Literature and identity

In Frankenstein, although the story is told by Robert we are being presented Victor’s view of the story. Therefore the novel becomes a story within a story. Frankenstein focalize events shortly after they happen. We can see this in the way Robert tells his sister that he will be in touch and he will continue writing to her as he learns more information. This gives us a sense of immediacy. We are told details as soon as he learns them from the source. We as readers are given a very limited perspective through Robert, “a story told from the limited point of view of a single protagonist may highlight the utter unpredictability of what happens.”(Culler, 91) This limited perspective can reflect to how little we know about ourselves and life and how this plays a role in the formation of our identity.

The story goes on slowly and is filled with details about what is happening up to that point time, a telescope view. The dates on the letters give us an idea of the speed. These letters are being mailed and take days or weeks to arrive. I feel that Shelly chooses this method of focalization to help us see how Robert changes as the story is formed and to emphasize that his identity is also being constructed through time. The story itself reflects how identity can be shaped. The more we learn of the world and the more encounters we have with different experiences, helps us learn more about ourselves and of things that we may otherwise have not known unless we underwent that particular experience.

We as reader’s step into Robert’s shoes. We are given the knowledge he has and as the story goes on the more details he shares with us, the more we understand. We know just as much as Robert. We are also given a unique insight to his feelings and emotions as he writes. Since we are told the story through his perspective, we may tend to sympathize with him more since he’s the character that we know most about. At the same time because we know so much about him and because we see how he changes and learn of his inconsistencies we may feel that he isn’t as reliable of a narrator as we think. This brings us to form our own identity as a reader because it puts us in a position where “we become who we are by identifying ourselves with figures we read about.” (Culler, 114)


The Literary Canon & Educational Psych

I look at the literary canon as being extremely important to students in middle school and high school. These are the texts that students are forced to learn, forced to relate to, and forced to understand. However, the canon is a minuscule collection of works, predominately consisting of white, male authors, having little relation to what’s relevant in contemporary life for students. It’s something that has become widely accepted to study/teach, without ever really granting any explanation of why, which is why theorists contest the notion of the canon and its ‘common-sense’ presence in the literary realm. I’m not trying to argue against the ‘greatness’ or ‘value’ of the chosen works, but instead, make an argument that the canon itself denigrates the value of anything else that could be studied. It promotes Western European/American literature, being told from the same general perspective and racial status. It’s something that works to indirectly marginalize certain groups of people.

Regarding education, the literary canon also impede the ‘sense of self’ that students are developing, in that they are only being exposed to a certain selective group of distant literary texts. It could hinder their sense of identity and individuality, as Culler explains how “literary works characteristically represent individuals, so struggles about identity are struggles within the individual and between individual and group. (111) The literary canon causes the study of literature to be handled with pure poetics, because of its distance from the readers/ students. It doesn’t concern individuality or social identity, and calls into question the reasoning for literary studies as a discipline that goes past forming basic comprehension of reading and writing, and prohibits the school systems from regarding literary studies with as much worth and ability as any other discipline.

That was a pretty roundabout way of explaining how I interpreted the contention between cultural studies and the canon, but I think its a really important topic to consider when thinking about education. In my educational psychology course, we talked about something called the “Rejection-Identification” Hypothesis. It suggests that individuals of marginalized groups, whose identities are generally contested by others, “value their ‘ingroup’ identification more than their ‘outgroup’ identification”, i.e., one identifies with their own ‘collective identity’, when it is rejected by society. So, bringing it back to literary studies, the absence of multiple identities in literature could work against the full integration of social identities in schools, which leads to lack of interest, and, again, the devaluation of literature as a field of study, since the canon offers a (mostly) singular identity when using a cultural, critical lens.


Butler and Gender

On page 104 Culler writes: “Butler proposes that we consider gender as performative, in the sense that it is not what one is but what one does… a condition one enacts… You become a man or a woman by repeated acts, which, like Austin’s performatives, depend on social conventions, habitual ways of doing something in a culture.”  Shortly after he talks about exclamations of “It’s a girl!” or “It’s a boy!” after the baby is born.  He says that this is more of a performative statement than it is constataive.  In other words the statement does more to create its subject than it does to describe a factual condition.

I should first give credit to the idea being described.  I do agree that identity is largely shaped by society and conventions within a culture.  Along with the exclamations of “It’s a boy!” would commonly be blue bibs, onezies, and paint.  Later on this would progress to something like action figures and toy trucks.  A young and impressionable child will have many of his dispositions formed by adults and the culture he grows up in.  So, in a sense “It’s a boy!” is the first instance of a long chain of predetermined conditions that the child will be exposed to, thus making it performative.

My problem with Butler’s proposal, as it is presented, is that it seems to take the conventions of the society that a child grows up in for granted.  Further, it seems to be assuming that all of the conditions associated with “It’s a boy!” were decied arbitrarily.  I can agree that there are gender roles and that there is a certain degree of “gender conditioning,” but I would like to see more consideration given to how and why the gender roles came to be in the first place.

When Culler writes that “A man is not what one is but something one does,” I think he comes on too strong.  It seems perfectly reasonable to suggest that a man “was what he was” in the first place, and as a result certain (appropriate) conditioning practices were adopted in order to facilitate the development of future generations of men.  It would be interesting to look for similarities in gender conditioning across cultures, especially further back in history among cultures that were not in contact with one another.

On page 122 under the section on eithics there is a passage that suggests a sort of personal, individual essence that exists outside of the social conventions and developmental conditioning.  I am referring to when Huck Finn debates whether or not to report the runaway slave.  At first he believes that he should, basing this belief on the moral principles he has been taught and on the way his conscience has been developed.  However Huck reconsiders and decides to tear up the letter based on his own ethical intuition.  This suggests a degree of personal identity with regard to morality, and I think it is reasonable to consider that the same sort of dynamic might be at play with regard to gender.