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The Territory of Literature

books2016’s first issue of English Education offers the last article by the late George Hillocks Jr., “The Territory of Literature.” In it, Hillocks suggests improvements in how literature is taught.

Students, he says, are usually “taught that a plot is what happens in a story, that a setting is where a story takes place, and that there are certain points of view an author may take: first person, limited, omniscient, and so forth. . . . But all of these are normally treated by providing only simple definitions with no practice in interpreting any of them in any depth. Is it any wonder that kids cannot read thoughtfully?”

Too often, he says, English teachers move from one piece of literature to the next without leading students to compare and contrast the works. The result: reading one work contributes little to understanding or appreciating the next.

What solutions does Hillocks suggest?

One is to better teach how fiction can be categorized. “Such a typology should . . . provide insight into a wide variety of texts, and it should make it possible for students to recognize, in works new to them, what they have seen in works previously studied.”

Among the types he suggests teaching are the five outlined by Northrop Frye:

  • Mythic, in which the hero is “superior in kind both to other men and to the environment of other men” such as a story about Superman;
  • Romantic, in which the hero is more down to earth but still “superior in degree to other men and to his environment;”
  • High Mimetic, in which the hero is “superior to other men but not to his natural environment;”
  • Low Mimetic, in which the hero is “superior neither to other men nor to his environment, the hero is one of us;” and
  • Ironic, in which the hero is “inferior in power or intelligence to ourselves, so that we have the sense of looking down on a scene of bondage, frustration, or absurdity.”

Another way to improve literature lessons is to examine more closely the definition of plot. “The school idea of plot as the sequence of events in a story is totally inadequate in terms of gleaning any meaning from a work. We need to consider how events in conjunction with the characters involved give rise to emotional response from the reader.”

Because plot can be defined as the “synthesis of action, character, and thought,” any one of these three elements can be the focus of a plot, impacting the story’s structure.

“Plots of action result in material changes in the material circumstances of one or more main characters,” he writes. “Plots of character involve a series of events that result in changes in the values and moral character of the hero. [And] plots of thought focus on the thinking of the character and involve a thorough change in the character’s thinking through engagement with his or her surroundings.”

Another suggestion: lead students to examine the author’s moral outlook, emphasizing “the ability to infer the assumptions and values of the author and those of the narrator, which may not coincide. The narrators of Poe’s ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ and ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ are quite different . . . Both are obsessive, perhaps, but about different things, one about revenge, the other about guilt and fear. Teachers can tell students the difference, but to become expert readers, students need practice in making such discriminations for themselves.”

He adds:

More important is the necessity to help students determine the extent to which a narrator is reliable or unreliable. In my experience, students have a strong tendency to accept whatever a narrator says without questioning the degree to which he or she represents the author’s thinking. But there are always clues to a narrator’s unreliability. Many characters make statements that are unreliable, with their unreliability evident in their misstatements, distortions of fact, and exaggerations. These cues . . . call upon the reader to reconstruct the text’s surface meaning.

 

Read all of George Hillocks Jr.’s suggestions in depth in “The Territory of Literature.”