criticism gone awry

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at
Mon Aug 16 17:21:36 EDT 1999

On Fri, 13 Aug 1999 12:08:28 -0400, Nat Case wrote:

>I had similar problems with English lit in high school. I love structure and
>how it carries meaning (ask me about symmetry in "Rime of the Ancient
>Mariner" some time), and hate books where the Big Idea is what you're
>supposed to get. It takes all the subtlety of a story, how meaning can be
>carried so many ways, and makes it into a big picket sign, saying "Love is
>good except when it's stupid," or "Be reverent to your elders and try to be
>have or you will come to a Bad End." Unfortunately, Themes seem to be where
>most of basic lit crit starts. I loved half of my English classes in high
>school and college, and hated the other ones.

I can sympathize with your preference for structure over theme, but I have
to point out that an understanding of theme is an essential beginning to
really being able to read.  That many teachers of English lit turn it into
the search for the one true meaning of a text is a flaw on their part.  For
one thing, there's never just one theme to a story.  (I'm ignoring for the
sake of discussion those novels which were deliberately written to a
particular theme, which are either grossly heavy-handed or are interesting
in terms of other forms of criticism, because they usually say more about
the writer than about Love or Death or Obedience.)  English teachers have to
simplify this for a couple of reasons.  One is that they have to grade
tests.  Another is that their students are usually just learning how to read
more out of a text than the surface meaning; if a teacher can say "the main
theme of Blank is the hopelessness of Man in the material world" and back
that assertion up with examples from the book, they're on their way to
showing their students how to figure that out on their own.  Only the most
rigid of instructors is going to fail a student who comes up with a theme
that they haven't discussed in class, if the student can back it up with
relevant detail.

But the real point of traditional literary criticism (by which I mean not
just the examination of theme, but of character and plot and rhetoric) is to
get people thinking about books as a way to convey meaning that is not
limited to the surface detail of the story.  This is what I mean by really
being able to read.  Nat, you found a path to it through studying structure.
Postmodern criticism in all its forms provides another path.  But
postmodernism is a little esoteric for beginning students.  And structure is
great for poetry (_Rime of the Ancient Mariner_, as you pointed out; and did
you know that the word at the very center of _Purgatorio_, which is the very
center of Dante's _Commedia_, is "you", i.e. the reader?  There's structure
for you--though I can't imagine the kind of dedication that would count
words like that) but not as great for works of prose; for some books it's
perfect, for others it's not so useful.  Hence the heavy dependence on
theme--which is something you can pick out of every single text you're given
to read under any circumstances.

I don't want to make light of your distaste for theme, because I think it's
a valid criticism.  But it's a criticism of the way literature is taught
rather than of the elements being taught, I think.  I got away with murder
in high school--never wrote a single five-paragraph essay and was constantly
pushing the limits of what assignments called for--because I had teachers
who were flexible.  If you don't have that, school is a misery.  Ditto if
your teachers don't have any sense of the joy of reading, or think that
reading for pleasure is always divorced from reading for meaning.  Speaking
as an escapee from the Secondary Education (English) program, you're NOT
supposed to teach that Theme is this great big idea that's constant and
unchanging.  But I later learned that most high school English teachers
don't have any experience with postmodern criticism, which turns traditional
criticism on its head (and was far more appealing to me, let me tell
you...).  So they don't have any sense of symbolism and theme as being
fluid, depending greatly on the reader's knowledge base, and they can't
offer this as an alternative to their students who find the usual concept of
theme unrealistic.

>I'm also an impatient reader (I just gave up on a read-through of Tolkien
>because I got so frustrated with part 2 of The Two Towers... "Mordor was
>bad. Really bad. It smelled bad, It made you feel sick, and was just
>generally bad bad bad. All the creatures within it were bad too. Frodo sat
>down wearily and said to Sam 'You know, this place really stinks'..."), so I
>never finished a lot of the assigned reading (I think I read about the first
>10 pages of "Faerie Queene" before I gave up. I wrote a pretty decent paper
>about those first 10 pages though...It think it compared the Red Cross
>Knoght with Gawain in the "Green Knight").

I never did finish Faerie Queene either.  Someday I will have to make a list
of all the books I was supposed to read that I didn't enjoy.  I think there
may be some common factor that would give me more insight into what I like
in a book.  My college degree may be a tribute to the amount of BSing you
can do and still graduate.

Melissa Proffitt
To unsubscribe, email dwj-request at with the body "unsubscribe".
Visit the archives at

More information about the Dwj mailing list