"How to Read Literature Like a Professor" Book Analysis

Categories: Novel ReadingNovels

Within the book How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster, Foster affirms that there are deeper literary meanings interlaced within literary texts. The author teaches the reader how to uncover those hidden truths by reading such texts with the knowledge and perception of a professor. Through Foster’s help, the reader is able to identify and decode literary elements that are detrimental to the true meaning of a text that can easily be overlooked as having little to no meaning to at all.

In Chapter 25: It’s My Symbol and I’ll Cry If I Want To of How to Read Literature Like a Professor Foster covers the unique and odd symbolism that can surface within a literary text and how to access our previous knowledge of other symbols to help figure out the meaning of new, private symbols. These ideas of symbolism and the process to which one must use to decode them are further developed in the book Atonement by Ian McEwan in the form of a vase, dresses, moths, and water.

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One of the first symbols that presents itself in Atonement by Ian McEwan is the portrayed through the dresses worn by Cecilia, Lola, and Briony. Utilizing Foster’s strategy: “use what you know”, the reader can already infer that the dresses regard maturity of the wearer. (Foster 248). At the play rehearsal of The Trials of Arabella Briony wears a white muslin dress which in comparison to Lola’s cashmere sweater and pleated flannel trousers paired with “a velvet choker of tiny pearls” exemplifies Briony’s childish and immature nature.

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(McEwan 32). Later that night upon Leon’s return Cecilia chose a green backless gown signaling her availability to Robbie, while Lola changed into a constricting dress that Briony muses she chose due to her belief that “attaining adulthood was all about the eager acceptance of such impediments”(McEwan 114).

The tight dress Lola wore symbolizing the ruse Lola fell into with Paul Marshall; once she chooses to keep quiet about his crime, she is confined to him and their lie for eternity. In one of the last scenes of the novel, McEwan presents Briony in a dove-gray dress, symbolizing that she is finally released from her guilt and at peace with her story—she had finally matured enough to accept what she had done. In using “what you know” the reader is able to rely on previous literary knowledge and apply that to the symbols they come across in Atonement when trying to dissect them. A constant symbol portrayed throughout Atonement was the Tallis family heirloom—a vase—given to Jack Tallis’s brother Clem to honor his liberation of a village in World War I. Uncle Clem’s death in World War 1 connects the vase to two wars, both of which result in loss of the Tallis family. In Chapter 25 of How To Read Literature Like A Professor, Foster makes the point that secondary meanings “deepen the meaning of the surface story” and it is through this point that we see a parallel of the vase representing the love Robbie Turner that exists between Cecilia Tallis, their relationship being both precious and delicate. (Foster 243). Robbie and Cecilia’s fountain encounter which ends in the lip of Uncle Clem’s vase to come away and splint into two pieces. Cecilia’s mending of the vase with sealant parallels with her and Robbie’s physical mend of their relationship in the library. In alignment with Foster’s claim that symbols can mean “more than one thing simultaneously.”, the vase can also be viewed as a symbol of Cecilia’s connection with her family. (Foster 242). The first cracks in the vase foreshadows the inevitable ruin of Cecilia and Robbie’s relationship after the Tallis family falsely condemn Robbie for the rape of Lola.

The final shattering of the vase that occurred during the war was symbolic of Robbie and Cecilia deaths, they never stood a chance as forces beyond their control broke both the vase and their relationship. Lastly, the vase can be seen as a symbol of Briony’s guilt over her false testimony of Robbie. By no accident did Briony reveal the ultimate fate of the vase and thus of Robbie and Cecilia during her fictional visit to Cecilia’s house, though she attempts to atone by rewriting the relationship’s ending as a happy one. Giving them the ending they deserved. The one that she took away. The existence of secondary meanings entices the reader to look deeper into the story and elements within it to fully grasp the meaning McEwan is trying to convey within his book. Water is a repetitive symbol seen throughout the book Atonement representing both life and rebirth. Though water is a well-known symbol for such representations, the knowledge that “you know more than you think you do” allows the reader to pick up on McEwan’s subtle integration of the symbol and confirms that something deeper is occurring. (Foster 249).

When Uncle Clem’s vase lip breaks off during Cecilia and Robbie’s encounter at the fountain, the broken pieces fall into the fountain to which Cecilia “climbed into the water in her underwear.” to retrieve them. (McEwan 29). It is through her submersion into the fountain water that Cecilia is reborn as a “fragile white nymph”—an object of desire to Robbie. During the war, water plays another significant role throughout his deployment in France, Robbie is on a constant search for water to keep him alive. His march toward Dunkirk is a symbol of his determination to survive and return Cecilia. This hope of reuniting with his love is the only thing that keeps Robbie alive and moving. Water is a source of life, rebirth, and revitalization, however, takes a turn in part 3 of Atonement as bodies of water which were once Briony’s refuge had now become poisonous. A glass of water became a staple of a cleansing of her guilt, and it is a result of the undeserving forgiveness for her crime that Briony is unable to be cleansed when drinking the water Friona offered her.

Fiona was incapable of taking away any ounce of Briony’s guilt, the only people who could do that were Cecilia and Robbie. By Cecilia not offering a glass of water to Briony during the fictional visit to Cecilia symbolized the sister’s refusal to deburden Briony of her guilt and forgive her—Briony was deserving of forgiveness. Due to Fosters advice to be confident in one’s prior literary knowledge, the reader can identify water being a symbol widely used throughout the novel. The focal point of the book’s account is a secret, a hidden truth, to which McEwan uses to lure the reader into the story. The significant nature of a secret lies in its form rather than context, making the source its fascination totally negative. The paradoxical outcome is that the positive substance at the core of the secret, the proof that can be accumulated and broke down, is viably sidelined by the concealment around it. McEwan’s attention to this paradox is confirmed by his symbolic investigation of the empty, purely formal secret. The examination of the secret is found in Mrs. Tallis’ reflection on why moths are drawn toward the light, to where they are most defenseless against predators. She reviews the clarification given by a science teacher she once met, “He had told her it was the visual impression of an even deeper darkness beyond the light that drew them in. Even though they might be eaten, they had to obey the instinct that made them seek out the darkest place, on the far side of the light—and in this case, it was an illusion.”. (McEwan 140).

The moths catch the essential paradox of the formal secret—they fly into the symbolic light in pursuit of a deeper fanciful darkness. The secret is symbolic of a promise of knowledge, yet it is a promise of a void of which may perpetually remain a mystery forever. This paradox is exemplary of Foster’s claim that “every work teaches us how to read it as we go along.” as moths being used as a symbol and hinting at a paradox is a unique, individual symbol; however, as you read Atonement, the reader learns to focus on stories of the characters as they often signal a deeper literary meaning. (Foster 249). The ideas from chapter 25: It’s My Symbol and I’ll Cry If I Want To from How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster, that vary from using “what you know” to “every work teaches us to read as we go along” to secondary meanings “deepen the meaning of the surface story” are deeply developed throughout Atonement by Ian McEwan. Foster’s ideas from chapter 25 gives the reader confidence not only in their literary history, but as well as their ability to decipher uncommon symbols that present themselves in the book. The numerous symbols that appear within Atonement allow the reader to apply Foster’s advice on how to get to the deeper meaning of the book.

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"How to Read Literature Like a Professor" Book Analysis. (2021, Oct 04). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/how-to-read-literature-like-a-professor-book-analysis-essay

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