Interlude: Does He Mean That?
In this brief chapter, Foster discusses whether authors intend to include the allusions, symbols, and patterns that many literary experts claim. Foster argues that the short answer is yes and writers do this work more or less intentionally. Some writers, such as James Joyce are very conscious of the effects in their books. Foster calls these writers “Intentionalists.” For example, Joyce borrows very consciously from The Odyssey in writing Ulysses. For pre-modern era writers, it can be difficult to know for certain how conscious they were of the effect of their craft. Foster argues that given the amount of time writers spend writing, it’s safe to assume a certain degree of intentionality.
11. . . . More Than It’s Gonna Hurt You: Concerning Violence
In this chapter, Foster explores the role of violence in literature. Violence is both a personal and a collective experience and in real life is difficult to make meaning of. But in literature, violence is symbolic and thematic. Violence is a favorite topic in literature. D.H. Lawrence, Faulkner, and Joyce often feature violence, while more peaceful writers, such as Woolf and Chekov tend to kill characters as well.
Broadly speaking, violence in literature can be divided into two categories: violence toward others and violence toward oneself. Violence usually exists in literature to further the plot, explore states of stress, or convey other sets of meaning. Violence also lends weight and gravity to narratives. In Beloved, Sethe kills her daughter, which gives terrible, tremendous weight to the narrative while simultaneously symbolizing a horrific episode in American history.
Because the impact of violence in narrative is so varied, it’s important to interrogate its function on a text-by-text basis. It’s important to ask: what does this act represent? How does it tie to larger themes? Does it resemble a mythical or historical violence? Does it parallel other, less brutal problems, such as psychological questions, political strife, or spiritual crises? Asking these questions will help readers clue into the larger meaning of violent acts in literature.
12. Is That a Symbol?
Symbols are everywhere in literature. But when readers seek out a single, correct explanation for what a symbol means, they miss the nuanced nature of symbolism. Symbolism is an interplay with each individual reader’s imagination so there are often a variety of plausible explanations for what a symbol may mean. Even the relatively straightforward symbol of the white flag could mean don’t shoot, surrender, or peace. While any given symbol has a limited range of what it might signify, it also can’t be reduced to a single meaning. If an interpretation can be reduced to a single meaning, the text in question is often an allegory.
In A Passage to India, two central characters have intense experiences in a cave. Adela is assaulted, and Mrs. Moore has an unpleasant encounter. It is clear that the cave is symbolic, but what it signifies is a puzzle. Caves in general, as primitive human’s first home, may signify the primal nature of man. Plato suggested that caves symbolize consciousness and perception. Though the cave it seems connected to Adela’s sexuality and her terror, the true symbolism of the cave remains elusive. Each individual reader must determine the symbolic meaning of the cave.
A symbolic element, such as a river, can be treated differently by different authors. For example, Twain’s Mississippi in Huck Finn may represent freedom and danger, while Crane’s Mississippi in The Bridge may signify connection. In order to maintain an agile awareness of what a symbol may mean, it’s important for readers to exercise their symbolic imagination.
13. It’s All Political
Though not overtly, A Christmas Carol is a political novel, using the story of a Scrooge, a cruel miser, to criticize prevailing British social philosophy that was staunchly against helping the poor. Some of Scrooge’s quotes are lifted directly from philosophers who despised the poor.
Nearly all texts are political in some way. Even horror stories like Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” is a political criticism of a decaying European culture and attendant social corruption. Though not every single piece of literature is political, writers are often artists who pay attention to the world around them and are attuned to power structures, class relationships, people’s rights, gender and race dynamics, and more. As a result, political and social consciousness makes its way into texts, even if they aren’t overtly political in their aims.
Foster uses the imagined voice of the reader or of his students to play Devil’s advocate to his own arguments, a technique which allows him to address readers’ concerns, delve more deeply into the subjects he’s discussing, and add nuance to his arguments. For example, in his first interlude, he imagines the reader wondering how an author could possibly have so many references in mind and intentionally create so much symbolism and meaning in a text. Positing the question this way allows Foster to address the reader’s doubt directly. It also opens the floor for him to give specific examples of writers who have been obsessed and very vocal about the intentional design of their work, such as T.S. Eliot and James Joyce. Though these writers may pose an extreme example, as they are intensely focused on mythology, Shakespeare, and other references, their process suggests that writers are very conscious of their craft. He also suggests that though we can’t know an author’s intentions, the structure of texts often suggests a deeper level of craft at work.
Foster employs a casual tone to help lower the stakes for readers who are learning to delve more deeply into texts, and to allow room for more play and creativity. Throughout the book, Foster often responds to serious or anxious questions about the nature of reading or analyzing texts with frivolity, teasing, and light-hearted questions. For example, in his chapter about symbolism, he approaches the question of whether or not something is a symbol with a laid-back curiosity about what the reader thinks. Instead of providing concrete answers or doing the work of analysis for the reader, Foster reminds the reader that the power of interpretation is in their hands. This opens up the discussion about what is and isn’t a symbol, freeing it from a framework in which there is a right answer and instead situating it in a creative space where the reader is free to wonder, invent, and interact with the texts at hand.
When discussing the role of violence in literature, Foster once again returns to the thematic importance of the power of symbols and patterns to create meaning. Foster highlights the example of Sethe killing her own daughter in Toni Morrison’s Beloved to illustrate how violence can symbolize something beyond shock and disgust. Foster suggests the reader look beyond the surface level of the upsetting nature of what happens in a text in order to find deeper meaning. In the example Foster includes, he implies that violence is included to parallel the violence involved in the chapter of American history that encompasses slavery and its aftermath, to empower readers to make this connection on their own. The questions Foster encourages readers to ask themselves as they explore an individual text reinforce the theme of creating meaning from symbols and patterns, as well as simply being a good strategy for reading closely. Similarly, by exploring the idea of symbolism more broadly in the next chapter, Foster is reinforcing the thematic importance of symbols to create meaning. Foster uses the example of the varied symbolism a cave can have to illustrate the power readers have to create meaning from symbols, and connects this idea all the way back to the dawn of humanity. Foster’s explanation that Plato’s interpretation of a cave is slightly different than seen in many texts may seem contradictory, but it actually reinforces his point that it is possible to create meaning from symbols in many different ways.
Foster posits that he both hates and loves political writing, which frees up the reader to form their own opinions about what makes good political writing and what makes undesirable political writing. By expressing strong opinions in both directions, Foster invites the reader to think for themselves about the intersection between politics and art. He also offers a loose definition of his own likes and dislikes, pointing out that overly dogmatic political work, for example, is less universal but that compelling political work encourages the reader to think differently about power. By illustrating the difference between stifling political literature–that which pushes a specific agenda–and enlightening political literature–that which invites the reader to rethink the world–Foster provides a framework for readers to think not just about how politics show up in literature but the larger function of political literature in society.