College English / Literature: Lecture Eight

In literary criticism, the best and most respected method of supporting an interpretation is the use of quotations directly from the story. This is true of any discussion of the characters, the setting, the conflict, or the point of view, but it's especially true when writing about language devices. It's not enough to say "The author used a lot of metaphors." Such a statement requires proof. To paraphrase Jerry McGuire, "Show me the metaphors!" And more than that, once a metaphor is shown, it needs to be explained. That means that each example used in your discussion should consist of three parts: identification, quotation, explanation.

Lets look at John Steinbeck's "The Chrysanthemums," as an example. A central idea of this story is that women who are isolated and lonely are easy prey for unscrupulous men. (Other themes are that our male dominated society causes women a great deal of pain and suffering, or that the "traditional" marriage is often unfulfilling for women. Any of these will work.)

It would be difficult to talk about the language devices of that story without mentioning the opening metaphor. Here's the statement I'm referring to:

Now, here's how that quotation would be used in a discussion:
     First, the identification--a statement must be made that Steinbeck uses metaphors as a language device.
     Second, the example--the actual words from the story should be quoted.
     And third, the explanation of why that particular metaphor was used.

Here's the example:

And here's that explanation again with each of the three parts marked:

Thus we have proven the claim that Steinbeck uses metaphors (at least one). We didn't just say he does, we showed that he does and we explained why it's a good one.

Unfortunately, many students forget that the valley is like a pot and the fog is like a lid NOT because there was a real valley and a real fog, but because the author created them, he made the valleyshaped like a pot and the fog like a lid. He created them to fit the story he was writing.

There are more metphors that can be cited and explained in this story. And the more you provide the stronger your argument becomes. It's just like evidence in a courtroom. If the prosecutor says "The defendant abused his wife," and provides a police report that shows she called the police one day because he hit her, that makes his case strong. But if he brings out five police reports and each one shows that the defendant beat her, the case is even stronger. (And that doesn't even count the photographs.)

Got it? If it's still not clear, let me know. (I'm still learning too.) Send an e-mail to Dr. Write.

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