February 21, 2017

Homework Help: English passage interpretation

Posted by Ms. Sue on Saturday, October 21, 2006 at 7:37pm.

A student and I disagree with her AP English teacher about the author's purpose in this passage. Does the author intend this to show the wild, animistic nature of the swamp or is it intended to show the swamp as negative and repulsive? Of course, the student will rewrite her essay to conform with the teacher's opinion. But I was curious to see what some of the rest of you believe is the author's purpose. (Note: I don't know the author, but I believe it came from an old AP exam.)


"Vast and primeval, unfathomable, unconquerable, bastion of cottonmouth, rattlesnake and leech, mother of vegetation, father of mosquito, soul of silt, the Okefenokee is the swamp archetypal, the swamp of legend, of racial memory, of Hollywood. It gives birth to two rivers, the St. Mary’s and the Suwannee, fanning out over 430,000 leaf-choked acres, every last one as sodden as a sponge. Four hundred and thirty thousand acres of stinging, biting and boring insects, of maiden cane and gum and cypress, of palmetto, slash pine and peat of muck, mud, slime and ooze. Things fester here, things cook down, decompose, deliquesce. The swanp is home to two hundred and twenty-five species of birds, forty-three of mammals, fifty-eight of reptiles, thirty-two of amphibians, thirty-four of fish -- all variously equipped with beaks, talons, claws, teeth, stingers, and fangs – not to mention the seething galaxies of gnats and deerflies and no-seeums, the ticks, mites, hookworks and paramecia that exist only to compound the misery of life. There are alligators here, bears, puma, bobcats, and bowfin, there are cooters and snappers, opossum, coon and gar. They feed on one another, in the sludge and muck and on the floating mats of peat they bury eggs, they scratch and stink and sniff at themselves, caterwauling and screeching through every minute of every day. and night till the place reverberates like some hellish zoo."

I see it both ways

that exist only to compound the misery of life...like some hellish zoo.

Darwin, Audubon, and perhaps John Muir would have loved the place from this description, but would have Tennyson, Wordsworth, or Lady Browning? I am not certain about AP English Teachers seeing it in a positive light. Thoreau would have liked it, but he did not teach English, nor did he mark AP exams.
My thinking is that the markers are looking for the place described to be not the place to have a senior trip. Intrepretation always is in the eyes of the reader, despite the author's intent. By the way, that Swamp is magnificent.

Well, I certainly am not repulsed by the passage, nor do I find it negative. It seems to be a realistic description designed to catch the imagination as an intro to a short story. So I suppose I would lean toward showing the wild nature of the swamp. That last line is incredibly funny, ...they scratch and stink and sniff at themselves, caterwauling and screeching...LOL! How could that be negative??

I agree with Bob that interpretation always is in the eyes of the reader. To me, the passage is describing a very repuslive place filled with repulsive creatures! Others, of course, see it differently ... even humorously (Roger!).

I have trouble with the idea that the teacher is forcing a particular point of view on the student. That's the type of thing that makes many people in our society angry with the school system -- depressing kids' creativity, herding them into one way of thinking. I'm not sure that's what AP is all about anyway.

Well, now I'm rambling! Anyway, all I sense in this is icky stuff, but if I had a student who saw "that's life" and some humor in it, I'd want him/her to develop the paper in that direction. Most important to me is that, whatever stance the student takes, he or she can support the claim.


Thanks to all of you who responded to this question.

Lesley -- I see it both ways, too, as do BobPursley and Writeacher.

Bob -- Your references to other authors was helpful. (I'm still wondering, though, about Thoreau. As I remember, he didn't describe Walden Pond in terms of a "hellish zoo.") You made an important point, "Intrepretation always is in the eyes of the reader, despite the author's intent" seems to sum up this dispute. And who knows how an AP test reader interprets this passage!

Roger -- I love your sense of humor! Caterwauling, screeching, stinking and scratching is funny -- but perhaps not to the person who's in the middle of it!

Writeacher -- Thanks for your perspective as a college English teacher! This difference of readers'
opinions about the "author's purpose" illustrates your argument that a teacher should not impose his/her views on students -- so long as the student can support his/her view. I'll suggest to the student that in the future, she use her judgment about interpretation, as long as she has solid evidence to support it.

The teacher told the student that the author's purpose was to present the wild, animistic nature of the swamp. She rejected the student's negative interpretation.

In my opinion, the author's use of so many negative words conveys a "hellish" vision of the swamp. Although, the author was describing the wild and animistic nature of the swamp, the fact that he deliberately used words with negative connotations to people, show that the Okefenokee Swamp is a hostile place for people.

Given the Puritanistic time the passage seems to have come from I would say the author was goung for Repulsive.

Vast and primeval, unfathomable, I think these three words determine the tone of the writing...
The swamp is like the beginning of the world...all sorts of interesting things, oozing up to "become". Life from its inceptions stinks, and caterwauls. <G> Who ever the author is has an excellent voice.

Thanks for presenting such an interesting question and topic for discussion! I completely agree with you and the student. As I was reading, I could feel the author's interminable suffering! Misery, misery, misery!!

Thanks, Ken, GuruBlue, and DanH for your perceptive comments.

Ken -- Since in Puritan eyes, pleasure is sinful, then this author's last phrase about the "hellish zoo" certainly fits.

Guru -- I love your comment -- "Life from its inceptions stinks, and caterwauls. <G>" So true -- whether we're talking of the beginnings of an individual life or the beginnings of ALL life.

DanH -- I agree -- I see misery, misery, misery -- from a human point of view -- in this passage.

In the final draft of her essay, the student incoporated both the natural, animistic viewpoint with the repulsive, negative viewpoint.

Thanks, again to all of you who posted responses. I've learned a lot from all of you, and am sending the link to this thread to the student.

What a wise and learned forum Jiskha has created for us!!!!! :-)

Thanks for posting this passage for discussion, I had recently lost my document with it and searched the web to find it. Your different perpectives really showed me the various viewpoints the interpretation could take. Now all I need is examples to support my thesis. :)

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