Connecting with Literature: How Personal Is Too Personal?

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This post originally appeared on August 19, 2013.

I want to encourage my students to find something in literature that resonates with them— and so I encourage them to make connections between their reading and their lived experiences. But I’ve been thinking a great deal about the limits of identifying with characters, particularly where that identification leads to a misunderstanding or a misinterpretation of the text at hand.

My experience of late has been that a number of my students will latch onto some aspect of a character or the character’s story that is recognizable to their own experiences. They make a personal connection, but often ignore other details of the work—even the ones that negate that identification—which of course gets in the way of thoughtful interpretation.

[Photo Credit: Langston  Hughes, 1942. Photo by Jack Delano, courtesy of the Library of Congress]

I run into this quite frequently when I teach Langston Hughes’ “Salvation,” because I teach a lot of students from Protestant denominations that engage in revival services.  This is a useful opener: We can start with a discussion of what a revival service involves—and students can invoke their own experiences as children trying to understand the figurative language of adults.  However, for many of my students who are born again Christians, this becomes the stopping point: they bring their own experience of giving themselves to Jesus to the discussion, project that onto the text, and totally miss Langston’s own crisis in faith.

I was surprised, recently, when I ran into this problem when discussing Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist” in class.  While talking about the motivation of artists—and their need to create—I worked to draw my artistic students into the conversation.  Several of them spoke of the urge or the need to draw, to paint, to play an instrument, to write, but one student pointed out (quite rightly, actually), that we can’t entirely know why artists are artists.  And I suspect that she took exception to my suggestion of the artist’s alienation.  It simply doesn’t match her own feelings or experience.

On the one hand, I want to say that Kafka is profoundly correct about the alienation of the artist.  But on the other, I need to remember that this is not necessarily an experience that all19-year-olds can identify with or articulate.  Especially 19-year-olds who haven’t dyed their hair weird colors and painted their fingernails black.  (Ahem, guilty.)

What both of these instances—discussing the work of Hughes and Kafka—remind me is that while it’s useful to allow a certain degree of personal identification with a text—it’s a way in, no doubt—we have to continually work to refocus the attention of the class back onto the text itself.

As I discussed in my earlier post about Melville’s “Bartleby,” part of our work in teaching literature is about reframing the conversation. There’s a constant need to remind ourselves and our students that we have to go back to the text itself to support our interpretations.  When we look for the themes of a literary work or try to define the concepts at its center, we need to look solely at what the author presents to us.

We might agree with what the author presents, or not. Either way, it’s still the author’s point of view—or at least the point of view put forth in the text that matters.

Connecting with a text should not get in the way of interpreting it. In the end, then, it’s all about the words. And we have to help our students remember to go back to them.

About the Author
Emily Isaacson received her BA from Augustana College (Illinois) and her MA and PhD from the University of Missouri. Previously at Chowan University, where she was the coordinator of the Chowan Critical Thinking Program, Emily is now working as an assistant professor of English at Heidelberg University. She has presented her work on early modern literature and on teaching literature at meetings of the Shakespeare Association of America, the Renaissance Society of America, South Atlantic Modern Language Association, and the College English Association. She also frequently reviews books about teaching literature in the classroom.