Torn from the pages of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in honor of her novel’s 200th anniversary this year.
Recently, I asked students in my literature class to write an essay analyzing the symbolism in William Stafford’s poem “Traveling through the Dark.” I was shocked when one student suddenly bolted from the room never to be seen again! What could be so frightening about poetry analysis that would drive someone into a state of panic and withdrawal?
“Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge….” Victor Frankenstein
Many first year students are not familiar with the concept of ‘analysis’ as it applies to literature, and sometimes faculty need reminding that students can get apprehensive when asked to write an analysis. So, in the beginning of the semester, I take the element approach to help students see how the various parts of a story or poem are interconnected to the whole.
“I kept my workshop of filthy creation: my eye-balls were starting from their sockets…The dissecting room and the slaughterhouse furnished many of my materials; and…still urged on by an eagerness which perpetually increased, I brought my work near to a conclusion.” Victor Frankenstein
For example, to help allay fears and to make the practice of short fiction analysis more enjoyable, I’ve bestowed on my students the title of ‘Literature Detectives.’ I divide them into four or five ‘Squads’ and ask the squads to fill out a Surveillance Report. The Report asks them to:
- Identify the target (protagonist)
- Identify the threat (antagonist)
- Describe the conflict between the target and threat
- Describe how the conflict gets resolved and identify where the climax occurs
This activity is a fun way to introduce plot analysis which should be the first step in close reading. Then the squad members write what they believe to be the major themes of the story and present their findings to the class.
After learning how easy and fun it is to analyze plot, students then dive deeper and look at elements of symbolism, setting, point of view, etc. I’ve also designed a separate Report for analyzing poetry based on the elements approach that works equally as well.
Practicing analytic skills in group presentations helps prepare students for writing analysis essays on prompts such as the symbolism in “Traveling through the Dark.”
“It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet…His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful!—Great God!” Victor Frankenstein
Through the element/group approach, the quality of student writing has grown dramatically, producing more satisfaction in the study of literature from the student perspective. I am very proud of their creations just as Victor Frankenstein was of his:
“…more, far more, will I achieve…I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.”