August 2009 Archives

This Isn't Literary Surgery??

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"The close reading of a poem does not mean that you need to explain everything you find in the poem...  It would also be self-defeating, for writing about everything in great detail would prohibit you from using your judgment and deciding what is important."  (Roberts 59)

Detail is my weakness.  I am always paranoid that I'm saying too much or too little, and I'm never quite sure which one it is.  For poetry explications, I would venture to say that I try to write too much.  I feel like every word must be analyzed and explained as having a specific purpose in the overall poem or else I'm failing as an English major.  Perhaps I'm like this because of my high school education, in which I was taught that every word was placed in the poem for a specific purpose, and I could never say, "Maybe the writer just put that word there because it fit?  Does it really matter if the windows are written as being tall or wide?"

Last year in Introduction to Poetry, I learned a lot about poetry explications, but I still found it difficult to refrain from dissecting every single word.  However, the illustrative essay on Thomas Hardy's "The Man He Killed" in Writing About Literature was rather helpful for me on this front.  The way Roberts broke down the proper way to explicate a poem was enlightening, especially how he differentiated between "[explaining] the poem's content ... with a description of the poem's major organizing elements" (60) and paraphrasing.  I'll refer back to his instructions the next time I have to explicate a poem.

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For the Love of Em Dashes!

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When I read Thomas Hardy's, "The Man He Killed," aloud, I felt that the tone needed to be mildly sarcastic and rather confused, as if the speaker is trying to justify his actions while masking his true feelings at the same time through sarcasm.  At first, the speaker describes the event lightly, saying he probably would have been able to enjoy a drink with the man he kills had they not met in war.  The speaker first reveals his vulnerability and discomfort about the situation, in lines 9 and 10, by pausing while explaining his reasons for killing the man: "I shot him dead because - / because he was my foe."  Here the audience is able to see through the sarcasm about drinking "right many a nipperkin" (4) the speaker previously utilized because they can see his distress about killing the man just because they believed in different causes.

The rest of the poem is a bit disjointed, in that the speaker makes several pauses - indicated by em dashes - throughout the fourth stanza as he gathers his thoughts and muddles through his confusion.  The mild sarcasm returns in the last stanza, when the speaker refers to war as being "quaint and curious."  However, at this point, the reader is quite aware that the speaker is actually pained by his actions because of the confusion in the previous stanza.

I thought this poem gave an excellent insight into human nature, regardless of the situation.  I, myself, tend to lightly remark on my feelings, even if I'm actually experiencing a much deeper emotional response, just like the speaker.  Hardy was able to expound a human reaction in a way that the reader connects to the speaker, and feels sorry for him despite the fact that he has killed a man.  That speaker-audience connection is, to me, what makes "The Man He Killed" a memorable poem.

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Confusion At Its Best

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As I read Mark Twain's short story, "Luck," I was intrigued by the character of the Reverend.  If I knew the Reverend in real life, and he had told me his history with the Lieutenant-General, I would be completely baffled and untrusting of the clergyman.  Everything he did for Scoresby was contradictory to what is expected of a Reverend.  However, I think that duplicity is what makes him a good character to read about and analyze.  If he were just the typical minister, with no inner conflict, he wouldn't be half as interesting.  His underlying struggle with what he, society, and God thinks of him makes him seem like a normal human being, one who makes mistakes, unlike the sense one gets in church when listening to a minister's sermon.  I was impressed by Twain's ability to characterize the clergyman as such a controversial being in such a short piece of fiction, in a way that leaves the reader unsure of her feelings regarding the minister. 

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Women's Liberties in The Awakening and "The Necklace"

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When I began reading "The Necklace," by Guy de Maupassant, I was immediately reminded of The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, and I was uncertain at first as to why I formed that connection.  The protagonists have completely opposite problems and there are no apparent similarities in the authors' writing styles.  However, I looked at the publication year of "The Necklace," 1884, and remembered from high school that The Awakening was published just fifteen years later, in 1899.  Out of curiosity, I researched Chopin and learned that Maupassant was an inspiration of hers in that he wrote much about social issues, which was also the main focus in The Awakening and several of Chopin's short stories.

Although Edna Pontellier, of The Awakening, and Mathilde Loisel, of "The Necklace," are from completely opposite social classes and have unrelated issues, the fact remains that both serve as representations of female oppression during the transition from the nineteenth to twentieth centuries.  Edna is trapped in the standards of the time as she is raised to think she must marry and have children and serve the rest of her life as a mother-woman.  Mathilde, too, is forced to "finally [settle] with a minor clerk in the Ministry of Education" because she otherwise would have no way to care for herself financially.  Both women, however, are able to manipulate their husbands in order to achieve a bit of the freedom they desire, as was evident in Edna's relationships with Robert Lebrun and Alcee Arobin, and Mathilde's ability to persuade her husband into buying her a new dress.

This manipulation suggests that Maupassant and Chopin, especially, believed that women should have been viewed to be at least near equals to men.  Since Guy de Maupassant was a man, I was rather surprised and impressed by his implication of the right for women's liberties.

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What Is This Dictionary of Which You Speak?

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The first forty or so pages of Edgar Roberts' textbook Writing About Literature slightly offended me, just because I feel that I already know how to read and analyze text, and I do not need the process to be explained to me on such a basic level and in such great detail.  The section entitled "Guidelines for Reading" was the first one to make me do a double take because I questioned the fact that I had actually just read a sentence telling me, an English Literature major, to "write down words that are not immediately clear" and "use [my] dictionary" (13) when I don't understand something.  This suggestion didn't puzzle me because I have some pretentious idea that English majors do not need dictionaries, quite the opposite in fact.  It just seems to me that most English majors - most people in general - know that you should find a word in the dictionary if you don't know its meaning in order to ensure the best understanding of a text.  

However, I realize that this textbook was most likely designed to instruct all students, including those who may not be familiar with the steps detailed in Roberts' book, just as I would not be familiar with the basic principles of Calculus.  I therefore expect future chapters to be more useful and progressive for me as an individual learner.  Once I reached page 46, the information and suggestions became much more valuable to me, especially in the section entitled "Using Exact, Comprehensive, and Forceful Language" because I know I tend to use sentences that are "inexact and vague and therefore ... unhelpful" (46) from time to time.  If the information presented in this book continues to be similar to that found from pages 46 to 52, I will be satisfied with it.

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