Posts Tagged ‘deconstructing penguins’

Literary Analysis: Lost Horizon

Dear Reader,

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.


Literary Analysis: Charlotte’s Web

Dear Reader,

Today we made our second attempt at literary analysis. You can read about the first one, on Mr. Popper’s Penguins, here. The whole enterprise on based upon the book Deconstructing Penguins which I really loved and reviewed here. Last link! — You can also read some thoughts I had on how we’re tweaking Deconstructing here.

So to get down to the nitty-gritty. I read my kids Charlotte’s Web over the course of a few weeks. Ideally, each child would read the book himself but I find it’s a lot more likely to get done when I read aloud to them all at once.

I had a list of questions, based on the account given in Deconstructing Penguins (see below). But my oldest had mentioned the previous day that he had some ideas about the book so we started there. His big observation was that when he knows Charlotte is dying, Wilbur begins to use longer words. So we started there and I asked why they thought this was so. It was observed that Wilbur changes and with a little pressing my daughter provided a key word: “maturing.” Wilbur matures in the book. I will say I hadn’t noticed the word thing. The fact that Fern changes is pretty obvious in the book and my kids all noticed it as well. But, though I hadn’t really thought of it, I do think Wilbur changes as well.

We moved on from there to talk about protagonists and antagonists, a concept which Deconstructing introduces in this chapter. I read them the book’s definition (protagonist moves action forward; antagonist tried to keep it from moving) and we discussed which characters they thought played each of these roles. Our suggestions were: for protagonist, Wilbur, Charlotte and Fern (and later in the discussion Old Sheep was also put forward) and for antagonist Templeton and Mr. Zuckerman and “his crew” (i.e. Lurvy, Mrs. Zuckerman, etc.).

We then listed characteristics for each of these characters. It became obvious pretty quickly that Wilbur was probably not our protagonist since the words we listed for him were along the lines of “follower”, “obedient” and “not an idea man.” But for Charlotte we had “leader,” “thinker”, and the like. With a little pressing we also added “brutal” and “bloodthirsty.” A key phrase one of the kids came up with boiled down to “she is very aware of the shortness of life and her own mortality” (not quite how they said it but they had the idea).

From there we listed qualities of Templeton and Mr. Zuckerman. Of the two, Templeton proved far more interesting. Our words for him included “self-interested”, “self-centered” and “hungry.” My younger son, who has a lot of issues with being in his older brother’s shadow, contributed that he thought Templeton was justified in his behavior and that the other animals never treated him nicely or spoke politely to him. We ended up adding that Templeton was the victim of prejudice (against rats, you know).

We then took a vote on how we thought the protagonist was and it was unanimous for Charlotte. So we began to discuss what action she was trying to move forward. Saving Wilbur of course is the obvious answer so we asked why she does this. I had them read a quote from the end of the book in which Charlotte explains her actions to Wilbur. Basically she says she was trying to lift her life up a little. My older daughter felt that Charlotte was trying to atone for her bloodthirstiness in eating bugs. She really latched onto that idea though I have to say I think the atonement bit is misplaced.

There was quite a bit more discussion involved but let me skip to our conclusions: We decided that Mr. Zuckerman rather than Templeton really opposes Charlotte’s action but that Templeton is a kind of foil (didn’t use that word) to her character in that he lives to eat and is completely focused on his own belly and needs whereas Charlotte eats to live and tries to help someone else. I asked them which character they though the author would side with, that is, which view he was espousing. I thought they’d go for the obvious — that Charlotte’s way is right– but they were not convinced (other than my youngest). That younger son who had stuck up for the rat insisted Templeton’s way was right. The other two thought that neither view was presented as the right one.

Finally, I had asked them which approach to life they thought was right and biblical. Here, with a little teasing out, we decided that while Templeton lives only for himself, so does Charlotte really. She makes it obvious in the end that she helped Wilbur to give her own life meaning so her ultimate end is still self-centered. They were pretty quick to see that though their actions were different that their goals were not really so different and my youngest was the one to state the obvious conclusion: that it would be better to help others unselfishly, without any self-focused motive.

And that was our discussion. I was pleased again with how willing the kids were to discuss the book. There were observations — like the first one on Wilbur’s maturity, especially backed up as it was by a literary device (longer words) — that impressed me. There was not necessarily  a whole lot of agreement on some of the main questions. I’m a little worried about the son who keeps taking the rat’s side, frankly. But overall it went pretty well. Before I go, here are the questions I used to guide the discussion (though one must adapt as one goes, these are a place to start):

  • What is this book about? (see p. 29 of Deconstructing Penguins for ideas from the book)
  • What is a protagonist? Read p. 26 of Deconstructing Penguins for their definition of pro- and antagonist. Give an example from their lives (as in the book, we talked about bedtime and how some family members seek to get certain other ones to bed and how those other ones seek to delay)
  • Who is the protagonist in this book? Make a list of candidates.
  • Who is the antagonist? Again, list candidates.
  • List character traits of the possible protagonists — focus especially on Charlotte.
  • What is Charlotte’s view of the world?
  • List traits for the possible natagonists.
  • What is Charlotte’s goal; what action is she trying to move forward?
  • Who is her antagonist?
  • What does Charlotte say to Wilbur before she dies? Wat does she mean?
  • Is Templeton happy in the end?

If you discuss Charlotte’s Web too, please comment and let me know what conclusions your family reaches.

Next time: Babe, the Gallant Pig.