Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

One of the more influential concepts brought into literary analysis by critical theoreticians during the 1960’s was the technique known as structuralism, which attempted to understand literary production as a form of social practice, maintaining that what is most valuable in literature is determined not by character, setting, or theme, but by the structuring of events. The structural anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, whom Mars-Jones mentions, developed an idea of the basic human social relation in terms of “raw” and “cooked” with respect to food or meaning, and Mars-Jones uses this distinction to fashion a structural arrangement in his story that both exhibits and parodies a methodology. Originally designed as a corrective to criticism that ignored historical factors, structuralism evolved through the 1970’s into a device that some critics used to disregard many of the most appealing aspects of literature, producing jargon-clotted quasi-scientific analyses repellent to both readers and writers. Mars-Jones attempts to counter this trend by using what appears to be a structuralist technique that is dazzling in its brilliant explanation of the cultural significance of a “sordid story” while at the same time making claims that are unsubstantiated, far-fetched, or overblown. At the crux of his conception is the question of whether the technique offers anything beyond the entertainment of self-regarding wit, abstract learning, and cross-disciplinary...

(The entire section is 402 words.)