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Understanding and Approaching Classics

On the 24th of July, I conducted a workshop on Understanding and Approaching Classics at my school for the NMS Literary Fiesta (https://nmsliteraryfiesta.org/). Here is how it went -

WHAT EXACTLY IS A CLASSIC?

Before we begin, what exactly is a classic? Actually, to some 1984 may be a classic, to others it may simply be an anti-communist propaganda. For some Fitzgerald’s works may be a classic, to others, it may be simply a terrible bore. Whatever it may be, the definition of a classic is a debatable topic.



Still, here are a few definitions I found on the Internet that may help you to have a better understanding of the term “classics.”


According to the Oxford Dictionary, a classic novel is judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind.

“The definition of a classic piece of literature can be a hotly debated topic; you may receive a wide range of answers depending on the experience of the person you question on the topic."

According to some, a classic OUTLASTS TIME. Each generation will read it.

Some are required readings that High School students need to read.

Some are special because of their style. However, it depends on you to choose your preferable definition. What do you consider to be a classic?



 

WHY SHOULD ONE READ A CLASSIC?

Now, you may not be such huge fans of classics. Sometimes they are a bit hard to comprehend, a bit boring or simply a bit too long. Here are a few reasons you may like to glance through on why one should read a classic -


Classics often have strong characters that inspire us to be better and strong. They are sometimes witty, sometimes inspirational, and sometimes so kind. Novels that have strong characters give you a sense of strong personal ethics and make you a better judge of character.


According to a study, reading classic literature helps you strengthen your social skills. It helps with your emotional intelligence and even gives you a sense of better social perception. It teaches you deep morals and values.

 

When it comes to reading a classic, keeping the context in mind is as crucial as important as reading the book itself! Now imagine, reading a book, finding it absolutely confusing, only because you didn’t read about the era, or the author, and their purpose

That’s why context is important.


CONTEXT AND ITS IMPORTANCE


  • Context allows one to understand elements that may not be relevant in the present time. For example, how classicism and the gender inequality differed in Pride and Prejudice, then any other present book, say Chetan Bhagat’s Two States.

  • Context allows one to understand a text much better. For example, if one is clueless about what communism is or capitalism is, books like Ken Follet’s Triple or Code To Zero.

  • Context allows one to observe the different cultures and how they have evolved over time.

So, of course there are also a few types of contexts that you need to be aware of -

  • Social Context

Social Context usually means what the society was like in the time period the book was written in. It helps one to realize how things were different back then, and allows one to compare and contrast.

  • Political Context

Many at times, it is the political context that plays a huge role. For example, 1984, a modern classic, was written so that Orwell could portray the negatives of a totalitarian government, in a time when people were taking inspiration from the USSR and appreciating communism.

  • Historical Context

Historical context is the social, political, cultural, economic, and environmental situations that influence the events or trends we see happen during that time. Like for example, the Vietnam War, the Renaissance, or even the Elizabethan age.

For more info check out this website - http://mason.gmu.edu/~rnanian/305context.html

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TYPES OF CRITICAL APPROACHES -

Now what does this mean? So usually, when critics go through certain works, they use a few approaches to do so. So here are a few types -

  • Formalist Criticism emphasizes the form of a literary work to determine its meaning, focusing on literary elements and how they work to create meaning.

  • Biographical Criticism relies on knowledge of an author’s life to understand a work more fully, believing that biography can assist in guiding a reader’s interpretation.

  • Literary History Criticism places the work in the context of the time in which it was written. Literary historians focus on the social and intellectual conditions of the time period and make connections to other literary writings from the same time period

  • Cultural Criticism focuses on popular culture (social, political, and economic contexts).

  • Postcolonial criticism refers to literary works refer to texts written by authors from countries controlled by colonizing powers (i.e. Indian writers before or after British colonial rule) or authors from the colonizing country.

  • Reader-Response Criticism describes what goes on in the reader’s mind throughout the reading of a text.

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Now, let’s move on to the classic we are going to focus on for this workshop. It’s Gone With The Wind, by Margaret Mitchell. I recently finished reading this book, it’s quite a massive one. And I found it so beautiful that I wanted to focus on it for this session.

Before we begin here is the link to the PDF of the book. Beware. It’s around 2000 pages long. - http://www.limpidsoft.com/6inch/gonewiththewind.pdf

And here is my favorite go to site, when I need to understand a book I just read, or maybe a book I want to know more about, but don’t have the book in itself yet.

It’s https://www.sparknotes.com/. If you want a summary for Gone With The Wind, here is the specific link - https://www.sparknotes.com/lit/gonewith/summary/


Reading classics is a skill. It must be done with utter vigor and dedication

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GONE WITH THE WIND & MARGARET MITCHELL


Margaret Munnerlyn Mitchell was an American novelist and journalist. Mitchell wrote only one novel, published during her lifetime, the American Civil War-era novel Gone with the Wind, for which she won the National Book Award for Most Distinguished Novel of 1936 and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1937.


Fun story - the day she went to the publisher, with the pages of her book, these were words with which the publisher described her -

“I saw a tiny lady, sitting on the chair, with two piles of papers as tall as her”.

Mitchell spent a decade writing the book, and within three years of its publication, the book was converted into a movie. All the lead actors in the movie Gone With The Wind, have won Oscars, and the movie was the most awarded movie ever!


Let’s move onto the cause of the Civil War, because as I said, it is important to know the context -



 

Let’s dive into CHARACTER ANALYSIS now.


SCARLETT O’HARA

She was a rich spoiled girl, who had no other aim in her life than to get married, and became an independent, strong woman, after going through the worst.

She manages to overcome adversity with willpower and she handles everything herself, from her lover’s sick wife, to the huge land of Tara.

Here is the list of her quotes, you can go through them.

One of my favorite lines from the book is when Scarlett, just to make her lover jealous, marries someone else.


After all, vanity was stronger than love at sixteen.


--


Now, let’s move on to the male lead of the book, the "dark, dashing, and scandalous, Rhett Butler brings excitement to Scarlett’s life and encourages her impulse to change and succeed".


Rhett symbolizes pragmatism, the practical acceptance of the reality that the South must face in order to survive in a changed world.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lrhNPS4nbmQ&t=1s - a movie clip from the movie, the first time we see Rhett Butler on screen. DO WATCH IT!



 

Context in GWTW


“Although Mitchell's 1936 novel Gone with the Wind focuses on the Reconstruction years following the Civil War, many of Mitchell's initial readers living through the Great Depression could identify with the hardships endured by Scarlett and her family. When all the slaves of Tara run off, and Yankees loot the plantation by burning cotton and stealing valuables, the O'Hara family is left with very little. This experience was one shared by many plantation owners in the South, some of whom also lost their land because they were unable to pay the new taxes. Similarly, many people in the 1930s had lost their jobs, savings, and homes after the stock market crash of 1929”


THE REPRESENTATION OF THE BLACK


“The presentation of black characters in the novel and the film is seriously flawed. No one is seen to suffer because of slavery; there are no cruel owners or abusive overseers to discipline slaves; and no families are broken up by property sales. Everyone appears happy in his or her niche, and some—such as Mammy at Tara and Uncle Henry in Atlanta—are as bossy and authoritative toward their white charges as any grandparent. According to the book, the social chaos of Reconstruction allows degenerate blacks and whites to assume control of the society. One black character and one white character attack Scarlett's wagon as she drives to the mill; a "good" black, Sam—admirable because he still retains the respect due his former owner—saves Scarlett. But according to the southern code of honor, Sam's actions cannot stand alone.”


For more analysis - check this website - https://www.enotes.com/topics/gone-with-the-wind/in-depth


AN EXCERPT - LET’S ANNOTATE


During the workshop we annotated these pages. From “When she arose…..” to “....never going to be hungry again.” (SHARED ANNOTATIONS IN THE BEGINNING)


Let’s watch the scene we just annotated -


HOW IS THE BOOK RELEVANT TODAY?

That’s the whole point of my workshop. How one should read classics, and why. So, many classics, as we discussed, outlasted time, and that’s why, we should know how such classics are relevant in the present.


It teaches us -

  1. To overcome adversity with willpower

  2. It shows us that time and experience changes a person, for the good or the worse

  3. It gives us a glimpse of the lives of the Black, and allows us to connect with current issues like racism

  4. It also gives us a glimpse of discrimination against women, and allows us to compare and contrast

  5. It shows many consequences of the war, from economic, to political, to social and allows us to understand such matters better

 

That’s it! That’s how you understand and approach classics!


 

LINK TO THE PPT -


LINK TO MY PERSONAL ANNOTATIONS -






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