Summaries, Lucky Pennies and Roland Barthes

Essays and reports from the study support scheme always give me something to think about. Last year the penny dropped when Dr. Gordon gave me some valuable advice, ‘say what you mean.’ It sounds quite a bit easier than it is. In year two I decided the best way to learn how to construct an argument is to de-construct one.  After two years of focus I can now do this with summaries.

Summaries are difficult; an outline is not a summary. For me a summary picks apart the area between ‘connotation’ and ‘denotation.’ This is easy to see in fiction. For example a writer like Charlotte Bronte, a literary artist, is concerned with connotative meaning of words. There is often a gap between the surface meaning and the frame of the argument I want to de-construct.

I am interested in the frame; this gives me tools to construct my own argument.  What really helps me is to make a connotative summary and a denotative summary of a text like ‘Villette’.  A denotative summary might be: ‘Lucy Snowe traveled by sea from England to Labassecour. She was alone and pre-occupied because she had few resources and no family or friends. A young woman close to her age was also traveling on the ship. She and Lucy exchanged a few words.  The young woman encouraged Lucy to visit Madame Beck.’  This kind of summary helps me to remember the plot but does not help me construct an argument.

A connotative summary might be: Lucy Snowe’s comfortable childhood memories enhance the poignant sense of loss, youth and real fear she experiences on the voyage to Labassecour.  Those memories, juxtaposed with the presence of Ginerva, Lucy’s emotional anguish and physical fear create a powerful effect. Ginerva’s comfort, wealth, and confidence exude from Bronte’s portrait of the ideal, superficial feminine construct of her time. The contrast with Lucy’s fragile circumstances and isolation create a powerful emotional impact and present the beginnings of Bronte’s argument.  Bronte introduced a third important young female character early in the story, serious little Paulina, a child with unformed body, personality, and mind who is saturated in filial piety and contrasted with the adolescent, fatherless, Lucy and Ginerva.

Personality, three young women of very different circumstances all journeying to the same physical and future destination, along with imagery and characterization focused on gender constructs identify some interesting research opportunities.  I would like to write a psychoanalytical essay and a feminist essay on Villette based on the material from this summary of the first few chapters.

Summarizing a few chapters is not enough to write a good academic essay; in screen-writing class we are coached through exercises to determine if an idea has enough substance for a feature script. That is a handy exercise for academic essays. My next step will be to summarize the middle and end of Villette and evaluate what happens to the research ideas I found in Bronte’s initial connotative use of language as the story progresses.

This is incredible progress for me; summarizing this way helps me to apply terms like ‘condensation’ to my arguments.  Learning to summarize concepts rather than outline a sequence of events is a hard-won skill. I cannot tell you how many times I have read ‘Image, Music, Text’ and waited for the penny to drop; This year’s lucky penny come sfrom Roland Barthes.

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