How to Read Literature Like a Professor:
A Lively and Entertaining
Guide to Reading Between the Lines
by Thomas C. Foster
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Red-Headed League,” Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson both observe Jabez Wilson
carefully, yet their differing interpretations of the same details
reveal the difference between a “Good Reader” and a
“Bad Reader.” Watson can only describe what he sees;
Holmes has the knowledge to interpret what he sees, to draw conclusions,
and to solve the mystery.
Understanding literature need no longer be a mystery -- Thomas
Foster’s book will help transform you from a naive, sometimes
confused Watson to an insightful, literary Holmes. Professors
and other informed readers see symbols, archetypes, and patterns
because those things are there -- if you have learned to look
for them. As Foster says, you learn to recognize the literary
conventions the “same way you get to Carnegie Hall. Practice.” (xiv).
Note to students: These short writing assignments will
let you practice your literary analysis and they will help me
get to know you and your literary tastes. Whenever I ask for
an example from literature, you may use short stories, novels,
plays, or films (Yes, film is a literary genre). If your literary
repertoire is thin and undeveloped, use the Appendix to jog your
memory or to select additional works to explore. At the very
least, watch some of the “Movies to Read” that are
listed on pages 293-294. Please note
that your responses should be paragraphs -- not pages!
Even though this is analytical writing, you may use “I” if you deem it important to do so; remember, however, that most
uses of “I” are just padding. For example, “I
think the wolf is the most important character in ‘Little Red
Ridinghood’” is padded. As you compose each written response,
re-phrase the prompt as part of your answer. In other words,
I should be able to tell which question you are answering without
referring back to the prompts.
Concerning mechanics, pay special attention to pronouns. Make
antecedents clear. Say Foster first; not “he.” Remember
to capitalize and punctuate titles properly for each genre.
You may download a set of Notes
(by Marti Nelson) on this book to help you in your analysis.
Also a copy of these assignments
(adapted from Dona Anglin’s) in Word.
PowerPoint version of Marti Nelson’s notes (sent to me by some unnamed contributor).
Introduction: How’d He Do That?
How do memory, symbol, and pattern affect the reading of literature?
How does the recognition of patterns make it easier to read complicated
literature? Discuss a time when your appreciation of a literary
work was enhanced by understanding symbol or pattern.
Chapter 1 -- Every Trip Is a Quest
(Except When It’s Not)
List the five aspects of the QUEST and then apply
them to something you have read (or viewed) in the form used
on pages 3-5.
Chapter 2 -- Nice to Eat with You:
Acts of Communion
Choose a meal from a literary work and apply the ideas
of Chapter 2 to this literary depiction.
Chapter 3: --Nice to Eat You: Acts
What are the essentials of the Vampire story? Apply this to a
literary work you have read or viewed.
Chapter 4 -- If It’s Square, It’s
Select three sonnets and show which form they are. Discuss how
their content reflects the form. (Submit copies of the sonnets,
marked to show your analysis).
Chapter 5 --Now, Where Have I Seen
Define intertextuality. Discuss three examples that have helped
you in reading specific works.
Chapter 6 -- When in Doubt, It’s
Discuss a work that you are familiar with that alludes to or
reflects Shakespeare. Show how the author uses this connection
thematically. Read pages 44-46 carefully. In these pages, Foster
shows how Fugard reflects Shakespeare through both plot and theme.
In your discussion, focus on theme.
Chapter 7 -- ...Or the Bible
Read “Araby” (available here).
Discuss Biblical allusions that Foster does not mention. Look
at the example of the “two great jars.” Be creative
and imaginative in these connections.
Chapter 8 -- Hanseldee and Greteldum
Think of a work of literature that reflects a fairy tale. Discuss
the parallels. Does it create irony or deepen appreciation?
Chapter 9 -- It’s Greek to Me
Write a free verse poem derived or inspired by characters or
situations from Greek mythology. Be prepared to share your poem
with the class. Note that there are extensive links to classical
mythology on my Classics
Chapter 10 -- It’s More Than Just
Rain or Snow
Discuss the importance of weather in a specific literary work,
not in terms of plot.
Interlude -- Does He Mean That
Chapter 11 --...More Than It’s Gonna
Hurt You: Concerning Violence
Present examples of the two kinds of violence found in literature.
Show how the effects are different.
Chapter 12 -- Is That a Symbol?
Use the process described on page 106 and investigate the symbolism
of the fence in “Araby.” (Mangan’s sister stands behind
Chapter 13 -- It’s All Political
Assume that Foster is right and “it is all political.” Use his criteria to show that one of the major works assigned
to you as a freshman is political.
Chapter 14 -- Yes, She’s a Christ
Apply the criteria on page 119 to a major character in a significant
literary work. Try to choose a character that will have many
matches. This is a particularly apt tool for analyzing film --
for example, Star Wars, Cool Hand Luke, Excalibur, Malcolm
X, Braveheart, Spartacus, Gladiator and Ben-Hur.
Chapter 15 -- Flights of Fancy
Select a literary work in which
flight signifies escape or freedom. Explain in detail.
Chapter 16 -- It’s All About Sex...
Chapter 17 -- ...Except the Sex
OK ..the sex chapters. The key idea from this chapter is that
“scenes in which sex is coded rather than explicit can work
at multiple levels and sometimes be more intense that literal
depictions” (141). In other words, sex is often suggested
with much more art and effort than it is described, and,
if the author is doing his job, it reflects and creates theme
or character. Choose a novel or movie in which sex is suggested,
but not described, and discuss how the relationship is suggested
and how this implication affects the theme or develops characterization.
Chapter 18 -- If She Comes Up, It’s
Think of a “baptism scene” from a significant literary
work. How was the character different after the experience? Discuss.
Chapter 19 -- Geography Matters...
Discuss at least four different aspects of a specific
literary work that Foster would classify under “geography.”
Chapter 20 -- ...So Does Season
Find a poem that mentions a specific season. Then discuss how
the poet uses the season in a meaningful, traditional, or unusual
way. (Submit a copy of the poem with your analysis.)
Interlude -- One Story
Write your own definition for archetype. Then identify an archetypal
story and apply it to a literary work with which you are familiar.
Chapter 21 -- Marked for Greatness
Figure out Harry Potter’s scar. If you aren’t familiar with Harry
Potter, select another character with a physical imperfection
and analyze its implications for characterization.
Chapter 22 -- He’s Blind for a Reason,
Chapter 23 -- It’s Never Just Heart Disease...
Chapter 24 -- ...And Rarely Just Illness
Recall two characters who died of a disease in a literary work.
Consider how these deaths reflect the “principles governing
the use of disease in literature” (215-217). Discuss the
effectiveness of the death as related to plot, theme, or symbolism.
Chapter 25 -- Don’t Read with Your
After reading Chapter 25, choose a scene or episode
from a novel, play or epic written before the twentieth century.
Contrast how it could be viewed by a reader from the twenty-first
century with how it might be viewed by a contemporary reader.
Focus on specific assumptions that the author makes, assumptions
that would not make it in this century.
Chapter 26 -- Is He Serious? And
Select an ironic literary work and explain the multivocal nature
of the irony in the work.
Chapter 27 -- A Test Case
Read “The Garden Party” by Katherine Mansfield, the
short story starting on page 245. Complete the exercise on pages
265-266, following the directions exactly. Then compare your
writing with the three examples. How did you do? What does the
essay that follows comparing Laura with Persephone add to your
appreciation of Mansfield’s story?
Choose a motif not discussed in this book (as the horse reference
on page 280) and note its appearance in three or four different
works. What does this idea seem to signify?
Adapted from Assignments originally developed by Donna
Anglin. Notes by Marti Nelson.
If you have questions, you may email me over the summer