Chapter 3 Description Teaching Approaches: Introducing the Chapter Like the rest of us, students live in a sentient world, bombarded by sounds, colors and actions, sensations of smell and taste and touch. The trick is to make students aware of their sensory impressions and, like good descriptive writers everywhere, find the language to record those impressions. Start with a sense chart. Have students draw five columns, each headed with a statement like "What I Saw," "What I Heard," "What I Smelled," and so on. Then, have students go to some busy place on campus—the cafeteria, the admissions office, the library, the day care center—and record their sensory impressions in the appropriate columns.
Alternatively, have students describe the writing classroom as they sit writing a paragraph about their surroundings. Or, to highlight description of a person, ask a student to come to the front of the room and have the rest of the class make a sense chart about the moment as the student answers questions in front of the room. A follow-up paragraph describing the student always produces intriguing pieces from the class, and they (and you) will enjoy hearing them read aloud.
When you talk about the language of description remind students that nothing is as powerful as a precise noun and that for the reader there is a magic in naming—streets, people, cities, and so on; that excessive adjectives ruin good description; and that passive voice constructions are enemies to descriptive writing.
“In the Jungle” by Annie Dillard
Teaching Approaches: Introducing the Essay
“The Jungle” is at once less singular than it might have been once, less exotic, on account of the ubiquitous nature shows on television and the ecology-minded lessons of the schools—and yet still a place few Westerners know personally. Perhaps someone in your class has been in a jungle? You might point out that the word originates in the Hindi jangal and first meant “uncultivated ground.” The various implications of this phrase—uncultivated ground—such as that it presupposes cultivation as the primary condition of human space, lead directly to Dillard’s probing of our view of the jungle as an “out-of-the-way place.” Is the out-of-the-way by definition the place we are not, and therefore like uncultivated land dependent on a negative, a negation of where we are? Is that how we see the jungle, despite the TV shows: Not. Or do we see jungle now as natural and therefore unspoiled and therefore good? These are points you might want to write on the board and return to at the end of the discussion: in what ways does Dillard contribute to our thinking about the jungle as an out-of-the-way place?
a. it curled up the muddy bank and twined its suds in vines that sagged from the forest and roots that wrapped the shore—ISR
b. that looped over the village clearing, that stuck in the big trees’roofs, quieted our talk on the shore, and drifted over the river, vanishing/melting downstream--ISR
troupials, large orioles (bright black and yellow or orange birds)
kingfishers, long billed, short tailed, brightly-colored non-singing birds
cuckoos, grayish-brown bird noted for laying its eggs in the nests of other birds
Understanding the Writer’s Ideas
Out-of-the-way of “civilization.” In the way of jungle life, including the apparently peaceable life of the human inhabitants of the jungle. What is in the way depends on your point of view, but perhaps that point of view, by always devaluing what is out-of-the-way, is necessarily blinkered and unseeing of the whole of life.
“We are on the planet only once, and might as well get a feel for the place” (par. 9).
In eastern Ecuador, at the headwaters of the Amazon river.
February, the middle of summer.
Quechua Indians and some Catholic missionaries.
She means, this is a place where life can be carried on, this is a place I could live. The free-lance writer shares her view.
The river, and the thought of what’s in the river water (pars. 10-11); the Indians (par. 12); the vegetation and the animal life (pars. 14-18).
Worth it to be eaten by the piranha, that is, what a way to go.
The writer thinks of the jungle as interesting, comfortably exotic, a place where you would gladly live or die (par. 14) but she is there to look around, not live. The Indian girl find her exotic, play with her hair; she is, in turn, interesting and comfortable.
The villagers seem peaceful, but the writer reports that both nature (the anacondas) and Man (the blow-gun using Indians) can be deadly. ISR
Understanding the Writer’s Techniques
“We are here on the planet only once, and might as well get a feel for the place” (par.9); and “The Napo River: it is not out of the way. It is in the way . . .” (par. 20).
The opening focuses the reader on the question of what “out-of-the-way” implies. If out of the way is where we are not, then the essay argues we should go have a look, and that when we do go have a look, we will find that what we might mechanically have once thought to be out-of-the-way is in truth very much in the way.
By piling on detail after detail to show the jungle is not Manhattan or Paris.
You could divide the essay into three parts—pars. 1-5; pars. 6-14; pars. 15-20. Each paragraph retraces the same steps, clearly in the last two sections building on the detail and argument of the first two. You could say, too, that the essay goes deeper and deeper into the jungle, pausing at three clearings to note: “This will do” (par. 5); “a . . . room where you would gladly live, or die” (par. 14); and “a basin of greenness, and . . . peace” (par. 20).
Indirectly, by illustration or example—e.g. par. 7 or par. 19. And by use of highly judgmental modifiers—“these extraordinarily clean people” (par. 11), “the beautiful-boned young nun” (par. 19). ISR
She says we live on the planet once and “might as well get a feel for the place.” The way she does this is by looking around—that is her relation to the jungle. The sentence is a kind of summary, and also a bridge to the concluding three paragraphs.
The final paragraph answers the question of the opening paragraph, thus neatly closing the essay both in terms of technique and argument. Some of the supporting evidence for the assertion of the last sentence is in the penultimate paragraph.
Exploring the Writer’s Ideas
There is no evidence in the essay that the writer is contemplating moving to the jungle—but there is ample evidence that she finds the jungle appealing, and that others, say the nuns, who have made it home are thriving. ISR
Dickinson looks inward to the human heart, and dwells on the vastnesses in the human condition, such as death. Dillard looks out. “looks around.” The insistence in Dillard’s essay on exotic animals and plants and environment suggests that it takes going there, to that out-of-the-way place fully to realize the diversity and wonder of life on the planet. But then Dillard insists too that the jungle is not in truth out-of-the-way, and in this sense Dillard and Dickinson agree. ISR
Writing About the Text
Consider comparing/contrasting Dillard’s essay and that of Harry Crews (pp. 403-406).
“My Ticket to the Disaster” by Suzanne Berne Teaching Approaches: Introducing the Essay Presumably everyone who was alive and conscious in the United States (and further afield) on September 11, 2001, remembers where he or she was when the World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked. It is this generation’s Kennedy assassination.
You might want to set the tone for this essay by going over where your students were—how did they hear of the events of that morning? How did they feel? There will be an unanimity of emotional responses: fear, sadness, anger.
Ask your students if have ever been to the actual site of the World Trade Center since the attacks. What was the experience like? These questions channel directly into the Prereading questions. Talk about a battle site like the Normandy beachhead or Pearl Harbor—what are our feelings about those events now, years later? How do emotions change as we gain distance?
As this essay was published on April 21, 2002, just over seven months after the attacks, what kind of emotional distance was possible? What led (leads) people to visit the site?
Reading the Essay The opening paragraph sets the tone by equating the real weather with the “emotional weather” of the visitors.
At the end of the first paragraph and leading into the next, Berne focuses on the masses of people and the variety of people at the site. Discussion should lead into the right of these people to visit the site. Whose tragedy is this? This is the context for Berne’s soul-searching.
The context is filled out by the security guard who utters the words of the title through a frown. What does Berne focus so much on his question?
As you move through the essay you might want to talk about Berne’s vision of how viewing the site can help the healing process. Most people who would object to gawking at the site are New Yorkers, who claim ownership of the tragedy. But how do people mourn? Students will, with some nudging, get to the realization that the site is, in fact, a gravesite, and people do in fact visit gravesites.
definition is self-evident—again, analogous to emotions
full, featherlike shape—a vivid image
place one image on another—a photographic term
Understanding the Writer's Ideas
1. To pay her respects to the victims of the attacks.
2. From all over the world.
3. There’s an almost holy glow to it.
4. A visitor to the site is overwhelmed and is focused intently on it, so other parts of the scene come to one’s attention later.
5. Because of the scope of the hole.
6. He seems to look down on her desire to see the site.
7. She wants to take everything in, to “understand better.”
8. A victim’s body is discovered and an honor guard removes it up the ramp.
9. ISR. It is filled with the concern of all the people, by meaning.
Understanding the Writer's Techniques
That when one visits the WTC site, it is empty but filled with the meaning of that emptiness. The second sentence in par. 3 seems to express the idea the best.
It is effective because of the details—the names—readers can identify.
She describes the items in the area, the sounds, the feel of “the pound of jackhammers,” the masses of people.
The street names mean nothing, so she describes how the streets are a “dense tangle” (7), how there are large buildings around, how the river is right next to the site.
She uses negative words, such as “raw wind and spits of rain” (1) and how flags flutter in the breeze (9). She does this to set a mood.
She switches back in par. 9. This use of the second person is effective in placing the reader at the site.
This further shows the density of lower Manhattan. She connects her act of eating with the victims. She shows normal New Yorkers stopping their hectic lives to pay tribute to the victim who is carried out.
There is a feeling, after the solemnity of the “funeral” moment, that life goes on.
If this is effective, it is because she finally gets to the viewing platform and she consummates the promise she made in the thesis.
Writing from the Essay Berne includes images of emptiness (the site), phrases such as “double negative” (11), and sets these against the many people, the sheer amount of life there. Clearly she believes life, abundance, is winning. Have your students make list of how Berne uses other binary oppositions in this essay.
“Catfish in the Bathtub” by Maxine Hong Kingston
Teaching Approaches: Introducing the Essay Nothing is more familiar, or more strange, than food. A blood sausage may be considered a national treasure at the breakfast table of one capital and an abomination at another! Ask your students what the national dish of their homeland, or their parents' homeland, is. How much experience do students have of the food of other cultures?
Because food is often associated with home and childhood, it can generate strong feelings and strong reactions, and can make for great empathy as well as instant and deep misunderstanding. Here is an illustrative story. Two Chinese professors of English from Beijing University, in London for an intensive English language seminar, are brought by their host to Fortnum and Mason's for tea. Fortnum and Mason's is a "high-toned" food store, with a tea shop known for its "English teas"—cucumber sandwiches, scones with Devon cream, and strawberry jam. The two professors arrive visibly excited, anticipating an unusual treat. But then, surveying the odd delicacies ordered for them by their host—these dainties of the wrong color, liquid with stomach-turning butter and cream—they recoil and also can't hide their disappointment. "Do you have any duck's feet?" one of the Chinese professors asks in her immaculate English.
Perhaps your students have similar stories to tell. In addition to enabling a down-home discussion of cultural differences, the subject of food, if it is the food of home, also introduces the element of relationships evoked by food. You might ask students what dishes they associate with home, and then ask for details of how these foods are prepared, and by whom. What is associated with mother, grandfather, aunts? Are there tastes that recall punishment? Are there tastes from childhood that raise revulsion?
Of course, it is unlikely that many students will name as a food of childhood anything resembling the collection of rare eatables cataloged by Kingston. From the start this essay ups the ante of discourse concerning difference. Are we being told something common but, to Western eyes, strange about the Chinese? Or is Kingston's mother unusually fierce and fascinating? These questions arise in par. 1 but ought to be asked again at the essay's conclusion.
Reading the Essay To what extent does Kingston, through her reactions (fingers in her ears), voice the reader's reactions? In this unsettling portrayal of lurid eating habits, does the author side with her mother, or with an implied horrified onlooker, like the visitors to her house looking on the family's eating with revulsion? "Eat! Eat!" is a refrain that could be heard from many mothers--Jewish, Italian, Russian. What do these national or ethnic stereotypes have in common? What separates them?
Building Vocabulary 1. ISR. Animals: raccoons, skunks, hawks, city pigeons, wild ducks, wild geese, black-skinned bantams, snakes, garden snails, turtles, catfish, dromedaries, rhinoceros, owls, bears, monkeys, squid.
2. ISR. Examples: (a)"My sensibility to strong odors was apparent when I fainted at the stench from rotten eggs." (par. 1); (b)"My cat sheds tufts of hair when summer comes." (par. 4); (c)"I felt a revulsion from the idea of eating monkey when I read Kingston's story" (par. 8).
Understanding the Writer's Ideas 1. Kingston is contrasting the experience of being a modern Chinese-American with the traditional experiences of her parents and family. She uses food to show how different her life in California was from that of her parents in China, and how quickly children adopt the ways of the new country and ridicule the ways of the old world if they come from immigrant backgrounds. She mentions eating squid eye and blood pudding later in the story (pars. 6 and 8).
2. "The emperors" are the imperial rulers of ancient China. Their dishes include "peaked hump of purple dromedaries," "rhinoceros horn," "ducks' tongues and monkeys' lips."
3. Kingston is frightened by owls (par. 1). The owls perch on the porch. We know she is young because she compares her height to the washing machine on the porch. The phrase means that her family spoke to her, perhaps using healing chants, to bring her back to consciousness after she was frightened into a faint by the owls.
4. Kingston and her siblings hid under the bed with their fingers in their ears. They put candy near their noses to try to drive out the smell of skunk.
5. The bear claw was used for medicine. It floated in a solution that contained healing herbs. Kingston assumes it came from China because it has been in the family for as long as she can remember.
6. The "monkey words" are her mother's story describing a meal of monkey eaten by people in China. The story upsets the child because it is descriptive and scary. The mother describes how a live monkey is clamped onto the table, and its skull is cut off so that the eaters can scoop out and consume the brain. While the child tries to stop the story, the vivid description makes her a "trapped" listener; she cannot help but hear the words.
7. Kingston's mother told her children that good tasting things were not to be eaten. Bad tasting food was safe.
8. Visitors showed revulsion at the strange foods eaten in the household--the squid's eye, the wobbly pudding.
9. "Have you eaten yet?"
10. AWV. Kingston seems to think that her mother's eating habits were strange but rooted in a traditional life and a need for frugality. While the "modern" author finds the animal food scary and repulsive when she is a child, in her later life she finds a nostalgia and some humor as she describes her family meals.
Understanding the Writer's Techniques 1. Kingston never makes a direct thesis statement. She uses description to encourage the reader to see the details of her life and to draw the thesis idea out indirectly.
2. AWV. Kingston shifts tenses to compare her reactions as a child with her feelings as an adult writing about the same experience. She uses "My mother has cooked for us" in par. 1; later in the same par. she "shook" when she "recalled" the owls perched everywhere.
3. Kingston uses transitions to shift from past to present, as when she tells of the "tender plant . . . but green" in par. 1 and then shifts to the present to say "I've not . . . growing up." She also uses "Then" in par. 3 after her mother tells the "monkey words" to shift from the narrative to her reaction to it. These and other transitions link the ideas together, giving the essay coherence. The reader moves smoothly from one description to the next.
4. AWV. Kingston uses the five senses throughout the story. Examples include the smell of skunk; the sight of the bear claw in the jar; the sound of the turtles swimming; the texture (touch) of the blood pudding; the lack of taste of the white star plant. The most effective are the sights of strange animals as food, the noises that scare the child, and the smells of skunk and candy.
5. Words like "emperors" and "third aunt who worked in the laundry" provide clues to the writer's Chinese-American heritage.
6. The writer uses dialogue to bring her mother to life. Often, the dialogue is used when her mother is telling stories of eating in China. The dialogue moves the story along quickly since we can see the writer's childhood more through the direct words of the speaker. The mother's dialogue helps us to see how scary the food stories might sound to a child.
7. The author describes the white star flowers to suggest that now, as an adult, she has a fond memory for the plants that as a child she did not appreciate. The beautiful plants become part of her irrecoverable childhood. Perhaps, they also are a contrast to all the strange tastes of the food since they have no taste of their own.
8. The monkey feast is the kind of story a child would remember. The practice of eating the brains of live monkeys is completely in opposition to the values of modern Western society. The story highlights the author's childhood situation, caught between two very different cultures, forced to see the old one through the eyes of the new. The story emphasizes the differences between the mother's generation and Kingston's.
9.a. The "curtain" is a device separating the "Chinese" from the "American" Kingston. She is both listening to the story with her mother's traditional values but also dividing this experience from her American values. The curtain "flapped" when she shifts from one culture to the other.
b. Here the curtain may be her memory. She allows herself to "drop the curtain" on the more gruesome details.
c. The figurative word is "sat." The food seems to come alive; the brown masses take on the lifelike quality of "sitting" instead of merely resting inanimately on the plate.
10. Kingston is questioning her memory of the story. She has forgotten some of the gory details that make her mother look fiendish. She wonders just how vivid the details were, and how much she has invented. Some questions are in quotes because they might be her mother's spoken words. Others are questions the writer asks in her own voice.
11. The last sentence "I would live on plastic" gives us the writer's point of view directly for the first time. Throughout the essay she describes the food. Here, in a short, direct sentence, she reveals her opinion that she would rather eat plastic than any of the strange dishes her mother favored. The sentence works like a thesis, to offer the purpose of the essay: Kingston has recalled the details of her childhood to show how foreign the experiences are for her as an adult.
“The Death of a Moth” by Virginia Woolf
Teaching Approaches: Introducing the Essay
Although this is a well-known essay by a well-known author, it seems prudent not to allow students to read the essay without first introducing the differences between American and English usage. Woolf’s style can easily misread as precious by a student utterly unaccustomed to English idioms, rhythms, subtle differences of meaning. It is important to tackle this at the start, maybe by going right to the Building Vocabulary section.
Then you might want to ask students what matters—war, say, or doing the laundry? The death of the president or the death of one’s dog? Where is one to look for the essence of life? What is the essence of life? World-shaking events, or dailiness? Freud says, in Civilization and its Discontents, that the question of whether life has a purpose depends wholly on religion. He means that throughout human history we have sought meaning in relation to ultimate questions, to death. We can approach the idea of the essence of life only in relation to death. What is life? Do trees and insects participate in life just as humans do? When we speak of life, meaning human life, is that the same thing as insect life? The life of flowers? These questions lead in to the questions in Prereading.
You became aware, in fact, of a strange feeling of pity for him. ISR
As he crossed the pane, I imagine that a thread . . . ISR
You are likely to forget all about life, seeing it humped and shined and taxed and burdened so that it has to move with the greatest care and dignity. [Some of the varied meanings of Woolf’s words merit a look in class at the dictionary, especially “bossed,” “garnished,” and “cumbered.” You can use the occasion to discuss both interpretation and the importance of diction.] ISR
It dawned on me that he was in trouble . . . ISR
Understanding the Writer’s Ideas
The “vigour” of the scene outside seems also to animate the moth because compared to the “possibilities of pleasure” that the day offered, it seemed pitiful to “have only a moth’s part in life” (par. 2).
Because he is so small, she comes to think of him as representing a “bead of pure life” (par. 3).
What we see of “life” can seem so hemmed in that it hardly seems life at all.
Because other things distract us from the purity and simplicity of life; we see life “humped and bossed and garnished and cumbered so that it has to move with the greatest circumspection and dignity.”
Whereas at first the moth was vigorous and full of energy, now he is weakening in the struggle against death. “The helplessness of his attitude roused me. It flashed upon me that he was in difficulties . . .” (par. 4).
She looked “as if for the enemy against which he struggled” (par. 5). Literally, it is noon. But Woolf sees it as the world’s energy, somehow bearing down threateningly on the tiny moth.
Death seems to her as full of wonder and mystery as life.
Understanding the Writer’s Techniques
a. It was a pleasant morning in mid-September.
b. The energy outside also inspired the tiny moth at the window, who was “little or nothing but life.”
c. There was something marvelous as well as pathetic about him.
d. After forgetting about him, when I noticed him again he seemed suddenly on his last legs.
e. His last protest was superb and mysterious; but no sooner had he died, than the huge power that overcame him also seemed strange. ISR
The essay has an implicit thesis statement—ask students to attempt a version of it. ISR This thesis statement is advanced by both the narrative line—from insignificance to animation to death—and the writer’s reflections, the key steps captured more or less in the outline of the essay.
Time passing is marked by the changing scene outside the window, and by the fitful attention of the writer to the moth. Continuity is established by tracing the activity, the fate, of the moth.
The image of the flock of rooks flying off and onto the tree branches as resembling a huge net beautifully captures what huge flocks of birds circling actually look like. The image at once captures what we see and, by making it momentarily strange, brings us to see something commonplace anew. Similarly, her central image, of the moth as “a tiny bead of pure life,” plays on the idea of purity as in a pure drop of water, on the idea of something distilled to its essence, so that although the moth is not liquid yet we grasp him to be an essence. ISR
The writer is sitting by a window. She sees the “hay-coloured” wings of the moth, and the hay in the mid-September fields. She feels the “vigour” of external life, the light, the birds, the season--as something huge, a force rolling from the heavens and across the fields. Moreover, she traces the changes outdoors in order to track the life journey of the moth. Repeated elements of description—the rooks, say--and metaphor help establish a sense of continuity as well as development.
The essay conveys a sense of increasing attentiveness and awe. The faintly languid opening, a bit reminiscent of Keats’ “To Autumn,” casual and even forgetful sharpens significantly at the close as the writer concentrates on what seems an elemental struggle. The writer now watches in awe, “wonder.” But these relations between life and death are rehearsed in each paragraph of the essay—the life force, huge but animating what is tiny; the unequal struggle between something tiny, yet pure, and the vastness of Fate; the majesty of the human adventure, just the same as the moth’s, an unequal struggle between puny Man and that which no living thing can overcome.
The essay constantly compares and contrasts the moth to other things and conditions—to things of different sizes, such as the window, or the writer’s pencil; to the general condition of life, in the external scene, in the heart of the writer. So the differences and similarities between the moth and the world of the moth, which includes us, of course, are constantly being explored.
Exploring the Writer’s Ideas
The definite article “the” bestows the status of a general instance on this particular death. Without the initial “the” this particular death remains an isolated instance, instead of a particular example of a general condition.
The writer sees death with a mixture of woe, wonder, and a certain wryness. Death is “a power of such magnitude” and “so great a force” yet it is also as “strange” as the life force, just as much a part of nature. Having crossed over into death, the moth does not look dreadful or frightening, but rather “composed” and uncomplaining. The final words of the essay, the words Woolf gives the dead moth to speak, are quaint rather than portentous or ghoulish.
Writing About the Text Woolf uses size at once to distinguish herself from the moth and yet finally to ally herself with it: death is gigantic to both writer and moth. Similarly, Woolf is on the same side of the window pane as the moth, and equally attracted to and affected by the huge forces outside as is the moth.