9. It’s More Than Just Rain or Snow
Foster discusses how weather in a text has vast symbolic resonances. Rain, for example, often evokes the story of Noah and primal fears of drowning. It can also contribute to the atmosphere and mood of a text, evoking mysteriousness, murkiness, and loneliness. Rain can also serve as a plot device. It can indicate a cleansing, symbolically, such as when Hagar, in Tony Morrison’s Song of Solomon, is caught in the rain after trying to impress her love interest. The rain cleanses her of her illusions and her false ideas about beauty. Rain can be restorative, evoking connotations of spring. Joyce, for example, puts an ironic twist on the associations between rain, spring, and life by having a young boy in “The Dead” die from standing outside in the rain for love. Rain also mixes with the sun to create rainbows, which evoke symbolic associations of hope and new beginnings. In her poem “The Fish,” Elizabeth Bishop evokes the rainbow to emphasize a divine pact between humans, nature, and God. Other forms of weather also have symbolic undertones, such as fog evoking confusion and snow evoking cleanliness, playfulness, or suffocation.
10. Never Stand Next to the Hero
Foster explains how characters close to the main character in a text often die. Deaths in a text often further the plot or reveal emotional truths. This can often seem unfair, such as with Patroclus in The Iliad and Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. But Foster explains that the logic of literature is not the same as the logic of real life and introduces the question of why readers care about characters. Foster emphasizes two ideas: that characters are not people and that characters are products of the writer and reader’s imaginations. The writer creates a character from memory, observation, and invention. Then the reader applies their personal interpretation to a character. Since characters are as much the result of readers’ imaginations as the writer’s, it makes sense that readers care deeply about characters.
Lessons in texts are often learned vicariously through the treacherous, dangerous actions of those close to the main character in film and literature. For example, in the films Top Gun, Rebel Without a Cause, and Saturday Night Fever, the main characters learn that they need to grow up and become less reckless through the impulsive–and fatal–actions of their closest friends.
Not all characters are created equal in literature. There are round and flat characters. Round characters are three-dimensional, full of contradictions, and seem real. Flat characters lack full character development so they can act in ways that develop the plot or the arc of the main character. Not all characters are round because it would pull focus from a single story, it would be labor-intensive for the writer, it would confuse the purpose of the story, and it would result in pieces that were much too long.
In the postmodern era, writers have begun to explore the inner lives of flat or minor characters. For example, Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead tells the story of Hamlet from the perspective of two doomed minor characters.
To understand why some characters are more important than others, readers need to remember an idea introduced by Aristotle that plot is character in action. The idea has been expanded on over time but boils down to the idea that character and plot influence each other in a circular way that links them inextricably. The variety of characters–round and flat, major and minor–is crucial for literature to function and create meaning.
Foster constantly reminds his readers that in literature nothing is only what it seems to be and there is always a deeper level of meaning to what’s discussed in a text. Foster repeats this idea often as it is easy to slip into a superficial reading of a work of literature in which the text is only about plot and how the characters interact. In his discussion of weather, he urgently reminds his readers that the elements are not simply backdrop, and that rain, snow, and other weather phenomenon all have deeper symbolic significance. To drive home how much significance is imbued in the falling rain in a story, Foster unpacks many of the common associations with rain. He presents this information not only to school readers on what rain might mean but to remind readers that rain almost always means something and it’s the job of each reader to discover what that meaning is. That meaning will change based on the text as well as what the reader brings to the text. In that sense, Foster highlights the metaphor that the process of identifying meaning can be just as changeable as the weather.
In addition to teaching readers how to read more deeply, Foster also corrects common mistaken approaches to texts. For example, in his discussion of characters and their relationships to each other, he points out that characters are not people. While this idea does not teach readers how to analyze a symbol or recognize a pattern, it does provide a useful framework for envisioning what exactly a character is. To be involved with a character as if they were a living, breathing human, readers may become overly invested in a particular outcome for the character or may miss the character’s symbolic and thematic significance. This explanation serves to partially answer Foster’s rhetorical question about why readers care about characters but also emphasizes it is possible for readers to connect with characters while maintaining a level of psychological distance. By creating a level of distance from the experience of interacting with a character, Foster helps readers cast characters as another facet of the text to be analyzed. Characters are products of both the writer's and the reader’s imaginations, which means they represent some of the same rich tapestry of ideas, lessons, and meaning that a symbol might.
Foster uses the dichotomy between round and flat characters to further explore the function of character within literature, emphasizing that the dynamism between flat and round characters creates useful structures within a text. Foster outlines a series of reasons that all characters in a text cannot be round, which further underscores his earlier point that characters are not humans. Though in real life all people are “round characters,” in a piece of literature, authors use various levels of depth and presence in their characters to create a coherent vision, a point Foster makes to help readers hone their ability to analyze characters. By using the difference between flat and round characters, Foster also allows for a complex spectrum in characters between those who feel fully alive and those who serve as foils or support for the main characters. This exploration allows readers to more fully understand the function of and interplay between different characters. Foster also references Aristotle when discussing the conundrum of understanding the interplay between character and plot to emphasize that this meta-examination of literature has been occurring since antiquity. In this way, Foster highlights the importance of and continuing intrigue involved in analyzing characters.