A Catholic Reader

Reading Literature in the Light of Faith

Menu Close

Tag: literary criticism

Hidden in Plain Sight: Biblical (il)literacy and the modern reader

The Gospel readings that the Church’s lectionary provides at this green time of the year are full of parables, which may be one reason that I’ve had parables on the brain late. Mark Shea’s recent feature article in Crisis Magazine, “The Parable of the Dishonest Steward,” is a good exploration of why Christ so often taught in parables and, also, why he had to explain them, even though on the face of it they are quite simple. As Shea points out, what’s obvious to a Christian may not be obvious to others, who have not “eyes to see nor ears to hear”; these only faith can provide. This brings me to another reason I’ve been thinking about the uses of parables as teaching tools.

A short story informed by faith

U. S. postage stamp commemorating Katherine Anne Porter

Short-story writer Porter was a convert to the Catholic faith.

In the literature class I’m currently teaching  (an introductory course that teaches the basics of literary interpretation), we’ve been studying short stories and how they work, reading selections that provide good illustrations of the various techniques we’re discussing (plot, setting, point of view, character, etc.). Most recently, we’ve been examining Katherine Anne Porter’s frequently-anthologized story, “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” a real literary gem.

I don’t know much about Porter, other than the fact that she was a native Texan (at one time writing for a Fort Worth journal) and a convert to Catholicism (although during a long period of her life she was apparently disaffected from religion in general), nor have I read a lot of her work, but “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” makes me want to read more.

The Jilting of Granny Weatherall

The story is simple on the face of it, yet has hidden depths. It is told in a third person, limited omniscient voice, which means that the voice telling the story does not belong to any of the characters in the story, and it allows us to know things that an ordinary objective observer could not know — in this case, the reader hears the rambling thoughts of elderly, dying Granny Weatherall during the last hours of her life. This is an interesting and tricky choice. Since as events come to us filtered through the old woman’s groggy, feeble, and wandering consciousness, the reader has a bit of a job to figure out what, objectively, is happening in Granny’s sick room. This is what I mean by its being tricky: Granny’s idea of what is happening to, and around, her is not always accurate, but an incautious reader is liable to overlook this fact. Porter’s authorial intention goes beyond the objective level of physical reality and the subjective level of Granny’s mental meanderings, to the moral level of Granny’s spiritual state, something which even Granny herself seems determined to ignore, and which many readers will miss altogether.

Kruseman's The Wise and Foolish Virgins

The parable of the wise & foolish virgins refers to the Day of Judgment.

This is really one of the things that interests me about the story. In fact, this moral level of significance, in which the author is explores and comments on Granny’s spiritual condition, is the real focus of the story, but many readers will fail to realize this. This is because Porter hints at her real purpose by use of Biblical motifs taken from Christ’s parables about death and judgment. At first, these allusions seem simply details of Granny’s wandering memories — lights and lanterns, for example —  but the cumulative effect is to make a savvy reader gradually aware that the omniscient narrator is trying to make a point, which the reader should get, even if Granny does not. The insistence of these parabolic images grows in intensity until their presence finally bursts into plain view in the final paragraph or two of the story. In the end, they are hard to overlook, at least for anyone equipped to recognize them at all. But to miss them is to miss the meaning of the story, whose central theme is Granny’s spiritual unreadiness to meet her death.

The Biblical illiteracy of modern readers

It’s a great pity that many modern readers these days are utterly incapable of recognizing these Scriptural allusions at all. When the story was published in 1930, Porter had a reasonable expectation that many, if not most, of her readers would be familiar with the stories of the Bible, particularly the parables of Christ in the Gospels.

For centuries, literary authors had been able to make allusion to the Bible to illuminate their own works of fiction. (I wrote my doctoral dissertation on one such writer, twelfth-century Chrétien de Troyes, who first popularized stories about the knights of King Arthur.) But, alas, the great stories of the Bible are no longer part of the warp and woof of Western culture, and otherwise literate Americans who read this story today may easily miss the point Porter is trying to make. In other words, Katherine Anne Porter’s short story, like Biblical parables, can be understood only by those who have “eyes to see, ears to hear.”

It’s distressing to realize that even those who teach students to read literature are unable to see what Porter is getting at in this story. For instance, a casual cruise of the internet on the subject of “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” will discover not only the predictably awful essays and summaries written by and for students, but also offerings by “professionals” which entirely deliberately ignore or unwittingly miss the ample allusions that point to the real heart of the matter in “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.” (I even found this academic essay by a certain Barbara Laman of the University of Miami, which misses the point rather spectacularly, thanks to the peculiar kind of mental astigmatism created by a “feminist” perspective).

Without knowledge of the Bible, we remain culturally illiterate

Here’s why the sad effects of Biblical illiteracy in the general culture should concern anyone with an ounce of cultural sensibility: many of our great works of literature are now largely incomprehensible even to “sophisticated” and highly-educated readers, simply because these works rely on allusions to a thesaurus of meaning that has now been banished to the cultural outhouse. The Bible has been banned in the public sphere, and its cultural influence is ignored or denied.

In the case of “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” failure to recognize Biblical allusions or their significance will force an otherwise-astute reader to arrive at exactly the wrong idea of what this story is about. How many other, even greater, cultural treasures are, in effect, being distorted and defaced by this cultural blind spot? Loss of familiarity with the great stories of the Bible produces a great loss not only for those who are at least nominally Christian, but for our culture as a whole. This is an argument that has been made with greater force and eloquence by others than I have done here, but it is one that was borne in upon me with renewed force this week as my students and I have been analyzing this widely-read work by one of America’s great short story writers.

©2010 Lisa A. Nicholas, updated 2017

Current reading: mystery novels, history, literary criticism et cetera

I’ve been doing a lot of reading, not much writing lately. Here are some of the things I have read, am reading, or will shortly begin, some of which I will shortly be discussing in subsequent posts.

Mysteries

Thanks to a new Half Price Books nearby, I’ve been able to entertain myself reading inexpensive murder mysteries.

The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith
  • Careless in Red, Elizabeth George. One of her Inspector Lynley mysteries which has not yet been turned into an episode of the television series by that name. [finished reading]
  • Last Act in Palmyra, Lindsey Davis. A Marcus Didius Falco mystery that takes place in the Decapolis during the reign of Roman emperor Vespasian (see earlier discussion of this Roman mystery series). [finished reading]
  • The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith. The first in this charming series, whose detective-protagonist is Botswanan Precious Ramotswe and which has been turned into a movie and TV series on HBO. All of the plots for the first series of TV episodes were taken from this episodic novel, and the series largely captures the charm of the novel. [finished reading]
  • Mrs. Pollifax and the Whirling Dervish, Dorothy Gilman. The second or third in the series, which finds Mrs. Pollifax evading a pre-9/11 Muslim terrorist ring in Morroco. [finished reading]
  • Picture Miss Seeton, Heron Carvic. The first in the Miss Seeton series, about an elderly English art instructor with a penchant for tangling with criminals and then providing clues to crimes through her intuitively/psychically-inspired drawings. The series was begun by Heron Carvic, who wrote 5 Miss Seeton mysteries before his death. The series was later continued by other writers using pseudonyms with the initials H and C (Hampton Charles, Hamilton Crane). I read 8 or ten of the beginning of the series many years ago, and am glad to re-discover Miss Seeton. [finished reading]

Other literature

  • Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury. I fell in love with Ray Bradbury as a kid when I read a story of his in a reader at school, about the magic of a new pair of sneakers — a story, I found out later, that was taken from Dandelion Wine. This book really captures, for me, the beauty of Bradbury’s writing and his talent at capturing the richness and beauty of life. [Currently reading]
  • Portuguese Irregular Verbs, by Alexander McCall Smith. I’ve not yet started this, so I’m not sure if it should go in the “mystery” category, along with Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. [Planning to read]
  • Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare. An Oxford school edition. I wanted to re-read this after reading John Carroll’s analysis of it in the first chapter of The Wreck of Western Culture. [Planning to re-read]
  • Hamlet, William Shakespeare. Oxford edition, with extensive material and discussion of the three extant versions of the play. Another one I wanted to re-read after reading the first chapter of Carroll’s The Wreck of Western Culture. [Planning to read]

Literary Criticism

  • An Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis. While reading Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia, I realized that I had never read this (although I’m pretty sure I’ve owned it), so I bought a new copy and got cracking. [finished reading]

History

  • Dynamics of World History, Christopher Dawson. A compilation of Dawson’s essays,  edited by John J. Mulloy. Organized to give a good overview of Dawson’s work as an historian. I’m reading it one essay at a time. [Currently reading]

Other non-fiction

  • Things That Count: Essays Moral and Theological, Gilbert Meilaender. A collection of essays in which Meilaender, an ethicist and theologian (Lutheran, I believe) “[mines] the great works of philosophy, literature, and political theory” for “insights into the human condition.” Until now, I know Meilaender only from his contributions to First Things, but I’m looking forward to reading these essays, and will probably comment on them one by one, as I read them. This is one of two books I chose as my free selections when I renewed my membership in the Intercollegiate Studies Institute‘s Reader’s Club (huge discounts on subsequent purchases during the next twelve months). [Currently reading]
  • The Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism Revisited, John Carroll. My other free selection from ISI. To counter the prevalent view that the humanism that came in through the Renaissance is to be credited for all the wonders of modern life — individual liberty, modern democracy, prosperity, etc. — Carroll presents an alternative view, namely that  “the West’s five-hundred-year experiment with humanism has failed” and has destroyed culture in the western(ized) world. [Currently reading]
  • The Apocalypse–Letter by Letter: A Literary Analysis of the Book of Revelation, Steven Paul. This was lent me by a friend, who thought I would appreciate the linguistic precision with which the author analyzes the original Greek of the last book of the Bible (Apocalypse, a.k.a. Revelation). The author, dying of cancer, wrote this as a series of letters to his brother-in-law, who later compiled the letters into a book for publication. [Planning to read]

I have a feeling I’m leaving out one or two things, but that’s the gist of it. So many books, so little time!

Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia

Michael Ward, Planet Narnia

I thought I would mention another book that I read recently, which I like very much. This is Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis, by Michael Ward. I won’t spend time describing the book just now — go to the Planet Narnia website and see for yourself — except to say that it is a work of literary criticism that will change Lewis scholarship forever. And about time!

I found out about this book quite by chance — I was on Graboid (a video downloading service), and trying to find copies of the TV versions of Lewis’s Narnia stories that the BBC produced back in the ’80s. To simplify my search, I just used the keyword “Narnia.” Not only did I find the old television shows (some of them, anyway — I’m still looking for The Silver Chair, and one or two others), but I also hit on a BBC documentary called “The Narnia Code.” This was not a title to inspire confidence; “oh, no,” I thought, “another crackpot theory about what the Narnia novels ‘really’ mean; the BBC will do anything to attract viewers.” But I downloaded it and watched it — without great enthusiasm until Michael Ward started to explain the hermeneutic key he struck on one night that unlocked a whole level of significance in the seven Narnia novels hitherto undetected by Lewis critics.

When Ward started talking about what his find actually was, I began to get interested. This was the first theory I’d heard that (a) took seriously into account Lewis’s long career as a medievalist, (b) looked at the Narnia stories as an integrated part of L’s overall opus (i.e., showed that he did not, by some weird aberration, suddenly turn to writing “children’s stories”), and (c) answered Tolkien’s famous dismissal of them as an artless hodgpodge of mythic and legendary elements, unworthy of serious attention. Then the documentary began to show some of the major Lewis scholars giving their respectful and enthusiastic imprimaturs on Ward’s theory. Next thing I knew, I was searching the internet for the best price on Ward’s book (after I found that my local university library did not yet have it).

Once the book arrived from Alibris, I read it section by section at the breakfast table, over the course of several weeks. Before I got through the first chapter, I realized that it was time to re-read the Narnia novels (Lewis always called them “romances,” so I guess I should, too), as well as the three Ransom novels (Lewis’s “space trilogy”). I read them over a month or so, while I was also reading Planet Narnia. Ward’s theory has it that each of the Narnia stories is keyed to one of the major celestial bodies (sun, moon & planets, with the pagan deities they are associated with) in medieval cosmology, so I matched my reading of each of the Narnia stories with the relevant chapter in Ward’s study. I found this worked quite well, reading the Narnia romance first, and then the related chapter. I was also inspired to go back and, finally, finish reading Till We Have Faces (I had begun it once years ago and got distracted before finishing; wow, that was a mistake!).

I wound up being quite impressed with how thoroughly Ward’s new theory illuminates many aspects of these stories and shows them to be not an aberration amid Lewis’s other published work, but rather inspired from the very wellsprings of his deepest interests and preoccupations. Although I have not read any of Lewis’s poetry (Ward’s reading of his poems was what inspired this theory), I am familiar with his Christian apologetics and, to a certain extent, the more popular works touching on his scholarship (An Experiment in Criticism and The Discarded Image — which I now want to re-read). Now I would really love to read more of his literary criticism, particularly his preface to Milton’s Paradise Lost.

I can see that one of the reasons, probably, why critics have hitherto failed to see the influence of Lewis’s expertise in late medieval and renaissance literature on the Narnia stories is that they have been distracted by the obvious association of Aslan with Christ in the first Narnia story (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), which although clearly intended by Lewis, has served almost as a red herring. Since the Aslan portion of LWW seems to be a kind of allegory or parable of the Salvation Story, this obvious parallel has influenced far too many critics to try to find all sorts of other connections with Biblical narratives and analogues, and to overlook other allusions that are not explicitly Christian. Of course, one other reason the connection between Narnia and the medieval cosmos has remained unnoticed is that Lewis always intended it to be so — at least, that’s what Michael Ward argues, and I think he is right.

Ho-ho, any readers out there — yes, this is meant to be a teaser. If you’re a Narnia lover and want to uncover hidden depths in those beloved stories, go to Ward’s Planet Narnia web site and learn more about his theory. And if the words “literary criticism” make your eyes glaze over, fear not: this is not academic gobbledygook that ordinary mortals would choke on. In fact, although Ward came up with his theory while he was working on a doctoral dissertation, his degree is not in literary studies but theology (he is an Anglican priest; one of the Lewis scholars he quotes several times is Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury). So those of you who love Lewis’s work for its Christian elements should not despair to learn that the Narnia novels are inspired by the pagan gods who inhabited the planets of the medieval cosmos — those gods themselves were, in the Middle Ages, allegories of divine attributes of the Christian God, and Ward does a fine job of showing how the various layers of significance interplay.

I’ll have more to say about Planet Narnia later. I will just add now that one of the reasons (a rather unexpected one) that I’m interested in Ward’s study, is that he found himself faced with a task similar to one I had in my own doctoral dissertation. Although our subjects were quite different (I wrote on Chrétien de Troyes’ twelfth century French Arthurian romance, The Story of the Grail), I saw some marked similarities in what I will call the critical and rhetorical tasks we faced. So while I was reading Planet Narnia, in addition to appreciating the content of Ward’s argument, I was watching how he structured that argument, defined his terms, built his case, overcame likely objections, etc., and taking note of ideas that occurred to me regarding structural changes I might make when I get around to revising my dissertation for publication (which I definitely want to do). I’ll probably have more to say about that, too, but that will be another day.