14. Yes, She’s a Christ Figure, Too
Foster expounds on the importance of and techniques involved in readers familiarizing themselves with Christ figures in literature. Common indicators of a Christ figure include crucifixion imagery, hand injuries, intense suffering, self-sacrifice, walking on water, resurrection after three days, 12 disciples, and seeking to redeem the world. In The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway’s old man injures his hands trying to catch a giant fish. He comes up with aphorisms like Jesus does and his immense suffering lasts for three days. After his trial, he collapses on his bed in a crucifixion position. His struggle gives hope to others.
Not all Christ figures are as unambiguous as Hemingway’s. And like many symbols, whether or not a character serves as a Christ figure is in part a matter of the reader’s imagination. It’s also important to examine why there are Christ figures. Writers often use them to make a larger point about sacrifice, hope, redemption, or miracles.
15. Flights of Fancy
Foster explores how ubiquitous flying humans are in literature, and across many cultures, from the Greek myth of Icarus to the myth of the flying Africans to the Christian belief in angels. Flying often represents freedom, as when Solomon and Milkman take flight in The Song of Solomon to escape from slavery. Pilate has the power to fly without leaving the ground, suggesting spiritual freedom and capacity for great love. Flying can also be ironic, such as when Carter’s Fevvers in Nights at the Circus is trapped because of her ability to fly. Thwarted attempts at flight are also symbolic such as when two of Rushdie’s main characters fall toward certain death but at the last minute find a soft landing, suggesting a sort of rebirth. Evocations of flight may also be subtle. When Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus escapes into art, his experience is filled with images of birds, feathers, and flying. Flight in literature allows the reader’s imagination to take flight as well.
16. It’s All About Sex . . .
Sex scenes in literature often use coded language. Throughout much of history, there were strong taboos and laws about depicting explicit sex in literature and film. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud codified a deeper understanding of what objects and situations signify sex, dividing much of the world into male and female signifiers. But sexual symbolism was around long before Freud, such as in the Grail legends, in which the knight bears a phallic sword and is in search of the yonic chalice.
In old films, Hollywood got around prohibitions of depicting explicit sex through subtle imagery. Waves crashing often suggested that characters had consummated their relationships. In literature, sexual imagery can help readers understand the deeper meaning of relationships. In Ann Beattie’s “Janus,” an unsatisfied woman has an affair with a man who gives her a bowl. She becomes obsessed with the bowl and won’t let her husband place his keys in it. The bowl becomes a symbol of her desire for sexual autonomy. D.H. Lawrence’s sexual references are often more explicit, such as in Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Even in the modern era, sex often appears coded to explore deeper themes.
17. . . . Except Sex
While writers may use symbolic language to represent sexual acts, they may also use explicit sexual scenes to symbolize something other than sex. Writing well about sex is incredibly difficult, and when it lacks a deeper symbolic meaning, it can verge into the territory of pornography. In John Fowles’s French Lieutenant’s Woman, the character uses sex to try and escape a bad engagement, and the brevity of the encounter emphasizes how much pressure is on the act to provide the character with freedom and individual autonomy. Sex can also represent evil, such as in Nabokov’s Lolita. The explicit sex in the book serves to disrupt any charm that Humbert, the pedophile, has exerted over the reader. Readers ought to approach sex scenes with a critical eye and recognize that interpretation is often as individual as the sex scenes themselves.
Foster uses a concrete list of images and ideas associated with Christ to help readers identify a Christ figure. This list functions as an abbreviated rubric for understanding much of Western literature, especially for those without a firm foundation in Christian ideology. The list includes many things that would be familiar to those raised in a Christian belief system but that might be new to readers who were not, and as a result, this list may seem sacrilegious or overly simplified to those familiar with Christianity. By decentering Christian ideology, Foster invites in readers who are of other faiths or who do not ascribe to any religion, offering them a seat at the table of literary analysis, too. What’s more, in treating the story of Jesus Christ itself as a text, Foster proves his larger point that there is a single story at play, and that the Bible and the story of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection are one facet of that much larger story.
Foster explores the motif of irony in the chapter on flying humans by juxtaposing the idea that flying means freedom with the exploration of ironic retellings of human flight. In doing, Foster not only upends given ideas about the significance of flights, but he also drives home his argument that irony trumps everything else in a reading. For example, in his close reading of Nights at the Circus, Foster illustrates that the main character of the novel, Fevvers, is actually caged by her ability to fly. Rather than giving her freedom, the gift of flight sometimes seems as though it’s a curse. This example illustrates the shaky ground that readers are often on, especially when examining modern literature, which plays with tropes and often turns them on their heads. In doing, Foster exemplifies how crucial it is not to take the generalities in his book as law and to always meet a text on its own terms.
This section explores the motif of coded language, illustrating how often in the past and even in the modern era, coded language has been necessary to allude to sexual acts in books and film. Because discussing sex explicitly is often frowned upon, coded language is crucial for conveying sexual congress. Foster illustrates the importance of coded language in film with the example of how Hollywood got around prohibitions on explicitly depicting sec, but instead using coded images, such as billowing curtains or waves crashing on the beach. These examples give readers a concrete idea of how this encoding works on a visual level, which eases the reader into the discussion of how coded language works in literature. Foster illustrates that in literature, objects often hold the key to understanding sexual motivations, and desire is often sublimated in symbolic objects that appear to be phallic or yonic. These coded images often allow readers to access a deeper understanding of characters' sexual motivations and emotional constraints than depictions of explicit sex acts would.
Foster further explores the thematic power of symbols when it comes to instances of explicit sex in literature, which often has a symbolic meaning itself. Foster as always, provides readers with another technique for spotting symbolism by suggesting that most explicit sex scenes symbolize something else unless the intention of the writer is to create pornography. Foster uses powerful examples from literature to illustrate this point, such as the struggle for autonomy in John Fowles’s French Lieutenant’s Woman and Humbert’s sinister pedophilia in Lolita. By suggesting readers always approach explicit sex scenes with the idea there is something else at play in the text, Foster provides readers with the tools they need to recognize the importance and breadth of symbolism in literature as a whole. In the examples Foster includes of French Lieutenant’s Woman and Lolita, the symbolism is extremely individual, reinforcing the idea that each text must be examined for its unique traits in order for readers to discover their meaning.