Discussion of Modernism

Please post your discussion question or questions here.  Feel free to respond to people’s questions as a way to get discussion started and to contribute your voice.  But first, here are some general guidelines for good discussions and good discussion questions.

Creating Good Discussions:

In-class discussions are collaborative efforts that require everyone’s participation and ideas.  Everyone is responsible for the creation of a good learning environment. Constructive roles include people who ask questions, people who summarize, people who refer to material, people who clarify. Non-constructive roles include people who talk to much, people who interrupt or ignore others, people who don’t listen, and people who don’t pay attention.

Class discussions are an opportunity to better understand the texts you have read, their interrelations, the larger questions of the class, etc.  They are also an opportunity to learn from your classmates.  Active participation means active listening, as well as thoughtful discussion.  It is your personal responsibility to help make discussion interesting and useful.  Discussion should always be challenging but not infuriating, and each participant should be aware how his/her participation affects other people.  If you have any questions or concerns about how a discussion is going, please talk to me, or constructively address the group.

Here are some specifics:

–Be on time. Be prepared. Read the assigned reading and bring the book or readings with you.

–Quote from the book and make references to specific passages. This helps to focus the discussion where it should be – on the text.

–At the center is the subject matter of the text, not personal opinion. Specifics from your own experience may be relevant, but they are relevant only insofar as they better help you understand the readings and the subject of the course.

–Listen attentively to what is said by others and take notes on the general discussion. Taking notes in seminar is even more important, sometimes, than taking notes in lectures.

–Speak in turn and don’t interrupt another person.

–Respond actively to what another has said before you contribute your own thoughts.

–Don’t be afraid to try out ideas. Nobody expects you to have fully-formed ideas when you come to seminar.

–Remember to address the entire seminar, not just the faculty member.

–Avoid name calling or putting others down.  If someone says something you disagree with, take a moment to think about why that is so and what the most productive way to proceed will be.

–Be respectful of each person’s culture, race, gender and sexual orientation. Don’t expect that someone will be an expert on a subject simply because of their race, culture, etc.

–Don’t engage in extended arguments. Seminars are for learning and listening, not for winning a debate.

–Don’t engage in side conversations, or any other disruptive behaviors.

Discussion Questions:

We will structure our discussions with questions, which you will either provide me individually or you will write in small groups (I’ll let you know each week).  Good discussion questions will go a long way toward making the conversation interesting and useful.

A good way to keep focused on the text is to respond to the following three questions:

–What does the text say? Point to the exact page and paragraph so everyone can read.

–What does the text mean? Explain or interpret the passage in your own words.

–Why is this important? Discuss the passage’s importance to the entire text or program themes.

Categories of useful questions:

–clarification: questions that seek information or clarification of textual issues (plot, language, etc.) or historical context.  i.e. “what did the author mean when he/she said….”, “what cultural events were going on at this time that might have influenced the reading or writing of this piece?”  “I don’t understand the line on page 10, where it reads….what did other people think?”

–interpretive: questions that seek to understand the author’s goals, the cultural context of a book, or the text’s workings (the relationship between author, narrator, and reader)  i.e. “what is so-and-so trying to argue through the story?”  “how are the implied author or  reader imagined in this story?” “in what ways might different readers have interpreted the story?”  “what might the relationship be between the text and its culture?”

–connective: questions that seek to link one author or text to another, or to understand connections between a text and its culture: “how does this story by Author A differ from that other story we read by Author B?”

–expansive: questions that seek to see the larger picture of the question of study

Categories of non-useful questions:

–evaluative: questions that connect with the question of whether one liked the book or not–too expansive: questions that don’t stay grounded in the class, or ask too big of a question to ever answer

Adapted from: http://www.evergreen.edu/advising/seminars.htm

24 thoughts on “Discussion of Modernism

  1. In regards to Faulkner’s story, “Barn Burning”, one can clearly see that Abner Snopes has a penchant for self-destruction, starting with his behavior during the Civil War which led to having his leg shot.

    My question is why does Abner, throughout the story, continually charge down a path of violence and selfishness? He seems to have no regard for the consequences of any of his actions, whether they result in monetary loss or other judgment. Even when he knows that his actions will warrant a strong reaction, and when his family pleads with him to stop, he ignores them and thinks only of himself.

    Does Abner’s character act as an antagonist to Sartoris or is he simply an obstacle in the way of Sartoris’ manhood?

    I would like to hear what you guys have to say about this.

    • Solid question. The first step would be to look at the text to see how Faulkner writes about Abner Snopes. But the very first step is to make sure you have your name attached to the question. Who is this?

    • I think Abner could certainly be an antagonist to Sartoris, but I think his true struggle is in the moral tendencies between loyalty to family and societies standards. In this instance Abner might be somewhat of a catalyst to the bigger struggle.

    • I think Abner is certainly a hindrance for the Snopes family (Sartoris specifically), but he seems to be a necessary obstacle for Sarty’s evolution toward manhood. Faulkner is careful to limit Abner’s human qualities, and he is often depicted as hollow, lifeless, and pathetic. Abner seems to lack the ability to change his lifestyle since his redundant actions have become habits (historically associated with the Snopeses). This repetition allows Sartoris the means to inwardly question his father’s vicious actions, and he hopes for a brighter future. The lively qualities are reserved for Sartoris since he has the means to make a change. His character continually questions the present, true to the modernist legacy, until he is able to overcome his problems. Sarty is burdened and empowered by his family’s legacy, and though he betrays his blood, his future is much brighter once he seizes the moment, and changes the present.

  2. In Sherwood Anderson’s “Hands,” Wing Biddlebaum’s comforting, expressive hands at first act as his greatest communication tool to his young students but also become his downfall due to the “loose hung lips” of a dishonest student leading to him being run out of town. Do you think this is Anderson’s way of criticizing modern society for its often hysterical overreactions and reliance on fabrications instead of things that are genuine and proven, which in the past was represented by a man’s handshake?

  3. In the sections “Hands” and “Mother” of Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio”, two characters, Wing Biddlebaum and Elizabeth Willard, are presented as having significant personal interests in the young boy George Willard.In Biddlebaum’s case, the relationship with young Willard is characterized as being a “medium through which he expressed his love of man” (1426), and in Elizabeth’s, the relationship seems to be vampiric and strikingly internalized, with Elizabeth’s personal dreams and her impossible “expression of joy” (1431) characterizing the “awkward and confused” (1428) relationship. Which of these two relationships does Anderson portray as the more humanly genuine? What are the differences in the natures of the two older characters’ interest in the young boy? What aspects of youth are they drawing upon for their own uses?

    -Cole Ryberg

  4. The introduction to Katherine Anne Porter states that she wrote about her personal life experiences and that “Flowering Judas” deals with revolutionary politics in Mexico during the early 1900s. However, familiarity with the exact revolutionary circumstances seems unnecessary. While there are instances of interesting shifts in point of view and language, “Flowering Judas” seems less radical than other modernist stories we have read.

    Do you feel that knowledge of the Mexican political situation is necessary for its classification as a modernist story and is it classified as modernist only because it was written during the time of that literary movement? If not, what literary techniques justify this categorization?

    • I agree that it is rather unnecessary to understand the role that the Mexican Revolutionary politics are established in the short story. I also agree that it has a less radical nature than most of the other stories we’ve read so far. However, Porter interweaves a complex abstractness to the story, that as a reader provides difficulty in understanding some of the aspects in the story. For instance, we have a vague idea of Laura’s role in the revolution. Although we are reading this from her point of view for the most part, we receive a rather limited perspective in what she does. Especially with Eugenio’s death and Laura’s part in that situation. The reader is left to try to connect the dots when there is very limited information for us to go off of. This technique allows Porter to display a very complex situation; one that is very powerful in it’s ability of forcing the reader to read more in between the lines. This is rather a common element in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” and other pieces we have read so far.

  5. From Chris Savage:

    In Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” the title itself is uttered by the female character in the narrative. She describes the hills around the trains station as looking like white elephants, then seeks the males approval of her comparison. There is a struggle for power and dominance between the two characters throughout the story, and one has to wonder, then, what exactly the title of the story indicates. Is it a reference to the struggle for power between the man and woman, or is it an indication of nothing, some modernist technique of distraction?

    • Well personally I didn’t read it as a struggle for power in the story. I read the story as an awkward exchange of dialogue almost. The sudden changes in topic and the short answers kind of display a bit of a tension between the two characters concerning some sort of “operation.” It’s pretty evident to me as I read it that the two characters have a lot going through their minds and possibly a lot of unexpressed emotion as well. So with that said, I kind of see the white elephant mention as a sort of “elephant in the room” type deal given the amount of tension. But I also like to think that Hemingway wasn’t that corny and blatant. But just a thought.

      • I definitely agree with the above comment. The awkward dialogue between the couple suggests an uncomfortable subject that they are both trying to discuss and avoid discussing at the same time. Because of this, it seems to be a topic of some importance, perhaps with a time limit in which to make a decision about the matter at hand. Most people assume this to be the topic of abortion. There are many speculations that the “white elephant” is a reference in some way to pregnancy, the fetus, and giving birth, but I much prefer the idea of the “elephant” in the room.” Though it is mildly corny and blatant, I think it makes the most logical sense. Then again, when was Hemingway ever trying to make logical sense?

  6. Anderson’s “Hands” calls attention to itself as a story more overtly than most of the Modernist fiction we have read thus far. The narrator distinguishes himself deliberately from the subject of the story, at one point even addressing the implied reader directly. “Let us look briefly into the story of the hands,” the narrator says (Norton 1425). This overt distinction between the narrator and protagonist is reminiscent of earlier movements in fiction, yet this piece is called Modern. What is it about this story that distinguishes it as a true Modernist work? Certainly it does not seek to capture reality as closely as possible the way Realism does; in fact, it delineates a story in which perception of reality has been skewed, both for the townspeople who ran the protagonist, Wing Biddlebaum, out of Pennsylvania, and even for Wing himself, who although he doesn’t understand how he’s done something wrong, assumes it must have something to do with his hands. Is this skewed perception of reality what makes “Hands” stand apart from previous eras in writing as a Modernist work? And was this a deliberate critique by Anderson of the Realism movement? Could Anderson perhaps be attempting to turn Realism on its head by showing that it is impossible to know or capture the entire truth?

  7. Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” is one we have discussed in class several times at this point in the semester, and as a general practice I have opened group discussion each time with the question, “What significance do you see in the metaphor of the white elephants?”. I personally cannot find any one explanation that I feel does the metaphor true justice. It was an idea that obviously preoccupied Hemmingway’s mind in the writing of the short story, so much so it became the title and yet in a reading the moment can easily be written off as minor aspect. What purpose does this brief moment in the story truly serve? I am extremely interested in finding out what you think.

  8. Sherwood Anderson was born and spent a large part of his life in Ohio. What was the the state of Ohio during his writing of Winesburg, Ohio and could this text be a reflection on his views of his home state? Could there be a resentment for Ohio, specifically (not just Americans, in general).

  9. The introduction to Sherwood Anderson states the distrust of modern industrial society as one of Anderson’s preoccupations. The introduction also provides the information that Anderson’s father’s training and skill as a harness maker became useless in the new world of the automobile. I find this information essential for the interpretation that the hands of Wing Biddlebaum represent the only form of true expression and individualism in a nation of increasing industrialism.

    In Sherwood Anderson’s “Hands,” the character Wing Biddlebaum’s own hands are contrasted with the “quiet inexpressive hands of the other men” as being “the piston rods of his machinery of expression.” Biddlebaum’s hands negatively “attracted attention merely because of their activity.” Provided the information in the introduction to Sherwood Anderson, do you think Anderson is revealing his skepticism of industrialization as taking away the nation’s individuality through his character Biddlebaum?

    • I don’t think there’s much reason to say that Biddlebaum in “Hands” has anything to do with industrialization. The story seems to have more of a Southern Gothic quality to it (or perhaps more accurately, a Midwestern Gothic). He paints a grotesque picture in both Biddlebaum’s fragility and reservedness, and the ruthlessness of the Pennsylvanian town from which he came. Rather than a commentary on industrialization per se, I’d say it’s more of a commentary on the American small town, and more simply, just a very subtle and evocative character study. The exploration of a dark character and his idiosyncratic psychological history is part of what I think makes “Hands” a very Modernist piece.

  10. In Faulkner’s Barn Burning, Sartoris only achieves a sense of peace when he leaves behind his family. Although his father warns him that “You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you”, he finds a sense of freedom not in family but in his eventual solitude. Is this break with family/community and the emphasis on the individual and the power of his actions to control his own life modernist? Or anti-modernist when one thinks of typical modernist themes such as the powerlessness of the individual in the face of modern society, a sense of defeat/fatalism, and a longing for tradition and established meaning ( all illustrated well in Hemmingways Hills Like White Elephants). What might it mean or what more could be said about the fact that Sartoris does take his life into his own hands, even if it means he ends up alone? Would you classify this more, roughly, along the lines of a success or failure and why?- Laci Thompson

    • Sarty is Faulkner’s protagonist in the story “Barn Burning” and his character fits into the modernist template. Sartoris is burdened by his loyalty to his father’s lifestyle, and he understands that he inherited an “old blood which he had not been permitted to choose for himself, which had been bequeathed him willy nilly and which had run for so long … before it came to him.” Sarty’s character is not better than Abner’s, or even more virtuous, since he seems to understand that regardless of his actions, he will inherit this “old blood.” Sarty clearly understands that he cannot change the past, but what makes him special is that he has the audacity to reassess the present. Before his pragmatic betrayal, Sarty continually questions his loyalty. He is an individual, constrained by familial expectations (history), yet free to reach his own conclusions (present/future). From a modernist perspective, Sartoris triumphs, because he embraces his past, and labors to find satisfaction in the future by fixing the present.

  11. Sherwood Anderson’s “Hands,” John Dos Passos’ “Newsreel,” and William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” all have elements of confusion or absurdity in their construction, and reception by the reader. Dos Passos is said to have disliked “the depersonalization of contemporary urban life;” Faulkner has a penchant to examine the dark side of human nature, and Anderson held a “distrust of modern industrial society.” These preoccupations of the authors seem to affect their work more than any ‘trends’ in a literary ‘style’. Modernism in these stories is expressed by a tumultuous world surrounding a character, and/or a reader. Nothing makes sense. The sad fate of Biddlebaum in “Hands,” the incoherence of worldly events in “Newsreel,” and the bewildering milieu in which Sarty lives in “Barn Burning” all speak a world that is impossible to understand. It seems that ‘Modernism’ for these three authors was simply that they lived in a time of great change in both society and science (psychology). Are there other values present in these stories besides the sentiments that society is sadly going insane/changing in radical ways?

    Cameron Timmons

  12. Faulkner and Hemingway have two very distinct styles. Hemingway’s iceberg technique leaves many thoughts and feelings unwritten but not necessarily unnoticed. Faulkner tends to write the stream of consciousness well as its very evident in his long and confusing sentences. While Hemingway seems to omit a lot and Faulkner seems to do the opposite, but yet they coexist within the same genre of Modernism. My question is how are these two very different styles connected in the realm of Modernism?

    • I see this instance as merely reflections on the human condition. In Hemingway’s case the true human spirit lies beneath the surface. And in Faulkner’s case, he demonstrates the human spirit’s tendencies toward the complexities of consciousness. While the two styles are related in this fashion, I feel that literature in general is an exploration of the human condition. But what exactly ties these two together in Modernism?

  13. I really found William Faulkner’s Barn Burning interesting, especially because of its blurred and vague atmosphere. Indeed, the reader does not know Sartoris’ age, we lack names such as his older brother’s and his sisters’. Additionally, we see everything through Sartoris’ eyes and feelings; therefore we do not have any information about what will happen next; like the kid we totally depend on Snopes’ destructive desires. For instance, the feeling I had when Sartoris gets punched in the face is exactly the same as when I am dreaming and willing to run but I just cannot; all is slow and blurred, and this is very well transcribed.
    This vagueness is pretty modernist, that is right; but what is its meaning in this story? Is that because Sartoris loses his points of reference because of a kind of Stockholm syndrome alienation: admiring a father he fears?

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