How to Think for Yourself in VCE English & Literature

September 21, 2020joelleva

In subjects like English, Literature and even Media, students don’t see the light - their vision is blurred by curriculums, course structures, study guides and even the ideas circulated in a class by their teachers. One needs to realise that all of the content in these subjects is open to interpretation, meaning that one can form their own point of view, wherever it stems from, and write freely on the concepts that appeal to them. Every author, be it of a novel, an opinion piece, or a film, uses symbolism, motifs, tone, characterisation to form their voice and explore different themes, often relative to their own lives and experiences. Just as a musician has his sounds, his melodies, his rhythm, writers have their own instruments of communication. As readers, we interpret these to process their stories, but more deeply, as students, we connect to their pieces through our Empathy. Through this innate human quality one truly understands a work and finds a relation to it. Thus, while the ideas proposed to your class by your teachers are important, or those you find online in discussion threads, or general observations of classmates and scholars, one should only use these as a stimulant to go deeper into the text they are studying, and to bring their own awareness of the text to newer levels. 

This level of Thought takes time - in the same way, you connect with your friends, your family, and even your pets - you can connect with the characters you are studying. While they remain as figures solely in your imagination, in a world created by the author, they still express emotions like you, have their own idiosyncrasies like you and face human conflicts similar to all of us. We are always fighting to understand something about ourselves, be it identity, purpose, or place. And these are like horizons in our mind, always eluding us, even when we believe we are getting closer. Hence why we constantly we read stories throughout our lifetime, why we interpret the world as we experience it, and why we have the urge to communicate to people: because we want to be understood, as if this is how we understand ourselves. This is the human condition. As a reader of a story, you are a spectator to someone else’s struggle with this - you face their internal questions with them as they navigate the chaos of their own world and you are a witness to their actions and reactions.

To think freely about a story you first need to make sense of the world created by the writer and the challenges they pose to their characters. And you can do this by looking into yourself. Think about how some characters let us down, how they force us to sympathise with their situation; or how others inspire us, how they make us dream. Reflect on who you are through this character - try to understand what emotions a character makes you feel, and ask yourself: Why do I want this character to continuing fighting for his or her cause? Why does this character validate what I believe? Why I am I asking the same questions to myself? Why am I not? Why does his or her world confuse me too? Often a narrative can present solutions to our own internal problems, even when we don’t realise it, as while everyone's belief system is unique to them, all humans, fictional or not, have the same inherent instincts that one can connect to and learn from.

The first time I read The Catcher In The Rye it made me want to abandon school, my job, my family - all of my responsibilities - and meander about alone, drinking coffee and reading books - basically resisting adulthood, just like Holden Caulfield. To me, he was a hero. Yet after leaving high school and experiencing the third world, my perspective changed. I went to some raw parts of South East Asia and saw people in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar fighting to fulfil very basic human needs, such as food and shelter. They weren’t fighting to be someone in society, or someone resisting it - they were just trying to exist. There I realised that the mind can go down many tangents, often building up an idea of itself, like its own character within its own story. I read The Catcher In The Rye again when I returned home and saw that while Holden was an example of defiance by withstanding authority and fighting for his innocence, the only person he was truly defying was himself; and while this cause may appeal to someone young, whose internal dialogue is asking for definition - to someone more worldly, and free of teenage angst, Holden is ultimately insecure and afraid. It took a long time for me to realise this. But the beauty of the mind is that it absorbs and grows like a seed when you nourish it - hence the relevance of writers throughout history, as their works are like water and sun. All stories have periods of tension, of equilibrium, and a wider implication - and all of these moments occur organically, as in our own lives. The more time you spend with the characters, the more you will see their plight in yourself; and therefore when they’re questions are answered, so are yours, for all humans are made of related thoughts and feelings, and an author is only trying to communicate theirs. It becomes a message when you, the reader, the student, become its recipient - when you think and feel like the characters do, and find meaning in their lives through a connection to your own.

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