Reading through a biased lens.

It occurs to me, although I certainly intuitively knew it before today, that when we approach any piece of literature, our experience and interpretation of that literary work is highly influenced by our pasts, politics, and personal psychology.

However, when someone else’s experience of a piece of literature is so far removed from mine that I am incredulous that we even read the same piece, it gets my attention. This happened to me quite recently and although my initial conclusions about the story in question didn’t change, I appreciated the opportunity to hear another point of view.

Fortunately, the story I am referring to can be read in as little as 20 minutes, so if any one reading here is interested in the context for what follows, you can click over and read Guy de Maupassant’s The Necklace.

As I read this story, what happens in my mind is what often happens. In response to the obvious vain ingratitude by the female protagonist, various proverbs sprang to mind: “Pride goeth before a fall”. “A wise woman builds her house but a foolish one tears it down with her hands”. From the story’s opening line, I saw a protagonist who set herself and her husband up for misery of some sort or other down the road.

In contrast, I listened to a discussion where other well-read, educated readers found the protagonist extremely sympathetic, and her husband overly indulgent. To be fair, the discussion certainly included discussion of the importance of contentment, but overall my interpretation of this story was distinctly in the minority.

Rather than rage on with my particular views which were irrelevant to the story, I took a moment to examine which of my inherent biases made it hard for me to see this character in a sympathetic light. One such bias is based on the fact that I spent my formative years being raised by one parent, my father. Because of that, I am instinctively more sympathetic to the sacrifices and hard work of men who provide for their families. It has helped me tremendously in my “career” as a wife, but all biases have a potential to wall us off from other perspectives that are worthy of consideration.

I am happy to stand back enough to acknowledge this about myself, although I wonder how many of us are aware that our understanding of the world, history, and literature is largely hindered by the fact that our educational institutions treat all topics as if the world sprang into existence in 1920.

14 thoughts on “Reading through a biased lens.

  1. elspeth says:

    For the record, this discussion was not for the class I am teaching. This was a discussion among adults. My students have been assigned this story for next week’s class, as this story is appropriate for teenagers to read and learn from.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. hearthie says:

    Hm. I ran over to read the story, which I found nearly unreadable – I don’t like to hold my protagonists in contempt. (Or why Hearthie reads almost no “literature” at all). I agree that the husband was overly indulgent. Silly young women who think they should be in a different social class than they actually are aren’t UNUSUAL creatures, and indulging them isn’t useful.

    Am a bit baffled by the concept that reviewing literature wouldn’t have anything to do with one’s experience. I had to preface enough of my papers in college with my race/class/gender :p


  3. Elspeth says:

    I fully expect to have my reading influenced by my experiences. I was more surprised that I was alone (well, almost) in my lack of sympathy for the protagonist given the group I was engaged with.

    I saw her husband as giving her a once in a lifetimes experience from a selfless heart rather than indulging her. I certainly didn’t think he was a “poor leader”.

    Of course, this very evening my man says I am too pampered, LOL, so…

    The other thought that occurred to me was her ingrained belief that being born pretty made her worthy of high society. I thought people back in the day were -generally- more resigned to their stations. particularly in places other than America.

    She was so 21st Century!


  4. Elspeth says:

    My girls agree with you Hearth. Bright Eyes actually said that giving his silly wife an inch was his first (indulgent) mistake on his way to letting her go a mile.

    Okay, then…


  5. hearthie says:

    -shrugs- It’s a story. The point of the story was probably to warn young women against that kind of vanity. So, we can both be right.

    The idea that someone’s looks showed their REAL character was a big part of fiction around the turn of the last century. Big part of a lot of ideas from that era.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Elspeth says:

    -shrugs- It’s a story. The point of the story was probably to warn young women against that kind of vanity. So, we can both be right.

    Absolutely. It made for entertaining, stmulating conversation about things other #metoo, Trump, or President Oprah, so win-win. Books and stories are great for that.

    4th grader is reading Peter Pan. The originall, unabridged, which is a challenge so we are reading it aloud and it’s not uncommon for one of us to read a line or two and hear another family nearby chuckle or comment at the something in the story.

    Makes me smile.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Elspeth says:

    I know. I was being facetious,. My comedic voice is horible, LOL.

    Although I admit an idealized perception that outside of America people were more resigned to their stations in life.


  8. Anne says:

    I was hoping to hear more on how these people thought she was sympathetic. I have trouble imagining that view, and you seem to have been edified by their perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Elspeth says:

    I didn’t find her any more sympathetic, but I did see how her husband enabled her a bit more than I saw at the first. He also could have spared them their ordeal if he had been honest with her friend. The true cost of the necklace was well within what they could afford to replace.

    I still saw her as quite foolish though. She basically thought her husband was beneath her which is pretty bad. And despite all her airs, she couldn’t tell any more than he could that the necklace was a fake.


  10. Anne says:

    Yes, I agree with you. The putting on airs and dishonesty really got to me, and her husband could have prevented it all by not being so indulgent.


  11. AmyP says:

    It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but I see it as a more hard core version of The Gift of the Magi in which the two main characters both suffer and sacrifice unnecessarily because they didn’t talk to each other when they should have, just as the heroine of The Necklace should have spoken to her friend.

    What I most got out of The Necklace when I read it is that the heroine starts out vain and frivolous, but loses those qualities and develops strength and heroism while paying off the debt. Again, it’s like a super-sized version of The Gift of the Magi–but instead of being about sacrifice for gifts of love, it’s about sacrifice in order to preserve one’s honor, and how making those sacrifices transforms the heroine.

    Liked by 1 person

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