Sometimes things in literature mean more than they say on the surface. This applies not just to straightforward allusion and metaphor, but to the larger structure of stories, as well.
As with other broad, sweeping statements in this book, this is really overstated. He admits it himself: people take the word communion to mean something in particular, which isn't really quite what he means. And he's surprised when people look at him funny? In the broadest sense of the word communion, any time people come together for meals or anything else, even in the real world, it's communion, but that's not very useful to say, and so, by the principle of relevance, his students assume he means the more specialized (and at the same time more common!) religious definition. What he means to say is that no one would waste time writing a meal scene unless this coming together meant, symbolically, more than just a meal. At a minimum, it signifies that the characters consider themselves part of some group together–showing which may be the real point of the scene.
As with communion, this use of vampire seems to be mostly for shock value. The complex of ideas around vampires–largely sexual–isn't particularly connected to the general thesis in this chapter of 'supernatural things are symbols'. And even that is overstating things a bit–there are plenty of cases, particularly in genre fiction, where supernatural elements are not symbols to a greater extent than any corresponding element might be in a non-genre work. Of course, genre fiction does use these as symbols from time to time, e.g. The Ancient Mind at Work has a vampire–or perhaps only a rapist, but symbolically the two are one.
I'm not a fan of Foster's going for impact over precision. By all means, notice when some violent spirit is standing in for the violent impulse in humans, or whatever the case may be. But don't focus too much on the image of vampire, or you'll find interpretations that aren't in the text, and miss those that are.
Sonnets exist. You should know what they are.
All of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again. Literature is intertextual. Characters get reused, plots get adapted, themes reappear over the centuries. Knowing where you've seen this before, as the chapter title prompts, gives you more avenues of understanding, more tools for analysis, and more enjoyment from your reading.
Shakespeare is, like, suuuuper popular. He's awesome, and everyone has thought so for a thousand years or so, ever since Shakespeare was teaching his English classes about the best way to participle a gerund, and had the idea to invent iambic pentameter, which is responsible for making sonnets square.
Well, actually, this isn't a very useful chapter, unless you somehow didn't know that lots of stuff comes from Shakespeare. It's a torrent of examples of novels, films, and plays that have some kind of connection with the Immortal Bard, and a little mumbling about why there are so many ("because they're awesome!").
The bible is probably almost as famous as Shakespeare.
Fairy tales are also well-known.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Greek myth is also well-known. Especially Homer.
Rain tends to be a symbol of rebirth and cleansing, but it can also be close and oppressive, dangerous–it can bring a flood, which might lead to its own kind of rebirth.
Other weather, too, has its hidden meanings. Fog can be confusion or uncertainty, and snow can serve many purposes.
Q: Do authors really put all that stuff in there?
We cannot really know exactly what an author was thinking when writing, but in many cases we can make good guesses about authorial intent, and anyway what matters most is what we, the readers, can get out of or read into a work.
Answer: "Sure it is."
Foster argues that most anything in a book might be a symbol. The problem isn't detecting symbolism, it's interpreting it. And the interpretation varies from reader to reader:
I am sympathetic to the theory that the meaning of a work is specific to the reader, and that symbols–and anything else–may have more than one valid interpretation.
Foster is blithely advancing a "there is no truth" point of view, here, and that is… facile, to say the least. Is everything a symbol? Sure, all of literature is nothing but a big string of symbols. Words aren't things.
But we do assign typical and less-typical meaning to words and to collections of words. To the majority of realistic utterances, situated within their contexts, most proficient speakers of the language will assign broadly similar meanings. That's a lot of qualifiers, but in short, most people can agree about the meaning of most things.
That's what a language is. If there weren't broad agreement about the meanings of words, we wouldn't have a shared lexicon, so we couldn't communicate. If there weren't broad agreement about grammar, then we couldn't assign semantic value to the relationships between words, and our communication would be extremely limited.
The lexicon of symbols isn't so different from the lexicon of any other sort of language. If you've ever read an explanation of some symbol in a book and said "yeah, that makes sense", then you've got your proof right there. And Foster more or less admits as much: he prescribes a method of interpretation dependent on this. Think of all the meanings something might have, and then decide which one makes sense in context. Brilliant strategy, that.
Getting a broad-enough selection of "meanings something might have" means opening your mind a bit, and that set is theoretically unlimited, but practically we certainly can decide on, if not the interpretation, an interpretation that is likely to be acceptable to other humans.
I suppose that it's the mind-expanding that Foster is trying to encourage here, really, but he's not going about it in the most efficient way. If you're not already prepared to accept that it's okay to arrive at an interpretation that the author might not have intended, I don't think you'll be convinced by this chapter.
Most literature has political elements, whether explicit or implicit. Those works that are designed with a political purpose, such as to support or excoriate a particular current or prospective institution, might age badly, while those that address the causes of political issues, the fundamental elements of society and human nature that give rise to the social realities addressed by politics, may be of enduring interest.
Christianity being popular as it is, Christ figures abound. Foster suggests some common traits that might indicate a character may be taken as a Christ figure.
What this chapter lacks, as do many others, is the important motivating question: So what?
Is this person a Christ figure? "Works for me," says Foster. The follow-up to that should be: if so, then what does that give us? What new directions does it open up for criticism? What new ways of understanding does it enable? In short, why do we care? Aristotle tells us "that whose presence or absence makes nothing evident is no part of the whole" (Aristotle, 1961, p. 17). If being a Christ figure doesn't contribute anything, then it's meaningless.
Flight represents freedom.
Thanks to Freud, writers put sexual metaphors everywhere, and critics find them in even more places.
There are only so many ways to write about sex, and most of them are boring. Pornography does its thing, but writers are probably aiming for a bit more meaning. So, when people have sex in literature, it's doing some other work: symbolizing freedom or rebellion, reflecting something about the characters' mental state… something.
People going underwater and returning are being reborn, perhaps.
My takeaway from this would be closer to "geography doesn't matter", because you can make anything of it. Authors use geography–in any of the very broad senses of the word Foster offers–as a symbol, as a manifestation of elements of the plot or the characters, as a reflection of themes of the work, as just about anything but mere place. Some stories, Foster asserts, must take place where they do--Huckleberry Finn, say–which is perhaps true, but for most of the other examples he gives of geography being important, it seems to me the geography might have been changed utterly without appreciably damaging the story. As long as the author does the work to draw the right connections, the result will be similar.
So, pay attention to how the scenery relates to the rest of the story, sure, but remember that it's these relationships that matter, not the geography.
Winter is death and spring is rebirth, summer and fall growth and decline, and everyone already knows this. The time during which a story is set often reflects the mood of the story, or perhaps subverts it. As with everything else, authors can make the seasons mean whatever they like.
All stories are variations on, or responses to, earlier stories. The patterns we see in stories that let us recognize and understand symbols come down to us from the unremembered past. All literature is intertextual, and no creation can be wholly original, standing apart from what has come before.
Heart attacks, heart disease, etc. can represent metaphorical trouble with the heart–unfaithfulness, unfeelingness, whatever.
|Thomas C. Foster||Author|