Is There a Message? Does it Matter? Part 1.5: Writing Literary Analysis

Been there!

In Is There a Message? Does It Matter? Part 1, I addressed academic and business writing, arguing, Yes! There must be a message! Writing a research paper or a business proposal is not about presenting the world with the fruits of one's creative genius; it's about defending and defining an idea. 

In a later post, I will discuss how a message, even about creative genius, is not required in a work of fiction. In the meantime, I am going to address the problematic task of analyzing that work of fiction.

When performing literary analysis, students are expected to find a work's message. Unfortunately, unlike with research papers and business proposals, the message is not clearly delineated in a thesis statement. It is buried amongst dialog, setting, images, characters, and symbols. It is also not called a "thesis" but rather the "theme." Usually, rather than being a proposal of what should be true, a theme is a proposal about how the world or how people function.

For students who either (1) grow up discussing literary works in their families, or (2) have a yen for dismantling literary works in the first place, delving for the theme is as easy as an algebraic equation is to a mathematician. I make the comparison because being able to spot the theme of a movie or book is less about intelligence and more about skill and interest. (And once one learns how to do it, it becomes even less about intelligence since with the right training and jargon, one can force any written work into any desired interpretation.)

Despite my cynicism, the reason that literary analysis continues to be taught at the college level is that when it is done correctly, it helps develop critical thinking. Think of literary analysis as a form of reverse engineering: here's the text--okay, how and why was it put together like this?

Approaching literary texts in this way is not all that different from an archaeologist starting with the ruin of a palace and then positing how it was built and where the king & queen slept. Like the archaeologist, the literary analyst can use outside texts from the time period to understood the work in question. This is far easier if the literary analyst is exploring, say, George Bernard Shaw who left copious notes about his intentions, than Shakespeare--who didn't.

In the absence of outside support, the literary analyst turns to the text: the symbols, the dialog, the characters. Here is where thinking of a text as a whole object, like a painting, rather than a linear experience is helpful. What images recur throughout the text? (What images/colors recur throughout the painting?) What symbols pop up again and again? (In The Arnolfini Portrait, what's up with the dog and the mirror and the green gown?) Who is in the text? How do they behave? Where are they? Why are they presented in this way by the author? (Why does the woman look pregnant even though she probably wasn't? Why do the man and woman look so serious? Or is it complacency?) How do they talk to each other? (What would this couple say to each if we could hear them?)

At the back of all these questions is the author's intent. Although the author's intent may never be fully discerned (Shakespeare), the search for the author's intent creates opportunities for critical thinking. It requires, if nothing else, rigor of thought.

Problems in literature courses arise when instructors throw out author's intent, focusing instead on "What it means to you!" (or, occasionally, "What is means to me!") I attended an interesting seminar a few years ago put together by two well-meaning teachers who argued, quite passionately, that teaching literature is all about dumping authorial intent and getting kids to see how the works apply to them!

I didn't disagree with everything the teachers were saying. From an academic point of view (I'll get to sheer enjoyment in a later post), I like to start a discussion of a poem or play or novel or short story by asking students, "So, did you like it? Or not? What did you get out of it? What did you think of those characters?" Engaging with the text, as any fan can tell you, is the first step to discussing it intelligently.

The problem with dumping authorial intent--from an academic point of view--is that it is intellectually on par with the archaeologist deciding that it doesn't matter whether the ruin is a temple, a palace, or a gymnasium--personally, HE would use it to create an ice rink. The latter position has its merits; it just doesn't have much merit for someone trying to be an archaeologist.

Likewise, telling a bunch of students that their application of the literary work to their lives is the only part of the equation that matters is tantamount to teaching them that "authorship" and the past have no real purpose or meaning in their lives and hardly need to be respected. The whole world, especially the world of the past, exists simply as fodder for their use (the irony being that I'm a capitalist and this "exploitation" of [usually] dead writers annoys me while promoters of this approach, like the aforementioned teachers, often define themselves as Marxists who are opposed to the so-called "capitalistic" exploitation of resources). Without getting into much detail, yes, it also bug me when people do this with the scriptures.

The essence of academics, which I support no matter how fuddy-duddy it makes me, is that claims must be backed on proof. It isn't enough to say, "But I FEEL like the story is about this" if the evidence (the symbols, the setting, the dialog) doesn't back up my feeling. If the text is merely a leaping off point to some other idea, the narrative/writing/imagery (fun!) becomes meaningless, the author's creative impulses and craftsmanship a point of indifference. At this point, the student doesn't need to read Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet or London's "To Build a Fire" or anything by Emily Dickinson. If all that is needed is something made of words that can be interpreted as holding an application to one's personal life, a car manual will do.

Sitting in that seminar, I wondered what the teachers would tell budding authors amongst their students: "That's nice, but remember, it only matters if someone else creates something of her own--and her work doesn't matter unless . . . " (To be fair, I think the teachers would be ever so proud if one of their students wrote a short story or novel: their philosophy was all about empowering THEIR students, not empowering anybody else.)

I can respect a Scriptural scholar who argues that ultimately the text is only a signpost to something else. When academics do it, however, it reveals a lack of intellectual rigor.

In Part 2, I will likely turn around and argue the exact opposite of everything above. But then Part 2 will involve a very different context.

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