Conduct of Life & "Homespun Love"

Today in class we looked at how we can understand literature better by evaluating the author's argument and looking at literature in the context it was written.

Evaluating an Author's Argument

What is an author trying to say with a piece? What the point he/she is making? This is how we evaluate (judge) an author's argument or thesis or theme.

This is all about asking the right questions. We do this every time we make observations and interact with something, but it's important to articulate the skill to make sure that we are asking the best questions to understand what the author is saying.

When we looked at Laura Jame's picture, we asked many questions of ourselves in order to record our observations, feelings, and inferences. It's important to become conscious of the questions we're asking to make sure we are asking the best questions. Some questions lead us to understanding; some don't. Some really get to the essence of the story. Some are peripheral. Some aren't even answerable by the text or image.

For example, in Laura James' picture we are faced with several questions...


We could ask ourselves what the woman in the chair is like?

Why does it seem like the outside is coming into the room (roof, clouds, grass)?

What is the relationship between her and the children (?) running out of the rooms.

Or we could ask ourselves why the sparrow in the picture isn't a blue jay

Obviously, some of these questions will be more effective in understanding the picture than others.

Once we've asked these questions we can look at what we believe the author is saying. For example, when I look at Laura James painting Maypole Mother I ask myself...

1. What are the figures in the picture, and what is their relationship?

2. Why are the children leaving?

3. Why is the outside coming in?

4.Why are there strings attaching the children to the mother?

By working to answer these questions with the images in the painting, I get a sense of what Laura James is saying. I can then come up with a supported thesis of what her main idea might be.

Thesis: Laura James' painting Maypole Mother uses symbolic imagery to explore the complex relationship between a mother and her children.

Point 1. She paints a mother at the center and children exiting, with the mother sitting stoically accepting the fact.

Point 2. As the children exit the outside world is encroaching, as if taking the children away.

Point 3. The strings represent ties the mother keeps between herself and the children even as they leave.

The Best Questions to Ask

As we graded Conduct of Human Life questions we look at two things.

1. How well can we answer the question with what we have?

2. What can we learn from the question?

I suggest that you pass all of your evaluating questions through these two tests. Then, you will be able to decide if the question is worth pursuing.

The answers to these questions may be subjective. One student may find instances in the text another student can't see, or one person may see the importance of a question that another student doesn't. The point is to become conscious of your choice of questions leading into analysis.

Literature in Context - Conduct of Life

The next idea we talked about today was that literature frequently needs to be understood in context.

Conduct could not be understood if it were set today in the U.S., so sometimes circumstances are key to understanding meaning.

Where did Fornes set her play and when? How does Fornes design her set? What is notable about the entire set depicted with moving locations on a unit set.

What is the purpose of the levels and the textures or materials used for the set? How are the costumes depicted? How are the characters dressed and what does this tell us about them? What can these things tell us about the ideas in her play?

Understanding the context both historic and staging, help us to interpret the ideas in her work.

Understanding Fornes' life and experiences may help at all with contextualizing her work. Here is her biography from Enotes.

Literature in Context - "Homespun Love"

Similarly, to understand Alicia Partnoy's work, understanding her life is key. Here is Alicia Partnoy's biography adapted from wikipedia.

Alicia Partnoy (born 1955 in Bahía Blanca, Argentina) is a human rights activist, poet, and translator.After Argentinian President Juan Perón died, the students from the left of the Peronist political party organized with fervor within the country's universities and with workers, were persecuted and imprisoned. There was a military coup in 1976 and people began to disappear.Partnoy was one of those who suffered through the ordeals of becoming a political prisoner. Partnoy became an activist of the Peronist Youth Movement while attending Southern National University.She was taken from her home with her two-year old daughter on January 12, 1977, by the Army and imprisoned at a concentration camp named The Little School (La Escuelita).[2][3] For three and a half months, Partnoy was blindfolded. She was brutally beaten, starved, molested, and forced to live in inhuman conditions. She spent a total of two and a half years as a prisoner of conscience, with no charges. In 1979, she was forced to leave the country and moved to the U.S. where she was reunited with her daughter and her husband. In 1985, she told her story of what had happened to her at The Little School, in an eponymous book.[4] The world began to open its eyes to the treatment of women in reference to the disappearances of Latin America.

To truly understand Partnoy's poem about love, shouldn't we understand what she has experienced, and how this may have shaped her understanding of love?

She has been an activist. She has been unjustly imprisoned, tortured, molested. Her daughter was abducted as well. What does love look like after this?

I have also included a link to Partnoy reading her own poems - Here.

"A Homespun Love"

Alicia Partnoy

Because this humble and homespun love

-just as you see it, simple, unadorned-

is what keeps our feet on ground,

is what engenders the fruit of our nonconformity,and throws us a lifeboard amidst the shipwreck.

Every so often our love blazes like thousands of stars,

gets dressed up to go out and uncorks

bottles of effervescence, cases of laughter.

You see, every so often, when the moment is right,

our love recalls that is it, like we are, a survivor.



by Alicia Partnoy

I carry my rage like a dead fish,

limp and stinking in my arms.

I press it against my breast,

whisper to it, people on the streets flee from me …

I don't know: is it the smell of death that makes them flee

or is it the fear that my body's warmth might bring rage back to life?