Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Ambiguity in Literature

One of the tougher tasks I faced as an English teacher was to explain how some answers to questions about literature are definitely wrong while two other answers to the same question may be quite different from each other and still quite right. Ambiguity in life and literature is unsettling; we often seek--nay, demand, certainty, but alas, certainty is fickle.

Certainty refuses to appear at the conclusion of the Young Adult novel, The Giver. Some readers claim the protagonist never found a better world, the one with color and security. Other readers believe he did. The novel’s end allows for both interpretations and provides evidence for each.

Many novels provide satisfying conclusions without explaining every possibility or nuanced word. Films do as well. When the film version of No Country for Old Men ended, I heard audience members seated near me exclaim, “No” and “What did that mean?” or “That can’t be the end.” These people were unsettled and perhaps unsatisfied with an ending that didn’t announce its themes. The film's makers expected viewers to connect the film's title--a country inexplicable to old men--as a clue to a story about brutal predators who act and react without caring about the harm they do. Even lawmen acquainted with a callous disregard for human life in the course of their duty to rein in madmen and mayhem are strangers in a strange land, unable to get their bearings as they lumber toward their own rest. Is it any wonder, then, that the rest of us are gutted and lost when faced with barbaric acts perpetrated in the name of profit or power?

A more recent film has left many of us just as unsettled. Making a Murderer, the ten-hour documentary about law and order in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, was ten years in development. It tells the story of Steven Avery, wrongfully convicted for attempted rape. He served 18 years until DNA techniques proved him innocent of that crime. Freed at last, he sued the State for compensation and won the ear of legislators who drafted law in his name.

Missouri (Decommissioned) State Penitentiary
Photo provided by Al Griffin
Those legislators soon regretted familiarity with Avery when he was once again arrested, this time for murder. He is serving a life sentence for that conviction and continues to profess his innocence.

So who made a murderer, the implication of the documentary’s title? Did Manitowoc’s officers of the court make a murderer with manufactured or manipulated evidence? Did 18 years in prison transform a man prone to assault and occasional violent speech into a man who could and did take the life of a woman? Or did someone else commit the crime and escape, thanks to law enforcement bent upon proving Steven Avery and his nephew guilty?

The film doesn’t answer those questions except to show the holes in the prosecutor’s cases and officials who held the Avery clan in contempt. The film provides the viewer with a narrative that leans toward the defense and some measure of sympathy for the men imprisoned, then leaves that viewer to assemble the puzzle pieces of evidence and character into a whole.

Like Jimmy Hoffa’s resting place or questions about failed relationships, literature and life often require that we abide, making the best sense we can without ever being absolutely certain. In literature, we may not interpret without tethering that analysis to the text. In life, we see, as Corinthians suggests, through a glass darkly, but for the sake of lives such as Avery's, even then, we must tie our judgment to facts in evidence with as little bias as is humanly possible.

Reading Challenge:

“Read” Making a Murderer.

Writing Challenge:

Write a closing argument to be delivered to the jury. Make your case for who the murderer is, how he committed the crime, and why.

Coach Connye is My Writing and Editing Coach.