Categories
Literature & Psychology

Introducing Literature & Psychology

 

Literature & Psychology is a collection of interdisciplinary news items that I aggregate daily (well, almost daily) through ScoopIt.

Literature & Psychology is also a new category of blog post here. Of course, there’s a story behind it.

About 35 years ago I completed the coursework, though not the dissertation, for a doctorate in English and American literature. But not finishing that degree did not keep me from reading. The more I read, and the more book group discussions I attended, the more I realized that what intrigued me most about fiction is that good literature is psychology, or what characters do, why they do it, and how they handle the consequences of their actions. So when I went back to school for a late-life doctorate, I studied psychology as an adjunct to the literary training I already had. My focus was on life stories, an area that contributes directly to understanding fictional characters.

Posts labeled Literature & Psychology will consider areas that involve the intersection of those two fields. I think of both fields broadly, so that they overlap in areas involving history, culture, and society. The emphasis here, though, is always on how psychology can help us better understand and appreciate works of literature. These posts will focus on three broad areas:

  1. Content, particularly characterization: How do authors create characters?
  2. Form and structure: What conventions and devices do writers use to shape their stories?
  3. The reading process: How and why do we get lost in a good book?

Although these discussions will focus primarily on literature, I will sometimes refer to other formats, particularly film and television, that share aesthetic and cultural features with literature.

Look for the first real Literature & Psychology post soon.

Categories
Audiobooks Fiction Life Stories in Literature Literature & Psychology Review

“The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox” by Maggie O’Farrell

O’Farrell, Maggie. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox   
New York: Harcourt, 2006 
ISBN 978-0-15-101411-8  
Blackstone Audiobooks, narrated by Anne Flosnik

Recommended

This novel is about family stories–in this case, the truths that don’t get told and the lies that spring up to fill the void–and how those stories reverberate through generations.

Iris Lockhart is a 30-something woman busy managing her vintage clothing shop in Edinburgh, juggling a tense relationship with her stepbrother Alex, and trying to sidestep the increasing demands of her latest married lover. Besides Alex, Iris’s only family is her paternal grandmother, Kitty, who is in the clutches of advancing Alzheimer’s disease. 

Then one day Iris receives a shocking phone call: A nearby mental institution is closing, and Iris must make arrangements for her great aunt Esme, Kitty’s sister, whom Iris has never heard of. Kitty always claimed to be an only child. However, the institution’s paperwork proves that Esme is Kitty’s sister, and Iris can see a hint of her dead father’s face in Esme’s.

Iris agrees to take Esme to a residence home arranged by the institution but finds the home too appalling to leave Esme there. Iris therefore has no choice but to take Esme home for the weekend with her, to an apartment carved out of the family home in which Esme had lived before being sent to the institution more than 60 years ago, at age 16. As Esme caresses the doorknobs and looks into the well-remembered rooms, Iris tries to question her about the past.

Although the novel is short, it is not an easy read, either emotionally or stylistically. The narrative structure skips among three kinds of narration:

  1. the straightforward third-person narration of Iris’s life  
  2. the convoluted, often naive meanderings of Esme’s schizophrenic memories and thoughts  
  3. the even more disjointed and bitter memories of Kitty’s dementia

Understanding this novel requires an attentive reader able to  put together the pieces of the puzzle.

In a sudden flash of insight Iris puts all the pieces together in the book’s abrupt, dramatic climax. I would have liked to see a bit of dénouement about how Iris’s new knowledge will affect her life. Nonetheless, the novel richly repays the reader’s investment of time and effort.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox would be a good book group choice, since all readers will have their own individual take on the many themes this novel raises: truth, the subjugation of women, racial and gender stereotypes, colonialism, social propriety, the meaning of love and of family, parenting, and the treatment of mental illness.

© 2008 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Fiction Life Stories in Literature Literature & Psychology Review

“The Knitting Circle” by Ann Hood

Hood, Ann. The Knitting Circle
New York: Norton, 2007
ISBN 0-393-05901-4
Blackstone Audiobooks, narrated by Hillary Huber

Highly recommended

This novel is all about perspective, and about the healing power of telling our stories.

When Mary Baxter’s five-year-old daughter dies suddenly of meningitis, Mary finds herself unable to read, write, go to work, or do any of the other activities that formerly filled her life. Her mother suggests that she take up knitting to occupy her hands and her mind. Reluctantly, Mary goes to see Alice, who teaches her to knit, and joins the knitting circle at Alice’s store. Over the next few months the members of the knitting circle all, one by one, tell Mary their own personal stories of pain and loss.

As I read this book, I kept wondering when Mary was going to tell the other knitters her own story. Dealing with pain and loss takes time, of course, but eventually Mary does tell her story. In the process she also reconnects with her own mother who, Mary is stunned to learn, also has her own story to tell.

A loss the size of Mary’s can seem overwhelming; we think that no one else has ever been through anything as huge as what we’re going through. But hearing other peoples’ stories can gradually give us a new perspective. We gain empathy by looking at life from their perspective. We also see that they have endured, and recognizing that truth lets us know that we too will survive. And we gain support from the sharing of stories with a group of compassionate, caring, non-judgmental people who understand what we’re going through.

The author herself experienced the sudden loss of her young daughter and afterwards took up knitting as a way to calm her spirit and soothe her soul. That is probably why the character depictions in this novel ring so poignantly true. Anyone who loves good literature with strongly drawn characters will appreciate this novel.

© 2007 by Mary Daniels Brown

(See also the review of Hood’s later memoir, Comfort: A Journey Through Grief.)

Categories
Literary Criticism Literary History Literature & Psychology Nonfiction Review

“Writing a Woman’s Life” by Carolyn G. Heilbrun

Heilbrun, Carolyn G. Writing a Woman’s Life (1988) 
W.W. Norton & Company, 144 pages, $14.95 hardcover 
ISBN 0-393-02601-9

In the “Introduction,” feminist scholar Carolyn Heilbrun explains the topic of her book:

There are four ways to write a woman’s life: the woman herself may tell it, in what she chooses to call an autobiography; she may tell it in what she chooses to call fiction; a biographer, woman or man, may write the woman’s life in what is called a biography; or the woman may write her own life in advance of living it, unconsciously, and without recognizing or naming the process. (p. 12)

Heilbrun says that she will focus on three of these methods, omitting fiction.

Men have always had narrative stories, such as the quest motif and the warrior exemplar, on which to base their lives and within which to tell their life stories. But, Heilbrun argues, such stories of action and accomplishment have been denied to women; the behavior praised by these stories has always been branded “unwomanly”:

above all other prohibitions, what has been forbidden to women is anger, together with the open admission of the desire for power and control over one’s life (which inevitably means accepting some degree of power and control over other lives). (p. 13)

Because this has been declared unwomanly, and because many women would prefer (or think they would prefer) a world without evident power or control, women have been deprived of the narratives, or the texts, plots, or examples, by which they might assume power over—take control of—their own lives. (p. 17)

Well into the twentieth century, it continued to be impossible for women to admit into their autobiographical narratives the claim of achievement, the admission of ambition, the recognition that accomplishment was neither luck nor the result of the efforts or generosity of others. (p. 24)

The concept of biography itself has changed profoundly in the last two decades, biographies of women especially so. But while biographers of men have been challenged on the “objectivity” of their interpretation, biographers of women have had not only to choose one interpretation over another but, far more difficult, actually to reinvent the lives their subjects led, discovering from what evidence they could find the processes and decisions, the choices and unique pain, that lay beyond the life stories of these women. The choices and pain of the women who did not make a man the center of their lives seemed unique, because there were no models of the lives they wanted to live, no exemplars, no stories. These choices, this pain, those stories, and how they may be more systematically faced…are what I want to examine in this book. (p. 31)

In subsequent chapters Heilbrun offers George Sand, Willa Cather, and particularly Dorothy L. Sayers as examples of women who tried to mold their lives into patterns other than those traditionally allowed to them. However:

Only in the last third of the twentieth century have women broken through to a realization of the narratives that have been controlling their lives. Women poets of one generation—those born between 1923 and 1932—can now be seen to have transformed the autobiographies of women’s lives, to have expressed, and suffered for expressing, what women had not earlier been allowed to say. (p. 60)

These poets, all American, are Denise Levertov, Jane Cooper, Carolyn Kizer, Maxine Kumin, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, and Sylvia Plath.

Finally, Heilbrun argues for what she calls “reinventing marriage,” for a new kind of marriage in which husband and wife both recognize and nurture the other’s strengths. “Marriage is the most persistent of myths imprisoning women, and misleading those who write of women’s lives” (p. 77), she says. As an example of this new kind of marriage she cites the relationship between Leonard and Virginia Woolf.

One of the more interesting aspects of Writing a Woman’s Life is Heilbrun’s explanation, in chapter six, of why she chose to use a pseudonym in the 1960s when, as a young college professor, she started publishing detective novels: “I believe now that I must have wanted, with extraordinary fervor, to create a space for myself” (p. 113). “But I also sought another identity, another role. I sought to create an individual whose destiny offered more possibility than I could comfortably imagine for myself” (p. 114).

A potential problem with any  type of literary criticism based on a particular ideology is that it often ends up reducing complex issues to dismissively simple statements, such as this declaration by Heilbrun: “Marriage, in short, is a bargain, like buying a house or entering a profession” (p. 92). Nonetheless, in general, Writing a Woman’s Life offers a compelling view of cultural and social conventions that are currently undergoing change.

© 1999 by Mary Daniels Brown