Thursday, November 24, 2011

I am Thankful

In the last several months, I have grown to be very thankful for so many of the wonderful things in my life.  When something bad happens, it is very easy for us to ask the heavens, "Why??"  However, we rarely question why the good things happen in our lives, though they are equally unexplained.  For example, why should I have been born in a loving family?  Why should I have been encouraged to read as a child?  In fact, why should I have been educated at all?

Because these things are equally beyond our control, the only proper response we can have is to be thankful.  And since this blog is my only real forum for thoughts like this, I'll indulge in my thankfulness within a literary perspective.

I am thankful for all the nights my mother read to me while I was tucked in bed.

I am thankful for all the libraries that loaned me countless books free of charge.

I am thankful for all the books my family and friends gave me as presents over the years.

I am thankful for all my English teachers who encouraged my reading and writing.

I am thankful for all my undergraduate studies that opened my mind to the world of literature.

I am thankful for Dostoevsky, Steinbeck, Ellison, James, Hardy, Faulkner, and so many others who chose to publish their beautiful thoughts and stories.

And I am thankful for all of  you who take time out of your day to look at this little blog.

Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Literary Analysis, Part 2: Feminism

"Feminism" is a highly charged word.  Immediately upon hearing it, we experience a number of different feelings and impressions.  For a long time, I must admit that I had a negative association with the term.  I (falsely) assumed that to be a feminist, one had to be anti-man.  In my mind, feminists were women who felt that they were unfairly judged in society and thus they must overcompensate for this by elevating all women and pushing down men in the process.  I am happy to say that I am no longer of this opinion and that furthermore, I can proudly label myself a feminist.  So what does this mean?  Once again, I intend to address this solely from a literary perspective.  I have not studied feminism in nearly enough detail to be able to offer a comprehensive definition of the term and its status over time.  However, I want to open the discussion to share what I think and to learn more from all of you.

The history of feminism is usually divided in three waves.  To start with a disclaimer, I want to say that I am aware there were some prominent female figures who appeared on the scene for hundreds of years before the first wave.  However, the first recognized movement for women's rights took place in the late 19th and early 20th century.  The key issues they focused on at this time were suffrage, education, and public voice.  The leaders of the movement wanted women to attain all the rights of men and gain the respect of being seen as autonomous and intelligent human beings. 

The second wave reached its height in the 1960s following the Civil Rights Movement.  Rather than focusing on the legal constrictions against women, they revealed the detrimental assumptions and expectations that pervaded society.  In an effort to broaden the perception of "feminine" actions, many of these women boldly challenged traditional roles by their loud and determined protests.  Another significant component of this movement was redefining a woman's sexuality in society, which was minimally addressed in the previous wave. 

The third wave started in the 1990s and took on a new perspective.  Most of the privileges the leaders of the first and second movements sought were achieved at this point, and the new focus was on the underlying gentrification.  They resist the dichotomy of mutually exclusive categories of "men" and "women."  Instead, they argue that sexual identity should not be constrained by any categories or definitions.  The transgender identity, a previously unheard voice, was a significant part of this movement.  They also highlighted that one's identity as a woman was inextricably linked to her race, social status, and culture, and it would thus necessarily differ and conflict among the population. 

Why would I want to know this?  How will this affect my reading?

If nothing else, making an effort to read work by female authors will provide you with a different literary perspective.  Although I will readily acknowledge much of the value of a feminist perspective, I have to admit that the majority of the authors I read are men.  However, women do have a different kind of voice, and it's particularly beneficial to read those who are intentionally revealing these feminist issues.

The feminist authors of the first wave illustrated the oppression women faced without the ability to represent themselves, even within their own homes.  The feminist writers of the second wave explored their unique perspective outside of the traditional roles of "wife" and "mother."  Finally, the material in feminist literature in the third wave plays with gender assumptions and challenges the notion of a dichotomy.  Please let me know if you can think of other pieces of fiction that should be included in my list!

Feminism in fiction literature:

Before any "Waves"
The Rover by Aphra Behn

First Wave
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Second Wave
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Third Wave
The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter

Feminist theory:

Overview: This PDF is a wonderful summary and easily accessible.

A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollenstone Craft
- This is a beautifully written piece and was a huge landmark in its era.  It's fairly short, and you can read the full text here.  I highly encourage you to check it out.

The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
- I have only read samples of this, but it was very influential in the era it was published.  In the text, Beauvoir revealed the nature of women as "other" for the first time.

The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan
- I have not read this, but it is universally acknowledged as one of the foundational texts of the second wave of feminism.

Gender Trouble by Judith Butler
- This is one of the most fascinating feminist texts.  Butler analyzes feminism from a fairly objective perspective of gender roles and offers remarkable insight.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

For the last several days, I have been working on various drafts of other parts to the Literary Analysis Series.  But I haven't felt good about posting the next one yet, and so my heavy thoughts on existentialism have been sitting at the top of my blog much longer than I intended.  Ultimately, I have decided that although I am not finished with the series and I do still find value in it, I will space it out with literature reviews in between.  After all, this blog is based on the literature itself, and I don't think anyone (myself included) would be eager to read a whole group of posts on analysis all at once.

This brings me to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.  I'm not entirely sure why it has taken me so long to write about this one.  I think that there is a part of me that resisted listing it among the "Classics" because I felt it wasn't serious enough.  But the truth about Huck Finn, and the reason it deserves this status, is that it is full of mature and thoughtful themes in the guise of a children's story.  This is not the only piece of literature that does this so well.  I have already discussed To Kill a Mockingbird and Lord of the Flies, both of which have children as their protagonists and are often considered to be children's stories.  Nevertheless, these stories each contain a great deal of stimulating insight and can provoke thoughtful discussion.  I really enjoy stories that have protagonists with an unusual perspective, and these authors all present intriguing themes by writing from a child's point of view.

In school, I had to read this novel in eighth grade and then again in my senior year of high school.  When my teacher told us we would read this in our 12th grade AP English class, I must admit I was a little skeptical.  However, my experience with the story was remarkably different in the later reading.  Not long ago, I said that Classic literature is remarkable for its ability to make us grow in our appreciation for it in successive readings.  Well, I think there are many subtle messages in Huck Finn that can only be found in repeated study.  In fact, it would be a great shame if people only read the story when they were children and missed out on all the adult content.

I want to back up for a minute and note that Twain published Huck Finn nearly ten years after The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  I think this is an important fact to keep in mind because he invested a lot of time in this sequel.  If you read the stories back-to-back, I think you will be able to feel the difference.  First of all, the most obvious difference is that the sequel is written from Huck's first-person perspective and is presented in his vernacular. I absolutely love that Twain wrote the story in this way.  In general, I am fascinated by writers who play with dialect in their writing, for I believe it can be used to make powerful yet subtle statements within the text.  In Twain's usage of it, we readers find the messages of the story on our own rather than having them dictated to us.  For example, Huck memorably decides he'd rather go to hell for protecting Jim than do the "right thing" and turn him in.  There's something sweet and compelling about this thought process that I think would be lost if an omniscient narrator (or an adult character, for that matter) explained it.  It is precisely because he is a child that Huck is able to distance himself from "civilized" adult society, thus revealing the hypocrisy that actually exists within it.

Another significant difference in Huck Finn is that Twain really delves into some mature and controversial themes.  We should keep in mind that he published the novel in 1885 when racism was still quite strong in the States.  Recently, people have sought to remove the racist language Twain includes, and I understand their desire to omit it.  However, the overall message of the story is clearly anti-racist, and the language illustrates the culture Huck lived in and yet overcame.  In addition to race relations, Huck encounters a number of other moral dilemmas he must evaluate through his own judgment and conscience.  These questions about society and morality that surface make this piece of literature amount to far more than a child's adventure story.

The vernacular writing and the child's perspective regarding moral dilemmas were innovative contributions to literature.  The reading is enjoyable and thought-provoking at the same time, and it is accessible to readers on multiple levels.  Thus, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn most certainly deserves to be listed among the great literary Classics, and I hope children and adults alike continue to read this novel for generations to come.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Literary Analysis, Part 1: Existentialism

I want to begin this analysis series with existentialism from a literary perspective.  I have attempted to explain this philosophy in a couple of different posts now, but I have not yet been able to fully engage in its definition, as I have clumsily defined it and applied it to a particular book at the same time.  Now, however, I will dedicate that time, but strictly from a literary perspective.  I repeat this because I want to emphasize that I am not at all equipped to approach existentialism as a purely philosophical construct and will leave that job for true philosophers.

The best way I can sum up existentialism is to say that it is the examination of one's Self in essence, separate from Self in context.  What does this mean?  We all have a tendency to define ourselves by our personalities, our skills/talents, and by the activities in which we are involved.  When we meet someone for the first time, our get-to-know-you questions are always directed in that way: What do you do for a living?  (Or for college students, What is your major?)  What do you like to do in your free time?  There is an undeniable emphasis on doing and little interest in being.  Although I don't think it's wrong to ask those surface question upon first acquaintance, they tend to pervade our private thoughts as well.  How do you define yourself?  I am smart.  I do/did well in school.  I play sports.  I write, I create, I compute, etc.  Again, none of these definitions are actually reaching a person's self in essence.  They are based on personality, activity, and social standing.

According to existentialists, every single person has this divide in his/her identity.  Existential crisis arises, however, when a person becomes aware of this divide.  When he realizes that he has a Self which is distinct from these surface definitions, he is likely to abandon his value in the identifications which now appear superficial.   Thus, he must now determine whether there is anything of consequence which is crucial to his existence.  This often results in a person withdrawing from relationships and activities in order to objectively examine the chasm in her identity.  However, it is an inevitably painful and intimidating process, as the person loses the security of her previous identifications.  Moreover, the rift in identity can seem so irreparable that it leads to the pervading attitude of, "What does it matter?" 

Once a person has reached this stage of existential angst, he may experience profound futility in his existence.  A despairing existentialist is unable to bridge the gap between one's true essence and the social qualifications of one's existence.  At this point, he retreats from responsibility and social guidelines, including a moral code.  In literature, the character in existential crisis often acts destructively at this point, challenging society's limits of appropriate behavior in order to offset the despair with some kind of dramatic action.  According to Kierkegaard, a personal in existential angst can ultimately respond to this in only two ways: 1. Resolution of the divide in one's Self, or 2. Irreparable Despair/Suicide.

Why would I want to know this?  How will this affect my reading?

If you are wondering this, (or gave up on reading this post long ago), this is a completely valid question.  But the beauty of literature is that it illuminates real issues of human existence.  I believe that existential crisis is a real and prevalent problem people experience.  Literature can allow us to access this problem if we have not personally experienced it or find relief if we are in the midst of it.  (Although, unfortunately, not all authors offer a positive resolution).  A number of authors have brilliantly portrayed existential angst in their work, and if we are not looking for it, we may miss one of the supreme messages of the text.  If we cannot relate to the characters on this level, we may be irritated with their listlessness and misunderstand its source.  We may likewise be put off by the conclusion, especially if we are not aware of the problem at the core of the text.  If we read existential literature without considering existentialism, we may experience the piece to be slow and exasperating rather than compelling and insightful.  In this way, existential literary analysis can greatly increase our appreciation for the work of literature.

To see existentialism in literature, check out:

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Stranger by Albert Camus
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett

For more on existentialism, check out:

Existentialism by the Literature Network
Feminism and Existentialism by the ladies at A Year of Feminist Classics
Sickness Unto Death by Soren Kierkegaard
The Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre

Literary Analysis, Introduction

Recently, the Blue Bookcase hosted a blog hop about analytical reading.  It sparked a great deal of conversation among the bloggers who participated, and I personally spent a considerable amount of time reading the various posts and comments.   In fact, the comment sections were unusually full of conversation, and I found the discussion beneath them every bit as interesting as each person's initial posting.  There was quite a bit of variety in the responses, ranging from detailed instruction about a specific literary theory to somewhat worried concerns. 

I think that one of the key components directing the discussion was that "literary analysis" is so vague that we all responded based on our various understandings of that term.  Is analysis the purposeful application of one of the Norton Anthology's specified theories of criticism?  Is analysis breaking down the work minutely in order to study each word that passes?  Is analysis pinpointing the way that the reading impacted you personally/emotionally?  Is analysis thinking about the book for a few minutes while writing a review?  Is analysis studying the work as a whole to find a subtle undercurrent?

I don't think that there is a definitive answer for these questions, and I won't attempt to create one.  However, I want to pursue this for a little longer using my individual understanding of analysis in the hope that it may be interesting or helpful to any of you readers.  At the same time, I hope that this series will allow you all to teach me more about each of the measure of analysis I will mention because I am certain you all have insight I could use.  Reading through your thoughtful comments in the blog hop assured me of that, if nothing else. 

So my plan is to present a couple of the primary literary philosophies I consider when I am engaged in analysis.  I will refer to specific books I've reviewed in the past that should help provide examples.  Please note that I am not a literature professor and do not pretend to have the authority to present this series as such.  I am not writing this to act as a teacher but to continue the discussion we have already begun.  Moreover, I am hoping that you will all teach me more in the process.

Ok, let's begin...

Part One: Existentialism
Part Two: Feminism
Part Three: Metanarrative

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Dickens, Revisited

Moving forward, I'd like to discuss Dickens again.  A while ago, I wrote about A Tale of Two Cities, which I said was my favorite of his works.  I really enjoyed reading the mixed responses in the comments of that post, as you all offered interesting insight.  In response, (particularly to Adam's suggestion*), I have now read Great Expectations and would like to reopen the Dickens discussion.

It seems to me that there are more people who dislike Dickens' style than there are fans of it.  And before I get going, I want to say that I do understand that.  Everyone knows that he is wordy, and I can't pretend that isn't true.  But I have to admit that I honestly didn't even notice it while I was reading Great Expectations.  I read several blogs about this book before writing my own post now, and people almost unanimously have said that the beginning takes way too long and says much more than is necessary for the story.  However, I really didn't have that experience.  I was completely wrapped up in Pip's story, and I felt like the whole thing was essential in order to reach the conclusion that it did.  What makes me impatient is when authors spend time on long tangents that have nothing to do with the story itself, (i.e. Hugo and Melville).  Everything that Dickens built was faithful to the development of the story, and this becomes increasingly clear as the book progresses. 

Moreover, I absolutely ate up some of those descriptions.  I believe that in Great Expectations, Dickens has created some truly memorable scenes that will stand in my mind long after I have read this tale.  I love the opening scene in the foggy graveyard, with this young kid who is manipulated by a crook.  I thoroughly sensed how Pip felt growing up with Joe and his autocratic sister, with the never-ending taunt of "raised you by hand" ringing in his ears.  And really, who can ever forget the image of Miss Havisham in her dusty room, dressed in her faded wedding gown with just one shoe on and all the clocks stopped?  This is the magic that Dickens can create.  He may take a few extra words than some authors, but in faithfully pinpointing specific characterizations, they are easily imaginable.

I also want to point out that Dickens is actually quite funny.  I didn't particularly remember that from previous readings, and I don't know whether I simply forgot about it or it was just less prevalent.  But during Great Expectations, I frequently chuckled and smirked as I read.  His descriptions can really be rather playful and satirical, and I was quite entertained.  I think my favorite example of this is during Pip's first dinner with Herbert, as Herbert patiently interrupts himself every few moments to correct Pip's table manners.  If Dickens cut out some of this for the sake of shortening the story, I think a great deal of its charm would be lost.

Finally, I'll wrap it up to say that I found the plot extremely satisfying.  I read in someone else's post that every character gets precisely what he or she deserves.  I think that is a great way to explain it.  By the end, it was all just so fitting that I closed the book with a smile.  Mind you, there is a significant difference between a story that ends happily and a story that ends fittingly.  I much prefer the latter.  And though it was fitting, I don't think the story was overly predictable.  There were a number of little twists along the way which kept me guessing.  Personally, I wouldn't change a thing.

So I hope this has offered you a different perspective on Dickens with more specific features to look for if you generally do not care for him.  I know he's not for everyone, but I do think he ought to be admired for the skill that he undeniably possessed, as well as the significant contribution he made to literature.

*Adam blogs at Roof Beam Reader and has covered an incredible scope of literature, including five other works by Dickens.  (But Adam, where's your commentary on Great Expectations?)  Anyway, you should all do yourself a favor and check out his reviews!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Literary Blog Hop

November is upon us, and I am sorry that I lost steam at the end of October.  There were other books and stories I was hoping to fit into my October reading, but I guess I'll just have to save them for next year.  I enjoyed the October reading season, but now I've been in a bit of a slump.  So when I saw that The Blue Bookcase is doing another one of their blog hops, I thought this might be a perfect solution!

It's been a while since I've participated in one of these, but I always love them when I remember to tag along.  This week's question is a great one for me:

"To what extent do you analyze literature? Are you more analytical in your reading if you know you're going to review the book? Is analysis useful in helping you understand and appreciate literature, or does it detract from your readerly experience?"

Literary Blog Hop

To what extent do I analyze literature?  A great extent.  An overly thoughtful extent.  Maybe even an obsessive extent.  Is this for better or for worse?  Honestly, I'm not 100% sure.

There's no doubt in my mind that analyzing literature can reveal the depth and insight of a story in a totally unique and rewarding way.  I believe that literature makes a huge impact on our society by showing us innumerable facets of human nature and implicitly teaching us about our own lives and the people who are in them.  Careful analysis illuminates the exceptional messages within great literature so that we can really recognize what the author is offering and learn from that.  Moreover, in-depth analysis reveals things we don't recognize during our first reading, illustrating the multilevel nature of great work and opening the potential for even more of it.

When I first finish reading a book, it usually takes me some time before I am able to form a real opinion about it.  I often have to think of the work as a whole and weigh the significance of what it had to say.  I take this time to ponder the author's original intentions for the story, and I am almost always inspired to look up more details about it in research.  There have been many times where I have developed a much greater appreciation for a piece of literature because of the analysis I have conducted.  Even if I don't initially love the book, I may grow to admire the author's unique skill or message.  So I do love analyzing literature and uncovering the great things in it that I initially overlooked.  There are a handful of books I've read that I felt were quite strange or even unpleasant while I was reading them but I have since grown to admire.  This is only possible with analysis.  As for the books I already knew I enjoyed, a thoughtful analysis almost always broadens the scope and depth of the piece and makes me like it more.

So in a way, I think heavy analysis can be a test to literature.  If you can break it down and analyze it from a number of different angles and still love the piece, then it is a Classic.  Without contest, I have analyzed Crime and Punishment more intensely than any other book I've read.  I have written numerous papers and read it cover-to-cover three times, in addition to rereading multiple passages.  And I can honestly say that for me, it has not lost one ounce of its flavor or appeal.  In fact, I love it even more.

However, some books are so amazing, I don't need a minute to think about them.  When I have just finished reading a truly magnificent piece, I close the book with an instinctual sigh of deep contentment.  There's something beautiful about literature that is so magnificent that I don't have to even think about it; I can just feel it.  And this is why I say that I can see how being analytical about reading can detract from your experience.  When I read something that is so thoroughly enjoyable like that, I am instantly aware of how much more satisfying that feeling is than intensive study.  Somehow, I think we must find a balance between appreciating literature on its analytical level and letting go in order to just enjoy it for what it is.  I definitely err on the side of taking it too seriously at times.  I need to be able to also sit back and enjoy.

I'm looking forward to reading what the rest of you think about this question!