Academic Exchange Quarterly      Winter  2004:  Volume 8, Issue 4


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Teaching Multiple Approaches to a Single Novel


James B. Kelley, Mississippi State University – Meridian


James B. Kelley is an Assistant Professor of English and teaches courses in 20th-century literature and Technical Writing.



To help students develop a range of interpretive techniques, I introduce the assumptions and strategies of contemporary criticism; the students and I then explore possible uses of these critical approaches in writing about Ilona Karmel’s Holocaust novel, An Estate of Memory. I work closely with students as they design a web-based project exploring the potential of five approaches to one of the assigned novels.



The interpretive skills that students bring with them from high school and from their first two years of college have proved fully adequate in the literature courses that I teach at Mississippi State University – Meridian, a small branch campus serving mostly upper-division undergraduates that stands across a busy street from the city’s community college. Fully adequate, that is, as long we were dealing with lyric poems, short stories, and plays – all shorter works that can be read in one sitting and thus, according to Edgar Allan Poe’s famous formulation, should be composed with “a certain unique or single effect” in mind, an idea to which all details in the work are subordinate (298). Students were not nearly as well prepared when it came to reading and responding to novels. Thus, I have begun to incorporate in my courses instruction in the multiple ways in which longer and more complex works of literature can be interpreted.


This essay presents an account of that instruction through the example of Ilona Karmel’s Holocaust novel An Estate of Memory (1969), which follows the lives of four Jewish women in concentration camps in Nazi-occupied Poland. Hers is the first novel we studied in an upper-division survey course in contemporary literature, a course in which the students read and responded to a range of post-World War II literary works, including three plays, four short stories, and four novels. This essay identifies the potential for a number of different approaches to Karmel’s novel and then discusses the related web-based project that students completed in the course. This essay thus provides a set of useful approaches and resources for instructors wishing to teach the novel discussed here even as it addresses some of the larger theoretical and practical issues of teaching long and multifaceted literary works in the undergraduate classroom.


An Estate of Memory is the longest novel I have ever set out to teach. Over 440 pages in length, it took up five class meetings, or two-and-a-half weeks of the semester schedule. We read the novel in installments that adhered to the original division of the narrative into separate sections. In their short written response to each assigned section (eight to ten sentences, to be turned in by the beginning of every class), the students were asked to move quickly from summarizing what they read to making a more detailed and original analytical statement. In their responses, students frequently traced the “arc of the story” or focused on imagery or on changes in one character in that particular section of the novel. In short, the students continued to apply what they knew about interpreting poems, plays, and short fiction to their reading of the novel. After a few classes of such responses and related in-class discussions, it became clear that I would have to encourage them more actively to vary their approach to longer and more complex works of literature.


Rather than assign additional readings in critical theory, thereby adding to the already heavy reading load and detracting from our focus on literature, I gave a brief presentation on the assumptions and strategies of various critical approaches. As a class, we then worked out the multiple approaches to Karmel’s novel detailed below. My goal was not that students should be able to provide extensive definitions of each critical approach; rather, I wanted the students to become more aware of and to extend their own practices of reading and interpretation.


Liberal humanist and New Critical approaches

Nearly all of us are still very much liberal humanists, seeking to discern the “moral” or “truth” of a tale we have read or watched. In their responses, the students in my course gravitated toward the important moral and philosophical concerns of the novel. Many of them wondered, for example, what one might do to survive when, as with the Jews in the Nazi camps, everything has been taken away. Their answers varied, reflecting the multiple strategies for survival presented in Karmel’s novel: some pointed to the jokes and stories that are exchanged among the inmates, while others observed how prisoners in the camps form new and important bonds that in many ways mirror those of their families torn apart by persecution and displacement. A third group of students considered how the principal characters of the novel often reflect on their life before the Nazi invasion of Poland and the creation of the camps.


In their responses, the students also frequently adopted New Critical approaches to the novel, seeking to discover a sense of unity beneath the widely varying actions and speech of the characters encountered in the long sections assigned for each class period. They sought to make sense of the work’s fairly abstract title and identified what they saw as central themes of the novel – including loyalty and betrayal, powerlessness and domination, charity and greed, and loss and retrieval. At least one student pointed out how these tensions are embodied early in the novel in a particular symbol, the image of two houses standing side by side, one burning while the other remains untouched (see Karmel 43). I also raised New Critical concerns in our discussion of one section of the novel when I pointed to several allusions to the classical era, including the ironic comparison of a man smuggling sausages under his coat to a masterpiece of Classical sculpture, Laocoon and his Sons.


These two approaches were already familiar territory for my students. While both are valuable, they – like any approach applied in isolation – can blind us to other important aspects of a work. Indeed, these two approaches miss a great deal when used to interpret Karmel’s novel; liberal humanism tends subsume the experiences of the Jews in the camps under the rubric of a timeless, abstract “human condition,” whereas New Criticism severs the text from larger biographical, historical, and cultural considerations. Either way, the students’ interpretations seemed to move quickly into the realm of generalities (this is what people do when life gets hard) or classifications (this is yet another metaphor or expression of a theme), both of which seem to me unsatisfactory approaches to a work as complex and multifaceted as Karmel’s An Estate of Memory.


Reader-response approaches

Reader-response criticism, simply put, asks the reader to evaluate her experience of the work and account for what leads to that particular experience. In introducing reader-response approaches to the novel, I began with student comments in two areas: 1) their confusion as readers at certain points in the work and 2) their strong identification as readers with key characters in the novel. I sought to establish a connection between the two points by showing how, in Karmel’s novel, the reader’s disorientation frequently mirrors that of the protagonists.


We looked at several key passages in the story, where events are told in third person but through close identification with a particular character. The reader shares Barbara’s confusion during the Strafappell, the punitive roll call during which the prisoners are required to kneel for hours in the cold (448), for example, and the reader feels the immediacy of Aurelia’s murder. The possible death blow (the “it”) remains unnamed, even unseen, and the character is not described as falling to the ground, as we would expect to find in more distanced, third-person narration: “hardly had it come when the earth reached up to her with a clump of soft moss” (312). The reader, for a moment, falls with her into death. This shared disorientation and the resulting intimacy between reader and character foster a sense of human connection and community or – to avoid unnecessary generalizations – of specifically female connection and community.


Feminist approaches

Karmel’s novel was republished in 1986 by The Feminist Press. Ruth K. Angress’ afterword to that edition develops a strongly feminist reading of the novel, arguing that Karmel “uses motherhood to tell of women whose common cause is to protect a nascent life and whose community of purpose is quite impenetrable by men.” The women, Angress continues, “shape their own goals and define their own responsibilities” (451).


Further feminist approaches by students could include examinations of the traditional positions of men and women in Orthodox Judaism, social roles that might bend, mutate, and even invert in the emerging crisis of store closings and increasingly worse developments; early in the novel, Karmel writes that “the war, this endless Sunday, had restored the matriarchy” (54), and then she writes much later of a second reversal, in which “the trust in masculine guidance had been restored” (409). A further topic of inquiry might address the ideologies of the Third Reich, which valued German women primarily as the reproducers of the race. Karmel addresses this point obliquely in her novel when she writes about “the ever-present laws against ‘Rassenschande,’ the pollution of the race through contact with Jews” (177); here, Karmel leaves the German word (roughly, “defilement of the race”) unglossed and makes no overt mention of sexual relations.


Historical, literary-historical, and biographical approaches

Historical approaches to the novel are challenging to develop, as the reader – much like the main characters in the novel – has no precise sense of time; there is hardly mention of the day or month, much less the year, in any part of the novel. Time passes, seasons change, and a pregnancy is successfully concealed until the child is born and smuggled out of the camp, but the precise markers of time have vanished. Much like the inmates of the camp, the reader must gather together the scraps of news of the Allied forces’ slow advances, first in Africa and Italy, then in France; of a failed assassination attempt against Hitler; and of the German retreats and Soviet advances on the eastern front. An historical approach might focus on these bits of information, giving them new prominence in the novel and attempting to position key developments in the plot in relation to developments in the Second World War.


This historical approach can be extended to discussions of literary conventions and genres and to the biography of the author. Literary history admittedly means little to someone who has not read at least some of the other books in the tradition being referred to, but some students might be able to make sense of Angress’ statement that Karmel’s novel “stands in the tradition of the great modern prison books” (446) or the novel’s importance as an early and influential work in the genre of Holocaust literature. At the very least, this approach demonstrates the writer does not work in a vacuum, but rather writes in one or more literary traditions.


The autobiographical approach to a novel came easily and was often of considerable significance to my students. In their responses, they wondered whether the author was herself Jewish, whether she had experienced events similar to those presented in the novel, and whether one particular character or another in the novel might be said to be Karmel’s fictional counterpart. Students were encouraged to seek answers to their questions and to consider why they thought such autobiographical concerns were important to explore.


New Historicist approaches

New Historicism allows students to engage the relationship between literature and history in more complex ways, as this approach moves away from the broad developments of traditional history – the treaties, wars, and public policies – to examine the social environments that a text recreates or in which the text is produced, circulated, and read. In the case of Karmel’s novel, such approaches can draw from online archives of documents and images from the Nazi era and the present. These materials have helped make up for the very limited library resources at the institution where I teach.


As one student demonstrated in a class presentation, historical photographs can be related meaningfully to a number of descriptions and scenes in the novels. The images available online at The Jewish Virtual Library under “The Concentration Camps Today,” for example, show camp barracks as well as the Appellplaetze where inmates would assemble for roll call, work detail, punishment, and executions, and elsewhere at that site, maps of Polish cities show the changing borders of the Nazi-engineered Jewish ghettos described in the novel (“Jews in Poland”). A second site makes available propaganda posters reflecting the same supposed characteristics of Judaism – “black, bearded, the nose grotesquely bent” – that are presented early on and that dominate in later sections of Karmel’s novel (157-58; see “Nazi Propaganda: 1933-1945”). A final, more developed example of a New Historical approach establishes a meaningful parallel between two different forced-labor camps in the novel; in the first camp the women produce official stationery for the Schutzstaffel (or SS), the elite Nazi police force that administered the concentration camps, and in the second camp they produce anti-aircraft shells for the German army. The apparent difference between these two products – seemingly harmless paper and obviously destructive ammunition – collapses when one reviews the range of documents appearing on SS stationery that stripped millions of individuals of their rights and condemned them to forced labor and even death (see, for example, the SS document “Introduction of Forced Labor in Poland” available online at “Jews in Poland”; see McInelly for a fuller discussion of New Historicism in the undergraduate literature classroom).


Web-based project

Multiple approaches to a single novel can be presented in a traditional essay, but a web-based environment seems better suited to such a project, as hypertext quickly moves away from linear development, from the building of an argument in the traditional sense, and from what Doug Brent has called “the relentless drive toward a conclusion, even a tentative one” (Brent n.p.). The projects my students complete are indeed very modest starts at hypertext documents, with only a single cluster of some 8 to 10 pages, but they nonetheless demonstrate the “associative, exploratory potential” (Brent n.p.) of hypertext.


One of the major difficulties my students have lies with the mechanics of creating a set of web pages for the first time and with the concomitant neglect of the content of these pages. I have found web projects to require careful preparation, detailed instructions, and extended office hours on the part of the instructor, but the web-based projects I have assigned also have tended to generate close, spontaneous collaboration among students and to garner a good share of positive comments in end-of-the-semester evaluations.


I present students with detailed formal requirements at the start of the project, including the minimum number of linked web pages (at least eight) to be developed on one of the assigned novels, the minimum word count per page (at least 180), and the basic principles to consider in designing the web pages. In an electronic classroom, I walk students through the process of creating web pages using a simple web-authoring program (I prefer MS Word, for its familiarity and easy access, but insist that students build the pages themselves rather than rely on the “pre-fab” templates or the web page wizard). Having drawn thumbnail sketches and planned the general content of the pages of their own project, the students then begin to create and link their web pages during class time. Most of the work is completed outside of class. They submit the completed project in both electronic and print format in two stages, a first and a final draft, with just over a week allotted for revisions based on a peer review and on my comments to the first draft. (Examples of the students’ submitted projects can be explored at


This web-based project is likely to become a staple assignment in the literature courses I teach, but it will complement rather than replace more traditional essays in these courses. That is, the web-based project will probably continue to be assigned as the second major assignment, coming after an analytical essay on a play or other short piece we have read for class (an essay that almost invariably turns out to be liberal humanist and/or New Critical in approach) and before a final (and hopefully more sophisticated) research paper on another one of the novels assigned in the course.



The majority of the students who enroll in my literature courses intend to become teachers in primary and secondary schools; thus, I do not expect them all to embrace the particulars of critical theory or go on to design extensive web sites of their own. I do hope, however, that these future educators will take to heart our explorations of the multiple approaches to any one given literary work and will find ways in which to build related ideas and goals into the lessons they go on to teach.



Angress, Ruth K. Afterword. An Estate of Memory. By Ilona Karmel. New York: The Feminist Press, 1986. 445-57.

Brent, Doug. “Rhetorics of the Web: Implications for Teachers of Literacy.” Kairos 2.1 (Spring 1997): n.p. 29 Feb. 2004. <>.

“The Concentration Camps Today: A Photo Exhibit by Jack Hazut: Natzweiler-Struthof.” The Jewish Virtual Library. The America-Israel Cooperative Enterprise. 2004. 29 Feb. 2004. <>.

“Jews in Poland.” The Jewish Virtual Library. The America-Israel Cooperative Enterprise. 2004. 29 Feb. 2004. <>.

Karmel, Ilona. An Estate of Memory. 1969. New York: The Feminist Press, 1986.

McInelly, Brett C. "Teaching the Novel in Context." Academic Exchange Quarterly 7.2 (Summer 2003): 20-24.

“Nazi Propaganda: 1933-1945.” Ed. Randall Bytwerk. Nazi and East German Propaganda Guide Page.  16 Feb. 2004. 29 Feb. 2004. <>.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “Twice-Told Tales: A Review by Edgar Allan Poe.” Graham's Magazine (May 1842): 298-300.