Does He Mean That?

How to Read Literature Like a Professor - Thomas C. Foster 2003

Does He Mean That?



ALONG ABOUT NOW you should be asking a question, something like this: you keep saying that the writer is alluding to this obscure work and using that symbol or following some pattern or other that I never heard of, but does he really intend to do that? Can anyone really have all that going on in his head at one time?

Now that is an excellent question. I only wish I had an excellent answer, something pithy and substantive, maybe with a little alliteration, but instead I have one that’s merely short.


The chief deficiency of this answer, aside from its lack of pith, is that it is manifestly untrue. Or at least misleading. The real answer, of course, is that no one knows for certain. Oh, for this writer or that one we can be pretty sure, depending on what they themselves tell us, but in general we make guesses.

Let’s look at the easy ones—James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and what we could call the “Intentionalists”—writers who attempt to control every facet of their creative output and who intend virtually every effect in their works. Many of them are from the modernist period, essentially the era around the two world wars of the twentieth century. In an essay called “Ulysses, Order, and Myth (1923),” Eliot extols the virtues of Joyce’s newly published masterpiece, and proclaims that, whereas writers of previous generations relied on the “narrative method,” modern writers can, following Joyce’s example, employ the “mythic method.” Ulysses, as we know from our earlier discussion, is the very long story of a single day in Dublin, June 16, 1904, its structure modeled on Homer’s Odyssey (Ulysses being the Latin equivalent of the name of Homer’s hero, Odysseus). The structure of the novel utilizes the various episodes of the ancient epic, although ironically—Odysseus’s trip to the underworld, for instance, becomes a trip to the cemetery; his encounter with Circe, an enchantress who turns men into swine, becomes a trip to a notorious brothel by the protagonists. Eliot uses his essay on Joyce to defend implicitly his own masterpiece, The Waste Land, which also builds around ancient myths, in this case fertility myths associated with the Fisher King. Ezra Pound borrows from Greek, Latin, Chinese, English, Italian, and French poetic traditions in the Cantos. D. H. Lawrence writes essays about Egyptian and Mexican myth, Freudian psychoanalysis, issues in the Book of Revelation, and the history of the novel in Europe and America. Do we really believe that novels or poems by any of these writers, or their contemporaries Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner, will be naive? Doesn’t seem likely, does it?

Faulkner, for instance, in Absalom, Absalom! (1936) makes use of a title from the Bible—Absalom is David’s rebellious son who hangs himself—and plot and characters from Greek mythology. The novel is Faulkner’s version of Aeschylus’s Oresteia (458 b.c.), the tragedy of the returning soldiers from Troy and revenge and destruction on a mythic scale. Their Trojan War is the Civil War, of course, and the murder at the gates is of the illegitimate son by his half brother, not of the returning husband (Agamemnon) by his faithless wife (Clytemnestra), although she is invoked in the mulatto slave, Clytie. He gives us Orestes, the avenging son pursued by Furies and ultimately consumed in the flames of the family mansion, in Henry Sutpen, and Electra, the daughter consumed by grief and mourning, in his sister, Judith. Such baroque planning and complex execution don’t leave much room for naive, spontaneous composition.

Okay, so much for the modern writers, but what about earlier periods? Prior to 1900, most poets would have received at least rudimentary elements of a classical education—Latin, some Greek, lots of classical poetry and Dante and Shakespeare—certainly more than your average reader today. They could count on their readers, moreover, having considerable training in the tradition. One of the surest ways to be successful in theater in the nineteenth century was to take a touring Shakespeare company through the American West. If folks in their little houses on the prairie could quote the Bard, is it likely that their writers “accidentally” wrote stories that paralleled his?

Since proof is nearly impossible, discussions of the writer’s intentions are not especially profitable. Instead let’s restrict ourselves to what he did do and, more important, what we readers can discover in his work. What we have to work with is hints and allegations, really, evidence, sometimes only a trace, that points to something lying behind the text. It’s useful to keep in mind that any aspiring writer is probably also a hungry, aggressive reader and will have absorbed a tremendous amount of literary history and literary culture. By the time she writes her books, she has access to that tradition in ways that need not be conscious. Nevertheless, whatever parts have infiltrated her consciousness are always available to her. Something else that we should bear in mind has to do with speed of composition. The few pages of this chapter have taken you a few minutes to read; they have taken me, I’m sorry to say, days and days to write. No, I haven’t been sitting at my computer the whole time. First I carried the germ around for a while, mulling over how best to approach it, then I sat down and knocked a few items onto the screen, then I began fleshing out the argument. Then I got stuck, so I made lunch or baked some bread or helped my kid work on his car, but I carried the problem of this chapter around with me the whole time. I sat down at the keyboard again and started in again but got distracted and worked on something else. Eventually I got where we are now. Even assuming equal levels of knowledge about the subject, who probably has had the most ideas—you in five minutes of reading or me in five days of stumbling around? All I’m really saying is that we readers sometimes forget how long literary composition can take and how very much lateral thinking can go on in that amount of time.

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 something that starts happening when a reader/writer and a sheet of paper get locked in a room together. And it’s a great deal of what makes reading the work—of my students, of recent graduates of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, of Keats and Shelley—interesting and fun.