‘A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.’ Says George R.R Martin in ‘A Dance with Dragons’. Reading good literature opens up thousands of portals for our imagination. We live in different worlds with the characters of the stories, feel what they feel, and learn lessons without having to suffer as they do. When a person reads a book, it leaves a lasting impression on his mind, though the intensity of this effect may vary. According to Cassandra Clare, ‘Only the very weak-minded refuse to be influenced by literature and poetry’. I read novels and stories to escape from reality into another world. Literary texts appeal to the aesthetic sense and are usually very engaging for me. The scenic beauty painted through words, the story, circumstances, adventures that characters go through keep my concentration in a literary work. My main focus while reading literary texts has always been on the action; what characters do, what challenges they face, and do I like their behaviour or not. I used to admire and despise characters on the basis of their actions.
Being a student of literature, aesthetic appeal of literature is not enough to appreciate a work. A deeper study and understanding is required from the students of literature. This understanding cannot be developed without interdisciplinary approach towards literary works. To understand a text at deeper levels and extract the maximum meaning out of it, we need to have a critical approach towards it. Again, mere criticism is not enough in our field and we need to have strong arguments, developed on sound and strong basis. Taking the course of Literary criticism has helped in developing this necessary understanding. It has changed my outlook on the literature that I read, or have read already. Now I know that understanding of literature does not only incorporate what is going on. It also encompasses why a person is doing a certain thing, and how the things work in their lives. Their actions cannot be justified only on the basis of their being inherently good and bad, but there is a much deeper meaning to everything in a good literary text. To extract these meanings, a work needs to be interpreted from a number of lenses that have a much wider scope than the field of literature only. For instance, the psychoanalytic frameworks are basically from the field of psychology, but they are used to analyse literary works. Now I know how to base my argument on the existing theories and validate my point of view.
I will take example of a work that I have read to explain how studying literary and practical criticism has helped me in understanding literary works. Before taking this course, to me ‘The Sun Also Rises’ was just a boring novel by a great writer. The story of the novel is set in post-world war I France and Spain. The story revolves around a group of people who are writers or aspiring writers, most of them are war veterans, and expatriates. The novel is written in first person narrative. Jake Barnes, the narrator, is a war veteran now working for a newspaper. He is in love with Lady Brett Ashley, a beautiful and attractive woman, but cannot marry her because he has become impotent due to an injury during the war. Jake is always helping and giving towards his friends. He does not allow anyone else to pay his bills. Brett is not loyal to Jake or any of her admirers and likes to hang around with different men. She is selfish for she enjoys being the centre of attraction and making men suffer. Cohn, despite being nice to everyone, is despised and ridiculed by most of the others. Despite having different personalities, they are bound together by their circumstances. Their lifestyles seem interesting and odd at the same time. They are all free from responsibilities towards family. They work and earn for themselves, and spend their money as they like. They eat and different restaurants, drink a lot, hang out with friends and live a carefree life. In spite of all this their life seems purposeless, aimless, and without any serious motivation and goals. The continuous drinking, pointless discussions, and shallow relationships make the novel dull. They do a lot but there is no proper climax or resolution of the action.
There is much more in this novel than this surface meaning of the narrative. Literary and practical criticism has developed my skills and ability to understand and interpret these underlying meanings in the novel. The work appears more interesting when we start to critically analyse it, and try to find why and how something is happening and is justified. In the novel ‘the sun also rises’ the behaviour and actions of different characters can be understood and justified through psychoanalysis. When we analyse this work using psychoanalytic framework, we come to know that the behaviour of the characters was because of certain reasons. There are different defence mechanisms that these war veterans have adopted in reaction to their psychological wounds.
Through psychoanalysis of the novel we come to know that the excessive drinking is not symbolic of a carefree life but a defensive strategy. They drink a lot to escape from reality. Their minds have been affected by the war so much that they try to repress those memories through excessive drinking. The war has made them disillusioned about significance of existence, consequently they are going through existential crisis. This is the reason that they avoid any serious discussions and move from one place to another to put it off. Through critical analysis we come to know that they use avoidance and repression as defence mechanisms to avoid confronting the ghosts of their past.
Similarly, the behaviour of different characters in the novel can be understood through study of the defence mechanisms they use. This analysis gives us an insight about why a person is behaving in a particular way and how is he dealing with his situation. Brett’s divided loyalties are not due to some inherent evil in her personality but due to her fear of intimacy and insecure sense of self. Her fiancé died during the war and she was married to a Lord who did not treat her well; always threatening to kill her. Her past experiences have inflicted in her a fear of intimacy. This justifies her distancing herself from Jake, as they love each other, but she cannot be intimate with him. Similarly, she moves away from Cohn as soon as she realizes that he is in love and wants to make a long-term relationship with her. She also has an insecure sense of self as she is dependent upon men to provide for her. Therefore, she indulges in short term relationships with men, who on one hand do not expect any intimacy and make her feel secure and fulfil her monetary needs on the other.
Jake is a war veteran who has lost his masculinity in the war. The severity of his loss was put into words as, ‘you have lost something more than the life itself’. Jake has intellectualized his situation and therefore adopts defensive strategies to supress his fears and hide his disability. Although he has an option to break away from the vicious circle and live his own way, but he chooses otherwise. This justifies his hard-boiled exterior that he puts up in front of everyone. His lack of interest in women, and open mindedness towards Brett’s affairs is a strategy to repress his own desires. He leaves the parties early to avoid any incident that reveals his weakness. His low self-esteem forces him to assert his masculinity, that justifies his obsession with paying his bills himself.
Cohn has faced social seclusion and biased behaviour because of his religion. Due to this he has a low self-esteem and a fear of abandonment. To counter his low self-esteem and to displace the resulting aggression, he learned boxing. ‘He cared nothing for boxing, in fact he disliked it, but he learned it painfully and thoroughly to counteract the feeling of inferiority and shyness he had felt on being treated as a Jew at Princeton. There was a certain inner comfort in knowing that he could knock down anybody who was snooty to him…’ (chapter I, the sun also rises). This strategy made him feel secure. His emotions were sublimated through boxing. His anxiety and need for social acceptance led him to cling to people who were nice to him. This justifies and explains the following narration about him,
‘… he came out of Princeton with a painful self-consciousness and the flattened nose, and was married by the first girl who was nice to him’ (Ch. I, the sun also rises)
Mike Campbell employs repression, displacement, and selective perception as defence strategies. He represses his thoughts about the fact that Brett is not loyal to him. He displaces his aggression by getting drunk and being unfairly rude to Cohn. He uses selective perception to overlook Brett’s inappropriate behaviour towards him and satisfies himself with the thought that she is very beautiful and will marry him soon.
Romero’s shyness and distant approach towards the outsiders is a defensive strategy, as his people do not want him to mix with foreigners. Romero uses avoidance to save himself from falling into any undesired situation. Though Brett intrudes his shell and things fall apart for him.
Francis tries to force Cohn into marrying her not because she loves him but because she did not want to accept the fact that he wanted to leave her. It is her denial of the reality and fear of abandonment that she wants to secure her relationship with Cohn by forcing him into marriage.
Literary criticism thus enables us to peel off different layers of meaning in a literary work. Without any background knowledge of the setting, we cannot understand its significance. Similarly, if we do not know about different analytical approaches we cannot understand and criticise a work. Psychoanalysis as a whole is a very vast framework, and defence mechanisms and anxiety only a part of it. Still, applying these mechanisms has helped so much in understanding of the underlying meanings in ‘the sun also rises’. If analysed from any other perspective this work will reveal many other underlying meanings.
Now after taking this course, my focus while reading a literary text or watching a drama or movie will be on many aspects rather than the action only. I will now try to reason each and every action and dialogue of a character. My focus may shift to deriving logical reasons for everything. Critical analysis helps to make a complex work simple and an apparently simple and boring work complex and significant. Literary criticism make the work open to interpretations and give the reader a real understanding of it.