What exactly have I learned over the course of the semester? Seems like a simple enough question. I learned about why Henry David Thoreau went into the woods, I learned about two different concepts of liberty, and I learned about the cool new task of writing blogposts. I also learned that Professor Schacht has a soft spot for Christmas films. That’s cool and all, but what has this class really been about?
Coming into this class, I thought I knew what literary criticism was. Someone writes a book and then people read about it and talk about its pros and cons. That’s only a tiny portion of what goes on though, and I learned a lot about the practice of literary criticism. I looked at different texts through different lenses to try and figure out what we should read, why we should read it, and how we should go about reading it. Take for example A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. A true Christmas classic about three ghosts visiting a crotchety old man who eventually changes his ways and lives happily ever after. Why should we read it? Maybe to feel good about helping those in need? To share Christmas joy? To scare our siblings with mentions of ghosts and death? Maybe. How should we read it? By the fire with a cup of cocoa in our laps? Most certainly. All of these are fair answers to great questions. When we read this book in class, we broke into groups to talk about the story through the lens of different categories. My group got “economics” and we talked about how Scrooge’s upbringing and ideals affected his behavior. I had never thought about it that way before and it sure gave me some different answers to the aforementioned questions.
A classmate wrote in her blogpost about a YouTube video called “Twelve Hundred Ghosts” where over 400 adaptations of A Christmas Carol are strung together to create a new version of the story. I found this super interesting, and like Taylor mentioned in her post, although this text was published in 1843, we are constantly finding new ways to adapt it. It is a fluid text with many different aspects to study, interpret, and evaluate.
Not only did I learn about the practice of literary criticism, but I learned just how effortlessly questions can arise when reading literature. Take for example reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a nonsense story about a young girl who falls down a rabbit hole. When one reads this story, it isn’t hard to question what that story is actually about and try to make sense of what the author is saying. Should we read this as a silly story filled with curious characters or should we read it as a struggle to find a true identity for oneself in the face of an adult world? Alice continuously struggles with a sense of identity throughout the course of her journey, so when we read this story, we question our own identities as well. I learned that when I pause and ask questions about a story, I am actually taking part in the practice of literary criticism.
Something that really stuck out to me from all of our readings this semester was a section of Henry David Thoreau’s “Conclusion“. In it, he said two very crucial things:
“Yet we think that if rail-fences are pulled down, and stone-walls piled up on our farms, bounds are henceforth set to our lives and our fates decided”
“The universe is wider than our views of it”
Now, this speaks to me in many different ways, but certainly pertains to literature as well. There is no one way to read a text, there are many. We should widen our literary universe, if you will, by studying, evaluating, and interpreting literary works through the practice of literary criticism.
The latter quote about the universe reminds me of a few of the texts we have read in class: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Mrs. Dalloway. The Alice books oppose the constraining adult world, or our view of the universe, with Alice’s sense of wonder throughout the story. To Alice, anything is now possible–her universe was wider than it was before. In Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa Dalloway throws frivolous parties and no one seems to understand why. Clarissa is seemingly afraid of her own humanity and does not want to die (but who does?). To her, these parties symbolize human connection–she just wants to feel something. Her life has these stone walls and boundaries set, which terrifies Clarissa.
So what does all of this have to do with what this semester has been about? I learned about practicing literary criticism but I also learned how to read literature in a way that allows me to understand the value and significance of these works. This semester has taught me to expand my literary universe and that is something I am immensely grateful for.