Reading literature has been assigned several theories in the past centuries. There is still an argument about whether literature should be teaching people moral lessons, something Greek tragedies used to aim for, entertain, lead to self-realization or all of the above. Foster’s book is examining the process of reading from a different perspective. Literature is based on myth; Shakespearean, Biblical and folk/fairy tale. Every single one has its own “decoding system” that enables the reader to get the message.
Reading and literature is a quest, according to Foster (7). Quest has five different aspects: “a quester, a place to go, a stated reason to go there, challenges ant trials on the route and the real reason to go there”. (6) A real quest does not tell the reader what the real reason for it is. It is educational, but the stated reason has nothing to do with the end result of the quest. Indeed, the author states that “The real reason for a quest is always self-knowledge”. (7) In order to interpret the meaning of a book, however, one needs to be aware of the myths and symbols that are used throughout the writing. They need to know what the political, historical background, common experiences of the writer and the characters are in order to realize why one symbol or act is present in the book. Previous cultural, personal and literary experiences are helping the reader decode the myths that are present. Recognizing a pattern, archetypes, symbols is easy for a literature professor, but students can only develop this ability through reading and practicing (20). Indeed, “there is only one story” (22) said in different ways through literature. All stories are connected and grow out of each other.
According to Foster (39), myth is “the shaping and sustaining power of story and symbol” (39). It is dependent on the traditions, the culture, customs and the community’s own knowledge and collection of stories that matter. Referring to tribal writing, the author states that the imagery, symbols and beliefs are present throughout the theme. A Biblical hymn can be interpreted based on the reader’s knowledge of the Hebrew history, beliefs and myths. Still, Foster differentiates between the traditional and Euro-American and European cultures’ myths and traditional ones. It refers back to texts that used to be general knowledge and a part of the culture; Greek, Roman and Biblical myths. Classical myth works in these Euro-American and European communities and cultures where characters and characteristics of modern literature are often pulled in to create a context.
When we mention the Trojan Horse, everyone has the idea. However, if an ancient Chinese myth is pulled into the text, one needs to do more research to interpret the symbol. While the author also states that when using intertextuality, modern authors parallels are often ironized as well. Still, the role of myth as a meaning has not disappeared throughout the centuries.
Application of Theories on the Poisonwood Bible
The Poisonwood Bible is not only full of mythical references, but also resembles the situation when Apostles spread throughout the world to talk about Jesus to those who never heard of him. It relates to the well-known role of mission and responsibility, which is an easily interpretable symbol in Western cultures. However, while the reader would think that the “place to go” is to understand mission, the real goal is to understand ourselves as humans. That is why the book is written featuring multiple narrators.
One of the main symbols, also easily understandable by Western Christian readers is gardening, which relates to producing good people, fulfilling one’s mission, also a theme that is present in several biblical texts.
Looking at the text and narrative to understand literature does not fulfill its real purpose. Professors and scholars need to look further to identify the “place to go” and the human concepts, often appearing in the form of symbols, themes and myths in the writing.
Foster, T. C. (2003) How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines. Harper Perennial
Kingslover, B. (1998) The Poisonwood Bible. Harper Collins.