Sometimes a curtain is just a curtain

Lynne Diligent on Dilemmas of an Expat Tutor presents: How High School Students Feel in Literature Class.

What the Author Meant

About Joanne


  1. The over-analyzing teacher needs a good dose of negative reinforcement, such as pepper spray or a Tazer.

  2. MagisterGreen says:

    Heh…this is why I love reading Homer with my students. They love it when I tell them that Homer simply says what he means and means what he says. It’s liberating.

  3. Now if only I can convince my wife that the same applies to what I say when she asks “how do I look?”

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      There is only one acceptable response to that question, Sub.

      “Why, you look lovely, of course.”

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    Read an adventure book in which one of the characters is sitting in the cockpit of a little airplane, waiting to take off. Thinks about how he, a big guy, has so much of his height in his torso and thus less in his legs. Has to hunch over uncomfortably.
    What an English teacher might make of this is a sweaty proposition.
    The author is a fraternity brother. He’s 6’4″, and had just too much of his height in his torso to fit into USAF aircraft as a pilot so he couldn’t go to flight school. Was a KC135 nav for three years in SEA.
    I’ll never be in a position to pose this gotcha to an imaginative English teacher about this book. Life is so unfair.

  5. It seems to me that some people have bitter memories of not being very good students of literature.

  6. Richard Aubrey says:

    Robert. I figure it is more correct that they have bitter memories of lousy English teachers.
    There is a word, “exegesis” which means getting a theme out of something written, principally used regarding the Bible. Unfortunately, I cannot recall the word, although I’ve heard it, which means putting a theme, unsupported, into something.
    As long as lit teachers refrain from the opposite of exegesis, things would be better. Not perfect, of course, but much better.

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    Oh, yeah. Recall reading “Up The Down Staircase” many years ago. Author said that she was required to do an essay on some piece of writing. So she did. The readers–she was shooting for a NYC teaching job, iirc–disagreed with her interpretation.
    She said the author was a family friend and that this indeed was what he had meant.
    The ‘crats then assigned essays on dead authors.
    Point is, there is no empirical way to discover what the “author meant”. Or, as in the case of “Up The….” finding it out could be embarrassing or inconvenient. It’s a matter of taking the word of a person whose career is all about imposing meanings which cannot be checked or contradicted. In addition, the person may well have never had a life outside academia since he or she went to kindergarten.
    Imagine somebody who’s never been in the military, ditto his or her family and anybody he or she knows explaining “Thin Red Line” to a bunch of nineteen-year olds, and two twenty-two year old combat vets on the GI Bill.

  8. J. Remarque says:

    What anti-intellectual nonsense. If a kid sees blue curtains (and similar details of set design) in a TV or movie, he knows right away that it helps set a mood or convey some sort of tone…because he watches TV shows and movies all the time and is fluent in their visual language. Why shouldn’t the same apply to books? Sure, there are some bad English teachers, but the kid who can get fluent in the sort of basic, unchallenging symbolism found in high school literature classes is going to have an edge. Because if you think that writing should be all surface, no nuance, then God help your kids when they start listening to politicians’ speeches or doublespeak from some idiot boss.

  9. Richard, yes, I’m sure there are bad English teachers. A few are turgid, but of those that are bad, most don’t even attempt interpretation.

    Plato was a philosopher, not a speleologist. Sometimes a cave is not a cave.

    • MagisterGreen says:

      “Sometimes a cave is not a cave.”

      But at least Plato was kind enough to tell us that he wanted us to imagine a cave. His intent – that the cave was a metaphor – was clear from the outset. Thus we do not need to invent meaning where none exists. All this post-modernistic BS that has infected our culture robs us of the simple pleasure of a thing merely being the thing itself. And, sadly, English departments and teachers are often purveyors of this nonsense.

      And his metaphorical cave is, in fact, a metaphorical cave.

  10. My high school AP English lit teacher was getting her master’s at the time she was teaching us. Apparently, her lit crit department was into feminist theory at the time, because she told us that *every single* Shakespeare play was *first and foremost* about how shabbily women were treated, and the need for equality for them. Yes, including Hamlet, and yes, including Taming of the Shrew.

    So we of course had to write that garbage back for our 5 paragraph essays.

    That meant I learned nothing from her. I tuned her out, and if she did have anything to offer, or heck, if Shakespeare did, I was too young and ignorant to realize it on my own. Sadly, being young and egotistical and ignorant, I dismissed Shakespeare when I dismissed her. College didn’t offer any better lit theory courses, so I still am ignorant on what if anything Shakespeare was trying to tell me.

  11. J. Remarque says:

    “All this post-modernistic BS that has infected our culture robs us of the simple pleasure of a thing merely being the thing itself.”

    Yeah, like when Jesus spoke about mustard seeds. Clearly he just liked to grow plants! And that Prodigal Son business? Just some dude who lived up the street from his mom.

    “Animal Farm”? Oh, they’re just talking animals. Why read more deeply?

    All those details in Renaissance paintings? Just bric-a-brac the artist had sitting around!

    American culture almost never asks us to see the thing as anything other than the thing itself. Thank goodness the classroom sometimes does. I won’t defend bad, monomaniacal English teachers like the ones mentioned above, but all this “bah! symbolism!” talk is a lame form of fundamentalism, and it does damage. Not getting kids to learn basic speculation about symbolism leads to them discovering junk like “The Da Vinci Code” as adults and thinking the educational system has been hiding “secret knowledge” from them.

    • MagisterGreen says:

      Oh, fiddlesticks. There’s a plain difference between a metaphor/parable/allegory and reading into a piece of text more than was ever intended to be in there. Plato’s allegory is of a cave, Christ’s is of a long-lost child, and they work. Plato asks us to think of life as a cave; the post-modernist tells us the cave is a womb or some other such rot. One is a plain understanding of what the author meant (the cave is our world, dark and obscure, etc) and the other is pure nonsense masquerading as ‘educated’ analysis.

  12. Richard Aubrey says:

    J. Remarque
    You take yourself too seriously. Some things are known as parables, metaphors,or hyperbole and understood as such.
    My point is, as with my fraternity brother throwing a little color into a book, that you can’t know which is which until you know something else.
    The adventure of the essay described in Up The Down Staircase has an educated woman being told that what she knows to be true by experience, is not true because…that’s the way the big shooters think it is.
    Speculation without empirical means of checking your conclusions is an interesting, or boring, time spent navel-gazing.
    I am probably older than most folks posting here and I recall a few of the earlier Vietvets returning to campus, to be told by the profs what was happening in Viet Nam. Being prudent, they said nothing in class, but the communications we got from them outside class were priceless. Didn’t do the profs much good, either.
    Nobody is against symbolism. You create a straw man. Most of us dislike being told that X must mean something because…. and there’s no way of checking. That would be taking a prof on faith, a really, really bad idea.

  13. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Symbolism, especially the speculative sort that Richard Aubrey’s criticizing, is easy and doesn’t require any sort of wisdom or perspective. X means Y, M means N — look! We’re doing literature!

    That might have something to do with why it’s so popular with certain types of teachers. Some people have done a lot more literature than they have life.

    It is in “doing humanity”, though, rather than “doing literature”, where the harder and more fruitful part of a literary education can be found.

  14. Having taught literature for many years, I could ramble on the topic in several directions. I’ll limit myself here to six statements.

    1. Is it possible to be very intelligent and yet have little or no understanding of literature? Yes.

    2. Is it possible to be a voracious reader of fiction and have little or no understanding of literature? Yes.

    3. Is it possible to appreciate literature without having been taught how? Unlikely.

    4. Is it possible to appreciate literature without intellectualizing about it? Yes.

    5. Is literature a subject that should be taught in school? It has value, but unlike math, it is not essential.

    6. What do you call people who say there’s no way of knowing what an author meant to say? Ignorant.

  15. Richard Aubrey says:

    Robert. Or you could call somebody who claims to know what a writer meant a friend and fraternity brother of the writer. But that doesn’t happen often so you don’t have to worry about it.
    As it happens, afaik, Moby Dick didn’t answer a question. Most guys who have their leg chewed off by a whale would stay ashore and get a job as a bookkeeper or something.
    Why was Ahab different? If you don’t answer that, you have a nutjob chasing a whale but with interesting history of nineteenth-century whaling.

  16. Let’s not forget Bartleby.

    He was one of the first to protest the ruling class by illegally occupying Wall Street.

  17. Lightly Seasoned says:

    OK, it will totally make my day if I see a protest poster that says, ‘I’d prefer not to.”