I wrote this piece several years ago. It covers much of the same ground as “Sending the Right Message About Literature” a bit more concisely, and with the addition of the “Little Red Riding Hood” example.
Teachers and students waste a good deal of time looking for messages in literature. I know this both because my own students almost all come to me with this idea firmly implanted in their minds, and because I have seen so much evidence of it in my work as an examiner for the International Baccalaureate.
A great work of literature, as evocative as a tree or as the world itself, invites us to respond with our minds and our hearts, but it does not prescribe those responses. It invites us to explore, to reflect, to read and re-read. It does not say to us, ‘This is life’ or ‘This is the world’ or ‘This is what people are like’. Instead it shows us life, the world, and people, from a certain angle (or, more often, from a variety of angles) and asks: what do you think? what are you feeling now?
Unfortunately, many students learn in school that stories, plays, and poems are cryptic messages meant to be deciphered. As I wrote in one of my examiner’s reports a while back,
Most students have been taught that literature is filled with hidden messages and meanings cleverly disguised with symbols, metaphors, and other ‘literary devices’. Their job is to decode the messages and file them under various standard headings such as ‘existentialist’, ‘nihilist’, and ‘archetypal’. One candidate actually made this theory of literary criticism the opening sentence of her essay: “It is important to understand the intentions of authors as most of the time they are trying to convey hidden messages.”
Finding hidden messages is difficult. Not surprisingly under such circumstances, most students simply retail ideas that their teachers or other sources have fed them. When the same interpretation of a work is repeated by student after student, it’s clear that they are simply parroting what they have been taught. Such teaching appears to be the norm, as one can infer from Billy Collins’s wonderful “Introduction to Poetry”:
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
To be sure, it is perfectly possible to tell a story, or write a play or poem, with the intention of sending a message or making an argument. With rare exceptions, such works quickly fall by the wayside and are easily dismissed. Perhaps they have some historical significance, but they are not taken seriously as works of art. Equally clear is the case that certain stories are written for children and adolescents with the intention of teaching their readers to be kind to others, or to avoid illegal drugs and unwanted pregnancies. Again, these are not often serious works of art.
Some children’s stories, of course, do achieve a standard recognizable as art, and they illustrate my argument here quite well. What is the ‘message’, for instance, of A.A. Milne’s ‘Pooh’ stories, or of Arnold Lobel’s ‘Frog and Toad’ stories? Like all good stories, these tales for children create an imaginary world that raises questions: Who are we? Where are we? What are we doing here, and what should we be doing? These are the questions raised again and again by literature and by other forms of art. But how can we tell the difference between real literature and propaganda, or moralizing tales? For one thing, the questions remain open: it is up to the readers or audience to answer them.
As an example, let’s have a look at Charles Perrault’s version of “Little Red Riding Hood.” Perrault (1628-1703), a well-connected member of the bourgeoisie in the court of King Louis XIV, began collecting children’s stories in his old age and published them with the subtitle, “Tales of Mother Goose.” In his version of “Little Red Riding Hood,” the grandmother and the girl are both eaten by the wolf, and the tale ends there. But not quite. Perrault adds this paragraph to the end of the story:
Moral: Children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf. I say “wolf,” but there are various kinds of wolves. There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all.
Apparently Perrault intends to send a message with his story, and his final paragraph makes his message very clear: young ladies are in danger of being seduced—or even raped—by nefarious men who may be “charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet.” Despite his apparent intentions, however, both his story and his “moral” raise a multitude of questions. Why is a story addressed to young women written as a fairy tale for children? Why is the main character a little girl when the “moral” is about young women? Why does the mother send the girl off alone into such a dangerous world? Why does the grandmother not have a proper lock on her door? From another angle, why is Perrault (or rather, the men of his time, society, and class) so intent on controlling young women, and preserving their virginity? And so on. What is the “message” of “Little Red Riding Hood” now?
As another example, let’s try one of the greatest novels ever written: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. From the epigraph alone (“Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord; I will repay”) one could infer what the historical record shows: Tolstoy began his tale with the moralistic idea of showing us that Anna was a sinful woman deservedly punished by God. But along the way, a funny thing happens: Tolstoy seems himself to fall in love with Anna, at least temporarily, and at least enough to bring his moral certitude into doubt. Indeed, his alter-ego protagonist, Levin, visits Anna when she and Vronsky are living at Vronsky’s country estate. Levin, prepared to meet an immoral woman, is surprised to find her delightful and charming. Only after he returns home to his wife is his newly-sympathetic view of Anna brought down to earth with a bump. Anna does suffer a famously terrible end, but as readers we are not at all certain that she deserves her fate. As critics have often remarked, Tolstoy the artist wins out over Tolstoy the Christian moralist. The story that Tolstoy apparently set out to write would perhaps have ‘sent a message’; but if it had finished up that way, it would not be regarded today as one of the greatest novels ever written. The novel does not leave us with a message; instead it leaves us pondering many questions.
I am not arguing, of course, that an author’s tone—his or her attitude toward characters and events—cannot be inferred. It’s clear that Tolstoy sympathizes more with certain characters than with others, but these sympathies and antipathies are not ‘messages’ that close off alternatives. On the contrary, when Tolstoy treats Oblonsky with comical delight, we wonder why he should remain beloved by all—including the author—when his sister Anna (who is guilty of the same ‘sin’) becomes a pariah doomed to a tragic death.
Shakespeare remains the supreme example in our literature of an author who does not send messages. His plays are filled with ideas, with characters and events that raise questions, but at no time can we imagine Shakespeare sitting down to write, thinking, “Ah, now I will write a play with the message, ‘if you need to take revenge, act quickly!’“