How to Read Literature Like a Professor

Updated May 14, 2022

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Every Trip Is a Quest (Except When It’s Not)

A very simple situation is presented: a boy struggles through physical hazards to get bread at a store, while also meeting with emotional conflict about a possible lover and enemy on the way. The book describes even this small “venture” as a literary quest. The various elements of the story show the quester, the destination, a stated reason to go there, en route challenges, and a real reason for which they end up at their destination.

These reasons differ in virtually every situation, since the real reason for a quest is self-knowledge. This is why questers are inexperienced, naive-to-the-environment people. Many other novels, like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, follow a similar structure – albeit more complex in their plot’s nature. The stated goal fades in each scenario, leaving only the real goal in sight – why the quester actually goes on the quest.

But in some special situations, the quest theory does not apply. The more monotone and uniform storylines do not have a quest; such as a car ride or a regular day at a school. But even the lack of a “quest” presents an opportunity to surprise and enlighten the readers.

Nice to Eat with You: Acts of Communion

There are many ways to show unity and a sense of communion in a group of people or between two people. Surprisingly, eating together is one such method – whenever people eat as one, they form a bond and a communion. In the book, it is stressed that this word is not used in a dogmatic or holy context, but rather to unify different people in one way.

Breaking bread signals peace between formerly opposing parties or people that were nothing more than acquaintances, and so one eats with only those who they see a friend or ally in. most people would want to or like to go to a brunch or a dinner with someone who they like. They do this, even in literature, to build bonds or gain some advantage. We may not eat with someone we do not like. In literature, a meal scene can be pointless and/or boring if there is not a purpose or cause behind it. Not only this, but eating as someone else does at the same time translates to to equality of two people due to the need for the fundamental necessity of food. A boy shares a sandwich with a stray dog, a high-ranking officer shares rations with a frightened private; all examples of a very true companionship and kinship demonstrated by the sharing of the food and of eating.

Although, as in James Joyce’s The Dead, characters outline how “all the living and the dead” are equal because of mortality and death, the necessities have a more tangible effect. The book shares how forgetting these facts can lead to disunity between people.

Nice to Eat You: Acts of Vampires

Well for starters, the removal of a preposition packs quite the punch. But besides that, the focus of this one is vampires. It is common to have read and experienced Bram Stoker’s Dracula, so from there we can derive how Dracula finds young, innocent, virginal women and, while seducing them with attractiveness, also steals their blood and turns them into blood-sucking beasts. Sure, this is the common story illustrated even in the flicks produced by Hollywood every decade at the least. This is no surprise at all to us.

Now, look deeper: he steals their innocence and, in a sense, their “marriageability”, as commonly known in the social constructs of the Victorian Era. So it has something to do with breaking the physical autonomy of other people for one’s own selfish desires. The Count is sometimes shown as a romantically dark anti-hero; but he is a monster all the same. Monsters, ghosts, beasts of the wild – all of them have a greater message. Hamlet’s ghost father comes down in the Shakespeare play Hamlet to warn of an evil in Denmark.

But in more restricted societies, such figures were necessary to show themes or talk about a topic like sexuality. Nowadays, they are not required, but are still used for the emphasis. Of course, monsters need not be in physical form – even a psychological beast fulfills the purpose of its creation. As long as evil is in our world, vampires will persist in literature.

If It’s Square, It’s a Sonnet

There is a large variety of poetry, from the more humble sestine (albeit in great meaning or purpose), to the more complex and astutely advanced sonnet. In simple terms, the full identification of a sonnet is from the 10-syllable and 14 line length that allows the design of a “square”. But when reading a poem, or any literature for that matter, it is not wise to first off analyze every inch of it and never enjoy it. Take time to know it well and also to understand not every technique used by the author, but know why it was written and the main purpose of the writing. Do not heed the specific tactics of line and syntax and units and octaves – but form is different. What form or style is/are the author using?

Find why they are using this and what this is aimed to do in the first place. Form might just mean something. Not every sonnet will have two sentence, or contain the same or even similar structure in any way. That would not be very appealing at all. A story or a poem must break normal boundaries – not in grammar, but of its vessel and its methods.

The vessel, the sonnet form, actually becomes part of the meaning of the poem itself. The rhymes, whether employed or not, and sentence fragmentation, whether employed or not, are important and essential to creating meaning out of any poem or piece of literature. Shorter sonnets need perfection not in every whistle, but by the meaning it attempts to deliver. Poets themselves consider the nature of their work and its every evening before even beginning to write. So when you start to read a poem, take a look at the shape.

Now, Where Have I Seen Her Before?

When a literary or historical model makes its way into a work of fictitious nature, this is often known as intertextuality. This enhances the experiences for both readers and writers by creating more meaning. For example, connecting Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and a book about French absolutism or the liberal revolutions in Europe can enhance the total understanding of the factual content, while providing helpful context when reading the book. But intertextuality does not take precedence to a character’s specific quality level.

A character has to function accurately and work within their limits to serve their purpose. Without this, there is no use in finding if a character is connected to a statement or has any intertextuality with another piece of literature. At the same, if you read a book and do not make any connections whatsoever – with no allegorical connections, allusions references, or similar ideas – you have lost the experience of the best version of reading literature. But at least you got an amiable story at the least, with good characters. Picking up on these extra characteristics can help deepen your understanding of the literature.

As long as books can display intertextuality, and readers can find it, the understanding and the deeper meaning behind texts of important meaning will never be locked away.

When in Doubt, It’s from Shakespeare…

Literature has changed so much over the decades and over the centuries, carrying ideals like Romanticism, Nepotism, and even Communism from era to era, sublimating into the social and political norms of the day. Surely, the line between literature and reality in much of our history as a world is undetectable, if not thin. But William Shakespeare is a recurring theme, for lack of a better term. His stories and plays are referenced so often.

The overall method of literary explanation is based upon the idea that references and allusions can be made for better understanding. For example, any situation in literature representing conflicted love is compared to the conflict between Capulet Juliet and Montague Romeo in Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. The idea of revenge is shown in many books; but needless to say that a critic or commentator will most likely compare it to revenge in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The themes and the values displayed through the many works of Shakespeare are reflected through many authors’ renditions in their own literature. This is mean chiefly to create some sort of connection.

Not only this, but adding Shakespeare increases understanding along with the complexity of the writing. As trivial as it may be to add Shakespeare to be sound intelligent in nature, it is one reason why authors do so. This creates implications for both reader and writer. Not only is our understanding of the writing more relatable and common, but the writer’s work flows more and exploring themes in several facets can help expand the literature.

Or The Bible

There are a variety of themes or ideas that circulate between pieces of literature, whether they may be references to popular cultural slang, entertainment – or as in the last chapter, Shakespeare. One very apparent “idea” that even he uses is the Bible. In almost every type of literature, the biblical references surrounding Moses, Matthew, or the Messiah are not uncommon. They help define and realistically connect the dots between literal works.

For those readers, writers, filmmakers, and watchers who are much more related to the Judeo-Christian or Abrahamic religions and traditions, these hints – or in some cases, the more apparent examples – are not very hard to comprehend. Yet some readers who are not affiliated with such cultures can comprehend these references; this is de to the cultural and regional importance of biblical images in our literature. If you do not believe it, look at Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Dickens, or even Twain – can’t you find at least one example for each author? It is not rare to find, nor is it a bad if you find it almost everywhere.

Authors do this for their own understanding and for the deeper understanding of the actual reader of the text. A reference to the slavery of the Hebrews may entice empathy, and a reference to the crucifiction of Christ may hint to the introduction of some martyr. The nearly timeless or archetypal value of these stories speak of tensions or conflicts that are represented throughout literature. They are used because they never will grow old.

Hanseldee and Greteldum

It is an established fact that authors borrow from other authors. But how does an author use the right sources; or how do they quote the right Shakespeare line without sounding too old-fashioned? Well, the issue of constructing and reading a variety of canons has been around for quite some time. Usual solutions are workable, albeit not very appealing.

For analogies, parallels, plot structures, and/or references, authors may allude to or even quote children’s literature. As trivial and unsophisticated as that may seem, it is simple, yet effective. Countless times have authors used stories like The Three Little Pigs or Cinderella to emphasize a point, make plot connections, and reduce more complex ideals to a level of primitivism that not only Dickens can understand, but one that anyone can.

As much as this information pertains to a writer, it does to a reader as well. When we start reading a novel, or any piece of literature for that matter, we analyze plot, characters, setting, and basic external required to know what is going on and what the author is attempting to communicate to the audience. But when doing so, it is very important to notice the parts of the text that are strange or foreign to us and the parts that are much more common and familiar. By understanding these fairy tale connections, we can master comprehension of both the familiar and unfamiliar elements of a text and apply that understanding. The flowing harmonies could come from the words of Shakespeare, Swift, or a range of more humble texts. These harmonies build resonance, solidity, and depth.

It’s Greek to Me

The uses of various methods for literary transcendence – ranging from Shakespeare and fairy tales, to the Bible – have been discussed. But in the matter of reading and understanding literature, it does not matter if the reader agrees or shares a similar ideology as the source that is referred to or used in the text. They must inform the story or poem in new ways, and be flexible enough to apply to a variety of situations.

The job simplifying a text is not meant for the Bible; and certainly not for Shakespeare. But it is meant for the fairy tale. If a story, as complex as it is, is compressed merely by comparison and allegoric similarities to, say, the Three Little Pigs, will it not be much easier o understand? Trivial, yes – but why not? Subjects in poems, plays, stories, and more are revealed in a sort of “modern” light. Myths (somewhat synonymous to fairy tales) attempt to overt the complex nature of this literature and give good explanations.

Greek and Roman myths, from heroes or monsters, serve the same purpose. In some way or another, they bridge the complexity of Shakespeare and the Bible with the simple nature of the fairy tales. This is because they are easy to understand, but still have the mystic aire of gods and magic. We recognize and can connect these as well in certain situations. Recognition of these myths makes reading even better, making even modern stories even more powerful as they share the might of the myth. This is truly amazing.

It’s More Than Just Rain or Snow

Quite common it is for a text to start with “dark and stormy night”, or something that illustrates the weary weather or the warm sun. Whether an author uses climate conditions with positive or negative connotations, weather is not just weather. Rain has to mean something. Snow has to mean something. For example, in John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down, snow falls only when the Nazi invaders take hold of the people or reinstate their authority in some way. When it melts and loosens, so does their grasp on power.

Rain, however has more of a presence in literature, especially since it has more Biblical meaning. The rain and floods could mean purity and cleansing, or even the floods of Noah that wiped off the world’s peoples. Strangely, it is so foreign, and vernacular as well, in meaning at the same time. But rain can also serve as a plot mechanism to help bring together an otherwise disparate plotline. Second, it can create an atmosphere that sets a strange tone; perhaps one of mystery or lore. But as much as weather can create confusion and wonder in the minds of readers and characters alike, it unifies ideas; much like how every raindrop, although physically unique, are made up of the same molecules.

Lastly, rain is just like death. Or the truth. As harsh as that seems, rain, much like death, is a great equalizer. Everyone runs under a roof (or at least wants to) when the rain falls from the sky. No one is exempt from nature. Much alike are natural disasters; a hurricane will not avoid the rich because they are wealthy, nor will a tornado shy from the poor parts of town. Nature, rain being one of its constituent features, is equal in every way.

More Than It’s Gonna Hurt You: Concerning Violence

There are many elements of life and human nature that are reflected throughout literature; in both realistic and/or unrealistic ways. One such element is violence. Although violence can be one of the most personal set of actions between people, it has cultural, societal, symbolic, biblical, allegorical, Shakespeare, and even Romantic implications. But in real life, violence is simply equated to anger, hatred, or some form of pain – not so much the more complex ideas. For violence to be important, it has to be more than just mayhem.

Authors utilize either violence specific to one character or entity, or to the general cast of characters and are less man-caused. Often times, the latter type is used to further the thematics of a plot line and deepen the emotions erected within readers. The first type serves to aid that by focusing on characters specifically. They build the big-picture idea. Violence is enacted by the author to start or end plot implications, stress characters, stir up action, or leave a cliffhanger at the end of a chapter. Mystery books, although not candid in nature, are actually meant for us to create our own emotions. In most cases, the violence is a struggle between two or more forces; either one or none of them win. The essential feature of violence is that authors employ it for something beyond its more obvious purpose; whether to kill off a character, or immortalize their symbolism.

Is That a Symbol?

More often than not, if you believe something to be a symbol, it most likely is. However there are situations in which a character, object, or location represents one single idea – it is not flexible all too much. George Orwell’s Animal Farm features animals and humans that each represent a different character or group in Russian Revolutionary history. The novel itself is an allegory for the Communist revolution of 1915, the short-term positive effects, and the long-term repercussions. But symbols are broader and can be applied to more than just the one special circumstances or to one situation. They are very different.

Symbols have many dimensions of meaning and are used primarily as “synonyms” for a variety of ideas and ideologies. They are representatives of nearly anything the author wishes. Even when a symbol seems to have a singular meaning, this is rarely the case. For example, the river (or any small body of water) is a popular symbol in American literature; from Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby – yet in each of these novels, and every novel in between, the symbol of a water body is not the same. In one, it represents the unifying journey of two young people, while the other novel uses it to show distinction between and thus separate two “populations” of people. Intertextuality is certainly present in many literary works, but a symbol can have contradicting meanings when compared in different texts.

Using a historical reading lens can often help readers find such contradictions – either between texts’ or between the text’s and the reader’s interpretations. Furthermore, it is best to rely on prior knowledge and instinct when decoding symbols in literary works.

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How to Read Literature Like a Professor. (2022, May 14). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/how-to-read-literature-like-a-professor/


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