Sunday, December 20, 2009

Feel the Thinking

My recent reading of Lisa See’s SHANGHAI GIRLS rekindled my interest in exploring the possibilities of using fiction in the college classroom to promote critical thinking. I say “rekindled” because I have previously used fiction in the classroom; a couple years ago I asked my class to read THE COLOR PURPLE (Harcourt, 1982) by Alice Walker. I selected that particular novel because I wanted a book that was complex yet accessible and thus THE COLOR PURPLE was a perfect choice. Prior to our reading, I did not tell the students to look for anything in particular; I passed out the books and said, “Let’s read.” About a week and a half later, we started discussing the book. It was obvious the students connected with the book, especially in regard to the family issues. Our discussions were lively and detailed; I recently started wondering why our reading of THE COLOR PURPLE was so successful. Why did a highly emotional story help my students think analytically? With these questions in mind, I reread THE COLOR PURPLE and continued my reading of academic articles on using fiction to encourage critical thinking.
Rereading the novel reminded me of how emotional the story is and that the turmoil is connected to the most basic human structure—the family. I’d also forgotten that THE COLOR PURPLE is written in a series of letters and that the letters are written in simple language with non-standard spellings and grammatical use. For example, from one of Nettie’s letters: “Dear God, I ast Shug Avery what she want for breakfast. She say, What yall got?...White women in it laughing, holding they beads out on one finger, dancing on top of motorcars.” (COLOR, p51). Using letters to tell the story allows the reader to be close to the characters and yet distant as the same time. I can see now that it is Nettie’s simple language and constant presence through her voice that intensifies the emotional impact of the novel. Having reaffirmed that the novel is indeed written to tap into the reader’s emotion, and with a new understanding of why that is so, I asked myself again, why did an emotional novel help my students think analytically?
As a developmental instructor, one of my primary goals is to help students pull their emotion and intellect apart. Louise Rosenblatt, in her book LITERATURE AS EXPLORATION, notes that fiction provides students the opportunity to identify their emotions, test their assumptions, and consequently reject or revise their original reactions. (LITERATURE, p215) She continues on to state that, “It seems reasonable to suggest, therefore, that in building up the habit of mind essential to the attainment of sound literary judgment, the student will also be acquiring mental habit valuable for the development of sound insight into ordinary human experience.” (LITERATURE, p215-216) In short, thinking generates more thinking and high level critical thinking generates more high level critical thinking.
But does the reading of fiction have advantages over non-fiction? Rosenblatt believes so. She pointed out that it is easy to think about complex human problems when emotions are not involved. This ease is a disservice to students as this type of setting, a non-emotional one, is not realistic. Students need the challenge that is supplied by emotion; fiction supplies that challenge as “literature offers an opportunity to develop the ability to think rationally within an emotionally colored context” (LITERATURE, p217).
As a result of my rekindled interest, I asked the leader of the writing faculty “team” if I could incorporate a novel in my composition course next semester. She requested that I make my request of the entire team at our next meeting. I did and received the go-ahead from the writing team to do a pilot using fiction as part of my composition course next semester. I’m excited about moving ahead, even though I am a bit anxious due to the fact that my team required convincing. I’ll be putting Rosenblatt’s theories to the test as I continue looking into this practice.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Character of Ilhéus

Janet Burroway starts off her chapter in Writing Fiction (Longman, 2003) on setting with Elizabeth Bowen’s maxim that “nothing happens nowhere” and reminds readers of Jerome Stern’s statement that a scene that happens nowhere often seems not to happen at all. (Writing, p198) While setting in some novels is more significant than in others, setting is an essential aspect of all stories. And, like other key aspects such as character and theme, it must be carefully woven in and dimensional. “Like dialogue, setting must do more than one thing at once, from illuminating the story’s symbolic underpinnings to such practical kinds of ‘showing’ as reflecting emotion or revealing subtle aspects of a character’s life.” (Writing, p 198)

The city of Ilhéus is the primary setting for the romance of Nacib Saad and Gabriela in Jorge Amado’s GABRIELA, CLOVE, AND CINNAMON (Vintage, 2006). The struggle taking place there between the old established cacao growers and the new growers seeking to modernize is more than a vibrant backdrop; the city itself is a character with desires, ideas, and conflicts. Throughout the novel, Amado weaves in these desires and ideas, sometimes by pulling together the characteristics of individual characters. By doing so, he accomplishes at three things at once: 1) individual characterization 2) collective characterization of the city of Ilhéus, and 3) the development of the conflict of the old and new cacao growers which echoes the conflicts Nacib and Gabriela face. The passages detailing the citizen’s of Ilhéus’s response to Nacib’s murder of his wife and her lover are an excellent example of a passage which accomplishes this.

The impact on the town was tremendous, for the shooting stimulated emotions associated with the old days. For the moment, Nacib forgot his terrible problem, the Captain and the Doctor forgot their political concerns, and Colonel Ramiro Bastos even forgot his hatred for Mundinho Falcão. The news, spreading like wildfire, increased the respect and admiration that already surrounded the planter’s thin and somewhat somber figure. For this was how it was in Ilhéus: the honor of a deceived husband could be cleansed by blood. (p104)

The tragedy of Sinházinha and the dentist was passionately discussed. Opinions varied as to exactly what had happened, there were conflicting details, but on one thing all were agreed: the colonel had done the right thing and deserved praise for performance of his duty as a husband and as a man. (p105)

This dimensional approach is consistent throughout the novel and impacts all characters to varying degrees. The more closely a character is tied to the city, the more the city affects them. This can be seen in Gabriela’s storyline.

The relationship of Gabriela and the city of Ilhéus shows how significantly the city functions as a character. In the beginning of the story she was less impacted by the city’s desires and ideas, yet as she becomes part of Nacib’s life she becomes more influenced and challenged by Ilhéus. The resulting conflict between Gabriela and the city of Ilhéus can be seen in the passage when she realizes that with Nacib’s sister in town Nacib will not agree to her dressing as a shepherdess in the pageant of The Three Kings.

Now it was all over, impossible. With his sister in town, eager to see him ashamed of Gabriela, Nacib would never consent to her parading through the streets, bearing the standard with the Baby Jesus on it. And he was right. To displease him that much, hurt him that much, she just couldn’t. (p350)

What would the people of Ilhéus say, especially his friends at the bar, the ladies of good family, and Colonel Ramiro, who had distinguished her so? Impossible, Gabriela; he never heard of anything so absurd. Bié must realize that she is no longer a poor servant girl with no family, no name, no date of birth. Can you imagine Mrs. Nacib Saad leading a street pageant, with a crown of gilt cardboard on her head? Can you imagine a woman of social distinction swinging her hips and dancing along the street, dressed in blue and red satin, carrying a banner and followed by twenty-two other shepherdesses carrying lanterns? Impossible. (p351)

Although Gabriela doesn’t seem to realize the change in her relationship to the city, it is there, guiding her actions, shaping her identity and emotions. Her response to the city’s desires and ideas is realistic because as we are all shaped by places we are a part of. “Our relation to place, time, and weather, like our relation to clothes and other objects, is charged with emotion more or less subtle, more or less profound. It is filled with judgment mellow or harsh. And it alters what happens to us.” (Writing, p202)

The city of Ilhéus not only challenges the characters in the novel to change, the city itself, like all complex characters, changes as well. This change can be seen in the final page when the trial of Colonel Jesuíno Mendonça is recounted. Here the story is brought full circle by showing that instead of embracing the murder of an adulterous wife the city of Ilhéus condemns the act.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Uncertainty of Truth

The title of Gabriel García Márquez’s CHRONICLE OF A DEATH FORETOLD (Vintage, 1982) is true to the nature of the novel; it embodies two of the novel’s key characteristics. Notably, these two distinct characteristics—its straightforward writing and its indirect, nonlinear narrative—create an ongoing juxtaposition that enhances the aspects of each and consequently provide depth to the novel. Márquez’s ability to achieve this seemingly awkward marriage stems from his practice of telling/showing several things at once and from his exploration of the contrasts and inconsistencies inherent in trying to reconstruct an event that happened decades in the past.

Early in the story the narrator, a friend of the murdered Santiago Nasar, summarizes some of the accounts he received from the many witnesses of the murder as such:

Furthermore: all the many people he ran into after leaving the house at five minutes past six and until he was carved up like a pig an hour later remembered him as being a little sleepy but in a good mood, and he remarked to all of them in a casual way that it was a very beautiful day. No one was certain if he was referring to the state of the weather. Many people coincided in recalling that it was a radiant morning with a sea breeze coming in through the banana groves, as was to be expected in a fine February of that period. But most agreed that the weather was funereal, with a cloudy low sky and the thick smell of still waters, and that at that moment of the misfortune a thin drizzle was falling like the one Santiago Nasar had seen in his grove dream.

This particular passage is characteristic of many in the novel as it demonstrates how Marquez effectively achieves the odd combination of certainty and uncertainty.     
·         Straightforward writing: It conveys basic information in a seemingly clear way, yet manages while being straightforward to also reveal the actual lack of consistency on basic points. Here the inconsistencies include characteristics of the weather and whether or not Santiago’s comments referred to the weather or some other quality of the day.
·         Indirect narrative (voice of the narrator): Concrete details are woven together with inconsistent details. In this section the concrete include the time of Santiago’s death, the matter of death, that Santiago was in a good mood, and that he spoke to many people between 6:05 and 7:05.
·         Revealing much in a few words: This short passage includes elements of the plot—when and how Santiago was murdered, that there were many witnesses—characterization—Santiago, as a wealthy successful citizen, was someone others paid attention to, Santiago was casual and “friendly” and, setting—the town was near the sea, with a nearby banana grove, the month was February, and that there was a thin drizzle of rain.

Toward the end of the novel, the straightforward writing begins to overshadow the indirect narrative as the narrator gradually sets aside contradictions and a truth begins to emerge.
On the morning of his death, in fact, Santiago Nasar hadn’t had a moment of doubt, in spite of the fact that he knew very well what the price of the insult imputed to him was. He was aware of the prudish disposition of his world, and he must have understood that the twins’ simple nature was incapable of resisting an insult. No one knew Bayardo San Román very well, but Santiago Nasar knew him well enough to know that underneath his worldly airs he was as subject as anyone else to his native prejudices. So the murdered man’s refusal to worry could have been suicide. Besides…his reaction (at impending death) was not panic, as so often been said, but rather the bewilderment of innocence. (p101)

In this passage, the narrator’s voice is stronger, more assured. Because this shift in voice from surreal, questioning, and uncertain, as it is in the beginning, to analytical and journalistic, as it is toward the end, occurs gradually it is convincing. Also, the contrast from the beginning to the end adds emphasis and power to the conclusion of the story; it adds a sense of finality that would not be as well achieved without the gradual shift.

Despite the power of the ending, the conclusion of the novel, while convincing, may or may not be satisfying to the reader. The narrator does achieve closure and the perspectives of witnesses regarding Santiago are provided and explained, but the reader is made aware of the narrator’s perception that Santiago, “died without understanding his death.” Santiago’s lack of understanding is problematic. The reader is left wondering that in life there is no certainty and pondering which matters more the quest for truth or the actual truth itself.