Bloodless Criticism Undermines Lit

Eliza Joinville, "Leda and the Swan"

Eliza Joinville, “Leda and the Swan”

I promise that today will be my last post on Lily King’s The English Teacher. In it, I explore an issue that that I’ve addressed in the past: how literature can function as an evasion as well as a guide.

Several great works deal with this issue directly, such as Don Quixote, Northanger Abbey, and Madame Bovary. These are all concerned with the dangers of popular fiction, however, whereas the protagonist of Lily King’s novel sometimes finds great literature itself getting in her way.

Or more accurately, she approaches such literature in a way that undermines its potential.

Note, for instance, the moment when Vida summons up all her courage to tell her son about how he was conceived by way of rape. Instead of telling him straight out, she resorts to bloodless literary criticism:

“I lived with my mother then.” Her voice was so faint he had to lean toward her, but imperceptibly; too much interest and he’d scare the words away… “She was a true matriarch. She was the imperious blend of insecurity and strength that Faulkner and Lawrence capture—

“I don’t care about Faulkner and Lawrence right now, Ma.”

Then she resorts to Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” and other rape stories from Greek mythology:

“Sometimes it helps to think of Leda and the Swan.” She was whispering now. “To think of Io, Persephone, and Europa.”

Maybe there was a part of him, a cluster of cells somewhere in his small brain that knew, that was trying to tell the other parts that would not listen, but he needed her to say it, not in code, not in references to people that were only real to her. He didn’t need this shit. This was the shit he’d gotten all his life. Leda and the fucking swan.

When Peter starts to leave, his mother surrenders and informs him directly. In the subsequent scene I particularly like how, although Vida must step away from literature to communicate, Peter then resorts to that same literature to process what she’s telling him. Here’s Vida:

“Whenever I thought about telling this to you I always thought I’d find in that moment some beautiful way of constructing it so that it would seem somehow magical to you. I know that’s crazy but it happens. It can happen. The right words can transform even the grossest brutality. But they’re not…” She dragged her fingernails across the inside of her wrist. “They’re not coming to me now. A man came in. A stranger to me. He came into that bathroom while I was washing my hands.” Her face twisted and she looked at Peter helplessly, as if she herself could not believe what she was about to say. “And he raped me.”

And here’s Peter:

The crumpled paper [of an illustration that Vida did of the man] rocked in the sand near her bare foot. Leda and the Swan. He remembered it now. The Swan was Zeus, swooping down to rape a mortal girl. He’d gotten an erection in class when they’d discussed the poem last year: the loosening thighs, the shudder in the loins.

For the record, I too was riveted by Yeats’s sexual imagery upon first reading Yeats’s poem in college.

But back to Vida and literature. For much of her life, she has turned to books to keep the ugliness out. In fact, as a girl with an abusive father, she would use it as a refuge, as we learn from one of her memories:

She is on her stomach reading. It is a Saturday and no one is home but her and there is a big bowl of peanuts on the table beside her. She eats them one by one, sucking off the salt first, then biting gently so it splits, then letting the halves nestle in either side of her mouth before chewing. It is morning and she can stay up here all day.

This memory is from King’s nightmarish chapter 9, which functions as a classic literary night scene, and it’s not entirely clear what happens next. It sounds as though Vida is assaulted by her father:

Downstairs a door slams. He is on her before she registers his feet on the stairs, his weight pressing the air out of her chest, his arms knocking the book from her fingers. She has no air to scream with. She is overwhelmed by the familiarity of the act, the belt, the grunts, the blood in her mouth, as if it has happened not once before but hundreds of times. It is not anger or sadness or fear that she feels, just a habitual acquiescence. Yes, this is what happens to me, her body seems to be saying.

If this is an actual memory, then it is the first of two times that she is assaulted by a man, the second time when she is a young teacher. (It’s possible that she’s assaulted a third time, by her school’s theater teacher, although it may be that she is just identifying with the students he sleeps with.) Reading didn’t save her that first time and literature can’t soften what she must tell her son.

It’s not literature that avoids the truth, however, but the way she talks about literature, seeking to separate it from her pain. In Monday’s post I noted Vida’s evasiveness—she wants to talk about “the ache of modernism” while her students want to talk about Tess’s rape. And while her students want to talk about whether Tess should or should not hide her secret from Angel, Vida wants to talk about

the ill-chosen location of the honeymoon, the crumbling d’Urberville mansion, and how Hardy plants his Darwinian theories of social determinism in the faces of Tess’s two ancestors on the wall (paintings built into the wall that cannot be removed), one representing treachery, the other arrogance.

Veering away from pressing issues extends to her stepmothering. When she thinks about her new charges, she thinks only about their intellectual development, ignoring the fact that they lost their mother in the not too distant past:

Stepmothering, she realized, was not all that different from teaching. It was essential to keep their intellectual development in mind at all times. You couldn’t get all wrapped up in their needs and whims. Stuart and his mysticism. Fran reading The Thorn Birds. They were too old now for that kind of material. A young man needed a hearty Byronic outlook, not this boneless Taoism. And if Fran began to believe in the characters in novels like that, real people were going to be a sore and sorry disappointment. She would have to, once again, urge Fran to read Tess of the d’Urbervilles; that would teach her exactly how far she could trust a man, even a seemingly well-intentioned man like Angel Clare.

Byron, with all his sexual escapades, is hardly the model one wants for a young man. Vida is replicating her own trauma, thinking that a young man should become a sexual predator and that a young woman should adopt her own defensive crouch.

But though Vida seeks to defuse literature’s tough lessons, it’s also true that she can’t stay away from a book like Tess. She insists upon approaching this fictional version of her own story, even as she shies away from it. Although she doesn’t acknowledge it, she instinctively knows that only when she faces up to her hurt will she be able to transcend it.

Her ambivalence is not unusual. There are many literature teachers who don’t acknowledge the real reasons why they teach certain works, choosing to hide out instead in their intellects. While I’m not demanding that everyone engage in self-analysis with every work (although admittedly this is something that I myself do), we waste a precious opportunity when we limit interpretation to aspects of the work that feel safe to us. Literature can be so much more.

Vida senses literature’s promise of healing. She just needs to talk about it in a less impersonal way to release this potential.

Back to popular literature. Vida looks down on works such as The Thorn Birds as overly emotional. When her husband tries to forestall her increasing dependence on booze by telling her how he lost his father to alcohol, she thinks, “Oh Lord. She couldn’t bear the cliché of it. Had he plucked it directly from one of Fran’s books?”

It’s true that lesser lit does indeed traffic in clichés, often simply indulging in human emotions rather than exploring them (great literature does both). Nevertheless, sometimes just getting in touch with those emotions is a step forward. By the end of the book, we know that Vida is going to be all right because she is crying over The Thorn Birds.

As long as she insisted on talking about the classics in bloodless ways, they had little more to offer her than a New York Times bestseller. If she can learn to cry for Tess, on the other hand, she will (to borrow from the Yeats poem) take on Hardy’s knowledge as well as his power.

This entry was posted in Byron (Lord Gordon), Hardy (Thomas), King (Lily), Yeats (William Butler) and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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