A meta-book on how to interpret literature. Written with a comical tone, this book answers some key questions about literary criticism which have always irked me, such as “how do we know which interpretation of the text is the correct one?” There is even a practice example at the end so that you can test your skills.
I’m giving this one a low rating for now because many of the techniques designed to help me read “like a professor” don’t actually improve my enjoyment of the text (so far). Instead this book outlines how to recognize the technical points that make great writing, which I believe can be picked up subconsciously in most cases (e.g. through symbolism and stereotypes).
The goal of education, as I see it, is to bring students to the point where they no longer need you—in essence, to put yourself out of a job
the book is about figurative meaning and the way meaning deflects from one object or action or event at the surface level to something else on another.
Memory. Symbol. Pattern. These are the three items that, more than any other, separate the professorial reader from the rest of the crowd.
Whenever I read a new work, I spin the mental Rolodex looking for correspondences and corollaries—where have I seen his face, don’t I know that theme?
Professors also read, and think, symbolically. Everything is a symbol of something, it seems, until proven otherwise.
In other words, a quest just happened. But it just looked like a trip to the store for some white bread. True. But consider the quest.
But consider the quest. Of what does it consist? A knight, a dangerous
or stop). Seems like a bit of a stretch. On the surface, sure. But let’s think structurally. The
When I teach the late-twentieth-century novel, I always begin with the greatest quest novel of the last century: Thomas Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49 (1965).
“Always” and “never” are not words that have much meaning in literary study.
whenever people eat or drink together, it’s communion. For some reasons, this is often met with a slightly scandalized look, communion having for many readers one and only one meaning. While that meaning is very important, it is not the only one. Nor, for that matter, does Christianity have a lock on the practice.
in the real world, breaking bread together is an act of sharing and peace, since if you’re breaking bread you’re not breaking heads.
eating with another is a way of saying, “I’m with you, I like you, we form a community together.” And that is a form of communion.
writing a meal scene is so difficult, and so inherently uninteresting, that there really needs to be some compelling reason to include one in the story.
Now the only reason to give a character a serious hang-up is to give him the chance to get over it. He may fail, but he gets the chance. It’s the Code of the West.
ghosts and vampires are never only about ghosts and vampires.
The essentials of the vampire story, as we discussed earlier: an older figure representing corrupt, outworn values; a young, preferably virginal female; a stripping away of her youth, energy, virtue; a continuance of the life force of the old male; the death or destruction of the young woman.
In those works that continue to haunt us, however, the figure of the cannibal, the vampire, the succubus, the spook announces itself again and again where someone grows in strength by weakening someone else.
there’s no such thing as a wholly original work of literature.
Once you’ve established that a book—a man’s book at that, a war book—is borrowing a situation from Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, anything is possible. So with that in mind, readers must reconsider characters, situations, events in the novel. This one looks like it’s from Hemingway, that one like “Hansel and Gretel,” these two from things that happened during Paul Berlin’s “real” war, and so on down the line.
there’s only one story. There, I said it and I can’t very well take it back. There is only one story. Ever. One. It’s always been going on and it’s everywhere around us and every story you’ve ever read or heard or watched is part of it.
If we don’t see the reference, it means nothing, right? So the worst thing that occurs is that we’re still reading the same story as if the literary precursors weren’t there.
This dialogue between old texts and new is always going on at one level or another. Critics speak of this dialogue as intertextuality, the ongoing interaction between poems or stories.
Peter Frampton says that E major is the great rock chord; all you have to do to set off pandemonium in a concert is to stand onstage alone and strike a big, fat, full E major. Everybody in the arena knows what that chord promises. That sensation happens in reading, too. When I feel that resonance, that “fat chord” that feels heavy yet sparkles with promise or portent, it almost always means the phrase, or whatever, is borrowed from somewhere else and promises special significance. More often than not, particularly if the borrowing feels different in tone and weight from the rest of the prose, that somewhere is the Bible.
we want strangeness in our stories, but we want familiarity, too. We want a new novel to be not quite like anything we’ve read before. At the same time, we look for it to be sufficiently like other things we’ve read so that we can use those to make sense of it. If it manages both things at once, strangeness and familiarity, it sets up vibrations, harmonies to go with the melody of the main story line. And those harmonies are where a sense of depth, solidity, resonance comes from. Those harmonies may come from the Bible, from Shakespeare, from Dante or Milton, but also from humbler, more familiar texts.
Those who have never read it assume mistakenly that it is the story of the Trojan War. It is not. It is the story of a single, rather lengthy action: the wrath of Achilles (a mere fifty-three days out of ten years).
weather is never just weather. It’s never just rain. And that goes for snow, sun, warmth, cold, and probably sleet, although the incidence of sleet in my reading is too rare to generalize.
Ever since we crawled up on the land, the water, it seems to us, has been trying to reclaim us. Periodically floods come and try to drag us back into the water, pulling down our improvements while they’re at it. You know the story of Noah:
God promised Noah with the rainbow never again to flood the whole earth. No writer in the West can employ a rainbow without being aware of its signifying aspect, its biblical function
Fog, for instance. It almost always signals some sort of confusion. Dickens uses a miasma, a literal and figurative fog,
if it’s not in the text, it doesn’t exist. We can only read what is present in a novel, play, or film. If something informed the author’s creation of the text but the evidence is not present in the text, that’s a matter for scholars concerned with motives, not with readers wrestling with meaning.
no character is created equal. One or two get all the breaks; the rest exist to get them to the finish line.
the fictive world (I’m paraphrasing here) is divided up into round and flat characters. Round characters are what we could call three-dimensional, full of traits and strengths and weaknesses and contradictions, capable of change and growth. Flat characters, not so much. They lack full development in the narrative or drama, so they’re more two-dimensional, like cartoon cutouts.
And lateral thinking is what we’re really discussing: the way writers can keep their eye on the target, whether it be the plot of the play or the ending of the novel or the argument of the poem, and at the same time bring in a great deal of at least tangentially related material. I used to think it was this great gift “literary geniuses” have, but I’m not so sure anymore. I sometimes teach a creative writing course, and my aspiring fiction writers frequently bring in biblical parallels, classical or Shakespearean allusions, bits of REM songs, fairy tale fragments, anything you can think of. And neither they nor I would claim that anybody in that room is a genius.
It’s nearly impossible to generalize about the meanings of violence, except that there are typically more than one, and its range of possibilities is far larger than with something like rain or snow. Authors rarely introduce violence straightforwardly, to perform only its one appointed task, so we ask questions. What does this type of misfortune represent thematically? What famous or mythic death does this one resemble? Why this sort of violence and not some other? The answers may have to do with psychological dilemmas, with spiritual crises, with historical or social or political concerns.
Here’s the problem with symbols: people expect them to mean something. Not just any something, but one something in particular. Exactly. Maximum.
in general a symbol can’t be reduced to standing for only one thing. If they can, it’s not symbolism, it’s allegory.
The other problem with symbols is that many readers expect them to be objects and images rather than events or actions. Action can also be symbolic.
Dickens caricatures this Malthusian thinking in Scrooge’s insistence that he wants nothing to do with the destitute and that if they would rather starve than live in the poorhouse or in debtors’ prison, then, by golly, “they had best hurry up and do it and decrease the excess population.”
Culture is so influenced by its dominant religious systems that whether a writer adheres to the beliefs or not, the values and principles of those religions will inevitably inform the literary work.
Fiction and poetry and drama are not necessarily playgrounds for the overly literal.
At the same time, this doesn’t indicate the story can mean anything we want it to, since that would be a case of our imagination not bothering with that of the author and just inventing whatever it wants to see in the text. That’s not reading, that’s writing.
Perhaps the parallel deepens our sense of the character’s sacrifice if we see it as somehow similar to the greatest sacrifice we know of. Maybe it has to do with redemption, or hope, or miracle. Or maybe it is all being treated ironically, to make the character look smaller rather than greater. But count on it, the writer is up to something.
In general, flying is freedom, we might say, freedom not only from specific circumstances but from those more general burdens that tie us down.
He’s still after gold, and characters who seek gold aren’t ready for change.
The rebirths/baptisms have a lot of common threads, but every drowning is serving its own purpose: character revelation, thematic development of violence or failure or guilt, plot complication or denouement.
violence or failure or guilt, plot complication or denouement.
Literary geography is typically about humans inhabiting spaces, and at the same time the spaces inhabiting humans.
when writers send characters south, it’s so they can run amok.
they run amok because they are having direct, raw encounters with the subconscious. Conrad’s
Every writer can make these modifications in his or her use of the seasons, and the variation produced keeps seasonal symbolism fresh and interesting. Will she play it straight or use spring ironically? Will summer be warm and rich and liberating or hot and dusty and stifling? Will autumn find us toting up our accomplishments or winding down, arriving at wisdom and peace or being shaken by those November winds?
What happens, if the writer is good, is usually not that the work seems derivative or trivial but just the opposite: the work actually acquires depth and resonance from the echoes and chimes it sets up with prior texts, weight from the accumulated use of certain basic patterns and tendencies.
The basic premise of intertextuality is really pretty simple: everything’s connected. In other words, anything you write is connected to other written things.
“Archetype” is a five-dollar word for “pattern,” or for the mythic original on which a pattern is based. It’s like this: somewhere back in myth, something—a story component, let’s call it—comes into being. It works so well, for one reason or another, that it catches on, hangs around, and keeps popping up in subsequent stories. That component could be anything: a quest, a form of sacrifice, flight, a plunge into water, whatever resonates and catches our imaginations, setting off vibrations deep in our collective consciousness, calling to us, alarming us, inspiring us to dream or nightmare, making us want to hear it again.
the author has created a minor constellation of difficulties for himself by introducing a blind character into the work, so something important must be at stake when blindness pops up in a story.
“the Indiana Jones principle”: if you want your audience to know something important about your character (or the work at large), introduce it early, before you need
what we feel in real life and what we feel in our reading lives can be quite different.
don’t read with your eyes. What I really mean is, don’t read only from your own fixed position in the Year of Our Lord two thousand and some. Instead try to find a reading perspective that allows for sympathy with the historical moment of the story, that understands the text as having been written against its own social, historical, cultural, and personal background.
the point of the last-chance-for-change story, which is always the same: can this person be saved?
he suggests that there will be no more dishonor in her consenting to sex than there is in her having killed the flea. This kind of extended metaphor running through the poem as an organizing device is called a conceit,
mean more than one thing simultaneously. Let’s be clear, just so no one runs off the rails: these implications are
every work teaches us how to read it as we go along.
His title is taken from a sixteenth-century poem by George Peele, “A Farewell,” about soldiers rallying enthusiastically to the call to war, the first two words of which are “To arms!” By conjoining these two in one seamless phrase, Hemingway makes a title as nearly opposite Peele’s rousing meaning as it’s possible to get. That ironic stance pervades the novel right up to the end,
The rain is neither ironic nor not ironic; it’s simply rain. That simple rain, however, is placed in a context where its conventional associations are upended. The signified’s meaning stands opposed to what we expect. Since one half of the sign is stable and the other is not, the sign itself becomes unstable. It may mean many things, but what it won’t mean is the thing we came in expecting that it would.
All I would claim for these works is that if you read them, you will become more learned.
- Julia Alvarez, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), In the Time of the Butterflies (1994), Yo (1997). Lyrical, riveting stories of violence under the brutal Dominican dictatorship, loss, dislocation, and the experience of new immigrants in the United States. Alvarez writes with a combination of power and beauty; good work if you can get it.
- W. H. Auden, “Musée des Beaux Arts” (1940), “In Praise of Limestone” (1951). The first is a meditation on human suffering, based on a Pieter Brueghel painting. The second is a great poem extolling the virtues of gentle landscapes and those of us who live there. There’s a lot more great Auden where those came from.
- James Baldwin, “Sonny’s Blues” (1957). Heroin and jazz and sibling rivalry and promises to dead parents and grief and guilt and redemption. All in twenty pages.
- Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (1954). What if there’s a road but characters don’t travel it? Would that mean something?
- Beowulf (eighth century a.d.). I happen to like Seamus Heaney’s translation, which was published in 2000, but any translation will give you the thrill of this heroic epic.
If you want to put together the total reading experience, here you go. These works will give you a chance to use all your newfound skills and come up with inventive and insightful ways of seeing them. Once you learn what these four novels can teach you, you won’t need more advice. There’s nothing exclusive to these four, by the way. Any of perhaps a hundred novels, long poems, and plays could let you apply the whole panoply of newly acquired skills. I just happen to love these.
- Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (1861). Life, death, love, hate, dashed hopes, revenge, bitterness, redemption, suffering, graveyards, fens, scary lawyers, criminals, crazy old women, cadaverous wedding cakes. This book has everything except spontaneous human combustion (that’s in Bleak House—really). Now, how can you not read it?
- James Joyce, Ulysses (1922). Don’t get me started. First, the obvious: Ulysses is not for beginners. When you feel you’ve become a graduate reader, go there. My undergraduates get through it, but they struggle, even with a good deal of help. Hey, it’s difficult. On the other hand, I feel, as do a lot of folks, that it’s the most rewarding read there is.
- Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1970). This novel should have a label: “Warning: Symbolism spoken here.” One character survives both the firing squad and a suicide attempt, and he fathers seventeen sons by seventeen women, all the sons bearing his name and all killed by his enemies on a single night. Do you think that means something?
- Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon (1977). I’ve said so much throughout this book, there’s really nothing left, except read it.