“Be true to the story,” remarks the main character in N. Scott Momaday’s novel, The Ancient Child. He is an artist from whose paintings a mysterious figure begins to emerge over time. The features of this apparition make it bear-like, and the painter must stay true to the story of this bear’s surfacing. He fights to face the bear, as unsettling as this struggle might be.
I was reminded of Momaday’s novel, while reading yesterday’s obituary of Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe, whose novel, Things Fall Apart, has made, and keeps making, a remarkable global impact since its publication in 1958. This obituary includes John Updike’s assessment that Achebe “grabbed the subject of colonialism ‘so firmly and fairly’ that the book’s tragedy, like Greek tragedy, felt tonic; a space had been cleared, an understanding had been achieved, a new beginning was implied” (NYTimes, 23 Mar 2013: A14). Updike’s pair of adverbs–firmly and fairly–catches my attention, in part because it represents the core of competent criticism. It succinctly states my hopes for students’ response to literature, and I include myself among the students. I want to be fair (true) to the story as composed, which requires a firm reading of its various details, as well as a knowledge of the historical context surrounding the writing. Although Updike’s adverbs describe Achebe’s fictional treatment of a concept in world history, we can easily apply them to our responsibility as readers. Adapting the portrait of Momaday’s artist, we must let the truth of Achebe’s novel, or any other story, emerge over time. This requires a firm grasp of the story’s specific elements, as well as an openness to figures of meaning lurking in the underbrush.
As we approach the end of Hamlet, I think about being true to Shakespeare’s play. Such adherence requires substantial effort because the whole story has a kaleidoscope of characters, most of them with distinct individual characteristics (sorry, Rosenstern and Guildencrantz). Hamlet the Prince, in particular, shows new colors each time I turn the kaleidoscope with a fresh reading of the play. In recent readings, his relish for life, despite, and maybe because of, the apparent readiness for death, has struck me extra hard. It has resonated deeply within me, as he holds up poor Yorick’s dusty skull, holds it up for all to see what we become. This moment in Hamlet reminds me of Prospero’s line near the end of Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest: “And our little life is rounded with a sleep” (4.1.148). After Hamlet has reflected on his young life with Yorick, the court jester, I find myself returning to the play’s opening, once again trying to be true to the story.