Sunday, March 21, 2010

Literary Analysis and You

I was going to write about something else, but I got distracted by a call for help yesterday.  You can thank Leslee for today's topic.  Welcome, Leslee -- glad to have you aboard.

Literary analysis involves (among other things) the interpretation of a work of literature.  It's the sort of thing that's assigned in college (and advanced high school) English classes.  It can be daunting to the uninitiated; I know it was to me, back in the day.

There is an excellent little book about the sort of writing you'll do in these classes, and it has direct application to fiction writing.  For today's purposes, we can think of Sin Boldly! by David Williams as a handbook for how to excite your English teacher (your reader).

For your English paper as well as your fiction, you want to excite and entertain your reader.  You can do that by giving them something different.  What -- you don't think your teacher will appreciate being entertained by your writing?  Imagine being the teacher giving an assignment to interpret Moby Dick in 5 pages to 3 sections of 90 freshman students each.  You know you're almost guaranteed to receive 270 nearly identical totally boring papers.  And you have to read them anyway.  No fun at all.

Being entertained sounds better than the alternative.  It will affect your grade positively -- they're sure to notice your work among all that leaden sameness.

But entertaining your teacher/reader by presenting the unexpected is not enough.  In English papers like these, the key is to justify your argument.  You can say that Emily Dickinson was a devil worshiper, but you have to back it up.  Find elements of the work in question that (perhaps with a bit of imagination) support your interpretation.  The birds she writes about are singing to the devil -- that's why they do it in the dark, before the sun rises, and why they scatter before God's glorious light of dawn.

The same is true in fiction.  Your story can and should take twists and turns.  It shouldn't be predictable, and it shouldn't be the same old same-old as some other story.  But you need justification for everything your characters do.  The justification here comes in a different form than in the English paper; you won't be writing out arguments to support a character's actions.  Instead you must have laid the groundwork prior to the action, so that what the character does makes sense.  To take the quiet and reserved Emily Dickinson as a fictional character, she would not slit her neighbor's throat and feast on the heart, with a gleam in her eye.  It would be out of character.

Unless we'd earlier been clued-in that she was a devil worshiper.


Someday, maybe one of my novels will be analyzed by high school students.  What will they think it "means?"  Hopefully they won't all say the same thing.  I want someone to jump on the fact that the heroine always goes barefoot, and say it means that she's the only one with her feet on the ground.  And someone can say that all the rocky paths the characters walk over symbolizes the difficulties and obstacles they're encountering in their inner journeys.  That's all good.

Some of those students, though, will want "the one true answer":  what does it mean?  If they were to ask me, I'd tell them that it depends.  On them.  Every person brings their own baggage to the interpretation, their psychological makeup, their past, their upbringing, their fears and hopes.  They can't have mine.  I don't even know what my own baggage is.  So, I firmly believe that everyone's interpretation is as valid as the author's.  It may not match the author's interpretation, assuming the author has one, but it is valid all the same.  That's one of the wonderful things about a novel or a poem:  it's open to various interpretations, it's multidimensional.


  1. Leslee gave you this topic? Lies. I feel like I've been ripped off(see my own post). How could you not give me credit for this after our long discussion of my analysis of a sonnet to help an English major?

    More on topic: Going by the seat of my pants here (yes I'm a pantser) I would try and put a psychological spin on my analysis of Far Harbor. Far Harbor is the left brain: strict(priesthood), logical(laws of the sea), and divides things into seperate catagories(the sexism). Haven on the other hand is the right brain: creative(Dodge), wiser(old the people, the term for who I can't recall right now of course), and more "loose" for lack of a better term(the lack of sexism). The current is the corpeus collosum(connecting the two). The sea is the vast space that seperates the two very different hemispheres of the brain(their inability to immediatly comprehend each others culture). It also shows the vastness of the unknown, and the hesitation to venture into that unknown(the only thing awaiting those swept away is death). Then we just make the constantly grey sky the inside surface of the skull and we're set. There Dad, I have just turned your characters into synapses in your head. I always told you that you had your own little world in there.

  2. She did trigger the post. See my comment at the bottom of Wendy's blog post. I was going to write about description, but you know how distractible I am.

    However, one and all should know that I learned just about everything I know about literary analysis from the book mentioned in that comment and (especially) from Tyler.

  3. Oh -- and that's a most excellent and entertaining interpretation of my novel's world: a world of two islands who don't know of each other's existence, one with the men in menial roles, the other with equality among the sexes.

  4. Hi John!
    As always, a very interesting post. Thanks for coming to the aid of one of my bloggers. (My cousin actually!)
    In your second comment you mentioned your novel. In what genre do you write? Have you been published?
    So....Did your son follow the link to my blog? Did he tease you about following a romance writer's blog? You're a brave man John Baron!

  5. Thanks, Wendy, and you're welcome.

    I write in fantasy, but not the sword and sorcerer kind of stuff -- more character-based, just set in a world of my choosing. I've not been published yet. I'm poised at the point of ripping my first novel apart to improve the plot.

    Yes, my son followed the link. He's great, and no, he didn't give me any guff. He knows to expect the unexpected from me, and I always return the favor. He hates to play trivial pursuit with me because I know the oddest stuff (but nothing about sports!).

    I am, by the way, reading Robyn Carr's romance "Second Chance Pass" right now. Out of the 4 books I have in progress, it's probably the most interesting one so far, but maybe I'm just in a funk about the others. We'll see. (The others are Freud's "Civilization and its Discontents", Clarke's "An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England", and Eisley's "The Star Thrower".)

  6. Well, if I had to pick among all your books in progress, I'd choose to focus on Robyn Carr's "Second Chance Pass" also. Not my favorite of hers, but they're all good.
    Happy Reading!

  7. Hi John!

    Your post triggered a memory of an Art History class I took in college. As an assignment, I chose a painting- The White Girl, by Whistler to analyze. I found this paper about a year ago when I was cleaning out a closet and was so impressed with my knowledge of brush strokes that I couldn't believe I actually wrote it. At the end of the paper, I was required to give my interpretation of the painting's subject matter. I wrote something to the effect that the painting illustrated that innocence and savagery existed simultaneously in the world as was created by the juxtaposition of the girl dressed in white standing on a (murdered) bear rug with the bears head still attached and eyes open....The teacher gave me an A+ but commented in red ink that she hardly thought that Whistler's intention was to evoke those thoughts. I remembered back then I was happy with the grade, but disappointed with the teacher's comment. I discussed this with Wendy and she reminded me that the teacher recognized she could not grade me on my interpretation, but nonetheless disagreed with me. Today, some 20+ years later, I think the teacher's comment was inappropriate, yet valuable outside of the assignment itself. If she's still teaching today, I hope she's leaning more towards "interesting interpretation,(but I doubt it)"

    As far as Tbiz: it was big of you to acknowledge him as one of the great sources of your literary knowledge after the "pantser" gave you much attitude! I'd like to think that I'm woking with a "whole brain" approach, however my right brain indicates my corpus collosum may be temporarily under construction.

  8. Dale, Wendy's comment about not being able to grade your interpretation is spot-on. Sometimes teachers are not that honest about it. With themselves, even. If they disagree, it shows up in the grade. Fortunately not for you in that case. Some people learn as the years pass -- like us! That teacher might surprise you now. I think back to some of my old teachers and they seemed like crusted-over unchanging and unchangeable dinosaurs even back then, but I know that can't really be true of all of them. At one time they were each a fresh eager young teacher: the kids just grind the good stuff out of them sometimes.

    TBiz's "attitude" is just how we communicate. It's a guy thing, I suppose. We're very close, share a common sense of humor, and we both know when the other is smiling while saying something like that. I got a fabulous deal in the son department.

  9. My art history teacher was fabulous and at one time worked at one of the Smithsonians. I learned a lot in her fast paced class. And yes, she was very no nonsense (a pre-emptive strike against letting her students get the best of her.) But I remember thinking perhaps she sat down and had a chat with Whistler himself.

    I can appreciate that there are many wonderful open minded teacher's out there today encouraging their students to think freely and give merit to their creativity. I share your optimism in the evolution of some of my old crusty teachers.

    How lucky for you and Tbiz to share such a close relationship with much in common. Must be rewarding to be able to say that you really like your son. Most people say they love their children, but do they really like them? And that shows up later on in the quality of relationship you share as adults. Glad you got a fabulous deal in the son dept. I have a friend who tells me her son was no bargain!!!

    Oh, and I hope someday your novel will be read by high school students whose teachers inspire them to explore the story through the filters of their own life experiences.

  10. Wow! Lots of activity here today! I just wanted to mention, any type of artistic expression be it painted, written, or video gaming, is open to the interpretation of the person veiwing/reading/playing it. I can't tell you how many times I've submitted a writing sample to a contest and a judge made a comment that showed she totally missed my point or interpreted it in a way I hadn't ever considered. What I've heard is whether people love your work or hate it, the most important thing is to leave an impression.

  11. And another last...I promise. Your blog makes me think. I feel smarter each time I visit!

  12. Aw shucks. You're going to make me blush. I'm relieved that the blog makes sense!

  13. I was going to be offended by Dale talking about my attitude, but then I realized that you havn't read this book yet, and why that's important.

    That whole analysis I posted? That is an honest, defendable, analysis. Seriously.

    While I did make it up as I went, I was making valid arguments I would and could back up if I needed to write a five page paper on it.

    And Wendy, I'm just curious if you looked at my blog? Or did you just happen to mention video games by coincidence?

  14. Tbiz, without having read Far Harbor, I actually greatly appreciated your creative interpretation, and it made sense within the confines of the paradigm you chose. And if I had read the book, i might appreciate it even more. I have no doubt you could back up your analysis!!

    My comment about your "attitude" was for the most part tongue-in-cheek. I did not think you would reduce/disect your Father's literary masterpiece unless you shared the type of relationship in which you could do so without repercussion on a personal level. Clearly you and your Dad have an understanding... and as he stated he "got a fabulous deal" with you.