Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Literature in the Classroom Assignments: Part 2


In Australia, we have snakes. And private schools. And private school girls. And horny private school girls. And horny private school girls who get bitten by snakes.

Now get your head out of the gutter.

Just kidding, turns out the gutter's a great place to be when reading this one.

Reflection: “A Snake Down Under” by Glenda Adams

In my first reading of this text, I made a point of not acknowledging the sexual innuendo in the title A Snake Down Under. Consequently, I initially read ASDU by Glenda Adams as a disjointed short story about protection from dangerous wildlife mixed with religion-induced sexual tension, linked only by the witty final sentence: “My friend said, ‘Did it offer you an apple?’” As I explored the text in class, group discussions pushed me to recognise the double entendre in the title and thus recognise darker sexual themes perforating throughout the whole story.

In ASDU, Adams uses polysemy and symbolism to superficially tell one story, while telling a much more sinister story beneath that guise (Moon, 2001). While a snake is literally a legless reptile, in the sense of this text I took the word snake to also mean (at varying times) phallus, temptation, sin, predator, dangerous man and sexual violation. Teachers may also be symbolic of the conventional wisdom of the Dominant Discourse (Gee, 1991). By reading these double-meanings into the narrative, my interpretation of each snake-related event changed drastically. For example, in the middle of the story a girl sits on a snake which bites her. She doesn’t tell anyone until it’s too late, and then she dies from the snake’s venom. Unlike other scenarios in the text where snakes approach girls, in this instance the girl goes to the snake, which (assuming that the snake is a sexual predator) suggests to me that she has been abused by someone she should have been able to trust. In isolation, I suspected that the snake may a family member. However, given the frequent religious references (in the setting of an Anglican school) and the introduction of a preacher later in ASDU, I think there’s sufficient textual evidence to suggest that the perpetrator is a member of the school staff or the clergy.

As a Christian, a man and a pre-service teacher, I’m inclined to take a resistant reading to this text. ASDU presents Christianity as a source of arbitrary sexual repression, and possibly sexual violation. The teachers in the text, though perhaps well-meaning, teach the girls to respond to sexual abuse passively, and in doing so enable abuse. Likewise, males are generally regarded as snakes and are never positioned in a positive light. My resistance is perhaps amplified by living in a culture where abuse in the church is a hot topic; religion is seen as arbitrary; teacher-student sex scandals frequent the news; and a man can’t photograph his children without being suspected of paedophilia. Christianity and masculinity gain no positive representation in the text, and teachers are at best misguided. From this I infer that the author is seeking to vilify religion, men (or a socially accepted form of masculinity) (Cameron, 2005), teachers, and perhaps society as a whole. Despite my inclination towards resistance, I must concede that there is truth in these aspects of the text. While many Christians, men and teachers hate sexual abuse and aspire to protect people from becoming victims, there certainly are Christians, men and teachers who commit or enable sexual abuse.

It would be foolish to recognise negativity in Adams’ assessment of those whom she represents as snakes without also recognising the way she challenges femininity. It appears to me that Adams agrees with the position that gender is a social construct (Cameron, 2005), unlike sex which is biological categorisation. From this position, I interpret her representation of conventional femininity to be resistant. ASDU shows how girls can be acculturated into behaving like silent, motionless automatons to their own detriment. The text also shows the narrator “br[eaking] the rules” by being loud, violent and unrestrained in the face of danger, which results in the snake leaving her unscathed.

In my eyes, the two most potent elements of ASDU are the literary use of allegory through polysemy and symbolism; and resistance to social constructs. By critically analysing the polysemic structure of the text, students may learn the significance of hidden meanings in texts. Students will therefore be better equipped to identify and challenge both superficial and deep elements of a broad variety of texts. Likewise, by critically analysing Adams’ representations of religious institutions, educational institutions, masculinity, femininity, ethnicity and society as a system, students may learn to question the social constructs that they take for granted and consider alternative ways of being.

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