Some Attempts at (Re)Definition: Structure

I have been thinking for a while about how our attempts to define craft terms influence our students’ (and our own) aesthetics, and I have wanted to try other definitions. This is the final post. The first post is here.

the organization of meaning

A word has meaning only within a system of other words. For example, the pronoun he on its own refers to no one and has no meaning; the word fish in the sentence “We were playing Go Fish” has a different meaning than in the sentence “We caught a fish.” Fish refers to the kind of animal that swims in the sea and lays eggs only because we have other words for other kinds of animals, such as mammal and bird.

Similarly the word fish can take on a particular meaning within the system of a particular story, for example if the last time a boy sees his mother is on a fishing trip or if the mother, say, turns into a fish. Any part of any story has its particular meaning only within the system of that story (and any story has meaning only within a system of other stories—read: culture).

Meaning is also affected by placement—the word fish takes on its particular meaning only after the the mother turns into a fish. Before we know that the mother turned into a fish, we may be searching for the meaning of fish or we may assume the meaning our context makes us most familiar with. A reader who hates fish, for example, may take that hatred into the story, at least at first. A reader who loves fish may take that love into the story, at least at first. Almost nothing in a story is neutral, since almost everything in a story contributes to the context in which the story’s audience finds meaning.

This is true even in the order of two sentences, as in Kim was afraid of apples and Kim ate an apple. If Kim eats the apple before her fear, it is possible to read these sentences as meaning that the apple Kim ate made her afraid of apples. If Kim eats the apple after her fear, then it is possible to read these sentences as meaning that Kim overcame her fear of apples. (Of course, you could also change the order of individual words: An apple ate Kim. This may be a good reason to fear apples.)

This example can also be complicated through how much space comes between the sentences. A story that starts with Kim was afraid of apples and ends with Kim ate an apple would likely encourage its reader to interpret what comes between as what helped Kim to overcome her fear. The eating of an apple would come to represent a much greater meaning. On the other hand a story that has the two sentences somewhere in the middle, with one sentence in between (say: Kim was afraid of apples. Yoon ate an apple. Kim ate an apple.) would also give meaning to the act of eating the apple, but that act might not be interpreted as a major change, rather as a response, an attitude, an attraction, etc.

This is assuming things are chronological, but even when the sentences do not follow chronology, placement matters. Kim ate an apple. In the past, Kim had been afraid of apples. This order is still different from: In the past, Kim had been afraid of apples. Kim ate an apple. The difference may be slight, but there is a difference. Consider this: In the past, Kim had been a racist. Kim hugged her Asian friend. Kim hugged her Asian friend. In the past, Kim had been a racist. One comes as a revelation.

Extended to larger parts of a story, like scene, the order of things is crucial. Take a story like Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Hell-Heaven,” in which a daughter narrates the secret love of her mother for a family friend who eventually starts a family of his own. At the end of the story, the narrator reveals that after the family friend married, her mother doused herself in gasoline and stood in the yard with matches. The final line gives us the context of this revelation: that the mother told the narrator about her near-suicide after the narrator’s own heart was broken. The final scene of backstory and the information about the narrator’s reason for telling this story remind us that amidst the drama of her mother’s unrequited love, the daughter not only plays witness but lives her own life affected by what she witnessed. It is easy to forget about the narrator as an active character while she recounts her mother’s love, and the ending, the near-tragedy and the narrator’s heartbreak, reconfigures meaning in a way that it would not if this same information started the story and therefore became a lens through which to interpret rather than a reason to reconsider why the daughter seems so easy to relegate to the background.

Recently my class workshopped a story about a brown woman whose brother is a drug dealer and a white cop who shows up in the neighborhood wanting to do some good. This is a story that could easily go wrong, but one thing the student did was to organize the story so that it decenters the policewoman. The brown character’s perspective starts and ends the story and the white character’s perspective intrudes in the middle. A story with the same events, but which started with the policewoman, would convey a very different meaning simply because of its structure.

Here is a last example: in Manuel Gonzales’s story, “Farewell, Africa,” which takes place in a near-future in which the water level rises, submerging certain parts of the world, the narrator is a reporter who attends a kind of Met Gala full of privileged guests. The central work of art is a reenactment of the entire continent of Africa sinking into the ocean and the speech a speechwriter wrote on that occasion. The problem is that the mechanics won’t work—Africa isn’t sinking. Gonzales gives us a story about, among other things, privilege and global warming. The story is broken into five sections, the first centered around the artist, the second around the museum curator, the third around the speechwriter, the fourth around the reporter, and the last around the absurd piece of art in the center of all this. In other words, the reporter-narrator chooses to privilege these four perspectives over the horrific event that has become a problem for the gala. The story ends with the speechwriter saying, “They told us the center will not hold . . . yet here we are.” We being the privileged attendees of the gala and the center being an entire continent swallowed by the sea. The absurdity is clear—the organization of these five parts shows the attention paid to the we while the real tragedy comes last.

It is important to consider how the order of things affects the importance given to them. But I will close with a note on how the importance given to ordering is actually cultural. Americans often seem obsessed with what comes first, with beginnings, with “newness” or “originality.” Most Americans are taught in school and through the books they read and by American history and imperialism to interpret stories teleologically. Teleology, it can also be argued, and has been especially by women writers, is gendered—Jane Alison’s latest book, for example, calls the conventional ordering toward a climax a “bit masculo-sexual, no?” The importance placed on what happens in the end is also appealing to a story of colonization. In some cultures endings are less important, or tragic, firsts are politely refused or to be mistrusted. As always structure organizes meaning in a certain way only to a certain audience, and the choice of audience, whether intentional or not, is the foundational choice.

Comments are closed.