Sunday, January 4, 2009

Left-brained literary analysis

At the close of '08, as my daughter and I finished reading Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little, it struck me that part of what makes these books work so well is how certain key scenes, at once, are inherently intriguing, and set the stage for later scenes that would otherwise seem contrived, thus fulfilling Chekhov's maxim that:

If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there.
Consider, for example, the chapter in which Stuart Little's family searches for him after he gets rolled up in the living room blinds, which highlights the compulsiveness of older brother George:
George meantime went down cellar and hunted around to see if he could find the other entrance to the mousehole. He moved a great many trunks, suitcases, flower pots, baskets, boxes, and broken chairs from one end of the cellar to the other in order to get at the section of wall which he thought was likeliest, but found no hole. He did, however, come across an old discarded rowing machine of Mr. Little's, and becoming interested in this, carried it upstairs with some difficulty and spent the rest of the morning in rowing.
Entertaining in its own right, this scene also makes plausible George's subsequent rush to lower the blinds when the family starts worrying that Stuart is gone forever:
"George!" shouted Mr. Little in an exasperate tone, "if you don't stop acting in an idiotic fashion, I will have to punish you. We are having enough trouble today without having to cope with your foolishness."

But George had already run into the living room and had begun to darken it, to show his respect for the dead. He pulled a cord and out dropped Stuart onto the window sill.
Or consider how, in Charlotte's Web, the author gets the reader, along with Wilbur, to appreciate the miracle of web building prior to the first supernatural miracle, in a chapter in which Wilbur, provoked by Templeton, the rat, ties a rope to his tail and attempts to spin a web.

But how often do literature classes reverse-engineer a work of literature to see how the parts thus fit together to make an effective whole?

Even back when the close literary analysis held sway, in its preference for such rarefied techniques as imagery, metaphor, symbolism, and theme, it tended to shy away from the more mechanical, "workmanlike" aspects of writing.

Today's classes, which some secondary schools now call "Literacy" rather than "English," have taken us even further afield, with their blinkered, narcissistic focus on "personal connections," identity politics, and life lessons.


Marta said...

I remember reading Charlotte's Web aloud to my daughter and being struck by how well written it was. Certainly, the story is charming, but lots of children's literature involves a charming plot and likable characters. What got me was the craftsmanship of the writing...everything so carefully thought out and put together. It was a refreshing change in the world of children's literature.

Liz Ditz said...

HI there Lefty,

I wanted to make sure that you saw the latest Eide Neurolearning post on math brains,

While most people would agree that "math people" are not like "non-math people", it's not always easy for non-mathematical minds to recognize (and appropriately nurture) mathematical ones. The reasons for this are several - mathematical kids are often independent and internally-driven problem solvers who may or may not excel in the standard math tasks of the elementary school classroom (if he's such a math kid, how come he's getting C's on his timed drills?...) Many students with extreme talents in math may also be relatively verbal-poor, so are less obviously the "smart" children in class. Also they may be reluctant to show what they know or what they are interested in to relative strangers, and may have difficulty explaining how they arrived at answers.

lefty said...

Thanks, Liz,

Very interesting post. Much to think about.