Reading, Writing, and Racism: A Manifesto in Support of the Study of Literature

As I am writing this, it is early November, 2018. It has been a rough couple of weeks in my little academic universe, and in the broader world that surrounds it.

First, the faculty members at our University decided that a dedicated literature course was no longer a necessary element of our core undergraduate requirements.

After that, in quick succession, the following occurred:

  • Here in St. Paul, Minnesota, our campus was rocked by racist and racially intimidating messages posted on the dormitory door of an African American student at our school.
  • In Louisville, Kentucky, a man with an assault weapon first cased a Black church, then proceeded to a grocery store and shot two African American customers. When confronted after the shooting by nother citizen, the shooter said: “Don’t shoot me, I won’t shoot you. Whites don’t shoot whites.”
  • In Florida, a man was arrested after sending multiple mail bombs to people and organizations he regarded as political “enemies” because of their party affiliations or their criticisms of President Trump.
  • Finally, in Pittsburgh, a gunman spouting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories shot up a Jewish synagogue worship service, killing 11 and wounding many more.

What does any of these events, aside from the decision to remove the literature requirement from my university’s core curriculum, have to do with the subject of this blog? Well, in my view there is a connection between what kinds of reading are taught, practiced, and valued in our society and the actual policies and actions that predominate in our society as a whole.

And I am left to wonder, particularly with reference to the bullet points above:

What have these folks been reading? Are there collections of poetry, short stories, novels, literature of any kind on their bookshelves? Where did they get their information or ideas about the people or the groups or the organizations they attacked? What kinds of language did those information sources use to describe the objects of their violence?

For instance, if we went into the home of the Louisville shooter would we have seen any books of poems by Langston Hughes, Rita Dove, Gwendolyn Brooks, or Claude McKay? Or any short stories by Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison? Or any of the plays of August Wilson? Or if we looked at his computer’s search history would we have found any visits to websites featuring or discussing the work of any of these great writers? I might be wrong, but I suspect that the answer to these“for-instance” queries would be “no.”

Why do I think it matters what these folks might or might not have on their bookshelves? I’ll try to explain it in a way that doesn’t make me sound like a literature snob.

Evils like racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia exist at least in part because human beings’ perception is often short-circuited by our impulses to simplify complex matters, to have our own assumptions confirmed, and to see things in terms of our own self-interest. I touched on this idea in an earlier post on this blog, when I discussed Viktor Shklovsky’s concerns about the “automatization” of our perception–the way in which our everyday habits of seeing and thinking reduce the world around us to simplistic, ready-made formulae that are convenient and gratifying, but ultimately false.

We must often make a special effort to make sure that our perceptions and our responses to others around us are deeply rooted in an understanding of the realities that define the lives of those others, and the shared humanity that compels our sympathy and respect for them. Reading literature encourages us to make this special effort, and gives us practice in doing so, precisely through the qualities by which Shklovsky defines the “literary”: that special kind of difficulty (and that special kind of pleasure) that encourages us to SLOW DOWN THE PROCESS OF PERCEPTION so that our assumptions don’t run ahead of our actual experience and understanding.

As Shklovsky noted, it’s easy for our perception to become “automatized”—that is to say, for assumptions, prejudices, half-truths, generalizations, and outright untruths to substitute for deeper truth-seeking and truth-seeking about the world around us, including other people. And the temptation of this automatization is all the more powerful when it produces the junkie’s high of confirming our own beliefs and priorities. The special purpose of literature and of “literary” reading is to break that automatism and compel our close attention to, and contemplation of, an experience or worldview other than our own.

In reading literature we are challenged to experience what is truly being said, not what we expect, wish, or casually assume is being said. We expand our understanding and sympathy by imaginatively experiencing the world through the words and perceptions of another rather than forcing our reading experience into the already-set patterns of our own expectations and assumptions.

I believe that the discipline of “close-reading” literature is not just an academic practice. It is a social, philosophical, and even a spiritual practice that is crucial to the effective functioning of a diverse society such as our own. This kind of reading helps us to inhabit and identify with the perspective of the speaker in Langston Hughes’s “Theme For English B,” regardless of what race we are; to feel at a visceral level the mutilated selfhood of the female protagonist in Marge Piercy’s “Barbie Doll,” regardless of our sex or gender; and to be torn by the moral dilemma of the motorist in William Stafford’s “Traveling Through the Dark,” regardless of whether we have had the power of life and death over another living creature.

My point is that is matters what we read, but it also matters how we read it. So, WHAT WE SAY and HOW WE SAY IT matters.  But even more important, HOW WE LISTEN, HOW WE READ, and HOW WE PAY ATTENTION matters even more.

But as anyone involved in close encounters with literature knows, inhabiting a poem in this way is hard work. It takes attention to every detail of language, it takes imaginative projection into the thoughts and feelings of another, and sometimes it even takes a little research to check and correct our initial impressions. But it’s what we do to be more responsible and more skilled readers.

This is why I teach literature, and why the challenges of it are as fresh and meaningful for me now as they were when I began teaching over 40 years ago. It’s because the close study of literature has the ability to make us more human, and better humans.  It has the ability to make us more careful and sensitive stewards of the language that we use in our daily interactions with others. A work of literature, like any work of human hands, may have its flaws and its blind spots. But every good work of literature challenges us as readers to be the most attentive and sympathetic readers we can be–the very opposite effect of language that engages in stereotypes, prejudicial beliefs, and open slurs against others among us.

My take-away from my own experience of reading, teaching, and writing about literature boils down to what I feel are three basic “deep truths” that are unique to the literary experience. Not coincidentally, these “deep truths” stand in opposition to the kind of thinking (and the habits of reading) that appear to stand behind the violent actions alluded to at the beginning of this post. In contrast to much of what we find on the internet and on social media, literature helps us cultivate the following habits of truth:

  • Things are almost always more complex, rather than more simple, than we would like to think.
  • Deeper truths tend to surprise us and challenge our assumptions rather than confirm them.
  • The deeper we go into the story of any person or group, the more reason we have for sympathy, love, and identification rather than fear and hate.




Poetry is Breath!

3-Figure1-1When I hear others read poetry aloud I am often fascinated by the choices that they make about where to take a pause for breath. This is true whether I am listening to a poet read his or her own work, or it is someone in a poetry course reading a poem that he or she is seeing on the page for the first time. There is no real rule about where to pause in reading a poem out loud, but I think it is instructive to consider the possible factors that drive this choice. For instance:

  • A reader might pause at the line breaks in a poem.
  • A reader might pause at natural grammatical divisions in a poem (sentences marked by end punctuation or major clauses marked by commas, colons, or semicolons).
  • A reader might pause at the natural comfortable limit of his or her breath.

It’s that last possibility I’d like to think about for a moment, since it reminds us that poetry, more than fiction or prose, is at its core an oral and aural genre, with its roots deep in song and ritual recitation. The physical sounds of poetry, and the physical acts of making those sounds (and apprehending them through our sense of hearing) are a key part of the experience of poetry, just as the physical acts of facial expression and body language are a key part of how we communicate in social situations.

Language is such a taken-for-granted part of our lives that it’s easy to forget that it must be physically created, exhaling a breath as we shape our oral cavity into the sounds that make up our words. This means that, in oral language at least, there is a natural length at which any phrase can be spoken with relative comfort—the cycle of a natural breath.

Now, the duration of a “natural’ breath is going to vary slightly from person to person, depending on what kind of physical condition he or she is in. I’ve done a few tests on myself, and assuming I am somewhere in the “average” range, it appears that in casual everyday speech (normal speed and volume) I typically produce somewhere between twelve and fifteen syllables in a single breath (that is, before pausing to take in additional air and start the breathing cycle over again).

In some cases I might produce fewer syllables per exhalation (when I am yelling or cursing, for instance); or from time to time I might produce more, to try and complete a long sentence or a complex idea before I lose my train of thought. But my point is that there is a natural range limit in terms of how many syllables a single human breath can comfortably produce. And it seems to fall somewhere just beyond one of English’s most familiar poetic meters, the five-beat, ten-syllable line of iambic pentameter.

Now, even in casual speech most of our sentences are longer than ten, twelve, or even fifteen syllables; but we typically pause our speech for breath at natural grammatical divisions—not just the stops at the end of sentences, but clauses, phrases, even sometimes single words in a series, where we might stop for emphasis and cadence–and, not coincidentally, sometimes for a breath). (I’m thinking here of the way in which the casual punctuation in social media evokes the SOUND of dramatic pauses for breath by putting periods after every word of a phrase—e. g., “Every. Single. Time.” or “Not. On. MY. Watch.”, to name a couple I have seen recently.)

So there is a natural relationship (although not a one-to-one correspondence) between what we might call the grammatical or syntactic extension of the sentence (the number, order, and organization of the words necessary to express a thought) and the physical duration and force of the breath necessary to articulate that sentence orally.

As I’ve said elsewhere, poetry is all about getting us to sit up and pay attention to those things we ordinarily take for granted or pass without reflection. And few things are more taken for granted than the way in which spoken language is dependent on the physical cycle of breath–unless it is the mysterious ease with which we produce grammatical structures–phrases, clauses, sentences–whose operations perplex and mystify us when we are asked to diagram or otherwise analyze them. We become conscious of this relationship mainly when we find ourselves–usually by accident–running out of breath before we are able to express our thought completely and grammatically.

So one of the functions of the poetic line is to make us more conscious of this complex, interdependent relationship between breath, meaning / syntax, and the printed word on the page. Sometimes the poetic line corresponds to the length of the breath, sometimes to the natural phrase or other unit of meaning; but sometimes the poetic line dramatically FAILS to correspond to these “natural” but interlinked intervals (one biological, one syntactic). Let’s look at a couple of texts that many of us have spoken aloud, both individually and in groups, multiple times over the course of our lives. I have set them up as if they were poems, but have followed opposite strategies in terms of their division into poetic lines on the page.

Example # 1

I pledge allegiance
To the flag
Of the United States of America
And to the Republic
For which it stands
One nation
Under God
With liberty and justice for all

Example # 2

Our father who art
In heaven, hallowed be
Thy name. Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done, on earth
As it is in heaven. Give us
This day our daily bread
And forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass
Against us. And lead us not
Into temptation but
Deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
The power, and the glory
Forever and ever. Amen.

The line breaks in Example # 1 pretty much conform to my memory of how we recited this text together every morning in my grade school some 50+ years ago. The line breaks correspond to the points at which we collectively paused. And while the lines themselves are shorter than the duration of a natural breath, they do reflect natural grammatical divisions in the text: the subject + verb sentence stem of the first line, followed by two complete prepositional phrases in lines 2 and three; a continuation of parallel prepositional phrases, followed by a series of very short lines that consist of parallel noun phrases, then ending with a final prepositional phrase.

The nuns always frowned when some of us tried to rush the recitation by eliminating some of the pauses–which we could, because those short two-beat and three-beat lines were easily combined into a single breath. But it is also the case that we were encouraged to recite these short lines with an intensity and force that took up whatever reserve of breath might otherwise have been left over after a mere four (or six) syllables. My main point here is that the relationship between grammatical unit, line division, and breath in Example # 1 is on balance more or less close and well-aligned, so much so that the recitation flows naturally, without calling much attention to itself as the odd and artificial performance that such a recitation–especially of a text such as The Pledge–actually is.

For the second example–The Lord’s Prayer–I have divided the text into three-beat lines (“Our Father who art / In heaven, hallowed be / Thy name. Thy kingdom come,” etc.), letting the beats rather than the logic of breath or phrase determine the line-endings.  Of course, in traditional metrical poetry the length of the line is everything, the backbone of the poem’s rhythm that is more or less consistent regardless of the length of the phrase required to complete the sentence or clause.

When reading it aloud from the page, the visual cue of the line endings tempts us to pause; yet we resist pausing because we feel the lack of completion of the grammatical unit at that point in the sentence. The visual division of the line endings pulls against our grammatical sense of where the grammatical divisions are, making us consciously choose our pauses in a way that Example # 1 does not. And somewhere in the background of all this is the question of breath, trying to pace itself and anticipate how many syllables the next exhalation will have to support.

The technical term for this effect—the spillover of a natural grammatical phrase from one line to the next—is called enjambment.  Its counterpart, caesura, refers to the placement of a major grammatical division, like the division between sentences or independent clauses, in the middle of the line. But these two terms are often taught simply as definitions, without much attention to their underlying effect. As I’ve tried to describe it here, enjambment and caesura serve to make us more conscious of the interlocking forces of breath, phrase, and the poetic line by exploiting the possible tensions among them. It’s a little like the way we become aware of rhythm in music when it becomes markedly syncopated—when certain parts of the ensemble start emphasizing different beats or patterns of stress within the measure.

It’s yet another way in which poetry slows down our process of attention by calling our attention to the stuff it is made out of—sound, breath, image, etc.—as well as to the meaning it makes as we read it. Ezra Pound, in one of his many literary manifestos, called for poets to “compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of a metronome” (252). But of course even in music we are aware of both the implied rhythm (the tempo and pattern of stresses) that underlies and often pulls against the contours of the melody—just as we are aware of the natural breath limits that determine the length and intensity of the phrase. The point Is that these relationships are more or less taken for granted as a rule, and we only recognize their workings in a conscious way when they are somehow disrupted.

I’ll close with just a few illustrative examples. In the English-language tradition, there is probably no more familiar and “naturalized” form than that of the sonnet, with its fourteen lines of iambic pentameter and its typical structure of opening quatrains (either two or three, depending on the form) followed by a concluding volta, or turn, which occurs either in a two-line concluding couplet or a concluding sestet (again, depending on the form). In the opening quatrains at least of many sonnets (sometimes called the proposition part of the poem), the three elements I have discussed (breath, phrase, line ending) are predominantly in alignment. Take for example Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s ease hath all too short a date; . . .

In this opening quatrain, we have four consecutive phrases, each corresponding roughly to the duration of a comfortable breath (ten syllables, five stresses), and each terminating not just in a punctuation mark (question mark, semicolon, comma, semicolon) but ALSO a line break. The effect is musical, comforting, reassuring, as is appropriate for a poem in which the lover is proclaiming admiration and affection for the beloved.

Now let’s look at the opening quatrains from another sonnet, this one from the modern American poet Countee Cullen:

I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind,
And did he stoop to quibble could tell why
The little buried mole continues blind,
Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die,
Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus
Is baited by the fickle fruit, declare
If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus
To struggle up a never-ending stair. . . .

First-time readers are often disoriented and confused by this 20th-Century poem in a way that they are not when they read the Elizabethan English of Shakespeare’s Sonnet # 16—and not just because of Cullen’s Classical references to Sisyphus and Tantalus. The first two quatrains are a single long sentence that spreads over eight lines, with the last six of those lines made up of a dependent clause that hangs on the subordinating conjunction why at the end of line two. In the second quatrain we see one mild enjambment in which the subject of the clause is separated from the verb (“Tantalus / Is baited) and a couple of consecutive stronger ones in which the verb phrase is divided by a line ending (“declare / If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus / To struggle up a never-ending stair”).

In other words, the line endings offer little in corresponding resolution of meaning or grammatical structure. Unlike the opening quatrain of the Shakespeare sonnet, the line breaks fail to offer reliable guidance in terms of when we might pause for breath if reading or reciting the poem aloud. The effect is unsettling, puzzling, disorienting, even at the basic level of what the poem is supposed to sound like in our ears—let alone the meaning conveyed. This is appropriate for a poem whose subject, once sussed out, is alienation and confusion, asking clarifying questions of God in a world that seems to make no moral or philosophical sense.

Just for fun, here is a really extreme example of what we’ve been talking about, from the 20th-Century American poet e. e. cummings. Once again, the form we’re looking at is a sonnet (fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, with a more or less standard sonnet rhyme scheme). But the enjambments in the poem are extreme, in some cases even splitting words up at the end of the line; and we search in vain for a mark of punctuation or syntactic clue that would tell us when to pause for an intake of oxygen. In fact the last line of the poem reveals to us that we are to speak the first eleven lines in a single rush of breath that violates both grammatical sense and the normal physical breathing cycle upon which oral language depends :

next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn’s early my
country ’tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?

He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water


Pound, Ezra. “A Retrospect.” 1917. In Pound, Early Writings: Poems and Prose.  Ed. Ira B. Nadel.  Penguin, 2005.



From Tom Jones to The Great Gatsby: A Tale of Two Narrators

Chapter IV of Henry Fielding’s novel Tom Jones (1749) begins with a description of the home of a Mr. Allworthy, as seen from the crest of a hill above the house. It’s a beautiful May morning, with the sun gorgeously illuminating the scene. In our mind’s eye, with the help of the narrator of course, we see not just the Allworthy house but the valley below, the surrounding woods, and a distant ridge of mountains whose peaks here and there poke into puffy clouds. It’s like a scene from a painting at which we can safely gaze—until, suddenly, Fielding’s narrator catches himself with an expression of alarm:

Reader, take care, I have unadvisedly led thee to the Top of as high a Hill as Mr. Allworthy’s, and how to get thee down without breaking they Neck, I do not well know. However, let us e’en venture to slide down together, for Miss Bridget rings her Bell, and Mr. Allworthy is summoned to Breakfast, where I must attend, and, if you please, shall be glad of your Company. (43-44)

Of course the Reader is not in any real danger, no matter how imaginatively immersed she or he might be in the book. The narrator’s sudden sense of caution is a rhetorical flourish, a kind of playful, imaginative banter that adds a little spice and lubricant to the reader-writer relationship. But it also tells us a lot about the relationship that Fielding thinks of himself as having with his reader. The reader is clearly in his hands—under his protection, so to speak. He is the gentlemanly tour guide who points out the sights to us, explains what we are looking at, and accompanies us at every step so we don’t get into too much confusion or trouble.

It’s hard to imagine a narrator in a 21st Century work of fiction (or even a 20th Century one for that matter) adopting this tone and attitude toward the reader—at least if we rule out the possibility of parody or irony. It may be that we have become too suspicious of the motives behind others’ words, or maybe just too aware of the complex subjectivity of the human individual, to place ourselves so unreservedly in the care of another–even if that “other” is a fictionalized narrator. It would seem that in our own skeptical century the kind of trust one invests in the “authority” of a narrator is a relic of a pre-modern age, one woven from a very different social and philosophical fabric than our own.

Fielding’s work is often contrasted with that of his contemporary, Samuel Richardson, whose novels reflect a much more modern attitude toward storytelling. Richardson’s major works (Pamela and Clarissa) are epistolary novels–they are made up entirely of letters exchanged among the various characters in the story. There is no narrator to guide us, to tell us whom to trust, what to think of the actions and thoughts being described, or how to orient ourselves in the surrounding landscape. In other words, there is no one there to “help us down the hill,” as Fielding’s narrator stands ready to do. In fact, we are not on a hill at all, but down in the murky morass of tangled individual human perception, motives, and power struggles.

As Ian Watt notes in his book The Rise of the Novel, the contrast between Fielding’s work and Richardson’s reflects a paradigm shift that was vexing Western societies in the mid-Eighteenth Century. An older social and epistemological order–one in which aristocratic elites were regarded as the custodians of the interests of the wider society—was gradually, painfully giving way to an emerging capitalist-democratic order in which individuals were responsible for their own interests, including their own understanding of themselves and the world around them. (The American and French revolutions that occurred at that century’s end were maybe the clearest and most dramatic expressions of this paradigm shift.)

In other words, the reader’s relationship to events and characters in a novel began much more to resemble his or her relationship to events and people in real life. The reader is much more “on his or her own,” so to speak, in trying to assess the motives of characters, the significance of events, and—most relevant for my discussion here—the trustworthiness of the narrator, especially when that narrator is a first-person storyteller who is also a participant in the story.

To illustrate the profound change that has occurred since Fielding’s time in our expectations regarding the narration in fictional works, consider the assertion of Nick Carraway, the narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. At the end of Chapter Three, Nick pauses the action to tell the reader: “Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people I have ever known” (59).

For most contemporary readers Nick’s assertion has the same effect as a politician’s denial that he is a crook; the very fact that he says it raises red flags of skepticism in us. (If you Google this quote, you will find dozens of discussion threads with titles like “Is Nick Carraway Honest?” or “Nick Carraway: An Honest Liar?”) This is because we are aware that Fitzgerald intends us to take Nick not as an authoritative commentator who is above the action (“on the hill,” so to speak) but as a complex, fallible human being just like ourselves. That is to say, we may assume that his perceptions (including self-perception) are not infallible or disinterested, but are colored by emotions, values, and experiences particular to him as an individual.

(I think we can see right away how this is different, both in terms of Fitzgerald’s narration and our expectations, from the reader-narrator relationship that is cultivated in that passage from Tom Jones.)

I bring this up because I think our skeptical 21st-Century impulses tend to conflate the psychological and epistemological properties of a narrator like Nick, often at the expense of the larger significance of the story such a narrator might be telling.

If “objectivity” or authoritative commentary on events is what we want from a narrator, we’re not going to get it from Nick. Like us, his information is limited by his own perception, and much of it is compromised by the fact that it is hearsay from others in the story (Jordan Baker for instance) who themselves have a casual relationship with the truth. Furthermore, he announces his prejudice in favor of Gatsby at the very beginning of the story (even though he also tells us that Gatsby “represented everything for which I have unaffected scorn” (2).

Given the subjective and sometimes suspicious nature of Nick’s information, given his confused and divided feelings about the novel’s main character, Jay Gatsby, I think it is natural for us to question whether we can take him as the “honest man” he claims to be at the end of Chapter 3. Jordan Baker, who miscalculates Nick’s feelings for her, thinks not; near the end of the novel she says that she “guessed wrong” in thinking him an “honest, straightforward person” (177). My own feeling is that Nick is as honest as he knows how to be as a psychologically realized character whose knowledge and understanding—including of himself—are subject to normal human limitations and the extraordinary circumstances of his relationship with Gatsby himself.

But this is a different question from another one that I have frequently heard raised in discussions of the novel—that is, the question of whether Nick is a “reliable narrator.” When used in reference to character-narrators like Nick the concept of “reliability” is often confused and conflated with that of “honesty” or “objectivity.” At the risk of making a distinction that will seem too subtle to some, I will say that “reliability” is a quality that attaches to Nick as a narrator in a literary work (in other words, it is about his place in the novel as a whole), while qualities like “honesty” or “objectivity” attach to Nick in his role as a psychologically realized character in interaction with other characters.

In making this distinction I am relying on the critic Wayne Booth, who coined the term “reliability” (at least insofar as it applies to narrators in works of literature) and defined a “reliable narrator” as “one who speaks for an acts in accordance with the norms of the work” (158-59). What a “reliable narrator” provides is not accuracy or objectivity per se, but advocacy or faithful representation of the predominant values or concerns of the work as a whole. And by “work as a whole” we mean not just the words and thoughts of the narrator, but the meanings conveyed by all of the literary elements that make up a work of imaginative fiction–plot, character, symbolism, allusion to other cultural or historical references outside the work itself.

The example I’ve been discussing, The Great Gatsby, is a very subtle and complicated work, and one might put forward different hypotheses about what Booth would call its “norms.” But I’ll ask you to accept my own hypothesis about Fitzgerald’s novel, for purposes of illustration here.

One of the major conflicts in the novel is between what we might call the “old-money” worldview of the Buchanans and the “new-money” worldview of Gatsby. The Buchanans (especially Tom) are portrayed as spiritually empty, ruthlessly and unscrupulously clinging to their hereditary social and monetary privilege, closing ranks against possible usurpers like people of color and come-from-nowhere upstarts like Gatsby himself. For Tom money is all about power–especially about keeping it and using it to keep others down and under his thumb.

Gatsby by contrast sees money as an almost visionary medium, as something that can make “dreams come true,” even rekindling the long-lost dream of a love relationship with Daisy, Tom’s wife. Tom’s worldview makes him boorish, aggressive, paranoid, and ungracious; Gatsby’s worldview makes him (at least on the surface, and at least to Nick) civil, reticent, loyal, and generous. But, of course, Tom is a respectable citizen and Gatsby is a gangster whose friends make their cufflinks out of the molars of men they have had killed.

Nick is not just the narrator of the story; he is the “swing character” who observes the claims of both of these worldviews (and the characters who represent them) and who in the end must choose between them. In my own understanding of the novel there is no doubt which of these two contrasting characters–Buchanan or Gatsby–represents the predominant “norms” or values of the book as a whole. It’s Gatsby, despite his gangsterism and his visionary excesses. And Nick does choose to align himself with these values–in fact he declares his choice in the first few paragraphs of the novel.

Because he is the narrator, and because his own interpretation of the events he narrates points us toward rather than away from the dominant values or “norms” of the novel as a whole, he is (in my view at least) a “reliable narrator” in Booth’s definition. Nick may at times be a jerk or unfair to other characters (Jordan Baker for instance); he may at times finesse or even omit certain scenes that might cast himself in an uncomfortable light (for instance, the strange narrative gap at the end of Chapter 2, during which he may or may not have a sexual encounter with a man named McKee). But these things are simply evidence of Nick’s complex humanity, part of his function as a character in the novel, and raise issues that are separate from his performance as a narrator vis-à-vis the question of his reliability.

It’s not hard to imagine a version of the story of The Great Gatsby told by a third-person, omniscient narrator (one that looks more like Fielding’s narrator in Tom Jones, showing us the view from the hill, than Carraway’s often blinkered ground-level view). In fact, that’s pretty much what we get in the film versions (both Robert Redford and Leo DeCaprio), where the roving eye of the camera performs the function of the all-knowing, all-seeing narrator.

But most who are familiar with the book come away from these film versions with the feeling that some essential qualities of the story have been lost, and that the expression of the story’s “norms” is somehow too obvious and lacking in impact when not experienced through the partly clouded window of Nick’s character. Fitzgerald wants us to apprehend the story’s norms slowly, with some effort of discernment, so that our understanding will feel more precious because it is hard-won. While Nick’s complex humanity may at times obscure or distract, I don’t think he ever really misdirects us with respect to the novel’s dominant norms or values. And that is what makes his narration reliable.

It’s also possible to re-imagine the novel as told from Tom Buchanan’s point of view, with pretty much the same facts in evidence. Tom might actually provide us with a more straightforward, factual, and complete account of Gatsby than Nick does; Tom certainly has more resources to ferret out “the truth” about the source of Gatsby’s wealth. But if the “norms” of the novel as described above were held constant, then Tom would function as an “unreliable narrator,” since absent a character transplant he would not be capable of “speaking and acting in accordance with the norms of the work.” And Fitzgerald would have to devise a way of signaling Tom’s unreliability–through plot developments, through the words of other characters, or perhaps simply through outright satirical exaggeration (and thus implicit critique) of Tom’s own personality and attitudes.

Unreliability of this sort is usually employed by authors for ironic effect, to highlight the norms of the work as a whole; an example of this would be Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance, in which the narrator, Coverdale, is a virulent misogynist whose narration only serves to intensify that novel’s predominantly feminist norms. On the flip side, we can look at Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-paper,” in which a woman is slowly driven mad by her doctor-husband’s paternalistic (and psychologically toxic) treatment of her post-partum depression. Even as her narration becomes delusional and insane (and thus certainly not accurate in an objective sense), it also faithfully, even powerfully, expresses the story’s norms of female aspiration, self-determination, and solidarity–thus making her a “reliable narrator” despite her descent into madness.

(For an in-depth discussion of these matters–including definitions that depart from or complicate the one I am relying on here–see the Dan Shen’s entry “Unreliability” at

Booth, Wayne. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1961.

Fielding, Henry. The History of Tom Jones: A Foundling. 1745. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1975.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. 1925. New York: Scribner’s, 2004.

Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel. Berkeley: U of California P, 1957.maxresdefault

Flowers in the Snow: Season and Sense in Poetry (adapted from Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism)

—In his book Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye argued that poetry (and art in general) when taken as a whole express the totality of human experience, including our inner, subjective responses to our experience.

—To put this in Frye’s own words, literature is “a total form and literary experience as part of the continuum of life, in which one of the poet’s functions is to visualize the goals of human work” (Anatomy of Criticism, 115).

Frye saw this “continuum of life” in terms of interlocking cycles of experience that are broadly shared by human beings. These cycles take on two different shapes: recurrent patterns in nature (turning of the seasons, phases of the moon, day to night) and the linear progression from birth to death. According to Frye, literature as a whole is an “encyclopedia” of human experience, mapped in terms of these interlocking and overlapping patterns.

—These natural cycles provide a rich vocabulary of images, sounds, and other sensations that poets use as “natural symbols” to bridge the gap between their own particular insight and experience and the shared experience of human beings in general. We have come to associate sunrise with hope and expectation, for instance—much the same with images of spring, like budding leaves or new-grown grass.  Here is a rough (and very incomplete) index of images and settings that are often used in poetry to evoke particular phases of these natural cycles.

Frye graph

Before continuing, I should note that the index above, like much of Frye’s anatomy, is somewhat culture-bound. The conception of “seasons” in his anatomy probably applies most effectively the literature of a Euro-North American culture where the change of seasons (and the relationship of those seasons to agriculture) was a crucial element of their experience–not to mention more or less the norm. With that limitation in mind, we can think of a poem as an “entry” that catalogues a particular human experience on these overlapping or intersecting time lines.

—The “seasonal” profile of a poem is rarely simple, however. We find very few poems that are pure “spring” or pure “sunset” in their seasonal evocations or in the emotional values associated with them. And as the index above suggests, there are both cyclical (repeating) elements to the timeline (season, time of day) as well as linear ones–which themselves can represent the birth-to-death story of a community or a civilization as well as that of an individual person. (Think of Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” as an illustration of some of these points.) Often these different cycles overlap in ways that produce complex tensions, especially in the emotional responses they evoke.

Let’s consider the “life-cycle” elements (including their emotional or experiential correlatives) of a hypothetical poem. In this poem a young woman, expecting her first child, stands at the grave of her mother. It’s winter, but the sun has been up a couple of hours and has melted away the snow to reveal the now-dried-out remains of flowers that had been placed on the grave, some months earlier—perhaps at the funeral of the woman’s mother. As the cold wind rustles the desiccated remains of the memorial flowers, it makes a sound that reminds the young woman of “the voices of adults as they try not to wake the children.”

Obviously, the “seasonal” aspects of this poem are complex, and distributed in interesting ways.

  • —First, the main character (the pregnant young woman) embodies in her person both summer (her youth) and spring (the new life she is carrying).
  • —The seasonal setting is winter, associated with death. This is reinforced by the dried-out flowers on the grave.
  • —However, the time of day is morning, and the warmth of the sun has melted away the snow, in a kind of anticipation of a spring that is yet to come, but some time in the future.
  • —Finally, we need to figure out what to do with the metaphor in which the dead flowers take on the life and voice of adults “whispering so as not to wake the children.”

—As we can see from our hypothetical example, all elements of a poem don’t necessary line up perfectly according to this matrix. In most poems (most interesting ones, at least) there is a dominant season, but there are also elements that provide tension or opposition to make the emotions of the poem more complex. A “winter” poem for instance may still have suggestions of hope (associated with spring), just as a “summer” poem may have dark anticipations of autumn or even winter.

In the case of our hypothetical poem, the young woman’s sadness at her mother’s passing is countered by her anticipation and hope for the new life she is carrying. And the seasonal imagery of the poem (not just winter, but morning, melting snow) provides a concrete trigger for this mixed set of emotions.

—Such complexities are not a defect in the poem; they help hold the reader’s attention and engage the reader’s experience and emotion across a wider spectrum than a less complicated set of images might.

Let’s look at one more example that may help illustrate the usefulness of paying attention to the seasonal aspects of a poem–Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Some may know the poem by heart, but here it is:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

This is clearly a “winter” poem (and a “night” one), beginning with the title. Furthermore the setting–an isolated wood–clearly evokes the scene of the “winter waste,” and the speaker tells us s/he is alone except for the impatient and puzzled horse drawing the carriage. Using the index above we would, in other words, expect this to be a poem about death, or at least the contemplation of dying.

And certainly if we were reading the poem in terms of the linear time line of the individual human life cycle, we would be directed toward that idea. I am guessing that is why so many readers of the poem infer that the speaker is either an old man approaching death or someone contemplating suicide. (The “lovely, dark, and deep” line makes the idea of death–whether or not by suicide–actually seem seductive and comforting.)

But if we put these symbolic associations up against the cyclical implications of the poem’s details, a more complex and interesting picture emerges. That “darkest evening of the year,” of course, is the winter solstice, the date on the calendar with the fewest minutes of sunlight. But that is as much a moment of beginning as much as of an end; from there the days only get longer. Spring is still a long way off, but the speaker’s foreknowledge of this fact, of the ever-turning cycle of the seasons, focuses his attention on what is yet to come, to be done, to be experienced.

It’s also the case, examining the grid above, that the relative isolation of the speaker is something usually associated with early childhood and its pre-social consciousness, as well as with the stages at the end of the life cycle, as the individual faces his or her own mortality with an increasing sense of aloneness. In other words the speaker is poised in a moment that suggests either the oblivion of death or a retreat to infancy (an extreme ending or beginning, of which the winter solstice is both).

That the speaker ends the poem with a sense of social obligations (“But I have promises to keep / And miles to go before I sleep”) suggests that he or she is anticipating or identifying with the middle phases of the life cycle–most likely late summer or early fall, in which the full obligations and powers of adulthood are primary. Even in the isolation of the “winter waste” or poised at the birth of a new calendar cycle, the narrator retains a peripheral awareness of the obligations and rules of social life, including property relations (“Whose woods these are I think I know / His house is in the village though”).  He resolves to move on, into the new year and toward that network of relationships associated with middle adulthood and settled civilization.

I’m not claiming that my analysis here is either complete or superior to other takes on Frost’s poem. In some ways it may not add much to your own interpretation or understanding.  My point has been to show us how an awareness of Frye’s seasonal schema can help us arrive at an understanding of the poem’s inner dynamics, and to become more conscious about our own meaning-making processes as we read. It may feel obvious and intuitive (“Well, of course that ‘darkest night of the year’ can suggest death!”), but that’s part of Frye’s point–in a sense we are wired by our own experience to make these symbolic inferences. But a poem gathers its power and mystery not by being any one thing or completely of any one season, but rather by overlaying, juxtaposing, and sometimes ironically reversing the powerful “natural” symbolism of the cycle of the seasons.

Frost, Robert.  “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” 1923. In The Poetry of Robert Frost. Ed.  Edward Connery Lathem. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1969.

Frye, Northrop.  Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton UP, 1957.


“Who is this Gatsby, anyhow?” When Is Our Interpretation on Quicksand, and When Is It on Solid Ground?

Back in 1976 I was a first-time college classroom teacher trying to engage my students in a discussion of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. I was struggling to elicit their thoughts on the novel’s title character, whose identity is obscured beneath layers of concealment, misdirection, and outright untruths—only some of which are of his own making. Our discussion was floundering until one student in the class suddenly blurted out, “Well, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I think he’s dreamy!”

I was caught off guard by this unexpected take on the book, but I managed to respond in my best teacherly voice: “OK, but can you elaborate a bit on that? What in the text suggests that Gatsby is dreamy?”

The student seemed flustered, impatient at being asked to explain further. “Didn’t you see the movie?” she asked. “He’s Robert Redford!”

And of course he was, at least in the film version of the novel that had been released just a year or so earlier. At the time Redford was one of the surest box-office draws in the country, firmly established as a heart-throb leading man—a profile that no doubt influenced this student’s (and many others’) experience of the Gatsby character, both on screen and in the book.

(I’ll make a confession here: I know many people think Redford was woefully miscast in the role, and who regard his performance as wooden, awkward, and inauthentic. But in my humble opinion that is exactly how the character should come off. Gatsby is trying to act out an imaginary, alternative version of himself; and he is doing it just unsuccessfully enough for his public persona to come off as a rickety façade that conceals untold tragic or sinister realities.)

That student’s image of Fitzgerald’s character was obviously film-aided, but it represents the sort of mental leap we make any time we read a work of imaginative literature actively and with full engagement. It’s called “imaginative literature” not just because it’s a product of the author’s imagination, but because it engages our imaginations as readers in a profound way.

That is to say, when we are reading a novel or a poem the words before us are not just bits of information; they are cues we use to construct a complete virtual experience in our minds, almost as if we are watching a movie (in the case of a novel or short story) or looking at a photograph or a painting (in the case of an Imagist poem).

But no text, however detailed it might be, can specify everything we need in order to produce that virtual movie or painting in our minds; a literary text is necessarily suggestive and schematic, and much of our experience of the text we ourselves supply from our own stock of memories, expectations, fantasies, and previous reading encounters. In The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald gives us little physical description of the title character other than an occasional mention of how he is dressed. And yet in our imaginations he has a face, however fuzzy the image might be–so that face (and the body it’s attached to) might as well be Robert Redford’s.

The phenomenoligist Roman Ingarden called this process “concretization,” and he saw it operating wherever the actual language of the text left an “indeterminacy” of the sort I described above. Ingarden’s disciple Wolfgang Iser describes this process in the following way: “the structure of a text brings about expectations, which are interrupted by surprising unfulfillment, producing gaps, which require filling by the reader to create a coherent flow of the text” (298).

This explains in part why different readers sometimes have such different visualizations (and thus different interpretations) of characters and events in a short story or a novel. They are “filling in the gaps” in the text in different ways, depending on their own experiences and imaginative resources. And it is natural that they do so. When we are deeply engaged in the reading of a novel, our experience of that novel is an amalgam of the schematic cues given by the language of the text itself and our own implicit and (mainly unconscious) filling-in of the unspecified aspects of character, setting, and so forth that are necessary to complete the movie or the picture in our minds. It’s often the case, at least after a first reading, that we will have trouble separating the actual details given in the text from those we ourselves supplied to complete our imaginative experience of it.

But it’s also true that stories, novels, and poems add information as they go, so that what we might “fill in” is dynamic rather than static. We might learn later in our reading that a character we initially “concretized” as short and stout might actually be tall and thin, for instance; or a character we initially visualized as middle-aged might be younger than we thought. In such cases we have to adjust our concretization based on the new information and evolving context. This process of adjustment is as natural and necessary to our experience of the text as the initial concretization. But authors also sometimes delay giving us crucial “cues” to throw us off our “concretizing” game and make us more self-conscious about the assumptions and “default settings” we use to fill in some of these gaps. Let’s consider the following example, the opening sentences of another novel:

Helga Crane sat alone in her room, which at that hour, eight in the evening, was in soft gloom. Only a single reading lamp, dimmed by a great black and red shade, made a pool of light on the blue Chinese carpet, on the bright covers of the books which she had taken down from their long shelves, and the white pages of the opened one selected, on the shining brass bowl crowded with many-colored nasturtiums beside her on the low table, and on the oriental silk which covered the stool at her slim feet.

That’s a lot of information, and the level of detail allows us to see Helga Crane’s room with some specificity, even without “filling in” details to make the scene fully present in our imaginations. But what of Helga Crane herself? We are given no information except her name, the physical characteristic of her “slim feet,” and the implication that she is the sort of person who would occupy a room like the one described. And yet in our imaginations we “see” a woman–maybe with some features still indistinct in the shadows, but others already involuntarily filled in on our part, through the process of concretization. Do we imagine her at this hour (eight o’clock, with darkness coming on) still in her day clothes, or in a nightgown? Do we infer from her “slim feet” that the rest of her body is slender? Finally–a question that shortly will prove to be of central significance to our experience and understanding of the remainder of the novel–what race do we imagine Helga Crane to be?

If you recognize this character’s name and know the novel in which she is the main character, you know the answer to this question. But imagine you’ve pulled the book at random off the shelf and begun reading it. Imagine there is no dust jacket with a photo of the author or a blurb about the book’s place in American literary history. Or imagine you are reading the book for the first time outside of a class whose catalog description would encourage you to fill in this important blank one way rather than the other. Will you be surprised, two or three pages further into the text, to find additional information that cues you to imagine (or re-imagine) Helga Crane as Black?

I’ll admit this is something of an artificial test (as most experiments are), as we normally don’t begin reading a book without some external context to guide our process of concretization. Most of us will begin the book (Nella Larsen’s Quicksand) knowing that it is a key text in the African American literary tradition, and that it is considered one of the great works of the Harlem Renaissance. Or we might derive similar inferences from an author photo or blurb on a rear cover or dust jacket. So even without being told so specifically by the opening paragraphs of the text, we will probably “fill in” the unspecified detail of Helga Crane’s racial identity by visualizing her as Black.

But I have run this experiment on quite a few people not familiar with the novel, and in those cases readers almost invariably default to an initial concretization of Helga Crane as “white.” Or, as one reader typically responded after reading a little further, “Oh, I never imagined her as Black!” (Or as Asian, despite the mention of the “blue Chinese carpet” and the “oriental” upholstery of her footstool.) In a couple of cases, however, readers reported a difficulty in bringing the character into focus because they weren’t sure how to identify her, racially speaking.

There is an important political and cultural issue here that I will save for another time (it is most clearly exemplified in the outrage, even anger, with which some people greeted the casting of an African American actress as Rue in the film adaptation of The Hunger Games–despite the fact that the book describes her in such a way as to allow for, but not specify, such a casting decision). In the case of Quicksand, Larsen is very clever in allowing us–for a time at least–to concretize her heroine as something other than Black, since in fact that initial ambiguity is central to the novel’s main concerns about the puzzle of racial identity.

Helga is in fact half African American and half Danish, and throughout the novel she ping-pongs violently between a desire to identify fully with other Black people and her thirst to transcend racial categories altogether. In her novel Nella Larsen is interested specifically in the difficulty of “concretizing” race–a difficulty that extends to the novel’s heroine herself. For her part Helga is ambivalent and uncertain about what her own imputed “Blackness” means, and resentful of how that “Blackness” is read by others.

For my purposes here I am focusing on the racial ambiguities of Larsen’s Quicksand mainly to emphasize the power and the consequences of the process of concretization as discussed by Ingarden and others. As I have suggested, there are specifically political implications to this process when one is dealing with the way in which matters such as race and gender are constructed in our imaginations and in literary texts. That’s one reason it is important to read (and to re-read) texts closely–to become more aware of the distinction between what the the text specifies or strongly implies and what we use to fill its inderminacies or gaps. With that idea in mind, let me return for a moment to the text we began with, The Great Gatsby.

From time to time I’ve encountered readers and critics who float the idea that Gatsby is Black. The first time I heard this idea I was a bit incredulous–a Robert Redford Gatsby was easy enough to fit into my own concretizations of the text, but a Denzel Washington Gatsby? I really wasn’t so sure. But let’s consider the case and the possibilities. Nowhere does Fitzgerald specify that Gatsby is white, although we are encouraged to infer that from the fact that his parents back in Minnesota are of European descent; and despite the fact that he is treated as a suspect outsider by WASPish snobs like Tom Buchanan, race doesn’t seem to play an explicit role in the prejudices arrayed against him. In other words, little in the novel appears to encourage me to question my “racial default” concretization of Gatsby as Caucasian.

But, keeping in mind the portrayal of Helga Crane in Quicksand (who is first introduced to us in racially ambiguous terms and who might pass for white if she chose), I find myself now asking the question: what makes me so sure Gatsby is not (or could not be) a Black man? We know he has trouble accepting his parents back in Minnesota as his “real” parents; we know, historically speaking, that the bootlegging underworld of which he is a part was a racially polyglot subculture, populated by a variety of marginalized ethnic groups (some of whom have specific contacts with Gatsby in the story); and the novel is full of racially charged conversations and encounters, beginning with Tom Buchanan’s hysterical white-supremacist rantings about the rise of the “colored” races.

In other words I find some textual evidence supporting the notion, even if I can’t fully commit to the idea. I am forced to ask myself: to what extent do these details, either specified in the text or known with respect to its historical context, invite me to reconsider my own “racial default” concretization of Gatsby as white? What if Gatsby, like the heroine from Passing (another novel by Nella Larsen) is a Black person passing for or taken for a white one? Is it possible for me to accept or incorporate this possibility into my own experience of the text? Is this simply a matter of anything not specifically eliminated being allowed, or does it actually illuminate some genuine interpretive possibilities of Fitzgerald’s novel that might not otherwise be accessible?

I won’t answer this one way or the other, but I will say that any answer will lie in a close re-reading of the book–one that would examine the patterns of implication in the text as a whole to see if such a reading is encouraged. In other words, we would need to determine whether some readers’ experience of Gatsby’s Blackness is one of three things: (1) a reading error (that is, an interpretation specifically contradicted by information in the text); (2) a filling-in of a “gap” in the text that is incidental to our understanding of the story, or (3) an interpretive possibility that is actually cued by information or patterns of inference in Fitzgerald’s text.

Much of what we call “literary interpretation” involves this sort of close attention both to the text and to our own response to it. Our experience of a text is always a synthetic thing, structured by the words of the text itself but completed by our own expectations, anticipation, and imagination. Our interpretation or analysis of a text involves close attention to the often-blurry but important difference between the “facts” of the text and own imaginative contribution as readers to the “movie in our minds.”

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner’s, 1925.

Ingarden, Roman. The Cognition of the Literary Work of Art. Trans. Ruth Ann Crowley and Kenneth R. Olson. Evanston, IL: Northwest UP, 1973.

Iser, Wolfgang. “The Reading Process: a Phenomenological Approach.” New Literary History, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Winter, 1972): 279-99.

Larsen, Nella. Quicksand. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1928.

A Theory of Myth: or, Why We Need Stories and Can Never Get Enough of Them

All right, I’ll admit it: I am a sucker for episodic network dramas–not the serials, with their long, continuing plot lines that unfold over a whole broadcast season, but the ones in which each weekly installment is a self-contained story with a beginning, middle, and end. These programs fall into various genres–science fiction, detective series, police / law procedurals, and (much less fashionable now, but a big part of the television past) Westerns.

The pleasure I take in watching these has as much to do with their utter predictability as with any unique characters or plot elements in a given episode. So why am I not bored or brain-dead after a weekend of binge-watching old episodes of Law and Order, Star Trek, or Perry Mason? Or for that matter, why are the movie theaters filled with reboots, remakes, and new installments of almost every conceivable storytelling franchise in our popular culture–not just TV shows, but comic books, graphic novels, and so forth? Why do we crave the same story and the same characters over and over again?

The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss suggests that these phenomena can be explained in terms of human beings’ hunger for mythology. According to Lévi-Strauss, a myth is a basic story form that addresses a fundamental question or contradiction in the society in which that myth is found. What interests or engages us is not so much the particulars of a given version of that myth, but the way in which the myth in all its various versions presents a problem or question of enduring importance to us as a culture or community.

The example Lévi-Strauss discusses in his essay is the Greek myth of Oedipus. Maybe anyone reading this will be familiar with the main plot points of Oedipus’s story: in part because of his lack of knowledge about his own origins, he ends up killing a man who turns out to be his father and marrying a woman who turns out to be his mother. These facts, when they finally become known, are devastating to Oedipus and to everyone around him.

Lévi-Strauss notes that there are many variations of this myth in ancient Greek mythology and drama, but underlying them all is a basic tension or contradiction in Greek culture of the era. The Greek view of human nature at this time (at least as parsed by Lévi-Strauss) was basically torn between two irreconcilable ideas.

On the one hand there was the idea of the individual person as essentially a “new creation,” sprung directly from nature and from the land itself (the Greeks called such beings “autochthones”); and on the other hand there was the concept of the individual as determined by the Fates and by one’s blood relations, beginning with a biological mother and father. In a pattern that will become typical of “tragedies” in the Classical era and beyond, Oedipus acts out the idea that his individual abilities can trump fate and blood inheritance–but circumstances check this notion with devastating consequences.

In Lévi-Strauss’s view, what makes the Oedipus story so powerful and enduring is not just the particular details (some of which are extreme and extraordinary), but the underlying pattern in which the “autochthonous” view of the individual is pitted against a view of the fate of the individual as determined by a network of connections, beginning with one’s biological parentage. The “Oedipus myth” for Lévi-Strauss is really not “about” Oedipus per se, but rather about the conflict felt by a society (ancient Greece in this case) that simultaneously over-valued “blood connections” (especially in the form of inheritance-based aristocracy) AND the idea of the human individual as a unique and quasi-divine individual “sprung from the soil.”

These two contradictory ideas about the nature of the human individual dramatically confront one another in all the variants of the Oedipus story, as well as other Greek tales and tragedies(Antigone for instance). But I would argue that the underlying myth driving the Oedipus tale extends into other stories far removed in time and place from ancient Greece, and which have little to do (at least literally) with killing one’s father and marrying one’s mother.

Take for example that most quintessential of modern American novels, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: what is Jay Gatsby (aka James Gatz) if not another test case of the “autochthonous” man, trying to live as if he is “self-made” rather than the child of the humble parents he has rejected and denied? Gatsby’s friend Nick Carraway (also the novel’s narrator) seems to invoke this conflict explicitly when he states that Gatsby “ sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God–a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that” (Chapter 6).

My point here is not to plead for the universality of the Oedipus myth in particular. I’m more interested in the explanatory power of Lévi-Strauss’s idea of a “myth” as a pattern or structure of relations that can be realized in multiple ways rather than as a specific story populated by specific characters. A “myth” in other words is a basic framework for trying to work out in story a tension or contradiction that lies at the heart of a culture’s values or beliefs. 

I think one should add that this tension or contradiction can never be worked out finally or absolutely; that’s why we keep creating new stories about it, trying–unsuccessfully–to resolve the contradiction, to make it go away. The point of the myth, in all its variations, is not to solve the problem that the myth presents but to make us aware of it as a problem; as Lévi-Strauss puts it, the “repetition” of the myth in different forms “has as its function to make the structure of the myth apparent” (443).

As the example of The Great Gatsby suggests, some of the contradictions that marked ancient Greek culture (and which gave rise to the Oedipus myth) were not limited to that place and time. Before closing up this discussion, though, I’d like to consider a myth structure that seems to me distinctly American–that is, the Western in all its variations.

As we all know, the narrative that lays out this myth is simultaneously a story of brutal conquest and destruction (in the form of displacing or eliminating the indigenous peoples of the continent) AND a of national self-creation. Paraphrasing Walter Benjamin, it is a story of barbarism AND a story of civilization, of creating a secure national space within which the “civilized” virtues of commerce, culture, and (most importantly) family could flourish.

The “myth” of the American West, especially to the extent that it represents the story of who “we” are as a nation and where “we” came from, must somehow account for both of these contradictory aspects of the United States’ national origin myth. This is why so many Westerns attempt to reconcile the demands of being a “good man” with the readiness to commit proficient, even savage, acts of violence. How can we tell a story that reconciles the image of the loving father and husband with that of the gunfighter or the ruthless Indian killer?

Of course we can’t–not in any way that would credibly put these contradictions to rest for once and for all. But we have to keep trying, because we can’t help wanting somehow to make these contradictions resolve, and to make the plot of history turn out right. One could study the Westerns of John Ford, particularly some of his later films like The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, as variations on this same American mythological problem–how to understand an American psyche that is equally defined by the figures of the killer and the tender, loving man of civilization, often with both embodied in the same character.

But, as with the Oedipus story, the American myth of the West as I’ve characterized it here is endlessly fruitful. One could easily fit more recent, non-”Western” genres into this myth–films like Taken or A History of Violence, in which the loving father or parent figure is called upon to employ violent skills he used in a life previous to or apart from his family.

In fact, Lévi-Strauss makes the point that “origin myths” are essentially timeless with respect to the culture that produces them; the problems encapsulated in these myths are implicitly presumed to set the terms for whatever comes after them, almost as if they represent the formation of our cultural DNA: “On the one hand, a myth always refers to events alleged to have taken place in time: before the world was created, or during its first stages–anyway, long ago. But what gives the myth an operative value is that the specific pattern described is everlasting; it explains the present and the past as well as the future” (430).

So the Oedipus story and the myth of the American West continue to spin out new variations. The fact that they do so suggests the power of their underlying patterns–and, according to Lévi-Strauss, the unlikelihood of our ever resolving, for once and for all, the contradiction that the myth expresses. But Lévi-Strauss’s analysis also suggests a fruitful way for us to look at narrative “texts” of any kind, print, film, or otherwise. This is because from his standpoint such texts have interest for us NOT just because of their particulars (character, plot, setting, style, etc.) but because in some way they engage us at the level of myth–which is to say, at the level of a structural tension that we may feel or recognize almost intuitively, without being able right away to name what it is.

This way of thinking about a particular text is both analytical (what is the underlying structure of tensions or contradictions in this text?) and comparative (what other texts can I think of that seem to have a similar set of tensions or contradictions?). But it is also a way of taking all narrative texts seriously, showing how even the most seemingly ephemeral storytelling genres in our experience can reveal to us the tangled DNA of our culture and our own psyches. It can also help us give shape and meaning to our own stories, as we recognize the commonalities of our concerns with others both within and beyond our own time and place.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Scribners, 1925.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. “The Structural Study of Myth.” Journal of American Folklore 68 (October-December 1955), 428-444.

Of Chickens, Wheelbarrows, and Little Red Books: William Carlos Williams in China

Way back in 1982-1983 I was a Visiting Professor of English at a university in Xi’an, China—an experience that was eye-opening, maddening, exhilarating, and puzzling depending on the day or the moment. It’s hard to explain the challenge of bridging the gap between Twentieth-Century American literature and students whose upbringing (both at home and at school) had been deeply imbued with Marxist and Maoist principles as well as with a healthy dose of old-school Confucianism.

The intellectual, artistic, and psychological angst of Modernist writers like Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Pound, and Eliot struck them as trivial and overwrought—hopelessly decadent and bourgeois, to use my students’ Marxist terminology. However, the class (twenty or so undergraduate English majors, some of the best and the brightest that the Chinese education system had to offer) lit up with excitement and understanding when the syllabus brought us to William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

Maybe you know the poem. Written in 1923, it is usually offered as an example of Imagism, a Modernist movement that aimed at purging poetry of rhetorical excess and ideological baggage. It consists of eight very short lines (nine if you count the title as part of the poem):


so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Given this text, maybe you can appreciate my puzzlement at the students’ enthusiasm for the poem and their confidence about the revolutionary views they took it to express. I explained that Williams was a great artistic innovator, but I was not aware of any Marxist leanings on his part (I didn’t mention his association with the Fascistically inclined Ezra Pound). So, probing a little, I asked them what I still ask any student under such circumstances: “Can you show me where that idea is in the text?”

“It’s obvious!” one of them responded. “The red wheelbarrow! The white chickens! And all depends on THEM!”

At that point I remembered something I had learned from my conversations with my Chinese departmental colleagues, all of whom were members in good standing of the Communist Party. According to Mao’s famous “Little Red Book,” China’s glorious Communist Revolution rested on three pillars: the peasant (farmer), the worker (the industrial laborer), and the soldier. And of course red was from the very beginning the color of the Communist revolution (it’s why we used to call them “Reds”).

All at once I saw the poem as my students saw it (well, sort of, anyhow): that wheelbarrow represented the urban worker-builder, and the “white chickens” stood for the farmer-peasant. And didn’t the poem begin with the image of a “red” object, and didn’t it say in the first line that “so much depended” on these groups, just as revolutionary theory insisted? Of course the figure of the soldier was absent, but that was not enough to ruin what seemed like a good interpretation.

I’m probably going to disappoint by sidestepping the question of whether I truly think my students’ reading of the poem was a “good” one (or a “valid” one, to use E. D. Hirsch’s terminology). Based on my knowledge of the author and his historical context, I do believe that my students’ interpretation was one that William Carlos Williams did not intend and probably could not have foreseen. But rather than evaluate their response to the poem, I want to suggest some things it reveals about the process of interpretation itself.

Most disagreements about interpretation arise from differences in how readers process the symbolic possibilities they perceive in otherwise concrete language. If we think of Williams’ poem as a photograph, there’s not a lot of room for argument about what’s in the frame: red wheelbarrow, white chickens, the glazing after-effects of a recent rain. And it’s important to remember that sometimes red is just a color and a chicken is just a chicken, and to allow for that possibility. (In fact, I think that such a literal understanding—an appreciation of the image for its own sake—was close to what Williams had in mind when he wrote this vivid little poem.)

But human beings are symbol-making and symbol-reading creatures, and we attach symbolic inferences of all kinds to various concrete objects and concrete properties (like color, for instance). The problem is that not all of these symbolic inferences are of the same type. Some of them are more stable across time and culture, and across the bridge between writer and reader, than others.

Most literature handbooks distinguish among three basic levels of symbolism that can attach to concrete objects and properties: (1) universal or natural; (2) conventional or cultural; and (3) poetic or literary.

Universal or natural symbolism (I prefer the latter term) arises from some intrinsic quality of, or association with, an object that any human being might recognize, regardless of time or culture. Sunrises and sunsets naturally suggest beginnings and endings, respectively; the image of a heart naturally suggests love and other strong emotions (we can physically feel the pressure in our chest when our hearts beat faster or harder when we are experiencing intense feelings); water, being necessary to all human beings, is a natural symbol for life; and so on.

Conventional or cultural symbolism, in contrast, arises among particular groups of people, as a result of shared (but not universal) experience or social agreement. For citizens of the United States in particular, the eagle has become a conventional symbol of the national spirit. This is not so much because of any “natural” qualities we might admire in it as a creature (there are many animals that we might admire for similar reasons). Its power derives from the fact that as a culture we have agreed to treat the eagle in this symbolic way, and because we a taught to do so in all kinds of ways–not least through its image on such other symbolic objects as flags and currency. (Think of how different things would be if Benjamin Franklin had prevailed in his nomination of the turkey as our national bird.)

In other words, conventional symbols are more of an “in-group” thing than natural symbols. They are part of our “native language,” so to speak, so while they might seem “natural” to us they don’t necessarily apply or make intuitive sense to people outside our group or culture.

Finally, there are what we might call poetic or literary symbolic associations. These are still narrower, and involve specific knowledge of a literary tradition or the work of a particular writer. Sometimes symbolism of this sort verges on what we might elsewhere call literary allusion. The figure of a young man thoughtfully holding a skull-like object in his hand might symbolize tortured indecision by reminding us of the pose of Hamlet in Act 5, Scene I of Shakespeare’s play. In some cases a poet will develop a powerful personal mythology that piggy-backs on, but goes beyond, natural or conventional symbolic usages–consider for instance Walt Whitman’s use of blades of grass as metaphorical tongues (and, by extension, poems and speakers of poems) in Stanza 6 of “Song of Myself.”

This is a long way round to making my point about my Chinese students and their interpretation of “The Red Wheelbarrow.” I think we can see from this discussion that their reading of the poem depended on a conventional symbolic inference that, however powerful and obvious for them, was probably not shared by the poem’s author. The result was a kind of awkward alignment between William Carlos Williams’ creation of the poem and their experience of it.

I think it’s important to note that this awkwardness did not come from their misreading of the poem as such; had the exact same poem been written by a writer in their own tradition, there would have been nothing remarkable or controversial about their interpretation. The awkwardness came, rather, from their simply being too eager to attach conventional symbolic significance to the poem’s details.

Let’s pull back and look again at the details of the poem: setting aside the colors of the named objects, we have the wheelbarrow and some chickens. These are simple objects, associated with basic human needs–in the case of the wheelbarrow, the need to make physical labor less punishing, and in the case of the chickens, the need to produce food. If these objects “symbolize” anything at the natural or universal level, I suppose we could say they represent the basic human needs or desires to conserve energy and to sustain life.

We are also talking about a way of life in which these needs are met in a very direct way; we’re talking about people who are hauling dirt or bricks or some other kind of physical load, not folks whose ease of work depends on a faster computer chip. And we’re talking not talking about chickens in a Perdue processing facility, whose parts will appear shrink-wrapped in a grocery cooler days or weeks down the road; most likely the people who own those chickens depend on their eggs for daily food. Add in the poem’s framing line–“so much depends upon”–and we get a sense of how elemental, basic, and necessary these objects are.

Interestingly, considering the literal and the “naturally symbolic” possibilities of these objects produces some inferences that are not that distant from the conventional symbolism my students attached to the poem. Clearly, the poem is encouraging us to see value, even beauty, in these simple objects–and, by extension, in the simple lives we may infer that they are part of.

The “natural” symbolism of the poem may not imply the sort of Marxist revolutionary narrative that my students saw in it. But certainly the poem emphasizes the importance of human labor at the bottom rungs of the system of production–an emphasis that resonates with Marxist theory. So my students were not so far off after all; they simply were getting ahead of themselves and ahead of the poem, trying to do calculus without first having considered the algebra.

In my experience, this is what often happens when people are too eager to get to what they perceive as the endgame of the poem’s “meaning” or “interpretation.” Instead, I like to encourage readers to spend more time absorbing their experience of the poem at the most basic, literal level possible–to visualize the poem in the imagination, as a photograph, a short film, a conversation, whatever seems best to capture the scope and nature of the poem’s scenario. Then we can move through the various levels of the poem’s possible meanings, taking things in the following order and going as far as we find interesting or productive:

  1. Fully consider (that is, visualize, see, hear, taste, touch) in your imagination the literal, concrete elements of the poem before focusing on any symbolic associations suggested by elements of the poem.
  2. Fully consider any natural or universal symbolic associations before focusing on any conventional / cultural ones.
  3. Fully consider any conventional / cultural symbolic possibilities before focusing on any poetic / literary ones.

In fact it’s a good thing to remember that most poems (like Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow”) aim first and foremost to give us an experience and only secondarily to communicate an idea or a meaning. This means we should linger as long as we can on the concrete details of the poem, until we can close our eyes and see the poem as a photograph or a short film in our minds. Then such things as symbols and interpretation can arise more naturally from our experience of the poem, rather than substituting for that experience or leaping ahead of it.