Review of Week 4: Feb 1, 3 (by Jordan Murphy and Taylor Joyce)
We began class this week by going over the writing assignment. We then went into discussion on Beidler’s text. Beidler briefly talks about how there may have been a special occasion the tales were written for, but this is only speculation. In this section Beidler draws our attention to three different works that influenced Chaucer. These works are the Roman de la Rose and Jerome’s Adversus Jovinianum. He also covered some analogues that may have influenced the Wife of Bath’s Tale, including Gower’s Tale of Florent. We learned that though there is a huge range in the dates these texts were written, they were all simultaneously “alive” during Chaucer’s time. That is, they would have been familiar to his peers. We discussed that though originality in writing is prized today, in Chaucer’s time, reworking an old story was seen as true genius.
We then moved on to discuss Bressler’s “Defining Criticism, Theory, and Literature.” We wondered if there is such a thing as just reading for fun. We determined from our reading of the text that how we approach literature is socially conditioned and largely constructed. Society dictates how we view works. Bressler is quick to say that she does not think that society having an influence on us is necessarily a bad thing. We discussed how societal pressures allow us to have a shared culture. What we are conditioned to enjoy, we generally enjoy; we used television as an example of this. We then talked briefly about the anecdote that Bressler uses to explain her point that though we may not realize it, we employ theories all the time. For instance, while one student took a formalist approach to the reading, another had a psycho-analytical approach, while still another was impressionistic.
We then discussed practical and theoretical criticism. Practical criticism deals with specific texts where theoretical criticism is based on general principles or theories applicable to any text. Practical critics concentrate on a close reading of the text. Theoretical criticism focuses more on drawing parallels between literary works and finding common themes.
Finally, we discussed our reading from the Theory Toolbox. We learned that theory asks “Where do opinions come from?” This is important because without theory everything would seem like a natural fact.
Beginning on Thursday we briefly discussed our final project, but quickly delved into our reading of The Theory Toolbox. We started off our discussion with the question: “What is the role of the author?” After much debate we determined that the role of the author was to create a text worthy of reading and studying. We then went on to discuss the difference between a writer and an author. Those writers that are canonized become authors, so it is through cultural position that the title of “author” is given. Though anyone can author (verb) to become an author (noun) one must be canonized. We then continued our discussion with the question: “Who gives meaning to a text?” After much debate, we determined that this concept is often a matter of opinion and cultural value.
Paradise Lost has served as an ongoing example in our class, and Thursday was no exception. The cultural climate of the 1970s changed how the character of Satan in Paradise Lost was viewed. The popular show Arrested Development also served as an example of how an audience can view the meaning of the text as something wholly different from what the writer intended. Tobias’s book The Man Inside Me became popularized within the gay community though the meaning those readers found so valuable in the text was not intended by the author.
We talked about how Tompkins saw that having a flexible canon would be more beneficial than one that is constant. Although many books stay in the canon over many years, it is not because they contain some universal truth that transcends time and culture. They remain because society says they are worthy of remaining; because of this, we continue to search for meaning in the texts.
We also discussed the reasons we like to know that a work has an author. We said that knowing the author seems to humanize the text and knowing the author is often the only concrete fact we have about a text since ‘meaning’ is so elusive.
We concluded our class by contrasting a review of Wall-E in the New York Times with an interview given by Wall-E’s director, Andrew Stanton. The critic saw Stanton’s work as a cautionary tale depicting the world’s end if we continue to trash the planet. Andrew Stanton, on the other hand, insisted that the movie began solely for the purpose of telling the story of the last robot on the planet. He said that he was shocked by how much the audience politicized his work. Again we were left with the question of who establishes meaning: the author or the recipient of the work.
“But theory (and its use-value, its necessity) begins in the freeing up of meaning from the iron grasp of the author. Meaning is always more slippery and multiple than any given author’s intentions.” (Theory Toolbox 18)
“Yet somehow Chaucer manages to turn the qualities that were negative in Jerome into qualities that are at least ambiguous, at best downright engaging, in the autobiographical portrait of the Wife of Bath.” (Beidler 23)
“Even if an author comes right out and tells you what he or she intended, this doesn’t seem to settle very much or tell us very much about how meaning happens.” (Theory Toolbox 15)
Hermeneutics of suspicion
Preview of Next Week (Autumn will be class secretary)
It’s Chaucer week! On Tuesday, we will spend the whole class on Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Prologue and then on Thursday will discuss the Wife’s Tale, as well as some material on the research paper from the MLA Handbook. The Wife’s Prologue can be quite a challenge, with its ongoing references to scripture and to what were at the time the authorized interpretations of certain passages, as well as Chaucer’s engagement with Jerome’s Adversus Jovinianum and the way he makes use of (and modifies dramatically) the figure of La Vielle from Romance of the Rose. Remember that Chaucer wasn’t concerned, even in his portrayal of a figure like the Wife of Bath, to present what we expect of a literary character (a psychologically consistent figure) but instead made use of her to respond to various 14th-century expectations of women of her position and to provide a commentary on cultural values of the day. You will find her inconsistent at times; don’t let that distract you from what each of those moments is conveying.
As you read the Tale, do try to imagine how this would be an unusual version of a medieval romance–typically telling the story of an excellent knight as he establishes and maintains his reputation by defending those suffering injustices. Also, consider how the ending parallels the conclusion of the Prologue and what those parallels might suggest.
When you read the material on research papers, bear in mind what kinds of research projects you’ve done in the past and what the expectations of those projects have been. How is what the MLA Handbook is describing different?
On Thursday, your summary of Tompkins’ essay is due in OAKS. (We will go over the submission process in class Tuesday.) Remember that I have office hours 11-12 on Tuesday if you’d like to talk with me about your essay before it is due. Next week we will have scheduled meetings outside of class, for 15 minutes each, to discuss your revision plans/process. Also next week, your statement about your text selection for your Big Project is due (on the blog) on Tuesday, so you will need to be working with the MLA International Bibliography to be making your decision. I will post the assignment for that before Tuesday’s class.