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.