CRITIC’S CORNER COLUMNIST
Or they don’t say, but I can read it in their eyes. Others try to be nice about it: “You’re an English major? Wow, I could never do that…”
Even my history-major roommate delights in raising my blood pressure by waxing eloquent about how the objective, factual nature of history is so superior to the subjective fluff of literary analysis.
While she is (mostly) joking, this idea that literary scholarship is fluffy, pointless and inferior is all too prevalent and springs from a misunderstanding of what literary analysis should be.
Since we were in grade school, we’ve been taught to ask, “What does it mean?”
“He was like a lion.” “What does it mean?”
“It was a dark and stormy night.” “What does it mean?”
Well, perhaps it means what it says. The night was dark and stormy.
The words were chosen because they mean what they say. Suggesting that it “means” anything else is necessarily subjective. Incessantly searching for some “hidden meaning” is what gives literary scholarship such a bad rap.
Thus, a slight shift in perspective is necessary. Instead of asking what something means, we should ask why something is important.
The night being dark and stormy does not “mean” that the main character is experiencing inner turmoil, but it might be important that the night reflects his inner turmoil.
By asking why something is important, one is forced to ground it in the broader context of the work, in objective fact rather than subjective fluff. By asking why something is important, one must search for the author’s meaning rather than one’s own and try to understand what he wanted to communicate rather than relying on private speculation.
But why even bother?
Even people who love stories often fail to see the value of studying literature more closely, and they wonder why anyone bothers with all that essay-writing and analysis instead of just enjoying the story.
Simply thus: while just reading a book can be very good, the more deeply we delve into the work, the more we will gain from it. Looking at why something is important helps us to understand why the author wrote what he did, which in turn allows us to make the jump to why it is important for us as readers.
Most generally, the role of story is two-fold: to point to the divine and to express the human.
As an English major, I study literature because it directs me to God. Some people see him most clearly in the order of the universe or in the perfection of mathematical equations; I see God most clearly in human literature.
So many authors have pointed to him through their literature in so many ways, sometimes unconsciously, sometimes even when that was the very last thing they intended. Anytime humans create something good, we point to goodness itself and the eternal story that God is writing. I find that incredibly beautiful.
So, that’s great for me, but you find literature just boring — it’s certainly not your path to God. But even if one is not particularly drawn to stories, literature is meant to help us understand humanity and human problems.
A well-written story is a window into the minds of those who think differently. For example, I once heard a renowned English scholar advise the men in the room to read a “girly” book —“Pride and Prejudice” — in order to learn how “girls” think. Himself a male fan of Jane Austen, he was jokingly appealing to his audience, but his point holds: The more you read and analyze literature, the more you will understand the people around you, as well as types of people you may never meet.
Even more importantly, the written word records the wisdom of centuries. While some books are written purely for enjoyment, more often literature is written to grapple with, and occasionally answer, the great human questions and to illustrate the human dilemma.
What does it mean to be human? Does life have meaning? How do we live with real pain? Why are our hearts infinitely hollow, aching for something unknown?
What is important? And why is it important?
God himself is writing the story of salvation to answer these very questions, and we cannot help but imitate him in our own literature.
Not every story touches every person. No one loves all literature. Thus, true literary scholars are meant to be signposts to the truth they have found in their own particular way, to point out profound, prosaic and sometimes incredibly nerdy but important things.
That is the goal of this column. Let us begin.