Fall Semester, AY2007
Bressler, Literary Criticism (LC)
Kaplan and Anderson, Criticism (C)
1. Literary criticism issues emerging from Plato's Republic (click).
2. Plato, Aristotle, Longinus, and Horace "on the line" (click).
3. Suggested topics for Paper #1 (click)
4. Sample/example paper on Assignment #1 (click)
5. Oral Reports Assignments (click)
6. Terms Table (click)
7. Matching authors to passages (click)
8. Interpretation Problem Exercise--"The Ball-Turret Gunner" (click)
9. New Criticism Problems Page (click)
10. Prompts for Paper #2 (click)
11. Two Sample Stabs at Deconstruction (click)
12. Deconstruction Exercise (click)
13. Validity of Interpretation Paper--Successful Outcome (click)
14. Topics of final papers (click)
15. Three successful responses to the second paper assignment (click)
|WEEK||DAY||READINGS||TOPICS AND ACTIVITIES|
|WK 1||Aug 21||Introduction to Course||What is literature?|
|Aug 23||LC: Chap 1||Do you practice literary criticism? Why bother?|
|Aug 25||C: Plato, 1-17 (Trouble
with Art Analogies clickclickclick)
|Send the poets where?|
|WK 2||Aug 28||C: Aristotle, 18-46
Longinus, 47-60 (read around in the rest)
|The sublime. Nature, Originality,
Sublime Poems? (click) and (click) and ( click)
|Sep 1||C: Horace, 84-95
|Imitation. The pleasure and usefulness of literature|
|WK 3||Sep 4||NO CLASS--LABOR DAY||R&R|
|Sep 5||Open||Review Exercise|
|Sep 6||C: Dante, 96-100
|Allegory. Where's the "real"? What's the poet? The reader?|
|Sep 8||St. Augustine, Confessions, 13. 14ff (click)||Allegoresis. What happened to the text? Originality?|
|WK 4||Sep 11||Open||Review Exercise|
|Sep 13||C: Sidney, 101-35
|Platonic defense of poetry|
|Sep 15||Sidney, cont.||Mini reports|
|WK 5||Sep 18||C: Dryden, 136-81 (skip 168-71; just get the gist of 174-81). LC: 31-32||Neo-classical values. Nature? Verse in Drama--how about Romeo and Juliet's sonnet? (click)|
|Sep 22||Dryden, cont.||Unities; Problems with "Realism"|
|WK 6||Sep 25||C: Kant, 232-39; Wordsworth,
|Precious Beauty (click)
Romantic Creed. Nature, Originality, Emotion
|Sep 27||C: Arnold, 333-53
|Taste, Judgment, Centrality of Literature
"Dover Beach" (click) & "Dover Bitch" (click)
|Sep 29||C: Tolstoy, 382-93||Literature and Morality; Quiz (click)|
|WK 7||Oct 2||LC: Chap 3, "Introduction to Poetry" (click)||New Criticism: Basic Assumptions|
|Oct 4||Open||(New Criticism Report) Link to "Ars Poetica" (click)|
|Oct 6||C: Ransom, 448-64||Paraphrase and Poetry|
|WK 8||Oct 9||NO CLASS--COLUMBUS DAY||R&R|
|Oct 11||C: Brooks, 465-74; for "the ode" click here||Keats' Ode and Organic Unity|
|WK 9||Oct 16||LC: Chap 4||Reader-Response Criticism (Reader-Response Report)|
|Oct 18||C: Fish, 573-85||Where has the text gone? What is a text?|
|Oct 20||LC: Chap 5, 96-116||Structuralism|
|WK10||Oct 23||C: Barthes, 487-92||Meaning & Structuralism ( narratology )|
|Oct 25||LC: Chap 5, 116-33||Review (Deconstructionist Report)|
|Oct 27||Review ("Stopping by Woods click)||Deconstruction|
|WK11||Oct 30||C: Derrida, 493-510& de Man, 559-72||"The center will not hold"New Rhetoric|
|Nov 1||Open ("Tortoise and Hare" click)||Deconstruction Exercise (click )|
|Nov 3||LC: Chap 6||Psychoanalytical Criticism (Psychoanalytical Crit. Report)|
|WK12||Nov 6||Readings of Frost's "Mending Wall"
Norman Holland (Handout)
|Psychoanalytical Criticism, Practice and in Parody (click) What to do with images? (click)|
|Nov 8||C: Frye, 475-86||Jung, Literature and the Master Stories|
|Nov 10||NO CLASS--VETERAN'S DAY||Work on "Interpretation Exercise" (click)|
|WK13||Nov 13||Open||Work on "Interpretation Exercise"|
|Nov 15||LC: Chap 7
C: Showalter, 615-29
|Feminist Criticism (Feminist
Images of Ophelia (click) (click)
||Nov 17||C: Eliot, 404-10; Gilbert and Gubar, 683-95||T.S. "up against it" ("Aunt Jennifer"click)|
|WK14||Nov 20||LC: Chap 8||Marxism|
|Nov 22||C: Marx, 310-18||"Material Guy" (click "The Red Wheelbarrow)|
|Nov 24||NO CLASS--THANKSGIVING BREAK||R&R|
|WK15||Nov 27||C: Eagleton, 525-43||Complexities of Marxist Criticism|
|Nov 29||LC: Chap 9||New Historicism (Hold it!--What's "Historicism"?)|
|Dec 1||C: Greenblatt, 630-53||"The Bard" and Ideology|
|WK16||Dec 4||C: Foucault, 544-58||Where's the author in culture? (New Historicism Report)|
|Dec 6||Review||Review Exercise|
Notes on Assignments, Routines, and Goals
1. Goals: to develop an understanding of and an ability to practice different approaches to literary criticism and therefore a keener and more useful awareness of our own critical reading practices.
2. Assignments and Grading.
|Activity||Rough Percentage of Final Grade|
|Two 4-5 page out-of-class papers (the
first on a topic from the "historical approach"
we'll be taking for the first half of the course; the other either practicing one of the
critical approaches we study oranalyzing a "literary criticism situation" that you have
experienced). I'll provide "prompts" as a way of helping you to invent a thesis for each
of these essays.
|In-class writings, quizzes, homework, group project and intangibles||25%|
|Oral presentation (group work on critical approaches or schools)||15%|
3. Course Policies.
a) You must do all papers and announced in-class work in order to pass the course.
b) Do not assume that I will be reasonable about late papers; in fact, expect wildly arbitrary and inconsistent behavior from me if you chose to hand in an essay late.
c) I encourage you to re-write before you hand in your essays. To that end, I'm always happy to help you along with your drafts before you turn in a final version. Stop by my office or get in touch with me via e-mail.
4. Class Meetings. Discussion of assigned readings and other projects, punctuated occasionally by short, informal lectures. A good deal of in-class writing.
Major literary criticism "issues" raised in Plato's Republic
1. Imitation vs. originality as a moral and/or aesthetic standard against which to judge and evaluate literature.
2. The degree to which literature is seen as an instrumental part of society, a power in it.
3. The concept of beauty as involving utility and pleasure.
4. The "gendering" of literature, the framing of it as female to position it as weak, false, and marginal.
5. Reception theory or reader response--literature as significant in terms of how it works upon its audience (an important related matter here is the degree to which Plato regards the audience as active in its reception of literature).
6. A literary work's relation to other literature--does it imitate it or does it imitate reality? Here the details in Plato's notion of imitation have to be sorted out in more detail.
Within the following rows place Plato, Aristotle, Longinus, and Horace somewhere on the lines. Be able to explain why you have positioned them as you do in relation to each other.
1. Degree of concern with audience:
2. Degree of concern with form of work:
3. Degree of concern with emotion as part of the literary work:
4. Degree of concern with influence or models of other literature:
5. Degree of concern with political/cultural forces in the shaping of literary work:
6. Degree of concern with morality of the work:
7. Degree of concern with exact imitation of reality:
Due: 6 Oct
Audience: your classmates and instructor
Format: have a title, but no title page
about 4-5 pages double-space
Documentation: as long as you use the works required in this course, you need only refer to page numbers. If you have relied on some other work, simply use MLA parenthetical documentation, with a works cited page at the end. No footnotes or endnotes, please. I have written a sample paper of this sort in case you would like to get a rough sense of the kind of piece I'm looking for (click).
Some sample topics as a guide to the different sorts of subjects and approaches you can take:
1. Illustrate through a passage that provides a positive and one that provides a negative example what Longinus means by the sublime. Your paper ought to unfold as a careful analysis of the passages in order to clarify and put into proper relationship the things Longinus says about the sublime. Importantly, you need to avoid the obviously negative example of the sublime so that you can make careful distinctions and helpful clarifications--and even raises problems if you want.
2. Explore the ramifications of our authors' use of the body as metaphor. Are there any problems in this analogy? What are its deep assumptions?
3. In our discussion of the sublime we encountered a possible problem in Longinus's emphasis on feeling. How do we know when a work is sublime as oppose to sentimental. I'm not sure we answered that question to the satisfaction of any of us. Can you?
4. Exactly how do you see the excerpt from the Ion fitting in with that from the Republic. Is there a problem in their apparently contradictory messages--or are they in fact contradictory?
5. Is it at all profitable to explore the way(s) in which the feminine is used as part of some of our author's discussions of literature and criticism?
6. If you're a moral critic like Plato what happens to literary form? Is it accounted for at all or simply disregarded. j
7. In so far as it issue emerges from our authors, what's the difference between the literary critic and the literary artist? Is there a difference at all? Do they "come from" different "places"?
8. Is it accurate, do you think, to say that Aristotle too has a version of the "ideal" that resembles Plato's? Examine this matter.
9. By now in our course, it's probably an obvious observation to say that Plato makes all the poetic "moves" that would classify him as the very kind of poet he would exclude from his own republic. Is that, do you think, a fair observation, or does it over simplify, misrepresent, or . . .?
10. Explore the different versions of the reader/audience as implied or explicitly described in some of our authors.
11. Is there any way of telling the difference between the pity and terror that Aristotle says Tragedy aims at and the sublime experience that Longinus isolates?
12. In recent theory it has become almost a cliché to refer to things like beauty, love, even sexual persuasion as matters of culture rather than nature. Of course the very notion of nature itself is said to be a matter of convention, different historical/literary periods, for instance, "seeing" nature in extraordinarily different ways. Are there signs in the authors we've read that nature is a convention? Do they recognize it as convention or take it as an indisputable baseline by which to come to terms with other matters?
13. How does St. Augustine "fit in" with one or more of our authors? Does he have his own version of the sublime, though perhaps unstated as such? What would Plato say about his moral program, even something so specific as the need to create the monsters of the sea (i.e. pleasing spectacles, even martyrdom, for the more bodily members of the human community so that they can understand the "truth")? Can you sort out the different levels of St. Augustine's interpretation in terms of Dante's system?
14. Already in our readings, there exists a tendency, or tendencies, to place poetry outside of history, to make it ahistorical, if you will. Focus on this issue. Look at the "moves" our writers make to do this, if in fact I'm right in asserting that they do it.
15. Several of our authors explicitly characterize "the critic." Explore how the critic is defined in some of these works. You might narrow that to "the bad critic."
16. Analyze carefully the different ways Sidney subtly and not so subtly employs, alters, appropriates (whatever term you think fits best) Plato.
In this exercise you will address the question of the validity of interpretation, specifically the validity of the interpretation that follows Randall Jarrell's poem below. You will address this question in an extended essay that you will produce as a group. Subgroups will approach the question from four perspectives: reader-response, formal (New Criticism), historical, and biographical. Each subgroup will produce a short well-written essay, about 2-3 pages, and give that essay to the "operators," who will cut and paste, establish coherent transitions and the best order, and compose an introduction (complete with thesis and interesting start) and an appropriate way to end the piece. After putting the parts together and turning those parts into an essay, the operators will show it to the subgroups for further editing and final approval. Once the groups approve of the essay, the operators will hand it in.
Due date: 20 Nov.
Value: I'll give the paper a letter grade that will be worth roughly half of one of the two out-of-class essays required for the class, or in other words about the same weight as the oral report.
Reader-Response: Ben, Steve
(Look at the interpretation in terms of RR approaches. Does it measure up in terms of responsible RR criticism? are there historical issues, in fact, that must be factored in?)
New Crticism: Josh, Rachel, Michael
(Does the interpretation measure up to the criteria of careful contextual reading of details in terms of an overarching theme?)
Historical: Mark, Colin, Austin
(Explore the validity of the interpretation in terms of historical facts and climate. When was the poem written? When and in what format, in what context, was it published? What was going on concerning war and abortion during that time?)
Biographical: Matt, Mat, Dana
(What does knowledge of Jarrell suggest that his subject was in this poem? What was he doing during the time he compose or published the poem? Jarrell is one of our New Critics--does the fact come into play when we consider the kind of poem the interpretation makes of his poem?)
Operators: Tim and Schuyler
The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
War as Metaphor for Abortion
Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner” highlights the horrors of abortion by comparing it to death in war. Modern man knows about how terrible war is, how human life is reduced to garbage by the inhumane treatment of man by man and man by machine that is modern warfare. But Jarrell wants us to learn about a new horror perpetrated on the unborn: the deliberate taking of life in abortion. So he draws on what we already know and abhor in order to make us abhor something we might take for granted. The speaker of the poem has died, as a ball-turret gunner dies when killed by flak. This vivid image of death, however, is made ambiguous by the opening reference to “my mother’s sleep,” a reference that signals that this death is more than just that of a gunner, but of a child. “Hunch[ing]” like a foetus in his mother’s “belly,” the speaker’s “wet fur” is an infant-like or young animal-like image, reinforcing the dual references to a gunner and a baby. Most importantly, the image in the last line of “me” being “washed out of the turret with a hose” is a hideously graphic rendering of the abortion procedure. And who is responsible for this outrage? War? Not primarily, for Jarrell names the culprit: “the State” the infant “fell into,” the State that permits either war or abortion to wash away like garbage the lives of the born and unborn. Few poems of so few lines would speak so eloquently about a modern death–which we must learn to see as just as awful as any death in war. (1986)
QueenXE4, or Is There More?
When I come to the place in the Apology where Sydney defends the poets against the accusations that they lie, I find it difficult not to get caught on his argument. His argument, you will remember, consists of this: the poet can't be said to lie because he "never affirmeth" (122). The poet does such things as name his characters not as a "conceit of actual truth," as a lie, but rather just "to make [the] picture more lively, and not to build a history" (123). After all, Sidney writes, "painting men, [poets] cannot leave men nameless" (123). The issue of naming in fiction raises some intriguing questions about the audience's state of mind during its experience of literature, and it also causes us to sort out the claim in Aristotle, Longinus, and here in Sidney that the poet writes about a world that is, in a sense, more accurate in essentials, truer even, than that which we think we know and certainly than that represented by the historian.
Apart from Sidney, none of our authors addresses this matter of names, but it does cause us to assess the peculiar "reality" all of them claim for fiction. Sidney distinguishes between the names historians use, which refer to actual figures, and the names poets use, which resemble more the names given to chess pieces so as to distinguish them. Who after all, Sidney points out, would be so foolish as to "say we lied for giving a piece of wood the reverend title of bishop." And he goes on, "The poet nameth Cyrus or Aeneas no other way than to show what men of their fames, fortunes, and estates should do" (123). Sidney's common sense approach implicitly contradicts Plato's assumption that the audience of any fiction is incapable of resisting its femininely seductive force, its promotion of the passions to the detriment of "good order and discipline," as they say around the Academy. Sidney remains comfortable--at least for the sake of this part of his argument--with the audience's ability to discern the mixture of "realities" it experiences as it reads a poem or views a play. Readers or listeners or playgoers are always at once drawn into the power of something that has a compellingly realistic thrust in its essentials--its morality and entertainment, let's say--and aware, nevertheless, of the whole project as artifice, as game.
Though this view of the audience as at once taken in and self-conscious seems to capture what we all, I think, have experienced when viewing a compelling play or movie, or reading a striking lyric or short story, it nevertheless excludes Longinus's sublime, which amounts to an experience in which the audience's consciousness of artifice undermines the sublime experience: "a figure is best, when the very fact that it is a figure passes unnoticed" (64); "Much as duller lights are extinguished in the encircling beams of the sun, so the artifices of rhetoric are obscured by the grandeur poured about them" (64). Even though artists, despite the imperative in Longinus of passion as the origin of expression, need to thoughtfully employ the tricks of their trade and even though the critic must be aware of how those things are employed, there remains the audience, or the experience of the audience, as opposed to that of artist and critic, and that audience's experience, at least as a test of the sublime, must involve considerably less awareness of artifice than is possessed by the critic or the artist, or perhaps that is possessed by Shelley's sculptor in "Ozymandias," for instance.
But what about the audience of Shakespeare's history plays in which the names of the characters match those of historical figures, and in which, as is the case, say, in 1 Henry IV, there is also a character such as Falstaff who is entirely imaginary? It seems unlikely that the audience's awareness of the name "Hal" is the same as its awareness of the name "Falstaff," a name which might or might not refer to an actual historical figure, but which is blatantly allegorical or full of meaning--"false staff," or "fall staff," for example. Sidney's explanation is that names of historical figures in literature merely signify types: Cyrus or Aeneas function as names designating types of men of "fames, fortunes, and estates" (123). But as type, is Prince Hal, the future Henry V, the same sort of type as Falstaff--and by type I do not mean type of character in relation to social class but rather type of character in relation to the reality of history? Shakespeare has devised his character, King Henry V, so as to activate the popular legends about him as "the people's king," not an elitist, but one of the people, a real down-to-earth kind of guy, we might call him. The scenes in the tavern, then, illustrate that Henry V spent his formative years among the people, no matter that eventually he climbed above them to the throne. So what if that legend is not true? Aristotle, Sidney, Dryden, Horace--the whole tribe!--would not complain because the action depicts a fundamental truth in human nature of maturation, a coming of age through the shedding of deficiencies in character as represented by Falstaff on the one hand and the fiery Hotspur on the other. Still that does not release the Henry V of Shakespeare's plays from the Henry V of history, or at least from a certain version of Henry V that might have lived in the imaginations of Elizabethans.
Moreover, the action of the play itself undercuts the value of fiction: Hal releases himself from the world of tale telling, lies, and games (i.e. the fictional world dominated by the imaginary character Falstaff) in the tavern and enters the "real" world of public affairs; he emerges, in other words, as a real historical figure who had an impact on the world. The character, then, grows strong, matures, to the extent that that character approaches more nearly the expected view of what he was in the real world. Interestingly, this development relegates Shakespeare's own imaginative endeavors--plays and poems--to the world of the tavern, bracketed off from the "real" world of history to which Hal ascends. However, the point is that "Hal" does name an actual historical figure, not just a chess piece.
In light of this and other history plays by Shakespeare--not to mention historical novels of our day--it is impossible to swallow unquestioningly Sidney's assertion that a character in a piece of literature named after a historical figure is only a type, a standard-bearer for a certain kind of figure in the timeless realm of "human nature." In fact, from what I can tell the gravity of reading, of audience activity, works in quite the opposite direction, maybe the direction that Plato worried about: readers tend to turn characters in fictions of one sort or another into real figures of the world. Recently asked to name some true American heroes, Garth Brooks, the country music star, identified Ronald Reagan, Martin Luther King and John Wayne. John Wayne? What has happened? Garth Brooks has confused the historically documentable world with the silver screen. The heroic figures whom John Wayne played in a variety of movies have become John Wayne the heroic American in Garth Brooks' mind. Martin Sheen has for some avid TV viewers become the President; in fact, recent advertisements in which he has appeared seem to be trading upon that confusion. This phenomenon is no new thing: Henry Fielding in Tom Jones, for instance, builds an entire scene around the character Partridge watching Garrick portray Hamlet on stage and justifying his own fear at the Ghost scene on the basis that even that man on the stage--Garrick the actor--was frightened of the ghost.
The problem is far more complex than Sidney's analogy between the names of literary characters and chess pieces admits. One last example will suggest another facet of this complex issue: the way in which authors might in fact play with the very tendency in readers to confuse fiction with fact. The example is Shelley's "Ozymandias," a poem mentioned earlier and of course one that we have already had a look at this semester as a specimen, perhaps, of the sublime. The very name of Ozymandias itself is at stake: "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: / Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" Surely this poem, at least in part, offers a perfect illustration of Sidney's point: "Ozymandias" does not function as a historical figure, but rather as the marker of a powerful, arrogant leader who vainly thinks that his works will endure. However, because of the Shelley's layering of point of view both the sculptor and Ozymandias can claim these lines as their own. Ozymandias, in declaring himself "king of kings," sees himself as historical figure not to be surpassed in greatness by anyone who succeeds him. As equally the author of these words, the sculptor situates Ozymandias within the overall formal irony of his work: he carefully crafts the "wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command" in order to show that he knew the passions that ruled this leader, in order to "mock them" as the poem says; as sculptor, though, he better than anyone knows that stone, the medium of the work, after all, eventually wears away and collapses. The artist seems to have counted on the fact that Ozymandias could not have "read" the sculptor's work in anyway other than a portrayal of himself as "Ozymandias, king of kings," could not have, in other words, seen himself as a character with meaning rather than an actual reality.
Certainly, our own limitations, our cultural expectations, our desire to be taken away from the myriad sensations of "reality" cause us to do many different things to the stories we read. We even tell our own stories about ourselves just so that we can live in some sort of peace of mind. We read stories in school differently than we do on the beach. And of course historians, even the historians!, deal in fiction as much as reality in the sense that they shape their material. Historians tell radically different stories about Grant and Lee, Anthony and Cleopatra, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Which name goes with which story? Does the "Bill Clinton" of Rush Limbaugh's ungoing "story" capture the real Bill Clinton or even something like Sidney's notion of a representative Bill Clinton; or does the "Bill Clinton" of black Americans, "the first black president," capture either the real or the essential Bill Clinton? When it comes to historical names in fictions, the names refer to more than just chess pieces.
New Criticism Terms
paraphrase ("heresy of")
Reader-Response, or Reception Theory Terms
horizens of expectations
who vs. what
objet petit a
1. Plato a. Art remains what it was and what it must be: nothing but the infection by one man of another or of others with the feelings experienced by the artist. 2. Dryden b. . . imagine that if he speaks of cobbling, or of military tactics, or of anything else, in metre and harmony and rhythm, he speaks very well--such is the sweet influence which melody and rhythm by nature have. For I am sure that you know what a poor appearance the works of poets make when striped of the colours which art puts upon them, and recited in simple prose. You have seen some examples? 3. Dante c. Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science. . . [The Poet] is the rock of defense for human nature; an upholder and preserver, carrying everywhere with him relationship and love. In spite of difference of soil and climate, of language and manners, of laws an customs: in spite of things silently gone out of mind, and things violently destroyed; the Poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society, as it is spread over the whole earth, and over all time. . . Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge--it is as immortal as the heart of man. 4. Wordsworth d. I should feel confidence in maintaining that nothing reaches great eloquence so surely as genuine passion in the right place; it breathes the vehemence of frenzy and divine possession, and makes the very words inspired. 5. Longinus e. . . . a play ought to be a just and lively image of human nature, representing its passions and humours, and the changes of fortune to which it is subject, for the delight and instruction of mankind. 6. Horace f. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type will on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity . . . 7. Aristotle g. Let it suffice that it is a fit soil for praise to dwell upon; and what dispraise may set upon it, is either easily overcome, or transformed into just commendation. So that, since the excellencies of it may be so easily and so justly confirmed, and the low-creeping objections so soon trodden down; it not being an art of lies, but of true doctrine; not of effeminateness, but of notable stirring of courage; not of abusing man's wit, but of strengthening man's wit; not banished, but honoured by Plato; let us plant more laurels for to engarland our poets' heads . . . than suffer the ill-favouring breath of such wrong-speakers once to blow upon the clear springs of Poesy. 8. Sidney h. Poets aim either to help or to amuse the reader, or to say what is pleasant and at the same time what is suitable. 9. Arnold i. . . . it should be understood that there is not just a single sense in this work: it might rather be called polysemous, that is, having several senses. For the first sense is that which is contained in the letter, while there is another which is contained in what is signified by the letter. The first is called literal, while the second is called allegorical, or moral or anagogical. 10. Tolstoy j. In poetry, as a criticism of life under the conditions fixed for such a criticism by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty, the spirit of our race will find, we have said, as time goes on and as other helps fail, its consolation and stay.
Here are a couple of small but illustrative examples of disagreements by critics over passages. The disagreements betray some interesting assumptions about reading, each involving either negatively or positively the codes of New Criticism. In addition to these "problems," the exercise involving "A Ball-Turret Gunner" offers some similar problems.
1) The following sonnet ( you probably know it) by Robert Frost, has become the basis of no little controversy. Frost dedicated it to Kay Morrison, his secretary. She was a married women whom Frost nevertheless asked to marry within a year after his wife's death. She also had affairs while married and while serving as Frost's secretary with at least two other men. On the basis of this scenario, one of Frost's rather eager biographers, Jeffrey Meyers, constructed the following interpretation of the word "guys" in line four: "the breeze has dried the dew on the ropes so that it sways in 'guys' (a triple pun on ropes, mockery and men)." This reading turns the line into a biographical allusion as it depicts the subject of the poem, Kay Morrison, as connected with all sorts of "guys." Helen Vendler, a dedicated New Critic, condescendingly dismisses Meyer's reading: "The illiteracy of such 'readings' points to how greatly Meyers misunderstands the directions for reading encoded in a poem, the extent to which semantic possibility is controlled by context." Vendler's words here represent a sort of irreducible doctrine of New Criticism--the poem encodes within itself its own interpretive code. What do you think? Does Meyers deserve such severe scolding?
The Silken Tent
She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when a sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To everything on earth the compass round,
And only by one's going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightest bondage made aware.
2. Back to Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach," again. In the third stanza (you have a copy of the poem), Arnold describes the withdrawing Sea of Faith in this way:
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Almost every printing of this poem includes a note on "shingles." Typically the note says something like this: "Shingles" refers to the small pebbles on a beach." However, Sara deFord and Clarinda Harriss Lott, editors of Forms of Verse, 1971, were really worried about possible misinterpretations of the word and thus offered an unusually full note: "In British English, a shingle is a pebbly beach. The reader who slides past this line in Arnold's poem with a vague idea that a shingle is a haircut, a roofing material, or a nervous disease can get no clear idea of the coherence of the poem. The result of this misreading is at best inaccurate and at worst ridiculous" (13). What do you think? Is reading "shingles" as a skin disease really such a misreading?
3. I print this sonnet as an example by which to consider the problem Brooks addresses in his essay on Keats' ode: does the sonnet include too blatant a statement of its own meaning?
That time of year thou mayest in my behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs, which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death's second self that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
Brief Description of Options for Paper #2
Choose one of the following options on which to write a 4-5 page paper. Because the paper is fairly short, you will need to do a good job of narrowing its focus. For example, analyzing USNA as "text" in terms of Marxist theory would be far too broad. Focusing on a passage from the Commander's Intent, the structure of the noon meal, the "come- around," the march-on, or perhaps the Herndon ceremony would be more manageable. The scope of these examples does not mean, of course, that the Naval Academy is the only text worth writing about!
Option A. Examine a piece of literature or a passage from a major work in terms of one of the critical schools we have studied during this term. The student essays at the end of each chapter of Literary Criticism can serve as good, though sometimes a bit simplistic examples.
Option B. Analyze a "literary critical situation" that you've found yourself in. The situation itself does not necessarily have to do with a literary text. Still it ought to involve one or some of the following issues that we have examined: audience, author, representation, moral purpose, beauty, autonomy of reader, work, and/or writer, etc. The focus could range from the problem of the clashing approaches of you and an instructor; a particular person's (say a parent's, sponsor's or your own) reading strategies; even an instructor's insistence on a particular way of reading literature; a professor's objection to putting on Chaucer in Rome because of its criticism of Catholicism and/or confession; particular types of assignments required by a professor; to casual claims you have heard from certain quarters about objectivity in reading literature, or conversely permissive subjectivity.
The Red Wheelbarrow
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
Oral Report Assignment and Schedule
The Task. This assignment asks you to work in a group to devise a plan by which you introduce your classmates to, and make clear for them, the principles and practices of a modern literary school. During the scheduled class period, you'll need to do the following, all while making sure your classmates understand the approach on which you are reporting:
a) clearly lay out the assumptions of that school, assumptions about the relationship among text, audience, culture, author, and other texts;
b) offer a practical application of the approach so that the way it functions becomes clear (this has to be in excess of the practical applications offered in Bressler's text;
c) "situate" the approach within the context of the material with which we've worked in this course, including not just the other literary "schools" but also the earlier documents of criticism ranging from Plato to Tolstoy;
d) point out, and illustrate, the limitations of the approach, its shortcomings, or 'blindnesses" about its assumptions or effectiveness.
New Criticism 4 Oct (O'Brien)
Reader Response 13 Oct (Tim, Colin, Austin)
Deconstructionist 25 Oct (Dana, Michael)
Psychoanalytical 3 Nov (Ben, Mark, and Josh)
Feminist 15 Nov (Rachel, Matt, Mat)
New Historicism 4 Dec (Steve, Schuyler)
Tolstoy Quiz (Closed Book)
In two or three sentences, answer each of the following questions and explain your answer.
1. Would Tolstoy approve of Arnold's touchstone method?
2. What would Tolstoy think of Arnold's attempt to set off certain pieces of literature as "classics?"
3. What is "real art," according to Tolstoy?
4. Tolstoy defines two kinds of "real art." What are they?
5. Are movies--the cinema in general--good art in terms of Tolstoy's criteria?
I. A.J Greimas's "Grammar" of Narrative
2. Patterns described by these binaries:
a) Desire, search, or aim (subject/object)
b) Communication (sender/receiver)
c) Auxiliary support or hindrance (helper/opponent)
Applied to Oedipus the King (adapted from A Reader's Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory):
a) Oedipus seeks murderer, the twist being that he's searching for himself
b) Apollo's oracle anticipates O's sins; and Tiresias, Jocasta, the messanger and the herdsman, in one way or another, repeat the pattern of communication
c) Jocasta tries to prevent O from discovering murderer; O himself obstructs communication of message.
II. Propp's last group of narrative functions:
-a difficult task proposed to hero
-false hero/villain exposed
-false hero/villain given new appearance
-false hero/villain punished
-hero married and gains throne
“The Big Picture”
As in, “you’ve got to look ‘at the big picture,’” this phrase is more malicious than it seems. The basic binary opposition within it of big / small, when used in such a phrase as the one above, serves an aggressive purpose. The speaker of the phrase magically puts himself in the position of “big” and the hearer in the position of “small.” You’ve got to stop being small is not a friendly piece of advice. However the descriptive term itself, “the big picture,” has within it the seeds of its own undoing, the word “picture” incapable of expressing the largeness of view implied by “big.”
Without wrenching the word out of its normal use, we have to agree that “picture” means something snapped, sketched, or drawn from a single point of view. It might be big in the sense that the frame is 5 by 7 feet vs. 5 by 7 inches. It might be big because it is taken from the top of a mountain and therefore depicts a large space. But whatever the scope, the picture comes from one angle, from one lens, from one point of view, and it is finally framed, limited and determined. The obvious question to ask when someone tells you to look at the big picture is, “who’s big picture?” So the privileged element in the binary opposition, big, gets undercut by the noun picture. Moreover, the word picture functions as the substantive; big is a mere adjective, totally dependent on the thing it names and therefore weak, requiring in this case the word picture, which inevitably restricts its size, not only in terms of it having to modify something particular—hardly the big picture!––but also in terms of the value of picture itself, which suggests limitation, in fact, of point of view.
“The big picture,” not doubt has a gendered inflection, so that big = male and small = female. “Big” also implies a sense of beginning and ending, a view spanning from creation to an end state. And yet how can a picture ever embrace time? How can it span all of that claimed in the notion of big—especially when it’s framed and flat? It also implies a point of view outside of the perspective it criticizes: the big picture essentially is that of “the Big Guy,” “the Man in the Sky,” the alpha and omega, the thing that knows beginning and end; and yet it can only get expressed through the limited, perspective suggested by picture. In other words, our very language will not permit a “big picture”: it’s only a series of flickering, limited pictures, mere snap shots, shadows of quantum-level events without end. Ultimately, I take “the big picture” to be wonderful advice precisely because it undercuts itself so thoroughly--and because it so obviously tries to protect the notion of a transcendent signifier in so thoroughly a self-destructive way.
Detour: Frost's? Road Deconstruction
Danielle Bowers’ desconstructionist essay on Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” presents some basic problems. Offered by Bressler (39-41) as a model of literary deconstruction, it does “sort of” imitate that kind of analysis, but unfortunately it reads the poem at the same tired, inspirational level at which it has been read for “ages and ages.” That reading has maintained that the poem represents a traveler facing a choice between a road that is traveled often and one that is rarely traveled; the traveler takes the road less traveled and claims that that risk, that sense of adventure, has defined his life in an important way.
As Derrida repeatedly suggests, deconstruction by necessity must use—must depend upon—the very system it deconstructs. Even a deconstruction has to make some sense, in other words; even a deconstructionist has to read a poem with some accuracy to the poem’s words and literal meaning, not to mention with some sensitivity to its linguistic and tonal subtleties. Little of that happens in this sample essay provided by Bressler, however competently it might unfold. Fundamentally Bowers’ essay turns the poem into a straw man for her deconstruction. The binaries she sets up, including the choice between the apparently privileged “adventure or the unknown” and the seemingly disavowed option of “the familiar and the known,” are in fact the very binaries that Frost himself, through the construct of the persona, deconstructs. The poem’s language, if read literally, lays out the choice the traveler–persona faces as one between roads that “both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black” (11-12); and just before this, we read that “the passing there / Had worn them really about the same” (9-10). With its evocation of Dante in the dark woods and Bunyan’s Christian traveler facing a false vs. a true choice of directions, the “true” involving more danger and risk, the traveler that Frost dramatizes, I would claim, amounts to the Western male seeking self-awareness and “the answer” through adventure and choice: he assesses the possibilities for adventure in his future life in terms of where others have gone. He’s looking ultimately—and without knowing it—for a way to sustain the fiction of a will, a unitary self, defined against its difference from others. In the words of the poem, he wants to “remain one traveler”—that’s the ultimate aim.
The deconstructive genius of Frost’s parable, however, emerges from the fact that the traveler faces the post-modernist prospect: a terrain that offers no apparent individualizing meaning to himself, no confirmation of his identity, only an arbitrary choice between two paths that will not resolve themselves visually into some privileged binary opposition. His language suggests in fact an anxious compensatory response to this prospect: he doesn’t just look at one road; he takes it. And when he leaves one behind, he refers to that loss as a retention: “Oh I kept the other for another day!” (13). His language clearly prefers the dominant element in the binaries of action / inaction and possession / loss. In fact the anxiety of his position as ultimately an expression of inaction emerges when he avoids mentioning the actual choice at all: he only says that he kept the other for another day; his choice of one of the roads thereby betrayed as default, unmentioned gesture. Most of this, Danielle Bowers in one way or another suggests. However she posits an actual difference in the roads and argues that the speaker’s wavering, his occasional betrayal of a preference for the occluded elements in the binary oppositions, results from his recognition of this difference. In fact the overcompensating, deconstructive action within the poem’s language, its anxiety to assert a unitary self (just notice how often “I” appears) results from the speaker’s not detecting a difference by which he can remain intact as part of some fundamental binary.
That’s why the last stanza of Frost’s poem is both so remarkable and so problematic. For the superficial reader, even the reader masquerading as a deconstructionist, the stanza seems to operate on a continuum with the rest of the poem, as the narrator projects himself into the future where he claims to have profited by the choice he made. His claim that he took—that earnestly self-constructing action verb “take” again!—the road less traveled perhaps does mark a confusion of sorts, as Bowers vaguely implies. Still, the curious wording, “I took the one less traveled by,” more than any false construction by the reader of actual difference in the roads as portrayed in the first two stanzas, emphasizes anxiety. “Traveled by” means both “passed by” and “opted for, or journeyed over, by (people).” In other words, just as he retrospectively—and with all the force of some transcendent voice from outside the play of language and outside the original decision in which he was involved—defines the choice, his language also clouds that choice: did he choose the road less traveled by people or did he take the one less passed by or, in other words, more occupied? A desperate claim for certainty, the last stanza unavoidably undercuts that claim as a mere assertion of difference in order to maintain the fiction of a unitary “I.” The repetition of “I” at the end of line 18 and at the beginning of line 19, at both margins on the border of presence and absence, letters and white space, underscores this desperate assertion of unity, but at the same time deconstructs it as a divided “I.” All this observation about the poem’s deconstruction of the unitary self does not even mention the now standard interpretation of the poem as something of a trick against the unwary reader, who like Bowers betrays her own need for clear binary opposition by positing one where it does not exist. Part of this trick that more sophisticated readers notice is that the persona’s projected-into-the-future claim that he will assert his choice to have been heroic, a risk-taking and therefore productive one, is a lie. His choice was no more than a regretful leave-taking of one of two equal possibilities he faced. Is it coincidental that this self-deconstructing voice ends with the word difference, or is it différence?
All of the forgoing discussion assumes, of course, that Frost the poet sets up the persona as a self-deconstructing voice, that the language of Frost’s poem itself, not some model Derridean exercise, is the deconstructive force. One other way to indicate this layering of points of view that Bowers entirely ignores is to see the title as the author’s voice directing the reader how to assess the voice within the poem. The title outside the poem has an authority over the play of language within it, so that while admitting, even reveling in, the play of language, the whole system that includes the title suggests at the same time that an outside force remains in control of that verbal play. Through the title, at least, we as readers can locate the origin of the poem’s significance. Or can we? Does “the road not taken” tell us anything definite? It certainly contradicts the speaker’s claim that he made a heroic choice of the road less traveled: it does this by refocusing our attention on the one he left behind. In that way the title adds to the sense of false order asserted within an experience of actual confusion. It focuses, moreover, on the binary “trace” (the other road) neglected in the narrator’s apparent certainty at the end. To that extent, then, the title seems to function still as Frost’s deconstruction of the persona. It maintains the possibility of the arche constructor and deconstructor, bracketed off from the system of difference / différence, lacking an orienting center, a voice that can finally stabilize the undercutting tendencies from which the persona, immersed in the prison of language, suffers uncontrollably.
It seems that by using the device of the persona, the voice different from some “real I,” in other words, the poet sets himself up as transcendental signifier, the controller, the orienter, positioned outside a system of which he as writer is nevertheless a part. Such a move protects him from deconstruction: it is always the persona’s voice that collapses into unrecoverable play of signification. And yet just that move to preserve a unitary self, spells its annihilation. The only “I” is inside language; the only outside for the “I,” in other words, is always already an inside. At some point, after all, below the poem perhaps when first published early in the 20th century or at the beginning of the volume in which the poem appeared, Frost’s name has to have appeared associated with the words of the poem. It appears in print, on the page, as “Robert Frost”: that name is finally a commitment of self to writing, a commitment that unavoidably plays in the flickering slide of signification, of the vibration of absence / presence. The name on the page does not so much identify a presence as mark an absence; it leaves a trace, but not finally an essence. Even in his removal of himself from the poem through the mechanism of persona, Frost cannot avoid the same disintegration of a unitary self that he constructs for his persona.
Note: another way to approach the deconstructive tendencies within the poem is to focus on the binaries related to the road, to travel: beginning / end; stasis / motion; progress / regression; and so on.
Sample Successful Response to Deconstruction Assignment
1. Write out what you think would be the universal thesis statement for every deconstructionist project. Try to make it as specific as you can while keeping it at a general enough level so that it can apply to any "text."
a) In Western thought, every concept exists as one part of a binary in which the concept is set against the other half of the binary by virtue of its difference. In other words, no article or idea, no matter how abstract it may be, exists without the existence of that from which it differs. Once one has recognized the existence of these binaries, it is not difficult to see that one side of the binary is always privileged above the other. Very often, this privilege or relative importance is determined subconsciously and is based on social norms. In order to redress this unfair balance, one must be aware of the corresponding half of the binary and consciously award it equal consideration. One must also examine the ways in which the favored half of the binary is undercut by the existence of its opposite. In examining the binaries implicit in the text, one enters into a reductive process which uncovers more and more binary oppositions on which this process may be performed. Ultimately, this practice leads either to the erroneous presumption of the existence of a transcendental signified or to the more structuralist idea that there can be no origin but language.(Rachel Evan)
b) 1. Every deconstructionist project seeks to examine the binary oppositions and tensions in language, to expose the misleading connotations of value and the false sense of identifiable, concrete significance with which we have been cultured to perceive it, and to emphasize instead the fluidity of language as a conduit through which the “freeplay” of the universe may appear. (Schuyler Boone)
c) A deeper meaning of the text can be found by identifying the binary oppositions that govern the text, reversing the privileged/unprivileged relationships, and finally challenging the original interpretation of the text based on these reversals. (Michael DeCarolis)
d) Deconstruction is the act of evaluating a text in order to determine the binary oppositions it posits, to reveal the favored elements in those binaries, and to finally show that the selection of one element over another is ultimately arbitrary. (Steven Rho)
2. Draw a box, and mark where the deconstructionist critic operates--inside, outside, or on the margins of that box. You need to label the box. Indicate where the new critics, the Plato, Longinus, and Arnold would be. In a thoroughly developed paragraph, explain your placement of the deconstructionist.
a) I have organized my box scheme to depict a notion of textual divergence, which originates from its tightest centerpoint in the middle box containing New Criticism. This model appears similar to some sort of Chinese box system, revealing successively smaller boxes within each box of the textual puzzle. At the center, New Criticism exists in perfect self-containment, deeply lodged within the textual confines of the system. I make this choice because New Critics claim that the text and only the text is worthy of being studied. From here, I move out one layer to the realm of Structuralism. At this layer, the critic is still greatly constrained by textual confines, but those textual confines have been slightly increased in order to correspond to a larger system of social patterns and codes. Out from here, Longinus inhabits the next textual box. For Longinus, language serves its highest purpose when it expresses some kind of lofty, sublime passion. With this notion, a literary work is still constrained by considerations of language and text, but the text is only valuable in that it represents some greater, outside force that transcends the textual box. Deconstruction, as we have said in class, seems to lie right on the line of the text box. It still focuses on the textual signs of a work, but it simultaneously seeks to dismantly the conventional structure that the text establishes. Finally, Plato resides on the outside of the text box because his literary criticism focuses entirely on the ideas outside of the text rather than the text itself. He must therefore be entirely free from textual confines. (Tim Shaffer)
b) The box in this diagram represents the realm of clearly identifiable meaning, enduring value, and transcendent significance. It is container afloat on the sea of language, with permeable but fixed walls through which language passes in the processes of forming a clearly identifiable meaning. Once meaning, or truth, has formed within the box, that meaning is fixed and cannot seep out of the box. Accordingly, those abiding within the box believe in a fixed essence of truth; those outside the box do not. The line of demarcation within the box itself represents in essence the firmament of St. Augustine?the transition between that of divine origin and that of human origin. In other words, an understanding of truth as constant and unchanging can originate both from a faith in the divine and from a secular understanding of the nature of mankind. Plato resides above the firmament within the box because he believes in the high forms of an objective reality of idea?of truths which are independent of man’s understanding of them. Longinus resides under the firmament within the box because he emphasizes the emotional response of man in the transactional essence of the sublime. He believes that literature with transcendent value only achieves such status if it continually inspires man. Along similar lines, Arnold fancies the subjective essence of “high” or “great” literature; again the value has been determined and fixed by man. The New Critics are unimpressed that there is only one box. Even though they generally reside outside the box because they abstain from imbuing literature with finite meaning, they do believe that each work has a clear and identifiable essence of tension, based on the language used therein. As a result, they would like to have a box for each individual work of literature. The deconstructionist, on the other hand, opposes all box-making as fundamentally delusional. He resides outside the box with the New Critics where there are no concrete standards and no barriers of fixed value, but unlike the New Critics (who just want to build millions of little boxes) the deconstructionist lays siege to every box, particularly the big box of the transcendental signified. He seeks to tear down the walls and to free those within from the false sense of meaning so they can return to the liberating ebb and flow in the sea “freeplay.” (Schuyler Boone)
c) The box represents the Text, while everything outside the box is the Context, or the world to which the Text is referenced. Plato operates completely in the Context, privileging the real world—which he calls truth—over the Text, which he discredits as an untruthful imitation of the real world. Longinus operates completely inside the box because he is concerned primarily with an inspired creativity which does not necessarily spring from the real world, and secondarily with the writing “style” of the Text (sublime, metaphor, etc.). However, he is located near the edge of the box because he places the constructor of the Text within the Context of the real world. Arnold is both inside and outside the box because he views poetry (the Text) in relation to the real world and other “great works” (the Context) with his touchstone theory, while at the same time concerning himself with the measurable intrinsic value of the Text. The New Critics are at the center of the box because they interpreted the Text independent of the Context, relying on a close reading of the Text in and of itself. Finally, Deconstructionists operate throughout the box because they privilege the reader over the Text, but use the Text as the source for interchangeable Contexts (rather than the real world, since they believe that there is no absolute Context) in order to derive a variety of meanings for the Text. (Michael DeCarolis)
3. Deconstruct the story of the tortoise and the hare (click), which of course includes the moral.
a) The parable of the tortoise and the hare lends itself easily to an exercise in deconstruction. The very title sets up a binary opposition between the two characters. Very quickly, the binary of ‘hare versus tortoise’ is identified with that of ‘fast versus slow.’ Here, the former is clearly privileged above the latter – rarely in our society is anything slow preferred to something that can be fast (think of the obvious such as fast lanes, E-Z Pass and fast-food, and the less obvious like self checkouts, elevators and quick-dry paint). This implicit judgment between the two binary oppositions introduces a third: ‘good versus bad.’ Clearly, the fast hare is to be preferred above the slow tortoise. Indeed, it is this obvious assumption upon which the story turns since it is precisely what makes the idea of a contest of speed between the characters so ridiculous.
In the deconstruction of any work, it is useful, once the governing binaries have been identified, to determine the ways in which the privileged element of each binary is undercut by the existence of its opposite or of some other binary opposition. This very process makes the story of the tortoise and the hare interesting to the deconstructionist critic.
While the binary of “hare versus tortoise” is set up with the hare as the privileged element, the story works to reverse this bias. It is interesting that while the original title lists the hare before the tortoise, the tale is commonly referred to as the story of the ‘tortoise and the hare,’ as if in some sort of attempt to redress the balance between the two characters. Indeed, the whole purpose of the parable is to undercut the privileged position of the hare (fast) and to subjugate it to the ‘recessive’ tortoise (slow). In this way, the parable itself is an exercise in deconstruction.
The moral of the story, “Plodding wins the race,” is set up so that ‘slow’ is, in fact, elevated above the traditionally dominant element, ‘fast.’ However, this attempt to reverse the bias of the initial binary is its own undoing in that it introduces yet another binary opposition, ‘winner versus loser.’ The deconstructionist tendency of the story itself is undercut by the fact that the moral shamelessly supports the privileging of ‘winner’ over ‘loser’ regardless of whether the winner is fast or slow.
Additionally, the binary of pride versus humility is introduced, through the “boasting” of the ill-fated hare, who seeks to “show his contempt for the tortoise,” and the meekness of the tortoise who, through sheer hard work and diligence (another binary, set in opposition to the pompous indolence of the hare) ‘wins’ the race. Here, again, the story caters to the traditional privileging of humility over pride. This binary opposition even has biblical roots, since our nominally Christian society has been taught that the “meek will inherit the earth.” With this comparison comes a notion of a transcendental signifier who not only observes our conduct with one another, however insignificant it may be (as in this contest between the tortoise and the hare), but also stands by to reward or punish that conduct according to the system of binaries which, try as it might to upset them, the parable cannot help but reinforce. The more intently one seeks to unravel and neutralize the binaries inherent in the story, the more oppositions one uncovers: first versus last, ability versus industry, slow and steady versus fast and fitful, sound versus silence, and so on. While the fable, with self-conscious cleverness, manages to deconstruct the obvious initial binary, it sets up countless more in its place and, in doing so, ultimately fails as an exercise in deconstruction. Or perhaps it merely serves as a perfect example of the binary in which deconstruction itself must partake – one can hardly deconstruct without first constructing. (Rachel Evan)
b. The story of the tortoise and the hare is fraught with binary oppositions so fundamental to our society that we scarcely notice them. The hare insists that he will win the race, but what does that even mean, to win something? In this case it seems to mean that the winner is he who arrives at the finish line before the other. But now we are confronted with the essence of time, of linear progression. Why is being first any more valid than being last? Why, in the opposition of before/after and of early/late do we privilege the former? Even though the turtle moves slowly he still wins and arrives before the hare does, thus placing inherent value on the essence of being first. Now we have numerical superiority. So is one fundamentally privileged over two? The construct of placement, and the idea (if I may) of “order of merit” places inherent value on the abstract idea of a number, of a time measurement, and of a physical line across a road. Why? The story comments on a method that one might go about to achieve the essence of being first, namely perseverance, but dedication only has validity because it helps the tortoise achieve the aim of winning. This story also addresses the contrast between slow and fast. In the case of this binary, our preferences for one or the other are completely arbitrary and totally dependent on the situation to which they are applied. So in the end, The Tortoise and the Hare seems, unwittingly, to drive home the realization that the mental constructs and the binary oppositions which we value so dearly are ultimately arbitrary, relative, and completely dependent on the flux of language and circumstance. (Schuyler Boone)
c. A deeper meaning of “The Tortoise and the Hare” can be found by identifying the binary oppositions that govern the text, reversing the privileged/unprivileged relationships, and finally challenging the original interpretation of the text based on these reversals. The primary binary oppositions operating in the story are (privileged/unprivileged): humility/pride, patience/impatience, and winning/losing. The moral of the story is that the tortoise won the race because he acted favorably (humble and patient), rather than unfavorably (boastful and impatient). The reversal of these binaries reveals that radically different lessons can be drawn from this one story.
First, the conventional reading of the story implies that tortoise is superior because he patiently paces himself, rather than expending all his energy early in the race. By privileging the speedy hare, however, we can unlock a new reading of the story. Most readers identify the tortoise as the protagonist, thus privileging his patient endurance over the hare’s excitability and fickleness. The error in this reading is seen when the hare’s qualities are privileged: the tortoise did not win because he was slow or fast, but rather because the hare rested early. Had the hare continued at his original pace, he would have beaten the tortoise. This reveals a sort of “might makes right” mentality, in which those with power must exert that power unwaveringly to ensure their superiority. The tortoise did not win through his own means, but rather through an error on the part of the hare. Therefore, one deconstruction of this story shows that “slow and steady” does not necessarily win the race, but that “speed and power” must be relentless to be effective.
Another reversal could favor pride over humility, rather than humility over pride. By reading the story favoring pride as the important theme, the reader sees that without the hare’s boasting there would be no conflict at all, and thus no story through which to deliver the moral. Furthermore, the tortoise’s concluding statement, “plodding wins the race,” is in itself a boastful praise of his own actions over the hare’s. These two inconsistencies surface by deconstructing the story, not only showing that the hare’s boasting is the moving force of the story (and therefore that ambition is necessary to drive the world), but also revealing that the tortoise’s humility is superficial, thereby invalidating the standard moral. By this reading, then, the hare’s character is superior to the tortoise’s because even though the hare is boastful, he is also sincere.
Finally, this story can be read by privileging losing over winning. One common moral for this story is that winning is not what is important, but rather “how you play the game.” Despite this, the story favors the ultimate winner of the race, the tortoise. What if the tortoise lost the race? The moral that “it does not matter whether you win or lose, but how you play the game” should still stand, but it cannot. There is no intrinsic value in losing, so even though a story in which the tortoise lost would truly show that he was not concerned with winning, only with patiently and humbly doing the “right thing,” the moral would be lost on an audience seeking a reward for their behavior. This reading reveals the moral that “it is does not matter how you play the game, but whether you win or lose.”
By deconstructing “The Tortoise and the Hare,” reversing the binary oppositions of the story reveals multiple new lessons which differ from the standard moral of the story. (Michael DeCarolis)
d) John Keats’s “Bright Star” is a poem about a lover who compares the existence of a star to its own existence. The lover wonders in the poem whether it is better to love or to be “steadfast” as the star is. This poem lends itself well to deconstruction because there is deconstruction already present in the poem itself without flipping binaries.
Although there is an element of deconstructionism built into the poem without the flipping of binaries, there are also several binaries which exist in the poem. Upon a first reading of the poem binaries emerge such as: bright/dark, steadfast/changing, large/small, eternal/death, independence and aloneness/reliance and company. By looking at these binaries and examining the binary intrinsic to the poem one can see the many different interpretations for the poem.
While it seems that the narrator comes to a conclusion in the final lines of the poem it is evident that this is not necessarily the case. The narrator begins the poem by praising the star whose “lone splendour [hangs] aloft in the night” and patiently watches the world from afar with “eternal lids apart.” The author seems to privilege the star’s independence and timeless quality but in the end of the poem offers and alternative to that nature with the love. While the lover claims to be “still steadfast, still unchangeable” when with its love and “Awake[s] for ever” or “feel[s] for ever . . . soft swell and fall,” the lover also is in “unrest” depending on the deviations of another’s breast and may “swoon to death” without love. This opposition of the star and the lover portrays the main binary of the poem as timeless independence/finite dependence.
With this main binary the poem creates its own type of deconstruction because while it privileges the timeless independence of the star, it also applauds the dependence and momentous nature of the lover. The eternal wisdom of the star is the more preferential of the two conditions, which is indicated by the lover’s impulse to explain to the star it is “still steadfast, still unchangeable,” but the poet at times seems to favor each, and ends the poem favoring the lover. With this ambiguity of position one can see the lack of center in the poem because it can indeed swing either way or also the fact that this poem only has meaning in its opposition. One would not be able to truly appreciate the timeless quality of the star without the finite quality of the lover and vise versa. (Josh Parsons)
e. It's difficult to focus on the signifiers, the words themselves, in Aesop's fable because of the differences in the wording of the various versions of the tale. At any rate, its basic narrative structure, the characters, and the existence of a moral--however that moral is worded--remain the same: it is a text that tries to "think outside the box," but in the process encloses itself even more completely in that box. A host of oppositions drive the story--fast vs. slow, win vs. lose, linear vs. recursive, teleological orientation vs. present- mindedness, even outside the event/text and inside it, for instance; and it is useful to show how the fable privileges one of the elements in those oppositions and obscures the other. I'm most interested, though, in two of its features: the race itself and the relationship between story and moral. On one level, the race seems to contradict common sense and thus critique accepted ways of thinking: the faster animal does not win the race. But after all, this feature betrays its conventionality, its adherence to linear, teleological, unitary thinking. In the hare's defeat, in fact, lies the fable's desconstruction. The hare loses precisely because it has multiple functions as opposed to the turtle's single one; it loses because within the race it enacts "not to race," whether because it sleeps or because it stops to "smell the roses." The fable's very incomprehensibility--that a quick animal like a hare would lose to a plodding one like a turtle--represents its sticking point, the door left ajar at the entrance upon its overdetermined effort to enforce a unitary, teleological vision. I would add also that another binary important to Western culture--mammal vs. reptile, or in other words an upright orientation vs. a horizontal, slithering one--undermines the major energy within the tale as well. That countering binary amounts to a sticking point, a self-betrayal within the tale itself, which ultimately establishes the hare's behavior as having more affinity to what is human than that of the apparently privileged reptile. The added moral further betrays that furtive desire for a single, authoritative vision because it shuts down, closes off interpretation by imposing a single meaning. Moreover, the combination of narrative and moral enacts the fantasy of a transcendental signified: the events within the fable, narrative and merely descriptive, are finally represented as serving the purpose of activating the disembodied, transcendent, and apparently timeless voice of the moral. However, even the disembodied voice--static, unchanging, and uninvolved in the road race of the fable--has its roots in the binary oppositions ruling the story itself: it actually repeats the discredited behavior of the hare, its abandoning the race, its gestures at timelessness. Thus the position outside the linear narrative from which "truth" derives, even if putively put into the mouth of the tortoise, is exposed as a position within that narrative, and in fact it is the very position that that voice itself discredits. The moral is the real loser in this no win situation, in this unwinable contest of the text. (O'Brien)
Validity of Interpretation Essay--Group Project
“Finite” and “Infinite” Perspectives on Criticism
In a work called Finite and Infinite Games, the neo-Nietzschian philosopher James Carse advocates a cultural theory of art that posits, “Art is dramatic, opening always forward, beginning something that cannot be finished” (Carse 55). Similar to certain strains of reader-response criticism such as reception theory, Carse’s notion implies that works of art acquire an evolving, cultural life-force of their own. This evolutionary view of art asserts the idea that a work develops “meaning” over time, as critics progressively develop new interpretations based on updated horizons of expectation. In other words, instead of constraining the work within a restrictive, finite realm of time, Carse’s expansive, “infinite” perspective “generates time” by allowing new interpretations to perpetually grow out of old works (Carse 7). While this notion may appeal to some critics as liberating, it inevitably opens up a whole new realm of controversial interpretive problems.
One such interpretive problem exists in the essay titled “War as Metaphor for Abortion” that imports modern cultural biases into Randall Jarrell’s 1945 poem, “Death of a Ball Turret Gunner.” This work of criticism argues that Jarrell’s gruesome imagery is not merely a criticism of war but actually a startling, “hideously graphic rendering of the abortion procedure.” While the language and imagery patterns arguably lend themselves to this possibility, the responsible reader must question the underlying tenets and implications of this interpretation. Clearly, the abortion metaphor theory hinges on Carse’s notion of “infinite,” evolutionary criticism; only an expansive temporal framework allows the critic to cite congruence between modern, “updated” cultural biases and an “old” work of art that was originally created before the social controversy of abortion ever erupted (Carse 7).
Making a variety of critical maneuvers, a responsible reader can assess the validity of the abortion metaphor by utilizing a polysemous approach to the issue. The methods of historical criticism, biographical criticism, New Criticism, and reader-response theory serve as important critical lenses that approach the interpretive problem from numerous angles. The historical approach illuminates the prevalent social context surrounding the poem’s original creation, insisting that the reader examine whether abortion was in fact a controversial issue during the finite era of the poem’s birth. Similarly, the biographical approach inspects the personal background and literary dispositions of the author, almost as if the author himself is a sort of text. This method reveals authorial biases inherent in the poem’s creation. In contrast, the New Critical lens focuses on the text itself, evaluates the internal tensions and textural nuances contained within the poem. This approach constricts the parameters of the interpretive process, limiting the critic to the immediate textual boundaries. Obviously, this New Critical approach (as well as the historical and the biographical) impose finite, temporally and textually static boundaries for the critic, contrasting starkly with Carse’s more dynamic idea of criticism as an “infinite game.” Finally, reader-response criticism affords the reader slightly more leeway, allowing the reader to filter the poem through her own contemporary horizons of expectation.
By sifting through the various interpretive criteria and assessing the problem via each of the four critical methods, the reader can ultimately determine the essence and the role of the abortion metaphor. In this case, it seems that the issue of temporal and textual focus becomes the central crux of the interpretive problem; the reader must determine how much perspective distance, referent from both time and text, she will allow between herself and the original poetic creation. This four-pronged critical approach reveals that the abortion metaphor holds up only under the more expansive, less exacting parameters of reader response criticism. In other words, critical approaches that confine the poem within finite temporal and textual boundaries undermine the abortion interpretation while an “infinite” temporal and textual perspective allows the reader to “create” and alter the meaning of the poem by importing extrinsic biases.
The poem, “Death of a Ball Turret Gunner” was published in 1945 in a short book entitled Little Friend, Little Friend. It was Randall Jarrell’s second book and helped establish his reputation as a popular poet. “Death of a Ball Turret Gunner” appears as the final and most well-known poem in a collection addressing primarily the subjects of war, military life, and the “State.” Incidentally, the poems that accompany “Death of a Ball Turret Gunner,” do not seem to imply any pattern of political or social commentary regarding abortion.
In the middle of the twentieth century, abortion did not inhabit the same public spotlight as it would later during the 1980’s, when the critical interpretation in question was written. The turning point in the abortion controversy occurred in 1973 with the Roe v. Wade decision from the U.S. Supreme Court. Prior to that case, all fifty states had laws either outlawing or restricting abortion; but by 1986, when the criticism was written, only half of the states continued to restrict abortion within the legal limits set by the federal case. Only thirty-nine abortion related deaths were recorded in 1972, the year before Roe v. Wade. The companion case, however, Doe v. Bolten, broadened the scope of ‘health’ to include social and economic factors and allowed that in the first six months an abortion could be performed simply upon request, regardless of medical necessity. As a result, by 1986, an average of forty abortions occurred per day, and no legal grounds existed to oppose this trend. This certainly indicates a vastly different social outlook on abortion than that which existed in 1945.
The literary-historical approach to the poem reveals a strange similarity between the visual image of the World War II ball-turret gunner and an unborn fetus, but at the same time, it suggests that any intentional “pairing” of the two themes must be a modern construct. In 1945, B-17s and B-24s flew missions that incorporated the use of a ball turret gunner, with the gunner situated in the “belly” of the plane in a protruding sphere that resembled a pregnant woman. The gunner had to crouch in a fetal position in order to fit in the tight space. According to historical accounts, he was usually the smallest person in the crew, thus visually resembling the small stature of a fetus. Both the B-17 and the B-24 flew at altitudes approaching six miles, or 30,000 feet. The temperature could plummet to -50 degrees. The gunner would wear bulky clothes and an electric flight suit for warmth; and as he began to sweat, the sweat would freeze due to the frigid conditions. The line in the poem, “my wet fur froze,” describes the harsh conditions a ball turret gunner could face. Additionally, the gunner was completely reliant on an oxygen mask for survival, just as a fetus would rely on the umbilical cord. The final line of the poem paints a gruesome, impersonal picture of a war-death that shares some circumstantial similarities to certain abortion methods and reads, “When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.” The ball turret was situated on the underside of the plane in a location that could be construed as the “belly” of the plane. Understandably, the impact of a flak explosion would have obliterated the gunner. The most effective means of cleaning the space was with a hose to clean the bloody mess, so again, circumstantially, the impersonal nature of spraying an individual’s remains out of the turret visually resembles the impersonal, gruesome practice of abortion.
Despite this seeming congruence between death and abortion imagery, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” fails to stand as a legitimate metaphor for abortion through the closely focused, historical critical lens. The critic’s argument that washing the narrator out with a hose “is a hideously graphic rendering of the abortion procedure” does not visually or medically align with the prevalent abortion practices of 1945. The method has since advanced to a suction-aspiration procedure that seems to fit the imagery pattern more legitimately. Thus a modern congruence influences the critic, in light of the updated horizons of expectation concerning the image of the abortion procedure. Thus, the historical approach reveals that Jarrell could not have envisioned a logical connection between war-death and abortion. By knowingly or inadvertently altering the time continuum to account for modern medical progress, the critic makes image-based assumptions that effectively “update” the imagery and diction contained in Jarrel’s text. Clearly the critic can twist the imagery pattern of the poem to support his abortion metaphor, but unless Jarrell was some kind of subtle social prophet, it seems historically illogical that the poem was written with abortion in mind.
As a New Critic, Jarrell would abhor the idea of scrutinizing his life in an attempt to better understand his poem. Nonetheless, certain biographical factors arguably infiltrate his work, though perhaps not intentionally. As a possible expression of Jarrell’s personal concerns, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” could function as a metaphor for the estrangement between Jarrell and his mother. Anna Jarrell left her husband and son in order to move to Tennessee, but Randall moved to join his mother soon afterwards. Later, at the age of twelve, Randall left Nashville and his mother behind to live with his paternal grandparents. He returned a year later to his constantly unfulfilling family life. Because he suffered from this oscillating process of estrangement and separation as a child, Jarrell may be voicing a sense of familial frustration in this poem. The line, “From my mother’s sleep,” could serve as an allusion to the strained relationship between Anna Jarrell and her son. Randall’s use of maternal imagery allows for a familial interpretation of the poem, but even in light of this possibility, it seems unlikely that anything in Jarrell’s personal life caused him to intentionally write about abortion.
His military experience, however, cannot be discounted when interpreting the poem. Although he was never deployed in a combat area, his military service helped him realize the grim nature of warfare as he was faced with the constant reality that he might end up like the ball turret gunner. Through the nonchalance with which he addresses death, he seems to have fully accepted the possibility of a grisly, untimely death. Undoubtedly, Jarrell personally wrestled with the fear of death, and his later attempted suicides further suggest that he may have harbored a truly horrible anxiety concerning death. While this anxiety might have influenced his poetry, no biographical information suggests that Jarrell had any particular concern with abortion. An unstable childhood fused with adult concerns over death could theoretically coalesce into a poetic thought-piece on abortion, but from a narrowly focused, strictly biographical angle, the abortion metaphor seems to have no foundation.
Jarrell’s work as a New Critic might also shed some light on his authorial intention. As a literary disciple of John Crowe Ransom, Jarrell was biased toward a non-expressionist approach to poetry and toward eliminating the effect of the intentional fallacy. Given this fact, it again seems unlikely that Jarrell intentionally incorporated a highly personal, subtly masked opinion concerning abortion in his poem. Thus, the biographical critical approach, like the historical method, keeps the poem in finite scope and discredits the validity of the abortion interpretation. Despite this apparent invalidation of the abortion metaphor, a New Critic might argue that the text is the text—it exists autonomously, free to speak for itself. Like any poem, this one lends itself to a New Critical interpretive approach because of its internal tensions and other structural and textural characteristics. Ultimately though, the New Critical approach does not uphold the interpretation of the poem as a metaphor for abortion because the basis of this interpretation violates certain New Critical criteria.
The sharp tensions in “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” establish the relationship between life and death as the dominant, overarching opposition. The poem is full of binaries operating within the text: life and death; dream and nightmare; natural and mechanical; “hunched” and “loosed”; “black flak” and “washed”; connectedness and dissolution. The life and death tension dominates the poem because all the other tensions connotatively feed into this primary opposition. For example, the narrator moves from images of life—the womb and his connection to his mother—toward ultimate images of lifelessness—machinery and disconnection from earth. Thus the life and death binary becomes not only a dominant theme of the poem but also the prevalent structural frame that regulates the temporal and spatial flow of the images and language. Similarly, the narrator creates the blurry, yet startling opposition of dreaming versus horrific waking, as the “nightmare fighters” bring death to the gunner. This state of dreaming establishes the nightmarish, looming mood of the poem, and it heightens the sense of visual and linguistic ambiguity. A tension of binding and expanding also operates, as the narrator is bestially “hunched” in the womb and subsequently “loosed” from life. Finally, the narrator visually contrasts the harsh “black flak” that kills the gunner with the final moment of separation when he is fluidly “washed” from the turret. This solid/fluid binary, like the others, establishes a sense of textural uncertainty that arguably relates to the “fog of war” and the delirious nature of dreams.
Despite these elements, the essay “War as Metaphor for Abortion” fails as a New Critical approach to the poem. Just as close analysis via the historical and biographical approaches reveals that the factual elements inherent in the poem’s finite social context debunk the abortion interpretation, the New Critical method relies on close textual analysis to expose the essay’s textually unsound political bias. Like the previous two methods, this New Critical interpretation supports the idea that close analysis, focused on the immediate temporal and contextual realm of the actual text, discredits the far-flung abortion interpretation. First, the title calls for a metaphorical interpretation based on certain horizons of expectation, but New Critics discourage such an interpretation. Instead, New Critics treat the poem as an autotelic artifact?an entity in and of itself?that the reader must interpret based on clear, etymologically correct diction and imagery. Any interpretation that seems to import external metaphorical significance, modern biases, or political agendas is fundamentally flawed and prevents proper analysis. Therefore, the essay’s treatment of the poem as a metaphor for an extrinsic issue disqualifies the abortion interpretation under the auspices of New Criticism.
In addition, the essay relies on certain assumptions to make its arguments that the New Critic labels as fallacies. Our critic prescribes a baseline of knowledge to the reader, making the assumption that “modern man knows” the horrors of both war and abortion. The essay betrays an intentional fallacy by assuming that the reader knows Jarrell’s intentions and motivations; the critic seems unequivocally convinced that Jarrell “wants us to learn about a new horror perpetrated on the unborn.” Yet, as stated above, the responsible New Critic believes that the poem is an object in its own right, completely independent of authorial purpose. The essay also focuses on the emotional impact of the poem, calling it “hideously graphic,” and assuming that the reader also abhors the metaphorical description of abortion. With this assumption, the author commits the affective fallacy by positing that the poem’s meaning is the same as its emotional affect. Finally, the critic imposes a didactic moral, stating that the poem teaches the audience that abortion is wrong. He moralistically blames the State for this “modern death,” but the New Critic would not read an anti-State or anti-abortion moral into this poem because the actual text clearly does not deliver such a moral. Again, the interpretation fails as a New Critical approach to the poem.
Departing from New Criticism, the reader may venture into the realm of reader response criticism where the opportunity to create a more expansive, evolutionary meaning presents itself. Nevertheless, even though it allows for a wide variety of individual responses, reader response criticism does not permit the critic to invent a plethora of fantastic and arbitrary interpretations. As a reader peruses the text, either by efferent reading or aesthetic reading, she creates meaning; but the content of the text still limits the range of meaning created during the literary experience. After all, if meaning is the sum of a reader’s response and the text itself, then viable meaning should not completely transcend the structure and the texture of the poem. Thus, when approaching the abortion interpretation, the reader must ask whether Jarrell’s text provides a base upon which the reader can establish a relationship between the poem and the idea of abortion.
The answer to this question depends on the specific methodology employed in analyzing the literary experience, as several different strains of reader response criticism exist. For example, according to structuralism, the receiver of the text can either be the real, the virtual, or the ideal reader, as indicated by certain signs and patterns in the text. The abortion interpretation suggests that Jarrell “draws on what we already know and abhor,” implying that the critic believes the text is directed toward the real reader, or the person actually reading the poem. However, the poem does not exhibit a particular prejudice for readers of any one persuasion. Knowledge of publishing information aside, Jarrell could be writing for himself, or for someone with a similar understanding of all of the author’s intentions, or for one specific person. The critic’s assumption is certainly a possibility, but the text does not provide enough internal evidence to render this interpretation as anything more than ambiguous.
The abortion interpretation fares better under the more expansive parameters of reception theory, which states that readers will understand a text according to the time period in which they live. Under this system, a criticism from 1986 should reflect the views of the populace during that era. In fact, the essay in question was written only thirteen years after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of abortion in Roe v. Wade. Considering how heated the debate remains after thirty-three years, with clear divisions between the “pro-choice” and “pro-life” ideologies, the reader can perceive in this criticism a common anxiety that many Americans felt during the post-Roe v. Wade period. Furthermore, because horizons of expectation are so fluid and the boundaries assigned to a historical period are completely artificial, the responsible reader must grant the interpretation some credibility under the criteria of reception theory. Norms, cultural biases, and linguistic connotations from different points in time continually bring new meanings to a text, thus precluding the simple, timeless reduction of a text. Under reception theory, Carse’s notion of the “infinite” critical “game” begins to play out. No longer must the reader constrict herself to the temporal framework of 1945, nor must she inspect the microscopic textual details of the poem. In a sense, Carse implies that this expansive type of criticism liberates the reader from finite temporal and textual confines; and under these “infinite” conditions, the abortion metaphor assumes a certain degree of credibility.
The school of subjective criticism also exists in the substratum of reader response criticism, and it all but eliminates the idea of text-confined criticism: “The reader’s thoughts, beliefs, and experiences play a greater part than the actual text in shaping [the] work’s meaning” (Bressler 86). Thus, the number of possible interpretations is only limited by the number of literate people that inhabit the planet. Under this method, interpretation of the work becomes an introspective process by which the reader may further develop her own identity. Norman Holland claims that this process is a subconscious attempt by the reader to work out her fears and desires in order to maintain a good state of mental and emotional health. For instance, the reader might still experience suppressed separation anxiety from her own mother, necessitating the release of those feelings via her interpretation of the poem. Thus, according to Holland, the validity of the interpretation cannot be challenged because each individual response is equally valid. This idea removes all limits from the scope of literary criticism and thus runs contrary to all previous methods of criticism.
Another critic, Bleich, agrees in part with Holland but differs when the discussion turns to personal interpretation versus actual meaning. Bleich agrees that the critic seeks to release and express her own neurosis but disagrees with Holland’s claim that the author may arbitrarily bestow meaning on the text. He asserts that any personal assessment of a text is simply an interpretation and insists that meaning can only come from a series of combined interpretations from many different readers. Through discussion, the exchange of ideas, and interaction with other texts, an interpretive community may collectively assign meaning. As a result, from Bleich’s perspective, the abortion critique can only operate as a valid form of reader response criticism if a community of readers circulates and fosters that interpretation. In a way, the social controversy caused by the poem might suffice as an adequate amount of public deliberation to confirm the abortion metaphor as a valid interpretation under the interpretive community theory. Ultimately, however, this critical viewpoint again necessitates an expansive perspective and assumes that the reader is willing to transcend the constraints of time and text.
Carse’s distinction between finite and infinite games seems to capture the fundamental problem of criticism: the problem of perspective. Many “finite” schools of criticism, such as historical, biographical, and New Criticism attempt to formally evaluate poetry by delineating clear temporal and textual boundaries. By definition, these approaches strictly regulate the scope of possible interpretations of a poem. On the other hand, expansive types of reader response criticism jettison these restrictive notions of time and text, allowing for “infinite” possibilities. Both the finite and infinite critical approaches have their own respective merits. Carse posits, “A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play” (Carse 3). Arguably, literary critics need to play both kinds of games. They need the finite game to establish a body of knowledge that is textually and temporally rooted in a strong foundation. Yet they also need infinite games. They perpetually need to revise and expand, both creatively and subjectively, that foundational body of knowledge. As discussed previously, the abortion metaphor does not meet the criteria of the finite approaches to criticism, but within the context of a more expansive critical scope, the abortion interpretation provides an additional, complementary layer to the evolving, cultural life-force of Jarrell’s classic poem.
A List of Chosen Topics on Paper Assignment #2
This piece compares structuralism with econometrics, particularly regression analysis. In so doing it suggests that structuralism's aspirations of bringing literature within the control of science ultimately fail--at least they fail literature.
Such a work as Jurassic Park serves as a useful example of the mimetic imponderables in the genre of horror. This analysis lights upon the relationship between the unknown and borders, and how that relationship ultimately turns even the very book the reader holds into a material example of border-breaking and the potential fright in any experience of reading..
The aim here is to suggest the virtual impossibility of capturing--in the "new Historical" way--all the various cultural, personal, hegemonic, material forces and discourses coursing their way through this poem, a poem which interestingly tries to find a position for itself outside of history even while invoking a sense of a patterned, historical unfolding of events.
In this piece Rachel describes the "design"--in all the senses of that word--behind female "fashion" at USNA. The implications are that female clothing expresses a contradiction between a desire to mark women as "non-men" and at the same time a need to separate them from females outside of the Navy.
The language of James Webb's 1970 Washingtonian article, "Women Can't Fight," betrays the ways in which Webb has "issues" with his passage through the Oedipal stage, particularly his fear of castration and his overdetermined need to identify with the father.
Ultimately the training regimen in Bancroft Hall seems infused with issues of authorship and reception theory, not to mention the stubborn Platonic need to capture the ideal, in this case the ideal plebe.
The very prompt for Assignment #2 is the focus of this essay. The language of that prompt, according to Ben, betrays an alarming blindness to the very notions that its putative author, Mr O'Brien, enforced in this class. Moreover, even the notion of its authorship requires interrogation, because it seems more of a product of an academic, group-think voice than an expression of individuality. And of course, the notion of its audience and all of its terms--but especially "literature" and "major works"--are subject to deconstruction. This and much more.
Steve's home church annually sends about a dozen pre-adolescents on a mission to Tijuana, Mexico. Interestingly, everyone involved--the "lost souls" of Tijuana, the youthful missionaries themselves, the Church authorities who send them, even the grand author, God--are particpating in an already composed text, whose questions of authorship, audience, and ultimate purpose or meaning are as vexed as those of any to be tackled by the likes of Derrida.
The language in Kerouac's The Dharma Bums depends so much on references to "things" and even to the country's material infrastructure--trains and interstate highways, for instance--that it undermines, or at least complicates, the book's apparent attempt to reject mainstream consumer capitalism.
The narrator in Frost's "Stopping by the Woods" enacts a kind of Marxist conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, only to relent to the ideology of the very system it implicitly criticizes.
This essay analyzes heterosexual relationships at the Academy as involved in a system of conventional discourse. Those relationships also can be analyzed in terms of Formalism, Marxism, and New Historicism. Strangely, "Facebook" becomes the certifying document in this ritual of establishing and identifying "a relationship" in the Hall.
A feminist, or perhaps more of a gender studies reading of "Dulce Et Decorum Est," this piece examines the imagery of men transformed into deficient females as an opening onto the partriarchical assumptions behind Owen's attack on Patriarchy. It also tries to come to terms with Owen's latent homosexuality as an aspect of the poem's surprisingly strong focus on gender.
Three Successful Student Papers on Assignment #2
Material Forces in Kerouac
When critics and readers think of Jack Kerouac today, many picture him as the legendary idol of the Beat Generation—the revolutionary spark of the 1950’s sub-culture that forged the way for the broader counter-culture movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s. He has become an enduring icon of social non-conformity, immortalized as the free spirit who first rejected mainstream consumer capitalism in America. Kerouac’s experimental lifestyle of rucksack wandering, hitchhiking, and Zen Buddhism fused with jazz-inspired wine parties, sexual freedom, and spiritual intellectualism is now viewed as a triumphant defeat of the restrictive, bourgeois conventions of the mid-20th century. Yet while he undeniably questioned the status quo and espoused unconventional intellectual and spiritual viewpoints, I cannot accept this revolutionary vision of Kerouac as a man who completely rejected the prevalent material culture of his era. In the novel The Dharma Bums, Kerouac certainly portrays a vision of off-beat, minimalist fringe living, but as both author and narrative persona, he perpetually mentions and reflects on the material elements that affect his life and the world around him. At certain points in the narrative, he nominally rejects mainstream materialism, yet strangely, he simultaneously tends to frame his spiritual and intellectual perspective—his personal “superstructure”—on a relation to and struggle with material forces.
From a Marxist critical perspective, I observe a complex juxtaposition of ideologies in The Dharma Bums. The ideology of capitalist consumerism functions as the broad societal backdrop that looms over Kerouac’s sub-culture, and at times, Kerouac reacts hostilely against conventional materialism. Most readers see Kerouac in terms of this basic ideological binary: a lifestyle of nomadic spontaneity, material minimalism, and experimental spirituality pitted against a society of suburban homes, television sets, and conventional morality. A legitimate Marxist analysis, however, reveals a more complex and significant interplay of ideological tensions. In The Dharma Bums, Kerouac is not just reacting against material reality; he is trying to find his place in reference to mainstream ideology and, to some extent, within it. Kerouac sometimes embraces revolutionary non-conformity, but he also reveals a sense of uncertainty about his role within a materialistic society that overwhelms him. Through a Marxist critical lens, I intend to explore the interplay of ideology in The Dharma Bums, focusing particularly on the way that Kerouac’s intellectual and spiritual perspective is fundamentally influenced by the material forces that he frequently describes.
As the title of the work suggests, the novel is a confessional, first-person narrative depicting and musing upon the “religious wanderer” lifestyle of Zen Buddhism (Kerouac 5). Ray Smith, the persona of Kerouac, narrates a rather unfocused chronology of episodes, continually reflecting on these occurrences through Buddhist meditation and intellectual insight. At first glance, the narrator’s dominant focus on thoughts and spiritual issues clashes significantly against the fundamental assertion of Marxism. In The German Ideology, Marx posits that “production of ideas, concepts and consciousness is first of all directly interwoven with the material intercourse of man.” He further argues, “Consciousness does not determine life: life determines consciousness” (Kaplan 527). Ray’s narrative perspective does not adhere to Marx’s criteria because, as Kerouac’s personal voice, Smith seemingly regulates and conceptualizes the world through ideas and consciousness. In fact, he often attempts to explain the world into nothingness, relying on his Buddhist insight to somehow erase society’s material structure. Early in the novel, Ray describes his Zen vision: “Stop everything and stop your mind and you actually with your eyes closed see a kind of electrical multiswarm of electrical Power of some kind ululating in place of just pitiful images and forms of objects, which are, after all, imaginary” (Kerouac 33). Here, the concrete stability of material objects fades into a kaleidoscopic meditative vision. Through this type of spontaneous, confessional description, Kerouac suppresses material infrastructure and attempts to establish an independent spiritual superstructure.
Although Ray Smith voices an ascetic Zen perspective throughout the novel, he remains intricately and inevitably affixed to his material environment despite his Buddhist rhetoric. Even in the first paragraph of the book, Ray juxtaposes his aesthetic awareness with concrete, material details. He narrates, “Hopping a freight out of Los Angeles…I got on a gondola and lay down with my duffel bag under my head and my knees crossed and contemplated the clouds” (3). In the first sentence of the novel, Kerouac highlights the preeminence and importance of economic infrastructure on Smith’s nomadic treks, and he suggests the importance of Smith’s seemingly insignificant personal belongings. Immediately, Smith jumps the train and purchases “wine, a little bread and candy,” again establishing another small material detail (4). Descriptions of belongings, purchases, and material infrastructure such as these make up a large portion of Kerouac’s long, somewhat rambling narrative throughout the novel.
Now obviously, material details exist in any text; they provide descriptive value and add validity and texture to the setting. Yet in The Dharma Bums, material minutiae often form the significant structural and narrative base for Smith’s contemplative vision. In this particular episode, the aesthetic and spiritual value of Ray’s wanderer lifestyle hinges on the productive force of railroad infrastructure. The clouds, the thoughts, the conversation with the other tramp on the train, Ray’s internal reflections—these important elements of Kerouac’s broader superstructure of ideas all depend on Ray’s material mode of travel. Similarly, Ray’s cross-country hitchhiking odysseys, which epitomize the Kerouacian ethos, depend on the newly developed interstate infrastructure of the 1950’s. Smith occasionally rails against the vast material progress and rampant consumerism of American society, but simultaneously, his lifestyle and consciousness depend heavily on those same material forces. Furthermore, throughout the novel, Ray always carefully catalogs his small collection of personal belongings: his can of beans, cheese macaroni, duffel bag, rucksack, bottle of wine. These lists of material goods precede and influence Ray’s spiritual and intellectual insights in every major episode of the novel.
From this type of material discourse, Ray proceeds into his superstructure vision of the world. He exclaims, “I saw that my life was a vast glowing empty page and I could do anything I wanted” (148). Yet these expansive visions of freedom and infinitude never successfully disconnect themselves from material reality. In a lucid example of his material dependence, Ray explains, “I realized I had indeed learned…how to cast off the evils of the world and the city and find my true pure soul, just as long as I had a decent pack on my back” (156). This statement qualifies Ray’s spiritual triumph by mentioning the material necessities of his backpacking lifestyle, which, of course, inevitably tie him to the material world that he simultaneously attempts to “cast off.”
As the novel progresses, Ray becomes aware of this cyclical dependency, and he offers a description that defines the quintessence of his lifestyle. He summarizes the cycle of his own experience, “trying to tame my mind in the woods, then realizing it was all empty and awake and I didn’t have to do anything, and now I was getting drunk with…Japhy” (175). Ray describes a cycle in which he seeks out solitude and meaning, subsequently discovers nothingness and void, and finally gets sucked back into the wine parties, poetry readings, sexual escapades, and material preoccupations of society. The most memorable and notably non-conformist passages of the novel revel in spiritual discovery and suppress the material world, but importantly, Ray Smith also struggles with the realization that his spiritual visions always derive from and lead him back to material reality.
The prevalence and narrative importance of material descriptions in The Dharma Bums corroborate the theory underlying my Marxist approach. Common conceptions of Kerouac and his literary characters cast them solely as revolutionary icons who achieve spiritual independence from materialism, but as evidenced, much of Kerouac’s consciousness derives directly from the economic infrastructure and personal material goods that comprise his immediate environment. Ray’s tendency to constantly catalogue these material elements reveals a concern with personal ownership and a dependency on broad societal infrastructure. While infrastructure and material goods arguably exist as plot details in any story, they become more vital elements in The Dharma Bums because they interrelate with and profoundly influence the superstructure of ideas that defines the Kerouacian vision.
What Does it All Mean?
Literary critical situations are so numerous that the task of picking one in particular upon which to focus is difficult. However, as I brainstorm, one becomes exceedingly clear since it is sitting right in front of me…the prompt for Option A concerning this essay. Since I chose Option B, the most pertinent literary critical situation at the moment seems to be the prompt staring back from the computer screen. Whether the wording of the prompt is intentional (to see if anyone would catch it) or if it was just written in haste is unclear. Nonetheless, it is humorous to be instructed to “examine a piece of literature or a passage from a major work in terms of one of the critical schools we have studied during this term” after considering everything discussed over the duration of the semester. Thus, within the brief pages of this (dare I say?) text some of the glory, wonder, and even fury of the knowledge gained in this course shall be unleashed upon this poor unsuspecting prompt—and in the end it may all somehow tie back to the nearly blasphemous, yet always crucial idea of meaning.
The first question worthy of discussion that comes to mind is that of the identity of the author. Prior to taking the course I would have simply said that you (obviously the virtual reader in this instance is Professor O’Brien) wrote the prompt. But did you? This particular prompt is in the basic format that I have seen numerous times throughout my literary experience, both in high school, and as an English major at USNA. Essentially, it instructs (the irony in the fact that I’m now paraphrasing meaning while I’m supposedly breaking this text down is bound to make you chuckle) the student to analyze a work based on the techniques taught in course. This prompt has likely been around for as long as students have been learning literary criticism techniques and attempting to practice them. It bears similarity to the ancient myths and stories that seem to show themselves in every culture (i.e. the flood myth from Genesis, Gilgamesh, etc). Such myths do not have official authors for no one knows from whence they came. Why should this prompt by any different? You copied the words into the html code for the website, but did you truly author the words of that prompt? Maybe it was written by the canonical powers of academia insofar as English is concerned. The collective will of those in power over the teaching and study of English willed that this basic prompt always be among the options presented to the student, and so it appears. The broad implications of the prompt’s age and importance make me fairly certain you cannot be the sole author. However, new historicism rules out the idea of ever concluding upon any single author since far too many variables and voices exist for there to ever be any exact certainty about the identity of an alleged author. Thus, I must be satisfied with the idea that you may be a partial author via academia’s use of you as their representative to further propagate this prompt, but cannot be the sole author.
Now that I have some foggy idea about who authored the text, the next pertinent question seems to be: to whom was it written? Who is the intended audience? Again, back at the beginning of August, I would have thought it to be a simple question with an obvious answer. However, why would the author (we will assume an author from this point forward, and although I say author in the singular form, it does not necessarily refer to a single individual) use terms like “literature” and “major work” when the course material had just shed so much ambiguity and uncertainty upon such ideas? Perhaps the intended audience is not limited to the students who will write their essays based on the prompt. Suppose the assignment was to be read by a fellow member of the academic society. Would it not follow that this fellow member might have expectations concerning the types of prompts that should be present for a culminating assignment? And were this fellow member of the ruling academic class to find his/her colleague’s assignment lacking, it might prompt investigation into the personal merit of the professor issuing such unsatisfactory assignments. Thus, in a subtle effort to ensure no change in the power status quo, the original professor adds the prompt herein discussed. What once was an innocent prompt added to allow the student a choice has been transformed into a Marxist mechanism for maintaining the integrity of the ruling class. It is simply amazing what one semester can do.
Author and audience aside, what should be done with the text itself? It, and in turn the author (assuming the author has any measure of control over the text once the writing is complete), confidently assumes the objective existence of such things as “literature” and “major works.” Many of the authors dealt with in this course do the same, but to whose definition should we cling? Plato, Longinus, and Tolstoy all advocate vastly different ideas about what defines literature, sublimity, and good art in general. You might argue that considering a text covered in the course would have been a safe bet, but we barely scratched the surface of the idea of criticism as literature. How could the student be sure that the criticism read for class was either literature or a major work? These two ideas also carry inherent privileged binaries which warrant further analysis. Why should literature be privileged over things considered non-literary (although I’m not sure we can consider anything non-literary, because that would first require being able to define texts as literary), and major works over those that might be minor? What social framework are we thinking from within to assume these binaries possess any merit or truth? Deconstruction posits that the transcendental signified is completely arbitrary, so there is really nowhere to turn where any form of immutable truth may be found. All things considered, I think I did well to make it through a reading of that prompt without collapsing on my keyboard from all the implicit questions and uncertainty.
I realize that what I just did with that prompt was a bit extreme, but this it the last assignment of the class, so I had to have my fun. I enjoyed it, and I hope you did as well. This discussion has essentially turned into a personalized letter to you, but I suppose that is permitted since you are both the virtual and intended reader. All the actual readers (should there ever be any) will simply have to deal with it.
In closing, I would like to take up your response to my question about why you come to work everyday, and pose a few thoughts I had concerning the matter. Regardless of what literary theories or ideas we discussed, everything came back to meaning in some form or another. Some theories sought to define it while others attempted to deny it altogether, but each still held the idea of meaning as a central tenet. You spoke of the classroom setting as being a portal for your personal self-discovery, and that learning new things about yourself was meaningful to you. I believe that is the real heart of the entire matter. We discussed all sorts of fascinating ideas and theories throughout the course, but none of them necessarily reached us at the level you described. Formalism, Plato, Feminism, Arnold—none of these names and schools of thought, or their associated ideas, supply your drive to come to work each day. The potential for self-discovery is what brings you through the gates. Thus, for you I would argue the literary text is our class, and the meaning of that text is your personal adventure of introspection.
The cliché of life as a book constantly being written as we live has been overused, but it may possess some merit. Maybe the pages of text in our lives during which we interact with the source of our driving motivation are the true literary texts—and the meaning we glean becomes the true meaning of the text. Maybe every time you step into that classroom, you are experiencing literature. It is no wonder that any two people can never agree upon an exact meaning because none of us are reading the same text. Like you said in class, this is a romantic notion if there ever was one, but does that mean it cannot be accurate? I submit that we are all motivated by the aspects of life that reach the places within us that the confines of language have never nor will ever be able to grasp. These deep and passionate recesses of the soul are not activated in everything we do, but when they are the force the drives each of us is released to carry us on to the next experience. Is it so crazy to think that the text which serves as a bridge to those places is the true lit
Patriarchical Gas in "Dulce et Decorum Est"
“GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!” rings through the trenches, punctuating the monotonous misery of trench life. “An ecstasy of fumbling” occurs after a beat while men desperately put on the masks to save themselves from the sea of death. “But someone still was yelling out and stumbling” while the others don their salvation, the poor reprobate flails as his lungs fill with poison. Soon, the deadly vapor dissipates leaving only a corpse and nightmares to follow. During the First World War, Wilfred Owen penned several poems dwelling on the horrific existence in the French trenches, "Dulce Et Decorum Est" being arguably the most well known among them. For many, the poem’s narrator reveals the horrors of war and the dehumanization that takes place on the battlefield, and moreover, it questions the decisions that position young men to die for God and Country. However, beneath Owen’s explicit disdain for the lie “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” there exists an attempt to wrestle with the confusion of men, women, and gender. As war forces people to view irrational patriotism critically, the extreme nature of battle also addles humanity’s perception of gender roles. In "Dulce Et Decorum Est," Owen displays how arbitrarily these roles are assigned then reassigned. By first revealing this hidden subtext and then by searching for the reason behind Owen placing it there, we can unveil a call to action: the recognition of a patriarchy that does not only destroy men’s bodies but also their minds.
The gender subtext starts with Owen describing the aimless moving about the trenches: “towards distant rest” the men trudge, “like old beggars under sacks.” The demoralized soldiers lose their classification as men of action by describing them as “beggars.” The life lacking purpose exposes the confusion of being planted here, in part because their single-sexed environs. Without women to represent “the Other,” the men begin to lose their definition, sliding into the same terms reserved for females. Nowhere is this more apparent than when Owen describes the soldiers as “knock-kneed, coughing like hags.” “Knock-kneed” along with “old beggars” reveal that these youths are no longer the physically strong men that celebrate their manliness. Not only are the men now losing their masculine identification with “knock-kneed,” but they have become female, the activity of manhood replaced by the passivity of the woman. One definition of the word hag from the Oxford English Dictionary is “An ugly, repulsive old woman: often with implication of viciousness or maliciousness.” Other definitions deal with supernatural elements such as the infernal world or the Furies, but all have female as part of their explanation. The soldiers, then, are not young maidens at the prime of health, brimming with femininity; they are old, nearly sexless crones which the trench dwellers had previously associated with the end of womanhood. But here in the dismal, womanless earthwork, the soldiers now identify themselves with the previously discarded members of society: a woman drained of her sexual abilities and youth. Drained of their masculinity, the entrenched display their own confusion with gender roles.
This grueling trudge is suddenly punctuated by the dropping of “disappointed” gas shells, and in this moment the soldiers become men again, throwing off their passivity and engaging in panicky action. However, one unfortunate soul does not succeed in staving off death. The narrator watches as the dying boy yells out, stumbles, then flounders finally swallowed “as under a green sea.” In Elaine Showalter’s "Representing Ophelia," the writer posits that “Drowning too was associated with the feminine, with female fluidity as opposed to masculine aridity.” The female element, the ocean is present, but here it is a sea of death, once again replacing the fecund femininity with a near-death hag. The death of the boy by drowning prevents arrival at masculinity, forever having him swallowed up by destructive, unhealthy womanhood. Stripped of society’s assigned gender, the victim is rendered ambiguous, featureless, and sexless.
Contrasted with the sexless, confused roles of Owen’s poem, there stands the great lie: “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” or “It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country.” The country here is “patria” or fatherland, the paternal hand which both calls for wars and spawns the soldiers that fight in it. Against this ultimate father figure, all are rendered less than male, forcing the men of the war into the confusing position of being less manly than the country which asks the soldiers to die on its behalf. Words like “sweet” also give a more feminine feel to the duty of death, as poets like Shakespeare had used “sweet” to describe the love of a young maiden (see, for instance, “thy sweet love” in sonnet number twenty-nine), but also the dying Hamlet by Horatio (“goodnight sweet prince” in the final act). Repeating the connection between mortality and womanhood made before, Owen uses the only way to describe a dying man: by comparing him to a young woman. These men, now less than the true man, march forward confused, questioning the traits that make them either male or female. The fact that the country, the Patria ultimately controls the men’s gender stresses the patriarchic world from which the soldiers previously received their values.
Yet even the narrator does not safely stay out of the feminization and then neutering of the soldier. The trencher who speaks of the loss he sees buys into patriarchy as much as those he entices. The speaker does not decry the existence of misguided gender roles in society; he only laments that his young boys are being turned into women. Unable to escape from the vicious preconceptions dooming the soldiers into false awareness, the narrator can only register his sadness in a paternal way. Owen provides us with a speaker that cannot let go of these biases because they are so ingrained in the culture, for the narrator too, is molded by the society. He too considers the female the less than the male, and considers it a travesty for these men to be transformed into hags. By decrying the loss of manhood that occurs, the narrator supports patriarchy, even if he disagrees with this patriarchy. Ultimately, Wilfred Owen placed this gender confusion throughout the poem by having the narrator name the dead with female language. By this method, Owen reveals the narrator’s innate prejudice and confusion caused by supporting the Patria; the speaker too represses women.
But why would this young British officer write almost as much on the feminization of the war as on its horror? The confusion with gender roles also continued outside of the text itself, into the brief life of its author. The experience credited as the main encouragement of Wilfred Owen’s work was the friendship formed between him and fellow soldier-poet Siegfried Sassoon while Owen convalesced from battle wounds. A deep relationship formed with Sassoon, with him becoming Owen’s “Keats and Christ and Elijah” (see Owen’s biography by Merryn Williams for letters between the two). Because of the erotic love he felt between the two writers, Owen’s vision of gender norms received assault. Near this time, Owen began to develop the poetic voice with which he writes "Dulce Et Decorum Est." The bond of this relationship became much stronger than the feelings either had for women, therefore calling into question the gender role Owen had been handed. No longer defined as a man who loves a woman, he is now a man who loves a man, confusedly juxtaposing his own masculinity with a feminine desire for Sassoon. Unlike Sassoon who eventually grew bolder with his sexuality, Owen never fully revealed or formed his own identity. His own gender confusion occurring after loving another man, Owen has reason enough to doubt the wisdom of the Patria in assigning gender roles.
Because of gender confusion within the text and the revelation of Owen’s own tumultuous understanding of himself, we are forced to critique the patriarchy which creates such havoc. Taking this confusion with him into his poem, Owen questioned the maleness of all soldiers and indeed felt a deep sense of care and despair over the dead boy. This lament borders on the sensual when the speaker describes what could be considered as losing his love to the sea. The war, the symptom of the Patria, then destroys this love, placing “vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,” an ultimate male force rendering the feminine into the sexless. The narrator, also neutered by his experiences in war, can only watch as before his “helpless sight,” the Patria destroys the female. By these means, we see a steady regression where men become boys, boys become women, and women finally become sexless hags. The patriarchy has taken femininity and made it into a less form of being male; it later on takes womanhood and neuters it. The hope of destroying the Patria and all it represents must fall to the reader, who views not only the injustices contained within the poem, but also those of Owen’s life as a whole. The vaunting of patriotism as a substitute for maleness has chaotic effects on the world and the soul.
Such destruction heralds the end of a permanent, societal-given sexual identity. The soldiers are acted on continuously, rendering them impassive “hags,” which die drowning as women. Owen himself, confused with the budding of a new sexuality, confronts how the extreme experience blurs the line delineated by the Patria, by kings, by God and Country, as soldiers limp on in the trenches; removed from their role as masculine men, they now inhabit a female arena. Owen questions the patria that sends men into battle, but also questions what it means to be men in such a world and what replaces it if this manhood is taken away. Much like Owen’s own experience with the subject, his answers are confused, powerful, and brief, but leave the reader to perfect the imperfect of war and gender.