Second Skin (by Caroline Castle Hicks)
New York 1998
I looked on child rearing not only as a work of love and dity but as a profession that was fully as interesting and challenging as any honorable profession in the world, and one that demanded the best I could bring to it.
My favorite pair of old jeans will never fit me again. I have finally accepted this immutable truth. After nurturing and giving birth to two babies, my body had undergone a metamorphosis. I may have returned to my pre-baby weight, but subtle shifts and expansions have taken place – my own version of continental drift. As a teenager, I never understood the difference between junior and misses sizing; misses clothing just looked old. Now it is all too clear that wasp waists and micro-fannies are but the fleeting trappings of youth. But that’s okay, because while the jeans no longer button, the life I exchanged for them fits better than they ever did.
For me, this is a barefoot, shorts and T-shirts time of life. I have slipped so easily into young motherhood; it is most comfortable role I have ever worn. No tough seams, no snagging zippers. Just a feeling that I have stepped out of the dressing room in something that finally feels right.
I love the feel of this baby on my hip, his soft head a perfect fit under my chin, his tiny hands splayed out like small pink starfish against my arms. I love the way my eight-year-old daughter walks alongside us as we cross the grocery store’s sunny parking lot. On gorgeous spring days, the breeze lifts her wispy ponytail, and we laugh at how the sunshine makes the baby sniff and squint. I am constantly reaching out to touch them, the way a seamstress would two lengths of perfect silk, envisioning what might be made from them, yet hesitant to alter them, to lose the weight of their wholeness in my hands.
On those rare mornings when I wake up before they do, I go into their rooms and watch them sleeping, their faces creased and rosy. Finally, they squirm and stretch themselves awake, reaching out for a hug. I gather them up, bury my face in them and breathe deeply. They are like towels just pulled from the dryer, tumbled warm and cottony.
Sometimes, I follow the sound of girlish voices to my daughter’s room, where she and her friends play dress-up, knee-deep in garage-sale chiffon, trying life on for size. Fussing and preening in front of the mirror, they drape themselves in cheap beads and adjust tiaras made of sequins and cardboard. I watch these little girls with their lank, shiny hair that no rubber bands or barrettes seem able to tame. They are constantly pushing errant strands behind their ears, and in that grown-up gesture, I see glimpses of the women they will become. I know that too soon these clouds of organdy and lace will settle permanently into their battered boxes, the ones that have served as treasure chests and princess thrones. They will become the hand-me-downs of my daughter’s girlhood, handed back to me.
For now, though, my children curl around me on the sofa in the evening, often falling asleep, limbs limp and soft against me like the folds of a well-worn nightgown. For now, we still adorn each other, and they are content to be clothed in my embrace. I know there will be times that will wear like scratchy wool sweaters and four-inch heels. We will have to try on new looks together, tugging and scrunching, trying to keep the basic fabric intact. By then, we will have woven a complicated tapestry with its own peculiar pattern, its snags and pulls and tears.
But I will not forget this time, of drowsy heads against my shoulder, of footy pajamas and mother-daughter dresses, of small hands clasped in mine. This time fits me. I plan to wear it well.
A Sample of Analysis of This Text
The text is an essay – «a literary composition in prose and very short» (Concise Oxford Dictionary); «a short piece of literature in which a writer gives his or her thoughts on a particular subject usually in a graceful and pleasing style» (Longman’s Dictionary of English Language and Culture) – evidently on the subject of motherhood (this may be considered the gist) and the paramount importance of it (which may be considered as one of the ideas).
The authoress is a contemporary (judging by the year of publication) American (according to the place of publication), writer, concerned with joys and cares of motherhood. It might be supposed that the essay is – in a way – autobiographical.
The gist and one of the ideas were mentioned above. The facts the reader gets are not many: clothes (fitting or not), two girls that will grow into adulthood in their turn.
The obvious LFs are Clothes, Happiness, Time, Children. The peculiarity of this essay is the presence of an epigraph. Any epigraph directly or by throng associations is connected with the idea of the text (as the author sees it). This epigraph is rather long for its kind and does not need any interpretation. It speaks quite clearly of the honourable profession of a Mother.
The lexical layer of the text – as is expected of an essay – is literary colloquial, at places sounding intimate.
If one does not pay attention to the epigraph, beginning with the strong position of the title, the initial strong position (1st sentence) and the final strong position of the text (the word «wear» in the last sentence) the text deals with clothes. The number of the LUs belonging to it is overwhelming. The seemingly paradoxical fact is the following: the text is evidently dedicated to the joys of motherhood and Clothes should be a background theme. Everything becomes logical if the title is understood as a metonymy/metaphor: «second skin» = a perfectly filling dress (a metonymy), clothes as indicators of time (a metaphor). The interconnection between the LFs Clothes, Time, Motherhood becomes obvious. LUs Clothes and Time are inseparable («shorts and T-shirt time of life», «times that will wear like scratchy wool sweaters» etc). «Time» as a LF is all embracing: past, present and future. The stylistic connotations of the LUs belonging to all three are similar: most of the Time/Clothes units belong to the colloquial layer of the vocabulary.
The evaluative connotations are slightly different: «fleeting trappings of youth», «tough seams», «snagging zippers» referring to the past are more negative than «something that finally feels right», «two lengths of perfect silk» etc referring to the present which are positive.
The group of LUs referring to the future has rather uncertain evaluative connotations, but the emotive ones allow to feel the narrator’s hope for the better: «we will have woven a complicated tapestry…»
The emotive connotations of the first two groups are different conveying slight irony for the past («my own version of continental drift») and satisfaction with the present («This time fits me. I plan to wear it well»).
The LF of Time/Clothes is foregrounded first of all through a dense convergence: metonymy, metaphors, similes, epithets etc, mostly lexico-grammatical SDs.
The discussion of this LF confirms the fact that the text is an essay – very personal, graceful and pleasing.
1) Find in the texts 3 LUs connected with the theme Motherhood directly;
2) 3-through constant and 3-through casual associations. Speak of the 3 types of connotations of each group.
Comments. Explanatory Notes
Comments is the type of analysis students try to present if they are not willing or uncapable to cope with the two previously discussed variants.
«Comments», «to comment» is defined in dictionaries as «explanatory notes», «written or spoken opinion, explanations, or judgement made about»…, «to make a comment, give an opinion»… The very definition supposes a somewhat literary approach to the text. Students interpret it as periphasing the text, i.e. present a variant of retelling supplied – at best – with two or three linguistic/stylistic remarks.
A classical variant of Comments can be found in «Analytical Reading» and «Three Centuries of English Prose» by I. V. Arnold and N. Y. Diakonova (Leningrad, 1962, 1963, 1964).
Students, even if they possess the scope of information – literary and linguistic – are limited by time.
Here is an attempt to recommend a greatly clipped variant of Comments – which will answer the requirements or purposes (very down-to-earth, prosaic, pragmatic) of text interpretation in the graduation course: to demonstrate one’s ability of speaking English sufficiently well and to prove one’s ability recognize and assess some elements of the theoretical courses covered.
Two variants are suggested.
I. 1) «placing» the text – saying if it is a complete work or an excerpt (if it is an excerpt, speaking about its role in a bigger work).
2) Stating the genre (from the point of view of the plot and of the manner).
3) Introducing the author (using either facts or one’s imagination) as to the period, country, degree of being prolific or not, the intended audience, interests.
4) Innumerating the facts becoming clear because of the text.
5) State the predominant impression, the mood the text produces.
6) Give the proofs, illustrations of how, due to what linguistic means it (the mood) becomes obvious (a prosaic recommendation: a) there should be 4-6 illustrations; b) do not begin retelling the text).
7) Make a conclusion. Usually any conclusion is connected with the beginning. It is possible to connect it with points 1, 2, 3.
II. The second variety of comments may include the same points 1, 2, 3. The next points would be different.
4) Give the gist of the text in 1-2 sentences (avoid names and details).
5) Divide the text into parts, single out dialogue or represented speech.
6) Deal with parts as a succession: show their interdependence, means of connection. From each part single out 1-2 linguistically interesting facts and speak of them, emphasizing their significance for the contents, gist, idea. Speaking of SDs keep to the scheme: a) the effect, b) quotation, c) name of the SD (in case you forget it, just «a word combination»). b) and c) are interchangeable. The «effect» would not let you forget the significance.
7) Make a conclusion (as in variant I).
The comments on the text «A Private View» belongs to the second variant. The difference is in the number of linguo-stylistic facts that are discussed. They are, of course, too many for a student. The comments is an illustration of what might (or should) attract one’s attention. Reproducing this at the lesson a student will easily do the “desirable substraction”.
Comments. Second Variant
The novel “A Private View” is one of the latest works of a writer of considerable renown Anita Brookner who is a winner of several prizes.
Essentially belonging to the first half of the XXth century (b. 1928) she combines traditional form of psychological study with a certain incisiveness of the end of the century and manages to mingle depressing reminiscences of an elderly civil servant with shrewd observations not devoid of touches of irony.
Critics say that “A Private View” is the story of a man in emotional turmoil. …In George Bland Brookner presents her most accomplished portrait of moral vulnerability. Modest, reliable and decorous throughout his life, George Bland faces retirement with uncertainty compounded by the early death of his friend Putnam, condemning him to unwonted solitude.”
From the initial four paragraphs of the novel the reader learns that the place of the action is Nice – a famous place for a holiday abroad, supposed to pleasure the monied ones with its sunlight, spread and noise, its late autumn “out-of-season” charm. But Nice as such is of no importance: the choice – “an unwise one or no choice at all” – may be explained by Bland’s visiting it forty years ago. At present he does not perceive it as anything special – “Sitting in an expensive restaurant – as it might be Le Chantecleur”. Living there for only four days made him “cautious”. This is unexpected as unexpected is his desire “to get rid of some of his money”. If the second is perfectly achievable in a place like this, that which is most important for him – escaping the bitter thoughts about his deceased friend – proved impossible. With a touch of irony Brookner says that they “faithfully continued to attend” Bland in Nice. The combination – “faithfully … to attend” – is surely an understatement. The fact might be rendered as “haunted”, or “persistently annoyed”, but a much milder form is chosen by the author, nevertheless concentrating the reader’s attention on those, in a way personified thoughts. The particular significance of thoughts, reminiscences becomes obvious due to various types of repetition of the word: simple lexical, through pronouns and synonymic repetition. The epithet “unwelcome” in the final strong position in the sentence is another instance of a peculiar, typical of elderly Britishers, preference for modesty of expression. This modesty sometimes results in sad humour: the fact of his friend’s death of cancer is presented in a much milder way – “inconveniently succumbed to cancer”.
As it is typical of many classics of realist tradition Brookner’s writing is a blend of the author’s narration and represented speech. The latter allows the reader to form his own opinion about the personage without the author pressing his/her own view. The thoughts and reminiscences come as though by themselves.
To tell the two planes – the plane of the author and that of the character – one from the other is sometimes almost impossible, both grammatically – past tense and a third person narration – and lexically, since the age and cultural level both of Brookner and her character are nearly identical. The only thing that might be of any help here is the emotional colouring of some passages. But the philosophical digression concerning the “sly tricks” played by time might be ascribed to both.
The first paragraph sounds pretty dry and matter-of-fact. But the next one is pathetic. The tragic effect is achieved by mentioning “the incongruity”, the ironic trick of fate: a man who had started poor, poverty affecting his thoughts and feelings – “imprinted on his mind and … in his heart” – can, in the long last, spend his money freely and … is unable to enjoy it. His friend’s death is persistently standing before his mind’s eye.
The theme “death” is quite obvious due to the presence of: “sorely missed”, “pain”, “death”, “skeletal hand”, “clutching”, “a series of God Well cards”, “trusted in life right up to the end”, “the eyes had closed for ever”.
For Bland these weeks were “not easy”, “almost unbearable” – the modesty of expression, the desire not to lay stress on emotions are here again.
The part devoted to the friend’s closeness and perfect understanding is given in the form of represented speech easily recognizable because of the presence of the introductory – “the thought” – and lexically. The words evidently belonging to the character’s vocabulary are obvious. The fact of being poor is treated rather contemptuously – “shabby beginnings” – and preferably not alluded to later on – “their gleeful rueful secret”. The epithets are not quite antonymous, so the contribution is not oxymoronic. The second epithet – “rueful” = expressing mock compassion – is further on made clear by the text. The friends having slowly achieved – “affluence” – note the limiting attribute – and able to afford club membership and dinners at better hotels “conjure” their past mentioning evidently the cheapest brands of wines. Anaphoric repetition of “Both” combined with parallel constructions stresses their affinity. Brookner is a fine psychologist: people who had achieved their goal – “middle class affluence” – enjoy recollecting their less fortunate past. Equally psychologically true is the attitude of people originally belonging to lower walks of life to the virtues of middle class. Remarkable is the evolution: from “misgiving”, “suspicion”, “applauding them in his friend” – to “charity”, “benevolence”, and “fair-mindeness that had come to them quite naturally” – as they were becoming richer. It should be noted though that the last two virtues are limited by attributes “judicious” and “hard won”. Evidently charity is not an exclusively middle-class virtue.
The final sentence of the portion together with “to take stock” frames the text. Though it is but a part of a bigger work, it might be taken as a psychological story with the typical static character and open-plot structure.
By way of summing up it is necessary to repeat that Anita Brookner is a true follower in the best realist tradition in English literature, a writer with a sharp eye for detail and keen psychologism. There is something in her manner resembling both Katherine Mansfield and John Galsworthy.
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