Tag Archives: literary criticism

In Defense of Pretty Much Everything I Attacked Yesterday

Okay so this is why you don’t pick fights with English teachers. I sent my friend my account of our dinner discussion and this is what happened. I post the entirety of her response here, including her lighthearted sign-off because she is just that awesome. And I concede, the English teacher wins this round.


Regarding Hamlet, I hope that quote was not my exact language, and if it was, I was thoroughly in the wrong (or else being sassy!). I am confident that Shakespeare wants to present a literal ghost, but there is almost no topic in literature about which I am ready to profess absolutely certainty. Hamlet, perhaps the most notoriously debated work in the language, is certainly beyond certainty (!).

As far as the ghost, we know that Shakespeare makes him visible to the audience, to Marcellus and Bernardo, and to the pointedly steady-minded Horatio (bless him). We even introduce (“Horatio says ’tis but our fantasy”) and dismiss (“I might not this believe/without the sensible and true avouch/ of mine own eyes”) the idea that it is a fantasy. Is the sensible and true avouch of Horatio’s eyes trustworthy in the play? I think so.  I guess if Old King Hamlet’s appearance is a manifestation of madness, it may be the collective illness of an assuredly troubled Denmark rather than Hamlet’s mind alone.

In context of Shakespeare’s ghosts and visions, I don’t think this one is the strongest indicator of private insanity. Is Brutus’ visitation by Caesar’s ghost a sign of madness? I would contrast the stage corporeality of Caesar and Old King Hamlet with Macbeth’s invisible dagger, where the audience is not privy to the illusion, or even to Banquo’s ghost, which appears to only one character and without speech. The ghost’s second appearance in Gertrude’s chamber is not a shared vision, and is more nebulous in my mind…but do we have to insist that if Hamlet sees him authentically once, then this latter vision can’t be deluded? I don’t think so. (I also want to be clear: I am not objecting to the suggestion that the ghost is either wicked or deceptive. Hamlet’s concerns about the origin of the ghost are shared by critics; I am willing to consider that it may not really be good old dad.)

Hamlet’s sanity is a major issue in the play, although I don’t read it as simplistically as visual delusion. This is a demonstrably brilliant youth whose behavior is erratic, irrational, and inconsistent from first act to last. His troubled reasoning, disastrous relationships, and the broken process of his revenge are, in my mind, much more central to the issue of his sanity. (How does he end up fighting a Laertes he admires in the grave of an Ophelia he abused over protestations of love that involve eating a crocodile? Jesus, Hamlet, take a nap.) The hard questions about Hamlet are not what he sees, but how he thinks and why his elegant mind ultimately fails against the brutal reality of Claudius’ Denmark.

Now – and here’s a poor transition – I don’t think the argument about whether the ghost is real is a discussion of symbolism at all, but symbolism is definitely the endless fight the world wants to have with its English teachers. In defense of teaching “symbols” in literature, I am going to put forth the following arguments:

1.      – Not everything “means” (or symbolizes) something, but we can draw well-supported conclusions what elements in a text most likely have significance.

2.      – Determining meaning is not random guessing and is not process unique to each reader. Encoding meaning is not a lucky accident on the part of good authors.

3.      – The possibility of multiple interpretations does not mean that every interpretation is valid, or that a work can “mean anything.”

Before I dive into this, I’ll concede a few things up-front. Playing the authorial intention game is a fool’s errand. Sure, Steinbeck may have meant for The Grapes of Wrath to be about that feeling you get when you love a puppy, and I can’t disprove that. If I slip into lazy language about what an author means, I should be talking about what they do. If that is Steinbeck’s intention, he’s a dismal failure. However, I can still talk about what he does in The Grapes of Wrath because I have the concrete artifact to work from. Do I know that Shakespeare meant the ghost to be real? Nope. But I think everything he does in the play indicates that it’s not imagined in Act 1.

Also, symbolism is a contentious, frustrating term. Sure, post-modernism has taught us that nothing “means” anything. So again, my intention is to look at what an element does in a work. (I’m talking strong interpretative verbs here: suggests, connotes, recalls, repeats, alludes, emphasizes, whatever.) If we want to talk about what imagery accomplishes instead of what symbols mean, that is cool by me as a permanent change.

I am going to start with the pink house and the issue of whether it “means” (or does) anything, and I’ll tie that into how we know that an element in a text may be significant. (I haven’t read The Secret Life of Bees, for the record, and I have no idea about the pink house.)

Now, this pink house could absolutely be a sensory detail. If this is, for instance, coastal Florida and the author is interested in detail-oriented literary realism, then that would be a great assumption. It is a detail that makes sense in the setting, and it fits the larger pattern of the work. Boom. That’s a reasonable reading, no secondary implications. Pink is also a color with connotative value in the Western world (femininity, romance, happiness, sweetness). I might notice, for instance, that the person living in this house matches a widely-held association with the color. I can either decide that it is a coincidence or that the author is doing it deliberately. It seems like a happy, romantic girl living in a black house might be a noteworthy choice. I’d tend towards thinking the same about one in a pink house. Pink houses are also rare in most parts of the world. If this is the wrong place for a pink house, I have more questions. One choice is that the author is a dum-dum. Maybe she is providing an inappropriate details on a whim, and it might distract or confuse readers; it may not be a decision that is effective in the text. Another option is that this detail does function in the text somehow, like drawing attention to a character or situation that is markedly different from the surroundings, or even emphasizing a surreal tone.

How do you decide between these “interpretations”? You look at context. Is this an author in control of their craft (characterization, language, thematic development, etc.), who you can assume chooses their details deliberately? Which understanding is most plausible when you look at the work as a whole? Are there other pieces of information to support an interpretation (Is the house mentioned again? Does the color association hold up? Are there other significant pink objects? Does the detail emphasize a key location in a meaningful way?)? You’re not looking for a single, inerrant answer. You’re looking for the understanding that makes the most sense overall and stands up the best to close scrutiny. The best answer might be “sensory detail; no deeper meaning,” but it might be “only an idiot ignores a pink house.” It is not skeptical to default to “it means nothing.” It is skeptical to look at context and draw a deliberate conclusion about likely meanings. My point here is that it might not have significant meaning, but we can evaluate that claim based on textual evidence.

To give another example. Imagine two books that both mention a deer-stalker hat. One is a realist novel set in northern Canada. In a single scene, a man dressing for cold weather puts on a parka, boots, and a deer-stalker which covers his ears against the cold. The hat is never mentioned again. The second is a young adult novel about a middle-schooler who solves mysteries. She finds her grandfather’s old hat and plays dress-up on the same day she decides to uncover what her creepy neighbor is up to. The hat shows up a few more times, and once it reminds her of something she saw earlier and she discovers a clue. In the first work, you get to assume the hat means nothing. In the second, it’s is reasonable to say “this isn’t a coincidence. This hat is a lighthearted allusion to Sherlock Holmes, and she ‘becomes’ a detective when she puts it on.” It’s a context game, not an argument over opinions on an inscrutable detail.

Obviously, I see interpretation as a process. Can there be multiple interpretations of a single text or detail? Absolutely.Hamlet stands up to several thoughtful, complex, contradictory readings. It’s a complex text. Are there works that do not stand up to close reading? Tons. There’s more mediocre literature than good, it falls to pieces when you start to read closely. Not everything can be “interpreted” well, but again, you can make that evaluation logically.  Does the possibility of multiple interpretations means that everything is subjective? Absolutely not. You can say that the hat in the story represents the girl’s budding sexuality, but you probably can’t support that from the text.

The frustration that English teachers have towards high schoolers who roll their eyes at symbolism is that they are almost never looking at weak interpretations. Gatsby’s green light, The Scarlet Letter’s rosebush, Gilman’s wallpaper. If you don’t believe these elements carry any significance, then the works are bewildering: are the authors just idiots who didn’t realize they kept mentioning this irrelevant stuff at significant moments? If you believe they are significant but the standard interpretations are wrong, then I am genuinely interested in your support. (I admit I am skeptical about whether a close reading of Gatsby can genuinely support an explanation of the green light unrelated to dreaming and longing.) These are images laid out and utilized with repeated, deliberate, focused care. Their meanings are not suggested once, but throughout the works. We teach these specific works because they stand up to scrutiny and can be used to teach the process. Insisting that Hawthorne’s rosebush is a guessing game is insisting that the preponderance of evidence is insufficient for discussion. I don’t know a single English teacher who believes that symbolism is beyond debate: I debate it all the time. But English teachers don’t teach from vague, deeply flawed, frustrating works. We save that for our leisure reading.

High school students hate symbolism because they don’t know how to work through the process. A lazy teacher (or SparkNotes) tells a kid that all those mentions of clothing in Macbeth represent the fact that he does not fit his role, and the kid thinks “Screw you. Those clothes are clothes.” This is the problem if they don’t understand how we reach those conclusions: it supports the illusions that teachers just decide that an element has meaning.

The last thing I am going to address is the idea that symbolism is accidental.  I am tired, so this will be quick. Sure, we have some shared cultural consciousness in a Jungian sense, and sure, meaning often develops organically in writing. But do I believe that Shakespeare’s patterns of symbolically appropriate imagery just show up one per play by luck (growth for Richard III, birds for Macbeth, sea for Twelfth Night, overgrowth and pollution for Hamlet)? No. These things appear in discernible, appropriate patterns.  Yes, there are tons of shitty authors who throw in some cheap symbols now and again. But the authors who have been scrutinized to exhaustion are generally people I believe are thoughtful, deliberate, contentious craftsmen. Can they impose their meaning on my reading? No. But my reading is only valid if I can support my interpretation from the text they craft.






Filed under books, fiction

Pink Houses, Yellow Wallpaper, and Green Lights: Your Guess Is as Good as Mine

(I apologize to any and all English teachers in advance. I really do love you.)

Last night we had dinner with a lovely group of people I haven’t seen in ages. Our conversation bounced from funny work stories and weddings to physics and Breaking Bad, took a strange detour into dirty Shakespeare jokes before coming back around to the terrible things teachers do to their students (several of us are teachers). After relaying a couple stories about eating in front of kids and not giving a crap, somehow, we ended up back at Shakespeare.

“I can tell you with absolute certainty that Shakespeare meant for the ghost of Hamlet’s father to be real,” said the one English teacher in attendance. I wanted to bring out that the uncertainty of Hamlet’s sanity (arguably one of the major themes of the play) puts even the existence of the ghost into doubt, since the ghost is what triggers his host of erratic behavior. However, I felt it unwise to argue with an English teacher.

My husband though is not so skittish. He recalled his experience in high school reading Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees as one long argument with his teacher. One major point of contention: the color of the famous pink house. She posed the question to the class, “Why did the author choose to make the house pink?” My husband, revealing himself as maybe not a literary scholar but certainly a budding skeptic, replied, “Because she wanted to add some descriptive detail and pink is very descriptive.”

BZZZZ! WRONG ANSWER! While many things in literature are up for interpretation, according to your garden variety English teacher, symbols are DEFINITELY NOT ONE OF THEM. Disagree with this sentiment and prepare yourself to do battle.

Following the relaying of this anecdote, my physics teacher friend piped up with three little words: “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Everyone groaned. 

“I don’t see why it had to mean anything more than her going crazy!” she said. “Because she was definitely going crazy.”

“Well it has to mean something. It’s called ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ for Pete’s sake!”

It definitely means something. I’ve just come to the conclusion, after years of reading and years of writing, that authors (and especially English teachers), have no business telling us what that something is.

Let me make one point clear: I’m a big fan of symbols. What I’m not a fan of is being dogmatic about them.

Oh sure, there has to be limits. I’m not calling for Anarchy in the UK Lit:

“The green light represents the color of dollar bills, therefore symbolizing Gatsby placing money above his aspirations of true love!”

“M. Night used the color red to symbolize life because red is the color of blood which is the essence of life!”

“Dorothy’s Kansas was black and white because Oz was real and Kansas was the dream world! It’s the Matrix with Munchkins, baby!”

(Okay all these are American examples sorry I failed at extending my comic metaphor.)

Maybe the author intends a certain interpretation. Maybe the entire work is constructed around that interpretation. But I’m going to be so bold as to say that’s her interpretation, and she has no business imposing that upon her readers, beyond the words she’s written in the book. Sure, it’s her book, I’ll grant her that, but that doesn’t give her the right to be dogmatic. If that was her goal, she would have become an English teacher, or included a decoder ring and handy glossary of literary definitions telling us exactly what her crap’s about. Instead, she spent 100k words getting us to think about what her crap’s about. If she could have said it in any less, she wouldn’t have written a novel. She would have written a term paper.

It’s like any work of art. I can stand in front of the wall that is Guernica in the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid and know the history behind the painting, know what Guernica is and what Picasso had painted about, but what I bring to my viewing is entirely my own. Maybe I can’t look at it and say it’s about any old thing (like making breakfast or slaying giants), but no one can tell me my reaction to it is wrong if I view it in complete honesty (and I stood in front of that thing for half an hour with tears dripping down my cheeks).

The best part is, you don’t have to know a thing about the Spanish Civil War to have an honest reaction. Some things are universal while some things are intensely personal. Often, the two overlap.

I say all this not because I’ve had battles with many an English teacher, but because I’ve noticed symbols cropping up in my own writing, completely without my bidding. I understand how fragile they are. Once I seize on one, try to pin it down, nurture it and extend it throughout the rest of the work, more often than not it disappears.

Symbols aren’t deliberate. They’re fungus, sprouting from the very makeup of the work, from the fertile ground of the subconscious. As the writer I can have a hunch about what it means, but anything more tends to kill the mystery and smacks of mental and emotional shoehorning. I try not to tell my reader how to feel or what to think. I trust her to be able to do that herself.

That being said (and here is where I add another disclaimer), we all owe a great deal to English teachers. Good ones show you how to approach literary criticism on your own terms, show you how to have a dialogue with the text, and open up new worlds of critical thinking and reflection. Without English teachers, I’d probably still be reading Illustrated Classics.

Possibly easier to read than the original.

(I promise I’m getting to that post about taking “Show, don’t tell” too seriously. The ideas are mostly there but need a good stitching together with a healthy dose of narrative logic. I swear, if tell myself I’m going to produce something my brain rebels and goes on hiatus. I’m reminded of the famous Douglas Adams quote: “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” I’d never make it as a freelancer. Even traditionally published novelist is looking unlikely.)


Filed under books, fiction, writing