If Subtext Falls in the Forest With No One to Understand It, Does It Make a Difference?

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I've been reading (thanks to an extremely kind commenter, who finally gave me the name of it) Adopted Jane, a book that stuck with me from childhood, which I hadn't seen since…1975? What I remembered had the quality of a dream—a recipe for a one-egg cake, the warm sunny farm, the quiet coolness of the older lady's house—along with the barest outline of a plot: good kind orphan who is thought to be too old to adopt gets a chance to visit two families one special summer, then (spoiler alert!) they both end up wanting to adopt her because she is so good and nice, and she has to choose between them.

What has really struck me reading it is how very much I missed. All the—I want to say subtext, but it's actually more like the actual text, just talking about things I didn't quite understand. The book was so much about things I somehow failed to grasp: class differences, money, power. And I wonder, now, how that makes a difference in a kid's reading it. So often Diana will read something that seems a little adult for her, and I'll console myself by saying, "Oh, it'll just go over her head." But it's something else entirely to see how profoundly that actually happens, and to wonder, What does it mean to read a book and somehow not see what's there?

I remember learning that the Narnia books  were Christian allegories, and feeling somewhat betrayed. They had just seemed magical and true to me when I read them, and to find out that there had been something else going on had the feeling of all of a sudden noticing that the grownups are talking about you and hoped you wouldn't catch on. But I don't know anyone who, when they read them, understood them as allegory. They were only loved, not understood.

But does, somehow, somewhere, the information sink in anyway? Was part of the reason I responded so strongly to Adopted Jane because it had this extra layer of meaning I could sense even if I couldn't understand it? Or is it just pearls before swine? (Or some other less insulting metaphor, which surely one of you can think of.)

4 thoughts on “If Subtext Falls in the Forest With No One to Understand It, Does It Make a Difference?

  1. That’s such an interesting idea and one I haven’t thought of before. If it’s true, that subtext just flies over our heads (and I think it is), then perhaps an inner sense or intuitiveness steps in so that someday, somewhere we remember that we liked something, that it meant something to us, but we can’t quite remember or realize what it was.

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  2. I’m the reader who gave you the title, and we have just had parallel experiences — after your blog entry reminded me about Adopted Jane, I made my daughter check it out of the library for me. It was just as I remembered it: happy times in the country, the odd elopement, the general bleakness of the orphanage contrasted with the two summer homes, the blancmange.
    And yet. Something about the quid pro quo of the old lady giving the orphanage their new wing seemed different to me as an adult than it had as a child. The choice to go where she decides to go seemed a bit… wordly? Class-defined? Downright peculiar, given the other option? And I was bothered, somehow, by Jane turning down the chance at a college education.
    I’ve wondered before about subtext and how it operates. I had that same sense of betrayal about the Narnia books, and a bit of that off-flavor lingers with Adopted Jane. I actually feel a bit that way with the Little House books, during the more blatantly racist passages (Ma condemning the Indians as smelly savages, for instance, or Pa dressing in blackface). I still read them and love them, but somehow I want to change those passages for my daughter, not by deleting them, but by reading them with her and drawing her attention to those subtexts — so she doesn’t find herself adopting those ideas by default, having absorbed them from these trusted and beloved books.

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  3. That’s a really interesting question. I felt the same way about Narnia–and could probably come up with other examples if I had the time and the brainpower to do so. I was a very independent reader, which probably had a lot to do with my poor eyesight (while the rest of the family was actually looking at things, I was just reading). So I didn’t really have anyone reading over my shoulder, pointing out the subtleties in the story. With my kids (who, granted, are still pretty young) I tend to be much more involved in their stories, talking with them about the implications and suggestions. And yet… even in a place as innocuous as “Danny and the Dinosaur,” I don’t know what to do about the fact that there is an Eskimo in the museum. Do we stop and talk about who Eskimos are, what it means to have an “Eskimo” identity, what it suggests about your opinion of a people when you put one in a museum? Or do we just move right along to meeting the dinosaur, which is in fact the point of the story?
    So far, my kids have been very inquisitive with vocabulary, so when they ask what something means, we stop and explain it until they get bored. But it’s hard to decide how far to explore a book, especially when it’s something that may be outdated in its language or cultural references. But perhaps there’s something to be said for the experience of reading a book as a child and only understanding it on the surface, then having the opportunity to explore it again when you’re older and having a whole new world of meaning open up to you.

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  4. All this is good commentary. It’s interesting to think about what we took away from the books we all loved before the advent of widespread cultural sensitivity, etc. There is also, of course, the matter of the way adoption is depicted in the book, which I’m surprised hasn’t been mentioned yet by those here who have read and revisited it.
    I’m very curious to check out a “vintage” take on older child adoption. We adopted our daughter from Beijing, China, at the age of 6 earlier this summer, so it’s a topic right on the top of my mind at the moment…

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