How to Read Literature Like a Professor

How to Read Literature Like a Professor Chapter 3 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Most people are familiar with vampires in literature, but Foster argues that “actual vampires” are not even the scariest thing about this genre. Consider the character of Dracula, who is presented both in Bram Stoker’s novel (1897) and subsequent film versions as an immortal, evil, yet strangely attractive male figure who preys upon young, beautiful, innocent virgins. This dynamic shows that vampires are frightening not only because they are monstrous creatures, but also because they play on fears about sexuality. Vampirism is as much about “body shame and unwholesome lust,” seduction, temptation, selfishness, and exploitation as it is about actual bloodsucking bat-people.
Here, Foster shows how understanding archetype can help reveal the symbolic meaning of literature. It is unlikely that many people genuinely worry that they will encounter a vampire in real life; however, many people fear the archetype of the sexual predator, whether in the form of an alleyway rapist, a man abusing his position of power, or a pedophile. Although none of these figures have fangs and a cape, they are all part of the same archetype as vampires and generate a version of the same fear.
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Just as vampires symbolize more than monstrous horror, so too do ghosts and doppelgangers (doubles). Often, ghosts exist in order to convey a message or teach living characters a lesson—this is true of the ghosts in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1605) and Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843). Doppelgangers, on the other hand, emphasize the idea that everyone has a dark side (think of the doubles in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886)).
This passage connects the three major literary devices Foster outlines in the book: symbol, archetype, and intertextuality. Ghosts and doubles are archetypes that tend to share similar symbolic meanings. These archetypes appear in different works of literature separated by time and space, but their thematic connections emerge through intertextuality.
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Dickens, Stoker, Stevenson—all these authors featured monstrous characters in their fiction, and all lived during the Victorian era. This is no coincidence, Foster claims. During Victorian times, explicit depiction of sexuality was forbidden in works of literature. As a result, authors developed covert techniques of portraying sex and sexual themes—methods that have survived in the present day. Consider the success of the “teen vampire” era, which began with Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire (1976) and achieved a climax of popularity with Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight (2005). Although sex is generally considered less scandalous now than it was in the 19th century, authors still utilize vampires and other figures as ways of indirectly representing sexuality.
Once again, Foster uses historical context to explain literary phenomena—in this case, the genre of vampire literature. His connection of the Victorian craze for depicting monsters (known as gothic literature) to the present-day success of the “teen vampire” genre highlights a surprising parallel between our current culture and the Victorian era. We like to think of ourselves as more sexually progressive than the Victorians, yet “teen vampire” literature suggests we perhaps still retain many of the same fears as those who lived in the 19th century.
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Related Quotes
Foster concludes that “ghosts and vampires are never only about ghosts and vampires.” This is also true of other scary stories, even if these stories do not feature any fantastical figures. Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw (1898) features a governess who believes she is being haunted by ghosts. James makes it deliberately unclear whether the ghosts are real or if the governess is insane, or some combination of the two; yet no matter whether the ghosts are real, their presence in the narrative symbolizes the same themes of madness, neglect, and claustrophobic love.
A surface-level reading of “The Turn of the Screw” would likely fixate on the question of whether or not the ghosts are real. More analytical readings, however, also go on to focus on the novella’s themes. Scholarly interpretation also leaves room for ambiguity. The question of whether the ghosts are real doesn’t need to be resolved; in fact, it can be left deliberately unresolved.
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Foster turns to another work by Henry James, the novella Daisy Miller (1878). Unlike The Turn of the Screw, this story doesn’t feature any ghosts or ghouls. However, when the independent female protagonist contracts malaria and dies, Foster argues that it is actually a vampire that kills her. Foster explains that Winterbourne, the man Daisy loves, is a vampiric character; while he represents coldness, evil, and death, Daisy symbolizes innocence, youth, and life. “Daisy Miller” is a realist story and thus contains no monstrous creatures but, as Foster explains, “you don’t need fangs and a cape to be a vampire.”
Foster has already shown that monsters in literature often symbolize other things, and in this passage he argues that monsters themselves are not always directly represented in the text. The character of Winterbourne contains multiple layers of symbolic meaning; his cruelty and coldness symbolically mark him as a vampire, which in turn marks him as a predatory figure.
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Henry James is one of many Victorian writers who use ghoulish figures in order to depict psychosocial disturbance. Edgar Allan Poe, Thomas Hardy, and J. S. Le Fanu were all influenced by the naturalist movement of the late 19th century, which explored the harsh, animalistic side of human nature. Meanwhile, 20th century writers such as Franz Kafka, Gabriel García Márquez, and Iris Murdoch depict the ways in which humans (metaphorically) devour one another through scheming, voyeurism, and exploitation. Although there are many books that also feature actual ghosts, vampires, and monsters, Foster argues that these tend to be less haunting than literature depicting the “horrors” of human psychology.
Some works of literature contain a stereotypical antagonist (villain) who is evil in a straightforward sense. However, other texts portray humanity in a more subtle and complicated way, pointing to the fact that “villains” can be sympathetic, or that the capacity to behave cruelly is within all of us. This is one example of the way that a given archetype (such as a villain) can change quite drastically over different literary periods and contexts.
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