Sunday, 23 January 2011


I was in our local Oxfam Bookshop yesterday morning and picked up a book with the title How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C Foster. I'm a complete sucker for any book like this. In theory, given the career I've had, I ought to know how to read literature like a Professor, or at least like a Senior Lecturer, but I can never resist finding out how someone else thinks it should be done and so the book found its way off the shelf and came home with me.

Foster's style is very engaging and I can see that whether I always agree with him or not I am going to get a lot of pleasure simply from spending time in his company. If he lectures as well as he writes then his students are fortunate indeed. I set out this morning to read just the introduction and before I knew it I was half way through the first chapter as well.

In that first chapter Foster discusses the concept of the quest, the driving force behind literature from Beowulf through The Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter. What I found most interesting about this discussion was the text that Foster chooses to illustrate his thesis, Thomas Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49. I have to admit that it isn't a book I know well, but those of you who are familiar with it will recall that the protagonist, the person who is on the quest, is Oedipa Maas, who, just in case you weren't sure, is a woman.

This set me thinking about the idea of the woman as quester, because I wouldn't mind betting that they are about as rare as the dragon's eggs your average quester might be searching for. It's noticeable that when Forster is talking in more general terms the novels he mentions all feature male protagonists and he always uses he as pronominal reference.

I toyed for a time with the notion of Jane Austen's heroines as going on quests. Certainly, they meet Foster's requirement of attaining a greater level of self-knowledge by the end of their respective novels and I suppose you could argue that they are on a quest for marriage, but if you're going to accuse Lizzie Bennett of setting out to look for a husband can I please get out of the line of fire before you do so. So perhaps not.

I thought then about some of the children's literature I know. I'm in the middle of reading an ARC of Elizabeth Laird's forthcoming book, The Betrayal of Maggie Blair, and although I have yet to finish it that does seem to be moving towards meeting the criteria. Set in Scotland in the time of the Covenanters, it is about a young woman who is forced to go questing by the superstitious minds of the people amongst whom she has been brought up. She is certainly meeting with perils on the way and although it asks for role reversal there is the equivalent of the evil knight and the beautiful princess who is going to need rescuing. Whether or not it will finally resolve itself with Maggie growing to greater self-awareness I shall be better placed to tell you towards the end of the week, but it looks as though it might.

So, perhaps there is greater scope for the female quester in literature being written for children growing up in an age where woman have more expectation of being allowed to follow paths traditionally prescribed for men? Can I think of any others?

Well, there's Philip Pullman's Lyra, of course, who is certainly the protagonist in Northern Lights (The Golden Compass) and without a doubt ends up with greater self-knowledge. That, after all, is what the sequence is about. Even there, however, the main role is taken over in the second book by Will and Lyra never completely regains the ascendancy she had in the first novel.

And perhaps I don't have to stay with modern children's literature. What about Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden? Her quest, it could be argued, appears to be to rescue the garden, but she definitely finds out more about herself in general and comes specifically to a greater self awareness as a result of the journey she undertakes. I'm not sure how Colin would feel about the role of princess in distress, but as far as I'm concerned he fits the bill nicely.

But where are the adult female questers? Who am I missing? Who are the obvious contenders? What do you think?



  1. I'd really like to read the Foster book -- it sounds fascinating. Perhaps when my TBR Dare is over! As for questing women, the only ones I can think of are accompanied by a male counterpart. Interesting...I'll keep thinking.

  2. Yes, Erin, it seems we can't accomplish anything unless our hand is being held. Personally I've always found it easier to do things with both hands unencumbered:)

  3. Book sounds great ... but I'm afraid I can't think of female questers but that could be to do with the sorts of books I read or my prosaic mind!

  4. Great post! I am also a lecturer, of Canadian literature, and I also bought Foster's book. I wanted to see if I would agree with his advice and, if there was bad advice, to steer my students away from it, pre-emptive-like. I didn't find any.

    Re: questers, Margaret Atwood's unnamed narrator in _Surfacing_ is on a quest, but even she does not know what for. It is definitely a quest narrative, though, complete with a journey to the underworld.

  5. WG, I'm sure you would enjoy the book, it's eminently readable, and I'm sure as I get further into it it will stretch not only my mind but also my reading list.

    Nathalie, I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks this book has a lot going for it. from what I've read I would certainly be happy to recommend it to my students. I don't know that much of Atwood's work so to get a recommendation from a lecturer in Canadian Literature is very helpful. I'll make 'Surfacing' my next Atwood read. Thank you.

  6. I think most of George Eliot's female protagonists could be considered questers, especially Maggie in Mill on the Floss and Dorothea in Middlemarch. I might also nominate Margaret Hale in Gaskell's North & South. Then there is Becky Sharp...

  7. Rohan, I wondered about including the Eliot girls and Jane Eyre as well. I have to admit to not having read Gaskell in far too many years, so I can't comment on her women. What I do think is interesting here is the fact that Becky Sharpe, alone amongst the classical suggestions I've had is the creation of a male writer. What does that say about Thackery, I wonder.

  8. What about Alice in the Lewis Carroll books?

  9. Stefanie, that's a great idea. No intruding males for Carroll. Thank you.

  10. Well, the only one I thought of was Lyra, but you got that one already. I'm afraid I'm no good at this!

  11. No, I can never think off the top of my head, either, Dorothy. I'm hopeless in meetings. I always need to go away and ponder for a bit.