25. It’s My Symbol and I’ll Cry If I Want To
For much of the book, Foster explores common symbols that show up repeatedly throughout literature. These common symbols often have a well-defined set of secondary meanings. Readers are aware that raining and drowning have a certain set of connotations, and they can draw on this familiarity to make sense of what they read. However, when symbols are strange and new, such as a mathematical compass or a rhinoceros, there is less of a sense of what they might signify. To parse these new symbols, Fosters explains that each piece of literature teaches readers how to understand it; the clues and significance of what any symbol means will be available within the text itself. Further, Foster encourages readers to use what they already know. Even if a text doesn’t directly relate to previous texts, the act of determining meaning is a practice, a skill that can be honed.
26. Is He Serious? And Other Ironies
Foster argues that irony trumps everything in literature. Because irony defies expectations, every other chapter in How to Read Literature Like a Professor that concerns traditions and conventions is upended by irony. Irony occurs when there is a disconnect between the signifier and the signified. For example, take the man who crashes into a billboard but leaves the wreck unscathed because his seatbelt functioned as expected. If the billboard is an advertisement for seatbelt safety, but it then topples and kills him, that is irony. The signifier–the billboard–acts in unexpected ways when it signifies death instead of safety. Foster spends the chapter exploring different instances of irony in literature and how these examples turn his previous arguments on their heads. While rain often symbolizes spring and new life, as Foster posited in his chapter on weather, in A Farewell to Arms, the main character experiences rain after his baby and wife die in childbirth. The irony of the rain drives home the absence of life and the absence of new beginnings. Foster suggests that readers keep an eye out for irony.
27. A Test Case
This chapter gives the readers an opportunity to give Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden Party” a close reading. Foster provides the full text and prompts readers to go through a series of questions about the story, asking them to examine what the story signifies and how it signifies it. Then, Foster provides an in-depth analysis of the story so that readers can check what meaning they gleaned from the story against the work of the professor.
Postlude: Who’s in Charge Here?
Foster wonders what it means if a reader’s interpretation of a text is misaligned with what the author intended. Foster posits that the most important thing is the words on the page and encourages readers to pay attention to nothing else but the text itself. Foster discusses the idea that the author is dead. Rather than being related to the mortality of individual writers, this idea supposes a death of the authority of the creator of the text. “The author is dead” means that once a text is put out into the world, its ownership is rusted from the creator and given over to the readers. As a result, Foster encourages readers to own the texts they read.
Foster tells his readers that they don’t need to memorize codes or pour over the examples he’s given in the book or the myriad other traditions that could be included in a book like this. Instead, he says that finding meaning and exploring the nature of symbols, patterns, and references becomes second nature with time. Finally, Foster reminds readers that engaging with literature is an act of play.
Foster uses questioning, or the Socratic method, to encourage readers to think through answers themselves. Foster tends to use this technique especially frequently when he’s encouraging his readers to think outside the box or strike out and interpret on their own. This illustrates that while his guide is a useful method to encourage budding readers to think through traditional symbols and patterns, the larger purpose is to help readers think through and with texts on their own. For example, in his discussion on unexpected symbols, Foster questions readers heavily, often stringing together a series of questions in a row to encourage them to think through the answers for themselves. Symbols that have no blueprint or strong previous examples in literature, such as the flea, demand that the reader engages with them on an individual level. Foster encourages this kind of thinking by providing just as many questions as he does answers.
In exploring the idea that “the author is dead,” Foster frees the reader from the responsibility of adhering to what a given author intended and instead locates all the authority a reader needs to interpret a text inside the text itself. Foster uses the metaphorical idea that “the author is dead,” to encapsulate the idea that once a text is given to a reader the writer’s grip on it is terminated. Rather than literally referring to deceased writers, Foster’s metaphor refers to the power of the reader to find meaning within a text unencumbered by whatever a writer may or may not have intended. Whatever the writer intended or wanted to communicate needs to be accessible within the text itself. As a result, readers don’t need to look to or be faithful to the author’s intentions and instead can feel as though they own the text through reading, or at least their version of the text. They are free then to make any imaginative interpretations that they can support with evidence from the text. Foster closes the book with this idea in order to emphasize that the sole ownership of the text is ultimately with the reader.
This final section explores the theme of the reader bringing their imagination to the text in order to explore the meaning hidden beneath the surface of a text. The final chapters of the book heavily emphasize the reader’s creative power in interacting with a text. In the test case, Foster encourages readers to engage fully with their own interpretation of Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden Party” before he ever offers his own interpretation, suggesting that by the end of the book the reader should be relying on their own skills rather than looking to Foster as an authority. In the Postlude and the Envoi, Foster repeatedly emphasizes that readers really need to own the texts they interact with, and that literature is not a one-way street to further empower the readers’ intuition and confidence. Foster emphasizes the relationship between readers and writers as symbiotic. Writers engage in imaginative acts, pulling together symbols, patterns, references, myths, archetypes, and more to weave a tapestry of story and meaning. Readers, in turn, engage just as imaginatively with that tapestry, wrapping it around themselves and making it their own.