A Note on How We Analyze

Remember high school English class? I’m sure we’ve all had that high school (or college) experience of being assigned schoolwork that consisted of reading a work of literature and then analyzing it. “What does this chapter say about the role of women in society during the 1940’s?” and perhaps “what is the author saying about capitalism here?” (Fun side-note for literature peeps: if you want to read a short story through a Marxist lens, try my short story on Amazon).

When assigned these questions for homework, where to begin searching for answers? We can’t ask Victor Hugo or Herman Melville what they were trying to say about gender roles or the working class, because they aren’t around anymore. And, a lot of the time, I’m sure many of us would say it felt like we were making things up just to get the homework out of the way. It begs the question – for analysis, is there really a CORRECT analysis for any given project? Or is it fine to stop at mere speculation, as long as we provide the correct number of citations to back our claim?

What exactly do I mean? Hopefully this makes more sense of what I’m getting at:

Let’s revisit what I said about literature analyzation in my last post – sure, you may build a powerful argument in favor of your interpretation of your poem/essay/novel of choice. But there’s no way of knowing if the screenwriter for The Walking Dead TV series, for example, intended the zombies to be a symbol of cultural mindlessness in the face of our ever-evolving technology-dependency, or if the cities in which these zombies coalesce – if you will – are meant to portray our very own cities, in order to symbolically critique the drastic urbanization of our society, OR, if the screenwriter sat down at his desk one day and thought, “zombies are cool,” and started randomly scribbling zombie ideas.

Because, for many works, all we can do is strongly speculate about indirect meanings or underlying themes. I know, myself, from doing many of these sorts of student projects, that I can strongly argue for at least three completely different interpretations of a single poem. Which interpretation is correct? All of them? None?

Of course, I believe a poem can take on a life of its own, and mean something to the reader that the author never intended. But in these times (which, I concur, are most times), the student is NOT analyzing what the poem is saying about the world. Rather, the poem is being used by the student to analyze the world. However, as an absolutist, I believe that our aim in literature analysis should be to come as close as we can to understanding the meaning that the author originally intended. Many schools (obliviously) scew this train of thought by requiring students to choose from a selection of ‘lenses’ when analyzing literature, whether that be a gender lens, socio-economic lens, marxist lens, etc. The misconception here is that this piece literature, no matter what lens we approach it with, will tell us something about the world it was written in, and/or give us insight into the inner working’s of the author’s psyche. Perhaps an idea about gender roles does surface, and perhaps an anti/pro-capitalism ideology is revealed in this certain work. What does this practice do in the way of giving us a better picture of the author’s original intent? It rudely ignores it, presupposes nothing about it. The meaning of a poem in and of itself has been put on a pedestal, while the original purpose of the author has been shoved to the sidelines. While the poem’s meaning is relevant to our lens, the poet’s vision might as well vanish for all we student-scholars care.

On the surface, of course, there’s nothing wrong with these school exercises, which help the students in their academic maturity, and nothing inherently wrong with using lenses – lenses are a great tool for structuring thorough breakdowns and helping readers process the piece of literature. However, we must realize that these lenses – “analytical tools” – in school are not only teaching students what to think, but how to think. Because, as I’ve mentioned, they – however unintentionally – promote a concerning subjectivism – (“yes, but what does it mean to you?” and, forgetting that it could have been a fairytale written by a father to help his children fall asleep at night, “what does it argue about gender roles in society?” or “what system of government is being promoted here?”) I could go on.

Fortunately for you, I won’t.

That is, in essence a brief summary of some of my thoughts regarding literature analysis. Thanks again for reading (if you did, and didn’t just skip to the last sentence), and, again, be sure to check out my last post, in which I analyze my own poem and share some of my writing process!

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