Melodrama and Modernity

Melodrama and Modernity: Film and Culture by Ben Singer (2001)

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How to study Literature

BY #Saf Ou

Most students feel quite daunted when they are faced with the task of reading classic novels like Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ or poems like Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’. That frustrating feeling you get when you can’t understand half the words on the page, then once you’ve checked the dictionary and think you’ve understood you discover that the entire passage is metaphoric or a symbol for something else? We’ve all been through it, remember the Valley of Ashes in Gatbsy? Part of the issue is that unfortunately, we have -at least the majority of us- not grown up reading or loving literature. We associate novels and poems with cold, dingy classrooms, strict or incompetent teachers and worst of all, exams. The trick, my friends, is to see literature as something else, to redefine it in your mind so that the images it conjures up is holding a book in which the writer is saying what you have always thought and felt, and the story feels like it is speaking to you. This journal will provide you with tips I hope you find useful in your quest to tolerate, like, or maybe love your literature modules.

GET INTO THE CONTEXT

…/… by #Saf Ou

One of the things that can make reading distasteful is that you just cannot empathise with the things the writer says, and the reading you do feels superficial and forced. Let me give you an example; you are holding Jane Eyre in your hands and you just don’t understand why she keeps yapping about nature and the weather, you are frustrated by the heavy-handed language Bronte uses, it all gets a bit boring. The solution? Understand what Romanticism is all about. When the Bronte sisters were penning works like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte), Britain was in the process of a revolutionary change: the Industrial Revolution. As farms and agriculture were abandoned for factories and manual labour, Britain’s green valleys and marshes and woods were being eliminated and replaced by cold, hard stone and chimneys belching black smoke. At the same time, a people that had so far been very religious was suddenly starting to question the existence of God at all, and certainly doubted the credibility of the Bible and Christianity in general. On the philosophical plane, the Enlightenment era lead to arguments that one shouldn’t be guided by emotions but by pure logic. Also -and this does justify Charlotte Bronte’s use of heavy language- among the growing middle class to which she belonged, it became fashionable to speak French and one had to have an extensive vocabulary in English and speak with a genteel accent. And of course, the very few female writers who managed to make it at the time felt the need to prove that they were just as clever and witty as the men. If you can’t picture this context, if you can’t imagine Charlotte Bronte sitting in a dark room in the British Midlands, contemplating the dark starry night outside and dreaming by candle light, you can’t possibly love the book. If we cross the Atlantic and try to apply the same idea to American literature, we can also improve our knowledge there. Let’s take Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for instance. It was written in the late 19th century, when America was just over one 100 years old. The country was still relatively young and was looking for its identity, you can see this in any piece of literature from that time. It had just been through its first and only Civil War between Northerners and Southerners, over such matters as slavery and trade. The North and South were now at peace, but still disliked each other and had stereotypes about each other, spoke and thought differently, and of course as in any conflict, each side was convinced that it was right. One of Twain’s goals was to introduce the real South to Northerners, in a brave effort to reconcile the two halves of America. He wrote Huck Finn in the Southern dialect, went into great detail when describing the scenery in the South, described its people in great details, from what they wore to what they ate! Also, just as the Bronte’s wrote in the context of Romanticism, Twain’s novels reflected a move towards Realism, which rejected the Romantics’ ideals, their use of difficult language and their flat, unrealistic characters. Just as the name suggests, Realism wanted to make sure literature wrote about real life and real people. Let’s now move in time instead of space. In the classique system, we study British Modernism in the third year and American Modernism in year four. This movement is very important, and is seen by critics as a break with the past for literature, so try to understand it to the best of your ability. Just think about when it happened for starters. We are talking about the turn of the 20th century, the start of a new millennium. The artists in Britain mostly dealt with the changes in British society and lifestyle, this new revolutionized, industrialised Britain. One of their biggest concerns was also colonialism, which Britain was so proud of but in reality it was a big sham that was making victims out of millions of people across the world. This is what you find in ‘Heart of Darkness’ by Joseph Conrad and ‘A Passage to India’ by E.M Forster. For American Modernists such as Fitzgerald, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, it was all about the new post-war, rich, fun-loving America that was losing all of the values that made it a great nation, and was becoming more and more obsessed with money. Of course the most remarkable thing about Modernism, friends, is not the themes all on their own, writers have always written about problems, but Modernism introduced a whole different way of writing. Stories no longer needed to have a specific beginning or end, characters didn’t need names, the story didn’t have to follow any logic or chronology, reality was no longer absolute but depended on the person telling the story. All very confusing stuff! Just remember that Modernists were inspired now by psychology and such psychoanalysts (and crazy people really…) as Sigmund Freud, so they knew that human minds and lives were not really things that followed a regular pattern like books usually showed. The Modernists also witnessed what wars, greed and hatred could do to humanity, life didn’t make any sense anymore, and it didn’t follow a specific logic. So their writing reflected what they saw in life and their confusion over all of this change. My conclusion for this little essay is that one of the keys to understanding literary works is to imagine them in the right space and time. This is why every year, we study both literature and civilization, and the two are always complementary. So my tip to you is to make links between lit and civ whenever possible, and always place any piece of art you are reading in its context!