How Being an English Major Ruined my Life

Oh don’t worry. This won’t be a post about some literature student starving on the streets because she chose to major in an unusable subject with little career success. We’ll save that for when I graduate, alright?

No, this is going to be a post about how studying literature has made it impossible for me to see the world the same way. Because while we might see literary critical lenses as a pair of glasses to slide on and off, they’ve really become more like permanent eye surgery.

My Literary Foundation of Women’s Studies class so far has been the best example of how being an English major can be difficult for me at times.

I went into the class excited to learn more about a feminist literary perspective. I identify myself as a feminist, but am still learning a lot about the history and other important elements. So I was looking forward to taking a class solely from that viewpoint. My excitement grew when I noticed that one of my favorite novels of all time was on the reading list: Jane Eyre.

I had always been told this book was an example of early feminist literature. I mean Charlotte Brontë was an early female writer, and how impressive is that? So I assumed we’d be looking at it from that perspective. Reading and saying “Wow this was so progressive for her time!” was what I had pictured. I was startled to instead find myself in the realm of criticism and skepticism; fellow female classmates shook their heads at the end and said they were unsatisfied with how things had turned out. Even my professor, who I had initially thought liked the book, seemed to be showing some disdain for certain elements. And our next book on the reading list didn’t help matters.

Wide Sargasso Sea.

I don’t want to spoil any elements of either Jane or this book for any readers who desire to one day pursue either. However, I’ll just go ahead and say that Wide Sargasso Sea is an element of Jane Eyre retold from a new modern feminist perspective. And it paints a lot of the events of Brontë’s book in a very negative light. And this portrayal creates a very different outlook on Jane Eyre by the end. I am certain I will never be able to look at my favorite book quite the same way ever again.

I’ve been upset about this for over a week now. I felt ashamed sitting in class having fellow classmates diss this beloved novel. I was upset that I’d somehow failed to see this beautiful book I loved as something that apparently modern literary scholars see as a disgrace in its treatment of women. Was there something wrong with me for not seeing that? Was I still just too caught up in pointless romance novels that I failed to see Jane for what it really was back when I read it in high school?

My problem being an English major is that sometimes I become too caught up in being a critic. This probably relates back to my last post Faces Behind the Pages, but I’ll go ahead and write about this anyways because I feel it’s important.

My friends sometimes think I’m a snob when it comes to watching movies or reading books. I’m picky it’s true. I have movies I can no longer watch because I’ve turned my critical lenses on and looked closely, only to be disgusted by what I truly saw. And it doesn’t bother me that much for some cheesy romcom, or a silly teen fiction book like the Divergent series I recently devoured for fun. But when it comes to something I know and love, a book that I feel changed my perceptions of literature, it hurts. And it makes me sad.

Sometimes being an English Major is good. I’m not quite so quick to devour mass messages, media that everyone is raving about. I think about things more sometimes to see what I’m really getting myself into. But other times, I can’t enjoy simple pleasures for what they really are. And to be honest, I hate that.

So I’m going to start trying to turn off the critical lens sometimes. Try to make it more like glasses and less like permanent eye surgery. I’m going to watch bad movies for the sake of pure enjoyment, and I’m going to read books that maybe shouldn’t have been published and find joy in them. Because that’s what English majors forget sometimes. They forget about joy, they forget about what it’s like to love something purely because it made you feel happy for a few brief moments not because of the hidden elements of plot, or the depth of the descriptive and figurative language, or because the author was a revolutionary in his or her day.

I want to avoid being overly critical, especially about books or other mediums I naturally find myself liking. Sure, sometimes I’ll need to crack out the lenses and really see what I’m looking at, but sometimes I should read simply for readings sake. My English major should complement my love of reading and my enthusiasm for scholarship. So maybe I just need some transitional lenses instead, something that changes depending on where I am in life and what I’m looking at. And with those on maybe I can continue loving literature, while still maintaining some critical thinking that is so essential to the study I’ve chosen to pursue.

Anyone else have this struggle or another one to add? Always love hearing other’s thoughts.

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6 Comments

Filed under Reading

6 responses to “How Being an English Major Ruined my Life

  1. Amen. And to think I wanted to be an English major… I totally agree with you. In fact, awhile back I read “How to Read Literature Like a Professor” by Thomas C. Foster, and it nearly spoiled me on reading at all. I had to ask myself WHY I’d want to watch for all those “elements” and “subplots” and… I realized very quickly tearing a book apart like that (or a movie) would take away my emotional reaction to reading it. I’d rather live a full life and enjoy or hate a book (movie) because of how it makes me feel than because I understand every underlying theme. I hated that book, and I think I would have made a mistake pursuing that education. “Jane Eyre” is on my favorites shelf, too. And I am totally smitten with Jane Austen’s “Persuasion.” That was a great blog.

    • Thanks! Persuasion is a favorite of mine as well! And yes it really is a challenge sometimes just enjoying books, but somehow I manage. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. I wonder if you see something in the book that the others don’t? Maybe viewing it from a modern feminist perspective isn’t the right way to view it? Maybe the “lens” you used before was the right one? Consider what it would be like to be a dogmatic Christian taking a religion class taught by an atheist in which you dissect the Bible and read it as mere literature rather than the Word. It would be such a hard experience, enlightening in some ways, but also it would attempt to destroy what you value and make you question which “lens” is legitimate. You’d feel you lost something, for sure. But to make that determination, you’d have to be even more critical, oddly enough.

    Maybe finding out what made the book such a joy to read will take an even larger lens. Maybe you can show them what the book’s all about 🙂

  3. Reblogged this on Fiction and Fantasy Book Blog and commented:
    Sadly, I often feel the same way

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