Aristotle’s Poetics in the Classroom

In this blog, I have written a lot about Aristotle’s Rhetoric. However, I have not written about his literary criticism, which he develops in the work called the Poetics. The Poetics has had a great deal of influence on literary thought and practice for many centuries, especially on drama. Though Aristotle was mainly concerned with the dramatic form of the Greek tragedy, his principles can be usefully applied to other art forms, including novels, short stories, and movies, and perhaps even poetry. The principles are simple, easily understood, and useful for students.

Perhaps the genre in our own time that is closest to Greek tragedy is the dramatic movie, perhaps even a horror movie.  Analyzing a movie is probably the best vehicle for introducing students to Aristotle’s ideas.

Aristotle, like most ancient Greeks, thinks that art is about imitation of life. The Greek word is “mimesis,” which we find in “mime and” “mimic.” He thinks that humans are natural imitators and that we enjoy representations, even of things we would not like to see in real life, such as dead bodies or fearsome beasts. This literary theory is pretty easy for students to apply. Is the work realistic? Is it lifelike? Does that mean it is good? They can also easily disagree with it because they often enjoy fantasy and other things that are abstract or unrealistic. Disagreeing with Aristotle is fun, and it gets them thinking. They can have a dialogue with Aristotle.

Aristotle argues that tragedy has six components. I have created a simplified chart, with questions for students:

AristotlePoeticsChart-Simple-1a

A more detailed version of this chart with more extensive questions is available here.

Plot

Aristotle argues that plot is the soul of tragedy and that while there could be a tragedy without character, there could not be without plot. Simply relating the events of a tragic plot should create pity and fear in the hearer. Students appear to agree with Aristotle on this in that when they write about a novel or a short story, they tend to summarize the plot. However, such summaries rarely analyze the plot in terms of Aristotelian plot elements such as reversal, recognition, and what he calls the “scene of suffering,” the climatic scene in which the different strands of the plot come together for the greatest emotional effect.  The plot itself creates emotions, for Aristotle pity and fear, in the audience.   The questions in the chart linked above help students analyze the plot from such a perspective.

Character

Aristotle’s views on good character are probably more at odds with the students’ views than on any other aspect of literature.  He believes that the protagonist should

  • Have good moral values
  • Be above average in nobility and birth
  • Behave appropriately according to his station in life
  • Be realistic and life-like
  • Be consistent in behavior
  • Have a flaw or other characteristic that causes him to experience a dramatic change in fortune

Today we are used to viewpoint characters and heroes who are quite unlike Aristotle’s ideal.  The disjunction between Aristotle’s views and the students’ should provide lots of interesting discussion.

Thought

When Aristotle discusses “thought” in tragedy, he refers to his work on Rhetoric.  He says, “Under Thought is included every effect which has to be produced by speech, the subdivisions being: proof and refutation; the excitation of the feelings, such as pity, fear, anger, and the like; the suggestion of importance or its opposite” (XIX)  Clearly arguments are part of thought, but also emotional and ethical appeals, the full range of ethos, logos, and pathos.  Themes, philosophical questions, and exploration of moral and ethical choices are also included here.

Diction

Under “diction” Aristotle discusses formal and informal language, the use of strange and unusual words, and other aspects of style.  His concern appears to be mostly about the effects of word choice on the audience.  Some of the factors that we might assign to style, such as the creation of emotional effects, Aristotle sees as belonging to Thought.

Song and Spectacle

Song and Spectacle are considered to be the least important factors in Aristotle’s scheme.  For students, they may be the most important factors.  Some movies rely on exciting music and spectacular visuals, often created by computers, to become big hits, while neglecting plot, character, and thought.  Can the musical score and cinematic effects successfully make up for a lack in other categories?  This is an interesting question for students to discuss.

Conclusions

Aristotle has two big disadvantages in relating to current students: 1) he is analyzing an ancient dramatic form that is no longer produced, and 2) his analysis reflects the cultural values and customs of Athenian Greeks in the fourth century B.C.  However, looking at current cultural productions, such as movies and novels, from an Aristotelian point of view, produces what Kenneth Burke calls a “perspective by incongruity,” that allows the student to have insights into Aristotle, current artistic work, and their own perceptions and values.  It is a worthwhile discussion.

Works Cited

Aristotle. Poetics. Translated by S. H. Butcher. The Internet Classics Archive. Accessed 16 Feb. 2019.

 

Using Kenneth Burke and Implementing Gradual Release of Responsibility

In a previous post, “Decisions, Decisions, Decisions,” I explored several concepts related to designing instructional units, among them “Gradual Release of Responsibility” as presented by Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey. In this post, I will begin to apply this concept to the design of a module built around another previous post, “Using Kenneth Burke’s Pentad.” Writing this mini-module may take several posts. When I finish, I will post the whole module as a downloadable unit.

Fisher and Frey describe gradual release as a continuum: “I do, we do, you do together, you do.” I find those pronouns a little confusing because in writing modules we often shift from the teacher view to the student view. I think it is clearer to say, “teacher does, teacher and students do together, students do together, student does.” They also discuss this as “Focus Lessons, Guided Instruction, Collaborative Learning, and Independent Tasks.” Activities do not necessarily have to be done in that order. What is important is to be aware of where the responsibility for learning and thinking lies and to have a mix of different types of interactions as appropriate to the learning goals. For convenience, lets imagine a 1-4 scale with “1” representing “teacher does” and “4” representing “student does.”

Because of my concern with backwards mapping (or “Backwards Design”), another concept I discussed in the “Decisions” post, I want to start out by laying out for the students what they are going to learn and how they are going to use it. I am going to try being very direct. This is very much a “teacher does” activity:

A student (or teacher) reads aloud:

In this unit, you will learn about a useful strategy called “the pentad” that is related to the who, what, when, where, why, and how questions that you probably already know. As you explore this strategy, you will analyze relationships between people and places, between tools and actions, and think about why people do the things they do. We will use this strategy to analyze movies, stories, and political issues in new ways. When we are asked to write about something, one of the biggest problems is thinking of new things to say. The pentad can be a big help. At the end of this unit, you will be asked to write about a novel or story you have studied or written about before, but in a new way. After learning about the pentad, it will be easy to take a new approach.

After reading this paragraph, what questions do you have? What more do you want to know about “the pentad”? Write down at least one question to share with the class.

The follow up question moves from “teacher does” or “1” on my scale to “teacher and students do together,” which is “2” on my scale. The purpose here is to create some anticipation of what is to come.

Now I want to activate background knowledge by asking students to do a task that shows them that they already know something about this, but also allows them to see this knowledge in a new way. I want them to think about “scene” words, words that name or define a location or context. One way of doing this is to give them a passage and ask them to find “scene” words:

When someone does something, they have to do it somewhere. Action is situated. It happens in a time and place. We can call a time and place where something happens a “scene,” as in the phrase “the scene of the crime.” When a writer begins a story, the first few paragraphs usually “set the scene.” Here is the first paragraph of a famous short story, “Hill Like White Elephants,” by Ernest Hemingway. As you read the paragraph, try to identify “scene” words and phrases, words and phrases that are associated with places or parts of places where things might happen.

The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies. The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went on to Madrid.

How many words did you find? For example, the “Ebro” is a river. That is a place. It has formed a valley, and there are hills. There are names of cities. There are also location words such as “side” and “between.”

The Hemingway passage “sets the scene” for the story, but you could substitute a passage from almost any literary work. I would rate this activity a “2” on my scale because the teacher is supplying the passage and asking the questions.

Next, I would like to explore the relationship between the scene and the people in it, what Burke will call a scene→agent ratio.

Write a paragraph about how where you grew up (scene) influenced who you are as a person. You can define the “scene” in various ways big or small–a country, a city or town, a neighborhood, a school, an ethnic community, a household, a family, etc.

This writing task will initiate a scene→agent ratio without using all of Burke’s terms. The task itself is a “4,” because the students are deciding what to write about and working independently. We could transition to a “3” type of activity by having students share their paragraphs in groups or pairs and commenting further on the ways that scenes influence the people in them.

At this point, the students have been introduced to the concept of “scene” and have worked on the relationship between scenes and agents with knowing very much about Burke’s entire scheme. They are now ready to read my short introduction to Burke’s pentad. This is a “Focused Instruction” activity, a “1” on my scale. It is essentially a lecture.

I will follow this with some group activities using the pentad to analyze popular movies, moving from “2” type “guided instruction” activities to “3” type collaborative activities. At the end they will get an independent writing assignment. I will describe these activities in detail in a following post.  So far, I have introduced some new concepts, explored them a bit with examples, and asked students to apply them.  In the following post, they will begin to use them for their own purposes.

Teaching a Literary Text: A Template

It is common for instructors to assign a poem or a short story for a particular class meeting and expect students to come to class ready to discuss it.  It is also common for instructors to complain that no one has read the text and that the students wait until after the discussion to read it.  With no possibility of a discussion, the instructor ends up lecturing on the text and teaching his or her own reading of it.  Students take notes.  The mystery of the text is solved and the course moves on.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

My colleague Aaron DeRosa and I were in the midst of a vigorous discussion about the use of literary theory in the teaching and study of literature. In a nutshell, I was arguing that all reading and interpretation involved theory (full disclosure:  I teach the course in Literary Theory), while Dr. DeRosa was arguing that knowledge of literary theory was not essential to productive literary scholarship.  As in most discussions in English departments, we are probably both right in our own ways.  However, as a sort of rhetorical ploy to get him to reveal his unacknowledged theory-using ways, I asked, “Well, how do you go about teaching a literary text?”  That proved to be a more productive discussion.  The result is this template.  We developed it together. It is in .docx format so that an instructor could use it to plan a course session or sequence of sessions.  Here is a .pdf version, if the other one won’t open in your software.

The goals of this process are to situate the text in the course, give the students enough background and confidence to perform a reading of the text, and then open up the text to new avenues of exploration.

Establish teaching and learning goals for the text

  1. Think about the features of the text that will be meaningful in the context of the course. (Questions: “Why are we reading this? What do you want them to notice?” Depending on the course, this could be genre characteristics, historical context, style, characterization, themes, motifs, etc.)
  2. Think about features of the text that will be difficult for at least some of the students. How will you address them? (This might be such things as difficult or old-fashioned vocabulary, exotic cultural concepts, or potentially undetected irony.)
  3. List what students will know or be able to do after reading and working with the text. (These are your learning goals for the text, which should be consistent with the overall learning goals of the course.)

Preview the text

  1. Provide contemporary, relevant references that highlight some aspect of the content they will read
  2. OR provide some form of summary, context, keywords, etc. that highlights what to read for, the “thread” of the first reading.

Read the text

  1. Trace the thread established in the preview. (This is only one way of reading the text. It is a starting point for the first reading.)
  2. Note details that that might conflict with this thread.

Re-read the text (what might be called “close reading”)

  1. Find an alternative thread to trace to show them multiple modes of reading (sometimes this involves invoking a literary theory).
  2. Look for patterns, connections, contradictions, repetitions (motifs), juxtapositions, tropes and figures, etc. relevant to the themes of the text.
    Build a multi-faceted view of the text with many possible threads woven together.

Post-read “assessment”

  1. Ask students to choose a new thread to follow in more detail.
  2. Evaluate your learning goals through some appropriate mechanism (writing, comic book, movie trailer, discussion, presentation).

As with any template, you may find that you don’t need to do every step with every text.  Toward the end of the course, students should have internalized some of these moves.  However, a bit of previewing of a text before they read it for the class discussion will almost always lead to a better discussion.

A Reader-Response Approach to Poetry

books-IMG_0227

I introduced two mini-modules at the 2018 ERWC Leadership Conferences as part of my presentation, “Big Ideas from My Literacy Seminar.” This one, “A Reader-Response Approach to Poetry” was inspired by Louise Rosenblatt’s book, The Reader, The Text, The Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. Rosenblatt begins the book with the image of two figures on a stage, the author and the reader, with the book between them. In various ages the spotlight focuses brightly on either the author or the text, but rarely the reader (1).

Rosenblatt then argues that the reader, not the author, creates the poem. The text of the poem is like an orchestra score in that the music doesn’t exist until it is performed. Because each reader brings different life experiences and background knowledge to the text, each reader will create a different poem. Being comfortable with this process is part of learning to enjoy poetry.

New Criticism taught us the techniques of close reading, which are still in common use today. New Critics also taught us that to try to recover the author’s intention was the “Intentional Fallacy,” and that to focus on the effects on the reader was to engage in the “Pathetic Fallacy.” The spotlight of the New Critics focuses exclusively on the text, and on using the techniques of close reading to produce the very best reading of that text.

A typical literature course today will apply close reading, but unlike New Criticism will include reference to the author’s biography and historical context. The dominant question is usually, “What does it mean?” and a received interpretation is often given. The result, especially with poetry, is that students believe that there is a “correct” interpretation that they are struggling to find. This has a number of negative effects, such as going immediately to the internet to discover the “correct” reading and a fear of interpreting poetry on their own. Thus it is common for students to say, even English majors in college, that they don’t like poetry.

This mini-module is designed to counteract that fear and help students read and enjoy poetry on their own, sharing their experiences with others. In working through the module, students

  • Read the poem quickly and write down their impressions,
  • Re-read to confirm and and develop their impressions,
  • Share their impressions with others in a small group,
  • Consider important details,
  • Negotiate a consensus interpretation,
  • Write a paragraph describing their evolving interpretation of the poem.

In this approach, reading a poem is both a personal and a social experience. The emphasis is on engaging with the text and connecting it to experience, not on discovering authorial intention or a “correct” reading. Any poem could be plugged into this process. I often choose a poem that has some important detail that students may miss on first readings, but discover on closer readings, so that they can experience the shift in interpretation that happens when making a sudden connection. (Sometimes I give them the information.  I call this “throwing in a fact bomb.”)  In the workshop, I used “Declaration” by Tracy K. Smith. Students may not initially realize that the poem echoes language from the Declaration of Independence. I have also used “Sundown” by Jorie Graham, in which students may not know that the phrase “on Omaha” refers to a D-Day invasion beach. These poems can easily be found on the internet.

The mini-module can be downloaded from this link.

Update: English teacher extraordinaire Carol Jago has published an essay, “Agents of Imagination,” on the Poetry Foundation site.  It’s about teaching science fiction poetry and also includes a poem by Tracy K. Smith, who seems to have a talent for writing beautiful, evocative, yet approachable poems.   This essay is a mini-module in essay form!  Highly recommended!

Teaching Story Craft

When I first started teaching the science fiction class at the university, I struggled with what sort of paper I could expect from the students.  Because it was a G.E. course, I had a lot of aspiring engineers and scientists in the class and very few English majors.  I couldn’t expect them to know how to do close reading or apply literary theory.  My solution was to teach them story craft.   First, we talk about how science fiction starts from a “What if?” question, imagining a world with a fundamental change of some kind, often regarding new technology.  Then we talk about character, setting, plot, and style. As I continued to teach the course, I added some material about the difficulties of exposition, point of view, and verb tense.  Then I added some discussion of different ways of representing dialogue.

My original intention was to teach these concepts so that they could write more insightful critical papers.  However, it soon became clear that many students wanted to use these techniques to write their own stories.   I thought it was cool that engineers wanted to write stories, so I began offering a choice of assignments, a critical paper or a short story.  In current versions of the course, about 90% of the students choose to write a story.

I created a four-page handout with advice about the basics of story craft.  You can download it here.

I warn them about some of the typical mistakes new short story writers make.  The most common problem is to have two and a half pages of exposition about the world and the character before anything happens.  In every published story we read, I read the first sentence or two aloud and ask, “What expectations do these sentences create?  What does the writer imply about the character and the world?  How does this grab your interest?”  And I ask them, “How many pages of a story would you read if it is all description and nothing is happening?”  They admit that they would get bored.  But they still write these stories.

The other common problems usually involve weaknesses in characters or worlds, a lack of conflict or motivation, or too much influence from current TV, movies, or video games.  We might have a highly developed character that is some version of the writer, with not much of a world and no real conflict.  Or we might have a highly detailed and well-planned world with cardboard characters.

I don’t worry too much about these problems.  They are beginners.  It is probably the first science fiction story they have ever written and it may be their last.  Still, learning the craft and applying it causes them to read stories with greater awareness.  They learn to tell good writing from bad, as long as it is not their own.  And I always get some good stories.  I can tell because I forget I am grading and get engaged with the story as a story.

In addition to the handout linked above, I have a couple of templates for  character development and world building.  These can be used by new writers to think more deeply about their characters and the worlds they inhabit.  It is also interesting to divide the students into small groups and have some of them design a character while others build a world.  Half-way through the activity, you merge the groups and see what happens when one group’s character is thrown into another group’s world.  This requires some adjustments, as when one group’s fish-like being ends up on another group’s desert world with three suns.

This course is one of my favorites to teach and a big part of that is watching them learn to analyze and write science fiction stories using these concepts.

Update (11/24/18): In the spring I will be teaching this course for the first time on semesters.  I think this will give the students more time to develop their stories, so I expanded my story assessment rubric.  I plan to have the students use this rubric to evaluate the professional stories we read, and then I will use it to grade their stories. I have already converted it for use in Blackboard, but the version available in the link above is in .docx format so that teachers can modify it.

Updated Gatsby Module

I have updated the module on The Great Gatsby to ERWC 3.0.  This version includes the new 3.0 cells.  I eliminated some of the possible literary approaches and streamlined it a bit.  I now have a short writing assignment after each section so that instead of one module “arc” it has four mini arcs.   It is currently being piloted by at least one teacher.  After the pilot, I will create a teacher version.  If you have a chance to pilot it, please give me feedback.

The post on the older version is here.

The Gatsby Module: A Draft

I have finished a draft of the Gatsby module (Note: new ERWC 3.0 draft here, as of 10/12/17). This is a complete student version that is ready for feedback and perhaps piloting. It has not been put into the official format, nor has it been edited for consistency. It has not been aligned with standards, though I think the alignments are easy to see.

I need to create a teacher version, so some feedback from teachers on what is unclear would be helpful. This is the first module that prominently features the “arc” language–preparing, understanding, questioning, selecting, writing, revising–so feedback on how that works would be much appreciated. Also, there are some activities here that have not been used before.

Module Description

This module is designed for 11th grade, probably near the end of the first semester. It is designed to allow students to explore multiple critical perspectives and develop their own approach to the novel. There are five possible writing prompts. Each asks students to take a position, write a thesis statement, and support their arguments with evidence from the text. The module does not require students to read secondary sources or do any research. The focus is entirely on the novel itself.

Module Background

The Great Gatsby is among the recommended texts for 11th grade in the CCSS and has been in the 11th grade curriculum for decades. It is a superbly written novel with a complex, multi-faceted structure, flawed but interesting characters, and engaging themes and issues. It is also short. Much is packed into its 180 pages.

The novel is bristling with symbols, metaphors and other literary devices, carefully deployed, but also easy to find and interpret. It is common in teaching this novel to focus on these devices. This module includes those discussions, but also enables other approaches. The overall approach is something I call “Guided Reader Response.” The activities invoke a possible perspective, focus on particular aspects of the text, and allow students to draw their own conclusions and make their own interpretations, building up to their own reading of the novel, which they will express in the final paper. As they work through the novel, they will write down vocabulary, make predictions, create summaries at various points, and share their interpretations with others.

This module has been designed to be significantly shorter than previous literary modules in ERWC, such as 1984 or Brave New World. It should take about four weeks to complete.

Kenneth Burke’s Pentad and Gatsby

As I was describing different approaches to Gatsby in the introductory part of the module I wrote a section called “People and Places” using the Burkean Pentad.  My goal was to introduce just enough Burke to be of use without confusing.  Apparently, I failed.  Several people told me that this was too confusing for 11th graders.  I thought I would post it here to see what others thought.

————————————————-

In A Grammar of Motives critic Kenneth Burke describes a five-term system for analyzing the motivation of characters that he calls the “pentad.”

  • Act—What was done? “What took place in thought or deed?”
  • Scene—Where and when was it done? (Place, Context, Background, Situation)
  • Agent—Who did it? (What person or kind of person, what co-agents or counter-agents)
  • Agency—By what means or with what instruments was it done?
  • Purpose—Why was it done?

Burke combines these terms into what he calls “ratios.” We often think that when people do something, they do it either because of their inherent nature (agent-act) or because of their purpose (purpose-act). However, in this novel, where someone comes from, especially if they come from the east or the west, or if they come from a poor neighborhood or a rich one, makes a big difference in how other people see them. Burke would call this a scene-agent ratio. In this ratio, the “scene,” which can be a place, a culture, or a historical moment, forms the nature and character of the “agent,” the person who acts. It is also possible for the scene in which the act takes place to motivate the act. In this novel, the action moves from East Egg to West Egg, and from East Egg to New York, passing through “the Valley of Ashes.” In each place, different kinds of action occur. Burke would call this a scene-act ratio. The place motivates the kind of act.

As you read, note where characters come from and how people feel about them. For example, at one point, Tom Buchanan calls Gatsby “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere” (130). That is the scene-agent ratio. For Tom, that is the ultimate insult. Also note what kinds of things people do in different locations and circumstances. For example, people behave differently in Gatsby’s party house than they do elsewhere. That is the scene-act ratio.

Literary Devices in Gatsby

As I write the module on The Great Gatsby, one of my concerns is how to deal with the issue of literary devices.  I don’t want the students to be intimidated by “hidden meanings.”  I don’t want them to go figure hunting as if they are bird watchers logging sightings of rare specimens.  However, I do want them to be able to interpret the novel, to appreciate the language, and not to be put off by Fitzgerald’s indirect ways.  My first move in this direction was the introduction for students which I posted earlier.

In the section below I am trying to explain how symbols, metaphors, similes, and irony work.  Many of the definitions I found on the web were too complex or confusing, even contradictory.  Others went too deep into semiotics or linguistics, attempting to describe cognitive processes or to create a host of types and sub-types.  I just want students to have a basic working understanding of figurative language so that they can read the novel with pleasure and understanding.  I want to empower them rather than intimidate them.

Please give feedback in the comments.

—————————————————-

Although reading literature is not like an Easter egg hunt in which the reader is looking for hidden meanings buried behind symbols and metaphors, such devices are part of the novel and do have meaning. For example, automobiles are common in this novel. At this time, the automobile is a fairly recent introduction into American culture. Traffic lights to control intersections were introduced around the time the novel was written. In the novel, automobiles are meticulously described. Characters drive them, buy them, sell them, repair them, crash them, and sometimes the wheels fall off. People are killed by them. Is the automobile a symbol of some aspect of American culture? Is steering a car a metaphor for a new kind of American life? It is up to you, the reader, to decide. Maybe a car is just a car. Maybe it is more. Symbols take on their meaning from context and from the evolving value that they have for the characters and the reader. It is never a simple matter of “Symbol X equals Meaning Y.”

Let’s say that the automobile is a symbol of American technological progress. What is implied if the wheels fall off? What is implied if the automobile kills someone?

Some definitions:

A symbol is something concrete (like the automobile) that represents or stands for an abstract idea (such as progress). Symbols are usually related to major themes in the work and may reoccur several times. The symbol does not necessarily resemble the symbolized idea or share any of its qualities. For example, the American flag is a symbol of the United States, but it does not look like the country. The stars on the flag may symbolize the individual states that are the current components of the union and the stripes may symbolize the original states that joined at the beginning, but the states are not like stars or stripes in any way.

A metaphor causes us to see one thing in terms of something else. On page 2, Nick Carraway talks about “the foul dust” that “floated in the wake of Gatsby’s dreams.” There are two metaphors here. First, the dust is not literally dust, but at this point we don’t know exactly what it is. We will find out what dreams Gatsby has and what the foul consequences are as we continue reading. Second, the dust floats in the “wake” of Gatsby’s dreams. As a boat travels through the water it creates a turbulent track behind it which is called the “wake.” So Gatsby’s dreams are being compared to a boat that leaves foul dust floating behind it. But wait a minute! “Wake” is also another word for funeral. Could that be what it means here? It seems unlikely because the word “floating” is associated with water, which triggers the association with a boat. Note that these are not “hidden meanings.” The metaphors are just part of the way that the sentence creates meaning.

A simile is a type of metaphor that uses “like” or “as” or other comparison words to connect the ideas. The most famous simile ever is probably by the poet, Robert Burns, who wrote, “My love is like a red, red rose,” comparing a woman to a flower. In The Great Gatsby, when Nick is criticizing Jordan’s driving he says, to the reader, not to Jordan, “I am slow thinking and full of interior rules that act as brakes on my desires” (58). This statement compares his “interior rules” to the “brakes” on an automobile. Similes such as this are very common in fiction.

Irony is also common in this novel. The word “irony” comes from a Greek word that means to pretend. There are many types of irony, but in all types the surface meaning is different, often the opposite, of what is intended, creating a humorous effect. For example, if a person walking in pouring rain meets another person and says, “Beautiful day, isn’t it?” that would be an ironic statement. Another common form of irony is understatement. Say a woman who is very afraid of spiders finds a spider in her sink, rolls up a magazine and in a panic hits the spider 20 times. Her roommate says, “Do you think that’s enough?” In Gatsby, irony often takes the form of exaggeration, such as when Nick arrives at Daisy’s house and she says, “I’m paralyzed with happiness” (8).

You will find many examples of these and other literary devices in the novel. Take note of these, discuss them with your classmates, and think about how they influence your reading of the novel.

Using Gatsby to Teach Inference

In Common Core under “Reading Literature” the first 11th/12th grade standard states:

Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.

The following activity asks students to determine whether specific statements about the novel are implied by the text, are true according to the text, are exaggerated, or are false. Then they share their charts with a partner and discuss their choices and their reasons for making them. This activity engages the students on several levels. It is a comprehension check, but most of the answers are debatable in or way or another. It requires students to interpret the text based on evidence and discuss or defend those interpretations with others.

In the example below, I provide only the statements for the first chapter. The completed module will have statements for each chapter.

————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

Reading: Annotating and Questioning the Text

Skim the following statements before you read the chapter (the numbers in parentheses refer to pages in the Scribner paperback edition of 2004). After reading, go back and put an X or a check mark in the box that you think best describes the truthfulness of the statement. Use the following criteria:

  • “Implied” means that the text does not specifically say that the statement is a fact, but it is a reasonable conclusion to make.
  • “True” means that in the world of the story, this statement is factual.
  • “Exaggerated” means that the statement has some truth in it, but it overstates the facts (hyperbole).
  • “False” means that in the world of the story, the statement is false.

After filling out the chart, share your answers with a partner. If you don’t agree on every statement, discuss your reasoning and your evidence for your answers.

The first six are done for you to demonstrate how it works. Number 1 is clear. Your answer to number 2 might depend on how you define “friends.” Nick and Tom know each other, but they are not close. They are more like acquaintances. Number 3 is “exaggerated” because although Daisy knows people in Chicago who miss her, it is not the whole city and those people are not “desolate.” Number 4 is clear. Daisy has a daughter, though we do not see her at this point. Number 5 is “exaggerated” because although Jordan may have been lying on the couch for several hours, she probably remembers her life before the couch. Number 6 is a difficult one. Tom has been reading a racist book and he tries to summarize the arguments in it, but doesn’t present much detail. The others don’t seem to value his analysis very much, so “implied” is a good answer. One could argue, however, that Tom is smarter than George Wilson.

GatsbyStatementMatrixChapt1

You may find that something that is implied at one point in the novel is confirmed as a fact, or proven false, later in the novel. This is part of the fun of reading a novel.