As we have before (for the most recent example see this post), my kids and I recently made a stab at literary analysis. We used as our guide Deconstructing Penguins by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone (see my review here). The object of our analysis this time was Lost Horizon by James Hilton.
Let me start by saying that I loved this book. I highly recommend it as a read aloud even if you are not going to analyze it (beware that I can’t discuss this book without giving some spoilers, though, so you may want to stop here and come back after you’ve read it). Lost Horizon was written in 1933, between the world wars, and reflects the concerns of the time. I have been amazed how deeply World War I seems to have impacted European thought. I think those of us living after WWII have forgotten how profoundly the Great War affected those who lived through it. (We can see this even in the writings of my beloved Charlotte Mason; I touched on that here.) The main character in this book, Conway, is a veteran of the War to End All Wars and has been changed by it. He and three others are in a plane set to evacuate them from Baskul when it is hijacked (a very modern plot device!). They are flown to a distant, unknown part of Tibet where they encounter a secret community known as Shangri-La (I never knew where that term came from, but this is it). Shangri-La, as it names has come to mean, is meant to be a kind of utopia. Its guiding principle is moderation and its purpose is to preserve human culture in the event of ultimate destruction, which its members believe is inevitable. Once there Conway meets the High Lama of the community, discovers its great secret, and is told that he and his companions will not be able to leave. Three of the newcomers, including Conway himself, are okay with this, but one, Mallinson, is determined to leave.
I began our discussion by asking my kids whether they would have chosen to stay at Shangri-La. I got one unequivocal no, one probably yes, and two I-don’t-knows.
We then backed up and I gave a little historical context. First I asked them when the book was set. They found this pretty easy (between the wars). If your kids are younger or have had less world history then you can just fill them in. Deconstructing Penguins has a nice summary of the era on p. 106 which you can read aloud.
Next came our perennial question: Who is the protagonist? As we learned from our previous discussions, the protagonist is the one who moves the action forward, who is trying to accomplish something. He (or she) need not be the main character or a good guy. The possible answers we came up with were Mallinson, Conway, and the High Lama. After some discussion, we said that Mallinson represents one camp (anti-Shangri-La) and that Conway and the High Lama are in the opposing camp (pro-Shangri-La). I then asked what the action each is trying to move forward would be if he were the protagonist. It was suggested that the High Lama’s goal is to get a new high lama, but this was overruled in favor of the preservation of knowledge and culture. Conway, we said, wants peace but really isn’t trying to do very much. Mallinson is trying to get away from Shangri-La. We also asked what each of these three characters value. For Conway the answer was peace; the High Lama values knowledge and moderation, and Mallinson values living life, real people, and extremes (as opposed to moderation).
We still didn’t have a lot of agreement on who the protagonist is or whether we would want to stay in Shangri-La. So next I asked what Shangri-La represents or how it is characterized. The child who had been vehemently against staying said that Shangri-La is about kidnapping which we had to concede is true. On the negative side of the chart, he also said that it has a bad theology (those who go there seem to lose their Christian theology), nothing new and is not creative. Shangri-La preserves but for the most part does not innovate. On the positive side we listed long life, quiet and peaceful. We also said that Shangri-La represents the old, not the new, and that it is anti-progress.
We still weren’t getting a lot of agreement nor strong opinions on what they would do (except from that one child). We tried to compare Shangri-La and the outside world. The former we said was for peace and moderation but was apathetic. The latter was about extremes, worry, destruction and a lack of peace.
I tried to them turn the discussion to what the author was trying to say. After some discussion, we decided that we can’t really say why Conway decides to leave in the end, whether he is just helping Mallinson or whether he has been won over by Mallinson’s arguments, though it does seem that he tries after a while to return to Shangri-La. In the end, the main conclusion we reached is that the book leaves us not knowing whether Shangri-La is good or not; we are, like Conway and presumably like Hilton’s original readers, caught between the real world with all its problems and this weird but peaceful alternative. Hilton asks the questions, but he doesn’t give the answers.
The conclusion of Deconstructing Penguins was that Lost Horizon is about the balance between freedom and security which I found to be a very modern concern. We skirted around this idea in our discussion but didn’t end up there. Which just goes to show that there is no one right answer in literary analysis. Any answer you can support from the text is valid.