Tuesday, August 9, 2011

How to Read Literature like a Professor Assignment 7

Question 1 (What does this work signify?)

“The Garden Party,” at its more superficial levels, highlights a classic class difference conundrum which must be faced by the protagonist. After all, someone of the working class dies just down the road, but for the rich upper class the party cannot stop. Not even a thought is paid to the poor family’s suffering until after the party concludes, except for Laura’s concerns. Ignoring the class conflicts, this work highlights the balance between supporting the individual vs. supplying the masses. Had the party been canceled, the dead individual’s family could have received much more aid. On the other hand, those people expecting to come to the garden party would have been disappointed, disgruntled, and perhaps a bit angry that their plans suddenly went up in smoke for the sake of a stranger. The tossup is between helping the family in need, which will also make the would-be attendees rather irritated, and serving the partygoers, which will probably look rather bad to the family and friends of the dead man down the road. However, the rich family takes a kind of middle road, having the party but sending the leftover food to the lower-working class family via Laura, the only one that really showed any care prior to the party. In doing so, the young Laura bridges the class gap to an extent. She may be taking food and relief, but it is leftover food and relief. It is not the cream of the crop, but the excess, the extra, the bit that would end up in the trash. Such is the commentary given to the rich; they take what they need and want, and sometimes, if caught in the right mood, give some of the rest to those in need. As a final piece of meaning, this short story explores the concept of gaining deeper knowledge by facing adversity, as Laura, after seeing the dead man as peaceful and uncaring of her family’s apathy, gains closure and perhaps a deeper understanding of life.

Question 2 (How does it signify that?)

Aside from the literal and obvious apathy initially paid to the family of the deceased, the geography also plays a role in signifying a class conflict. The upper class lives at the top of the hill and the lower class at the bottom. This simple and obvious division sets the stage for a deeper and more subtle class division. On another note, the women who invite Laura into their house to see the dead man cannot understand that Laura wants to leave the basket of food and go. On a larger scale, this suggests that the classes themselves are incompatible, non-understanding, repulsive of one another. There is a fairy tale similar to this story, in the journey from the top of the hill to the bottom, specifically in the fact that a little girl is carrying a basket of food to someone in need (and maybe wearing something notable on her head is important). This element straight out of Little Red Riding Hood immediately causes readers who see the connection to start a witch hunt for the big bad wolf. The wolf appears, in the fairy tale, at the girl’s destination, in the form of who she is to deliver the food to. Could the big bad wolf be the women she meets, all puffy eyed and red faced from grief? They do lure her in and trap her, and quintessentially force her to see the dead man. However, it is more apt that the class difference itself is the big bad wolf, desiring to devour Laura and forever force her into a paradigm of indifference regarding the lower classes.

Other elements reveal the conflicts between showing the individual (or few) preference at the expense of the numerous and showing the numerous preference at the expense of the individual (or few). To be spell this out, Mrs. Sheridan scolded Laura as she said, “You are being very absurd, Laura. People like that don’t expect sacrifices from us. And it’s not very sympathetic to spoil everybody’s enjoyment as you’re doing now.” This line exemplifies the insulation that the upper class supposedly feels regarding the lower class. It’s almost like Mrs. Sheridan believes that she has not moral obligation to do anything more than gossip about the man’s death. The elite have always been fewer than the rest, and in a stroke of ironic genius, the author makes the elite hold a party on the same day as the death of a poor man. Until after the party is over, they show no real sympathy (as a whole), but then send the leftover food as aid. Now, to cancel the party would be to hold the individual dead man above the desires of the masses. However, the partygoers are of the upper class, and therefore much less numerous as a whole than the working class. So the question is who is really being served here, the many or the few?

Laura obviously gains some condolence herself at the end, and many tidbits of the tale support this thought. For one, the story takes place in early summer, traditionally signifying the time in life where one is growing and maturing. Skipping straight to the dead man’s description, all of the adjectives describing him suggest peace, forgiveness, contentment. Laura realizes that the man is dead, and does not care that her family threw a party mere hours before. She understands that he cannot really hold anything against her, and that the poor do not either. After all, despite her gaudy look, they invited her into their house without hesitation, which suggests no ill will is held. Based on the dialogue toward the end though, “Isn’t life—“we can assume that Laura is on the verge of a deep discovery, but not yet ready to uncover it. After all, it is just “early summer.”

Comparison and Persephone

After reading the three other examples, I would say I fall somewhere between the second and the third in quality. I admit, I completely missed the bird references, and looking back, they are rather obvious. Reading the author’s commentary, I also missed the Garden of Eden references, even with the sheer idealistic description of the day and all of the flowers, plus mention of archangels.

However, after reading all about Persephone, I am somewhat proud of myself. I actually hit all around that thought without drawing the connection! Well, I mentioned the fact that they were geographically above the poor, as well as the symbolic transition to adulthood. Either way though, I have a long way to go before I read about flowers, food, and children and think fertility goddess. At any rate though, rereading the short story does allow me to see the Persephone myth played out, somewhat (I would call it a simple venture into the underworld, but I am not a literary professor, obviously). The thought that an author could cram so many references into this does cause me to enjoy the piece more, and I am sure to start to look ever closer in other texts.

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