Have you ever wondered how English majors manage to derive such “deep” meanings from books?
I love literary criticism, and I want to share the joy it gives me to as many people as possible. So I’m doing this by kicking off my new series titled ”How to Read Like an English Major”.
For this post, I’m going to show you just how I use parallelism and literary tradition to make meaning from a text using Guillermo Del Toro and Daniel Kraus’s The Shape of Water. I chose this book as I think it makes great social and feminist commentary using pretty clear-cut literary devices and techniques.
This novel, set in the 1960s, is about a mute woman who falls in love with a river god/monster. The woman, Elisa, works as a janitor for the laboratory which has caught the river monster for experimentation and it is there that they meet.
The question(s) is: What is the message here? What is the author trying to say?
For this post, I will focus on what the message hidden in the pairing of Elisa and the river monster.
My thesis is this: that the river monster acts as a foil that highlights the repressed, dominated condition of women in the 1960s.
How did I arrive at this?
First of all, in literary tradition, monsters are usually featured in a text to point to something in the human condition. Mr. Hyde in Jekyll and Hyde represents the repressed side, or the id, of the highly rigid Victorian society. Beowulf stands in for the monstrous hostility of the world the vikings, who regularly deal with vicious forces of nature, would have been familiar with.
So what does the river monster in The Shape of Water represent?
Form, the way something is written, matters as much as content, or what is written, in any text. The Shape of Water constantly switches between multiple narratives: that of Strickland, the authoritative, dominant male figure in charge of the expedition hunting down the river monster, Elisa, the mute janitor and Lainie, Strickland’s wife. There are a few reasons why authors use switching narrative perspectives. Sometimes, it is to tell the same story from multiple points of views simultaneously. Del Toro and Kraus certainly do that, but I believe that this technique is also used here to highlight hidden meanings behind the different perspectives.
Strickland is brutal and murderous during his expedition. His boss, who is arguably dehumanised by the war, is breathing down his neck; he wants this thing caught. Strickland kills several animals, as well as natives, along the way. Finally, he manages to capture the river monster, although not without a fight. The river monster is transported to the lab where it is domesticated, restrained, experimented on and quite severely punished whenever it tries to fight back.
Lainie is a housewife and mother who spends her time ironing, cooking and cleaning. She tries to elevate herself by listening to the news whilst ironing her husband’s clothes; she has been embarrassed multiple times by her own ignorance, especially in front of Strickland’s friends. Feeling trapped at home, she goes out exploring the city during the day, on the pretence that she is looking for a church (of course, when Strickland finds out about her “misuse of time”, he gets angry.)
Elisa, the mute janitor, can’t get a job anywhere else. Her employers know this and use it to their full advantage. As a janitor, she is abused when the men at the laboratory see fit, but treated as invisible otherwise. Whenever the men get offended in some way or another, she gets punished. When her supervisor makes a mistake embarrassing himself in front of others, she gets extra work. When Strickland wants to assert his authority over her, he urinates on the floor, making her clean it up. In fact, all the janitors working in the laboratory are in some way or another “unfit” for work elsewhere: they are disabled, Latinas or Blacks. Elisa’s best friend Zelda, a fat Black woman, works while her irresponsible, tyrannical husband slacks away at home.
There is a pattern emerging here: Lainie and the janitors are all women repressed by men and society in some way or another, punished when they retaliate. Between them, they span the different classes and races of women in 1960s America: together, they represent and encompass womanhood as a whole during that period. Similarly, the river monster is hunted down, captured and fettered by men. The river monster derives from deep within the Amazonian jungle, amidst natives (unexposed to modern civilisation), plants and animals. It represents pre-civilization and nature. In contrast, the platoon of men hunting him down represent the ugliest manifestations of modern, industrialised society: the dehumanisation inherent in science gone wrong and in war. Another long-standing literary tradition is that of the feminisation of nature and the portrayal of industrialisation as male. This pattern appears in Romantic poetry–in William Wordsworth’s Lines Composed A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, for example– in Classical literature– John Milton’s Paradise Lost— and in many other works. (In fact, Feminist Ecocriticism is a discipline dedicated to the study of this pairing). Therefore, from this we can deduce that the river monster represents femininity while Strickland represents masculinity. Of course, there are instances of subversion by both of the river monster and the women: Lainie sneaks out of the house increasingly often, Elisa defies orders and the river monster severs Strickland’s fingers.
Both parallels, in the narrative structure and content, therefore tell us that there is a pairing between the river monster and the women. Both have similar plights, and the river monster’s fate serves to dramatise grotesquely the psychological and intangible violence the male-dominant society inflicts upon women. Like (most) other monsters in literature, it represents a problem in humanity so terrible it can only be represented as a monster. Monsters are humanity’s Mr. Hyde.
And thus my thesis: that the river monster in The Shape of Water acts as a foil highlighting the plight of women in the 1960s as repressed, subordinate beings.
So there you go. Two ways of reading literature– identifying parallels and literary traditions– that can help create meaning and highlight hidden messages. Literary tradition, in particular, tells us a lot of things about certain themes. Familiarising yourself with them, and then learning to spot them in different texts adds meaning and depth to the narrative that may not be immediately apparent.
So next time you read, try looking out for parallels and patterns, and maybe you’ll glean something you didn’t see before.
I was inspired to write such a post, by the way, by Austin Kleon‘s book, Show Your Work. I hope this post has been useful in helping you to read more effectively and enjoyably.
Read more, live bigger!