In Literature 2, our sophomore literature class, students are exploring different approaches to literary interpretation and to writing.

Our focus in Block One is on formal analysis, one of the earliest schools of interpretation. We are reading Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple and analyzing its style. We pay attention to how the text says what it says, especially its epistolary form (a novel written as a series of letters), its African American dialect, and the main character’s unique narrative voice. Students discuss and analyze these formal elements to build meaning in this emotionally complex and challenging text.

This week students worked on distinguishing form from content by re-writing one paragraph of the novel in a series of variations. These exercises in writing, in which students take a text apart and put it back together again in new and playful ways, help them later on to notice new aspects of language as they read. For the first variation they translated the text’s dialect into Standard English, while for the second they kept the dialect but changed other aspects of the text’s style, aiming in both cases to express the same content but through a new stylistic voice. For their third variation, students retained the text’s style, including its dialect, but substituted content from their own lives (an exercise called “pastiche”): they wrote about an experience from their own life but in the voice of Walker’s narrator. In discussion afterwards, students reflected on how writing in a different style had actually changed the content of their personal experience, as if they were seeing it through a different lens. This observation led them to raise an important question about the novel: why did the author, who certainly knows Standard English, choose to write in the voice and dialect of the main character?

Students are now starting to select and brainstorm a topic related to style or form to develop in more depth in an analytical essay this block. They can think about shifts in style or dialect, letters and written communication, names and nick-names, or anything else related to language. In the essay they'll analyze the style and language of one letter in the The Color Purple and consider what questions it raises for the novel as a whole.

Beginning the year with formal analysis, students are becoming attuned to the importance of how something is said, the form through which it is expressed, and the stakes of discursive practice. By exploring a style and way of communicating that's quite unfamiliar to them, students are able to start to notice that all language has a style and a form that informs and produces its meaning.

-- Sydney Cochran