Reading Frames | Textual Analysis | Critical and Close Studies
The ideas which can make up a reading frame are almost endless. They can be contextual – looking at a text in terms of its place and time. For example, you might study a text as being representative of an English 1850’s text. They might be cultural, and you may examine a text in terms of its moral values, or artistic movements. The study might be paradigmatic and you may study the manifestations of different social paradigms such as philosophy or economics. And, most commonly in post-modernist studies, the frame might be an ideological one. You might study how a text relates to a particular view-point or minority perspective.
We will mostly concern ourselves with minority perspectives as that is what is required from the Standard and Advanced English courses; however, it is worth noting that paradigmatic frames are used quite a lot in the Extension English course.
The term makes you think of people who are out-numbered, but in actual fact, many minority views relate to a majority of people. There are more women on the planet than men, yet feminism is a considered a minority perspective. You can see that minority does not relate strictly to numbers, but to the relative power of these perspectives to be heard. This might be because the group has trouble expressing itself – it may be hard for someone with a mental disability to articulate themselves – or it could be because a group has been deliberately denied the opportunity to express themselves through literature, or in society at large.
For a long time, we only analysed texts in a traditional and classical way. That view tended to be dominated by middle/high class, capitalist, white-European heterosexual male ideas and perspectives. When we started to acknowledge minority points in the cultural revolutions of Civil Rights in the 1960s, we went back and looked at history and literature through different viewpoints that had been ignored.
Studying texts through the frame of minority perspectives begs some interesting questions: some of our most beloved examples of literature come up pretty poorly when we look for references to minority experience. Does that mean they are any lesser texts than they were before? And to what level does the time and place a text existed in excuse the author from acknowledging minority perspective?
Feminist and Gender:
Feminism is the belief that women and men are equal. It tries not to stereotype: men are like this, but women are like that ideas are avoided. Feminist frames look at the way women are presented in texts, both by men and by women, and how these texts might shape the way we look at the world. For example, the classic texts Emma and My Fair Lady both feature women who are taught to be better people by men who are themselves flawed. The women are treated like children by the men, and repay this patronising by falling in love with them. What does that say to women about their equality with men, in relationships and in society?
Homosexuality and gender issues are often lumped in with feminist viewpoints, because homosexuality, like feminism, often challenges sexual stereotypes. The importance of this frame is very obvious in the statistics. Homosexuals account for ten percent of the population, and yet nowhere near ten percent of TV shows, books and films reflect homosexual ideas or characters.
You might say: so what? But if you are struggling with an identity which other people give you a hard time for, never seeing a character in fiction who you can relate to is going to cramp your sense of belonging to society. A statistic which might really surprise you is that there are not just two natural genders. There are actually seven recognised by the Australian Human Rights council. So where is the awareness of this idea in literature? You might think: well, those people would have to basically be freaks of nature, like one person in a million. Wrong. One in one hundred! And yet, one percent of films and literature don’t reflect issues of intersexuality or gender neutrality – it’s pretty hard to even find a standardised form which doesn’t ask: male or female.
So how might composers which deal with all these gendered stereotypes? They might invert gender identities – change male characters into female characters, but keep the story intact. They might take male characters and have them played by women. They might write scenes with no distinction of gender, keeping each character androgynous. Or they might include minority characters and have them defy stereotypical views.
Marxist and working class
Marxism considers the greed of capitalist society, and the reality that many people are ignored or forgotten by the capitalist system – particularly the poor, and the working class, who make up the majority of the system’s members. It may involve an obsession with numbers and money, consumerist imagery such as advertising saturation, focus on the hard work of peasants, or include farmyard animals and other beasts of burden. Such texts are usually bleak, and may show capitalist dystopias where the system is corrupt or doesn’t work. Marxism is named after Karl Marx, the Russian inventor of Socialism and inspiration for the Russian revolution.
The working class are naturally considered as the victims of capitalism in Marxism, but deserve a mention on their own. Because the working class traditionally lack education and are too busy earning a living to make texts, their voices are comically distorted or are absent entirely from whole sections of history. In fact, although they often made up over ninety percent of the population, it can be quite hard for historians to find any textual record of what life was like for them in various eras. Often their experience was quite different to the the upper classes. While the Renaissance was considered the golden age of prosperity for Italy, the working class Italian was far more likely to be out of work. The traditional craftsman who made pots was being put out of business by the budding sculptural artists of the middle and upper classes.
For example, Agatha Christie’s 1920s crime fiction stories are among the most popular ever made. There was always an middle-upper class murder, and a bunch of lousy family members squabbling over inheritance. However, the actual murderer was almost always a servant – a butler, a maid, or someone else working class. This reinforced the idea that only the working class were ever criminals.
Freudian and the psychological
The easiest way to apply the sometimes wacky and overly-sexual ideas of Freud, the father of Psychology, to your texts and characters, is the experience of stereotypical development. When a baby is born, it is a selfish creature who wants its needs met. The mother usually meets those needs. In fact, the baby doesn’t realize that its mother is a separate human being: she is just the part that fulfils its emotional, and sometimes irrational needs. This develops in the psyche as the id. Sometimes this is referred to as “the inner child”.
Eventually the baby recognises another presence in the universe: the father. He is the first person the baby recognises as being distinct from the mother-baby combination. It is the first time it ever occurs to the baby that anyone can have an independent identity away from the mother. And so the ego – the baby’s sense of public identity – is symbolically connected with the father. The ego is still selfish, but unlike the id, it is able to articulate what it wants.
As the child grows, these symbolic patterns are often reinforced. The stereotypical mother supplies emotional and basic human needs, and the father supplies a sense of ambition, discipline and pride. If a young child has no father figure, they might grow up lacking ambition, or if their mother is missing they might feel abandoned and not know how to cater for their emotional needs.
When puberty hits, girls might be attracted to men who are like their fathers, and boys to women like their mothers. They might try to emulate the parent of the same sex, and hero-worship the
parent of the opposite sex. Children may even find themselves a little sexually attracted to their parents. This is known as the Oedipus complex in boys and the Electra complex in girls. A famous example of the Oedipus complex playing out is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, who kills his mother out of sexual jealousy.
Sex is a driving factor of the id. At puberty, both males and females might develop an oral fixation, which is symbolic for sex, or for frustration. Writers may place special emphasis on sexual imagery, making references to penis-like objects such as swords, pencils, etc or to vagina-like or breast-like objects. The penis often becomes a metaphor for power, and the vagina for the unknown.
Freud believed that the id was not directly able to express itself like the ego. He thought it expressed through “Freudian slips” where one idea is “accidentally” associated with another. He also thought our dreams and our interpretations of patterns gave us some insight into our ids.
These ideas make characters more complex and we might look at both their conscious and subconscious motivations, which might even be in conflict. We might even see psychological issues in characters by examining their dialogue, actions and history.
The West has historically been the culture which dominated and changed others through colonisation. Post colonialism can be viewed in two ways: the Westernisation effect on other cultures, and the stereotyping or absence of other cultures from Western books, TV and cinema.
Post Colonialism tends to feature in texts by Commonwealth countries, with Indian authors who discuss post-colonial ideas becoming increasingly popular in the last decade. Considerations include which of the cultures a person belongs to, and in what ways the process of Westernisation is positive or negative. Most often, the texts show individuals in conflict – caught between two ideologically conflicting worlds.
Global issues and responsibilities of a super-power nation also feature in post-colonial texts. The way in which Westerners value human life – where Western lives are considered more important than the lives of those in non-Western or in developing nations, is also often critiqued in these texts. Westerners are often associated with war, greed and self-importance.
A classic example of Western colonial attitudes is in Virginia Woolf’s novel, Orlando. Princess Sasha strikes up a conversation with Orlando, who is the only one of the British party able to speak another language. She asks “But what do they do when they wish to communicate with a foreigner?” He replies: “They speak English more loudly.”
Some textual integrity questions one might want to ask:
Did the text have an important message?
- Did the text use any new or unusual techniques?
- How interesting, complex, and realistic were the characters?
- Was the language put together in an original and striking way?
- Do you think of the composer as an artist and why do you feel this way?
- What are the weak points of the text?
- Was the text broken up into logical chapters, acts, or stanzas?
- Was it well-paced? NB: If you found the text boring, that does not necessarily mean it was poorly paced. You need to compare your text to the pace of others in the text-type and see how yours compares.
You will recall that there are two meanings to textual integrity: the first is the one you will primarily concern yourself with – how well built your text is. A discussion of this kind of textual integrity makes the most sense after you have analysed the language and text-type in full detail. The second meaning of textual integrity is: how close is a production or appropriation to the original text.
At first the two meanings don’t seem to have much in common – but it helps to think about it as though you’re building a ship, in the old days where everything was made of wood. Your original vessel floats because she’s so well made – she needs a hull, a mast, good sails, a rudder, a decent captain and crew to sail properly. That’s textual integrity number 1. Now imagine you’ve seen this magnificent ship in the harbour, and you want to build a ship modelled on it. But you think you’re pretty smart, so you want to add your own ideas into the design. Every time you make a slight moderation to your ship, using a different timber or slightly different rigging on your sails, you take a step away from the original. You might actually be improving on the original, or you might be doing a second-rate job. While you’re busy being an artistic ship designer, you still have to stop and check that your boat actually floats. And that’s textual integrity number 2 – it has to add enough to be a good text within its own right, but if it deviates too much from the original text, nobody will recognise the idea you are trying to build upon.
A good text, one with lots of textual integrity type 1, will leave a lot of room for people to make productions and appropriations of it, because it will contain a lot of ideas. It might have such strong notions in it that it translates well between text-types – very rarely, a good novel is turned into a good film, or a good play. However, most of the time a good novel is turned into a mediocre film. It’s surprisingly hard to take someone else’s work and meaningfully change it.
The most important change – the best gauge of textual integrity, is language. Most productions are made by emphasising some of the original text, and cutting some other segments out. Visuals are the most open to interpretation and these are the most likely to be changed. When language is added, and deviates too much from the original, that’s when productions become appropriations.
The second most important change relating to textual integrity is the plot. Even small changes can have a big effect on the overall meaning of the text. Plot often has to be summarised or adjusted to change from one text-type to another. We will look more at these ideas in our study of productions and appropriations.
Texts which have universality are those which have a high degree of textual integrity, and those which stand the test of time. But the most important aspect of universality is the theme. It must be one that continues to matter to society, throughout all cultural eras. There’s really only one topic that never changes: ourselves. All aspects of humanity and society make for universal texts. One or more of these themes may relate to your text. Let’s look at some ever-popular examples:
Death: All humans die. The experience of death, loss and grief is common, and usually has dramatic impact. How we should approach it and whether there is any meaning to be found in it is great fodder for universality. Textual example: Hamlet by Shakespeare.
Humanity: Being in control of the planet, we believe we are in control of ourselves. But are we really? Which aspects of our behaviour in society are “part of human nature” and which parts can we change? Textual example: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.
Justice: Society needs a means of making judgments and punishments, but we so often get it wrong. This idea can extend into social justice such as prejudice, racism and bigotry. It can even extend to a world view: the world is unjust. Textual example: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
Power and corruption: within all societies, there are leaders who exercise power over the rest of society. What is the right way to use power, be it physical or political? And is it necessary that power corrupts the individual? Textual example: Animal Farm by George Orwell.
War: Is it glorious or a waste of human life? The question of whether war is inevitable as a product of society has been around for as long as we’ve had wars. The effect of depression and disillusionment on the generation affected by war is also worth examining. Textual example: All quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque.
Revolution/Vigilantism: Sometimes, it is necessary to overthrow an old way of doing things, and to fight for a new order or ideal. Revolution may be bloody, or intellectual, or political, and people may be unsure if what they are doing really matters, but revolutions make up a huge portion of our history. Textual example: V for Vendetta, by James McTeigue
Utopia/Dystopia: Imagining a perfect society has become less and less popular over the centuries, as humans become more cynical. We are much more fond of dystopias –looking at societies where rules and ideals are completely “wrong”. This wrong society is compared to our own and may be a warning of where we are heading. Many of the already named texts have elements of dystopia to them, but a famous example is 1984 by George Orwell.
Existentialism: Why do we exist? This can be on a human/society level, asking “What is the meaning of life?” or it can be on a personal level, asking “What is the meaning of my life?” It usually focuses on reason and philosophy rather than religion or faith. Textual example: Rozencrantz and Guilderstern are Dead, by Tom Stoppard.
Reality: We assume what we see is real, but we know all too well that our senses can be tricked. What if everything you see is an elaborate hoax? How can you tell if the world around you is real, and whether or not you are real yourself? Textual example: The Matrix by Larry and Andy Wachowski.
Identity: Who we are has to do with our experiences, the input we receive from society, and our choices and actions. Identities might seem obvious on the surface, but there are profound psychological aspects of identity which can be explored. Textual example: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind by Michael Gondry.
Love: It’s rarely the only theme in a text, but it is a constant one, a sub-element of almost every contemporary text, because it is such a comforting notion. Poetry is the one medium where love may be the only theme. We’re not only talking about romantic love, but also that of family and friendship. Textual example: What Dreams May Come by Vincent Ward.
Family life: Cultural constructs of family life have changed dramatically over time, and differ widely depending on culture and belief. However, the notion of the family unit and how it should be instigated has been an idea revisited throughout time. Textual example: King Lear by Shakespeare.
Rites of Passage: Growing up and learning what is required of an adult, or what is required by a new member of a society, is an idea which runs through numerous texts. These rites reflect on the values of the society itself. Textual example: Dead Poets’ Society by Peter Weir.
Being different: Texts about being the only one of your culture, gender or race in an environment where everybody else is something else have been immensely popular in the 20th and 21st centuries, but have always been a studied topic. People with disabilities or different ideals also fall into this category. Textual example: Jack by Frances Ford Coppola.