A while back, I touched briefly on a methodology of interpretation
that troubled me in the book How to Read Literature Like a Professor
. The approach was simply a template method: Squeeze the story through the template, but if it doesn’t fit, it’s not the problem of the wrong template but that all templates fit and are wonderfully ambiguous. The text means anything I say it means.
Templates can work. They’re fast, they’re simple, and they’re simplistic. If they work, great. But once you have a template, then what? For a number of “critics,” this appears to be enough.
The better way is to let the text tell you what it’s about. What is happening to the character? How is the character reacting? How does his environment inform what is happening? How does the story end? Are there interesting parallels, contrasts, or juxtapositions within the text?
One book I came across proves the failing of the template approach. I love to buy old literature books that delve into literary analyses. The Worlds of Fiction
was snug in one of the back stacks of the Ohio village of Bluffton (a bite-size college town whose main street lasts three and a half blocks with only one bookstore that volunteers run). The book may be a high school text though it is written by 1964 college professors, Greet, Edge, and Munro.
On a Kafka kick, I wondered what their analysis of “An Old Manuscript”
might have to say. It began generally on dream, Freud, the Oedipus complex, God, and so forth. I began interested, but as the explication wore on, it became evident that they would never get to the story. And they did not. They presented multiple templates for the simple reason that they did not understand the story in question (if
it was a story. See bottommost John Gardner quote toward the end). They excused the lack of understanding by saying that symbols are vague and cannot be revealed and cannot be interpreted in detail, etc. etc. They used lots of allusions and fancy metaphors, mentioned important people and ideas, simply to sound important, to mask their inadequacies.
John Gardner in The Forms of Fiction
, on the other hand, dives straight into the text of “A Country Doctor
.” He doesn’t jack around with all the fancy books he’s read. He starts with his general impression--“The surface of ‘A Country Doctor’ is nightmare.”--which he validates from Kafka (not from Sigmund Freud or Barnacle Bill the Sailor): “The story begins as every nightmare begins: ‘I was in great perplexity’; and it progresses as nightmares always progress: nothings seems certain or consistent.”
From there, Gardner highlights certain aspects of the text that for the most part make you nod and say, “True. That’s consistent with how the narrative went.” Try to apply the templates Greet & Co. supplied and you’re left saying, “That doesn’t work, and that doesn’t either.” Of course, Greet & Co. have excuses why their product fails, but do you want to own a product that only works when the moon is a sliver and the black wolves of the nearby nature refuge bay? Do you want Gardner to help you make sense out of words, or do you prefer redolent cowpies gussied up as purty hocus pocus?
I don’t trust models or templates when they’re thrust forward as the first and only method or as an end in and of themselves. If I had heard the academic tell Niven that Ringworld was The Wizard of Oz
, I would have asked, “Okay, so how does that illuminate Ringworld
?” I found Ringworld
actually violated The Wizard of Oz
in key regards, so the template seemed rather flimsy to begin with, not to mention dubious to draw conclusions from.
Ronald B. Tobias did a terrific job in Theme & Strategy
, putting his methodology together to analyze Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case”
[damn good story] (albeit Tobias was a little more moralistic than I remembered reading, but I’d need to read it again to catch her overall tone). My problem with his work was with his use of plot patterns, which I thought needless if possibly even detrimental to a story yet unwritten. Let the story tell itself. What would happen next? A mobster pulls a gun on your heroine, what does she do, considering what we know of her character and available resources (trigger the hidden gun, trap door or bodyguard signal; scream for help; or boldly say, "Behold, puny mortal, my abs of steel")? If the final product matches a familiar template, great. If it doesn’t, oh well.
In general for most texts, simply read it first for an understanding of the surface narrative. What did the ending tell you? What did the narrator or the reader learn? How was this learning shaped throughout the text, inside and outside the main character? Don’t haul out and force-feed the story your handy-dandy box of age-old metaphors (Sleep is a metaphor for death!
) and templates (It’s the story of the prodigal son!
) until you understand the surface.
If you don’t understand, you may have a non-traditional narrative. One runs into trouble with looking at the characters in the non-traditional tale, but again read for parallels, contrasts, and juxtapositions which may then lead you to what was learned. Find them and compare the context of each part. How is the overall work related to what exists in real life?
If all else fails, try templates or consult the critical efforts of someone else who may have devised another method of interpretation, seeing something you may have overlooked. Does the template or new method match up with the text? If not, the text may be a poser. Sadly, in reality and in fiction, people like to pose, masking nothing with inscrutability to disguise their emptiness.
John Gardner in his analysis [mine
] of “Wakefield”
(finding it explicit rather than ambiguous) writes:
“[T]he reader must discover through analysis the relationship between the message and the piece itself. Needless to say, if no such relationship exists, there is something wrong with the work.”
None of this is to say that templates aren’t useful. They can be crucial secondary steps. In fact, Thomas C. Foster does an admirable job in How to Read Literature Like a Professor
grounding his templates within texts--if only in parts of texts. But if you met a fellow who first tried to shove people into groups in order to judge them, you’d call him bigoted, biased, prejudiced (and maybe a few other words). Classification can aid our understanding of individual people and texts, but it’s more considerate to understand the personality before lumping it with others.