Picking Apart a Text


My 8th graders are currently at work on writing book reviews for the novels they read before winter break. In trying to teach how to evaluate a book (again), I am confronted (again) with, well, how one goes about evaluating a book.

I wrote in my last post about a basic comprehension of a book based on facts of character, plot, and setting. At this level, one is just composing a schematic of the story, inventorying the various components.

I asked my 8th graders to evaluate this level on the value of the writing. Are the characters cliché? Where does the plot flag? Is the author prone to florid descriptions and purple prose?

I labeled another level of consideration one of meaning.

The focus at this level, of course, is theme. I’ve had lots of past difficulty explaining the notion of theme to students. I’ve described it in the past as the “life lesson” of the story, but uncomfortably so, since it suggests that all stories are didactic in nature. This year, I lifted from John Truby the notion that the theme is the “moral vision” of the author as revealed in the text. I talk about how an author can have a fairly superficial purpose in writing a book, but that the text can still be representative of the author’s way of thinking and belie his or her worldview, his or her values.

I teach students to look for theme in the bird’s-eye view of the plot. What is the delta value? How has the situation (especially for the protagonist) changed at the end of the novel compared to the beginning of the novel? Is that change tragic or comic (or both)?

Often the most clarifying moment for the theme is the climax. I try to disabuse my students of thinking of the climax as the most exciting or dramatic moment of the story. I define the climax, instead, as the ultimate point of decision for the protagonist — the last character-defining point where the hero chooses one fate over others. The nature of this decision often provides the best clue as to the theme of the novel.

The subplots of the novel also often clarify or suggest further themes. Sometimes they even suggest subtexts.

Subtext. I also have had a hard time defining that term to my satisfaction. Still do. I’ve used the phrases “hidden themes” or “secret meanings,” but I never feel like students really come away with a strong sense of the term. Is it just a theme that’s hard to figure out? No, not really. Subtext suggests something that is below face value, something slyly outside of the straight mechanics of the story. It has a conspiratorial sense to it.

Subtext is more sensed than discovered; it’s something you have a hunch about rather than dig around for. I have, however, used an examination of motifs as a way to point to possible subtexts. It’s akin to the “deja vu” test in The Matrix.

The notion of subtext also bleeds into the last level of examination I’ve found: context. I don’t often talk much about books on this level with my middle school students. I tend to emphasize more New Criticism close reading skills, which are hard enough to get a handle on. I guess I’m also afraid to tempt students of the thinking that the secret to cracking the code of a book is by looking elsewhere to others.

Shame really, since one often doesn’t really appreciate a work’s significance unless you know it’s place in a larger conversation. Moreover, you often can’t get a sense of true critical literacy without tackling a text at this level. With my 8th grade book reviews, I suggest they look at three possible contexts within which to place the book: literary (genre), historical, and personal.

Within the literary context, you take a look at what other texts are like this text. You try to figure out how this book holds a unique place within a category of work. What are the book’s literary influences, and how it has influenced others in turn?

Within the historical context, you try to address the cultural outlook of the world at the time the book was published — and/or the book’s consideration of a specific historical moment within its story. It’s often helpful within this context to consider the dynamics of power between characters to get at, for example, a feminist reading of the novel.

The personal context considers a more psychological reading of the novel. How does an examination of the author’s life and worldview illuminate either the text’s intentionality or, perhaps, an against-the-grain reading?


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