Literary Criticism

this little piggy

“This little piggie went to market,
This little piggie stayed at home,
This little piggie had roast-beef,
And this little piggie had none.
But this little piggie went wee wee wee, all the way home.”

Standing at the lecturn, the professor lowered his sheet of paper. Removing his glasses with one hand, he gestured to the paper now lying in front of him and raised his gaze to straffe the rows of students in front of him. Continuing his diatribe, he said, “For the majority of readers, this would be the end their literary experience of this nursery rhyme. A mere passing fancy, skimming the surface, enjoying nothing more than a trivial kick of cuteness.”

As he paced the front of the lecture theatre he hit his stride, gesticulating for emphasis as he made his points. “Some short-sighted adults even play amateur games with the toes of their children as they entertain them with the lyrics. Relishing the tactile stimulation. The interplay of images, pivoting on the visual similarity between chubby toes and baby pigs. An activity that is no doubt stimulating to the development of the young brain.”

Suddenly reaching a crescendo, he stopped and pivoted to face the students. “But you”, he continued, finger sweeping the room to include the gathered first years, “you are made of better stuff. To you falls the task of going beyond the surface. Past the mundane to the profound. To ask the questions that lead us into a deeper understanding of the purpose of the text. To understand what the author was truely intending to communciate, both to his original audience and now to us. And so, to gain an insight into the transcendent meaning of the text itself – the intimate, personal and unique bond that exists between reader and the read.”

The professor paused. Around the room the students sat motionless, awed by the theatrical performance in front of them. “Welcome to Literary Criticism 101”, he intoned.

“Come on now, let’s see what you are made of.” The professor clapped his hands and pointed to a student at random, “You there, what is the socio-political context in which this was written?” Obviously panicked by the sudden attention, the student fumbled for a response, but a hand shot up on the other side of the room. Snapping his attention to the new target, the professor pointed, “Yes!”

“A communist revolution?”, the volunteer ventured timidly. “Brilliant”, responded the professor, “and how can we ascertain this?”

Encouraged by the positive response, a few hands went up this time. Motioning for each to speak up in turn, various suggestions were offered.

“There’s an obvious socio-economic discrepancy between the pigs”, said one.
“Yeah, on the one hand there’s a pig sitting down to roast-beef while at the same time another is starving”, continued another.
“And the market/home juxtaposition is obviously an illusion to the contrast between a pig free to pursue a working career as opposed to another that is forced, through social pressures, to maintain a role based solely in the home. Clearly feminist overtones are at work in this piece.”
“Oh I agree”, nodded another student sagely.
“And let’s not forget the environmental imperative at work here too”, added yet another. “Who can possibly condone the pollution so blatantly enacted by the pig urinating all the way home.”

The professor nodded, encouraging the dialog as the observations and arguments ebbed and flowed among the class for a while. Ideas were proferred, ruminated on and assimilated into an ever growing conglomeration of ideology. The discussion and commentary was building to a head when finally the professor noticed one solitary hand raised at the back of the auditorium. Motioning to the class for quiet, he indicated that the student should ask her question.

“Forgive me if I’m wrong”, she began, “but it seems to me that it’s just a nursery rhyme. All this other stuff sounds like that’s just what you want it to mean.”

With that the professor cracked an enormous smile. Gesturing with his arm towards the lone student, he attended to the rest of the class. “And that class”, he laughed, “is your first lesson. People will try to twist words to imply whatever they wish, but if they do, don’t be afraid to call them on it.”

“Of course it’s just a nursery rhyme and just because I’m a professor and am implying that it’s not, doesn’t make it any different. Well done young lady, you’ve done a fine job of reinforcing my lesson for today. I look forward to seeing you in my classes in the future.”

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