When Charm Gives Way To Meaning

This week I learned something important about my reading skills and habits. I learned it just in time too, because this week I also received notice that grades are available online from the May-June exams, and will presently be posted to each student. For me, the arrival of exam results truly means that one term is over, and it is time to focus on the new one. That thought immediately opens the question ‘What will I read this term?’ I have been trying mightily to settle the question of which authors and texts I would best  focus my attention on. My reading experience this week might have helped me focus on how to read – slowly, and in-depth.

This week I was reading Thomas Hardy and found myself dumbfounded, thunderstruck, and gobsmacked by Hardy’s way with characterization, how he constructs point of view, and the astonishing little scenes he builds for such nefarious purposes! It amazed me to find how much I cared about the characters, and the way he marched me straight to the place where charm gives way to meaning, without my even noticing he’d done it until it was too late for me to ignore or avoid it. It is as if he took me by the hand, walked me down his garden path to admire his roses, then gave me a little, teasing shove into the thorny shrubs over-growing the edges of his characters and narration. There is something lovely about rolling in a bed of roses, but you will take sudden and painful notice of the thorns, the intrusion of meaning, despite the flowers being so beautiful and fragrant.  As a reader, what do you do when you discover there is a universe of meaning in what started out as a charming little story?

For me, effect on the reader comes into focus when charm gives way to meaning. In Hardy’s work charm gives way to meaning when he leaves you flailing about with some bald truths, and wondering how to express the impression they make more concisely than he did in his story. Because, you know, you could never express them more articulately or accurately. Effect on the reader, and forming an argument that moves beyond the superficial or sequential elements of a text is something our tutors stress repeatedly. This week, thanks to Thomas Hardy, it became a little easier for me to measure a text’s effect on me as a reader. His writing seems tender, bold, gentle and unflinching all at once. As a reader I am in a puddle. Which brings me back to my dilemma of what to read this term, and how I will choose authors and texts.

If measuring effect on myself as a reader feels a bit easier, choosing authors and texts now feels a little more difficult. All summer I thought about reading some old favorites like Alcott, Dickinson,Wilder, Twain, Dickens, and of course Hardy, for the pleasure of how I remember the stories, an interest in literary periods, history, and certain themes. Now, after my Hardy reading-revelation, I feel like old favorites are best approached with some trepidation, in anticipation of the effect they are now sure to have upon me in my more aware state. How did this heightened reading awareness really come about? How does Hardy, or any author, make me care so much about the characters and engage so fully with the text that their points can be made? Maybe a piece of literature is the same line viewed from different ends by the author and the reader; and the process of story telling and reading is like a riposte and counter riposte of imaginations.

Imagination and picking over the puzzle of some great texts is something to look forward to. It makes me want to siddle up to the little, metaphorical, cliff  in each of them where charm gives way to meaning and peer over the edge. What ever texts I choose, my recent reading experience assures me it will most likely pack a powerful effect, and just might leave the imprint of some new or different meanings to think over. I am looking forward to having my mind opened a bit farther, engaging with the products of brilliant authors’ minds more fully, and contemplating the silent lives literature often represents. To me, that sounds absolutely charming!

3 thoughts on “When Charm Gives Way To Meaning

  1. You wonderfully put into words what I experienced once when studying French literature. We were reading Madame Bovary by Flaubert. Quite easy reading. The professor was very demanding in our interpretation of the text but I was just a first year student. He wanted me to explain the meaning of the gold brim on Madame Bovary’s tea cup. I hadn’t even noticed that brim when reading the passage and I saw no other meaning than the precise description of a piece of tableware. The professor was annoyed what resulted in a 3 hour lesson on the meaning of details in literature. As you describe it so well, charming details put ever so lightly in a text by great authors are rarely just descriptive precision. The author takes the unaware reader to intuitively understand what he wants to express like an impressionist painting that only suggests emotion rather than depict it. I was awed by the discovery of that procedure and still remember the moment with a “frisson”. That is exactly the pleasure of reading great authors I have now since that valuable lesson: to detect the imperceptible manipulation on the reader’s mind that lets the author take the reader with him and lead him through to the hidden meaning of the story. And as our perceptions change with every experience in life it is always a great pleasure to return to these great authors to reread a text and discover more subtle meaning and the beauty of such craftsmanship!


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