Saturday, June 23, 2012

Dickens' Fairy Tale

A book review

Many readers have been critical of The Old Curiosity Shop, feeling that it is too sentimental, too melodramatic, and poorly constructed. They are displeased with the lack of reality. This unreality, however, is exacly what one should expect, since the novel is not designed as a reflection of every~day life. Quilp the dwarf, Sally Brass the dragon, pure and innocent little Nell, and the puppets, giants, performing dogs and other grotesqueries are the cast of a highly imaginative and richly embroidered fairy tale.

Dickens' description of Daniel Quilp emphasizes his physical deformity: the oversized head, face and hands, the short stature, the mirthless grin, the long, crooked, dirty fingernails like claws. He is an animal, a monster who sleeps by day and prowls by night. In his deformity evil is embodied. And yet, as in all fairy tales, the villain must have some attraction or charm with which he draws his victims into his power. Quilp's is two-fold. He has the power to seek out his victim's greatest weakness and use it as a tool of destruction; and, according to his strangely infatuated wife, he has some personal charm, despite "his ugliness.. his ferocity or his natural cunning" (Penguin 73) He exercised his power over Nell's grandfather by lending him money. The sums are increasingly larger and larger, feeding the old man's mania for gambling, until everything he owns is lost to Quilp, who then assumes possession of the curiosity shop and all its contents. Nell and her grandfather are forced to run away from his overwhelming intimidation. He intimidates his wife as well, according to his mother-in-law:

"He is the greatest tyrant that ever lived, she [his wife] daren't call her soul her own, he makes her tremble with a word and even with a look, he frightens her to death, and she hasn't the spirit to give him a word back, no, not a single word" (Penguin 77).  But when Mrs. Quilp is encouraged by her neighbors to rebel against her lord and master, she defends herself by saying, " it's very easy to talk, but I say again that I know--that I'm sure--Quilp has such a way with him when he likes, that the best-looking woman here couldn't refuse him if he chose to make love to her" (Penguin 76).  Through intimidation or charm, this grinning ogre, this prancing goblin, overpowers his victims, until he finally meets disaster.

Small, delicate and beautiful, Nell is the embodiment of perfection, the idealized heroine whose nature encompasses perfect innocenee and goodness. As are almost all fairy tale heroines, she is an orphan, and her remaining relatives are so different in nature and treat her so poorly that one is tempted to think she is a misplaced foundling. Her brother has no real affection for Nell; he seems interested in her only as a means of gaining the fortune which he is convinced the old grandfather intends to bestow on Nell. The grandfather speaks often of his love for Nell, his desire to see her a lady, and his ambition to make her wealthy. But his fascination with gambling drives him to leave the little girl locked up alone night after night, while he pursues his elusive dream of winning a fortune. The gambling fever has such a grip on him that he even steals the few coins Nell earns working for Mrs. Jarley at the waxworks exhibit. He speaks frequently of his loving care of her, but tells Mrs. Jarley they can t be separated, or who would care for him? Instead of his caring for Nell, she cares for him, leading him as they flee London to search for peace and safety in the countryside. Ironically, it is not until Nell is at the end of her earthly journey, when it is too late, that he attempts to care for her as he should.

Their headlong escape from Quilp and London is the nightmare we have all experienced; the threat is not clearly defined or understood, and there is no safe haven, but flight is infinitely preferable to confrontation. The phantasms of the nightmare are the distorted figures of a dreamscape. Codlin and Short arise from among the graves, with the dismembered Punch leering over the top of a tombstone. The Jolly Sandboys Inn, which seems to offer refuge from the storm, is filled with threatening, or at least grotesque, characters such as week-kneed giants, dwarfs, gypsies, and dogs who wear clothes and walk on their hind legs. Mrs. Jarley offers respite from the wearying road, but Nell's nights among the waxwork figures are waking nightmares:

Quilp indeed was a perpetual nightmare to the child, who was constantly haunted by a vision of his ugly face and stunted figure"... Then there were so many of the [the waxworks] with their great glassy eyes--.. .they looked so like Living creatures, and yet so unlike, in their grim stillness and silence, that she had a kind of terror of them for their own sakes.. until she was obliged to rise and light a candle..." (Penguin 289)

Dick Swiveller's story is a parallel fairy tale in which the orphaned "Marchioness", like Cinderella, lives in a cellar, starved, mistreated, virtually a slave to Sally Brass, "a female dragon" (Penguin330). Dick is unconsciously a prince in disguise, who educates, then marries the waif, and redeems Kit's good character. Kit, Nell's faithful servant, marries his sweetheart and lives happily ever after, in service with the Garlands.

The single gentleman, Nell's would-be fairy godfather, arrives too late to save her, but is reconciled with the grandfather at last. Nell is not the traditional fairy-tale heroine who lives happily ever after; her story is more like the Victorian morality stories in which the wicked are punished, but the extremely virtuous, too good for this wicked world, are taken home to heaven lest they be corrupted by maturity. In Kit's children are reborn namesakes of many of the characters, but Nell is unique, the mortal girl who becomes, if not a fairy, then an angel.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A Success Story In Reading

by Doris Andrews, Jan Eppler, and Sid Womack

Jim's problems were apparent from the very beginning. He was one of 26 high school seniors enrolled in an Upward Bound English course on a university campus in Oklahoma. He had difficulty using the correct spellings of many words, and writing a sentence was an almost unknown behavior. Jim would be a high school senior in the Fall, and he had aspirations of going to college. It appeared that life was about to pass him by.
The professor wasted no time in identifying that a problem existed, and referred Jim to a tutor who had been hired by the English department to give individual help. The tutor soon realized that Jim's writing problems went back further to a reading problem, and she asked a faculty person in elementary/special education for some help.
The elementary/special education professor was new on campus and did not have a lot of time for a long involvement, so about three hours were spent training this tutor to be a remedial reading teacher. Three hours! Most teacher educators would pale at the idea. The tutor had had no courses in reading, elementary education, or special education. But both Jim and the tutor seemed highly motivated. The advice followed the lines of a psycholinguistic/diagnosis and remediation framework generally. Language is used to describe experiences. The sequence of growth in language is: experience, listening, speaking, reading, and writing. The writing problems were therefore the tip of the iceberg. A balanced approach to word attack should be taught~ sight words, phonics, structural analysis, context, use of dictionary, and picture clues give us ideas about the meaning whic'h should be brought to (not extracted from) print. The tutor was loaned Before the Child Reads by James Hymes, Basic Concepts in Reading Instruction by Arnold Burron and Amos Clayburgh, and the Analytical Reading Inventory by Mary Lynn Woods and Aldin Moe in order to gain more background into the process of reading. Both tutor and professor agreed that if a miracle didn't happen this summer, the academic life Jim envisioned would never become a reality.
The following day, the tutor administered the Analytical Reading Inventory (A.R.I.) to Jim. The tutor and the professor evaluated the results together. Jim was reading at the second grade frustrational level--first grade instructional by some stretch of the imagination. He did equally poor on the isolated word lists and the graded paragraphs.
He used practically no contextual clues or structural analysis. He did utilize what few phonics rules he knew. He pressed for a high oral reading rate, making many omission, insertion, and substitution errors. Miscues were common. For Jim, reading was the ordeal of raising a book and making oral sounds.
That afternoon, the elementary professor and tutor went to the university library to check out books for Jim to read. The first grade instructional level was not followed slavishly, but rather followed generally while his reading interests were followed specifically. The readability of some books strayed as high as eighth grade.
Instruction began the following afternoon. A Directed Reading Approach (D.R.A.) was demonstrated to the tutor with Jim by the elementary professor, and the format was followed considerably during the six weeks that followed. Broadening the context of a story seemed a bit strange to Jim at first; he hurried over or ignored the titles of stories and paid little attention to the pictures that accompanied them. Consideration time was spent talking about "big words and little words" (structural analysis) and how word families operate. The tutor read and recorded some stories, letting Jim follow along in his book. Gradually the concept of reading as speech-on-paper began to emerge. Jim's morale improved noticeably. He did not press so hard for a high oral reading rate, but began to read more for meaning. Although some reading was done orally, not every story was read out loud. "Reading does not have to be out loud to be reading" was a message Jim joyfully accepted. The tutor used a lot of patience with Jim, and he responded with a lot of determination. "I will learn to read this summer," was his declaration.
The posttest given at the end of six weeks by the elementary education professor showed that he had very nearly done exactly that. The A.R.I. was once again used. Since Jim was no longer striving for a high oral reading rate it took about two hours to reach his frustrational level. One break was taken,more for the professor than for the student. Jim scored higher on the graded paragraphs than on the isolated word lists, showing that he had learned to use contextual clues. His instructional level was seventh grade and frustrational level was eighth grade. He had gained six years growth in reading in six weeks.'
Some modifiers and disclaimers would be appropriate at this point. First of all, the eighth grade frustrational level obtained may have been from shutting Jim down a little early. He was not at frustration on comprehension and was actually one word recognition error short of frustration at the eighth grade level. Given the proximity to frustration, however, the testing was stopped. In fairness to Jim's teachers of the previous eleven years, it may have been that the skills that Jim evidenced on the posttest were skills that he had learned before, but had forgotten in the rush to show a high oral reading rate in front of his peers. The favorable affective climate generated by the tutor may have unleashed some of this pent-up knowledge. His oral reading rate on the ARI during the posttest rarely went above 100 words per minute. On the posttest, Jim showed a much more balanced approach to word attack skills, trying sight word recognition first, then phonics, then reading several words past the problem word for context clues, and then using structural analysis. He was not allowed to use a dictionary while taking the A.R.I. But now, at least, he has more flexibility at word attack than he had had before.
It could not be said that the things that worked so well for this Indian boy would work for every student. But this incident does show what a little knowledge of the language-acquistion process and a lot of motivation can do.

The above post was co-written some years ago, when I was teaching at SOSU.  I was the tutor mentioned above.  Having never taken any classes in teaching reading, or in elementary education, I was nevertheless able to work with this young man successfully, thanks to the help I received from my co-authors.  While I was teaching full-time there during the school year, I worked during the summer as a tutor.