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Accessibility in Literature

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The Nature of Accessibility
The abstract concept of accessibility in literature does not have one sole definition and can vary on a number of different factors. It is how difficult a reader finds the literature that he/she is reading. It is what the reader expects to get out of the reading prior to reading it, and what he/she actually interprets and understands after reading it. Accessibility can vary from reader to reader. A college English professor and a middle school student are more than likely not going to find the same poems and plays accessible. Many other factors, not just education, can decide the nature of accessibility in literature for readers. Among these can be the authors past, society’s stereotypes, the time at which the work was written, etc. Accessibility can be compared in a way to the human body. With the right exercise, rest, and nutrition it will run perfectly. When sleep is reduced, for example, the body will begin to slow down and run less efficiently. It is possible to run on less than the recommended eight hours, but it proves to be more difficult. In the same way, accessibility has all these different factors, depending on the type of literature. If, for example, the reader can understand the meaning and relevance of the time period in the work of literature, he/she has an advantage in understanding this work. In the same way, if the reader does not fully understand the writer’s style, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the work is completely inaccessible, but it proves to be less accessible and therefore more difficult to apprehend. Some factors, among others, that affect the nature of accessibility in literature are character development, time period and setting, and structure and style. “The Griesly Wife” (“the poem”) by John Manifold is a poem that is much more accessible than Edward Albee’s famous play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (“the play”).
Characters make any story come alive, whether it is a poem, play, movie, etc. In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the characters really astonish the reader due primarily to their peculiar actions and ways of being. From the very first conversation in the play, the reader’s accessibility is already being challenged. Before reading on with Act 1, the reader is confused and does not understand the foolish actions being depicted by this middle-aged married couple. Martha and Nick are this bitter old couple, arguing over trivial topics, like the name of a movie. This makes the play less accessible because most readers relate better to the “happily ever after” couple who never argues. The average marriage doesn’t consist of this quintessential depiction of a perfect life, but most readers are going to want to read something cheerful, as an escape from the reality of things. That is why there are more stories with “happily ever after” endings than sad endings, because they appeal to a larger crowd. From a very early age, student’s minds are constantly filled of stories with happy endings. It is only natural for the mind to seek this happiness in literature over a melancholy, bitter piece. As the play goes on, it is learned that the main characters are all in dysfunctional marriages, for one reason or another. Another fact is that the characters are intoxicated for much of the play. Both of these factors may contribute to their uncharacteristic, sometimes childish behavior. An example of the combination of these factors in effect is the evident fact that Martha is trying to approach Nick sexually throughout the entire play. Honey, absentminded and in her own world, does not try to correct Martha or defend her position as Nick’s wife. The alcohol automatically triggers a sense of carelessness, one possible explanation for Honey’s actions, or lack thereof. The fact that both marriages are having issues is another possible explanation for Honey’s indifferent response to Martha. These uncanny actions also make the play less accessible because the reader has more trouble interpreting their meaning and relevance to the rest of the play at times. Albee also has a clear description of the characters in the play, something that Manifold fails to do in “The Griesly Wife”. This description and use of imagery makes it much easier for the reader to imagine the characters, therefore adding to the play’s accessibility.
Contrary to the play, the characters in “The Griesly Wife” contribute to the poem being more accessible. There are only two main characters, the husband and the wife, who are recently married. There is no dialogue between the two as there is in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The only dialogue and part of the poem that isn’t in 3rd person is the first stanza, which gives the reader a good idea of what the poem is about right off the bat. Manifold does a great job of expressing both characters’ emotions. Understanding the characters’ emotions makes the poem more accessible to the reader because he/she knows what is going on in the character’s mind and can make connections between these emotions and their actions. Unlike in this poem, the foolish actions of the characters in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? do not give the reader a clear understanding of the character’s true emotions, therefore making it more difficult to make this connection. All of the characters are very emotional throughout the play, but the reader is not given a clear understanding of these emotions in conjunction with their actions. The deeper meaning that Albee left to be revealed from this behavior is the ease of hiding your true emotions behind this mean, sarcastic relationship. In “The Griesly Wife”, Manifold’s clear expression of these emotions is seen when the husband’s anger shifts quickly after the trail suddenly turns from his wife’s footprints to the “creature’s” footprints. His anger is now fear and he no longer worries about his her safety, but rather his own. The wife’s emotions aren’t discussed directly, but the first stanza already gives the reader an idea of the wife’s uneasiness and her reason for this feeling. Her extreme anxiety is displayed when she leaves the house without telling her husband where she is going.
The setting and time period both go hand in hand with the characters and play a very large role in the nature of accessibility of any literary work, especially in both Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and “The Griesly Wife”. The setting is primarily where the work is set, the surroundings of the characters. It can also incorporate the time period. The time period can include the time inside the actual work or the time in which the work was published. In the play the setting, a New England college campus, is peculiar, not because of the setting itself, but because of the perspective from which the story is told. Typically when one hears a story about a college campus, they expect to hear the story of a successful football game or a breakthrough discovery made within their laboratory. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? tells the story from the point of view of the administration, primarily the faculty, rather than the students. The setting is also controversial because Martha, the daughter of the college’s president, and George, an associate professor of history, both completely contradict their expected stereotypical characters with their irrational actions. Both the perspective and the character’s actions affect the accessibility of the setting itself because they are untraditional ways of depicting the story of a college campus. The reader is not accustomed to these methods of delivery, therefore forcing him/her to think deeper into the significance behind these two choices made by the playwright. The setting of “The Griesly Wife” also plays a significant role in the accessibility of the poem as it takes away from its accessibility. The setting of the poem is never clearly established, leaving it up to the reader to use context clues to determine it. Words like “trail”, “scree”, and “hills” paint the picture of an outdoor, possible mountainside setting. They most likely live in a cabin within the countryside. However, these are all abstract ideas that the poet leaves open for thought, making the poem less accessible in a sense because there isn’t a concrete description of setting. Manifold intentionally did this because giving too much detail and description would take away from the overall meaning and message of morality in the poem. This reader is meant to distinguish this. The time period is also interrelated with the setting. In 1962, when Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was released, America was still coming off of the stereotypical 1950s perfect family ideal. This play, depicting the problems of a marriage, was something abnormal to the audiences as they were previously accustomed. It made it clear that the idea of success as it was in the 1950s was no longer the way of seeing things. It also characterized a change of decades. The play depicted a family who at first glance appeared to have this 50s structure: working husband, housewife, and “son”, living comfortably. Then as the play unfolds, all of the problems of a typical marriage start to surface. Problems like arguments over petty things and loss of communication over the years were closer to the reality of things. This took the audiences by storm because although it was more relatable, it was not what they were used to, therefore making the play less accessible. Today, it continues to make the play less accessible because, as previously mentioned, more readers are accustomed to the “happily ever after” idea. Like Albee, Manifold does not state a specific time period. Due to this fact, the time period, or lack thereof, doesn’t heavily affect the reader’s interpretation and accessibility of the poem.
The first thing a reader notices before reading any type of literature is the structure in which the author chose to express his or her writing. After beginning to read, the reader also notices the style in which the author chose to write. Structure and style give shape to literature and are what makes each piece of writing unique to that particular author. When writing “The Griesly Wife”, Manifold chose to structure it as a story, with characters, a plot, a buildup, a climax, and an end/resolution. He also chose to write in third person. These two elements alone make the poem more accessible therefore easier to understand at first read. The reader does not have a difficult time understanding the writing from the beginning. The typical structure of a story is something embedded in our minds from the time we begin school at a very young age. Something learned through repetition is of course going to be much easier to register than a less commonly known form of writing, such as Hopkins’ sprung rhythm. This connects back to the fact that accessibility varies from reader to reader. This narrative structure is easier for a person with less education and experience to comprehend than that of a more complex structure, like sprung rhythm. Manifold also follows a constant ABCB rhyme scheme (with the exception of the 6th stanza), which keeps the reader in sync with a continuous flow while reading the poem. This makes the poem more accessible because the reader does not have to worry about the rhyme scheme constantly changing. The structure of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? also reflects that of the poem in that it follows the organization of a story, although longer of course due to the type of writing that it is. In this aspect the play is also very accessible to the reader because of prior familiarization with the story form.
Closely related with structure is style. This is where the author leaves his or her mark in the readers mind. Manifold’s use of simple language makes the poem more accessible because it does not require the reader to think about the meaning of certain words. For example, Manifold could have chosen to use the word “exacerbated” rather than choosing the word “angry”. Instead of sitting there wondering what that word means or having to use context clues to grasp the overall meaning of the poem, Manifold simplifies this process by using simpler vocabulary, making the poem more accessible. Albee’s style is of writing is a mix of realism and absurdism. Realism alone might make a poem more accessible because it’s more relatable to every day life including common speech, typical settings, and everyday conflicts. When mixed with absurdism this closes the doors of accessibility to a lot of people. This is because superficially normal things, like the two marriages or the bickering over irrelevant topics, are in reality completely bizarre and irrational when looked at more closely, leaving the reader confused as to what Albee’s purpose is.
The nature of accessibility in literature is a speculative topic because there isn’t one set definition of the concept. From reader to reader, different people find different things more accessible or inaccessible. Education is a major factor in accessibility because as one continues with his/her education, the horizons tend to expand and literature that was previously inaccessible progressively becomes more and more accessible. There are also an endless number of factors when measuring the accessibility of a work of literature. Among those factors of accessibility displayed in “The Griesly Wife” and Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf? are character development, time period and setting, and structure and style. Through analysis of these factors, a reader will realize that “The Griesly Wife” is more accessible in more aspects than Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

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