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Topics and Patterns

To help put our discussions in a larger context, and to remind you of where they've taken us, I've decided to create this page. You'll find in it a range of terms, issues, and questions that have taken "center stage" in our discussions, along with my own observations on the structure of the course, the organization of the readings, and connections between texts in a given unit. Hopefully this page can help you orient yourself if you feel lost or refamiliarize yourself with a story if you are considering possible subjects for critical response essays or studying for the mid-term examination--not to mention give you a better sense of the goals of the course and the skills I expect you to develop over the course of the semester. Please let me know how I can make this page more useful to you--and feel free to send me content to incorporate into the page if you wish.

Telling Ghost Stories

In this opening unit, we're going to focus on works that are themselves about the telling of ghost stories. In effect, each writer in this section is making an implicit argument about what makes a (good) ghost story--the way he or she tells the story (or has his/her narrator or narrators tell the story) can often be a subtle criticism of other ways of telling a ghost story. What follows is a weekly elaboration of this central idea.

Week 2

Well, we covered a lot of ground this week. We took care of some fundamental matters like how to get a hold of the assigned readings, how to subscribe to and use the listserv, how to come up with good discussion questions, and how the discussion questions relate to class discussions and other aspects of the course. You got some experience working together in groups and I began to attach names and faces. We also introduced central issues in the course, such as how to define the genre of 'ghost story'; how to analyze ghost stories in terms of their 'morals' or 'lessons,' in terms of what characters assume/believe about ghosts and how they react to them or interpret their apparition, in terms of the reasons ghosts manifest themselves, in terms of the role/function ghosts play in a story, and in terms of the ways in which author can use ghosts to accomplish certain ends; and how to begin thinking about the role cultural differences play in the ways ghost stories are told and the purposes for telling them. We certainly did not get into these topics with the depth we could have, had we not had so many administrative matters to take care of and so many "introduction to the course"-type things to do. Also, I did a lot of talking this week and will ease up/open things up as the semester goes on. All in all, though, from my perspective, things seem to be going pretty well so far. Let me know if there's anything to watch out for; I want to nip any potential problems in the bud!

I realize that from your perspective this week may have seemed very basic and somewhat scattered at the same time--given that Bowen's stories seem so easy to interpret, that Hamlet is so familiar to many of you, that we did so many different things in a 50-minute period, and that we had a definite lack of time to deal with Bohannan's essay in detail--but I think you'll start to see connections between the issues we broached this week and those that come up the rest of the semester, even when the texts we're engaging are much more complicated and much less familiar than the ones we read this week. I encourage you to consider what we did this week and what interested you, so that when you craft your discussion questions for next week, you can think about how the stories for that week relate to this past week's readings, and perhaps raise questions that allow us to consider things we could only broach this past week in more depth/detail this coming week.

Week 3

Here are some of things to look forward to for next week's readings and classes. I'll report on patterns I saw in people's written responses to Bohannan's essay (on the question of her purposes in telling us the story of her attempts to tell the Tiv the story of Hamlet--what conclusions she wants us to draw from her story). We'll definitely continue our discussion of what makes a discussion question "good" on Monday and Wednesday by having you bring one question from (or inspired) by the listserv questions that you really want us to discuss and trying to come to some agreement as to what question to begin with. In terms of the stories, I'll be interested in having you think about two related questions: "what's the 'best' way to tell an oral ghost story or structure a written one?" and "what's significant about and at stake in the way these very different writers tell/structure their ghost stories?" Given that Joseph Bruchac is a contemporary Native American writer (of a different nation than the narrator of "Bone Girl," I should point out), that Robert Olen Butler's ethnicity and age differs from his elderly Vietnamese narrator, and that the African-American writer Charles Chesnutt, who wrote around the time of the turn into the twentieth century, was never a slave and lived most of his life in the North, I anticipate that questions about the relation between author and narrator may also come up. We'll be picking up and running with such themes from the previous week as the role cultural differences and social conflicts play in the stories and in different characters' reactions to ghosts and to ghost stories; we'll also be developing themes that we barely touched on last week such as the ways in which storytellers and their audiences interact and the ways in which those interactions help us think about the author/text/reader relationship. All in all, we'll have a lot to think and talk about. So read carefully and give yourself time to think about the questions people ask on the listserv!

Week 4

This week we turn to a work some critics consider the best ghost story ever, Henry James's The Turn of the Screw. James's novella was originally published in 1897 in twelve weekly installments in Collier's magazine, which helps explain why almost every chapter ends with a kind of cliffhanger-style or dramatic incident or saying. You'll notice that James makes use of a similar framing narrative technique as his contemporary Charles Chesnutt did in "Po' Sandy," but in The Turn of the Screw the relation between the frame narrative (the ghost-story-sharing Christmas eve scene featuring most prominently a nameless male narrator and a storyteller know only as Douglas) and the governess's story is even more complicated than in Chesnutt. Several people asked very good questions on the listserv about the function of this framing narrative (beyond creating suspense), and it's worth thinking about what effect James's choice to include it has on your understanding of the governess's story that takes up the rest of the novella.

Besides the questions about the relation between frame and story, and between narrator and author, that carry over from last week, we'll also be taking on the question of what makes a ghost story "good" and what ways of telling a ghost story are more interesting than others, which was a subtext of last week's readings. As you read The Turn of the Screw, be thinking about what kind of effect it has on you--do you find it confusing, boring, enthralling, chilling, what? When Douglas claims that the governess's story is "beyond everything. Nothing at all that I know touches it" (p. 2, Dover edition), how does that accord with your own reaction to the story? When the governess says, "The more I go over it, the more I see in it, and the more I see in it, the more I fear. I don't know what I don't see--what I don't fear" (p. 30, Dover ed.), is she just overreacting, or laying out exactly the process James intended his readers to go through?

One way to think about this narrative is as a combination ghost story/detective story. In a sense, the governess functions as a kind of detective, trying to piece together what happened before she came to Bly; but she also sees herself as the heroic protector of the children from what she is sure are evil ghosts. I draw this distinction to emphasize the importance of reading James's novella "in two directions" and "on two levels," so to speak: on the one hand (the 'directions' part), you must yourself try to figure out what the relation between Quint, Jessel, Miles, and Flora was before the governess ever came to Bly, even as you consider whether they are in league with, in danger from, or unaware of Quint and Jessel's ghosts; on the other hand (the 'levels' part), you must try to follow the governess's reasoning and understand her motivations while at the same time evaluating her reactions to and interpretations of events in the story. Just what was going on at Bly? What do the ghosts want? Why are the children acting the way they act? Are the governess's interpretations "right"? Just where is the "evil" in this story?

The Turn of the Screw demands a lot of you as a reader, in short, but it also rewards active and attentive readers. I look forward to the questions you post to the listserv for Wednesday's class; before coming to class, be sure to read them over carefully and give yourself time to think about how you'd answer the ones you find most interesting.

Finally, Joyce Carol Oates's "Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly" (in the course pack) is a conscious re-writing of James's novella. It's worthwhile to read her story before next Monday's class, both before you may find you want to devote your critical response essay to it, and because it's worth comparing your own answers to yours and to the above questions with the answers Oates offers in her short story. On Monday's class, I'm considering setting up a class debate over which is a better ghost story. Let me know what you think of this activity by Friday at the latest, when we discuss it in class. Thanks.

Week 5

This was a transitional week; we looked back on James, contrasted James and Oates, and looked ahead to Erdrich. For about half the week we debated the competing merits of James's and Oates's versions of "what happened at Bly," both as a way to decompress after the stress of composing your first critical response essays and as an exercise in role playing (putting together an argument and making a case that you may not necessarily believe in personally) that can be useful as you approach the process of revising your essay after you get it back with comments from me. I thought all the groups (Oates's literary agent and consultants, James's literary executor and consultants, and the NY Times editors) did a great job, and that the debates raised some very interesting questions: should suspensefulness or scariness or something else be the main criterion for identifying a really good ghost story? what role should our attitudes toward/identifications with individual characters play in evaluating a ghost story? how much ambiguity or mystery or subtlety is too much? does filling in gaps or answering questions from a prior text make a story more or less interesting, accessible, relevant, challenging? can a later story improve on the original on which it is based and to which it is a response? which story appeals more to audiences today and to what degree should current tastes inform a ranking of American ghost stories from a variety of historical periods? what kinds of demands can a text legitimately make on its readers? what are we to do when the same textual feature or quality of reading experience is offered as evidence for conflicting claims (as when the gaps in James's text are seen as a strength by the James group and a weakness by the Oates group)?

I found it interesting that debates in both sections centered on the kind of reading experience and the amount of information each text offers to its readers, to the apparent marginalization or exclusion of such questions as: to what extent should the ideas or issues or problems a ghost story invites its readers to consider (e.g., the problem of evil, class and status hierarchies, attitudes toward sexuality, and so on) matter in determining its "value"/"quality"? how do we adjudicate between different models of "ghost story" each writer seems to be drawing on/appealing to (i.e., James to the more suspenseful/dread-ful/intellectualized, Oates to the more horrific/repulsive/sensational [if you think such a distinction is valid])--is there one set of criteria that should apply to all ghost stories, or do different subgenres require different standards of evaluation?

I was sorry we had to leave the debate without looking back on it in more detail or giving the groups a chance to question the editors' decisions (both sets of editors ended up ranking James's story higher in the "top 100 American ghost stories" special issue they were putting together) or to question the whole procedure of "ranking" stories (is the whole project subjective? simply a reflection of the tastes/criteria of whoever was empowered to make the ranking? is it possible to come up with an "objective" ranking or should the whole endeavor be abandoned? how would the debate have played out if, instead of ranking the "quality" of the stories, the activity was to choose which text should be dropped from the syllabus if I were to teach this class again--or which text should be taught to seniors in high school?). But we did have to move on to Tracks, which in some ways is a culmination of the issues we're considering in the unit and in some ways is a bit of a departure.

Tracks, like most of the stories we read in this unit, puts the activity of storytelling in the foreground. By alternating narrators between Nanapush and Pauline from chapter to chapter, Erdrich uses the same technique as Chesnutt did in "Po' Sandy" and James did in The Turn of the Screw--except that, instead of having a frame narrator and a main narrator (embedding a story within a story), as the prior authors did, Erdrich puts her two narrators side-by-side rather than in a hierarchical relationship. Similarly, like Bruchac's technique in "Bone Girl" and Butler's technique in "A Ghost Story," Erdrich has her text revolve around an ambiguous female figure whose point-of-view we are not privy to--except that Fleur, unlike Bone Girl or Miss Linh, is (most likely!) not a ghost. Because Tracks is focused on the process of storytelling and revolves around an ambiguous female figure, we can ask similar questions of it as we've been asking of prior narratives: why is each narrator telling his/her story? to whom is each story being told? in what context is the story being told? what effect is each storyteller trying to have on their listener? which narrator do you find more interesting or engaging? which narrator do you find more trustworthy or reliable? in what ways and to what ends is each narrator using stories about ghosts or the supernatural? to what ends did Erdrich include both these narrators? what is Erdrich's novel most fundamentally about?

Where Tracks is different from the stories we've read up to this point is that as a novel, it includes ghost stories within it, rather than being a ghost story (at least, as the genre is usually understood/defined) in itself. Tracks forces us to consider closely the questions of how a narrator uses ghosts to create certain effects and accomplish certain goals, and of why an author would create narrators who use ghosts in these ways. In some ways, we have come full circle from Bowen's One More Story; as in Bowen's collection of short stories, ghost stories are included side-by-side with stories about shapeshifting, hunting, magic/witchcraft/medicine, and so on in Erdrich's novel. The interpretive challenge Tracks poses, then, is as much about how to read the fantastic or supernatural as it is about how to read literary ghosts--do we dismiss it as "pure fiction" or "unbelievable" or "unrealistic," do we try to come up with "rational explanations," do we chalk it up to a "different culture's belief system" or "superstitiousness," or do we try to identify the meaning and significance of these events and apparitions, both to individual characters/narrators and within the structure of the novel?

Week 6

We're zipping through Tracks this week for two reasons; first, I want you to get a sense of the sweep of the novel and share your initial reactions of this disorienting novel, and second, I want to leave time for next week to use Tracks as practice and preparation for the mid-term exam. Since I go over the latter in next week's section, I'll focus here on the former reason and give you a sense of what to expect during the week. It's always a tough call whether to make students finish a novel as quickly as possible so consecutive sessions can be devoted to treating the work "as a whole," or to go no faster than is possible to devote sufficient discussion time to what we read for a given class. The former strategy makes it hard for some people to keep up with the reading and makes discussion particularly difficult (because there are so many interesting topics of conversation one could choose to devote class time to), but it allows us to quickly get to the point where we can consider image and thematic patterns and structures; the latter runs the risk of boring some readers and spending an entire semester on one or two novels (since for some novels one could devote an entire 50-minute discussion to a single sentence or paragraph!), but it allows for careful attention to language and detailed discussion of possible interpretations. I decided to have two classes (M and F) in which we try to cover a lot of ground punctuated by one class (W) in which we focus on a single chapter in order to provide a positive mix of both experiences. (It is absolutely crucial, however, that everyone has finished the sixth chapter of Tracks in time to submit discussion questions about it by Tuesday evening; otherwise, we run the risk of getting the worst rather than the best of the above worlds!) The kinds of questions I'll have you consider in class will follow a pattern--from "how your view/opinion of each narrator has changed over chapters 1-5" to "what Erdrich may have been trying to accomplish by creating two such different narrators"--as will the kinds of activities you do in class--which will move from identifying and interpreting key textual moments to placing them in a larger pattern and interpreting its significance.

It's not too early to start preparing for the mid-term exam this week, however. Please click here for advice on studying for the exam.

Week 7

This week we're going to be analyzing key moments and patterns in Tracks, both to better understand the novel, its literary techniques and structure, and its author's purposes, and also for practice and preparation for the mid-term exam, which begins in class Friday and continues over the weekend with a take-home essay. We're going to be practicing the kinds of interpretive skills that the exam emphasizes--close reading, relating part to whole, and comparison-contrast. Practicing these skills will make you a more attentive reader and a more effective writer--you'll notice more about a text as you read, and be better able to generate and back up ideas and intepretations of a text after you've read it, in response papers and critical essays.

Reading Hauntings

In this unit, we're going to be considering the question of "haunting" more broadly than in the previous one: we're going to be reading stories and novels in which key characters are not only haunted in the "literal" sense by ghosts or spirits, but also in a more "metaphorical" sense by history and society, by their pasts and their presents. In a related yet different sense, we're going to be considering the ways in which events from the past continue to haunt the present--whether it is a legacy of conquest or conflict (Devi, Mukherjee, Keller), slavery or bondage (Morrison, Keller), or gender-based discrimination and sexual abuse (Cisneros, Keller, Morrison).

M A I N * N E W S * T O P I C S * L I N K S * R E S E R V E S

EN 209: Novels and Tales, Spring 2000
Created: 1/21/00, 10:04 am
Last modified: 2/21/00, 8:42 pm