Saturday, 14 February 2015

In Defence of Blue Curtains: A Literature Essay

Happy Valentine's Day! I just spent the morning playing usher at Parent's Day in school, so let's keep this Valentine's post more school-themed.

I posted this thing a while ago:
From http://9gag.com/gag/aKz66jj?ref=fbp
To be fair, the English teacher is probably right in this instance. For most classics, they're literary enough that most objects have symbolic value, and some modern literary fiction or even commercial fiction will have a hint or two. Heather at Sometimes I'm a Story wrote a more detailed treatise, so do click to read because I didn't reference it at the end in APA style.

However, I believe that this sentiment appeared because teachers do over-analyse or misinterpret. Allow me, in pseudo-essay form, to give a few examples.
Not just science. (x)
One of the most common issues is the wrong application of theories. The gender theory is particularly prone to this, because when feminist literature teachers — a good thing — start analysing something not very based on inequality of the sexes, not such a good thing. What's worse, when someone points it out, these teachers will not back down easily, because they firmly believe that they are right. Sometimes they are. Not always. I've once had to memorise two different analyses by two different teachers, one who analysed from a feminist perspective, the other with Marxist theories. One of the teachers wasn't even teaching our class.

x
And often, my teachers tend to focus overly on one point or another; once a friend wrote an essay based on only one scene and did just fine. The other time someone did a presentation and the teacher took off 3 points out of 30 for not expanding a semi-related scene. She made this comment (although not the deduction) across almost every presentation. Sometimes we focus on different things. How important is the curtain really to the text? Is it a motif, or just one-off pathetic fallacy?

Another important point is that I said the English teacher is probably right. But here, we don't know. Why would curtains represent depression? Surely there are other things to suggest that? Does the association of both curtain and blue with sky play into effect? How can the teacher make this conclusion without reference to other sections of the text?

Blue = insomnia; Harvard said it
A quick Wikipedia search (shut up) shows us that blue is associated with lots of other things. This shows another problem -— the insistence on model answers. See, if you look back at the Venn diagram, there's no circle for 'correct answer'. It's a given that what the teacher thinks is correct. And that is death in literature class, because it becomes one very very long memory game as you try to recite all of the teacher's points.

So there we go. In defence of blue curtains. Please do leave a comment what you think — with reference to context please! :D

Think I'm awesome? Click the links below to tweet; that's what peer review means, no?
    

21 comments:

  1. I think it's a very good point to say that in most literature, things like blue curtains often really do mean something. But just what that something is can be blurry, and I absolutely despise playing memory games of just what exactly Teacher A wants us to take away from the book. Most importantly, there could be hundreds of other takeaways from other parts of the book, but if you have a teacher that expects you to pick one or two specific things that you don't resonate with, suddenly reading and thinking about what we're reading becomes little more than a chore.

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    1. I absolutely agree with the fact that some teachers obsess over details or symbolism that a student might not resonate with, and leaving those details out in homework or essays leads to a significant downgrade. I think it's partly because of this that the opinions of other excellent literature teachers are discounted, which is really a pity.

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  2. You were going to cite me? APA? I'm really more of an MLA girl, all the way. It's just nicer. But I digress. I can get this, because there are a lot of people who aren't very good at literature analysis. Now, I just spend a couple weeks of analyzing Catch-22 with feminist and Marxist lenses—and that worked for me, because I am REALLY GOOD at those ones. I come back to what I mentioned before in my post—there's a "range of right" and two people can analyze the same text and come to two different conclusions and still be totally right.

    I mean, curtains. Let's say that the blue curtains are effeminate, gauzy, and flowing but are torn down violently during a rainstorm, at the same time that an FMC and her man start fighting and he abuses her.

    One person might say, "Well, the blue typically represents eternity and fantasy, so the fact that the curtains get torn down demonstrate that the FMC's dreams for a long and fairy-tale marriage are crushed."

    And that might be valid.

    But another person might say, "Well, in other cultures blue was a symbol of death and a bad omen, so in this instance it foreboded the abuse that would come to the FMC."

    And that might be valid, too.

    And yet another person might say, "Blue is a symbol of fidelity so even though the guy destroys her, he probably still loves her deep down."

    Probably not so much.

    I have the fortune of a teacher who usually lets us come up with our own assertions and explore our own interpretations of the texts she sets in front of us. What she usually does instead is give us a little background about the author, because if we know that the author was a feminist or an existentialist we might be more attuned to what the author meant to put into the text, rather than what we interpret from our own imaginations.

    So, I don't disagree with you, I think. I mean, you have to take in a lot of information about the author and the context of the passage you're reading and an understanding of the theories you're actually employing while you're analyzing, not to mention focusing on the thematic intent of the work as a whole. All that stuff is important.

    And teachers can totally be wrong. Unintelligent people can be teachers.

    But also... I don't know what my point was. Teachers can be wrong, but teachers can also be right, especially when they invite you to explore in a good way. *nods*

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    1. Oh my gosh. I AM SO SORRY. I DON'T EVEN THINK WHAT I SAID WAS ON TOPIC.

      I AM SORRY FOR BEING SO LONG.

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    2. No, don't apologise! I really really appreciate that you took the time to write such a detailed response. And first of all: OMG YOU GET TO READ CATCH 22 IN SCHOOL. Why does everyone have better set texts than me ... *sobs*

      I think the important thing is that you have to establish the parameters of the text -- the general message -- and then find the symbolism and characterisation and whatnot to back it up. The thing is, many teachers encourage picking out the symbolism and extrapolating from there, and that leads to a lot of strange conclusions. And some other teachers insist too strongly on their own point of view.

      Definitely social context and stuff about the author is super important in analysis. I actually prefer New Criticism -- which proposes the death of the author and analysis of the text itself -- but for some works, like The Reader, it's impossible to not understand mainstream historical views at the time, etc.

      I'm lucky to have a very reasonable literature teacher for (half of) this year, and he absolutely hates it when we parrot after him, so he tends to give more credit for coming with our own ideas than taking it away for having an implausible analysis. I think this is really effective in encouraging us to have multiple ideas, even if we have to weed out the weaker arguments afterwards.

      Thank you again for the very detailed comment :D

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    3. WE JUST FINISHED AND IT WAS AWESOME. EVERYONE HATED IT AND THEN BOOM WE ALL LOVED IT. But what are your books that you have to read? Are they lame? Are they boring?

      But yes, I agree. I mean, if we were to pick a book like Catch-22, it is kind of obvious that the author is not trying to support a capitalistic syndicate that exploits everyone and puts everyone in danger and makes one person rich. And so I can absolutely see your point how we could easily go someplace that would go against that and SEEM valid, but I guess we can't have all awesome teachers all the time. However depressing that is.

      *nods* That's another way to do it. I think, however, if an author really put that work into it, he or she would still have the same point come across, even if you didn't know their personal history. (I think of Jane Eyre, because that character experiences a lot of stuff the author went through, but you don't have to know that to understand what the point is.) I have not heard of The Reader, though. Is it good?

      That's great that you have a better lit teacher! I mean, his approach sounds pretty decent—one of the points behind literature is to make us think about stuff for ourselves, I think and if you just copy cat then what is the point?

      :) Thanks for reading it. XD

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    4. *weeps softly* I've read it myself, but the time it takes to actually study a work isn't available for leisure reading. It's normally not *lame* per se, they're just not particularly interesting. For the first term we had this book that was full of symbolism and none of us are sure what the heck happened in there that couldn't have been expressed in a short story. But now we're working on Shakespeare and Greek tragedies, and this should be more fun.

      That's definitely true -- the general message should still stick, even it's not applied towards the specific social context. I mean, we don't know the social contexts of Aesops and such but we have no problem getting the general idea.

      The Reader is a book by Bernhard Schlink after WW2, and it talks about how Germans are also victims of Hitler. It's an interesting philosophical read, but you have to be in a particular state of mind or your attention wanders. ;P

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    5. Shakespeare is definitely more fun, as are Greek tragedies—we read Othello and Oedipus The King for my lit class and so I hope you enjoy those a lot more; they're pretty easy, as far as looking for things goes.

      *nods* Absolutely. And if you are a writer and you have been kind of unclear about what team you are on, then maybe you should go back and think about it again.

      Ooh, that sounds interesting. Very Captain America. Although my attention wanders quite a bit. Usually I can't even write a blog post comment without getting distracted...

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    6. Ooh, really? We're doing Antigone this year, which I believe is the sequel to Oedipus The King. Quite enjoying the dynamics so far :D

      I read The Reader for last-minute project research, so I was forced to finish it in an hour ;D The first and second parts are quite thrilling, but the third part wanders for a while before it gets really tense.

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  3. I think analyzing the symbolize in stories is actually really neat, but sometimes school can make it less fun. Like you said, everyone can have different interpretations of a story, and school doesn't always allow for that, which is extremely annoying. There shouldn't be a right or wrong answer in literature. I also hate it when I have to go overboard with the note taking and annotating while I'm reading a book. All I want to do is read the book, not break my reading flow by having to jot down a note about symbolism every five sentences.

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    1. Mmm, yes. When I was studying the Go-Between last year, there was symbolism on literally every page. Even my teacher got fed up with it and said, "I used to like this book, but then I realised the author was beating me over the head with the symbolism." I don't annotate at all when I'm pre-reading. Obviously for unseen text exams it's way easier to annotate, but for longer works I like to read it all in one go so I can feel the "vibe" of the characters instead of nitpicking over every line of description.

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  4. Haha, I've seen that curtain image on Facebook once, and I laughed so hard XD It wasn't very funny afterwards, though. Because this is the reality. It is very hard to prove to the teacher, that what she may be saying is not related to the context - other times she may be right.

    Anywho, lovely post Alyssa <3

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    1. Yep, that's definitely true. And the reputation extends to other perfectly reasonable literature teachers too, which is a pity. Thanks for reading!

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  5. I really hated analysing books for school. I homeschooled, so at least I never got marks off for thinking how I wanted to think, because I would always just stand my ground. ;-) Buuuut, it always made me HATE the book. I don't know why! I don't like to analyse. I guess I just like the surface story and then moving on? I sometimes think the curtains just ARE blue. xD

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    1. Homeschooling is very very rarely legal here. You can apply for permission for the gov't, but hardly anyone does. And a place in a good school can do wonders for local universities. Hmmm.

      Anyways, I totally get that feeling! I normally quick-read my school texts before the year starts for the 'surface story', and have a general impression. But I absolutely love to consider all the characters and stuff -- I find it helps a lot with my writing. But personal preference, I guess ;D

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  6. Oh God, don't even get me started on MY English teacher. I swear, if the book says something like "George saw a duck on his way to school" she'll go completely overboard and say something along the lines of "The duck represents George's isolation from society and how the loneliness of general life is eating away at him inside..."
    Ugh, teachers. They are like the plague, impossible to avoid and make you frequently break out in beads of sweat and want to be sick.
    Oh, sorry for rambling! I must seem like a complete nutjob.
    Great blog, by the way. I really enjoy reading it and this post is one of your best. Maybe...if you want to....you could check out my blog? I've just started a new one, and would love to get some feedback?
    Here it is!
    www.blindeyesoftheworld.blogspot.com

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    1. Shame about your literature teacher -- but honestly, I feel that the great majority of decent or even stellar teachers are hurt by the few extreme cases because students start disliking them on principle.

      I'll be sure to drop by your blog! Thanks for reading :)

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  7. As a writer, the best is when you receive a critique from someone who reads symbolism you never put in there consciously -- but which works so perfectly that perhaps your subconscious was at work. I think our minds are often way smarter than our conscious thoughts give them credit for, and there's so much going on beneath the surface.

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    1. Oh yes, that happens to me too! Or I'm halfway through a scene and then suddenly realise that was symbolism in the last sentence. Then the real work is refining it into good symbolism, instead of just a coincidence.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Caryn!

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  8. Interesting points, Alyssa. I'm not going to make a long and detailed comment because I think the other commenters have basically covered my thoughts, but I do think one of the most wonderful things about literature is that it's open to interpretation. Once it's out in the world, what the author meant to convey tends to decrease in importance - I would argue that much more prevalence should be given to the readers' opinions, since it is, in essence, their book now.

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    1. *punches fist in air* I've found a fellow New Criticism supporter! (Now if only the IB would join me. *stares glumly at school texts*) I definitely agree that the opinions of the reader should supersede those of the author, given reasonable limits -- I mean, you probably shouldn't interpret Hamlet as telling you to get EVERYONE killed. Or that Romeo and Juliet means we should all elope with a guy we met at a masked party and commit double suicide within the week. The important thing is to respect everyone's interpretations.

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