Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Debating the A-word

Most of my phone call this morning with old pal Betty Carter revolved around gossip, grandchildren and the pleasures of being a Scorpio in an unsuspecting world, but Betty did advance a question that I thought might be of interest here. "Have you noticed," she asked, "that most of the book debate this year has been about allegory?" and went on to mention The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, Gossamer, and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. It's true that each of these titles has inspired strong reactions; also true that what's often being debated is "the lesson" of each story, both its nature and effectiveness. All stories have lessons, of course, but these three seem particularly fixed upon "the representation of abstract ideas or principles by characters, figures, or events in narrative, dramatic, or pictorial form," my digital AHD's definition of allegory.

Betty also included Jeannette Winter's picture book Mama in this group, but I'm not so sure about that one. Fable, maybe, except it's practically nonfiction. (And, jeez, that's another discussion. While looking back over the year's books for our Fanfare list, we're finding many whose adherence to a given genre seems distinctly optional.) But like the novels above, it's brought the knives out. Why is that? I'm all for a little sharp carving, but I'm wondering if there's something in the nature of allegory itself that prompts the strong response.


Brooke said...

You're right -- allegories and debate have gone hand in hand forever.

In the same way that a riddle can't be considered complete without an answer, and a fable isn't finished without a pithy little moral, an allegory begs us to give an interpretation. What raises hackles, I suppose, is when what we come up with to "solve" an allegory disagrees with us somehow.

rindambyers said...

I'm curious about what the little bits that are in danger of being C--ed might look like?!

MotherReader said...

Well, I actually thought I had something clever to say, but now I can just agree with Brooke instead.

But really, while straight fiction invites interpretation, an allegory requires interpretation. It seems natural with many possible avenues of interpretation, that there would be more room for controversy.

Or Tulane just stinks. One or the other.

Andy Laties said...

I was surprised to learn recently the specific allegorical meaning of George Orwell's novel ANIMAL FARM. Have I written in about this before? I can't remember. However -- it's fascinating, so I'll do it again. Sorry if I'm repeating.

Orwell had trouble publishing ANIMAL FARM in wartime Britain because its allegorical intent was clearly to promote Trotsky and attack Stalin. Because Britain was allied with Russia during WWII, the British government didn't allow ANIMAL FARM to be published. It was the specifically anti-Stalin "lesson" that was the problem!

Later the book was of course read simply as an anti-Communist allegory. This was incorrect. It was pro-Trotskyite, anti-Stalinist.

Maybe some of these children's books with supposedly general lessons are actually highly specific -- they're about the Bush White House or Enron or Martha Stewart.