye perched high on a cliff on which children play; he says he would like to catch the children if they ever fall, probably from innocence.
Chapter Thirteen: It’s All Political
Irving, like Poe, set himself up in opposition to European literary tradition in an attempt to create a unique American consciousness. James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Walt Whitman joined him in this endeavor. In his poem, “I Hear America Singing,” Whitman conveys his overt sense of patriotism. In his novel, A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens offers an interpretation of the French Revolution that has strongly shaped British views of national identity and political legitimacy. His novel consists of a melodramatic plot that pits private individuals against political systems. In Animal Farm, George Orwell conveys his critique of the Russian Revolution through the pigs, Snowball and Napoleon, standing in for historical figures, Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin, respectively.
Chapter Fourteen: Yes, She’s a Christ Figure, Too
In order to determine whether a character is a Christ figure, he/she may possess one or more of the following traits, according to Foster: 1) crucified, wounds in the hands, feet, side, and head, 2) in agony, 3) self-sacrificing, 4) good with children, 5) good with loaves, fishes, water, wine, 6) thirty-three years of age when last seen, 7) employed as a carpenter, 8) known to use humble modes of transportation, 9) believed to have walked on water, 10) often portrayed with arms outstretched, 11) known to have spent time alone in the wilderness, 12) believed to have had a confrontation with 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) had disciples, twelve at first, although not all equally devoted, 17) very forgiving, 18) came to redeem an unworthy world.
Jim Casy in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, in addition to sharing Jesus Christ’s initials, exhibits several other Christ-like qualities. He willingly sacrifices himself in order to cover for Tom Joad’s attack on a deputy. He also quotes Scripture, such as Ecclesiastes 4: 10-12, which reads, “Two are better than one…For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up. Again, if two lie together, they are warm; but how can one be warm alone?” In addition, Jim Casy spends time alone in the wilderness as Christ does in an effort to find his soul. In the novel, Tom recalls, “Says one time he went out in the wilderness to find his own soul, an’ he foun’ he didn’ have no soul that was his’n. Says he foun’ he jus’ got a little piece of a great big soul….his little piece of a soul wasn’t no good ’less it was with the rest, an’ was whole.” Sydney Carton in Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, is also a Christ figure. The novel ends with one of the most famous final lines of any work, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known,” describing Sydney’s sacrifice of his own life to save Charles Darnay, the man Lucie Manette loved. In addition, as Carton walks toward the guillotine, the narrator mentions a vision of an idyllic Paris and sees “the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out,” making Sydney’s death that of a selfless martyr. Aslan the lion in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia is a Christ figure as well. He sacrifices himself in order to save Edward but rises again from the dead to defeat the White Witch after being slain at the Stone Table.
In addition to these characters, Harry Potter displays Savior qualities in the series by J.K. Rowling. Because both his wizard parents died trying to defend him, Harry is raised under humble circumstances, under the stairs of the Dursleys, similar to Christ’s birth in a stable. After defeating Voldemort for the second time, he lies in a coma for three days, as Christ did in the tomb. Just as Christ endured suffering on the Cross, Harry endures the Cruciatus Curse.
Chapter Fifteen: Flights of Fancy
According to Foster, if a character is suspended in the air, he is one or more of the following: 1) a superhero, 2) a ski jumper, 3) crazy, 4) fictional, 5) a circus act, departing a cannon, 6) suspended on wires, 7) an angel, 8) heavily symbolic. Our comic book heroes defy gravity in several ways, whether through direct flight-as seen in Sky High, tethers, or gadgets. Flight generally represents freedom, escape, return home, largeness of spirit, or love. Irony, however, trumps everything. Authors sometimes use flight to demonstrate alienation, ostracism, and estrangement as Angela Carter does in Nights at the Circus. Often in literature, the freeing of the spirit is depicted in terms of flight; we speak of the soul as taking wing. In James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus, like the Dedalus of Greek myth, must grow wings in order to fly above the tribulations of his life. In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s short story, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” flight actually represents a limiting aspect, for the family that finds the old man with wings in their backyard quickly turns him into a spectacle in order to make money. Eventually, the old man is liberated by flight but not before enduring alienation and estrangement.
Chapter Sixteen: It’s All About Sex…
The pattern of imagery now established in literature is part of the much older tradition identified by Freud, Weston, Frazer, and Jung; lances, swords, guns, and keys serve as phallic symbols while grails and bowls symbolize female sexual organs. In the novel Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, sex is portrayed as child’s play and no longer carries the consequences of emotional attachment. Foster’s discussion of the grail reminded me of Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory in which Lancelot isn’t granted admission to the castle in which the Holy Grail lies as a result of the adultery he has committed with Queen Guinevere. Only Galahad, a pure man, is able to gain entry.
Chapter Seventeen:…Except Sex
Oftentimes, when writers write about sex, they are really writing about something else, such as sacrifice, submission, rebellion, supplication, domination, or enlightenment. In The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner uses the idea of sex to convey notions of complete selflessness which cause the main character, Caddy Compson, to be indifferent to her virginity. In Robert Herrick’s poem, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” the speaker is extolling the more general concept of carpe diem, the need to live in the moment, and the importance of making the most of youth.
Chapter Eighteen: If She Comes Up, It’s Baptism
Foster asserts that writers toss characters into the river for the sake of (a) wish fulfillment, (b) exorcism of primal fear, (c) exploration of the possible, and not just (d) a handy solution to messy plot difficulties. Rescue from drowning may implicate passivity, good fortune, or indebtedness. Grabbing a piece of driftwood may suggest luck and coincidence, serendipity rather than planning. Baptism often symbolizes death, rebirth, or a new identity. Submersion in water does not always, however, signify baptism. Rebirths and baptisms share many common threads, but the purpose of a drowning varies from character revelation to thematic development of violence or failure or guilt to plot complication or denouement. In Langston Hughes’ poem, Suicide’s Note, the speaker personifies the face of the river, saying that it asked for a kiss. This simple explanation is incredibly poetic in the way that it suggests the lack of information in most suicide notes and suggests the possibility that innocence and curiosity can cause suicides. In Oliver Twist, Dickens has Nancy point to the water under London Bridge and comment, “Look at that dark water. How many times do you read of such as I who spring into the tide, and leave no living thing to care for or bewail them. It may be years hence, or it may be only months, but I shall come to that at last.” Dickens reveals the Victorian mindset that links being fallen with death by drowning.
Chapter Nineteen: Geography Matters…
Literary geography typically addresses humans inhabiting spaces and the spaces that inhabit humans. Geography in literature can be revelatory of almost any element of a work including theme, symbolism, plot, mood, and tone. In “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Edgar Allan Poe beautifully merges mood and tone with landscape, architecture, and weather to convey an atmosphere of gloom, despondency, and degeneration. In addition, geography can define or develop character. Geography can and often does play a specific plot role in a literary work. D.H. Lawrence sometimes employed geography as a metaphor for the psyche, a pathway to the mysteries of the subconscious. Foster asserts that in general, when writers send characters south, it’s so that they can run amok. The characters run amok as a result of having direct, raw encounters with the subconscious. Locations that are either high or low have a meaning of their own as well. Low areas are typically associated with swamps, crowds, fog, darkness, fields, heat, unpleasantness, people, life, and death while high areas are associated with snow, ice, purity, thin air, clear views, isolation, life, and death. Obviously, there is some overlap between the two lists.
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden studies the distance traveled from India to England and compares and contrasts geographical characteristics of the two areas. The novel also demonstrates how climate affects people’s way of living, attitude, activities, and actions. Kenneth Grahame’s description of the setting of the story in The Wind in the Willows provides vivid reports of the cities and geography of England. Lafayette County, Mississippi was the primary inspiration for William Faulkner’s apocryphal Yoknapatawpha County.
Chapter Twenty:…So Does Season
Spring typically 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, and winter with old age and resentment and death. In his “Sonnet 18,” Shakespeare compares his lover to a summer’s day. Vivaldi conveys the characteristics associated with seasons in his set of four violin concertos entitled The Four Seasons. “Winter” is peppered with silvery staccato notes, evocative of icy rain, whereas “Summer” evokes a thunderstorm in its final movement. In “The Locust Tree in Flower,” William Carlos Williams tries to allow nature to speak for itself through the use of simple, compressed descriptors, such as “green,” “old,” “bright,” and “sweet.” Even the shape of the poem resembles a tree. In his “In a Station of the Metro,” Ezra Pound compares the faces of people on a subway platform with “petals on a wet, black bough,” suggesting that society suppresses individuality and that human beings are fragile beings that feel a need to be loved. Robert Frost, in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” demonstrates the pure joy that may be experienced as a result of stopping in the midst of our daily lives to enjoy and appreciate the beauty and simplicity of nature. In their song, California Dreamin’, The Mamas and The Papas describe a mood of solemnity with phrases about the brown leaves and grey skies that accompany a winter’s day.
Chapter Twenty-One: Marked for Greatness
Many of our ancestors equated external signs with internal qualities, such as character and integrity. For instance, the Puritans attributed the struggles they faced while trying to establish the Massachusetts Bay colony to some sort of "sin in the camp." The desperate need to identify the source of this immorality may have led many of the clergymen to accept the outrageous accusations of witchcraft that ran rampant during the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 as is detailed in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. In literature, however, we usually understand physical imperfection in symbolic terms. Scars and deformities essentially have to do with being different.
Foster states that monsters, such as Frankenstein, represent, among other things, forbidden insights, a modern pact with the devil, and the result of science without ethics. The most obvious frame of reference for the monster is the Faustian legend, such as Washington Irving’s “The Devil and Tom Walker” in which Tom Walker agrees to “certain conditions” laid out by “Old Scratch” in exchange for an exorbitant sum of money. Unlike most Faustian tales, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein does not involve a demonic personage offering the pejorative bargain, so the admonitory being is the product rather than the source of the atrocious crime. In this way, the monster serves as a caveat, warning against the dangers of greed for money, power, and other obsessions. In Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, the devil’s ability to deceive is manifested in the character of Lord Henry Wotton, a superficial aesthete who eventually ends up corrupting the novel’s titular protagonist. Romanticism gave us the notion of the dual nature of humanity, the idea that each of us has good and evil within ourselves. Robert Louis Stevenson plays off this concept by employing a doppelganger in his novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
In the book series by J.K. Rowling, the scar, shaped like a lightning bolt, on Harry Potter’s forehead is a badge of honor, a sign of his having emerged victorious in a great battle and an omen for the battles to come. The scar may also represent sacrifice since Harry’s parents gave up their lives to protect their one and only son. In J.D. Salinger’s novel, The Catcher in the Rye, the death of his brother Allie leaves a psychological scar on Holden Caulfield, the novel’s protagonist. As a result of his parents’ neglect, Holden cherishes an intimate relationship with his innocent sister, Phoebe. Because Holden is tormented by his brother’s death, he carries around a baseball glove on which Allie used to write poems in green ink. In Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera, Erik tries to use a mask to hide his deformities in an attempt to acquire love and acceptance. Rene Magritte conveys a similar idea in his painting, The Son of Man, in which a green apple obscures a man’s face, suggesting the mystery and uncertainty inherent in all relationships and the impossibility of fully understanding another human being. Concerning the painting, Magritte explained, “Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.” Nemo, from Pixar’s movie Finding Nemo, was born with a “lucky fin” that symbolized all the reasons for a parent to worry but also a child’s ability to adapt and overcome obstacles.
Chapter Twenty-Two: He’s Blind for a Reason, You Know
By introducing a blind character into the work, an author probably wants to emphasize levels of sight and blindness beyond the merely physical aspects. Seeing and blindness are generally issues involved in many works, even when there is no hint of blindness on the part of a novel’s participant. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee utilizes this idea to show us that Scout and Jem have been blind to what a kind and caring neighbor Boo Radley is as a result of their misperceptions and their tendency to trust rumors. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Huck Finn is also blinded by his preconceived notions about slavery at the beginning of the novel but eventually learns to think and reason for himself. Similarly, in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is blinded by his greediness and his indifference to the plight of others. After visits from the three spirits of Christmas, Scrooge reverses his once cold-hearted approach to life. Foster advises that if an author wants his audience to know something important about his character (or the work at large), he should introduce it early, before he needs it.
Chapter Twenty-Three: It’s Never Just Heart Disease…
Writers may use heart ailments as a kind of shorthand for the character or they may use it as a social metaphor. According to Foster, heart disease can serve as an emblem for bad love, loneliness, cruelty, pederasty, disloyalty, cowardice, and/or lack of determination. Authors, as a rule, are chiefly interested in their characters’ humanity. In Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, Henry Fleming’s strength of heart is in question throughout much of the narrative. His “red badge” is symbolic in that it represents the changes that take place within Henry’s heart and the blood and wounds that Henry and his comrades carry with them following the war. In Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the sound of the narrator’s beating heart is symbolic of the guilt he feels for the crime he has committed.
Chapter Twenty-Four:…And Rarely Just Illness
Foster states that there are several principles that govern the use of disease in works of literature: 1) Not all diseases are created equal. Some diseases appear in literature more frequently than others. Cholera usually trumps tuberculosis. 2) It should be picturesque. Consumption gives its victims the appearance of martyrs from medieval paintings. 3) It should be mysterious in origin. 4) It should have strong symbolic or metaphorical possibilities. Tuberculosis was a wasting disease, in terms of both the individual wasting away and the lives that had often barely begun. Cancer also began to pervade the literary scene in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This fourth consideration, concerning the metaphorical possibilities that a disease offers, overrides all others. Writers in this century also employ AIDS quite often, as the disease also possesses a political angle.
Paralysis-physical, moral, social, spiritual, intellectual, political-figures prominently in James Joyce’s works. In Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Dr. Rank, a neighbor to the Helmers, is dying of tuberculosis to the spine. Rank makes an interesting comment saying that he inherited the disease from his father’s dissolute living. In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Beth contracts scarlet fever from the Hummels’ baby while caring for it, demonstrating her selfless nature, and eventually dies. In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, the Captain’s raising of the yellow flag, signaling an outbreak of cholera onboard, symbolizes Florentino’s surrender to his desire for Fermina’s love. In Nicholas Sparks’s A Walk to Remember, Jamie Sullivan, a victim of leukemia, allows her illness to strengthen her faith with God and help her learn that true love is eternal and endures forever.
Chapter Twenty-Five: Don’t Read with Your Eyes
Foster instructs readers, “Don’t read with your eyes.” Rather, allow yourself to be transported to a different time and place with its own social, historical, cultural, and personal background. A different model of professional reading that Foster denounces, deconstruction, approaches all literature with skepticism and doubt and asserts that an author is not really in charge of his materials because his work is controlled by the values and prejudices prevalent in his time. Foster warns against the dangers of too much acceptance of an author’s viewpoint.
The point of a last-chance-for-change story is nearly always: can this person be saved? When reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, one has to remember the setting consists of a Puritan town, one in which adultery is a seriously reprimanded action and one in which church ministers hold society’s morality to very high standards.
Chapter Twenty-Six: Is He Serious? And Other Ironies
Irony trumps everything. Irony takes our expectations and upends them, making them work against us. Mysteries, like irony, make great use of deflection from expectation. Irony, whether comic, tragic, wry, or perplexing, adds richness to the literary platter. Irony doesn’t work for everyone, however.
Jane Austen begins Pride and Prejudice with the famous opening line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” The rest of the novel plays off the comic irony of this opening statement, as Mrs. Bennet desperately tries to find suitable, rich bachelors to whom she can marry off her daughters. In O. Henry’s short story, “The Gift of the Magi,” a man and his wife are too young to buy each other Christmas presents, so the wife cuts off her treasured hair to purchase a chain for his heirloom pocked watch only to discover that her husband pawned his watch to buy a set of combs for her long, beautiful hair. The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum is a story whose plot revolves around irony. Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion all travel to the great city of Oz to obtain a certain ability-intelligence, love, courage-only to learn that their answers lay within themselves.