MY STUDENTS ARE CERTAIN that the word thesis applies only to nonfiction. That is after all the only way they have ever personally used it. In essays. In speeches. In formal rhetoric classes.
But the word itself has no such limitation. In ancient Greek, the word means to physically place a proposition statement, to place it with intention. In logic, further etymology explains it was recorded in the 1570s as a formulation in advance of a proposition to be proved and only later in the 1650s did it come to mean a fully written speech as a dissertation presented by a candidate for a university degree. (1)
Though the word itself can mean a sentence or a paper or a speech, I would like to speak of it as a seminal sentence, the one thought (or close to one) that is the seed, the pith, of a story or novel. It’s not something we the readers create. It’s a sentence the author wrote.
So how do we find that sentence?
Or I could better ask, how do we recognize it?
I offer some questions to help:
My best examples come from Norman Maclean’s novella, A River Runs through It, because there are many sentences that capture the novel. And that’s the fun of analysis. As readers who have experienced the story, we get to choose.
Do we go with the poetic, like the first sentence which holds true for the entire story? Maclean writes, “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”
But what of the last pages? After experiencing the grand Elkhorn Canyon and so many beautiful moments on the Big Blackfoot River, we read, “A river, though, has so many things to say that it is hard to know what it says to each of us.” And Maclean’s final words ring with beauty—
Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.
Or could that pith of a sentence be a philosophy like the curiosity theory mentioned by Maclean? Does it apply to fishing and life? “It is the theory that fish, like men, will sometimes strike at things just to find out what they are and not because they look good to eat.”
Or could we choose the theme of help when Norman offers his brother help after posting bond to get him out of jail? A few pages later, ironically, Paul asks if Norman should “help” his brother-in-law, “But maybe what he likes is somebody trying to help him.” How true for the brothers themselves. Norman’s wife Jessie says, “Why is it that people who want help do better without it—at least, no worse.” But then his father defines it— “Help is giving part of yourself to somebody who comes to accept it willingly and needs it badly. So it is...that we can seldom help anybody. Either we don’t know what part to give or maybe we don’t like to give any part of ourselves.” He comments that perhaps it is just being willing to help that counts.
From the many angles of an angler, we see that a story can flow with many thesis sentences. But I would also add this caution. A story can't be interpreted in dozens of ways. It shouldn't be. It can't just mean what you want it to mean. We rely on the author's words because he does have intent. The living words of a story have a soul, and that is the sentence I look for.
1. Douglas Harper, Online Etymology Dictionary.
TEACHING MY STUDENTS how to improve their own writing is no easy task. I emphasize content and typically focus on one to two stylistic elements per assignment. At the beginning of the school year, I quickly noticed that my seniors were overfond of the verb “use” in most any casual or formal writing assignment. We quickly built a synonym base for the word on the whiteboard and discussed connotations. For several months, I had them search and highlight the word, allowing for a single use.
As I worked on my novel these past months, my editor had to repeatedly teach me how to balance my use of active and passive voice in both dialogue and narration. Repeatedly. It took a number of attempts for my brain to get it. And practice was very much a part of the process.
My point is that it often takes mini-lessons like these as we each take steps in our writing or even speaking. And that is when writing style guides can be such a help. But forget writing classics like Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. The concept of spelling out rules with writing examples was tackled well before the 20th century. Think of Aristotle’s Poetics in 4th century BC. Though he focuses on drama and epic, he does address the use of language and a playwright’s diction.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t also consider a short but splendid stylebook of the first century, one that considers the written and the spoken word. More than our contemporary guides, Cassius Longinus explores the motive of the writer. Why is he writing? What is his end? But more importantly, can we attain sublimity of language? Are we capable of learning it?
A lofty passage does not convince the reason of the reader, but takes him out of himself. That which is admirable ever confounds our judgment, and eclipses that which is merely reasonable or agreeable. To believe or not is usually in our own power; but the Sublime, acting with an imperious and irresistible force, sways every reader whether he will or no.”
In On the Sublime I especially enjoy how Longinus speaks of the artistic turn of phrase, the creator's craft, as he cites concrete examples from Homer, the Bible, Sappho, Herodotus, Aristarchus, and so on. The sublime is a simple term that implies so much. The "loftiness and excellence of language" remain the ideal in writing as opposed to fluff or bombast. And yes, Longinus, fully discredits those as false writing. I think today we would call that emotional or reactionary writing. Bombast is simply writing that goes too far. The writer recognizes the need to be original in his use of description and goes overboard. Longinus eventually calls it pathetic. It seems everyone wants to be original. Too true.
In Part XV, Longinus provides real examples from Homer, Sophocles, and others that we can imitate. Grand language and perfectly crafted imagery are praised most, but his third and fourth principles are the most practical. Combine figures of speech or rhetorical devices for the most effect. A “close and continuous series of metaphors” is distinctive. Use conjunctions intentionally. Arrange your words in a certain and best order.
There is so much more to his advice and criticism, but I especially appreciate Longinus’ analysis of a writer’s style. After we have picked at all the parts, how do we determine what the best writing is? His final pages explore this very question--
Is it not worthwhile to raise the whole question whether in poetry and prose we should prefer sublimity accompanied by some faults, or a style which never rising above moderate excellence never stumbles and never requires correction? ... these are questions proper to an inquiry on the Sublime, and urgently ask for settlement."
And Longinus finds it hard to do. At first, he says a reader can discern an innate harmony within an essay. The reader simply knows it is sublime writing. But then, Longinus provides several examples of what sublime language is not. In other words, good writing remains to this day something easy to recognize yet hard to define.
Read On the Sublime at Project Gutenberg.
IN BOOK I OF HIS CONFESSIONS, Augustine writes that for all the literature he read, for all the glory and passion and tears shed as his teachers required him to read about Aeneas and Odysseus, he never thought to apply what he read of the “empty romances” to himself--
I was obliged to memorize the wanderings of a hero named Aeneas, while in the meantime I failed to remember my own erratic ways. I learned to lament the death of Dido, who killed herself for love, while all the time, in the midst of these things, I was dying, separated from you my God and my Life, and I shed no tears for my plight.”
I realize that in his youth Augustine is lamenting his separation from God, even his ignorance of Him. Yet I wonder to myself how he skipped the step of application, whether spiritually or otherwise. He obviously experienced the pathos of the stories as led by his teachers. But story is more than emotion. Would he not wonder if he would do as Aeneas did, for he does admit to tears by the end? Did he not learn about himself by reading The Aeneid? Oh, I wish I could ask him.
This is the question for me. Story is experience. We want to connect to characters, to empathize with them, to cheer, to rage, to grieve, to love because our life experiences are stories.
But if we fail to learn about ourselves from literature or history,
Augustine simplistically concludes that stories are “empty fantasies dreamed up by the poets.” Though they are “enchanting,” they are “futile.” He feels there are more valuable studies and would rather jettison them entirely.
I don’t know what Augustine’s teachers modeled, but I do know that as a teacher, I want to model application. Yes, I want my students to understand a story. But that is the simplest step, the first shallow one leading into the water at ankle depth. I want to equip them with tools and methods and context to analyze a piece further in knee or waist-deep water. And most importantly, I hope to model application to the heart. If I have not asked, “What does this show in our humanness?” Or “How can God use this story regardless of the author’s intent?” then I will have drawn up short.
IT WAS A CLASSIC when it was first published in 1949, but it remains a classic because it is one-of-a-kind. Marchette Chute’s Shakespeare of London is absolutely the best biography because of her approach.
Chute essentially crafted the story of Shakespeare’s life from a paper trail, from wherever she could find town records, lease arrangements, tax papers, theatre programs, personal letters, and really anything in print. She creates a holistic picture of the time period in Stratford-upon-Avon and in London while effectively showing the complexity of the London stage. Chute writes about how Shakespeare’s arrival in London was perfectly timed as the theatres themselves were just blossoming:
William Shakespeare brought great gifts to London, but the city was waiting with gifts of its own to offer him. The root of his genius was his own but it was London that supplied him with favoring weather."
This is no encyclopedic list of chronologies but the real lives of Shakespeare, James Burbage, Edward Alleyn, and others who made up the Chamberlain’s Men. As readers, we learn of Shakespeare’s family, the myriad skills of successful actors, the competitive nature of playwrights and theatre companies, and the dictates and pleasures of theatre-lover Queen Elizabeth and her Master of Revels.
In fact, one of my favorite parts is that Shakespeare apparently was a man of integrity:
...he was a relaxed and happy man, almost incapable of taking offense. He did not participate in any of the literary feuds of the period, which...were particularly numerous in the Elizabethan age, with its delighted talent for invective.”
He worked almost twenty years in London without friction or any major offense because he had a “natural good temper and instinctive courtesy.”
Perhaps the greatest praise I could give is that Chute is a delight to read. Yes, the sheer number of dates, names, and details could be overwhelming, yet the reader doesn't feel it. With a fluid narrative, Chute has produced a fascinating wealth of research in a most readable form.
NOTA BENE: Younger readers will also enjoy her Introduction to Shakespeare and Stories from Shakespeare.
*originally published October 25, 2017
IF WE CANNOT HEAR GOD, DO WE BLAME HIM? Orual declares, “The gods never send us this invitation to delight so readily or so strongly as when they are preparing some new agony. We are their bubbles; they blow us big before they prick us.” This same fatalism is echoed in James 1:13-15 (ESV): Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.
Not one of us is helped by blaming God. Orual’s domineering selfishness is key, and Ansit seems to be the only one to recognize it fully: “You’re full fed. Gorged with other men’s lives, women’s too: Bardia’s, mine, the Fox’s, your sister’s—both your sisters.’” Orual is angered and repulsed by this, but she can see it is true. Whether her obsessive love for Psyche or her controlling love for Bardia, Orual’s idea of love is wholly tainted. It brings death to all.
And so, how can we like a character who has damaged so many, including herself? This is the distinctive point of Lewis’s tale. We don’t have to like Orual or agree with her or even hope for her, but we do need to see ourselves in her. If we read this myth as story only, then we have lost its moral lesson and the pending redemption.
At the end of her reign, Orual finally realizes the futility of hiding from herself, “I did and I did and I did, and what does it matter that I did?” She simply has no concept of what trust nor rest is. She has struggled with this from the beginning. Just as Psyche exemplifies complete, even perfect faith, Orual cannot trust. On her first visit to the mountain, Orual declares she almost came to a full belief. The almost is conscious doubt. She knows Psyche is certain, and she knows she, Orual, is not. It is a sickening feeling, and Orual is filled with both horror and grief at the gulf between them, immediately blaming the gods, instead of herself. She cannot see that she has in fact made a choice to doubt.
Moreover, when Orual returns to the mountain the second time determined to forcibly remove Psyche, she cannot see Psyche’s perspective nor can she truly see Psyche’s joy. Though Orual is certain she is right, she is blind. I John 2:8-11 says this is because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes. Here, John reveals what Orual cannot know of herself yet—that she “hates” Psyche. This hatred incites her blindness, and by novel’s end, Orual herself confesses to Psyche that she has always been a “craver,” loving her only “selflessly.
COMING TO CHRIST IS NO PANACEA, but if C.S. Lewis were to tell us a tale of how pain and doubt were inevitable and unavoidable in a life of belief in God, who would willingly listen? It’s one thing to share personal experience or to preach a lesson, but in fiction, an author and his audience might just be left with a moralizing and probably unlikeable character instead.
Most fiction features at least one appealing character—the one you cheer for, stumble with, return to. Therein lies one of the trickiest elements in Till We Have Faces. Perhaps one of the most exasperating characters of all of Lewis’s novels, Orual is an unlikely blend for a central character. At the beginning of the tale, she is practically an orphaned girl without love or looks, and so we naturally pity her. By the time Psyche is born, it seems that Orual now has a purpose in life. In spite of her abusive father, she can now care for Psyche and be loved in return by Psyche and the Fox. Yet that same thing that brings joy to Orual also brings the most pain, and we begin to dislike Orual as she denies the truth of Psyche’s sincere faith and even the god who revealed himself to her. Orual’s long-term obstinacy, even her manipulation, is offensive to us. We are frustrated by her resistance.
But there are moments of hope. When she ascends the mountain with Bardia, her heart delights in the beauty that surrounds her. In spite of the errand of grief, her heart is responsive. This is not just a sensitivity to nature, but a means by which God can speak to her. As her audience, we too hope that she might know God. Hope might also spur her to pray and ask the gods for their help after her first visit to the Grey Mountain.
Doubt is a harsh teacher, and it’s probably because it stems from our own selfishness.
Yet Orual hears and feels nothing after hours of prayer. When we look at her in those moments, we can see that she is likely manipulating her religion. Orual wants things her own way because she only understands how to do things, to make things happen, in order to get something else. Her prayers are based on herself, not a sincere relationship with God. She selfishly demands an answer, and it must come in the way she chooses.
Orual’s wrestling is paralleled in James 1:6-8 (ESV): But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. Doubt is a harsh teacher, and it’s probably because it stems from our own selfishness. With doubt in the way, Orual cannot see or hear the gods.
CELEBRATE ALL FOUR SEASONS with memoir, poetry, and short stories
In the vein of Thoreau and Walden Pond, William Paul Winchester recounts his life on twenty acres in rural Oklahoma as simple and poetic. Nothing is diminutive. Embrace each blade of grass, the cow Isabel, the harvester ant, the sycamore, and the relics of the Dutchman's property.
As he labored to build a house on a century-old foundation and strove to live off of the land, Winchester fully details the intricacy of each season with simplicity. Consider a summer scene—“Lightning bugs and glow worms, their bioluminescence dependent on phosphorus, were drawn to my twenty acres in such numbers that walking out on a still summer evening is like passing through the center of a meteor shower.”
Winchester's memoir is just as much a commentary on contentment as it is a call to perspective. He writes, “To live in the country in a house I built for myself, with meaningful work and a margin of leisure, free to create a little universe of my own making—this was my idea of happiness.”
You don’t have to be a Transcendentalist to enjoy Emerson’s delightful observations of “Earth-song.” Choose a season, and Emerson will regale you. From the “burling, dozing humble-bee” to his odes on Nature, his rambles and travels through the seasons are equally detailed in appreciation:
Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
I leave you with the words of our final author, Washington Irving, and his commentary on the passing of seasons in “Christmas” from his Sketchbook--
We derive a great portion of our pleasures from the mere beauties of Nature. Our feelings sally forth and dissipate themselves over the sunny landscape, and we ‘live abroad and everywhere.’ The song of the bird, the murmur of the stream, the breathing fragrance of spring, the soft voluptuousness of summer, the golden pomp of autumn; earth with its mantle of refreshing green, and heaven with its deep delicious blue and its cloudy magnificence, all fill us with mute but exquisite delight . . . But in the depth of winter, when Nature lies despoiled of every charm, and wrapped in her shroud of sheeted snow, we turn our gratifications to moral sources.”
Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies
Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like wither'd leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguish'd hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken'd earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
In Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” the wind of autumn is no longer accused of bringing a permanent death. Winter is not an evil. Yes, the seeds that the wind blows will die and be buried for but a season because the warm spring wind will certainly return to bring life.
As much as I thrill to the autumn Keats describes in “To Autumn,” I find a deeper, more intense awareness in Shelley’s poem. Both poems are personal, yet Shelley’s feels like a prayer by the fifth and final stanza.
With great earnestness, he asks the wind to play upon him, that he would be the harp just like the trees of the forest are strings for the wind to play upon. Shelley’s plea extends to his heart. Would that the wind could drive his dead thoughts away like nature’s seeds and bring those dead words to life. He commands the wind to do so, to scatter his words across the earth. I know, I know. Shelley may have been prompted by thoughts of glory and fame, but what if the spiritual parallel goes further?
What if Shelley knew of David’s words in Psalm 49:4-5?
My mouth is about to speak wisdom; my heart’s deepest thoughts will give understanding. I will listen with care to God’s parable. I will set his riddle to the music of the lyre.
How unique that Shelley’s earnest determination parallels David’s. A similar passion drives them as both desire to make a mystery known through lyric.
Their expressions continue to resonate with me, and my hope remains—that I too can echo Shelley’s words in prayer, “Make me thy lyre.”
Jane Eyre is a perennial novel for me. Yes, I teach it every year, but more importantly, I reread it every time. Not just a skim. A full read. And this is why.
From the first moments when we meet Douglas Spaulding, we know his life is one of imagination and adventure. In Dandelion Wine, Doug is tantalized by the summer season, and his full-bodied experiences entice the most reticent reader to enter again into a season of discovery. One of the most notable elements of Bradbury’s fiction is this ability to depict the wonder and sometimes the harsh reality of childhood through experience and imagery.
We can relive our own childhood awakening through Douglas’s first summer moments. Riding in his Dad’s car through the countryside, Doug declares that Some days were good for tasting and some for touching. And some days were good for all the senses at once. This was that day for Doug where he literally became aware of every sight, sound, and taste about him in the woods.
I, too, have shared in some of those childhood experiences. I remember going on fishing trips with my father and big sister in the early Mississippi morning hours to a local pond or practically anywhere we could drive his 1971 Chevy truck under an hour’s time. Even at five or six years of age, I could bait my own hooks with crickets and worms. The problem was that I was easily distracted by the wonder of where we were. I could sit on a bank and doodle my bobber in the water for a time, but almost always, I would leave my pole and wander a dirt path or two, investigating for critters or anything I couldn’t catch in my own backyard.
Some days were good for tasting and some for touching. And some days were good for all the senses at once.
For me, the freedom to explore my little unknown habitat, even for a morning, was a treasure. I could sit still and listen to the wind in the pines, the jays and their squabbles, the plunk of bullfrogs for what seemed an infinitesimal day. I could close my eyes and just feel the aliveness around me, the breeze, the humid liquid air, the sense of a twig in my hand as I dug in the dirt. Like Doug, I could then open my eyes and know that absolutely everything was there. The world, like a great iris of an even more gigantic eye, which has also just opened and stretched out to encompass everything, stared back at him. It’s the utter sense of being fully awake and being wholly part of a place and moment in time.
Though Doug begins his summer declaring I want to feel all there is to feel, he soon discerns that time is slipping quickly by: The only way to keep things slow was to watch everything and do nothing. Through the experience of life and death in the town and their family, Doug and his brother realize that happy endings don’t always go with summer, but it is a part of awakening to life.
On one of those same summer fishing days, I remember my first experience with death, and it too, startled me. I had been fishing with a juicy worm in the hot sun without luck when I suddenly felt my bobber jerk deep. I hollered for my dad who ran to help me pull the fish in. It was a red snapping turtle instead, and it was huge to my small eyes. As fascinating as it was, it wouldn’t let go of my big worm even though my dad tried to get it to bite a stick instead. That was one aggressive turtle, and it wouldn’t let go of that line. My dad later said that the turtle had never swallowed the bait nor hook but was just plain ornery. Though I was fascinated by their tussle, my dad shouted at me to get back, then he tried again to get that turtle to grab the stick, and it did. As soon as it crunched, my dad whipped out his Bowie knife from his boot and cut off its head right where it had extended its neck. I was mortified and sickened, for I had caught many a tiny box turtle in our yard as a pet kept for weeks at a time, and I sure didn’t understand my dad’s reaction. I just sat down in the dirt and cried out of pure shock as my dad flung the parts in the lake.
Like Tom who saw a different part of his mother’s character one night at the ravine or like Doug who loses a friend to a move or as both as they lose neighbors and their own great-grandma to death, so many changes come at unexpected times, and something as pleasant as a summer day can devolve into horror and grief. The wonder and simple pleasures of summer then can not only be contagious at times as we revel in creation and experience, but also tempered by the realities of life and death.
originally posted 3/31/17