Posts Tagged ‘literary analysis’

10th Grade Lit: American Bestsellers

Dear Reader,

For 10th grade literature this year I had my oldest do a course on Great American Bestsellers. (You can read about all our Charlotte Mason-y homeschool plans here.)

The idea for this course is from The Great Courses. I based it on and used their audio series of that title. The class actually includes many more books than we were able to do but I picked those that I thought would be the best fit for us. For each one I had my son read the book. After he had finished I gave him an essay type question to answer and then we listened to the lecture together. I also read each of the books. Some I had read in my youth but had a sketchy memory of and I wanted them to be fresh in my mind so I could make sense of his essays.

A couple of notes on The Great Courses: We have used a few of their products. Their quality varies with the professor who teaches them. I tried and rejected another one of their American Lit courses as being dry and unnecessarily mature in content. I bought the CDs but they also have audio downloads and your local library may also have copies (mine has quite a lot of them). They also have frequent sales so if you are in no hurry, wait for one. You could do the course I had my son do without the lectures. I don’t really see any good reason to spend extra money for the video version for this subject. The lectures are each 30 minutes and we did them on the way to his bagpipe lessons when we had to be in the car anyway.

The books covered by The Great Courses’ class are: The Bay Psalm Book, Common Sense, The Last of the Mohicans, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Ragged Dick, Little Women, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Virginian, The House of Mirth, The Jungle, Main Street, The Maltese Falcon, The Good Earth, Gone with the Wind, How to Win Friends and Influence People, The Grapes of Wrath, Native Son, The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, Catch-22, The Woman Warrior, and John Adams.

There is no way we could have made it through all these books in a year. I eliminated some for not being fiction, others for being long and/or not of likely interest to my son. The books he ended up reading were: Common Sense (not a book or fiction but a short selection to get our feet wet), Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Ragged Dick, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Maltese Falcon, Of Mice and Men (substituted for the much longer Grapes of Wrath), To Kill a Mockingbird, and Catch-22. Huck Finn I actually let him do as an audiobook but he still had to write a paper and listen to the lecture. Little Women, the Last of the Mohicans and Gone with the Wind we watched the movie versions of and listened to the lectures but he did not have to write on. I might make my daughter read them when her turn comes though, but I didn’t think my son could make it through two long girly books. The Good Earth he started but just couldn’t seem to get through so much to my chagrin I let him drop it. Catcher in the Rye I started to (re)read and remembered that it is pretty much annoying teens sitting around talking and using bad language. I hated it and didn’t want to keep reading it so I dropped it. We also listened to the lecture on The Bay Psalm Book. We are already pretty familiar with Psalters so there was really nothing to read here.

Here then are the questions we used for each book we did do. The Great Courses gives sample questions in the guide that comes with the lectures. Occasionally I used these. More often I googled essay questions and selected and/or modified ones I liked.

Common Sense

I’m embarrassed to say I can’t seem to find the exact question I had him answer on this one. I think it was along the lines of: What arguments does Paine give to justify his cause (rebellion)? Are these arguments convincing?

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

1. Faith plays a large part in the book. For each of the following characters, write a paragraph saying what they believed and how it affected their actions:

Uncle Tom

George Harris

Augustine St. Clare

Miss Ophelia

Little Eva


the Hallidays (the Quakers)

Simon Legree

2. What do you think Harriet Beecher Stowe’s view are? Is there an overall statement about faith she is trying to make? Can you discern what she believes or which character(s) she would most agree with?

Ragged Dick

What does the author, Horatio Alger, value? What would he say one needs to get ahead? Give specific examples from the book to support your position.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

In Ragged Dick we touched upon the moral system of the author– in particular what he views as good behavior and what he sees as the consequences of good behavior.

The situation is a lot more complicated in Huck Finn. Discuss the moral world of the book and its author. The following questions may help you think about this and can figure in your essay (but don’t have to if you don’t find them helpful):
1. Think about lying in the book. Are there good and bad lies (to the characters)? What defines the difference?
2. What about the morality of helping an escaped slave? How does Huck view it? Tom? Why do they do what they do? Who is more moral?
3. Where does Huck draw the lines between good and bad? What actions (his own or of other characters) does he approve of or disapprove of?
4.  where in the book do moral values come from? The community? The family? The church? One’s experiences? You might want to answer this question for a few different characters.

5. What do you think Mark Twain’s view is? In Ragged Dick the author’s opinion was obvious. Is it here? Is there one character that you think Twain would agree with? Does he even give his own view? Or does he maybe just criticize others? Is he saying anything about society’s views?

Again your essay doesn’t need to address all these points. Think about them and see what you can come up with and then link it all together in one essay on the general topic “the moral world of Huck Finn.” I would like you to touch on Mark Twain’s own view though if there is anything we can discern about it.

The Maltese Falcon

It’s one question — answer the main one and weave in the other ones if they are useful: Write an essay about what motivates Sam Spade. Does he demonstrate commitment to his profession? If so, how? Is he a hero or an antihero? Are his motives the same as the other characters’? Are they nobler?

Of Mice and Men

Why does George stay with Lennie? Why does he do what he does at the end of the book? Think about each of the minor characters. What information or insight do they contribute to the story? These seem like 2 question but I think they relate. Try to weave them into one essay.

To Kill a Mockingbird



Is Yossarian crazy? How do he and the other characters deal with the difficult situation they are in? Pick a few characters and discuss how they deal with the hardships or war and life in the military. Who do you think handles it best? Why? Does anyone have a sane response?


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: Bull Run

Dear Reader,

Last school year we began a literary analysis series based on the book Deconstructing Penguins by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone. You can find my review of that book here and accounts of or earlier efforts at literary analysis here, here and here. Since we are going to be studying the Civil War this year in history, I chose another book discussed in Deconstructing, Bull Run by Paul Fleischman, for our next attempt.

Bull Run is a bit of historical fiction on that epic first battle of the Civil War written from the point of view of no less than 16 characters, 8 from the south and 8 from the north. Since this gets a bit confusing, I had one child jot down notes on each character as we read through so that we could keep them straight. For the most part we did remember them after a while, at least the most interesting ones. My kids, of course, could remember them without referring to the notes better than I could (oh, to have a young brain again!).

Having finished the book, we then sat down to discuss it. I’ll give you first the notes I used to lead the discussion and then tell you how it went.

Bull Run Discussion:

  • Read to the students pp. 88 through the first paragraph on p.89 of Deconstructing Penguins
  • Ask: What do you know about the Civil War? (We actually didn’t do this part as we are currently studying it and I know it is fresh in their heads.)
  • This book is historical fiction. What does that mean? Define both aspects of this term and distinguish it from history. See pp. 90-91 of Deconstructing for help if need be.
  • How do we know what happened in the past? Introduce the idea of primary and secondary sources. Define these terms and list examples of each. (See pp. 91-92 of Deconstructing.)
  • Put the names of the 16 characters on cards and hand them out at random to the students. Each student will play the part of the character on their card. Interview them each in turn asking questions like “which side were you on?” and “how did you feel about the war?” A handful of the characters are given as examples in Deconstructing; for these I relied heavily on their questions.
  • Finish up by talking about point of view and how each character had a different take on the battle and a different experience of it. Read the poem about the blind men and the elephant found in Deconstructing.

I didn’t think this discussion went as well as our earlier ones. A lot of that is probably my fault. I should have done more to prepare good questions on all the various characters or else just discussed the few already done for me in Deconstructing. My younger two kids in particular remembered very little about their characters (we accused them of being shell-shocked 😉 ). We did manage to introduce the ideas of primary and secondary sources. They did not immediately think of non-written sources like pictures and bullets. We ended, as Deconstructing does, by discussing the character who is a journalist and how even he selects what he is going to show to his readers and thereby gives them a false picture of how things are going. My oldest wins the prize for best observation of the day: He noted that two of the books that he has read on the build up to the Civil War both compare slavery in the US to slavery in other places, but one compares it to ancient slavery on places like Greece and Rome whereas another compares it to the much harsher treatment received by slaves in the likes of Brazil. In these choices of what to include, the two books end up giving very different pictures of just how barbaric American slavery was.


Reading the Bible as Literature (A Book Review)

Dear Reader,

I recently finished reading How to Read the Bible as Literature . . .and get more out of it by Leland Ryken. I approached this book with mixed feelings. On one hand, I loved Ryken’s book on Puritans and had high hopes for him as an author. And I would really like to have found a book on biblical interpretation or reading the Bible that I could just hand to my older kids.

On the other hand, someone in an online forum had told me this book was great if you want to use the Bible to study literary concepts and then be able to apply them to other literature. This made me very suspicious, because I didn’t see how it could be true. I know I have said it before, but, in case you are new here, let me explain where I am coming from. I studied biblical Hebrew as an undergrad and in grad school. I have a Master’s Degree in it and was All But Dissertation (ABD) in a PhD program. So I have opinions about how we should approach the Bible. I tend to be pretty opinionated and critical anyway 😉 So my initial thought was that I didn’t see how studying the Bible as literature could transfer to English (by “English” in this post, I will mean English language, whatever its country of origin) or western literature. Poetry was the first thing that popped into my head. Hebrew poetry works differently than English poetry. It uses parallelism and not rhyme and really doesn’t use rhythm either, at least not in any coherent, widely agreed upon way (no iambic pentameter here). So how would studying biblical poetry help one when studying English poetry?

After reading Ryken’s book, my mind hasn’t really been changed. I still have a lot of concerns and I still have some mixed feelings. There are some things Ryken says to which I found myself giving an enthusiastic “Hear! hear!” But if anything, his book just raised more questions in my mind, even about the very nature of this enterprise. There is a lot I could say and I have struggled to write this post in a coherent way. So that you are not as befuddled as I feel, let me lay out the issues I want to address from the outset. They are:

  • Can we/should we use terminology and concepts from western literature to analyze biblical texts? This could also be asked the other way: Can we take literary terms from our study of the Bible and apply them to other works we might study?
  • What does it mean to study a biblical story or passage in its “context”?
  • Should we even be studying the Bible as literature? Is this a valid way to study it or does it erode the truth value of the Scriptures?

Literary Terminology and the Bible

To a certain extent, the reservations I had before reading Ryken’s book were unfounded. The concepts he discusses are indeed applicable to other literature one might study. This is because he does not approach the biblical text as I expected. Ryken starts with a western lit mindset and western literary terms. He takes these and applies them to the biblical text. The problem is not that these terms don’t apply to western literature but that the biblical text is not western. (I will speak mainly of the Old Testament because that is what I know best. His categories and terms may apply better to the New Testament writings, especially those of Paul who was very cosmopolitan and fluent in Greek, though I suspect that even there there is a lot of eastern/Semitic influence.)

The biblical text is ancient Near Eastern (ANE), and to understand it I think we must look at other ANE literature. There may be parts of what we know from western literature that do apply as well, but we need to first ask what applies. Ryken does not ask; he just takes western categories and terminology and applies them without asking if they are appropriate. An example of this would be his discussion of the terms “comedy” and “tragedy.” As I read this section, I thought “Ah, Shakespeare!” because in Shakespeare’s work we can see these two categories so clearly. But are they also applicable to biblical stories? Ryken assumes they are, though he must admit in the end that the Bible has few if any true tragedies (by his definition) and that it has many stories which are potential tragedies but which have (again, by his definition) comic endings. Perhaps, though, instead of needing to contort himself so, it would be just better to say that the biblical stories do not conform to western ideas of comedy and tragedy. And, indeed, why should we expect them to? It is worth noting that Ryken’s sources often betray this western lit bias. In the chapter “Types of Biblical Stories” he references works such as Victorian Poetry and Poetics and The Return of Eden: Five Essays on Milton’s Epics (pp. 77,79).

This, then, is the first issue I have with How to Read the Bible as Literature . . . — it treats the Bible as a piece of western literature without asking if it is appropriate to do so. A corollary of this is that it does not look to eastern sources to shed light on the text. The example that pops into my head is covenants. How can we understand the Ten Commandments or God’s relationship with Abraham without understanding ANE covenants? Nor does he address what the full range of what prophecy is in the OT(it is more than just visions and future-telling) or how the Bible responds and reacts to ANE creation myths. In his list if types of poetry, he completely neglects wisdom psalms and does not discuss wisdom literature as such apart from proverbs.

A consequence of Ryken’s approach is that it does not do as much as one would like to increase our understanding of the biblical text. Now there are places where Ryken talks specifically about how to read and understand certain kinds of texts, poetry and proverbs in particular, and he does discuss parallelism in the chapter on poetry, though he saves this section for the end whereas I would begin any discussion on biblical poetry with the concept of parallelism and what we can learn from it. His comments on these topics are somewhat helpful and are aimed at enabling the reader to better understand what he reads. Nonetheless, I still think there is so much more that could be done.

When we use the wrong terminology, we also find ourselves asking the wrong questions, and in the end we miss quite a lot of what the text is trying to tell us. On some level Ryken seems aware of that his terminology may not apply. In his discussion of what he calls epic hero stories, he says that “David, in fact, is the closest parallel in the Bible to the epic hero of the Western tradition” (p. 80; emphasis mine). Earlier in the same paragraph, he applies the lens of the epic hero story to the book of Judges. In doing so he must admit that “The Book of Judges lacks a unifying hero and is perhaps better viewed as a collection of separate hero stories” (p. 80). I would add to this that not only does the category fail to adequately explain Judges, we also miss quite a lot of its meaning if all we are looking for is hero stories. There is a definite pattern of rebellion, repentance and redemption which structures the book. When we see this pattern, we see that the main story here is not about Gideon or Samson but about God and His people. It shows us the people’s weakness, their unwillingness to be governed by God and why they so desperately feel the need for a king as the nations around them have. As such, it is a kind of prequel to the books of Samuel and Kings.

Understanding Biblical Literature in Its Context

Up until this point what I have been talking about is reading the Bible in its social and geographic context — that is, understanding it in the light of other works from the same time and place (very roughly speaking); we need to view it in its own world, if you will. But when we speak of context in biblical interpretation we also mean its literary context — what other verses, stories, books surround a given passage and how do these affect its meaning? Most Bible readers worth their salt know that we cannot just take isolated verses out of context and quote them willy-nilly to support any old thing we like. This is poor scholarship. But what exactly the context of a given story is when it comes to the Bible is a tricky question. Obviously, what we have in the Bible are stories within books within a Book. Sometimes there are even more layers involved if we are considering, for example, a story from the Abraham cycle. This nested approach applies as well when we are talking of proverbs, prophecies and psalms, each may stand alone but is also part of a collection which is part of the whole Bible.

So the question we must ask is: when looking at a given passage, how wide a context do we need to consider? We may be able to learn quite a bit when reading a story (or psalm, or proverb . . .)  by itself, but when we become familiar with the whole of Scripture and can see it in the light of the rest of the Bible, we are likely to glean even more. Ryken acknowledges this, and even spends a chapter on it, near the end of his book, when he says:

“The result is a book in which no part is wholly self-contained but instead carries echoes from many other parts.” (p. 186)

Nevertheless, there are times when he does not go far enough in considering the wider context. For example he says that:

“For example, it is quite possible to treat the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac (Gen. 22) as a self-contained story. But that same material becomes only an episode if we are discussing the story of Abraham as a whole.” (p. 45; see also p. 62 where Ryken again discusses this story)

I would add further that the story takes on a whole new meaning when we consider also the story of Jesus and God’s sacrifice of His own Son. Indeed our understanding of the binding of Isaac would be incomplete if we did not consider this wider context.

Though I don’t have a lot of evidence to back me up, I also question Ryken’s assertion regarding the sayings in the Book of Proverbs that “Beyond these [first] sections, though, the structure is miscellaneous and the unity nonexistent” (p. 127). I suspect that there is actually a lot more to which proverb is placed next to which one than we have yet discerned. [Side note: I love the way Psalms 80 and 81 seem to speak to each other — see this post; this is the sort of intentional placing of texts side by side that I thinking of.]

The Bible as Literature

There is still a larger issue which arises as one reads Ryken’s book, namely, is it even appropriate to read the Bible as literature? Is this something we should do? Or does treating the Bible as one would any other piece of literature undercut the truth value of Scripture? Honestly, I did not go into this book with these concerns. If you had asked me before I read How to Read the Bible as Literature . . . I would have said that while we cannot solely treat the Bible as literature that it is a perfectly valid way to approach the text and could even be useful in helping us delve into its meaning. Ryken made me doubt this, entirely without intending to I am sure. As a little preview of posts to come, let me quote the book I am currently reading, Openness Unhindered by Rosaria Butterfield; in presenting her own story, Mrs. Butterfield says that:

“I also learned that the Bible was a literary text, discernible through the lenses of literary devices. It seemed to me that the resurrection of Jesus Christ was a metaphor, powerful only in the worlds of words.” (p. 13)

The point here is that when we begin to treat the biblical text as literature, as we would any other literature, we can begin to undermine its truthfulness. If we, for instance, regard some aspect of a story as a plot device, are we then saying that it didn’t really happen that way?

At the outset of this book Ryken said a lot about how literature works that I found myself agreeing with. He says “literature expresses truth in its own way” (p. 11) and “The knowledge that literature gives of a subject is the kind of knowledge that is obtained by (vicariously) living through an experience” (p. 13). As statements about literature in general I would agree. But in the midst of this he also says, “when the Bible employs a literary  method, it asks to be approached as literature and not as something else” (pp.11-12). On the surface this does not sound too bad. But as I think about it I wonder what this means for the historical books of the Bible. If we are taking them as literature, can we also treat them as reliable history? I feel that there is a door here which is being cracked open, a door that Rosaria Butterfield (in the above quote) and others have gone through.

Now the truth be known, I am well aware that history is written by the victors. Or at least that you and I can both write about the same event and yet give very different interpretations and depictions of it. Ryken addresses this as well:

“Authorial selectivity and arrangement of details lie behind every story in the Bible. There is always more than one way to tell a given story. The story as it finally stands has been consciously assembled by the author for a calculated effect on the audience. In short, storytellers control what you see and don’t see, how you see it, and when you see it.” (p. 63)

And again:

“Characters in biblical stories are conscious creations of the storytellers, not in the sense that the writers disregard the real-life person, but in the sense that they decide what to include and exclude from their portrait.” (p. 64)

We see this, I think, in the two pictures of David given in Kings and Chronicles. In the former, Israel’s great king is nonetheless a flawed and hounded human being; in the latter he is much more majestically portrayed. In a different way, we see it in the gospels, each of which gives a different viewpoint on Jesus’ life and ministry (see Ryken p. 133).

Despite these examples, I still found myself, as I read this book, coming back again and again to the question of how we can trust the historicity of the Bible if we are always confronted with the storyteller’s art and all the mechanisms he chooses to use. The lines are very blurry here. On one hand, I don’t believe we ever have truly unbiased accounts of anything, whether we are watching the evening news or reading history. On the other hand, truth is truth. There is a point at which any account goes from the realm of truth into that of fiction. That is why in our courts we are asked to tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” Any mother who has been confronted with a naughty child knows that there can be a lot of truth that is not the whole truth and that a half truth or a truth that is not complete might as well be a lie.

Ryken himself seems to be trying to preserve the truth value of the biblical text. He speaks, for instance, of the support of archaeological evidence for biblical claims (p. 131). Nonetheless, many of his statements seem to undercut the reliability of the Bible. He notes, for example, that the settings of various stories often have symbolic meaning –“Spiritual revelations often occur on mountains” (p. 35) being one example. When we begin to make statements like this, we can quickly come to believe (or at the very least lead others to believe) that these settings are authorial choices and therefore purely metaphorical. And once we begin to cast doubt upon the details, it is a quick and slippery slope to coming to believe that the whole story is metaphorical and not historical. Elsewhere he says that the gospel narratives “convey an astonishing sense of reality” (p. 133) and in discussing prophecy that the visions of the prophets “exist in the imagination and not in empirical reality” (p. 165) and again that “We know that people do not fly through the air on wings” (p. 169). He may now this, but I believe that if the Bible says that a prophet was transported and/or saw a heavenly vision that he quite possibly did go somewhere and definitely did see something that was more than his imagination.

Drawing Some Conclusions

So what are we supposed to do then? I’m not advocating living in ignorance or taking the Bible in isolation. But I do think we need to acknowledge that it is fundamentally different from other books. I don’t know that I have all the answers but here are some conclusions and ides that have occurred to me:

  • We need to consider the geographical and social context of the Bible. Its human writers, at least for the OT, would have had some familiarity with the myths and stories of the cultures around them (read: ANE other cultures) and so it is reasonable to expect them to have responded to these cultures in their own writings. They also had to some extent a common culture with their neighbors so it is reasonable to look for similar genres and literary devices.
  • We need to exercise more caution in applying western concepts to the Bible (again, especially the OT). These things will be more familiar to us, but we must guard against putting our own expectations on the text.
  • When interpreting an given text, we should consider it on many levels: on its own, in the immediate context of its book, and in light of the rest of Scripture. A corollary: we should become more and more familiar with all of Scripture so that this becomes easier and easier for us.
  • When discussing the storyteller’s art, we should be careful with the phrasing we use. While the speaker may have  a healthy respect for the authority of Scripture, others, especially children, may be led to think that if we call one part of a story metaphor or hyperbole, that skepticism about the whole is appropriate.
  • We need to keep in mind who the ultimate Author of Scripture is. Ryken speaks in his book of the text’s various human authors and, of course, there were many people involved in its authorship and editing. But each of these, I believe, was led by the Holy Spirit. We are told that the Bible is “God-breathed.” While its many human contributors are not infallible and would surely have had their own opinions and biases, we must not lose sight of the fact God has given us the Book He wants us to have. We know for instance that Paul wrote other letters which were not included in the canon and that there were other chronicles which recorded the history of the nation of Israel. But the Bible we have is what God ahs chosen to preserve and hand down through the generations to us. It is this divine inspiration which truly sets the Book apart form all others.


Last Literary Analysis of the Year: Animal Farm

Dear Reader,

For our last literary analysis of the year we tackled George Orwell’s Animal Farm (see the earlier ones here, here, and here). This turned out to be a particularly good choice since we had studied both the American and French Revolutions in our homeschool this year.

My oldest picked up early on in our reading of the book that this was a thinly veiled commentary on a real revolution. Unfortunately, the one he picked was the French Revolution. We have not studied the Russian Revolution yet so that was not on his radar. And I do think the kids couldn’t see much past the name Napoleon (the main pig character for most of the story).

This did, however, give us a good place to start our discussion. I opened it up by telling them that Orwell had intended to comment on the Russian Revolution and posed the question of how the book might apply to all, or at least many, revolutions. To start with this was meant as a rhetorical question; we would return to it at the end of our discussion.

Form there we moved to the notes I had made from our guide book, Deconstructing Penguins by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone.

I gave background information on the Russian Revolution (see notes below for details). We talked about which characters corresponded to which historical figures or groups. We also talked about what people in a monarchy (like under the tsars in Russia) can do if they don’t like how they are being ruled (answer: not much). We talked about why the author used animals as the main characters and why he used different species. We also reviewed what an allegory is and talked about how this book fit that definition. Compared to our previous literary attempts, the most surprising thing this time was that we followed my notes almost exactly and that the kids gave the expected answers (based on Deconstructing).

We then moved on to ask who the protagonist was. My youngest made a play for Snowball, at least at the beginning, but they all pretty quickly agreed on Napoleon. His being a bad guy was no obstacle in their minds. They also agreed pretty readily that the action he was advancing was his own aggrandisement (okay, no one used the word “aggrandisement”), contrary to the action he said he was pushing forward (equality for animals). Identifying the antagonist was a problem, however. The fact tat we couldn’t identify one character who successfully opposed Napoleon led us to some important conclusions. Like that nobody stood up to him. My youngest again was pretty quick to see that Boxer could have because he had the strength to do so. They even realized on their own that he was not afraid of the dogs (aka the secret police), just as Deconstructing had said. With just a little prompting, they also saw that Benjamin had the brains to know what was going on but that he just didn’t care enough to interfere, but that if he had and had gotten Boxer on his side they could have done something.

Lastly we asked what the author was trying to communicate. The consensus was “you shouldn’t trust your government.” I thought this was a slightly interesting twist on things. I expected more along the lines of “if you see something, say something.” But I guess I am raising a crop of little radicals ;).

Finally, to wrap things up, I returned to the revolutions we have studied. We talked about the French and Russian Revolutions and how they did have a lot in common – noble ideals, followed by lots of bloodshed and one guy who is supposed to rule alongside others but ends up seizing power all for himself. Then I asked why the American Revolution turned out differently. The two conclusions we arrived at were that our distance from the motherland and the (former) king helped and that George Washington’s character was pivotal. Seriously, the more I study, the more I am impressed with this guy. He could so easily have made himself a dictator; many expected him to and assumed he would, but he did not.

Here then are the questions and notes I had to go on in leading the discussion:

  • This story is about Russia in 1917 when the country was ruled by a tsar. What is a tsar? (ans: a king).
  • Is a king elected? (no)
  • Can a king’s subjects tell him what to do or ask for a new king? (no)
  • The tsar in 1917 was rich but didn’t do any work. Who is that like? (Farmer Jones; there are a lot of clear-cut answers in this book; that, I suppose, is the nature of allegory)
  • What if the tsar was mistreating people? How could they make him stop?
  • A group called the Bolsheviks rallied the poor, kicked out the tsar and declared Russia free and all Russians equal. Read p. 77 of Deconstructing to them re the events that followed.
  • Why did Orwell use all different animals and not just pigs? (to represent different groups in society)
  • Who did Moses the Raven represent? What is Sugar Candy mountain? (the church, heaven)
  • Who did Boxer represent? (workers) Benjamin? (intellectuals)
  • Define intellectuals – see Deconstructing p.78. The key point here is that they were theoretical thinkers and didn’t contribute much practically.
  • This is an allegory. What is that? Where have we seen that before? (Perhaps you have read Pilgrim’s Progress or others you can refer to.)
  • Why does the author use animals instead of people?
  • Who is the protagonist? What action is he trying to move forward?
  • Who is the antagonist?
  • Does good triumph in this book?
  • What is the moral?
  • Why couldn’t the other animals stop Napoleon?
  • Why did the author write this book?
  • Is there anybody who knew what was going on? (Benjamin) What could/should he have done?

And that’s Animal Farm. I hope to do more books next school year and to incorporate other ideas as well, like those I am getting from How to Read Literature like a Professor.


Where to Draw the Line with Literary Analysis

Dear Reader,

I have been thinking more since my recent post on literature about how and when we should be engaging in literary analysis. As you know, I follow Charlotte Mason’s approach to education in our homeschool, and I know she is not a fan of tearing apart books in the name of analysis. I am not either. But I am convinced by the book I have been reading recently, How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster, that there is value in finding the symbolism in books and their connections to other works. So where do we draw the line? When does it go from acceptable analysis to just tearing apart the work? I think the test is simple: Does it lead you to appreciate, enjoy and understand the work more or less? If more, then go for it; if less, then you have crossed the line. And, of course, it goes without saying that we should keep on eye on how what we are doing affects ur kids. If they are loving their books less, we probably need to back off for a bit.


Literary Analysis: Babe, the Gallant Pig

Dear Reader,

I am ready to recount to you our latest foray into the realms of literary analysis. Our attempts are based on the book Deconstructing Penguins by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone which I reviewed here. Our previous attempts were on Charlotte’s Web and Mr. Popper’s Penguins.

This time we return to the world of pigs with Babe: The Gallant Pig by Dick King-Smith. King-Smith is one of my favorite authors for kids. Babe, of course, is well-known as there was a movie based on it. So too The Water Horse (for which the movie version is really quite different than the book). But he also has many other good books, most, but not all, about animals. They fill a nice void of easy to read, not too long chapter books.

Having read the book aloud to my kids over the course of a month or so, we turned today to its analysis. Since we had done this now twice before, my youngest was ready with her interpretation of the book. She said it was about not excluding anyone from jobs because of their species. Lest you think she meant “species” euphemistically for gender or religion or nationality, the child seems to really think she is married to a stuffed walrus. She had a wedding. We have pictures. She has a blog about walruses. Check it out here. Seriously, please do; she loves views. So she said species and she meant species.

My oldest said he had some ideas but they were silly. With some pressing he confessed one — that the dogs were politicians and the sheep the people. With more pressing it was decided that if this were the case that the message of the book would be that kindness works a lot better in ruling over people. I doubt this is what King-Smith had in mind, but I think it’s not half bad. One could certainly get something about leadership from this book.

We turned then to the questions I had prepared (se below). We talked about the setting and I explained what a microcosm is. Then I asked who the protagonist is (a concept we had introduced when looking at Charlotte’s Web). Here we began to have some disagreement. Some said Farmer Hoggett and some said Babe. I have to say I had thought Babe would be a clear answer. My kids thought that Babe just followed orders and never really did anything so he couldn’t be the protagonist. They argued that Farmer Hoggett did something — he made Babe into a sheep-pig. As the protagonist they felt that the action he moved forward was to help Babe change. We listed characteristics for Babe and I got the holdouts to admit that Babe does something — though he does follow the Farmer;’ orders, he is polite to the sheep and that is something new.

We then turned to find antagonists and could not find any for Farmer Hoggett but said that if Babe is the protagonist for showing sheep aren’t stupid that Fly is the antagonist. We talked about how she tells her puppies that Babe is stupid at first even though she has never met a pig and my daughter supplied that she was closed-minded and then we decided that that made Babe open-minded. All this is right in line with what Deconstructing Penguins says.

But when we turned to identifying the climax, we have more disputes. Only one child and I thought, as Deconstructing says, that the worrying dogs attacking was the climax. The other three thought that the dog trials were. We spent a long time on this and had to find the passage that defines climax, but even that didn’t help much. In the end, it came down to if the climax is the height of the action, they prefered the dog trials for the climax, but if the climax is when the most is changed, then the worrying incident was. We also said that if Farmer Hoggett is the protagonist, then the trials are the climax ,but if Babe is then, the worrying is because that is when Fly, his antagonist, begins to talk to sheep. We also said that there could be two climaxes and that there could be more than one possible interpretation of a book.

So lastly, we asked for each of these possible interpretations, what is the author trying to say. Here my youngest stuck by her assertion that, if Farmer Hoggett is the protagonist, then the message of the book is that certain species should not be excluded from jobs. We paused and mocked her a little for trying to get her walrus husband a job. The others couldn’t come up with much of a message for this interpretation other than pigs can herd sheep which doesn’t seem particularly profound or applicable to anything else in life. If Babe were the protagonist, they said that the message was “don’t assume people are stupid”  or “don’t assume things.”

All in all, it was not a bad discussion. There was not a lot that was hugely profound though our whole second interpretation with the Farmer as the protagonist was not in Deconstructing Penguins so I guess we have that to contribute to the world (though personally I think it is a weak interpretation). I still think there could be more to the leadership idea and what makes a good leader.

Here then are the questions I used to lead the discussion:

  • Define setting (when and where). What is the setting of this book? Where is the farm? Is it a big farm? When is it?
  • The animals are their own closed society on an isolated farm. Why does the author do this? Introduce the idea of a microcosm. What is a microcosm? (a small society that is an example of a larger world) Discuss the Greek roots of the word. Give examples. Does what happens in Babe‘s microcosm have anything to do with us? How does their world relate to ours?
  • Who is the protagonist? List babe’s characteristics. What is the most unique thing about Babe? (he’s a pig)
  • Has there ever been a pig on the farm before? How do we know?
  • What does Fly tell the puppies about Babe? How does she know? Play hangman to have them guess the word prejudice. Note that Fly never tells the puppies Babe is not stupid.
  • List possible antagonists. List Fly’s characteristics. How does she oppose Babe?
  • What is the climax of the book?
  • What is the author trying to say about prejudice and how it is overcome?

Be sure to let me know if you discuss the book and what conclusions you reach.


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.