Sandra K. Friday
In large part, students will practice and hone the skill of marking short passages and discussing them, first by themselves, and then with others. Students will start with a template for this close reading which, among other things, explores how a character's outside expressions and perspectives reveal inside emotions, and what motivates these emotions. This close reading technique is particularly effective when, as in the case of Ellen, the character is conveyed through her own "voice" in her first-person narrative. Students will try the technique on first impressions of characters other than Ellen, who divulges to the reader in her first two sentences, "When I was little I would think up ways to kill my daddy. I would figure out this way or that way and run it down through my head until it got easy" (Gibbons 1). Clearly, there is a powerful motivation that the reader will want to uncover as to why Ellen passed her time, "when she was little," planning ways to kill her daddy. Also, students will be asked to consider how important these two sentences are to Ellen's character if they are the first two of her narrative.
Gibbons also uses a technique of juxtaposing Ellen's life in the present, at twelve, where she lives in comfort and safety with her "new mama," with the harrowing life of her childhood, with her family whom she describes as spinning and shaking and flying off the rail. As Ellen narrates her story, she moves seamlessly between her present family, where she feels safe and loved with her "new mama," and her past abusive father from whom she must flee on a December night. Students will discover that what Ellen chooses to tell about her present life with her "new mama" is equally revealing about the emotional and physical deprivation of her past childhood to which she refers. "Nobody yells after anybody to do this or that here. My new mama lays out the food and we all take turns to dish it out. Then we eat and have a good time" (Gibbons 4). The reader may accurately infer that Ellen's daddy yelled orders at her to prepare and dish up meals, and it was solely her task, and that eating with her daddy and mama was a very unpleasant experience; otherwise she probably would not remark on what a good time she had eating meals at her "new mama's."
Before introducing Ellen, however, I will introduce the concept of first impressions of characters through first sentences such as those of Precious who narrates her way through Sapphire's now very famous novel, Push; Gregor Samsa in Franz Kafka's novella, The Metamorphosis; Amir in Khaled Hosseini's novel, The Kite Runner; and possibly Pip in Jaye Murray's novel, Bottled Up. I will raise the questions about each: What are the first things the author wants us to know about his or her protagonist and why? How much are we able to sleuth out about a character at the outset from the perspective they share and the actual words or thoughts they use to share that perspective? From this initial close reading through marking and discussing first sentences, we will begin to compile a list of all of the things it is possible to learn from a few initial lines, such as: the protagonist's social status, perspective of self and others, race, mood, challenges, gender, physical make up including age, prejudices, dialect, and perhaps historical and geographical context. Historical and geographical context do matter in our character, Ellen Foster, who lives in the prejudicial rural South in the 1970's. With a list of what we know from first impressions, no doubt, there will be a list of what we do not know, and to which we are seeking answers. "What in the world was motivating Ellen to think up ways to kill her daddy, from the time she was little?" "What does it feel like to wake and discover you are a huge insect?"
There is also the complex interaction between the reader and the character being "read." For example, when Ellen tells us right off the bat that when she was little, she would think up ways to kill her daddy, we might very well unconsciously fly to the relationship we have or had with our own daddies, and make an unconscious, fleeting judgment of Ellen, or her daddy, for that matter. Not only our relationship with our daddies, but our collective experiences, and our understanding of children and their fathers may color the degree of empathy or sympathy we have for this young child who must have had cause to think up multiple ways to kill her own daddy. Some might think it sounds a bit harsh, while others who weren't so lucky with their fathers in their secret hearts are feeling a certain sense of camaraderie with Ellen. I will ask my students to write down their reaction to these first two sentences: are they outraged, amused, shocked, sympathetic, or empathetic? Also, I will ask them to write what they infer from these two sentences about what in Ellen's early childhood with her father might cause her to want to plan his murder multiple times. As they share the emotions they felt, and observe that their peers' reactions and reading of Ellen differ, they may begin to become aware that without realizing it, they bring their own multifarious characters to the "reading" of a character on a page.
The technique my students will use for practicing the skill of close reading of a piece of literature is known as marking and discussing the text. It is a technique that takes considerable practice for students to become adept at it because it is based largely on inference. I find that the more students practice this technique of inference, the more surprised they are at what they can discover about a character in a passage, especially a character whose "voice" is narrating his or her own story. Of course, as I have emphasized, students bring their own individual perspectives and life experiences to these close readings, as well.