A Step Back From The Semester

Honestly, trying to sit down and write this blog post has been a lot more challenging than I anticipated. All of my other final assignments have just been a regurgitation of facts, so switching gears to form my own opinions has been weird. I can tell you why Pluto is no longer considered a planet and trace the path of Alcibiades’ capricious loyalties all through Ancient Greece. My brain physically ached for a while from so much cramming, although that’s not even possible since the brain has no pain receptors. But, a broad question like “What has the point of this semester been?” is a whole different playing field. I drew a mental blank for three days before I even tried to sit down and write.

That’s what I loved about this class though. It was about more than just the material itself. It wasn’t about hard facts or memorization, it was about understanding concepts and interpreting texts — not necessarily pulling out the messages the author intended, but always looking at the messages we derived from them ourselves, as readers. I think that’s something I really took away. Time goes on, society shifts, and if, in the end, the original meaning does not carry through, how a work of literature is interpreted is entirely up to the reader and their perspective. Texts are fluid, and there are no wrong answers in literary criticism. It all begins and ends with the perspective of the audience, and perspective can change everything.

My final essay was on the topic of perspective. In my essay, I made the argument that Mrs. Dalloway can be a confusing text when viewed with today’s expectation of a plot-heavy work driven by characters, when in fact it is a work entirely about the characters themselves with the plot forming the backdrop. The entire novel itself is about perspective and the different ways all its characters view the same world. Rezia sees a world of mistakes and lost opportunities, Clarissa is frequently focused on how others view her, and Septimus is trapped in a nightmare of his own making.  They all experience the same day in the same city, but they all experience it differently.

To go along with this idea of perspective, we’ve also spent a lot of our class taking a step back from the works we’ve read to look at them as a whole, moving from just reading the text to really understanding it. We “move up a level of abstraction” as Professor Schacht describes it, and try to understand both how to read a piece of writing and also what it does not state explicitly, but says nonetheless. I explored a specific example of this in my second blog post about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, specifically Alice’s encounter with the Caterpillar. The conversation Alice holds with the Caterpillar is relatively straightforward, compared to other parts of the book, but what drew me to it was the questions it invoked for me. When the Caterpillar asks Alice, “Who are you?,” he means more than just the literal sense, and I started wondering if who you are and who you believe yourself to be can be two separate things, and if they are, which matter more?

My favorite example of different perspectives changing the reader’s understanding of a text is actually in Through the Looking Glass. I tried to explain in a blog post a few times, but I could never articulate it the way I wanted so I never ended up publishing it. It’s still sitting in my drafts. What it was was a specific scene where Alice is in the company of the Sheep in the rowboat. Over and over, the Sheep tells her “Feather! Feather! (…) You’ll be catching a crab directly!” From the perspective of many readers, this is just complete nonsense. Alice is rowing a boat, what do feathers and crabs have to do with anything going on?

Well, as a lifelong rower, I can tell you that they have a lot to do with it. In rowing — also known as crew — there are two specific actions every rower is familiar with, the first being to “feather” and the second being to “catch a crab” (which talking about in public can cause hilarious or disastrous misunderstandings).  Feathering in rowing is when the rower turns the handle of the oar to make the blade parallel with the water’s surface instead of perpendicular to it, to reduce air resistance and lower the chances of smacking the water. When the oar hits the water when it isn’t supposed to, not only does it slow the boat down, but you can also “catch a crab,” or get the oar swept out of your hands by the force of the water. There are varying sizes to crabs, but the most dramatic is when the oar becomes stuck in the water, causing the handle to hit the rower in the chest and fling them right out of the boat. Not as fun as it sounds (but always a little funny). 

My point is that without this context the scene comes across just as nonsensical as the rest of the story, but having this background meant that my perspective of it was different. I ended up reading into it a message about how nonsense is relative and that what makes perfect sense to one person can be gibberish to another. Not only did my prior knowledge give me a fuller understanding of the scene, but it also led me to more abstract questions that I wouldn’t have asked outside the influence of this class. How many things fly right over my head every day because I don’t have the context? How often do I use terminology or vocabulary that I consider commonplace that others only hear as if I’m reading right out of The Jabberwocky?

Overall, this class was about more than just the material we covered, it was an in-depth look at what they were each really about, and the meanings they held a level beyond the text itself. It was about how we interpreted the works we were given and the connections we made as individual readers. To me, that was the best thing. I love to analyze things this way, I’m always looking for symbolism or hidden meaning in things, and I think that this class gave me the opportunity to do that to a degree I hadn’t before, and I hope that I’ll continue to read like this and look at texts the same way as I go on, both with classes I take in the future and with books I read on my own time. 

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