by Mary Becker Quinn, Spanish and Portuguese
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2002
“Reading and Literary Analysis” (Spanish 25) is the first literature class required in the Spanish department. Because it is a course organized by genre, the students’ command of literary form is essential. Equally essential, therefore, is the instructor’s ability to demonstrate why such knowledge is vital to the study of literature. In the prose unit, for example, the students are required to learn the standard elements of a plot: exposition, development, suspense, turning point, climax, and denouement. I developed the following exercise, based on Julio Cortázar’s story “La noche boca arriba,” to show them that this knowledge can prove crucial for the complete analysis and understanding of this specific story, and more generally to show that there indeed frequently exists a fundamental relationship between theme and form in literature.
“La noche boca arriba” begins with a man’s motorcycle accident and subsequent hospitalization. When he is drugged for an operation, we enter his dream world, which becomes a parallel storyline. In the fantasy realm he is not a man of the 20th century, but part of the “moteca” tribe (a play in Spanish on the word for motorcycle) who is being pursued by the Aztecs. But as the story continues, the dream states become longer and more vivid, and in the end, as the “moteca” is about to become a human sacrifice to Aztec gods (and the man of the 20th century, we presume, is about to be operated upon), the protagonist realizes that in fact fantasy is reality, and the dream world was that of the 20th century. The story ends with the protagonist’s inability to wake up (and thus return to see his hospital surroundings) and his subsequent death in the Aztec temple.
The parallel storylines at first simply seem to provide a dual opportunity to chart plot. And so, for the first twenty minutes of the class, the students are placed in small groups (3-4 students each) during which they complete the provided worksheet. The sheet has two columns with the headings “Realidad” (real world) and “Sueño” (dream world) and under each column are listed the 6 elements of plot. What is the exposition of the “real” world and what is the exposition of the “dream” world? Etc.
Cortázar: “La noche boca arriba”
|El punto decisivo
I then write the plot elements on the board and have them come up and fill in their various ideas. As a class we discuss and come to conclusions about their differing answers regarding exposition, development, suspense and turning point in both storylines. But the exercise becomes more interesting (and, indeed, more instructive) when the students reach the climax and denouement sections. For here the students realize that the two storylines have collapsed into one. Cortázar has woven the parallel stories so tightly together, that the “real” and the “dream” sections have the same climax and the same denouement. (The protagonist cannot wake-up [climax] and will therefore be sacrificed and die a “moteca” [denouement]). Cortázar, who blurred the line between reality and dream in so many other ways throughout the story, has also blurred it formally in the plot. At the end of the exercise, it is apparent that the students have understood its objective because they must leave blank the last two segments of plot in the “reality” column. Cortázar’s purpose and mine are rendered perfectly clear.
For the last few minutes of class, I stress to the students that Cortázar has manipulated the plot in order to support his theme. By showing the interconnectedness of theme and form, the students begin to understand why a purely subjective response to literature (their frequent first impulse) is not adequate. And, far from an isolated exercise, learning how theme and form relate is how one begins to learn to read literature.