Examples of textual analyses

Below are two textual analyses, one written by Alex Custodio, a student in the class. The second is my own, which I pulled out of a longer piece. I chose these two analyses because they model close attention to language and detail. The analysis of the passage from Miss Brodie is especially effective not only for making an interesting observation about the passage, but also for following up this observation with a careful exploration of what the observation means. For each analysis, the passage is given first, followed by my reading:

1. Straddling the Line between Platonic and Erotic: Education in the Homosocial Classroom in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Alex Custodio © 2014.

“I am summoned to see the headmistress at morning break on Monday,” said Miss Brodie. “I have no doubt Miss Mackay [the headmistress] wishes to question my methods of instruction. It has happened before. It will happen again. Meanwhile, I follow my principles of education and give of the best in my prime. The word ‘education’ comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education, I call it intrusion, from the Latin root prefix in meaning in and the stem trudo, I thrust. Miss Mackay’s method is to thrust a lot of information into a pupil’s head; mine is a leading out of knowledge, and that is true education as is proved by the root meaning. Now Miss Mackay has accused me of putting ideas into my girls’ heads, but in fact that is her practice and mine is quite the opposite. Never let it be said that I put ideas into your heads.” (Spark, 36)

A woman in her self-professed “prime” (Spark 36), Miss Brodie portrays herself as being in “the … state of greatest perfection or vigour in life, after immaturity and before physical decline sets in” (OED Online). Biologically speaking, one’s prime is the period of fertility that succeeds youth but precedes inevitable senescence. As a fertile figure, Miss Brodie’s relationship to her students straddles the line between nurturing mother and subject of sexual attraction. She ultimately explores both avenues in an attempt to wholly shape her students.

On one hand, Miss Brodie presents herself as a non-sexual, non-threatening maternal figure who cultivates a particular but nonetheless platonic relationship with her students. She places herself in opposition to Miss Mackay regarding not only their teaching styles but also their allegiance to gender, where Miss Brodie and Miss Mackay embody the female and the male respectively.

According to Miss Brodie, Miss Mackay teaches through “intrusion” (36), meaning “to thrust” (36), which has a profoundly masculine sexual connotation. As headmistress, the masculinised Miss Mackay has the right to “question [Miss Brodie’s] methods of instruction” (36), whereas Miss Brodie does not have equal authority. When Miss Brodie says of her meeting with Miss Mackay, “[i]t has happened before. It will happen again” (36), she confides to her students that she has been and will continue to be engaged in a rebellion against the gendered and sexually suggestive “putting in of something that is not there” (36). Miss Brodie therefore presents herself as a maternal figure concerned with protecting her students from unwanted male dominance.

Jean Brodie’s platonic love, however, can easily develop into erotic desire. When she discusses “what is already there in a pupil’s soul” (36), she implies that her students already have a certain amount of knowledge that endears them to her. By appealing to the girls’ vanity and making them feel special, Miss Brodie markets herself as an attractive alternative to a masculine sexuality. The epithet “my girls” (36) exposes Miss Brodie’s desire to own and collect her students. She goes as far as to say, “give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life” (9), which suggests a complete reshaping of these sexually naïve women. The possessive adjectives “my” and “mine” cross the boundaries of generative motherhood and move towards a system of submission wherein Miss Brodie can become the lifelong subject of sexual desire.

Although Miss Brodie attempts to convince the girls she is a feminine figure to whom they can look up, her etymological argumentation betrays her affection for the intrusive system she derides. She concludes her lecture with the fervent imperative, “never let it be said that I put ideas into your heads” (37), which, ironically, is one such idea. In an intimate relationship that operates within the existing parameters of the female body, Miss Brodie “lead[s] out […] what is already” (36) in her students’ heads to make room for her own “ideas” (36), and goes as far as to declare, “I am putting old heads on your young shoulders” (8)—that is to say, sexually mature heads on their shoulders. In a polished lecture ostensibly about education, Miss Brodie twists her girls’ perceptions in order for them to see Miss Mackay as an embodiment of dominating male sexuality, and herself as both a protective mother and a female sexual alternative. By adopting these opposite yet complementary positions, Miss Brodie gains the trust and submission of her students and can thereby model them according to her own ideals and visions of sexual awakening.

Works Cited

“prime, n.1.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2014. Web. 6 October 2014.

Spark, Muriel. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. New York: Penguin, 1961.

 

2. A short reading of Stephen’s nonsense rhyme in Portrait, by Daniel Aureliano Newman © 2013.

His own consciousness of language was ebbing from his brain and trickling into the very words themselves which set to band and disband themselves in wayward rhythms:

                   The ivy whines upon the wall,
                  And whines and twines upon the wall,
                  The yellow ivy upon the wall,
                   Ivy, ivy up the wall.

Did anyone ever hear such drivel? Lord Almighty! Who ever heard of ivy whining on a wall? Yellow ivy; that was all right. Yellow ivory also. And what about ivory ivy? The word now shone in his brain, clearer and brighter than any ivory sawn from the mottled tusks of elephants. IVORY, IVOIRE, AVORIO, EBUR. (Joyce, 128-29.)

Always accutely sensitive to words, Stephen is disturbed by his spontaneously composed nonsense poem (“the ivy whines upon the wall…”), whose effect is to makes yet another word “sh[ine] in his brain”: “ivory, ivoire, avorio, ebur” (Portrait 129). Like almost all the words and phrases that arrest Stephen’s mind, “ivory” is sexualized, here largely in connection with Eileen Vance, whose “long and white and thin and cold and soft” hands (36) help Stephen understand why the Virgin Mary is called “the Tower of Ivory” (23). The “ivory” motif reveals the link between Stephen’s sexual and artistic developments—though he himself is loath to recognize that connection. Eileen is his first potential wife (2) and thus, to his mind, his first muse. And though “ivory” lacks any etymological hint of sex or procreation, Walter Skeat’s entry for the word [in his Etymological English Dictionary, which Stephen reads in Stephen Hero] encourages a fruitful game of cross-referencing. “Ivory” appears to derive from the Sanskrit “ibha, an elephant” (304), and “elephant” from the Hebrew “eleph, aleph, an ox” (187); and the ox, a beast central to Stephen’s personal mythology, is associated with fertility (as Pasiphaë learned the hard way [after Daedalus built for her a mechanical bull to satisfy her sexual appetites]). “Ox” derives from “ukshan … a Vedic epithet of the Maruts [“storms”] who, by bringing rain … impregnate the earth like bulls…. Ox is ultimately co-radicate with humid” (Skeat 412). Both oxen and water play major roles in Stephen’s imagery of both artistic production and sexual arousal and orgasm. And the ox-humid association clarifies how Eileen’s “cold white” hands become, as it were, the “corpse-white” bodies, wet with “cold seawater,” of the schoolboys who Hellenise Stephen’s name as “Stephanos Dedalos” and “Bous Stephanoumenos! Bous Stephaneforos!” (121). These epithets link him to the sacrificial bull (Bous) and trigger his first conscious identification with Daedalus, “hawk-like man” and designer of fertile artificial bulls. Stephen the bull is now primed for an artistic epiphany—and when it comes, it is fittingly from seeing a bird-girl with thighs as “soft-hued as ivory” (Portrait 123).

Works cited

Joyce, Joyce. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Dover, 1994 [1916].

Skeat, Walter. An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1884.

© Daniel Aureliano Newman 2013

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