21. Marked for Greatness
While in real life physical marks rarely have symbolic meaning, in literature they often do. Often, main characters are physically different from other characters, having hunchbacks, scars, or other physical markers that set them apart from others. To understand a text, it’s important for readers to understand why these physical differences matter. Oedipus’s feet are badly harmed in an attempt by his parents to murder him and prevent the prophecy of his birth to come true. Oedipus never questions how he got the scars, and his lack of curiosity is part of what leads to his downfall. In The Sun Also Rises, the main character’s physical pain parallels the way war has wreaked havoc on society. The physical ailments of Mr. Hyde, Shelly’s monster, and Dorian Gray all emphasize the dark, scary element that may lurk within seemingly civilized people. Though scars and deformities are not always significant, if a writer evokes a physical issue, it’s worth paying attention to.
22. He’s Blind for a Reason, You Know
Blindness in pieces of literature often represents symbolic blindness or an inability to see the truth. Authors may also introduce blindness to emphasize other ways of knowing and sensing beyond the physical. In Oedipus Rex, the blind seer Tiresias can see the true story of Oedipus much more clearly than Oedipus can. Though Oedipus can physically see, he’s blind to the truth of his own life and his own actions. In the end, he blinds himself in punishment for his sins, to punish himself for all he was unable to see. Like Tiresias, Oedipus eventually gains a level of vision and understanding that he never had when he could physically see.
23. It’s Never Just Heart Disease . . . And Rarely Just Illness
Though in real life, heart disease can be devastating, in literature, heart disease often has a metaphorical significance. The heart is synonymous with emotion, love, and with human connection. As a result, when a character suffers from some malady of the heart, it usually signifies an underlying emotional problem, an inability to connect with other people, or a problem remaining faithful or true in love. For example, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Man of Adamant,” a recluse who goes to live in a cave to avoid being around people ends up calcifying his heart from the drinking water in the cave. In short, the man who turned his heart against the world emotionally winds up physically turnings his heart to stone through his isolation. The presence of heart disease in a piece of literature is a good indicator that readers should examine the deeper emotional disconnections at play.
Most other diseases in literature carry a metaphorical meaning that lends insight into character flaws to varying degrees. Foster argues that for a disease to be compelling it should be picturesque. This explains the popularity of narratives about tuberculosis in literature, as it often confers a strange beauty onto its sufferers. Disease in literature should be mysterious to be metaphorically and symbolically effective.
24. Don’t Read with Your Eyes
Foster cautions readers not to cling so tightly to their own perspectives that they fail to meet the author in the historical and social moment they are writing from. In Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” the narrator offers his brother, a recovering addict, a drink as a sort of peace offering to establish connection. From a modern lens, offering a drink to a recovering addict is seen as misguided at best and willful sabotage at worst. However, in the time Baldwin was writing, the grip of recovery thinking had not taken hold in America. The story Baldwin is telling is not primarily about recovery and to misread this moment is to miss the transcendence, hope, and pain distilled at the end of Baldwin’s story. The same is true when it comes to applying modern moral judgment to authors writing from the past. Foster gives the example of Ezra Pound, whom many find impossible to read today due to his antisemitic beliefs. Foster still reads Pound but is troubled by his hateful ideology. Foster encourages readers to determine for themselves how much a writer’s problematic beliefs impact the texts they produce.
Throughout the chapters on illness and physical differences, Foster emphasizes that physical symptoms and diseases in characters are much different than the same features that appear in real people. This argument helps readers to further differentiate characters from real people, to keep front and center the concept that characters, their actions, and conditions are always in a text to further a plot point or to advance a deeper theme. This argument also helps readers to understand physical maladies and differences in symbolic and archetypal terms. For example, Foster explores how heart disease in a character often reflects an underlying emotional problem, such as when the main character of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Man of Adamant” finds that his heart has literally turned to stone after he went to live in a cave to avoid people. His heart of stone, which ends his life, is a manifestation of the fact that he emotionally withdrew his heart from the world of other humans. Foster emphasizes this example of fantastical writing to drive home the need to create psychological distance between real people and characters in order to find the deeper meaning within a text.
Foster often defamiliarizes his readers, hiding common stories in plain sight, in order to help readers gain fresh perspectives on familiar tales. Throughout How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Foster often presents a famous story in generalized terms, stripping it of names and essential identifying details to surprise the reader when he names the story. For example, at the beginning of the chapter on the significance of blindness, Foster presents a generalized retelling of Oedipus Rex, drawing out general themes and motivations before revealing who the main character is. This is a pedagogical technique used to make the familiar unfamiliar so that readers can explore the symbolic meaning of a story first and then, once they recognize the story, go back and understand how it works within the text. Along with humor and asking questions, Foster often uses the element of surprise to help readers delve deeper into their reading to create meaning.
By reminding readers of the dangers of being locked in their own perspective, Foster not only rescues older literature from anachronistic lenses but also encourages modern readers to read more empathetically. Foster illustrates that older literature often does not live up to modern sensibilities or violates newer moral sensibilities, such as when the unnamed narrator in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” offers the recovering addict Sonny a Scotch as a peace offering. To criticize the short story based on this action is to miss the symbolic nature of the Scotch, which Baldwin refers to as “the very cup of trembling,” a Biblical reference that hints at God’s mercy and the tenuous possibility for Sonny’s redemption. It is also to miss the opportunity to read the situation empathetically. In this moment, the narrator has experienced a profound shift in his understanding of his brother, whose life is endangered every day by the racial circumstances in Harlem, and the Scotch is a peace offering to his brother. Foster includes this example to illustrate that by approaching a piece of text on its own terms rather than staying locked in a present-day sensibility readers can unlock deeper meaning.