Breaking Bad may have Leaves of Grass and Mad Men may have Dante, but literary allusions aren't isolated to the highbrow, critic-swoon-inducing cable shows. Pretty Little Liars has been doing not-so-subtle references to literature for years. Between scenes of crazy-eyed Spencer assembling clues and Hanna pathologically making bad decisions, there are quotes and themes referencing everything from Shakespeare, Goethe, and Flaubert to McCullers, Bradbury, and Harper Lee. There's a reason you don't see the Liars attending any class that's not English: The show is way into classic and modern-classic authors.
To go through all of them would be like taking a college-level course in English lit (or at least an AP high school course), so as we close in on the summer finale, we'll just focus on some examples from Season 4 so far. This was your summer reading and you didn't even know it.
Despite "Turn of the Shoe"—the title of the season's second episode—being a nod to Henry James (see below), the most impactful reference comes from Steinbeck. Fitz has it written on the board:
How can you frighten a man whose hunger is not only in his own cramped stomach but in the wretched bellies of his children? You can't scare him—he has known a fear beyond every other.
For a season that, thus far, has been focused on torturing the parents as much as the children, the quote now seems like heavy foreshadowing for what's ahead. Ashley Marin's suffering is not only on her but on her kid. What does she have to fear? It's further complicated by how high A has raised the stakes by bringing the infrastructure of the town crashing down upon the Liars' families, involving multiple murders, expanding the sphere of bullying. There's an air of desperation here. Who will be the next person with nothing to lose? And will it be less disappointing than Spencer's flirtation with sociopathy last season?
But back to that "Turn of the Shoe" episode title: It was certainly a reference mostly to Ashley's muddy—and incriminating—heels. But it's worth noting the story of the novella. The ghosts of two service people haunt the house where they were formerly employed, and both of them are considered to be sexual deviants with respect to the master's children. The children can see them and are attracted to them, so much so that their newly hired governess goes to great lengths to save them from themselves. When one of the children distracts the governess with his piano-playing, her guard drops and the story jumps off. There are great many parallels throughout Pretty Little Liars, from the piano-playing to the faint undertone of possible molestation (I'm not even talking about Pedo Ezra here) to Ashley Marin seeing dead people. It's also worth noting that some who've read the story consider the governess to be completely insane, and the ghosts to be a figment of her imagination. Or maybe it was too much wine? No, Ashley. It's never enough wine.
Pretty Little Liars' fourth season has shifted the idea that the Liars are innocent victims and let some of the blame fall on them for the crimes that rustled up an A Team. Pastor Ted should probably be familiar with the "glass houses" proverb, that guilty people don't have the right to judge their fellow man, but the quote outside his church is from The Rape of Lucrece:
They whose guilt within their bosoms lie imagine every eye beholds their blame.
It represents that shift in perspective, from the guilty person projecting or detecting guilt in others to thinking that everyone around them knows how guilty they are because of how bad they feel. On top of that, the poem is about a woman who is violated and then commits suicide, after which her body is paraded through the street as she becomes a martyr. The people associate her with the cause of overthrowing the current regime and the establishment of the Roman Republic. A paraded death kind of sounds like a death that everyone keeps blathering about. Maybe there's a purpose to Ali's "death" other than being a brat?
Not every quote/reference is a subtle hint at themes of the season. Sometimes they're just there so the show can make a Lannister joke. Because Spencer would absolutely be a Lannister in Westeros. And that's exactly what happened in Episode 5, "Gamma Zeta Die!," when Spencer argued with perhaps one of the most stereotypical nerds to ever be cast on Pretty Little Liars (even the academic decathalon teammates are absurdly attractive and fashionable). It begs the question: Which other families would the Liars belong to? Is Emily a Greyjoy because she can take to the sea? Would Hanna be Khaleesi? Which family would kill the most animals and wear them? Because that's where Aria would belong.
Remarks relating to literary works come up in flippant, throwaway lines pretty often on Pretty Little Liars. One example was when Caleb tried to convince Hanna that breaking into Radley wasn't a good idea, given that Mona was cuckoo banana-pants. "You want to go to Radley and ring the bell jar?" Caleb's familiarity with the works of Sylvia Plath notwithstanding, the easy conflation of "ringing the bell" to start a rumble with A and "the bell jar" being a metaphor for Esther Greenwood's mental illness (clinical depression, which doesn't really match up with Mona's sociopathic tendencies and criminal intelligence) was an intriguing pun. There's one interesting (if over-rationalized) line that we can drawn between the two: In the book, the depression for Esther started when she realized that her entire life revolved around academia and a certain kind of life and, when that went away, she sank into crisis. What happens to the Liars if A isn't in their lives?
Every once in a while, Hanna busts out a word or concept that makes everyone take pause because they're surprised that Hanna—who doesn't so much care about college as she does about attending a fashion institute, despite her not having interest in anything that's not Caleb or being sassy—would not only be familiar with the word or concept, much less know how to use it. The long exchange during "Crash and Burn, Girl" between Ezra and Hanna in respect to Madame Defarge (as she tried to remember the name) made we viewers scratch our heads because it was a long gag with a weak punchline. What we got out of it was Hanna's feeling of being judged, but it's interesting that she chose Madame Defarge as sympathetic to her situation, since the character is completely unlikeable, unreasonable, and one-track-minded, a perspective many people have for Hanna this season. There's a lot of Hanna-Hate out there.
This one isn't necessarily specific to Season 4, but it's important to the series overall, given that Lolita is Alison's favorite book and she takes the mantle of one of its characters when she wants to hide in plain sight. The book is famously known for an older man (a teacher, daresay) taking advantage of a teenage girl, which makes one think of the undercurrent of sexual impropriety between the girls and older men of Rosewood. That Alison enjoys it is so much is intriguing. Maybe because the older man seems so weak and powerless to the wiles of Lolita? Maybe because Lolita gets what she wants by surrendering parts of herself? Maybe because Alison has a crush on Jeremy Irons? I can't say for sure.
So there you have it: Between all the soapy drama, the juvenile tantrums (Emily), and the campy mystery-solving, there's an air of scholarly education. Am I saying that watching Pretty Little Liars makes you smarter? Let's not get carried away. But you're not going to get Steinbeck quotes from Twisted.
AIRED ON 8/26/2014
Season 5 : Episode 12