AQA · literature · Reading skills · structure · Uncategorized · viewpoint

Inside, outside

At a meeting recently, we talked about the difference between a level 3 (that’s AQA level 3) student of literature and one who might achieve a level 4 (clear). A level 3 student tends to work ‘inside the text’ rather than ‘outside’ it; they see the text in terms of content rather than construct. For level 4, there is a clear focus on what the writer is doing: they see the text as a construct. However, reading is a complex skill and an understanding of ‘outside’ is often implicit in decoding even the most apparently simple texts.

That phrase, ‘inside, outside’ reminded me of Jacques Derrida’s famous assertion that “il n’y a pas hors-texte“. This has been mis-translated as ‘there is nothing outside the text’ which reduces Derrida to mere formalism, ignoring the cultural and historical knowledge that we need to ‘deconstruct’ a text. What it actually translates to however is that ‘there is no outside text’ which is different in that it means (and this is a reductively simple interpretation) everything IN the text points to and can be referred to other signifiers OUTSIDE the text; when we read something then (as skilled readers) the text is interpreted through these connections that we make. The text is everything, but it doesn’t stand in isolation from the world. The distinction ‘outside/inside’ thus becomes problematic doesn’t it?  And all this came to me yesterday as I was reading the first page of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone. This is the opening paragraph:

“By the time he graduated from college, John Smith had forgotten all about the bad fall he took on the ice that January day in 1953. In fact, he would have been hard put to remember it by the time he graduated from grammar school. And his mother and father never knew about it at all.”  (The Dead Zone, Stephen King).

If a student reads this from ‘the inside’, what will they tell us?

  • The main character, John Smith, has in the past suffered a head injury in January 1953  caused by being on some ice
  • He had forgotten about it
  • His mother and father don’t know about it.
  • John Smith went to college

This is simply a paraphrase of the text; it’s inside in that it doesn’t do anything with the text as a construct and doesn’t make any inferences at all. This is the sort of statement that goes at the bottom of my pyramid of understanding.

A better reader might do this however:

  • The fall wasn’t that important (despite it being ‘bad’) or else he would have told his parents . And the phrase that he was ‘hard put to remember it’ also shows that it wasn’t important;
  • He shouldn’t have been on the ice (it might have been dangerous) and so didn’t want to get in trouble (he probably lied about how he got the injury)
  • Or else John doesn’t have the sort of relationship with his parents that enables him to share this kind of news;
  • John had a college education so he has some academic ability

But now I’m caught in my own trap. You could argue, for example,  that some of these ‘inferences’ require some (Derridean) ‘outside’ understanding: the inference that kids might or might not tell their parents everything that is important; that a college education bestows upon the student some academic ability; that we assume ice in January is the norm.

Although those second ‘inferences’ move further up the pyramid, from an ‘exam’ point of view it largely remains inside the text in that they’re not dealing with the text as construct perhaps. These statements however do apply some social context to the text; they are based on shared cultural understandings of relationships between parents and kids or the relevance of college. But what about the reader who doesn’t have this ‘type’ of relationship with a carer or a parent – what if they see nothing unusual in John not telling is parents about the fall? There’s a whole load of reader response theory bound up in this. This confirms Derrida in that we are already bringing to bear other things outside the text in order to make sense of it – even at a more basic level. But is this ‘outside’ enough? Does it reveal a knowledge of the writer’s craft or are these inferences available to us without an understanding of ‘construct’?

Now let’s think about what is happening ‘outside’ the text. How does an understanding of other stuff – social, cultural, world-view – help us deconstruct the text?   How many readers might consider the following and how much ‘outside’ the text is required to unpack this opening paragraph? Here are a few observations…

  • John Smith signposts itself immediately as an ‘everyman’ kind of name. It is unusual in its everydayness. Why would a writer call their character John Smith? It’s so ordinary that it immediately makes us think that ‘out of the ordinary’ things are going to happen to him. But it’s a Stephen King book: we expect something strange, perhaps even supernatural, to lift John Smith out of his ordinariness.
  • The fact that he ‘graduated from college’ is another phrase that travels ‘below the radar’. We need some ‘outside’. If this is a Stephen King novel it’s going to be set in the USA (and more likely than not Maine!) College education in the US is not the same as it is in Britain – it certainly wasn’t in 1979 when this book was written. A college education presupposes some sort of privilege, affluence even. So John Smith is decidedly middle-class. He must have relied on his parents for some financial help.
  • It’s January and there is ice. And so John lives in a country where January means ‘ice’. UK readers would take this for granted (just!) whilst a reader who lives in a country where January means ‘more sun’ would need to place the text in a different context. (If I read a novel where the opening talked about ‘the bad fall John took whilst sunbathing on the beach in January” I would need to do a double-take. Why was he sun-bathing in January? Was there a freak heat-wave? Is he impervious to the cold? Or is he in a different country to me?)
  • I would need to know that a ‘grammar’ school in USA is not the same as here in the UK – and does not have the same loaded connotations.

Reading precisely requires a great deal of ‘outside’ – some of these are instant, immediate to readers with a shared cultural understanding (ice, January) but some are less clear because they are those cultural references that belong to a closed set (King is a horror writer, his books are often set in Maine) and will not be immediately apparent to even the most able students. And yet, according to Derrida, none of this is outside: each of the elements requires an understanding of another referent, like a stone skimming across the surface of water.

And so what do we do with this extract in the classroom? I don’t think I’ll get into Derrida but I will ask students about ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, see what they think.

  • Get students to make some initial observations on the text. Put these on post-it notes, for example.
  • Now filter those observations: which require an understanding of ‘outside’ context? What is this ‘context’ to which the observation refers? (so if a student makes the point about John Smith being an everyday name, what context informs this?)

Then let’s look at construct: Putting aside this theoretical labyrinth for a moment, let’s explore those tried and trusted questions:

  • Why has the writer chosen to begin the text in this way?
  • What does the setting tell us about the world of the text?
  • Why foreground the injury?
  • Why ‘John Smith’? Why ‘college’? Why mention the parents? Why has King chosen to tell us that they didn’t know about the injury?
  • What can we say about the word and sentence choices made by King?

A level 4+ student will be able to make some of these observations (in addition to those above):

  • The first paragraph although set in the past presupposes that it is reflective. The use of the perfect conditional ‘would have’ suggests that these events have happened and that we the reader are looking back on them along with the narrator. In this way, the fall itself, being selected as a memory (a spot of time) is important and thus will be important to the narrative;
  • The adjective ‘bad’ foregrounds the impact of the fall: if so, what were the consequences? Big enough for the writer to include it (and for the narrator to point it out);
  • The deictic ‘that’ in ‘that January day’ clearly points out the importance of the day itself, thus confirming the significance of this incident to the narrative
  • The emphasis on this ‘forgetting’ in the first two sentences, ‘John Smith had forgotten’, ‘he would have been hard put to remember it’ reinforces both the insignificance and yet the significance of the incident;
  • The time regression (from ‘college’ to ‘grammar’ school) further emphasises the narrator’s desire to diminish the significance of the incident and yet, paradoxically its repetition once again signposts its importance
  • Why ‘college’? Why does King want to emphasise this in the first line? Does it confer some reliability on John Smith? He is an intelligent character, perhaps even adventurous (he was on the ice after all) and so is someone we can relate to in a ‘normal’ way
  • The final sentence beginning with the co-ordinating conjunction ‘and’ confer on the sentence a feeling of ‘end focus’: the writer’s delaying of this information also draws our attention to it. The adverb ‘never’ and the emphatic prepositional phrase ‘at all’ indicate a level of finality. Why didn’t they know? Why can’t they ever know? Did they die before he could tell them?
  • King uses the formal terms ‘mother and father’: why? Does this imply a level of formality in the relationship between John and his parents? Does this therefore explain why he didn’t tell his parents about the incident? Perhaps our earlier inference that he was apprehensive about telling his parents about being on the ice might hold ‘some water’ here then?
  • There is a distinct lack of figurative language here, adding to the simplicity of the style which perhaps reflects the memory itself, or reflects the immaturity of the protagonist at the time. This is a simple memory, one that at the time had little significance – not enough for the protagonist to trouble his parents or to retain it in his short term memory. However, the foregrounding of its ‘insignificance’, the repeated reference to its inconsequentiality and of course the fact that King has decided to begin the text with this all underscore its significance to the narrative.

We’re doing some paper 1 revision after half-term, so I’m going to put this short paragraph on the board and get students to think ‘inside’ and ‘outside’. I want my students to feel smug about the levels of interpretation that go into a simple text (the shared cultural knowledge required) and to think about how ‘outside’ (in the non-Derridean sense) enables them to jump the levels to come…

I’ll update this post when the students have done the work, along with some examples…


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