Critical Thinking and Reading Literature ~~
Responding to literature
with a critical temperament means always being willing to analyze, interpret,
question, synthesize, and evaluate. Instead of reading for entertainment, you
perform the function of critic as you read
What does the passage mean, literally?
INTERPRET: What does it mean figuratively? Are there symbolic overtones?
Can it mean more than one thing? How do you prefer to read it, and what passages
in the text lead you to believe this is a valid interpretation?
QUESTION: What problems are suggested by the reading? What's confusing?
If you had the author here, what would you ask? What philosophical question(s)
does the reading inspire?
SYNTHESIZE: How does this reading compare or contrast what you've read
previously? How does it fit into your scheme, either thematically or formally?
EVALUATE: Is it a first rate piece of writing or fifth rate piece of
writing? What criteria do you use to establish this judgment? If you are evaluating
a poem, for instance, what defines a first rate poem? How does this particular
poem match up to that standard? Can you point to the exact places in the text
to support your reading?
Lets practice a
few of these aims using the following excerpt from The Elder Edda, "Words
of the High One" (P.B. Taylor & W.H. Auden, trans.)
The coward believes he will live forever
If he holds back in the battle.
But in old age he shall have no peace
Though spears have spared his limbs.
Cattle die, kindred die,
Every man is mortal:
But I know one thing that never dies,
The glory of the great deed.
LITERAL MEANING: This brief excerpt tells us that only cowards would think
to save their own skins rather than fight the battle to the end. Even if he
survives, the coward will not have piece of mind; he'll be tormented right into
old age. It's better to die, since every man is mortal anyhow. The great deed
is immortal. It's better to die in battle, and possibly achieve great deeds,
than to save your skin. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
SYMBOLIC MEANING: The battle may be symbolic of life itself. Sometimes just
living your life is a battle. It's a battle to get up, go to work, get fired
(laid off), fall in love, get burned
but, this poet tells us, only cowards
choose to turn their back on the battle. If we let up now, if we let life pass
us by, if we refuse to seize the moment (carpe diem!) then we'll reach old age
with nothing but a pile of regrets. Better to risk it, take chances, LIVE life
to its hilt, gather the "great deeds" while we can. Not only will
we reach old age in peace, but we'll glory in our accomplishments, and others
will too. We can be an inspiration.
The writer mentions "great deeds." So I assume we're not talking about
just any old ordinary deed. If I wake up tomorrow morning and manage to brush
my teeth, wash my face, eat breakfast, and make it out of the house in time
to get to class, I may be performing responsible deeds, but not GREAT deeds.
Several questions occur to me. Assuming this writer has a point-our great deeds
are immortal-then my first question is, what ranks as a "great deed"?
Would the writer define a great deed the same way I would? How would I define
a great deed? What's an example of a great deed in my own mind? (I'm reflecting
on my own lifetime and whatever I can conjure up from my knowledge of history,
at this point.) Then I might turn philosopher and ask: how do we define the
GREAT DEED for our times, in our culture?
Assuming this writer considers great deeds to be extreme valor in battle? Who
is great then, the Iraqis, the Americans, both, neither?
Has there been
anyone to perform a great deed in 1998?
Here's a neat little contrast to the sentiment described above. This passage
is by Homer from the Illiad (Book IX), the famous ancient Greek epic of the
Of possessions cattle and fat sheep are things to be had
for the lifting,
and tripods can be won, and the tawny high heads of horses,
but a man's life cannot come back again, it cannot be lifted
nor captured again by force, once it has crossed the teeth's barrier.
For my mother Thetis the goddess of the silver feet tells me
I carry two sorts of destiny toward the day of my death. Either,
if I stay here and fight beside the city of the Trojans,
my return home is gone, but my glory shall be everlasting;
but if I return home to the beloved land of my fathers,
the excellence of my glory is gone, but there will be a long life
left for me, and my end in death will not come to me quickly.
And this would be my counsel to others also, to sail back
The Iliad, Book IX (Lattimore, trans.)
This passage contradicts
the first. How can I reconcile them? Does my knowledge of their contradiction
help deepen my understanding of each? If I read the first passage with an awareness
of the second, I probably have to form a mental argument in order to go along
with the writer's proposition. I either agree or disagree and attempt to formulate
why. All people are mortal; when they die they are utterly forgotten over time.
The only way to live on beyond one's lifespan is to accomplish something valuable,
something that will inspire others who come after. Great deeds are inspiring;
they are the only path to immortality. Therefore, accomplishing great deeds
is valuable at all costs, even the supreme cost, one's life. Or, I may say-this
life is all we have; it's precious. To lose one's life for the sake of everlasting
glory is a waste. We cannot be there to partake of the sweetness of that glory
once we're dead. It's better to enjoy the simple things in life while we have
life; we should not throw our lives away for vainglorious purposes.
Or, I may not choose
to engage the readings on that kind of personal level. Maybe I merely create
separate mental files to accommodate their differences. Perhaps I mentally file
one poem as "pro-war" and the other as "anti-war" poetry.
These are categories that may be useful later as I read other poems, or other
Until you read a LOT of literature, you probably won't have a clear sense about
what makes "great" literature and what makes average literature, or
worse, poor literature. You may feel that since you find it hard to understand
any of it, it's all bad. But that would be a mistake. Like anything, learning
to read literature takes time and practice. And developing an appreciation for
great literature comes with exposure to the good and the bad. You may be tempted
to say that you don't like Shakespeare, for instance, because his language isn't
exactly the same as yours and you have to do a bit of work to piece out the
but if you dismiss him, you are dismissing what most literary critics
agree is one of the greatest-if not THE GREATEST-writers our language has ever
known. To some extent you need to be willing to work as you read, and extend
the benefit of the doubt until you are really sure you are evaluating a piece
of writing on objective grounds, and not just on the basis of whether you personally
struggled to comprehend it. In this course, you're being "introduced"
that means you're being introduced to a new set of critical
tools for thinking about literature and becoming a more thoughtful, more effective
reader of literature. And hopefully, as you get more practice and become a more
sophisticated reader, you'll be able to judge whether a work of literature is
first or fifth rate. You'll be able to sense whether it's on the level of Shakespeare-truly
original, multidimensional, moving, evocative, thought-provoking-or whether
it's on the level of formula fiction: a dimestore novel or a Harlequin romance.