One of the pleasures of reading the Greats: spotting the Themes.
To Kill a Mockingbird, War and Peace, The Grapes of Wrath, The Lord of the Rings, Murder on the Orient Express, whatever your current and longtime favorite fiction may be: where do such great stories come from? Whether a story comes largely from the writer’s imagination or directly from true life experience, great works of fiction are never just raw reports of events, whether real-life or imagined. Every fiction is shaped by a multitude of artistic choices designed to give readers an experience, a sense of craft, or even beauty. Often, a great novel or short story shares a new way of thinking about life. In fact, most fiction we cherish as classic is shaped by interesting and weighty ideas. To enjoy these works to the fullest, be on the lookout for ideas that guide the narrative—in other words, its Themes.
Let’s look at one example to see how the Themes, the ideas, can shape an author’s true and raw experience into a great work of fiction.
“A child said ‘What is the grass?’fetching it to me with full hands; / How could I answer the child?”*
In Whitman’s sweet and stunning poem Song of Myself, first published in 1855, grass becomes the overarching symbol for the people of the new democratic America: common, plentiful, vigorous, and every one precious. Each time I read this work again, I am inspired, joyful, puzzled yet enlarged, and uplifted. I know of no other poem expressing such total love and acceptance for every kind of person, especially common American working people, embracing every kind of human experience, even every aspect of creation and the universe, from vegetation to animals to the cosmos.
However, not every reader has this experience when first attempting this strange and beautiful, yet down-to-earth, poem. Though written using everyday vocabulary completely free of traditional poetic structures, this poem may at first seem odd or hard to decipher. For, as Robert Haas, critic and editor of Whitman’s work has written, “It was then and is now an astonishment, perhaps the most unprecedented poem in the English language. It is also an important document in the history of American culture.”
I would like every reader to have access to this remarkable multi-faceted, landmark work. Walk with me a while and let me see if I can share some ideas that will help orient you toward understanding and enjoyment of Song of Myself.
From America’s Gilded Age: The Biltmore Mansion was built by George Washington Vanderbilt II between 1889 and 1895. It is the largest privately owned house in the United States, at 178,926 square feet.
Special Announcement! Now available on Readgreatliterature.com: a new reading list covering American literature from the “Gilded Age,” the period from the end of the Civil War in 1865 to the beginning of WW I in 1914. Click HERE to see the new reading list—but before you click, you might want to take a moment to read in this post about three important literary trends that happened during these years: Regionalism, Realism, and American Naturalism.
What is the Gilded Age?
First, what is the Gilded Age? These years between the ending of the Civil War in 1865 and the beginning of WW I in 1914 ushered sweeping changes into American life and culture: rapid industrialization, large numbers of people moving from the country into cities, an explosion in immigration numbers (over 20 million immigrants between 1880 and 1920), increasing wealth, and pursuit of material success shown through conspicuous consumption. The era got its name from The Gilded Age, a novel published in 1873 by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner. The novel satirized greed and political corruption that suddenly seemed more common in American life than it had before.
Style is the distinctive music created by an author’s words. Can you hear it?
Style in fiction is the distinctive music created by the way an author handles words. Many readers put Style last on their list of things to notice when reading a fictional narrative. But that’s a mistake, in my view, because when reading literature, HOW something is said is just as important as WHAT is said. Style in fiction is more than just decoration. Indeed, relishing a great writer’s style is one of the finest pleasures of reading, since it is through a writer’s style that we are brought into direct communication with that writer’s mind and personality, with his or her unique way of seeing the world. Even more, through great style, readers are set awash in a distinctive kind of beauty that flows from the sound and sense of language well-handled.
Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon as Heathcliff and Cathy in 1939 film Wuthering Heights.*
Note: A few Plot Spoilers!
Wuthering Heights is often billed as a love story, and portrayed sentimentally in old film versions. But readers who come to Wuthering Heights expecting a grand love story won’t just be disappointed; they’ll be shocked. Right from Chapter 1, when readers encounter the Wuthering Heights family for the first time, following alongside the prissy, citified sentimentalist newcomer Lockwood, they are plunged directly into a whirlwind of primitive, raw, elemental emotions. Love is there, though not easily recognizable, along with unbounded vitality and lust for life–but also hatred, selfishness, derision, cruelty, vengefulness. What makes this stormy story a classic, and in the end, believe it or not, a truly uplifting read?
Foremost, Wuthering Heights is a realistically observed, elegantly written work about flawed, often dislikable, yet very powerful people, enough in itself to make it interesting, even informative. More than that: Wuthering Heights is a book about Big Ideas. Emily Brontë’s novel challenges readers to re-frame every common assumption about Love and Hate, Mercy and Revenge, Life and Death, Heaven and Hell. One function of great art is to enable people to witness painful realities and strange ideas by making them in some way beautiful, thus granting us a larger perspective from which to view and consider. And Wuthering Heights does precisely that, making it a work of art on more than one level.
Just Fall In!
With this post, I draw to a close my series of How to Read Poems, Steps 1 – 10. In these posts, I tried to give you knowledge and perspective you need, along with a step-by-step method to follow, to help you unfold the meaning of classic poems and appreciate their beauty. I’ve seen this method work for many students who, by following and practicing these steps, understand and enjoy poetry for the first time. They are amazed by it. They often say they never realized there was so much to enjoy and appreciate in a poem. Having a methodical close reading technique for unfolding meaning in poems really helps. But here’s a secret: method isn’t everything!
Now I want to share with you a different joyous truth: understanding a poem doesn’t usually begin with any method at all. It begins with a shock, with a possession, with a fall. It doesn’t have to happen at the beginning, at the end, or at any particular point in the poem. Somewhere, anywhere, in that flow of words, the poem reaches out and grabs you, shocks you, puzzles you, or seduces you.
It could be a turn of phrase, a startling idea, a beautiful picture, an amazing sound, a tone of voice—anything. At first reading, you might not understand it at all. That’s OK—you don’t have to understand it yet. All you have to do is to fall in. Around this moment in the poem, that point that truly captivates your mind, the meaning will slowly crystallize.
The Wards in Jarndyce v. Jarndyce meet Miss Flite*
Charles Dickens is known for his comedy as well as his social criticism and reformist temper, so when readers pick up most Dickens novels, they look forward to gaining hope and laughter along with their tears. However, the title of what many critics say is Dickens’s best novel, Bleak House, sounds pretty discouraging to new readers. “Bleak” can mean stark, bare, exposed, charmless, dreary, or without hope. What could possibly be cheerful or hopeful about a Bleak House? And yet, for over 160 years, readers from many different backgrounds have loved and praised this novel. Why?
The Original Bleak House Dickens used as model for the fictional one. Is Bleak House Really Bleak?*
I can think of at least ten reasons people love Bleak House—strangely, the same reasons a few readers have hated it! Ultimately, though, most readers discover that Bleak House is not bleak at all, but rather ends with encouraging light and wisdom for all people who are oppressed by unjust systems gone out of control.
Here’s my list. Note: this book is so rich, not even ten reasons can cover all its events and characters. I’m saving my two favorite reasons to love Bleak House for last!
Tune your ear to the sounds of traditional poetry.
Trochees and Iambs and Dactyls and Meters and Lines? Oh My! What are all these strange terms, and what do they have to do with reading and enjoying traditional poetry written in English? Each of these terms describes a characteristic of traditional “accentual-syllabic” poetry—that is, the kind of poems that have standardized line lengths, patterns of rhythms that recur, and often, patterns of rhymes.
All of these structures, things like Iambs or Dactyls, recurring line lengths, or rhyme patters give a poem particular kinds of sounds and rhythms. They also connect one poem to a long line of other poems that have been written in the same traditional forms. Knowing a bit about rhythm, meter, and stanza forms can help alert us to the wonderful and complicated designs built into traditional poetry.