Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text's major themes.
Throughout the book, Foster discusses irony in nearly every chapter to illustrate that literature, especially modern literature, relies on irony to play with conventions and defy expectations. Foster defines irony as when the signifier and the signified relate in unexpected ways. For example, if an arrow is the murder weapon but it is used like a knife, the signified—or what the arrow means—is unstable. To solve the murder, observers need to look at the arrow in unexpected ways. Foster often uses the work of Angela Carter to explore irony, as Carter’s texts often turn traditions on their heads. For example, in his discussion of fairy tales, he illustrates how Carter uses ironic retellings to upend sexist ideas carried in fairy tales. In his discussion of flying humans, he uses Carter’s Nights at the Circus to illustrate how Carter uses Fevver’s ability to fly not to signify freedom, as expected. Instead, Fevver’s ability to fly actually lands her in a cage. While many of Foster’s generalities help readers identify the most common interpretation of given symbols, Foster uses irony to urge readers to always be aware of the unexpected.
Foster explores the motif of coded language throughout the book, illustrating the ways that pre-modern moral conventions drove writers to code taboo subjects in their texts. For example, it was more or less forbidden to write openly about sex in the Victorian era. This led to many writers exploring sexual themes using coded language, such as using vampires to write about the overwhelming power of desire or using scenes of shared meals to express physical consummation. Pre-modern writers also used coded language when exploring diseases, such as when sexually transmitted diseases were cast instead as consumption, veiling the fact that what characters were consumed by was not tuberculosis but punishment for their wonton desire. Foster discusses the visual antecedent of this tendency when he explores the Hayes Codes, the rules by which film was able to communicate sexual relationships without depicting sex, relying on such imagery as billowing curtains or crashing waves. Foster also discusses the different codes of literature, conventions, and cultural expectations that readers can use to find deeper meaning in texts.
Layers of Meaning
Foster discusses different layers of meaning inherent in a piece of literature in order to illustrate the complexity of fully understanding a text. Many readers begin by understanding the surface level of a text, negotiating what happened in the plot and understanding who the characters are and how they relate to one another. This is the text-level layer of meaning. Foster’s primary thesis is that there’s a world of meaning underneath this surface level. It’s comprised of symbolic meaning, pattern recognition, and intertextual meaning through references that help the reader understand the larger territory that the author is exploring. Foster also discusses the interpretations that the readers themselves bring to the text and engage their own imagination as they read. This creates another personal layer of meaning that interacts with the text-level, symbolic, and intertextual layers of meaning. Throughout How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Foster teaches readers how to move between these overlapping layers of meaning and to understand each of them in relation to each other.