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Home Notes for Introduction to Literature
Notes for Introduction to Literature
~~ Revisiting Theme, Ambiguity, Irony, Symbol, and Paradox in Selected Poetry~~
Theme: "The Unknown Citizen"
Theme is an idea suggested by a work of literature, formulated as a generalization. It's an idea you draw from the work, not the work's subject. You might describe the subject of "The Unknown Citizen" as being about an average American man, and the degree to which he's been, all his life, considered "normal." But that description of the poem's subject doesn't explain its theme. To get to the theme, you have to ask, what point is being made about this man, about his "normalness"?
One theme that I come away with after reading this poem is that conformity to such a degree can hide a person from himself; it confers a kind of invisibility, a cloak of unknowing which can shield one from the larger, more important questions: am I free, am I happy? To think that social acceptability is more important that individual freedom and happiness is really the absurdity. Conformity is the death of individualism. Is the poem comic or tragic? You decide.
Ambiguity: "My Papa's Waltz"
Ambiguity means "open to alternative interpretations. This poem, as we discussed at length already, can be interpreted literally (this is a romp, a happy memory) or figuratively (the threat of violence hanging in the air, the family is forced to step very carefully--or "waltz"--around an abusive man's alcoholism). The text of the poem seems to support two widely divergent readings.
Irony: "Richard Cory"
What appears to be true is not really true beneath the veneer. Richard Cory has wealth, education, good looks (grace), fame, and maybe even humility. He has everything we envy, which we've been conditioned to believe will bring us everlasting happiness. What child doesn't fantasize about being famous? What American doesn't fantasize about getting filthy rich? What American doesn't want to be "one of the beautiful people" (to quote John Lennon). But fame, wealth, and beauty aren't the recipe. We'll have to look elsewhere. When Richard Cory kills himself, his death challenges all our assumptions about the real meaning of wealth, fame, and good looks. Richard Cory is not an enigma; his suffering and despair make perfect sense when we hear how others see him. No has ever bothered to get to know him beneath his glossy surface. His superficial relationships have apparently grown thin.
Symbol: "One Perfect Rose"
The conventional symbolism of the rose is looked at sardonically in Dorothy Parker's poem. By preferring a "limousine" to the rose, the female speaker lets us know she's not interpreting her lovers' intentions the way they'd prefer. Does she seem ungrateful? But she fully understands the "language of the floweret," and it's a cliched language without originality and without committment. Inwardly, she rejects it. She's not fooled anymore, fellows. She's been there too many times, in the kind of passionate, romantic relationships that flame and then fizzle. The rose represents a kind of love that has its limits, and she wishes she would meet a man who'd offer her something more. Something exciting, maybe--an opulent joyride, or marriage. Is she just a material girl, or is she wising up to the knowledge that her boyfriends only seem interested in one thing?
Paradox: "Much Madness is Divinest Sense"
How can madness
be sense? How can insanity be rational? In this piece of conceptual wordplay,
Emily Dickenson observes that our definitions for these terms are at best arbitrary,
even a bit meaningless, or, at least paradoxical. How does one get to be considered
"sane"? By going along with the crowd (by conforming, like "The
Unknown Citizen," and never questioning "authority"). But is
that really sane? What if the authority/majority wants to keep the institution
of slavery, or wants to exterminate an ethnic group, or wants to do some other
immoral or greedy or stupid thing? By challenging the majority, you'll be labeled
insane, yet what could be more sane than challenging immorality, greed, or stupidity?
It's the rare, democratic society that tolerates--even values--protest.
I wonder how many of us consider American society that kind of democracy? Many
places in the world, if you don't go along, the authorities like to come along
and drag you away with a chain. Is that true here?
Questions? Contact me.
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