As I was grading my college students’ literature essays, my sister called to tell me that she was taking my niece to see Disney Princesses on Ice. She wanted to know if my three-year-old, Emmi, and I would like to join them. My gut reaction was to answer, “No way.”
It sounded a little too chaotic for my taste, both too mainstream and too surreal. Envisioning hordes of preschool patrons decked out in full princess regalia, I began to decline when I remembered that my sister had been the one to introduce Emmi to Chuck E. Cheese, which she had absolutely loved. I didn’t want to deprive my daughter of an all-American experience, even if ice-skating princesses wasn’t my cup of tea.
“I remember going when I was in Girl Scouts,” my sister said, “and it was pretty neat. People dressed up like princesses skate around and act out the stories.”
Then I realized the real reason for my hesitation. Emmi doesn’t appreciate anyone “distorting” the stories with which she’s familiar. When she became obsessed with Peter Pan after watching the Disney version, I bought an illustrated Peter Pan chapter book to read together each night. She was so excited, she couldn’t wait for bedtime. But as soon as I opened the cover, she protested, “Mom, that’s not what Peter Pan looks like. And Wendy wears a pretty blue nightgown, not a white one.” She was visibly disappointed, especially as we started reading and the plot diverged from the story she knew.
Another time, my husband took Emmi to a children’s theatre to see a performance of Pinocchio, as this spunky boy had become her newest favorite character. “How was it?” I asked when they got home. Emmi fell limply onto the couch, leaning over it upside down. “It was all right,” she sighed. My husband explained. “She got really confused when the actor playing Geppetto also played the villain. She didn’t understand why Geppetto was being mean and trying to trick Pinocchio.” Meanwhile, there was the confusion of a puppet who wanted to be a real boy being played by a real man pretending to be a puppet.
Beyond that, I understood her rejection of an alternate version that seemed to change the story in a way inconsistent with the version already in her mind. I understood her loyalty to the one true story, the first version in her experience. I know where she gets it. And that comforting feeling of stability and rightness in knowing what is “true” is not easily outgrown.
Studying literature in graduate school, I resisted the application of certain theoretical perspectives that seemed to create alternate versions of some of my favorite literary works. To my mind, they destroyed the essence of the story as the author intended. Needless to say, this was a wildly unpopular, outdated stance within the realm of contemporary literary criticism, which saw the author as a cultural construct as unoriginal as her text, and saw her work as fair game for scholars using critical theory to gain insight, not only into the story, but into our way of understanding the world and its inner workings. In many cases, I will admit that theoretical perspectives proved enlightening. They expanded texts beyond their storylines and offered added depth, a richness of understanding. But when it came to the literature to which I felt a personal connection, and the characters with whom I identified, I found myself bristling as I read scholarly work. I wanted to protect their integrity and substance, just as my daughter felt the need to protect Peter Pan from being made to wear a frilly white feather of a costume rather than the green costume with the plucky red feather.
My professors urged me to grow up, but I wanted to stay in Neverland. Or in La Mancha, really, with my favorite hero, Don Quixote. Now there is a character who understands the value in reading for pleasure, the power of literature to change lives. I studied Cervantes’s text in English and in Spanish. Historical criticism and structuralism that highlighted the genius of the author and grounded him in the real, I accepted. But any scholarship that came at him to deconstruct his world, psychoanalyze him, drag him into the modern era or transform him into an idea, I resisted.
How could scholars who devoted their lives to studying him betray him in such a way, tearing him apart, piece by piece? How dare they examine his love of a good story and his desire for adventure as modern-day symptoms, diagnosing him as a schizophrenic, disabled narcissist in the midst of a midlife crisis? It seemed to me that the old knight was in need of a defender against these theoretical onslaughts. Standing at his bedside, sword drawn to protect him and his worldview, I prepared to defend him to the death, however poor a knight I might prove, slashing away at psychoanalysts, barring deconstructionists, pushing out postcolonialists.
Then I heard it. “Put down your sword.” Was it Don Quixote, calling me?
It grew louder.
No, it was Cervantes. “Are you mad?” he asked. “You’ve missed the whole point! Ideas are not the enemy.”
I stopped to consider. I recalled the scene in which Don Quixote’s niece and housekeeper burn his books of chivalry, intending their removal from his shelves to erase their influence on his mind and squelch his desire for adventure. Was I calling for an inquisition of critical theories that I found threatening to my limited worldview, that challenged my faith in certainty and left me unmoored?
What did I wish to gain by relinquishing realism (which Cervantes questions) for naïveté and romanticism (which Cervantes mocks)? Or, does the gain signify loss? (Wait, is that deconstruction seeping in?) Perhaps I did not want to lose the pure pleasure of reading as a child does: to learn more about the world; to visit places far away; and to imagine things differently, reshaped by the stories she reads. Yet, of the more advanced reader, we might ask for more. Can we not hold within us more than one version of a story, more than one way of seeing the world?
For Don Quixote, the experiences gained from venturing forth lead him to a wisdom that ultimately vanquishes his romanticism. Realism prevails, as it has to. We can fight for romanticism to color our worlds, for imagination to flourish, and realism can be kept at bay—until the end of the day, when we must come back to read the literary criticism that we weave into our academic writing and teach our students.
Carlos Fuentes dubbed Don Quixote “the first modern hero.” In bringing medieval tales of chivalry to meet the complexities of his modern world, Cervantes created a hero’s tale open to “multiple levels of reading, capable of testing the multiple layers of reality.” This leads one to wonder: Do not Don Quixote and literary theorists share a similar idealism and purpose—a desire to present the world through their lens, and invite others along for the adventure? Literary theory clears the way to other truths, recognizing there is no code to be blindly followed. There is no straight path to a single understanding. Rather, truth lies in the eye of the beholder; and literary theory offers awareness of the ways that we arrive at such truths.
Ideas that challenge us are not the enemy. They call us to lay down our swords and deal honorably with the formidable force of our own minds—to free them. As a teacher at a small liberal arts college, I have watched my own literature and writing students battle against other ways of reading the world. As they challenge each other, resist, and push boundaries, I continue to grow in awareness with, and through, them. It is not in all of our natures to want to grow up. It is not always easy, and it can feel as if much stands to be lost. Until we have time to test these ideas against our worlds, they place us on uneven footing. Yet, the force of insight can ultimately place us on the path to sanity and a wider, more just world, if we can only see through our folly.
Still, I think we might pass on the ice-skating princesses. Never mind that all of the Disney movies Emmi has ever watched are modified versions of classic stories—tales told with a twist, a slant that opens the story up to new interpretation. As she sallies forth on her own literary quests, that truth awaits her.