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‘School’ By Peter Cowan Essay

There are many ways in which a piece of literature can be read and interpreted. A text is construed in many ways, depending on the readers time period, culture and previous knowledge. When we read literature, there are many culturally determined practices and conventions that we follow. These practices and conventions are constructed by social structures such as the church, law and media which in turn will support them. Interpreting the ‘gaps and silences’ in a text is one practice and convention that we have learnt to do from childhood. The short story School by Peter Cowan is one that incorporates reading practices and assumptions. School has many ‘gaps and silences’ and contradictions that are apparent in the text information. There are also a range of readings that can be constructed from School which support different views, ideas and values.

The text information in Peter Cowan’s short story School, has been constructed in a way that we as the reader can interpret it in countless more ways than what it may mean on a surface level. Cowan limits the information of the text to allow the reader to form their own meaning. The text does not provide complete information about the boy in the story; it merely implies that he is feeling alienated and depressed. There is no text information that unambiguously explains that the boy is feeling alienated and excluded. In the last paragraph, the boy’s difficulty is described by, ‘He looked at the symbols on the paper and they blurred and made no pattern.’ In this sentence, we assume that he does not understand the work, but this is only inferred. This text can be analysed as being limited in text information; to interpret it, the reader has to make assumptions of the omitted information.

Text information is absorbed and understood according to cultural reading practices and reader assumptions. In the short story School by Peter Cowan, there are many ideas that are not literally written; it is left to the reader to assume what the writer has omitted. In the last paragraph, Cowan writes: ‘He could feel the tears and he was afraid to move lest the others see.’ We assume that the class is sterile and unfriendly, though this is not stated in the text. Without assuming, we would not make sense of the text. Readers assume different meanings because of their different cultures, experiences or education. The way we interpret texts is called reading practices. One reading practice is interpreting the gaps and silences in a text.

The short story School contains many gaps and silences; they are the incomplete information in the text. The gaps and silences in a text may be interpreted in many ways depending on our attitudes values and beliefs. In the first paragraph is one example, ‘slowly the tears began to force their way on him. He made no sound and the others working did not know.’ We may assume that this means he is crying because he has got a maths problem wrong while another person may say that he is crying because he misses life on the farm. It is not clear what this gap in the story is about, but we can assume its implied meaning.

In all stories the reader can find contradictions within the text. In the short story School, the reader is introduced to the classroom setting in the first paragraph, ‘The class-room was hot, and outside the sun was hard on the dusty earth and the grass was going brown on the playing fields.’ This setting of the school suggests that it is sterile and unfriendly. Yet, the same phrase is used when the boy is thinking of the farm, ‘The sun was hard on the paddocks and the dull scrub and the few trees.’ This could suggest that the boy finds the farm just as hard as school. In the end, it depends on ones ideologies and experiences to pick out what could be a contradiction of a dominant reading of the time.

In any text there are dominant and marginalised or subordinate ideas or readings. All readings are debatably credible as everyone has different ideas and beliefs. One reading may be that being at school bears the same hardships as on the farm, ‘The sun was hard on the paddocks’ and ‘The class-room was hot and the sun was hard on the dusty earth.’ Both these passages show that the farm and the school have contrasting environments. This idea could come from a person who has had unpleasant times working on the farm and also hates school. Another reading would be alienating people who are different. This idea is more dominant because that is what many people feel that it implies. Peter Cowan, the author, was a soldier during World War II in the army, a place where there is a lot of discrimination. The ideas and values of this story would reflect Cowan’s life. There can be many readings of the same text each having their strengths, weakness’ and contradictions.

Literature is read and interpreted in many ways. It is a person’s beliefs experiences and previous knowledge that determines the way they will interpret a text. Peter Cowan’s short story School has many gaps of information that rely on the reader to fill in with their own knowledge. Thus we can see that there can be many readings from this one text, those that are subordinate – school bearing the same hardships as on the farm, to the more dominant idea – the alienation of people who are different in our society. Ultimately, in the end, it is what the reader wants to assume and comprehends that counts.

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