Morris Mtisi Education Correspondent
WE all know that examinations require students to respond independently to selected passages of ‘‘unseen’’ prose, drama texts and poetry.
Each student of literature obviously finds one of these easier than the others. However it is also known that practical criticism of poetry preoccupies the minds and preferences of many teachers and students.
Today we want to do the unusual but proper thing and study a prose passage for our practical criticism exercise. Indeed we will realise that our criteria or guiding principles of analysis is the same as with any of the other literary forms. We will still first try to establish the SITUATION, then its MOVEMENT or DEVELOPMENT through specific language techniques and structures and finally the PURPOSE or INTENTION of the writer.
We of course remember to assert our powers of OBSERVATION, CONCENTRATION, COMPREHENSION, REFLECTION, IMAGINATION and JUDGMENT as we do so, until we like the ‘‘lawyers’’ and ‘‘judges’’ we are emulating to become, arrive at a CONCLUSIVE JUDGEMENT of whether the message intended by the author was conveyed and conveyed successfully or not.
The following is the passage. Please do not miss a copy of The Manica Post to read the continuation of the demonstration answer.
I sat on my bed and tried to think, with my head in my hands. But a huge sledgehammer was beating down on my brain as on an anvil and my thoughts were scattering sparks.
I soon realised that what was needed was action; quick, sharp action. I rose to my feet and willed myself about gathering my things into the suitcase. I had no clear idea what I would do next, but for the moment that did not trouble me; the present loomed so large. I brought down my clothes one at a time from the wardrobe, folded them and packed them neatly; then I brought my things from the bathroom and put them away.
These simple operations must have taken me a long time to complete. In all that time I did not think anything particularly. I just bit my lower lip until it was sore. Occasionally words like “Good Heavens” escaped me and came aloud. When I had finished packing, I slumped down in the chair and then got up again and went out into the sitting-room to see if the sounds were still coming. But all was now dark and quiet upstairs.
‘‘My word!’’ I remember saying; then I went to wait for Elsie. For I knew she would come down shedding tears of shame and I would kick her out and bang the door on her forever. I waited and waited, and then, strange as it may sound, dozed off. When I started awake I had that dull heavy terror of knowing that something terrible had happened without immediately remembering what it was.
Of course, the uncertainty only lasted one second, or less. Recollection and pain followed soon enough, and then the humiliating wound came alive again and began to burn more fresh than when first inflicted. My watch said a few minutes past four. And Elsie had not come. My eyes misted. A thing that had not happened to me in God knows how long. Anyway the tears hung back. I took off my pyjamas, got into other clothes, and left the room by the private door.
I walked for hours, keeping to the well-lit streets. The dew settled on my head and helped to numb my feelings. Soon my nose began to run and, as I hadn’t brought a handkerchief, I blew it into the roadside drain by closing each nostril in turn with my first finger.
As dawn came, my head began to clear a little and I saw Bori stirring. I met a night-soil man carrying his bucket of ordure on top of a battered felt hat drawn down to hood his upper face while his nose and mouth were masked with a piece of black cloth like a gangster. I saw beggars sleeping under the eaves of luxurious department stores and a lunatic sitting wide awake by the basket of garbage he called his possession.
The first red buses running empty passed me and I watched the street lights go off finally around six. I drank in all these details with the morning air. It was strange perhaps that a man who had so much on his mind should find time to pay attention to these small inconsequential things; it was like the man in the proverb who was carrying the carcass of an elephant on his head and searching with his toe for a grasshopper. But that was how it happened. It seems that no thought-no matter how great-had the power to exclude all others.
Practical criticism (demonstration)
The passage obviously comes from a novel or story. We cannot deduce a great deal of the general situation in which it occurs, but the passage itself is quite self-contained. We can recognise that it concerns a person who has recently suffered from some kind of stupefying shock, apparently connected with the non-appearance of a girl called Elsie.
To begin with he is presented to us in a bedroom, perhaps in a hotel or private house where he is a visitor. As a result of the shock he has experienced, he is preparing to leave.
He falls asleep for a short time, wakes up suddenly, and decides to go. In the hours before dawn, he wanders round the streets of a large city, Bori, which seems to be characterised by extremes of modern luxury and sordid poverty. The carrying of the ‘‘night-soil’’ through the streets of the well-lit city, as well as some other aspects of the writing which we shall examine later, suggests that Bori is a great city in one of the developing countries.
There is very little to stop our quick understanding of the passage. All the resources of technique are used to help our progress. The passage is not wonderfully ‘‘literary’’ with many quantities of original or clever figurative devices, or learned allusions. But it does have a character of its own, and we can find plenty to say about the techniques used to create its literary impact.
The basic language of the passage is very simple and unpretentious. In terms of sentence formation and vocabulary, we notice the easy variations of sentence pattern. When we read the passage spontaneously we do not take conscious thought of them because our thoughts are held principally by the sense of the narrative (the story).
To be continued next week . . .