Course 3—Lecture

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How to Read: Finding meaning
In this LitCourse we learn about "close reading"—a way of approaching literature that opens up deeper levels of understanding and meaning. This is the first of eight courses that explore setting, plot, characters, symbolism, and more.

Reading
Tobias Wolff—"Powder"


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Evaluating Literature

Why bother? Evaluating literature is a useless, academic exercise—something that's best left to arid, tottering old professors.

What's worse . . . you can ruin a good story by trying to read too much into it. Right?

W-R-O-N-G !
How is it possible to "ruin" literature by deepening our understanding of it?

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Evaluating Literature—why?

Evaluating literature enables us to . . .
increase our enjoyment of reading
open up a work's deeper meanings
ponder our own lives and the world around us.

As we deepen our understanding of literature . . . we deepen our understanding of life.

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Evaluating Literature—how?

LitCourse 3 examines the "elements of storytelling"— plot, character, setting (and more) to see how they fit together as a unified whole.

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Evaluating Literature—how?

Close Reading . . .
is an analytical technique that requires us to pay close attention to words, ideas, and structure in order to see how they work together to form a unified story.

We'll be using close reading to discuss this and other stories in the remainder of these courses. Now, let's reverse the usual LitCourse order . . .

Click—"Reading" on the Course Tools to the right.
Read—the short story, "Powder."
Return—to Slide #5 and continue this Lecture.

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Evaluating Literature—title

Welcome back. Let's consider the story's title. "Powder" highlights the importance of fresh white snow in the story. It reinforces the last line, "If you haven't driven fresh powder, you haven't driven."

Powder . . .
covers the landscape—you can't see ahead, you can't see what's coming, you can't see the future.
creates a fresh new world—a world with new possibilities and a new way of seeing life.

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Evaluating Literature—setting

Mount Baker provides a perfect setting for the story: it enables the father to expose his son to risk and uncertainty, teaching him valuable life lessons. The setting supports the story's central ideas.

Weather—"bitter blinding snow" in the beginning; "fresh powder" at the end.
Location—mountains, fast ski runs, and steep roads with hairpin turns.
Season—Christmas: hope for a new beginning.

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Evaluating Literature—plot
The story's plot has a classic pyramid structure.

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Evaluating Literature—plot

Exposition—the boy gives us background information about his family.
Rising action—tension rises as Doc takes risks to get his son home on time.
Climax—the highpoint of tension comes as the boy removes the roadblock.
Falling action—the boy begins to relax and appreciate his father and the ride
Conclusion—we learn the parents eventually divorce.

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Evaluating Literature—character

Characterization is brilliantly handled in this very short story. We come to know three characters rather well —including the mother, who isn't even present.

Father—spontaneous (loves jazz), risk-taker, disregards rules (removes road barrier).
Son—fears risk, orderly (clothes on numbered hangers), plans ahead (asks for homework in advance).
Mother—angry (perhaps justified), orderly, perfectionist (dinner candles waiting to be lit).

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Evaluating Literature —viewpoint

Whoever
tells the story determines its point of view. A narrator shapes a story by controlling how much information readers are given and when.

The son narrates the events of the story; we see what he wants us to see, through his perspective.
He provides insight into his parents' differing personalities and their clash of values.
He is frank about his own fears and anxieties; later, he tells us about his epiphany—a new found respect for his father and new perspective on life.

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Evaluating Literature—symbols

Symbols convey and enlarge meanning, telling us indirectly what the author doesn't have to.

Thelonius Monk (jazz musician)—unbound by convention; innovative, spontaneous, just like Doc.
Christmas—a time of birth, new beginnings.
Powder—covers roadways and signs—there are no guideposts in life; creates a fresh, unknown world, open to new possibilities.
Roadblock—removing the roadblock "unblocks" the way forward into a new life for the son.

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Evaluating Literature—irony

Irony, the opposite of what is expected, resides in the story's father-son relationship: boy and father seem to trade places.

Doc is the opposite of a traditional father:
undependable (never on time)
childlike in his love of thrill (wants one last ski)
dismissive of rules (removes roadblock)
The son seems to be the mature one in the relationship. His exasperation with Doc resembles a father's attitude toward a teenage son.

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Evaluating Literature—theme

The story elements (plot, setting, character, et al) come together to support the story's central ideas.

Carpe diem theme—spontaneity and a degree of risk are essential for a vibrant life. To act only when one knows the exact outcome leads to a crabbed existence.
Coming-of-age theme—crossing from youth into adulthood means leaving behind childish ideas and entering a world of new understanding.

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Evaluating Literature—approaches

Close reading (see slide #4) is used by critics to analyze texts based on specific areas of interest. Here are 4 analytical approaches to the study of literature:

Feminist criticism—considers how literature reflects female cultural roles, past and present. In doing so, feminists have re-discovered writers long ignored (see LitCourse 1 and Kate Chopin).

Psychological criticism—uses the framework of Sigmund Freud and others to examine characters' actions and motivations...and even the author's psychological state.


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Mythological criticism—looks for patterns that reflect timeless, universal myths. The Cinderella motif or the hero's journey are two enduring ones.

Reader Response cricitism—focuses on how readers experience a work. The text remains the same but how each reader experiences it changes. It has even been said that a text does not exist—until it is read.

And now . . .

Congratulations!
You've completed Lecture 3. To continue LitCourse 3, click "Study Guide" on the Course Tools menu to the right.

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