Category Archives: Literary Analysis

Book Review: How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Thomas C. Foster

Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor is the first book I downloaded when I bought my new Kindle a few weeks ago. Although I expected that I would probably be familiar with a lot of the content, since I’m well-versed in the analysis of literature, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I learned a few tips and tricks that I hadn’t previously considered.

Foster writes clear, concise prose with a conversational tone. This book is geared towards readers that enjoy literature, but lack the formal education to analyze it to the full extent. However, Foster doesn’t speak down to his audience at any point in the text; he feels like the sort of professor who encourages you to stay and chat after class about the texts, because he’s excited about what he does. His style works very well in this regard, because although I don’t fit the target audience exactly, reading the book felt like an engaging and eye-opening discussion with someone who shares my passion, if not necessarily my opinions. I feel as if I’ve gained a great refresher, and broadened my knowledge base to boot. I would recommend Foster’s book for the novice and expert alike.


Those Things That Only Comics Can Achieve: An Analysis of Watchmen on Page and Screen

This paper responds to a statement made by Alan Moore, the writer of Watchmen:
“Whenever anybody talks about comics, they usually make a great deal about the relationship between comics and film; and while I agree that a comic creator who understands cinematic technique will probably be a better creator than one who doesn’t, I feel that if we only see comics in relationship to movies, then the best that they will ever be are films that do not move. I’d found it in the mid-eighties preferable to try and concentrate on those things that only comics could achieve.”
– Alan Moore

The series was adapted into a film, and in the light of the release the remark above became an interesting and relevant jumping off point for a comparison, contrasting the manners in which time structuring is built and created across both media, through a careful analysis of the differences in function between shot editing in film and page layout in comics.

The full text is here: Those Things That Only Comics Can Achieve: An Analysis of Watchmen on Page and Screen

Presented to Dr. S. Humphreys, ENGL 4807H, 10 April 2009

“God in his mercy lend her grace”: The Dilemma of the Artist in Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott”

The Victorian era marked a new interest in the Arthurian mythos, spurred on by a wider social interest in medievalism and Romanticism.  The nearly canonical cycle of the Arthur story, Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, was reprinted in 1816 for the first time in almost two hundred years; the newly republished legends inspired a new generation of authors, poets and artists including Alfred, Lord Tennyson (Pairns 8-10).  Though Tennyson may have published his first Arthurian poem, “The Lady of Shalott”, before reading Malory’s text[1], his Lady is clearly based on a figure that appears in several of the Arthurian and Grail cycles, alternately known as Elaine of Astolat, the Demoiselle d’Escalot, Elaine the White, Elaine the Fair, and in the Italian romance Donna di Scalotta, which likely served directly as the basis for Tennyson’s poem (Potwin 238), the Damigella di Scalot.  Tennyson continued to be fascinated by the Arthurian legends throughout his life and eventually produced Idylls of the King, a cycle of twelve narrative poems that retell the tales of Camelot, which was published between 1856 and 1885.  His poems were influenced and inspired by the Arthurian and Grail cycles that came before his, however Tennyson’s work also contains elements that are without historical precedent in the stories that came before.  In “The Lady of Shalott”, his inventions draw attention to the underlying themes of the poem; the literary Elaine, as she existed before Tennyson, was already said to have loved Lancelot with an unrequited passion that killed her and sent her bedecked body down the river by boat to Camelot, but there is no reference in any of the earlier texts to a tower, an island, a curse, a song, the Lady’s weaving, or a mirror.  These elements are entirely the invention of Tennyson himself, suggesting that they are significant in understanding and examining the meaning intrinsic to the poem.  The inclusions emphasize the geographic and emotional isolation of Tennyson’s heroine, as she is set apart from the world by her seclusion in a prison, isolated from society by a supernatural curse, and able to view the world only through a glass darkly.  Her craftsmanship at the loom records life from an outside perspective; the expressive and emotional power of her songs creates a connection with the world outside her tower.

A Sequestered Tower and Indirect Gaze: The Landscape of Isolation

Tennyson’s Lady is significantly removed from the world in which she lives, both geographically and emotionally or psychologically.  In fact, it is difficult to describe her as living within the world at all; unlike the earlier versions of Elaine that precede her in the Arthurian literary tradition, Tennyson’s Lady is wholly unable to interact with society, because she is subject to a curse, and she instead lives a lonely existence in a tall gray tower above the bustle of life across the river.  Tennyson devotes the first four stanzas of the poem, which make up the entirety of Part 1, to vibrant descriptions of the landscape of her isolation; amidst the lush, verdant countryside sits the “silent” Island of Shalott (l. 17), upon which the Lady is trapped by “[f]our gray walls, and four gray towers” (l. 15).  The cold, stark imagery of the tower stands in stark contrast to the rich, organic descriptions of a world abundant and ready for harvest: “On either side the river lie / Long fields of barley and of rye, / That clothe the wold and meet the sky” (ll. 1-3).  There is activity in the fields, but the world inside the tower and the world of the kingdom below exist separately and are unable to interact to any significant degree.  The Lady is imprisoned in the tower, distanced from the world by the curse she has heard whispered is upon her (ll. 39-40).  Unable to look upon the world outside her tower with her own eyes, she views only “[s]hadows” of its contents and inhabitants as they are reflected through the mirror behind her loom (l. 48), leaving her able to watch and interpret the actions of nature and society without the ability to participate.

The curse has been suggested to represent “the inescapable condition of the poet’s art”, a sign of a deeper conflict between the internal world of the artist and the external world of society and social interaction (Culler 46).  The artist struggles between her isolation during the creative process and a desire to participate in the day-to-day events of life with others.  The distance between the artist and her subject is often emphasized by critics as being “removed from reality” several times (Hellstrom 13).  The curse, therefore, has been said to doom the Lady “to produce an art object that is an inversion of a dim unreality” (Wright 287).  However, Wright goes on to argue that this interpretation is fundamentally flawed, as the interpretations of reflection are exaggerated by some scholars.  The mirror itself, rather than being a device solely present for the sake of the fairy tale, is necessitated by the task she performs; as her weaving has her working the back side of the image, the mirror allows her to see the front of her work, and is a common practice for weavers (287-8).  The mirror’s function of reversal does not figure largely in the text; in fact, the theme of reflection that flows throughout the poem sees every significantly reversed image righted before it reaches the eyes of the Lady, through acts of double reflection.  The sight of her beloved, Sir Lancelot, is both reversed and righted, as his image is reflected in the river and then righted again in the mirror: “From the bank and from the river / He flash’d into the crystal mirror” (ll. 105-6).   With its function of reversal negated, the mirror serves only to divert the gaze of the Lady from settling directly on her subject and instead fixes it upon her work.  By distancing her gaze from the world, Tennyson suggests that art is a solitary and introspective pursuit; in studying the reflections of the world outside her window, the Lady reflects on their beauty and strives to imitate and capture their beauty.

Sight and Sound: To Record or Express

Set away from the world, alone in a tower without human companionship, Tennyson’s Lady spends her days weaving images of a world in which she cannot participate; though she sees the world only at a distance, reflected through the mirror behind her loom, she maintains a scrupulous record of the events that occur in the kingdom outside her window.  She sits at her loom “by night and day”, weaving “steadily”, completely fixated on her task (ll. 37, 43).  The textile art produces a record, but as Culler suggests, the product of the Lady’s craft is a mimetic work (46); she observes and records, but does not embellish or interpret what the images mean to her personal experience.  If the curse represents the poet’s condition, it suggests that the artist who simply records without participating or understanding is solitary and unfulfilled; though “in her web she still delights / To weave the mirror’s magic sights,” it is clear that it is a desire to interact with the outside world that keeps her transfixed, as the image of “two young lovers lately wed” causes her to cry out: “I am half sick of shadows” (ll. 64-5, 70, 71).  The Lady is alone, without her other half: “She hath no loyal knight and true” (l. 62).  Unable to converse or dialogue with others because of her isolation, the mimetic art that she produces is the only way that she is able to respond to the world around her.  It is significant that she is drawn from her introspection not by Lancelot’s image, but by the sound of his song:

From the bank and from the river

He flash’d into the crystal mirror,

“Tirra lirra,” by the river

Sang Sir Lancelot.

She left the web, she left the loom,

She made three paces thro’ the room,

She saw the water-lily bloom,

She saw the helmet and the plume,

She looked down to Camelot.

(ll. 105-113)

At the sound of his song, the Lady leaps up to take three steps across the room, spurred to action by the call of his voice.  The syntax of these lines is anaphoric and asyndetic, suggesting that she “acts with whole-hearted determination … when she knowingly gives herself up to an outside force” (Gray 45-6).  Whether or not the Lady is cognisant of the consequences of her actions as she performs them, the attraction to Lancelot does elicit a response of whole-hearted determination from the poem’s heroine.   She leaves behind her tools for recording and looks directly upon the world, engaging it completely for the first time.  Sound is the one integrating force that exists in the poem between the world of the tower and the world of the kingdom below.  The Lady is first introduced through her song, which reaches the ears of the reapers in the fields below:

Only reapers, reaping early

In among the bearded barley,

Hear a song that echoes cheerly

From the river winding clearly

Down to tower’d Camelot:

(ll. 28-32)

While the Lady is distanced from visually and physically interacting with the natural world and the company of others, she is in some way able to influence others and receive some form of recognition in turn; the reapers know her by her voice, even though the Lady is unaware of their response (ll. 35-6).  Once she knows that the curse is upon her, Tennyson’s heroine signs her name on the prow of an abandoned boat and makes her way down the river, performing a funeral dirge.  The scene is pointedly similar to her earlier song:

And as the boat-head wound along

The willowy hills and fields among,

They heard her singing her last song,

The Lady of Shalott.

(ll. 141-4)

Both songs wind through the natural world, eventually reaching the ears of others.  Having been roused by the power of song, the Lady engages in a performance and signs her name to it, encouraging an appreciative response from others; with the curse upon her, she reaches out to the world around her in the most effective way the poet can: by projecting her voice into the world around her and attaching her name to the result.


The elements Tennyson invented and introduced to his version of the story of the Lady of Shalott emphasize her geographic and emotional isolation, as she is set apart from the world by her seclusion in an island tower, isolated from the kingdom in which she lives by a supernatural curse, and able to view the outside world only indirectly.  Her craftsmanship at the loom records life from an outside perspective, keeping her separate and unable to participate in society.  However, the expressive and emotional powers of music and songs create a connection between the Lady and the world outside of her tower.  Although the curse is her undoing, her mournful song attracts the interest and attention of the entire kingdom, “Knight and burgher, lord and dame” (l. 160), and the acceptance and admiration of the object of her affection, Lancelot, who leaves the Lady-poet with a hopeful wish:

But Lancelot mused a little space;

He said, “She has a lovely face;

God in his mercy lend her grace,

The Lady of Shalott.”

(ll. 168-171)

[1] “I do not think that I had ever heard of the latter when I wrote the former [Tennyson’s note].” (Tennyson 1235)

Presented to: Angus Cleghorn, ENGL 3402, 24 March 2010


Eli, Hebrew Prophets, and the Old Testament

“Eli Stand Alone stood at the window of the cabin and watched the water slide past the porch.  It was getting higher, but they had done that before, open the gates just a little and let the stream come up over the sides of the channel and wash against the logs.  A lot of trouble for nothing.” (King, 110)

Eli’s name is highly charged with biblical significance.  Not only does the word “Eli” mean “My God” in Hebrew, it is also a reference to the Old Testament prophets (Smith, 76).  There are several significant figures named Eli or a derivative of the name in the Hebrew bible; the names Elijah and Elisha are both written in their abbreviated form as “Eli” in the text.  Like these prophets, King’s Eli is a wise man, trained both academically and with deep spiritual connections.  Not only was he a university professor, but he also demonstrates his connection to the land and his people by refusing to move from his home and allow the dam to flood the area.  His experiences also prefigure the other later narratives in much the same way that the Old Testament prefigures the New Testament (Smith, 76).  For example, his experience at the Sun Dance as a child, in which a man appears to be taking pictures of the event, foreshadows the incident at the end of the book in which George Morningstar does much the same thing.  He also makes prophetic statements about what will happen with the dam: while Sifton finds that the dam looks “Sort of white.  Like a shell,” Eli replies “Reminds me of a toilet” (King, 136).  Throughout the book, the toilet at The Dead Dog Cafe is constantly overflowing, and in the end, the dam follows suit, bursting and destroying Eli and his cabin in the process.

The name of Eli also appears to be a direct intertextual reference to the character that appears in Louise Erdrich‘s works, Love Medicine and Tracks.  King’s reference to “other Native American texts typifies a range of references that move readers into other imaginative Native American landscapes” (Smith, 76).  It is interesting that this may be the case, since King’s novel is accessible to readers with a western world view; it may be that it acts as somewhat of a stepping stone into indigenous literature.

Dr. Joseph Hovaugh and Jehovah

“Dr. Joseph Hovaugh sat at his desk and rolled his toes in the soft, deep-pile carpet.  The desk was large, one of his wife’s auction discoveries, a rare example of colonial woodcraft.  She had had it stripped, repaired, stained blond, and moved into his office as a surprise.  He was delighted, he said, and praised her eye for having found so massive a piece of wood.  It reminded him of a tree cut down to the stump.” (King, 16)

jehovahThe passage above is the reader’s first introduction to Dr. Hovaugh, whose name is an allusion to the one of the common pronunciations of the name of the Christian god, Jehovah.  Even in this first passage, King makes a subtle reference that places him in the Christian mythological framework; the desk at which Dr. Hovaugh is seated was “stripped, repaired, [and] stained blond,” which brings to mind the Passion and Ascension of Christ, who was stripped and flagellated before Pilate, crucified, and taken bodily into Heaven (where he is usually depicted in Western art as glowing and fair-haired).  Dr. Hovaugh in fact has an ongoing relationship with tree and wood symbolism throughout the novel; he later feels “burdened with inexplicable remorse and guilt” as the established trees in his garden fall victim to a blight and have to be replaced with young saplings (King, 73).

Dr. Hovaugh is again associated with Biblical tradition a bit further down the page:

“Dr. Hovaugh sat in his chair behind his desk and looked out at the wall and the trees and the flowers and the swans on the blue-green pond in the garden, and he was pleased.” (King, 16)

This passage sounds very much like the verses in the first book of Genesis, which read:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.   And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”  And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.  And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.  And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. (Genesis 1:27-31).

Having cemented this biblical allusion, King takes the character of Dr. Hovaugh in an interesting direction.  Rather than presenting him as a wise, powerful figure, he presents him as a vaguely confused and rather clueless old man.  He seems disconnected from the world around him, unable to interact properly the people around him.  For example, while discussing the missing Old Indians, “Dr. Eliot was talking, saying something about the Indians, but Dr. Hovaugh couldn’t quite hear him” (King, 48).  This is reflected externally by the death of his garden; there is another reference to its decay on page 96: “The grass near the wall seemed unusually dry and the leaves on one of the new elms appeared yellow and curled.  The big oak wasn’t showing any signs of improvement, either.”  There is a sense that Dr. Hovaugh is a man whose best years are past, who is ready to fade away into obscurity.  His way of life and of seeing the world are passing.

I believe that this characterization of Dr. Hovaugh is a tool that King is using to make a comment about the relationship between indigenous people and the predominantly Christian majority by which they are surrounded.  Just as it appears to be time for Dr. Hovaugh to step aside, it is also time for patriarchal Euro-centric society to reevaluate the values that Dr. Hovaugh represents.  When that happens, maybe society, like the Old Indians, will be able to set things right this time.

Alberta’s students

The students in Alberta’s lecture on captivity and ledger book drawings are named for significant figures in American history, each of which have had some major impact on Native Americans after colonization.

“Henry Dawes was sound asleep at the back of the room, his head wrapped up in his arms.”  (King, 19).

henry-dawes-002-thHenry Dawes was a U.S. Senator and Representative who sponsored The Dawes Act, which determined the distribution of land to Native Americans in Oklahoma.  The Act divided the land into three different packages: 40 acres for general living, 80 for raising cattle, and 160 for farming.  The land amounts were unsuitable for economic viability, and designed to be fragmented among heirs.  A very interesting analysis of the language of the bill, and its use as a form of control over Native Americans can be found here, written by David Bartecchi.

“Hannah Duston and John Collier had moved their desks together again, and were virtually in each other’s laps.” (King, 19)

johncollierJohn Collier was an activist who opposed the Dawes Act.  He believed that Native culture should not be lost in the midst of the expanding dominant white culture, and vocally expounded the idea that indigenous survival was intrinsically linked with the retention of their lands.  His efforts led to a study of the indigenous condition in the United States, the findings of which were published as The Problem of Indian Administration, also called the Meriam Report.  (

hannah_duston_by_stearnsHannah Emerston Duston lived in an English settlement called Haverhill during King William’s War.  At the time, the French were inciting Native raids on the settlements, and during such a raid, Duston, her infant daughter, and a nurse were taken captive.  Her child was killed, and after a long march, the two women were held on an island.  There, they met another captive, 14-year-old Samuel Leonardson.  One night, Duston and the boy stole tomahawks and killed ten of the indigenous people holding them; nine were killed by Duston.  The group then stole a canoe and made their escape, but Duston turned back to scalp the corpses so that she would have proof of her exploits.  After they returned to Haverhill, they went before the General Court in Boston and Duston was awarded £25 and each of her companions received half of that sum (Encyclopædia Britannica).

“Mary Rowlandson and Elaine Goodale were bent over, their heads locked together.” (King, 19)

maryrowlandsonMary Rowlandson was taken captive by an indigenous raid party and held for three months.  She was treated poorly, but her skills in sewing and knitting earned her better treatment than most others.  After being ransomed back to her husband for £20, she wrote an account of her captivity called The Soveraignty & Goodness of God, Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed; Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. The book was reprinted in 30 editions over the years, and selections from it have been included in many anthologies of American writing (Encyclopædia Britannica).

elainegoodale1Elaine Goodale Eastman was a novelist, poet, journalist, editor and activist; but most importantly to indigenous culture, she was a schoolteacher.  In the nineteenth century, she fought for Native rights, opposing boarding schools based on her belief that the children should not be removed from their families.  She opened a day school on a Sioux reservation, hoping that it would serve as a model for indigenous education.  Goodale believed that Native Americans must assimilate into the dominant culture, or risk annihilation.  She lived with the Sioux for a time, and later met a Santee Sioux named Ohiyesa Charles Eastman, who had been educated at Dartmouth and recieved a medical degree from Boston University.  Ruth Anne Alexander, Professor Emertius of English, said of her: “Elaine really loved the work and she liked the country, liked the people very much. But she never lost the notion that they should be changed to white, that they should be reformed, even though there was this contradiction in her own enthusiasm for it.”  (PBS: Schoolhouse Pioneers).

“Helen Mooney was sitting in the front row, writing down every word Alberta uttered.”  (King, 19)

mcclungHelen Mooney was a Canadian reformer; in 1890, she became a teacher and went to board with the family of Rev. James and Alice McClung and became more commonly known as Nellie McClung (TimeLinks).  She was an important figure in the suffrage movement in Canada, and also worked for social reform in rural life, the plight of immigrants, conditions in cities and factories, the movements for prohibition and women’s suffrage, World War I, the Depression and World War II.  She was a member of ‘The Famous Five,’ who petitioned to have the word ‘person’ in section 24 of the British North America Act, 1867 interpreted to include women in the definition.  The decision allowed women eligibility to be appointed to the Senate of Canada (Archives Canada).

George Armstrong Custer and George Morningstar

George Morningstar.  Latisha had even liked his name.  It sounded slightly Indian, though George was American, from a small town in Michigan.  He had come out west to see, as he put it, what all the fuss was about.  Tall, with soft light brown hair that just touched his shoulders.

(King, 131-2)

custer-seated1Though the above lines describe George Morningstar, they could almost as easily be applied to George Armstrong Custer, the famed figure of the American Civil War.  He is most famous for his ‘Last Stand’ at Little Big Horn.  Custer was born in Ohio, though he grew up in Michigan, and was assigned after the war to drive the Sioux west into reservations.  The Plains Indians gave him the nicknames “Yellow-Hair” and “Son of the Morning Star” (

Like the relationship between Morningstar and Latisha, Custer too was intrigued by the Native lifestyle and is rumoured to have taken an Indian wife (Utley, 107).  Custer was also a prolific writer, who kept records of his journey across America (compiled in My Life on the Plains) and wrote long letters to his wife (compiled in The Custer Story: The Letters of General George A. Custer and His Wife Elizabeth).  George Morningstar consistently sends letters to Latisha after leaving her, until “finally they became boring.  Just like George.  Even the poetry dulled.  After Elizabeth was born, Latish stopped reading them altogether, stuffed them into a brown grocery bag in her closet instead, leaving them to collect like dust in a corner” (King, 250).

chief_sitting_bullIf she had read the letters, Latisha would have realised that George Morningstar was planning to attend the Sun Dance; the very event that Sitting Bull attended before the Battle of Little Bighorn.  There, he cut 100 strips from his arms and had a vision of soldiers falling from the sky, accompanied by a voice which told him: “I give you these for they have no ears” (A&E Biography).  Later that month, the La Kota would be victorious in battle against both Gen. Brig. Crook and Custer.  Custer underestimated the native forces, assuming that he would overrun them easily, and attacked them without waiting for reinforcements (A&E Biography).  Similarly, Morningstar underestimates the reaction that he will recieve by attending the Sun Dance, and is summarily dismissed for disobeying the rules and attempting to photograph the event (King, 386-7).