Using Literary Devices to Convey Inner Thoughts and Personal Feelings, or
Why Johnny and Jennifer Can't Write about Literature
by Nils Clausson
University of Regina
I rarely get through a batch of student papers in an introductory literature class, or even in a more advanced survey class, without the feeling that, when writing about literature, many of my students adopt a lexicon and a syntax that is utterly foreign to the discipline of literary criticism. I don't think my impression of their papers is a gross slander on my students. And if you look into your heart and swear on your nearest diligently annotated copy of a Norton Anthology or on your much-thumbed copy M. H. Abrams's indispensable Glossary, I suspect you will admit to feeling the same way. Here is an example of what I mean from an essay on Hard Times written in my second-year British survey class: "By using the unhappy lives of these characters, Dickens shows the reader what happens to society when imagination and creativity are removed." Why, I ask myself, doesn't the student simply say "The novel reveals what happens to society when imagination and creativity are removed"? Why are Dickens and the reader in the sentence at all? And why do students' sentences keep falling into this same pattern again and again? I exclaim in exasperation, especially after reading for the tenth time a sentence patterned like this one: "In his poem/short story, so-and-so uses many varied literary devices to" -- take your pick -- "express/convey/get across/communicate to the reader her theme of love/war/nature/isolation." It is tempting to see this fault as evidence of some intrinsic stylistic deficiency or even wilful perversity in my students. I used to think that sentences like these were simply examples of wordiness, or of overwriting in an effort to sound literary. But I no longer think this is merely a writing problem that, like dangling participles or inept integration of quotations, can be fixed by showing students how to correct the error, like a club pro correcting a neophyte golfer's incorrect grip. But it is not my students' style that is the problem. Their style -- the syntactic pattern "Dickens uses his characters to show the reader something" -- is merely symptomatic of a much more serious problem, and it is that problem I want to address. Having discussed this issue both in my classes and in numerous one-on-one conferences with students, I think I have, belatedly, figured out the real reason they write about literature in this vacuous and reductive way. After offering my explanation, I'd like to suggest how we can help them write essays about literature that go beyond identifying literary devices and announcing that the author is using these devices to express his feelings to the reader, or to convey a message or portray a theme to the reader.
Here is my hypothesis, which I invite you to test against your own teaching experience: students write sentences like these ones because they have unconsciously internalized an erroneous model of what they think an essay about literature is supposed to accomplish, what it's supposed to do. In order to write an essay, or report, or case study, or letter to the editor, the writer must have some idea, if only a vague or unconscious one, of what the discourse he or she is attempting to write is supposed to look like. Every successful piece of writing is the successful imitation of a model or an ideal. Perhaps the most obvious example in the academy is the lab report, a genre as rigidly structured as a sonnet or villanelle. To write a lab report you have to successfully imitate a model lab report; you can't write one simply by wanting to, or being inspired to, or intuitively knowing how to. You have to imitate a model, and students quickly learn to produce lab reports according to the prescribed model. Students have similarly acquired a model for a successful essay on literature, a model most of them learned in a high-school English class. It's the five-paragraph theme, with the funnel introduction opening with an excruciatingly banal generalization ("Throughout the long history of poetical writings, poets in all ages and times have always written imaginatively about the timeless theme of love") and ending with a thesis, followed by three supporting paragraphs that rarely offer much relevant support, and a conclusion that repeats in slightly different words (if the reader is lucky) the thesis at the end of the opening paragraph, just in case the inattentive reader has forgotten what he read just two or three pages before. (The fact that it is much easier to dash off a parody of the student English essay than of the student lab report in the sciences suggests to me that our colleagues in the Faculty of Science have been far more successful at initiating their students into the discourse of their disciplines than those of us in English departments have been.)
But this perennial pattern is only part of the model English essay implanted in the receptive minds of our students. Accompanying this mechanical model, which resembles the training wheels on a child's bicycle, is a much less consciously held assumption about the aim or purpose of the essay about literature, and it is this assumption I want to expose. For many students (including a surprising number in upper-level classes), the activity of writing essays about literary works strikes them as artificial, its goal somewhat mysterious. "What's the point?" they wonder. They can see why someone would write a book or film review: such writing serves a practical, utilitarian purpose. But writing about a pattern of imagery in a poem or about narrative point of view in a short story seems to many of them to have no purpose, other than to fulfill the writing requirements of the course. But it's hard, if not impossible, to write an essay if you have no idea at all of what it's being written for. And so students have, to a considerable extent unconsciously, come up with their own idea of the goal of an essay on literature: that goal it to explain how an author uses the tools of his trade to communicate his thoughts, ideas and feelings to the reader. Lurking behind a disappointingly large number of student essays on, say, a Shakespeare sonnet is not only the barely articulated idea that writing a poem is a form of communication (Shakespeare, like an essayist, communicates or expresses his ideas to the reader), but also the largely unconscious assumption that the goal of the student's essay on the sonnet is to explain (which often amounts to little more than enumerating) the literary devicespersonification, metaphor, iambic pentameter, alliteration -- the poet uses to get his feelings/emotions and thoughts/ideas across to the reader.
In short, when writing an English essay, many students are unconsciously working with a simplistic communication model of literature in which the poem or story is a container into which the poet pours his or her feelings, emotions, and inner thoughts (I always find it instructive to ask my students what they think an "outer" thought would look like), and then passes on the container (the poem, the story) to the grateful reader, who is supposed to "relate to" what the author is feeling or thinking. But whereas students think they can simply and directly express their thoughts and feelings -- after all, they do it all the time -- poets, even more so than playwrights and fiction writers, are a complicated and devious bunch: they have to resort to a host of "literary devices" in order to get their thoughts and feelings across to the reader, whereas the rest of us non-poets have no problem conveying our thoughts, ideas and feelings by using ordinary language, which is free of literary devices. (This assumption is, of course contradicted by students themselves when they complain that, although bubbling with lots of really bright ideas about a topic, they somehow just can't seem to find the rights words in which to express these ideas.) As well, students believe that paying close attention to some literary devices, particularly symbols, can reveal the "deep" or "hidden" meanings in a poem, what the poet was secretly trying to "convey" to those happy few readers adept at interpreting such symbols. It rarely occurs to students that the same "literary devices" that for them are the private preserve of obscure poets are also to be found in abundance in ads, in political speeches and on the sports and financial pages of newspapers. (Students, I find, are always surprised to learn how chock full of metaphor, usually dead metaphor, their own speech is.) And so, given this communication model of literature, the job of a student writing an essay on a poem is obviously to spot these "literary devices" and then confidently announce that these devices are being used to convey the poet's (inner) thoughts and (deep) feelings to the thankful reader at the other end of the communication chain. The poetry explication assignment so beloved of English teachers tends to reinforce these unexamined assumptions about poetry and about the purpose of essays on poems, since this assignment focuses on figures of speech and other literary devices used by the poet. When students are later asked to write a comparison of two poems (another favourite assignment of instructors) many will, by default, focus on how the two poets use the same, or different, literary devices to convey similar, or different, ideas, thoughts, feelings, messages, or deep meanings. They give us what we ask for.
And when they write about fiction, students apply the same strategy and dutifully explain how short story writers use character, or point of view, or setting (or all of the above) to express their ideas, or convey a theme, to the reader. For example: "In 'The Rocking-Horse Winner' by D H. Lawrence the author uses the symbol of the rocking-horse to . . ."; the reader will have no difficulty supplying an appropriate infinitive phrase to complete the sentence. Here is an example from that same set of essays on
Hard Times I quoted from earlier: "Dickens uses many of his characters to represent concepts he wants to portray. This is similar to the way in which he uses a classroom to represent Coketown." Or: "Dickens used Louisa to reveal the long-term effects of being stripped of all enjoyment of life." Or: "Dickens uses his description of Coketown to convey his idea that the factory system was taking over the lives of the workers." If I had forbidden my students to use the construction "Dickens uses," they would, it seems, have been unable to say anything about the novel.
For all but the very best students, the paradigmatic sentence in an essay on literature looks like the following: In "Title of Work" by [Author's Name],
metaphor communicate feelings/emotions
the author uses irony to express his thought/ideas to the reader.
alliteration convey theme
satire get across message
This paradigm explains the ubiquitous presence of the author as the subject of the verb "uses" (or, among the more sophisticated, "utilizes"), followed by one of the literary devices students have learned that authors habitually use/utilize to convey, or express, or communicate their ideas/thoughts/feelings/messages to the reader. (It also explains the ubiquitous passive construction "is used," "is employed" "is utilized.' Here is one taken from the Net: "In 'The Horse Dealer's Daughter,' symbols are used to fulfill the quest of happiness and love.") To write about literature, then, is to conceive of a linear sequence starting with an author who has feelings (or thoughts or ideas), uses various literary devices to put these feelings, thoughts or ideas into a story or poem, which is then sent to the reader at the other end. After a student has identified this linear sequence (akin to a production line), he has said just about all that needs to be, or can be, said about a poem, except perhaps to mention a few irrelevant biographical facts about the author to stretch the essay to the required length. For students trapped within this restrictive paradigm, poets and novelists are not makers or creators, and certainly not artists: they are users. Or, even better, utilizers. (I have actually had students turn in essays with titles like "The Utilization of Metaphor in . . .") And since the purpose of the essay on literature is to identify the devices authors utilize and the purposes for which they utilize them, when students dutifully do this and still get only a C or a C (or a C+ if they refrain from saying "By utilizing a first-person narrator, the reader can more easily identify with/relate to the character"), they are genuinely puzzled, since they have done exactly what they thought they were expected to do. (Students, it's worth recalling rarely try to write badly; they usually try to do their best.)
The communications paradigm, as students understand it, not only produces banal and vacuous sentences about literature; it severely limits what can be said about a poem or story. In this model, the reader is reduced to a passive recipient of what the author sends, and therefore it is hardly surprising that the student, as a reader, can do little more than passively accept what he or she thinks the author's message, or thoughts or feelings are. No resisting, questioning reader is possible. Within this model, literary criticism is a play-by-play commentary on how the poet marches his devices down the field of the poem and finally scores the equivalent of a touchdown by successfully throwing his message or idea to the receptive reader. Hence student essays on literature are largely descriptive (despite the word Analysis in their titles) and full of simple or compound declarative sentences. Which is hardly surprising if the only question the student can ask about the poem or story is: What devices is the author using and for what purpose? The answer to such a question is always known in advance: the devices will be drawn from a relatively short list of predictable devices given in the textbook and/or discussed in class, and they will always be used for the same purpose: to convey/express/get across the author's thoughts/feelings, or themes/messages, to the reader. Moreover, from within this model it is almost impossible to conceive of and write a literature essay as an argument, as an attempt to convince readers of the reasonableness of the essayist's claim. (The problem is further complicated, of course, by the fact that students don't think of themselves as writers with something interesting to say about a story, but as students answering a teacher's arbitrary question about the story.) Argument, however, is the hallmark of academic writing. An academic essay is typically an argument designed to persuade the writer's colleagues to accept the hypothesis and conclusions presented in the essay. Thus I find it particularly distressing how far away from actual literary criticism much of my students' writing is. At least a first-year student's lab report mirrors what real scientists actually do. In "doing their labs" science students are learning science: they are learning, at an introductory level, what their professors (or lab instructors) are doing at a more advanced level. Most importantly, they are learning how scientists identify a question, formulate a hypothesis that might answer the question, and then test the hypothesis. They are, in short, learning to do science by thinking like scientists, and that means writing like scientists. What, I wonder, are our students learning when they write essays for us?
I am not of course suggesting that poets don't use metaphors and assonance and caesuras and other "devices," or that novelists don't use characters, in Henry James's illuminating phrase, as "compositional resources." Obviously they do. Or that critics don't talk about authors' uses of such devices. Obviously we do. But discussion of them is almost always in the context of a larger argument the paper is trying to make. Literary criticism is not an enumeration of the techniques found in a writer's overstuffed bag of literary tricks. And an essay that does little more than spot what devices a particular poet uses in a particular poem, and then informs us that these devices are being used to help the poet convey his thoughts and feelings, or her messages about some theme, is bound the strike a reader with any sensitivity to literature as banal, vacuous, and hence pointless.
Unlike students in some other disciplines, such as philosophy, our students do not come to us as blank slates with no prior experience of "English." Not only have they been "studying" it for four or more years, they have also learned a method for writing about what they have been studying and a model for what they an essay on literature ought to look like. Essentially, that model treats a poem or a story as if it were an essay in which an essayist is trying to "get across" a message or meaning to a reader. But that model bears little resemblance to the model followed in discipline of literary criticism by scholars and critics today. The sooner we convince our reluctant students to abandon that impoverished and out-of-date model and replace it with an alternative one, the sooner more of them will begin to write essays that actually resemble the ones we write.
So what is to be done? First, we can be more perspicacious in the topics we assign for essays on literature. If we simply ask students to discuss metaphor, or figurative language, or point of view in a poem or short story, we are unwittingly encouraging students to frame the writing task in terms of describing, in a rather banal way, how the author uses figurative language for a predictable purpose. I have now learned never to use the word use in an essay question. If you ask students to discuss Shakespeare's use of metaphor in "That Time of Year . . .", you have created a Frankenstein monster that will come back to haunt you: "In 'That Time of Year' by William Shakespeare he uses three metaphors to express . . ." If I simply want to test students' understanding of metaphor and how it's being used in a poem or other piece of writing, I put a question on metaphor on the mid-term or the final exam. I reserve essays for testing students' abilities to pose a worthwhile question about a work and to construct an argument designed to persuade readers to accept, or at least seriously consider, the student's answer to that question. That, after all, is what an essay is. Asking students to discuss a poet's use of imagery or metaphor will not achieve such a goal. That doesn't mean, of course, that I don't assign essays on metaphor in a poem. I have had some (limited) success with a question on Seamus Heaney's "Digging," which ends with the lines: "Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests. / I'll dig with it." The question I pose is whether the speaker's metaphor, writing = digging, is a satisfactory resolution to the speaker's problem in the poem. "After all," I say in my best Socratic voice, "writing really isn't digging, is it? It's just a metaphor." Students, I was surprised to find, were quite eager to defend Heaney, and their essays were more likely to have a much sharper argumentative edge than ones in response to my earlier question, "How does Heaney's speaker use metaphor to resolve his guilt over not following his grandfather and father, both of whom were literal diggers?" Such a question, I have learned from experience, boxes students into a purely descriptive, unargumentative stance towards the poem: as a result, the outcome is predictable as the formula of the five-paragraph theme.
Second, we can make our students aware of their unarticulated assumptions about literature and, more pertinently, about their essays on it. This means pointing out to them that their naïve communication model of literature is contradicted by what contemporary linguists and philosophers of language tell us about language. (Lakoff and Johnson's
Metaphors We Live By is very helpful here.) Students believe that they, just like poets and novelists, first have thoughts, ideas and feelings, and afterwards put these thoughts, feelings and ideas into language so that they can send them to listeners and readers. But this is akin to students believing in a Newtonian model of the universe in their physics class, or a pre-Darwinian model of species in their biology class. Scientists don't believe either of those things any more. And philosophers and linguists no longer believe that we have thoughts and ideas separately from language and then put those thoughts and ideas into language to convey them to others. It's because we have language that we are able to think and have ideas. Yet the older assumption still underlies, and disastrously affects, students' efforts to write about literature. And it's easy for English teachers to unwittingly perpetuate this assumption.
And not only English teachers. The myriad anthologies competing to introduce students to literature often perpetuate it, too. So, third, we can stop using introductory literature textbooks that unintentionally reinforce and perpetuate the idea that the study of literature consists of learning the elements of literature, which students misunderstand as devices authors use to communicate ideas to readers, followed by writing essays pointing out that (wonder of wonders!) poets actually do use many varied and different literary devices to convey their inner thoughts and personal feelings to a wonderstruck reader. Textbooks that organize the section on poetry around topics such as figurative language, rhyme and meter, tone, and alliteration and assonance unintentionally reinforce student's assumptions, acquired from their high-school English classes, that studying poetry and fiction, when it doesn't consist of tossing out impressionistic responses to poems, consists of learning the literary devices authors use to communicate with the reader.
Sadly, those ubiquitous guides to writing essays about literature, either published separately or often included now within introductory anthologies, all too often provide model student essays that are only slightly more sophisticated (because better written) examples of the model students have already internalized. One of the oldest is Edgar V. Roberts' Writing About Literature (my copy is the 8th edition). The sample essay on point of view in fiction, on Ambose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," opens with the sentence, "Ambrose Bierce's control over point of view in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge' is essential to his successful showing that people may perceive immense amounts of time in no more than an instant." The thesis statement (helpfully underlined) reads: "Bierce brings this idea to life by using narrative told in the dramatic point of view to frame narrative told in the third-person limited omniscient point of view." This sentence is only a slightly more sophisticated version of the pattern I identified earlier: Bierce uses two narrative points of view to show the reader the universal truth that people may perceive immense amounts of time in no more than an instantan insight that certainly came as a startling revelation to me, as I'm sure it did to you. And this paper is being offered as a model. So it's hardly surprising that when I give a paper like this a C+, the student is crushed.
No doubt the authors of texts like this one never intended to produce such results, but the undeniable truth is that they have. In their place I would recommend a text like Helen Vendler's pedagogically sound Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology, published by Bedford/St. Martin's. The discussion of prosody (obviously essential for an understanding of poetry) is placed in an appendix, where it can be consulted as needed. One of the virtues of Vendler's text is the sound advice she gives students in Part II, "Writing about Poetry," which is significantly not relegated to an appendix and which every literature instructor, and especially every instructor of introductory literature classes, should read carefully. "In writing about a poem," she advises, "the most important thing to remember is that a poem is not an essay or a 'message,' it is a thing imagined, an art-work like a piece of music or a painting or a dance" (311). Her advice on how to begin a paper on a poem ought to banish forever from the literature classroom the idiotic introduction beginning with a generalization and ending with a thesis statement: "A good way to begin a paper on a poem," says Vendler, is to put before your reader some of the questions that occurred to you as you were studying the poem" (320). Exactly. In the academic world, as opposed to high-school and introductory college literature courses, essays try to answer genuinely puzzling, open-ended questions. Or, at the very least, they report a discovery that the author thinks her colleagues will be interested to learn about. I don't write and submit to journals articles in which I solemnly inform the readers of Papers on Language and Literature that Charles Dickens uses many literary devices to convey his thoughts and feelings about utilitarianism to the readers of Household Words. If I did the editor would be justified in peremptorily rejecting the paper without sending it out to any readers, and my dean, if he found out about my submission, would be justified in questioning my qualifications to hold my present position. Since I don't write such banal and vacuous papers myself, I don't encourage my students to write them either, although I will confess that my success rate in getting them to abandon the deeply entrenched model of essay writing that produces such vacuity and banality is not nearly as high as I would like it to be.
But I keep trying.
 For an illuminating and helpful analysis of this container metaphor, see Chapter 3 of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson's Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980).
 Edgar V. Roberts, Writing About Literature, 8th ed. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1995: 84.
~Dr. Clausson has taught at the University of Regina in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, since 1984. (Regina is the home of the training academy for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police--the chaps who always get their man!) There he is the Director of First-Year English. He has published articles on Benjamin Disraeli, D. H. Lawrence, Edmund Blunden, Seamus Heaney, and Susan Glaspell, and on Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray , which appeared in the November 2003 issue of Papers on Language and Literature. His poetry has appeared in American and Canadian journals, and his one-act play "Tess and the Boys" won a national writing contest in Canada in 1997. Dr. Clausson is also active in community theater in Regina. He recently directed Neil Simon's The Odd Couple and Edward Albee's The American Dream for Regina Little Theatre. If you have comments on his essay, you can write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.