Over-analysing books and School

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Over-analysing books and School

Postby Internetmeme » Sun Nov 08, 2009 9:26 pm UTC

So, I'm sure that anyone here has been forced to do this. The process goes something like this:
-the teacher tells you the book you will read
-you skim through it and think "Cool! This sounds like it'll be a pretty good book"
-the teacher forces you and the class (some of which still read on a 4th grade level, even though it is High School) to read one chapter every painfully slow week
-you start to dislike the book, along with most of the class, but you still read it because it might just be a dry part of the novel. Everyone else starts using SparkNotes.
-the teacher then starts breaking out the done-to-death "symbolism", "allusions", "direct references", "metaphors", and other "literary devices" that were probably not even intended in the first place (such as a "rape scene" when they are killing a pig in Lord of the Flies that I just did not read as a rape scene when I read the chapter)
-you dislike the book more, even though it might actually be a decent book, such as 1984, Lord of the Flies, or The Old Man and the Sea
-the teacher forces you to analyse it to death, searching every single sentence for something that could vaguely be misread as a reference to something
-you, only to avoid failing the "test"'s essay on symbolism, come up with a crackpot epileptic trees-type theory.
-the teacher gives you an A (or equivalent highest-possible grade in countries other than the US)

I absolutely hate when we have to analyze a book. I completely understand that I can learn a lot of life lessons from this, but when I just don't see it, I'm pretty sure it wasn't meant to be there. Now, unless it was deliberately made to be symbolism (such as The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls), someone is probably reading what wasn't meant to be read as that.
Here's a few examples of over-analyzing:
-This
-The rape scene in Lord of the Flies: Apparently, when they are killing the pig and the stab their "spears" into it, and "blood" gets everywhere, they are raping it. This makes me snicker whenever I hear of them "sharpening their spears".
-Whenever Shakespeare alliterates "P", it is actually a phallic symbol, according to someone's teacher on here.

Here's a few examples of reasonable analyzing:
-In Lord of the Flies: Piggy's glasses represent reason and humanity, and as they are broken, the kids are becoming more animalistic. Also note that fire came from these glasses.
-The judge from The Crucible: He's obviously representing Congressman McCarthy himself, and is kind of a "fuck you" to this guy. Note that the playwright was accused of being a communist (Oh No! People with a political philosophy different than us are living here?! We can't possibly let them have 1st amendment rights!) by McCarthy.
-The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls: Life goes on, even when you die, life will go on.

So, anyone else have a dislike of this? I'm not against analyzing, I'm against over-analyzing a piece.
Last edited by Internetmeme on Sun Nov 08, 2009 10:19 pm UTC, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Over-analysing books and School

Postby Quantum Sunshine » Sun Nov 08, 2009 9:56 pm UTC

I have to agree 100%. Some of the things we had to do with Catcher and the Rye and Lord of the Flies were completely ridiculous. In most cases every single word isn't meant to be symbolism, a lot of it is just description (in my opinion at least).

Another thing I believe teachers are obsessed with is how long an essay should be. People don't want a long factual piece of paper, most people would probably want such a long paper condensed into a short simple, yet convincing paragraph or two. They never seem to teach summarizing, and always make us make things longer and longer.

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Re: Over-analysing books and School

Postby Internetmeme » Sun Nov 08, 2009 10:26 pm UTC

Yep, and that's the other downfall of High School English: Something you could write out in two paragraphs just has to be in the following form:
-Main Idea/Opening Paragraph. Ideas 1, 2, and 3 (maybe more) presented.
-Paragraph 1 highlights idea 1
-Paragraph 2 highlights idea 2
-Paragraph 3 highlights idea 3
-Paragraph 4...etcetera
-Closing paragraph summarizes argument

As if no other form could show your ideas better. Furthermore, forcing us to do a long essay that we are able to easily condense just leads us to adding in fluff paragraph (such as the long quotes and anecdotes I put into my Global Studies I Hon final paper last year, getting an A).
In fact, I've heard stories of teachers that just look at it for length; they don't even read it! According to someone in the School forum here, there was a teacher that didn't even look at it, and someone turned in a pile of blank paper (save for the top page), and got full credit.

Also, to make fun of how ridiculously forced a lot of these essays are, I wrote an essay for my English III Hon class about how terrible my essay is. Title? "Why this is a terrible speach".
Yes, I misspelled speech on purpose, and highlighted that point.
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Re: Over-analysing books and School

Postby PatrickRsGhost » Mon Nov 09, 2009 3:48 am UTC

Imagine having to do a term paper, five paragraphs long, with footnotes, quotes, bibliography, note cards, coversheet, the works on either some element of a book, a biography of the author of said book, or with the teacher's permission, the biography of another author.

We had to do it in 11th Grade English, after having read [u]Of Mice and Men[/url] by Steinbeck. It was such a God-awful assignment that everyone in my class hated the book after it was all over.

You want a summary or term paper on the book? Here's one in five sentences or less: Two allegedly gay hobos go to work on a farm. One's short; the other's big and retarded. The retarded one likes small, furry animals and dreams of a farm with nothing but said small, furry animals. One day the retard does something bad, and the short guy has to kill him. Short guy then goes on with his life still working on the farm, possibly pairing up with one of the other workers.
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Re: Over-analysing books and School

Postby Internetmeme » Mon Nov 09, 2009 11:52 pm UTC

PatrickRsGhost wrote:Imagine having to do a term paper, five paragraphs long, with footnotes, quotes, bibliography, note cards, coversheet, the works on either some element of a book, a biography of the author of said book, or with the teacher's permission, the biography of another author.

We had to do it in 11th Grade English, after having read [u]Of Mice and Men[/url] by Steinbeck. It was such a God-awful assignment that everyone in my class hated the book after it was all over.

You want a summary or term paper on the book? Here's one in five sentences or less: Two allegedly gay hobos go to work on a farm. One's short; the other's big and retarded. The retarded one likes small, furry animals and dreams of a farm with nothing but said small, furry animals. One day the retard does something bad, and the short guy has to kill him. Short guy then goes on with his life still working on the farm, possibly pairing up with one of the other workers.

While reading it, I actually liked it.

Also, I am guessing that the symbolism is going to be some analogy to Communism (or at least what the Soviet Union/China said it was)/Stalinism?
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Re: Over-analysing books and School

Postby cephalopod9 » Tue Nov 10, 2009 9:24 am UTC

Internetmeme wrote:-the teacher forces you and the class (some of which still read on a 4th grade level, even though it is High School) to read one chapter every painfully slow week
Why wouldn't you just read ahead?
I mean, I don't want to give anyone a hard time, allusions and metaphor are pretty easy for me, but that's certainly not everyone's perspective. Tho', in a similar vein, I don't really understand why alternative perspectives (even the ones that are wrong) have to ruin a book for you. I would have to admit that I've never had a bad english teacher, so maybe I don't fully appreciate the torment of forced literary analysis.

With the Lord of the Flies, I might be misremembering, but
Spoiler:
Doesn't the spear go up the pig's ass? I think I remember it being vaguely worded ("the spear found a yielding point" and it comes out her(and the pig is female) mouth), and the boys joking about it. I don't know where you'd get sexual themes out of it (granted, I was 10 or 11 when I read it), but strictly speaking, there's some literal rape there
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Re: Over-analysing books and School

Postby Zohar » Tue Nov 10, 2009 9:29 am UTC

Maybe it's the US? I remember in our literature classes we wouldn't try to delve so deeply into the words themselves in novels. We did that somewhat in short stories and quite a bit when studying poems (as well as religious texts in bible class). We usually tried, through a discussion, to understand what the motives were for each character, get into their heads, mostly. I think, I don't remember exactly. In any case, I mostly enjoyed literature class.
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Re: Over-analysing books and School

Postby Pez Dispens3r » Tue Nov 10, 2009 10:14 am UTC

Internetmeme wrote:I absolutely hate when we have to analyze a book. I completely understand that I can learn a lot of life lessons from this, but when I just don't see it, I'm pretty sure it wasn't meant to be there.

Just a nitpick, which doesn't really detract from your main point: they don't try and teach you literary analysis so it will enrich your life. Well, some might think they do. But the real point is so that, when you watch the news or read the papers, you can separate meaning from literary technique. That is, see where a report specifically uses language to imply one thing where something slightly different is actually the case. I don't mean to alarm you, but there's a case which states governments are only so much for literacy because the illiterate are harder to control.

But also, sometimes authors are censored and what you think isn't there is actually there. A good example is Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, where Mr Hyde "falls on a girl", or something to that effect, but the author was trying to say Mr Hyde raped a girl--but couldn't, for Victorian censors. Cephalod has already pointed out the implication an Lord of the Flies you may have missed (I haven't read it, so I'm going by Cephalod's memory, which Cephalod said may be false).
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Re: Over-analysing books and School

Postby PAstrychef » Wed Nov 11, 2009 5:26 am UTC

Literary analysis is a way to get you to look under the surface of what you're reading and think about what may be intended as a deeper structure of the work. If you look at analysis of a "classic" work like "Midsummer Night's Dream" over different periods you will see a changing set of interpretations. What does this book say about our lives now? What does it say about the times in which it was written?
It's great fun to read full speed ahead across the surface of literature. As a book-a-day reader I do that a lot. But when a book really repays careful examination I've gotten a heck of a lot more from it than just entertainment.
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Re: Over-analysing books and School

Postby Belial » Wed Nov 11, 2009 6:47 pm UTC

the teacher then starts breaking out the done-to-death "symbolism", "allusions", "direct references", "metaphors", and other "literary devices" that were probably not even intended in the first place (such as a "rape scene" when they are killing a pig in Lord of the Flies that I just did not read as a rape scene when I read the chapter)


If you're going to learn how to write, it's good to know how to construct symbols, allusions, references, and metaphors. How to pick words and structures to create certain effects. And the best way to do that is to look at how those things emerge in other works, and why. You need to be able to actually analyze what's going on on a text level, not just a story level, as Pez pointed out.

And if you were paying attention to any kind of literary theory and your teachers were worth a damn, you'd already know that what's "intended" is of dubious importance at best, and certainly isn't a disqualifier from something being relevant.

They're not teaching you how to read for entertainment, boyo. If you were just meant to sit back and passively enjoy the pretty story, you wouldn't be doing it in class. Do the work, and quit whining.
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Re: Over-analysing books and School

Postby Rinsaikeru » Wed Nov 11, 2009 7:22 pm UTC

I hear that complaint a lot--I agree with Belial and Pez and anyone else who said essentially: "there's actually a purpose."

While I didn't always enjoy hunting out rhetorical devices and looking for subtext in highschool, it was essential when I was doing my undergrad, because surface readings really don't give you enough to write a 20 page paper. A story is never just a story, it's a window into the author's head, it's a historical document, it's a big bundle of interpretations and reinterpretations by a whole pile of lit critters.

I do understand that trying to teach this to a roomful of highschool students is nigh on impossible, having taught some highschool english myself. Some pick up on things right away and end up bored at the length of explanation required for the rest of the class--most of the rest haven't even bothered to read the summary at the back of the novel.
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Re: Over-analysing books and School

Postby Mighty Jalapeno » Wed Nov 11, 2009 7:31 pm UTC

In high school it was agony, to the point that I just started screweing with them right back. On the section for poetry, I selected "War", and then used songs by Metallica, Pantera, and other bands, and even wrote two myself, signing them as "Cliff Burton", and then analyzed them.

I almost died laughing when I was told how the interpretation of the poem I wrote was wrong. Good times.

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Re: Over-analysing books and School

Postby Belial » Wed Nov 11, 2009 7:40 pm UTC

Mighty Jalapeno wrote:I almost died laughing when I was told how the interpretation of the poem I wrote was wrong. Good times.


The funny thing is that it's still ludicrous, but for basically a completely different reason than you seem to think.

Hint: the fact that you secretly wrote it has nothing to do with it.
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Re: Over-analysing books and School

Postby Mighty Jalapeno » Wed Nov 11, 2009 7:47 pm UTC

I know, I know, Cliff Burton wrote better poetry than me.

Additionally, I don't know what you mean.

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Re: Over-analysing books and School

Postby Belial » Wed Nov 11, 2009 7:54 pm UTC

Basically, it's ludicrous if they said what you say they said because it's unlikely your interpretation was wrong, just not the same as theirs. It's extremely difficult to say an interpretation is flatly incorrect without making an ass of yourself. There are just sometimes better supported or more insightful interpretations.

The fact that it was your writing doesn't shield you from interpreting it poorly, though. Interpretation is often largely separate from conscious (or even subconscious) intent by the author, and just because you did the work doesn't mean you're automatically the top authority on explaining what exactly you did.

In other words, it is totally possible and not uncommon for someone else to c wut u did thar better than you do.
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Re: Over-analysing books and School

Postby Mighty Jalapeno » Wed Nov 11, 2009 8:01 pm UTC

Response Attempt #2: There's no way I can respond to this succinctly without yarging. I can grant some of your points, but "just because you did the work doesn't mean you're automatically the top authority on explaining what exactly you did" is so very, very wrong that I really don't know where to begin with it. I can hardly imagine a conversation between an author and an interviewer, where the interviewer keeps repeatedly stating what he thinks the story was about, with the author replying in a baffled voice "No. No, that's not what I was talking about. The Loch Ness monster is not my abusive father, and the priest is not my old Lego collection. You. are. wrong."

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Re: Over-analysing books and School

Postby Belial » Wed Nov 11, 2009 8:07 pm UTC

Hahah. Only if the interviewer was similarly insistent on having the only valid interpretation would he be wrong. If he was offering an alternate interpretation, then the author's the one being a dick there.

Once you've created a piece of art, you're just another interpreter. In fact, you're often not even a terribly good interpreter: you're too biased by your own knowledge of what you were trying to do to properly evaluate whether you actually did it, or if you did something entirely different.

It's kindof like a more abstract version of the phenomenon that makes most people rubbish at proofreading their own writing: they have what they meant to say so firmly at the front of their mind that they don't even notice when the actual words on the paper say something different.
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Re: Over-analysing books and School

Postby Zohar » Wed Nov 11, 2009 8:09 pm UTC

Mighty Jalapeno wrote:I can hardly imagine a conversation between an author and an interviewer, where the interviewer keeps repeatedly stating what he thinks the story was about, with the author replying in a baffled voice "No. No, that's not what I was talking about. The Loch Ness monster is not my abusive father, and the priest is not my old Lego collection. You. are. wrong."


Of course the situation you're presenting is ridiculous. But good writing (and interpretations based on it) is usually not specific to the author's biography. A reasonable interpretation would be "Could the Loch Ness monster signify a child's fear from his parents and the priest be nostalgia towards a simpler, more innocent time?" or some other bullshit. To which the author could reply "I didn't have that in mind when I wrote it but it's certainly one way to look at it."

Everything anyone does is influenced in thousands of ways by our subconscious. If everything we did was completely clear to us, would we need psychologists? Their whole point is helping people understand what's behind their actions, what they really think. I wouldn't be surprised at all if I gave a story a different meaning than what the author purposefully infused in it.
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Re: Over-analysing books and School

Postby Rinsaikeru » Wed Nov 11, 2009 8:12 pm UTC

You can sort of understand the phenomena if you look at old pieces of your own writing--if you actually read them and interpret them without trying to remember what caused you to write them the way you did.

It's quite common for the authorial intent to be very different from what is perceived by readers of a text, this is particularly true of older texts where the cultural elements have since changed our reading. (For instance--lots of contemporary readings of Shakespeare posit works as proto-feminist or proto anti-racist whether this was intended or not).
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Re: Over-analysing books and School

Postby Mighty Jalapeno » Wed Nov 11, 2009 8:20 pm UTC

Zohar wrote:
Mighty Jalapeno wrote:I can hardly imagine a conversation between an author and an interviewer, where the interviewer keeps repeatedly stating what he thinks the story was about, with the author replying in a baffled voice "No. No, that's not what I was talking about. The Loch Ness monster is not my abusive father, and the priest is not my old Lego collection. You. are. wrong."


Of course the situation you're presenting is ridiculous. But good writing (and interpretations based on it) is usually not specific to the author's biography. A reasonable interpretation would be "Could the Loch Ness monster signify a child's fear from his parents and the priest be nostalgia towards a simpler, more innocent time?" or some other bullshit. To which the author could reply "I didn't have that in mind when I wrote it but it's certainly one way to look at it."

See, that I completely agree with. It's the "No, you are wrong, THIS Is the correct interpretation" idea that really bugs me. Yes, I went with a simplistic example up there to drive home the point that, quite often, people interpret things in a text that simply aren't there, never WERE there, and are completely fictional concepts created in the mind of the interpreter. That does not make them WRONG, it simply means that they are inventing meaning where there is none.

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Re: Over-analysing books and School

Postby Belial » Wed Nov 11, 2009 8:25 pm UTC

Mighty Jalapeno wrote:See, that I completely agree with. It's the "No, you are wrong, THIS Is the correct interpretation" idea that really bugs me. Yes, I went with a simplistic example up there to drive home the point that, quite often, people interpret things in a text that simply aren't there, never WERE there, and are completely fictional concepts created in the mind of the interpreter. That does not make them WRONG, it simply means that they are inventing meaning where there is none.


I agree that "no you are wrong" has no place, but I would argue that simply because the author didn't put meaning there, doesn't mean that the meaning is not "real" or that it doesn't "exist".

Communication requires two people. A book on a shelf with no one to read it is just a square block of oddly segmented, ink-tainted wood pulp. The only reason it can even have literary meaning is because there's someone to read it. Therefore, the interpretation of the reader is bloody important and dismissing it as "imagined" or "not real" is largely missing the point.
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Re: Over-analysing books and School

Postby Mighty Jalapeno » Wed Nov 11, 2009 8:28 pm UTC

I didn't put paprika in my soup. If you taste paprika, then, well... I don't know what to do.

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Re: Over-analysing books and School

Postby Surgery » Wed Nov 11, 2009 8:42 pm UTC

.
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Re: Over-analysing books and School

Postby Mighty Jalapeno » Wed Nov 11, 2009 8:44 pm UTC

That's not a 'thematic interpretation', though... that's someone pointing out quantifiable facts. If someone pointed out all the villains in your book represented a seires of murders in 1800's London that you've never even heard of, then no, you didn't put that in there subconsciously. Someone ELSE did.

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Re: Over-analysing books and School

Postby Belial » Wed Nov 11, 2009 10:21 pm UTC

Mighty Jalapeno wrote:I didn't put paprika in my soup. If you taste paprika, then, well... I don't know what to do.


I'm really glad you used that analogy, because it works perfectly:

If the flavors you created are complex or layered enough to create a paprika flavor, it doesn't matter if you put any actual paprika in your damn soup, it still tastes like paprika. It's kindof like there's rarely actual vanilla anywhere near scotch, but *bunches* of scotch tasting notes make reference to vanilla tones. Because scotch is complex, so flavors emerge that maybe don't show up on the ingredient list.

That's not something you need to "do" anything about. That's how it works. Enjoy it.
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Re: Over-analysing books and School

Postby Internetmeme » Wed Nov 11, 2009 10:47 pm UTC

Belial wrote:
the teacher then starts breaking out the done-to-death "symbolism", "allusions", "direct references", "metaphors", and other "literary devices" that were probably not even intended in the first place (such as a "rape scene" when they are killing a pig in Lord of the Flies that I just did not read as a rape scene when I read the chapter)


If you're going to learn how to write, it's good to know how to construct symbols, allusions, references, and metaphors. How to pick words and structures to create certain effects. And the best way to do that is to look at how those things emerge in other works, and why. You need to be able to actually analyze what's going on on a text level, not just a story level, as Pez pointed out.

And if you were paying attention to any kind of literary theory and your teachers were worth a damn, you'd already know that what's "intended" is of dubious importance at best, and certainly isn't a disqualifier from something being relevant.

They're not teaching you how to read for entertainment, boyo. If you were just meant to sit back and passively enjoy the pretty story, you wouldn't be doing it in class. Do the work, and quit whining.

I never thought of it like that.
I still don't like stretching it, though. But I can live with it.

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Re: Over-analysing books and School

Postby Mighty Jalapeno » Thu Nov 12, 2009 12:39 am UTC

My son tastes sesame in lots of things that have not, and have never had, sesame in them. He refuses to eat things because they 'taste like sesame', when the dish has, say, three ingredients. None of which are sesame. Then he'll eat hummus, which is 25% sesame by weight, and claim to love it.

Seeing (or tasting) things that aren't there, I guess, is part of the human condition. People can analyze all the want, and preface all such analyses with "I think...", but if anyone ever tries to tell me what my own stories are about, I may very well laugh at them.

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Re: Over-analysing books and School

Postby Oort » Thu Nov 12, 2009 2:14 am UTC

If we can create or discover our own meaning in a book, can we just say we didn't find any? Because that won't work in school. Isn't it possible that the color of Gatsby's car doesn't mean anything other than that he likes yellow cars? Sometimes trying to find a theme in a book feels like an exercise in apophenia.

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Re: Over-analysing books and School

Postby Belial » Thu Nov 12, 2009 2:59 am UTC

Mighty Jalapeno wrote:Seeing (or tasting) things that aren't there, I guess, is part of the human condition. People can analyze all the want, and preface all such analyses with "I think...", but if anyone ever tries to tell me what my own stories are about, I may very well laugh at them.


You're still so attached to the idea that there's one meaning to it, and it's decided by you.

But whatever.

Oort wrote:If we can create or discover our own meaning in a book, can we just say we didn't find any? Because that won't work in school. Isn't it possible that the color of Gatsby's car doesn't mean anything other than that he likes yellow cars? Sometimes trying to find a theme in a book feels like an exercise in apophenia.


Unfortunately, from a teacher's perspective, that is pretty untenable: allow that, and every lazy student in the class will conveniently discover that every single symbol and element in the work turns out not to really mean anything after all, and the entire thing was just a complete exercise in nihilism. In fact, every book we've read this year has been fundamentally meaningless on every level. What a coincidence.

Thing is, if you look at it and you can't see any possible meaning, you're probably not looking hard enough. It doesn't usually have to be the deepest most significant meaning *evar*, and it doesn't have to work super well for you, but your teachers want to see that you're at least trying. Because so long as you're trying, when the totally excellent meaning that will make absolute sense to you and cast the whole work in a new light pops up, you might actually see it.

Edit: though honestly, thinking about it further, if the request was that you write two or three paragraphs on the meaning of Gatsby's yellow car, and you wrote three or four paragraphs about possible meanings you *considered* for the yellow car and why you ultimately decided they didn't work for you....well, if I were teaching the class, I'd give it to you. Because clearly you actually thought about it, and you aren't just copping out to avoid thinking or writing.

Have you tried that?
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Re: Over-analysing books and School

Postby cephalopod9 » Thu Nov 12, 2009 6:40 am UTC

Mighty Jalapeno wrote:Seeing (or tasting) things that aren't there, I guess, is part of the human condition. People can analyze all the want, and preface all such analyses with "I think...", but if anyone ever tries to tell me what my own stories are about, I may very well laugh at them.
The thing is, literary analysis isn't about figuring out what "ingredients" went into something, but understanding how those components work together. This necessarily involves looking beyond the work itself to the surrounding culture, symbolism, and social context it fits into. There's a lot of relative value judgments that go into it, and it is always possible to put things together in a way the author never intended.
It's a difficult thing to teach, and an even more difficult thing to test for.
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Re: Over-analysing books and School

Postby Internetmeme » Thu Nov 12, 2009 11:06 pm UTC

cephalopod9 wrote:
Mighty Jalapeno wrote:Seeing (or tasting) things that aren't there, I guess, is part of the human condition. People can analyze all the want, and preface all such analyses with "I think...", but if anyone ever tries to tell me what my own stories are about, I may very well laugh at them.
The thing is, literary analysis isn't about figuring out what "ingredients" went into something, but understanding how those components work together. This necessarily involves looking beyond the work itself to the surrounding culture, symbolism, and social context it fits into. There's a lot of relative value judgments that go into it, and it is always possible to put things together in a way the author never intended.
It's a difficult thing to teach, and an even more difficult thing to test for.

The real problems lies (at least in my district) in that if your interpretation is "wrong" (read: different than norm/teacher's), then you're pretty much screwed. Such as:
"Character A represents:
A)Deception
B)Justice
C)Democracy
D)Communism"
And I select that he is a symbol of Deception when he is "really" a symbol of Communism, then Oh no! My interpretation is "wrong"!
Also, for symbolism on these things, we use scantrons. So there is only ONE answer we can pick, when there are probably multiple.
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Re: Over-analysing books and School

Postby modularblues » Fri Nov 13, 2009 2:08 am UTC

It's the bread and butter of literary enthusiasts to find hidden meanings in everything and meanings where there's probably none... then again, everything is open to interpretation.

I'm glad that I'm past the stage where I had to do that for class assignments.

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Re: Over-analysing books and School

Postby rnbguru » Fri Nov 13, 2009 2:21 am UTC

The movie finding forrester has Sean Connery go on a diatribe about how he stopped writing because of the way everyone had their own opinion on what his story REALLY meant.

Still, I don't find much wrong with the process of heavily analyzing books. You might agree with their analysis, or you might not, but as most people here are saying, neither approach is really technically wrong. It's all about your interpretation of it. Some of it does seem over the top at times (I hated a lot of the "symbolism" in Great Gatsby), but at the same time, it helps you understand your reading better and to get more out of it. For instance, reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez stuff, I probably would have overlooked a lot of his clever writing techniques and blending of fantasy and reality if it weren't for the discussion questions we had and the analysis. Now, I like his writing so much more because of what we looked at.

But yea, the leisurely pace is a killer, I can't argue with you there.

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Re: Over-analysing books and School

Postby TheAmazingRando » Fri Nov 13, 2009 3:09 am UTC

I don't know if it's frustrating that people find meaning in your work you didn't intend, but it's sure as hell frustrating when you put stuff in there nobody notices.

Not to mention that writing is such a personal and unpredictable thing that I have a hard time believing anyone can really intend everything that goes into a book. I've written plenty of short stories that didn't have much of a theme until the end when it turned out everything was thematically related based on ideas I've had kicking around in the back of my head that subconsciously came to light. I've written fictional characters that ended up remarkably like people I know or know of, before I ever made any decision to base them on them. Imagination isn't a magic bottomless well, it gets filled by your own experience, and can very easily be subconsciously influenced in ways you never intended. Especially when you're talking about social attitudes (sexism, racism, etc.) where exactly what the author considers neutral and unimportant can speak volumes.

Also, not everything is heavy on symbolism. Most of the stuff you analyze in high school is. That's why it's taught.

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Re: Over-analysing books and School

Postby Chicostick » Fri Nov 13, 2009 5:17 am UTC

TheAmazingRando wrote:I don't know if it's frustrating that people find meaning in your work you didn't intend, but it's sure as hell frustrating when you put stuff in there nobody notices.


Well if no one notices it, then you just didn't write it clearly enough I guess. That or you've got the wrong people reading it. But does it really matter? If the meaning is there it is there. And if they extract a proper meaning from it, then you've written something worthwhile, even if it wasn't what you intended.

I had a whole long thing in the other thread about literary analysis and the whole hermeneutical theory thing, but I don't feel like going into depth like that again and the thing I wrote was so vague and ambiguous that it was frankly, a pile of shit.

You cannot "over analyze" something. The whole idea of hermeneutics is to take a piece of writing and eliminate as much of the ambiguity in it as possible (yes for those who know about this sort of thing this is a gross oversimplification, but whatever). What I mean by this is when you first read a text, the sentences within it all form a sort of meaning that depends on the other sentences and produces an overall sense of the book. Each individual set of sentences that quantifies as a "speech act" can also be looked at as individual blocks of meaning that you can then use to interpret what it means. Say "this set of things here could refer to this, as it is symbolically connected through such and such in the past." The green light in the Great Gatsby, for example, can signify multiple things from its location and its color. It's green, like money, it's on the end of Daisy's pier, so it represents Gatsby's desire for her, it is on the more fashionable "egg" that consists of older money, something Gatsby wants to attain, etc. Just because you just see it as him reaching for a light does not mean these other meanings are not there. The meanings in texts are layered, the light in the context of just that sentence is just a light, but by layering the other knowledge we gain throughout the text you can acquire these other meanings for it.

The literary work is a pliable entity, things can have multiple meanings and many times the author intends for there to be multiple meanings. Saying that the meaning that you extract is good enough is an example of "pathological" reading. It's a primitive and simplistic form of monism, "it means this cause that's what I think it means, so the other meanings are irrelevant." Even if the other meaning is slightly absurd, it is still there if the text presents it. Also, many times the meanings that people feel are correct are really projections of there own preconceived notions or stereotypes. An example of this is one person I was talking to about Dumbledore being gay referenced his hobby of knitting as evidence that he was gay. This is a clear projection of the readers own stereotypes upon the novel. J.K. Rowling probably reached her conclusion in a similar way, as there are very few references of the character actually doing anything that can be incontrovertibly homosexual.

Bah I wrote another essay and it's still not enough.


One main point that will help the frustration is this: hermeneutical theory has been debated and looked into for hundreds of years. It has taken some of the greatest minds this long to come up with current theories. One recent work that explored something new within these theories by Torsten Pettersson was only written a few years ago. It's taken men far smarter than me a very long time to reach conclusions about interpretation that aren't even accepted by everyone yet. If you don't like doing this sort of thing or find it difficult, well, that's [i]cause it's hard.[i] Language is infinite. There's very few definite things, and even those few things that may be fairly definite now will change with the passage of time. Even the meanings and connotations of individual words change. What I'm saying is, "this shit can be frustrating as hell and complicated and time consuming and enough to make you want to tear your hair out."

Yes it is hard. Yes it can be annoying. And yes, sometimes teachers drag things out a little to long with students. But the fun thing about this sort of work is that no matter how hard you strive, you can never ever "solve" it. There is no formula you can use, there is no carefully studied and proven method that works every time. You have to think hard and strive to figure it out every single time, and explore the upper reaches of what the human mind can comprehend and conceive. And then someone comes out with a new novel that totally tears apart all the notions you spent so long to gain, and it starts again.

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Re: Over-analysing books and School

Postby Belial » Fri Nov 13, 2009 12:00 pm UTC

Internetmeme wrote:
cephalopod9 wrote:
Mighty Jalapeno wrote:Seeing (or tasting) things that aren't there, I guess, is part of the human condition. People can analyze all the want, and preface all such analyses with "I think...", but if anyone ever tries to tell me what my own stories are about, I may very well laugh at them.
The thing is, literary analysis isn't about figuring out what "ingredients" went into something, but understanding how those components work together. This necessarily involves looking beyond the work itself to the surrounding culture, symbolism, and social context it fits into. There's a lot of relative value judgments that go into it, and it is always possible to put things together in a way the author never intended.
It's a difficult thing to teach, and an even more difficult thing to test for.

The real problems lies (at least in my district) in that if your interpretation is "wrong" (read: different than norm/teacher's), then you're pretty much screwed. Such as:
"Character A represents:
A)Deception
B)Justice
C)Democracy
D)Communism"
And I select that he is a symbol of Deception when he is "really" a symbol of Communism, then Oh no! My interpretation is "wrong"!
Also, for symbolism on these things, we use scantrons. So there is only ONE answer we can pick, when there are probably multiple.


Yeah, that's not a problem with the concept, that's a problem with your teacher being made of suck. You never, *never* make interpretation a multiple choice question. You make it short answer *at least*, and you grade based on the explanation of the answer, not the answer itself. That is, it should be correct not because you chose "Communism" rather than "Deception", but because your communism answer is better supported by your explanation and references to the text. You can't teach literary criticism and interpretation by making kids memorize your favorite interpretation. It doesn't fucking work that way.

TheAmazingRando wrote:Also, not everything is heavy on symbolism. Most of the stuff you analyze in high school is. That's why it's taught.


Yeah, basically. There's stuff worth analyzing going on beneath the surface in most literature worth the paper it's printed on (and a lot that isn't), but it's often less simplistic and more nuanced than "A actually represents B!"

Also, Chicostick: You are named after a pretty fucking excellent candy, and also you seem to be correct about most things. Carry on being awesome.
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Re: Over-analysing books and School

Postby Pez Dispens3r » Fri Nov 13, 2009 12:35 pm UTC

Belial wrote:Yeah, that's not a problem with the concept, that's a problem with your teacher being made of suck. You never, *never* make interpretation a multiple choice question. You make it short answer *at least*, and you grade based on the explanation of the answer, not the answer itself. That is, it should be correct not because you chose "Communism" rather than "Deception", but because your communism answer is better supported by your explanation and references to the text. You can't teach literary criticism and interpretation by making kids memorize your favorite interpretation. It doesn't fucking work that way.

Possibly the best English professor I had gave one of my first essays at university a very low mark. I was analysing a couple of scenes in Fight Club (based around the "space monkey" scene). The thing is, he justified my mark with a hand-written description of what I'd missed that was as long as the essay I'd written. Not that he'd told me my interpretation was off, but rather he'd described to me the things I hadn't even considered.

He was kind enough that, when I approached him and confessed I would have never made the connexions he revealed to me, he assured me it was only a matter of time and effort. And, yeah, under his wing, an analysis was never wrong, just possibly not thorough enough. That's the metric by which literary analysis should be judged: not whether you got it right, but rather how much you noticed or looked for.
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Re: Over-analysing books and School

Postby Belial » Fri Nov 13, 2009 3:20 pm UTC

I had a teacher like that for history, in highschool. He used to write whole *essays* in the blank spaces of my papers about the stuff I hadn't thought about in relation to whatever historical phenomenon or event I was writing about. All the things I could've explored in more depth or considered for comparison, and generally how I could have gotten a more complete view than what I put forward.

Come to think of it, my English teachers in highschool were like that too.

I think this is why hearing about bad highschool teachers gets under my skin.
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Re: Over-analysing books and School

Postby Mighty Jalapeno » Fri Nov 13, 2009 4:53 pm UTC

I had two great English teachers, and three or four awful ones (and no, not just because they 'agreed' with me.)

Ok, I've been trying to figure out where I went wrong on this thread, because I keep agreeing with most of what is being said, but I must be missing some sort of cue since I keep getting told I'm wrong (which, in a discussion about how one can't be 'wrong' with an opinion, is kinda funny).

Back to the paprika metaphor:

I made soup without paprika. You taste paprika. There may indeed be subtle complexities of flavor that I do not pick up on, but others do, so we discuss how the taste of paprika arrived in my soup. The TASTE of paprika is certainly there, while ACTUAL paprika is not. I love those discussions, because different people experience physical and mental and emotional reality completely differently (see my son tasting sesame in EVERYTHING except food with actual sesame in it). By all means, if you eat my soup and want to discuss the paprika taste, I will discuss it with you. However, if you insist there is paprika in it, after I have explained there is not, I will become annoyed. The TASTE is there, brought about by different factors and ingredients, but I did not, in fact, actually add it.

This is very much like the multiple-choice thing. Our schools started adopting multiple-choice format for very nearly everything because students complained so loudly and consistently about having to write out long answers. However, in order to make sure it was fair, the correct answers were given in absolutely no uncertain terms the day / week before. So, for the Loch Ness Monster, it would be established, firmly, in class, the day before, that it represented "Jealousy". They would make SURE we knew it, so when we had the test, there would be no 'incorrect interpretations' due to the multiple-choice system.

My good English teachers were those who would be open to interpretations, discussions, and so on. Many's the time that Mr Mason or Mrs.... damn, I forgot her name :( would hand out As to almost everyone in the class, because almost everyone's interpretations and such were all right, but still ding kids harshly for spelling and grammar (because hey, it's English). Mrs Whatshername's final project for Grade 11 was for everyone to get into groups, and retell a Shakespeare play in another time/country/Universe/whatever. Naturally, we got Hamlet (I cannot escape that play) so we had the entire thing take place in a high-rent cyberpunk-style apartment building where rival corporations were vying for control of Elsinore Technologies. That was kick-ass.

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Re: Over-analysing books and School

Postby Ixtellor » Fri Nov 13, 2009 5:09 pm UTC

Is a tree ever just a tree?

This is the debate I have had with my English Professor wife for many years. For her, almost everything has another meaning.
I think the truth, and she would agree I am sure, that the true is somewhere in the middle. If you read modern literary works, you will typically find that there is meaning behind virtually everything in the book. Character names, hobbies, clothes, locations, all have deeper meanings. We know this because the authors are alive and will reveal this information.

If you want to do well in English, I would recommend "How to read literature like an English Professor".

It has a whole chapter on "A tree is never just a tree".

I think the point is that if you don't look for the deeper meanings, you miss out on a larger point. Its generally easy to derive at a thesis of the book, but you are going to miss out on lots of sub-text.


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