4. Now, Where Have I Seen Her Before?
Foster compares pattern recognition in reading literature to connect-the-dot drawings. The more someone practices connecting the dots, the easier it is to see the underlying design. In the same way, the more someone reads, the more adept they will be at recognizing underlying patterns. He posits that there’s no such thing as an entirely original work of literature and that all texts have references to other texts.
Foster argues that nearly every aspect of Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato is borrowed from other literature to create something wholly original. The novel is the story of the main character, Paul, in the Vietnam War and is told in three parts. In an imagined trip to Paris, Paul uses novels, stories, and histories that he has read to create details for his trip. Foster says this parallels the way stories are written, with writers borrowing from the stories they know to write texts. The novel also borrows from Alice in Wonderland and the mythology surrounding Sacajawea. Because all stories are part of other stories, every piece of literature is part of one epic, ever-unfolding story. The references and interconnections between pieces of literature are sometimes direct, such as T.C. Boyle’s “The Overcoat II,” a revisioning of Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” and sometimes they are more subtle, such as a miser in a story evoking Scrooge.
The function of these references is to add another layer of meaning to the text. In O’Brien’s novel, the references to Alice in Wonderland emphasize immediately that the underground scenes are strange and otherworldly. Writers can also use this intertextuality to turn tropes or references on their heads. For example, Angela Carter plays with Shakespeare references, defying and disrupting readers’ expectations.
Foster compares pattern recognition to mushroom hunting, emphasizing that when readers know what to look for, their reading can become more precise.
5. When in Doubt, It’s From Shakespeare...
Foster provides a survey of films, TV shows, and novels that reference Shakespeare, saying that Shakespeare is everywhere. He then provides a list of phrases from Shakespeare that are often referenced in literature and life. Identifying Shakespearean references and exploring intertextuality helps imbue literature with deeper meaning. For example, recognizing the Hamlet reference in T.S. Eliot’s “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” allows readers to recognize Prufrock’s character’s inadequacy and introduces a conversation between Eliot’s poem and Shakespeare’s play. Like Eliot, writers often reference Shakespeare to play with the Bard’s work and introduce deeper levels of meaning.
6. ...Or the Bible
Like Shakespeare’s work, the Bible is often a source of literary references. From Pulp Fiction to East of Eden, Biblical references appear everywhere in film and literature. Judeo-Christian imagery and themes appear in the form of serpents, tongues of flames, parting waters, loaves and fishes, the devil, and more. In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the subtle Biblical imagery of the four horsemen of the apocalypse refers to the four white slavers who are coming to take Sethe's children. The imagery both evokes the Biblical story and signals to readers that what is coming for the main character is the end of the world. In “Araby,” James Joyce evokes the story of the fall of Adam and Eve in order to tell the tale of his main character’s loss of innocence. The two jars at the bazaar symbolize the Biblical guards of Eden who protect paradise and keep humans away from the tree of life. This emphasizes how final the main character’s loss of innocence is. Though many authors use direct references to the Bible, many modern and postmodern texts handle religious references with irony to elucidate the rift between religious tradition and the present. For example, in The Satanic Verses, Rushdie draws on the Koran ironically to emphasize the characters’ wickedness. Foster ends the chapter by describing how a line in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” about the cup of trembling is an example of a subtle Biblical reference that can be picked up on even when its meaning isn’t immediate. Though a reader can understand the story without knowing that the line is a Biblical reference, this knowledge gives the story deeper meaning and elevates it to something timeless and archetypal.
This section introduces the symbol of the connect-the-dot drawing, which illustrates how a reader’s skill with pattern recognition improves over time. When first encountering a connect-the-dot drawing, the author just sees a bunch of dots. It can be quite tricky to discern the hidden pattern among the dots. Often it takes a lot of practice before the pattern can be seen among the dots right away. In the same way, when first reading texts or when developing as a reader, a piece of literature can look like just so many dots. The underlying pattern can be elusive, and it can take a long time before the meaning, symbols, and subterranean design emerges to the reader and begins to make sense. Like practicing at connect-the-dot drawings, being able to spot patterns in pieces of literature is a skill that’s honed with time.
This section also explores mushroom hunting, which symbolizes the way readers’ perception changes when they begin to explore literature on a deeper level. The author illustrates the parallel with an anecdote about how the first time he searches nature for mushrooms, it was difficult to pick them out, but as his father coached him, he began to discern the different shapes of the mushrooms on his own and describes how his seeing became more focused. In the same way, professors can teach readers to discern patterns, symbols, and other significant features of pieces of literature. The metaphor suggests both directly and subtly that professors don’t have to lead students directly to literary interpretations or point them out explicitly. In fact, doing this would rob the students of the experience of honing their own interpretive skills. Instead, professors can lead students close to the significant portions of a text and allow them to rely on their own developing perception to discern the patterns that create meaning.
Foster draws on examples from popular culture throughout the book to help readers understand that reading literature is a lot like interpreting other forms of art that they may be more familiar with. For example, Foster begins his discussion of the ubiquity of Shakespeare references with a list of television shows and films that have relied on Shakespearean plays and themes. Drawing on subjects that readers might be more familiar with than the original Shakespeare plays, such as the show Moonlighting or Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 retelling of Romeo + Juliet, helps create a sense of familiarity. It also helps those learning to recognize Shakespearean references to have confidence in their existing knowledge of the Bard’s work. Foster continues using this technique when he lists common Shakespearean phrases that are used in everyday language. He not only proves his point that Shakespearean references surround readers throughout their lives, but he also illustrates that every reader has an introductory knowledge of at least some of Shakespeare’s most famous works. These references also drive home the point that because readers make meaning of tv shows, films, and everyday speech in their lives, they also already have the tools they need to begin to elucidate the meaning in literature.
Foster explores the significant influence of the Bible and religion in general on literature in great depth to further provide readers with tools to identify layers of meaning within a text. By introducing a wide list of literary references from Beloved to “Araby” to “Sonny’s Blues” to The Satanic Verses Foster illustrates just how widespread and complex the intertwining of Judeo-Christian symbols, motifs, allegories, imagery, and more truly is. Similarly to the model Foster uses when discussing Shakespearean references, Foster seeks to provide Biblical examples from literature that give readers who may not consider themselves particularly savvy about religion the confidence to draw inferences on their own. Foster encourages readers to listen to their intuition while reading through his anecdote about the cup of trembling in “Sonny’s Blues,” in which Foster himself missed the reference but was clued into a possible Biblical reference by the curiously descriptive language Baldwin uses. This example serves to highlight that readers can use the same technique to investigate their initial impressions to reach deeper layers of meaning.