He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish….
-Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
When you introduce a book, you can’t simply give an imagery description of the town, or a bland description of the character’s physique. Sometimes you wait to say who the character is or how the character looks until after you say what the character does.
Here in the introduction of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, I am struck by the short paragraph which tells readers why the old man is the center of this story. Look at the following passage, which is the rest of the introduction, to see what I mean:
It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast. The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.
Although I omitted sections for brevity, I included the most important phrase—“the flag of permanent defeat”—which sets the story’s tone and shows the old man’s perpetual misfortune. My favorite lines in the next few pages involve dialogue between the old man and the boy, when they reminisce about the time they first met and how important the boy is to the man:
“How old was I when you first took me in a boat?” [said the boy].
“Five and you nearly were killed when I brought the fish in too green and he nearly tore the boat to pieces. Can you remember?”
“I can remember the tail slapping and banging and the thwart breaking and the noise of the clubbing. …”
“Can you really remember that or did I just tell it to you?”
“I remember everything from when we first went together.”
The old man looked at him with his sun-burned, confident loving eyes.
“If you were my boy I’d take you out and gamble,” he said. “But you are your father’s and your mother’s and you are in a lucky boat.”
When Hemingway won the Pulitzer Prize for this novella, he deserved it well. We now know who the old man is by seeing him with our eyes and understanding him with our minds. That is the importance of style when introducing characters.
It’s my senior year, and I’m finally realizing the true characteristics of an English major. We’re tough, strong, and self-conscious about our grammar. We love books, Oxford commas, and bubble gum shaped like Shakespearean books. But most of all, we love that we can geek over little things together, small things like correcting our classmates’ grammar or editing a romance novel we got for homework.
I admit it: We’re geeks to the extreme core.
If you’re anything like us—or worse, if you’re an English major at all—you’ll notice that you’ll find some predilections very common in your daily or semester routines. And if you abide by these characteristics, I’m very sorry to say that you are a true English major; there’s no going back.
You memorize every famous line by Shakespeare and apply Hamlet’s soliloquy to your daily life: “To sleep or not to sleep; that is the question…” you say during finals week, for instance.
You love endnotes because they look cute, and you use them just for fun.
By your sophomore year, you’re writing 10 pages on two stanzas of poetry, and you actually enjoy it.
You have erasers or bubble gum shaped like your favorite classical books, like Canterbury Tales or Midsummer Night’s Dream.
You know Colin Firth only as Mr. Darcy.
You carry three bibles with you: Associated Press (AP), Chicago Manual of Style and MLA.
You don’t love your Chicago Manual until you carry it with you everywhere, even in the kitchen.
You get the greatest thrill from editing commas in a proofing project, especially if it’s a romance novel.
You live in the library’s basement, and you know all the librarians by name.
You feel you have no purpose until your next big paper; you actually cry when your senior project is over.
Fridays are the saddest days because there’s no school until Monday.
You get goosebumps from reading your favorite novels, and when you return your library books, you feel like you’re parting with old friends.
Hanging out with English nerds makes me realize not only the geekiness of my life, like the way I geek over Shakespeare books in the form of bubble gum, but also the severe fact that I’ll never escape these traits in my whole life.
Let’s face it: we’re either born English majors, or we’re morphed into being English majors. We live three to four years at college, get acquainted with our professors, and sooner than we know it, we’re drawn into studying literary criticism, analyzing poems for pentameter breaks, and when we go home we’re automatically correcting our siblings’ composition papers—just because we can.
We can’t change who we are, but even if we can, we realize we find greater joy in stressing over pentameters and Milton’s Paradise Lost than we would ever have over anything else. We love what we do, and it comes from the long hours we’ve spent together, the repeated assignments we’ve shared in freshman composition or introductory courses in Shakespeare, Milton, and Chaucer. And finally when we get published in our university’s literary magazine, we feel the same thrill of ecstasy and relief.
Only by living out these qualities do we finally realize the true depth of being an English major. Coming all this way to a university makes me appreciate my field even more, and I relish every moment of it.
So you think you want to be an English scholar? You love fantasy, you smell books when no one looks and you kind of like Shakespeare but don’t really know why. Join the club. We’ve got a bunch of people who’d love to assimilate—I mean, welcome you into our coterie. And if you’re not really sure it’s the right fit for you, it’s no sweat at all. Just follow this pattern, and you’ll be thinking, talking and eating like an English major.
Freshman year: It all starts at the English department barbecue. You mingle with the professors and talk about English-y stuff. Your professor happens to have a collection of Shakespearean quotes made entirely of magnets, and you geek over the Shakespeare mug your mother just bought you from Stratford-on-Avon. Next, you start to think like a poet and compose a mental poem about hot dog mustard dripping down your professor’s sleeves.
Now it’s time for the test. You’ve taken your introductory class and figure out the many ways how to not make sense when analyzing literature. You read Shakespeare’s sonnet about his wife’s bad breath and realize that there’s more than three ways to look at it. But if you have the faintest clue what psychoanalytic critics are saying, you’re onto your next step in becoming an English scholar.
Sophomore year: You’re introduced to more obscure literature. The building blocks of your freshman year are becoming cemented in your brain, and you start to read things like Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” or Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” things that don’t seem normal in daily life. But you don’t start becoming an English scholar until you learn Middle English. It’s a combination of Norse and German, spoken with a Scottish accent. It sounds brilliant, especially when your fellow English majors have no clue what you’re saying.
Junior year: You start to notice things. You prefer to watch “Dead Poets Society” over “The Hunger Games.” You quote Jane Austen’s infamous first line from “Pride & Prejudice” in daily conversation. You start to get crazy over Colin Firth as Darcy. And if someone—especially an English major—hasn’t read Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre,” you seriously judge them.
Senior year: Things start to get a little weird. You start to see things like “homoeroticism in Homer’s ‘Odyssey’” or the “political sexuality of Ichabod Crane.” You obsess over things like iambic pentameters and fuss over trochees or dactyls. But if you’re a true English scholar, you’ll know for certain whether Robert Frost’s poetry is actually blank verse or free verse. But when you start to see “The Psychological Ruthlessness of Peter Rabbit,” then you know you’ve gone too far. There’s no return for you now. You’ve now officially become an English scholar.
But don’t say we didn’t warn you. Sure, it seems glamorous—the books, the fame, the Shakespeare—but all in all, it’s really a bunch of people who think they’re smarter than they really are.
Sometimes critics denounce Christian authors for their explicit use of didacticism, which is the literary form of teaching of morals to readers. However, while didacticism has become unpopular in the last century, Christian authors can use didacticism without being preachy.
“Preachy” is telling the readers how they should live their lives, as exemplified by a novel’s characters, and some critics think that Christian authors go too far in creating stories that exemplify Scripture without regarding what really happens in life. One example of a didactic novel is William P. Young’s The Shack, which reveals the healing process of a father, Mackenzie Allen Phillips, who forgives a serial killer for murdering his daughter. The novel ultimately shows that when one forgives one’s wrongdoer, one will be healed within one’s spirit.
While Christian authors should be commended for promulgating Scripture, some critics denounce them for their blatant Christianity. It’s as if the novels are compelling readers to obey the novels’ biblical morals, and these critics seem to think that Christian novelists should show readers what the Christian life is like without telling them how to live a Christian life. However, Christian authors will inspire their readers no matter how explicit the use of didacticism is, and whether the use of didacticism is inappropriate for the novel is up to the author to discern.
Flannery O’Connor, a Southern Christian author, says that Christian authors can still portray morals without being preachy. In her essay, “The Church and the Fiction Writer,” O’Connor explains that some Christian authors tend to create their plots around a certain theological message that they believe their readers need to hear. While this evangelism is not wrong in itself, O’Connor says the job of evangelism should belong to the evangelist, while the storyteller should reveal the story’s morals through the plot of the story itself. In her own short story, “Good Country People,” O’Connor writes about a middle-aged woman who loses her wooden leg to a Bible salesman who runs off with it after she flirts with him. This plot seems awkward, O’Connor admits, yet from the life of the lonely woman, readers infer that the wooden leg carries more meaning than simply an object of transportation. It symbolizes how the woman values herself, and when the salesman steals it from her, he is essentially stealing a part of her personality.
When authors write their novels, their faith will show through no matter what they write, even if they don’t mention God. Novelists don’t necessarily need to quote Scripture to be Christian or didactic, but they shouldn’t infuse Scripture or biblical references into their books if their readers are unaccustomed to such references. Instead, the authors should make the spiritual references or moralistic themes flow within the context of the story. Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie reveals the hope of a 10-year-old girl, Opal Buloni, who finds that even when her mother leaves her, she is loved by her “preacher” daddy, who comes out of his reclusive “shell” and becomes the father that Opal wants. Although the novel doesn’t necessarily gives Opal what she wants, it satisfies her with the thing she needs most: love and support from her family. Further, DiCamillo portrays Christianity in a subtle manner. While most of the characters in the small Floridian town are Christian, they do not necessarily preach (except for the “preacher”) or lecture each other on goodwill. The only instances when Christianity peeks through is when the town’s dame, Gloria Dump, gives Opal the advice she needs about reconciling herself with her mother’s absence, and when Opal finally accepts that fact and becomes closer to her father, she says her heart is “full all the way up,” and the readers are assured that all is well.
Sometimes didacticism is acceptable in literature. It seems that no matter how many biblical allusions or Scriptural references are in the novel, some readers will resonate with these morals, because they accept the fact that these morals are appropriate within the chosen genre. DiCamillo’s novel shows what didacticism ought to be: It doesn’t always mean the characters receive what they want, nor out of their piety do they get what they deserve all the time; but almost always, didacticism shows that by honoring one’s God or one’s people, one will be blessed in some fashion even if the circumstances do not always align with one’s desires.
Some authors portray the world in a way that compels readers to admire the characters’ integrity, and by creating characters with seemingly flawless faith, even when the characters endure suffering trials, the authors paint a picture of Christian life that some critics think is inaccurate. But what may seem inaccurate or too moralistic may be the perfect thing that will attract readers to those kinds of novels. If the readers are blessed by the novel, who is to judge how the author should tone down the use of didacticism? That is up to the authors to decide, and when the authors remain true to their convictions, the readers will respect the authors’ decisions.