English 211x

"Literature" by James Koehline

2/15/2012   A Note from Your Instructor:

Since many of you are working on revisions of your first essay, I thought I would pass along a link to examples of good student papers.   Take a look at some of the papers in Dr. Obermeier’s Sample Paper Files.   Although these essays aren’t perfect, they are good models for you to use.   Remember that what you should be paying attention to first and foremost in this course is the interpretation of literature, NOT the summary of literature.   Interpretation can be a difficult thing to explain sometimes, but if you will read some of the papers in the Files, you might begin to understand what it means to “interpret” literature.   It’s sort of like learning to drive… I can tell you what you’re supposed to do behind the wheel, but until you actually watch someone drive a car, the description won’t make sense.

If you are looking for an A in this course, it’s important that you understand the process of interpretation.   Make sure you do all of the reading assignments, especially How to Read Literature Like a Professor.   There is so much more to understanding literature than “what happens” in the story or poem.   Summarizing the plot is what you did in high school.   Finding the meaning behind the story is what you have to do here.   Once you find meaning in a work of art, you might come to understand that there is more to being human than meets the eye.

Read my notes below and then feel free to ask questions or make comments if you’d like.   This is not a graded “Discussion,” simply a chance for you to talk about this issue if you’re interested.

Why Interpret Literature?

Why do we, as human beings, tell imaginative stories?   There are many different answers to this question and I certainly can’t summarize them all here.   But let me answer that question in a way that might help you write better papers about literature.   Most of time it’s easy for us to use language (verbal or written) to communicate details about our experiences in the real world.   The news, for instance, or dinner conversation stemming from “How was your day?” is chock full of what we would like to think of as truthful (mostly) verbal accounts of our experience or the experience of others.   However, there are vast swaths of human experience that transcend language.   Think, for instance, about the experience of “Love.”   Love is a word that we use to describe an experience, but does it really tell the whole tale? Probably not.   If I were to ask you to describe the love you have for a spouse or friend or family member, chances are you would never be able to fully encompass the depth of meaning that exists in the experience of love.   You could describe how your palms sweat when you see someone you love; a neurologist could tell you what happens in the brain when a person says she’s “in love”; a historian could recount all of the countries and empires that have risen and fallen over love… But none of these really get at the true nature of the experience.

There are other things that people try to talk about that fail simply because language isn’t always as effective as we’d hope.   Sometimes people want to talk about changes in our society that are frightening or a future they fear is approaching.   I don’t know about you, but sometimes when I hear news casters, pundits, or politicians talk about how the world is going to come to an end if we don’t pass some law, I simply tune out.   Artists and writers sometimes fear the same kinds of things, and they, like news pundits, want us to pay attention and make changes to the way we do things.   However, good writers know that people sometimes pay more attention to stories than to facts (politicians use this tactic quite a bit).   In 1942, George Orwell wrote a novel, 1984, that cautioned against (and foretold) a future where even our lives and even our thoughts were governed by Big Brother, an all-seeing, all-knowing intrusive entity that is frighteningly similar to what we see today.   The story was (and still is) highly engaging and symbolized not just a political future, but a metaphor for what happens when we turn over our own sense of self-governance to others.

Writers and artists “code” their work in order to get at parts of the human experience that ordinary language can’t describe or explain.   This code is made up of an ancient but culturally specific system of symbols, images, and narrative techniques.   In the glossary of your anthology you will find keys to understanding and breaking that code: concepts like irony, point of view, satire, and catharsis are essential to understanding what authors are really trying to get at when they tell a story that, on the surface, might appear to be simple entertainment.   Good stories can last for thousands of years if they are both entertaining and coded for meaning that helps us understand our place in the universe.

Your job as a student of literature is to learn how to crack the code.   If you understand the concept of “symbol,” you might be able to see what Edgar Allen Poe was really driving at when a murderer is driven mad by the beating of his victim’s heart beneath the floorboards.   The reader is always implicated in the main character, and if we think of ourselves as murderers (of a sort) and if we imagine the “heart” as symbolic of anything we love, then we can extrapolate that what Poe was driving at was the idea that when we kill the thing we love, its absence will always haunt us.   As a reader, I’m also allowed to apply this interpretation to my own life.   The last time I read “The Tell-Tale Heart” I realized that I had “killed” my love of art when I took a full-time desk job, and that my discomfort over this death was a reminder that my creative live was still alive, buried under the “floorboards” of my job.   I went home that night and painted for the first time in months.   Had I seen Poe’s story as merely entertainment, I would have missed the chance to understand something that was actually going on inside of me.   Literature helps us see things inside of us that are sometimes hard to look at.

So you see, simply recounting the plot of a story or poem doesn’t do much.   It’s only through interpretation that literature really matters.   So pay attention to all of the concepts covered in your textbooks for this course, and you just might find that literature is worth talking about.