18. If She Comes Up, It’s Baptism 

Characters often end up in bodies of water in literature. A savvy reader will interrogate why. In Judith Guest’s Ordinary People, Conrad survives a storm while he’s sailing, and his brother perishes. Conrad struggles with survivor’s guilt and even tries to kill himself. In many ways, Conrad’s survival of near-drowning marks a rebirth for him, and readers can understand that he is changed entirely from his experience in the water. This rebirth through the water is indicative of a kind of baptism, in which a soul goes through death and rebirth through an experience with water. Though Conrad experiences a rebirth, he also discovers the process is extremely painful.  

But baptisms are not always harrowing. In Song of Solomon, Milkman gets wet three times. Each time, it resembles a baptism of sorts, as though he’s being baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity: the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Milkman is changed from these baptisms. 

Immersion in water in a text is not always a baptism. Drownings can have different symbolic meanings, too. For example, Morrison’s character Beloved rises from the water and comes back from the dead. The drowning takes on cultural and racial significance, as Beloved drowned to escape slavery. Baptism and drowning both have symbolic power in texts. 

19. Geography Matters . . .  

Geography is important in a text. Where a piece of literature is set determines both the material makeup of the landscape, such as hills, trees, creeks, and deserts, and the cultural makeup, including economics, politics, and history. Literary geography is often about humans inhabiting spaces and spaces inhabiting humans.  

Geography can endow many elements with meaning. In “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Poe uses descriptions of the landscape to set the tone, establishing an atmosphere of bleakness. Geography can help characters develop. In Barbara Kingsolver’s Bean Trees, the main character’s lack of options in life are reflected in the bleak landscape of rural Kentucky. Geography can also be character. In Going After Cacciato, Tim O’Brien establishes the landscape of Vietnam as an enemy of sorts, filled with threat and terror. Geography can also play a role in the plot, such as in Forster’s A Passage to India, when India leaves the characters confused and spurs disasters. Foster also hypothesizes that when authors send characters south, they generally have a direct, raw encounter with the subconscious. No matter where a text is set, place is crucial in literature. It can reflect ideas, psychology, and history. 

20. . . . So Does Season 

Like geography and weather, season is important in literature. Seasons can parallel the experiences of different ages. Middle age is often associated with fall, and spring with youth. Seasons may also reflect ideas about mood, such as winter being tied to unhappiness and summer with happiness. Seasons may emerge in literature in more subtle ways as well. Rather than setting Daisy Miller in spring to emphasize Daisy’s young, sunny disposition, James names her Daisy, after the flower. In contrast, her cold, older, stiff partner is Frederic Winterbourne. James evokes the connotations of the seasons in the names alone. Often seasons are not named but evoked through details, such as when Frost’s “After Apple Picking,” relies on readers’ knowledge that apples are picked in fall. The patterns of what seasons represent are as deeply engrained as experiences of the seasons themselves. 

Interlude: One Story 

All of literature is part of one story. All writers borrow from and contribute to the same story about what it means to be human. Writers are both aware of this and not aware of this. Characters may resemble each other, and writers often work to take the characters to a new or unexpected place. The idea of a single story is the basis of intertextuality, which is the idea that different pieces of literature are in dialogue with each other. Even when writers don’t consciously reference other texts, influence is inevitable. The concept of one story also dovetails with the concept of an archetype. An archetype is a pattern that makes up a component of literature, such as a quest, a flight, or a plunge into water. Archetypes, myths, and the entire body of literature are everywhere. Readers and writers are surrounded by narrative. 


Foster uses a broad definition of geography to explore the varied impact geography can have on a piece of literature. Beyond simply the physical terrain where a text is set, geography also encompasses the political, cultural, and social atmosphere of an area. By acknowledging a more expansive view of geography, Foster sets his readers up to be more successful when exploring the impact of geography on a piece of literature. In his analysis of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huck Finn, for example, Foster examines the setting of the Mississippi both in terms of the physical impact of the river and its surroundings on Huck and Jim’s journey and the historical and cultural climate that made their journey dangerous and compelling. In discussing geography this way, Foster illustrates that the geography in a text often presents overlapping layers of meaning and encourages readers to have fun exploring the rich terrain. 

Foster uses pop culture references throughout the book to anchor his high culture examples in more common, user-friendly illustrations. This technique invites all readers to the discussion and makes the text more accessible to readers of all levels. For example, in his discussion of the seasons, Foster follows an analysis of Shakespeare’s use of seasons with a survey of the use of seasons in pop culture, including many popular songs that readers are likely to be familiar with. Many readers will be more familiar with “California dreamin’” or “A Hazy Shade of Winter” than Shakespeare’s sonnet 73. These examples provide a context that many readers familiar with Western culture can access without having to do any heavy lifting. Most readers will know that “California dreamin’” invokes the happiness and promise of a good summer while “A Hazy Shade of Winter” is heavy with the sadness of winter. By balancing pop culture references with in-depth analysis of literature, Foster offers many access points and tools for readers to understand and practice his lessons. 

This section explores the symbol of the single story, which encapsulates Foster’s idea that all of literature, history, and art are part of a single story that has always been told and is constantly unfolding. Within this theory is the idea that there is no original story, given that all texts are in dialogue with each other and that it’s crucial to understand intertextuality to plumb the depths of texts for their subterranean meaning. Foster also uses the symbol of a single story to explain archetypes, or the larger patterns that run through all of literature. Because there is a single story that humans are working out, they continually return to the same symbols, ideas, myths, and patterns. Just as a single person continually revisits parts of their lives to make sense of them, so too do humans explore and reexamine the same patterns in an effort to make sense of being human. The single story symbolizes humanity’s ongoing attempt to develop a better understanding of what it means to be alive.