How to Read Literature Like a Professor Book summary

Thomas C. Foster



Thomas C. Foster published How to Read Literature like a professor in 2003, and the book came at a time when measures for improving access to higher education for marginalized sections were being discussed. Institutions of higher education have been criticized for an elitist and isolated culture that doesn't quite allow even access to education. Foster has stated that he had intended the book to be read by adults with non-traditional educational backgrounds who had struggled with understanding literary analysis. He decided to write the book after he discovered the hesitancy and reluctance that students had in carrying out analysis. He found that his students required a little guidance, and confidence to carry out insightful and interesting literary analysis independently. The book received wide appreciation and it was included in the high school and AP literature curriculum which has now led to the book being most widely read by high school students.


Plot Summary

Foster begins the book by introducing the concept of literary analysis through the example of comparing a mild-mannered man in a play to the devil. He explains the concerns that his classroom of literature students raise and breaks down the steps he went through to conclude that the man in question was indeed the devil since, within the context of the play, he was asking the protagonist to trade away his figurative soul in return for money. Foster goes on to explain that professors are simply tapping into the language of reading when they carry out literary analysis, and the skepticism that students experience towards such analysis is mainly due to a communication problem. He goes on to explain that the three central aspects of literary analysis are memory, symbol, and pattern.

Foster explains the significance of journeys in literature through the example of a young teenager's trip to the grocery store for some bread. He explains the similarities between that journey and the stories about knights from medieval times that roamed the countryside to prove their honor and status. In the same way, Foster asserts that scenes of characters eating together are acts of communion, since eating scenes are notoriously difficult to write, authors only include those that carry significance.

He discusses the archetype of the vampire that pervades literature and breaks down the features of the character that crops up in so many different forms. He explains how gothic figures like Dracula and other ghosts were used by writers to reference sex which was a taboo at the time. He then claims that no author ever creates anything truly unique, but rather that all stories are a part of one story, which is around us at all times. Foster then covers four sources of stories that have had a huge influence on literature and begins first by talking about the influence of the bard, William Shakespeare. Through examples, Foster explains the resonance that Shakespeare's work has found in widely disparate cultures. Foster then talks about the bible, a text that has inspired not just plots, but also names, and titles found in books. Lastly, he talks about the significant influence of Greek myths and fairy tales, so much so that even when authors have drawn inspiration from something separate, Greek myths have been wrongly cited.

The author then writes an interlude addressing a commonly held concern about whether writers deliberately create layers of meaning through the use of symbols and patterns. Foster argues that it is irrelevant whether the writer had intended to create a symbol or not, as neither response affects the literary analysis. Foster then covers the significance of weather in literature, and that of violence as well. He explains that weather like violence can be used to push forward the plot of a story. He categorizes violence in literature into two categories, the first being the kind that involves human perpetrators, and the other being violence without human action. He explains that in the first kind of violence, the characters represent conflicting forces, while the second kind of violence is employed to progress the story. Foster breaks down the differences between an allegory and a symbol through examples. He explains that allegories only ever have one meaning while symbols can have multiple interpretations that resonate with different people.

Foster briefly explains the different kinds of political literature, while he dismisses propaganda writing, he pays particular attention to a more general kind of political writing. He cites famous authors who created exemplary works with definitive political messages that perfectly depicted the political climate of their respective times. He moves on to talk about the prevalence of the christ figure in literature and marks out some of the common markers of the archetype found in the literature.

Sex is another topic that has been featured widely in literature and in the olden times it had to be represented symbolically due to censorship. He also cites Sigmund Freud as an influence on the present-day proliferation of sexual symbolism in literature and asserts that explicit descriptions of sex are almost always intended to communicate a deeper meaning.

Foster then moves the discussion to baptism and states that characters that are submerged in water for a brief time generally indicate a new birth. He also goes over the associations that are commonly made in literature when geographical locations and seasons are specifically mentioned. In the second interlude, Foster re-emphasizes the idea of the one story that all authors draw from to create their own stories. He then discusses the representation of physical attributes and physical disabilities in literature. In earlier times, physical deficiencies were seen to be markers of a flawed character, although several authors chose to subvert that association in later times. Blindness and Illness are other tools that authors have been known to use to indicate information to the audience, the first is generally associated with a lack of awareness while the second is a dramatic process that is pervaded with symbolic meaning. Diseases of the heart have been featured often due to the close association of the heart with emotion, one that continues to be followed despite the contrary facts of modern science.

Foster then discusses the importance of reading a text with the author's viewpoint, to place the text in the context of its creation. He recommends that a reader shed their judgments about a character based on their reality and instead focus on understanding the character within the context of the book. He returns to symbols and explains that although there are some commonly held associations when dealing with symbols, most authors tend to create their own. He also discusses the challenge of deciphering private symbols employed by authors but assures the reader that such symbols can indeed be deciphered with the application of deep reading. Foster then writes one last chapter on techniques for literary analysis and focuses on irony. He begins by assuring the reader that irony trumps everything, and then provides a detailed explanation of irony which involves indicating the opposite meaning of commonly held symbolic associations.

He then asks the reader to analyze The Garden Party, a short story by Katherine Mansfield. The story follows a day in the life of Laura Sheridan as her family plans a party on the same day as the death of a lower-class family. Foster provides a brief overview of the author's background, and he provides some views expressed by students from his literature classes. Foster encourages the reader and his students to focus on the noumenal level of the story and then expounds on his view that the story of Laura references the Greek myth of Persephone's journey to the underworld. At the end of the book, Foster talks about the difficulty of being certain about literary analysis. He encourages the reader to remain confident about their analysis, irrespective of the views of the author since the final authority on the text is not the author but the text itself.

  • Author(s)

    Thomas C. Foster
  • Publication date


  • Language


  • Classification

     Literary Criticism 

  • Pages