Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

It's All in the Title

I recently went to see a production of John Ford's play 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, a 17th-century British delight that is easily one of my all-time favorite titles to get to say. The production was excellent, but my companion and I were disappointed that the company we saw chose to drop the last line of the play, when (spoiler!) the Cardinal in the play says, "...who could not say, 'tis pity she's a whore?" Yes, that's right, they cut the line that gives the play its title. The play felt incomplete, and incorrectly named, without it.

This led me to thinking about titles, and I realized how often my students' initial conversations about literature are actually about the title of the literature they're going to read. I remembered starting Death of a Salesman with one class, and having one young man say, "I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that since Willy's the salesman, he's gonna die." I thought, "Yeah, come to think of it. So much for the suspense there, Arthur Miller." The Crucible gives similar fits, because the kids want to know how they're going to understand the play if they don't even get the title!

Titles are important: they provide a number of opportunities for readers, whether ourselves or our students. In this column, I'm going to explore the types of titles, and how you might use them in your classroom.

The Straightforward Title

While it's not a technique that I've used much, a number of my colleagues encourage students to "interview books" before choosing one to read. The students are supposed to "ask" the book a few questions before deciding whether they want to read it or not — these questions are along the lines of "How difficult are you going to be to read?" and "Am I interested in your cover?" (Just to be clear, the kids have to find the answers themselves. We do not have the funds for talking books at school yet.) One of the questions they ask is, "Does your title interest me?" That's a good call, I think. A well-titled book, be it simple or challenging, can tell us much about what's inside.

Think about the most popular children's books, such as Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar or Judith Viorst's Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Both of these clearly lay out what can be found within: you're going to read about a caterpillar who's hungry, or a kid named Alexander who's having an awful day. Are those topics intriguing to you? Then dive in! If not, move on.

Death of a Salesman is of the same type of title, if for adults. So is The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, or The Autobiography of Malcolm X. If you start reading one of those and wonder why Willy seems doomed, or Malcolm X was so focused on himself, you have not paid attention to the title.

I also include any title that's taken directly from the text within to be a straight-forward title. Timberlake Wertzenbaker's play Our Country's Good fits into this category, as does To Kill a Mockingbird. Titles named after main characters (The Merchant of Venice, David Copperfield) are also simple to grasp (and let you or your students in on the fact that the work is going to focus on that character). All of the Harry Potters are of this stripe, of course.

There are also some wonderful, old-fashioned titles that fit the straightforward type: Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for example, or Little House of the Prairie. Teachers can ask their students to draw information from titles like this, the first step in making predictions about (and building interest in) the works they're reading.

The Hinting Title

Another type of title is the hinting title. It is usually descriptive, but has more impact upon completion of the book, when you can go back and consider the entire work under the umbrella of that title. A few moments thought will reveal to you that the author gave you a hint about what you were about to read, and that the hint took 200 or so pages to pay off.

A Separate Peace is the classic example of this type. The phrase at the beginning makes sense, but in the end, after reading about life and death at a New England boarding school during World War II, readers see how much more meaning is embedded in the title. Another good example of this type is Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice. Again, we have a hint at the beginning — this book's going to be about pride! And prejudice! — but at the end, mulling over who was prideful and who had prejudice leads to a deeper understanding of the entire novel. Our Town is another good example. It seems like a straightforward title (and indeed it is, as the play is about their town), but it also has a deeper meaning: the "our" is all of us, as Grover's Corners reflects all of humanity.

Hinting titles are a little tricky to teach, because you don't want to blow the whole plot for your students, nor give the impression that the payoff is going to be so amazing, it'll be the literary equivalent of the last 5 minutes of The Sixth Sense. Still, I like to ask my students to brainstorm what the title might mean and keep that in mind throughout the reading. Then, I'll often ask them to write a brief response on this topic.

The Allusion

My favorite kind of titles are allusions to other literary works, often Biblical, Shakespearean or, it seems, hymns. I like teaching these titles because everyone feels smarter when they know what the reference is. It's also an opportunity to sneak in a little extra literature — the poem, play, parable or story from whence cometh the title.

For example, there's the output of John Steinbeck, who was seriously into allusions: The Grapes of Wrath (a reference to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic");  East of Eden (a reference to the Biblical story of Cain and Abel); Of Mice and Men (taken from a poem by Robert Burns, although often attributed to Shakespeare); and The Pearl (another Biblical allusion, this time to a parable from Jesus).  Any one of these allusions is well worth knowing. My students are asked to read the original source and draw parallels (usually after the work of literature we're reading is well underway) between the two works.

By the way, the list of titles derived from Shakespeare is insanely long: here is a link to what must be the most complete list available on the web. This is where I learned that Thomas Hardy and Louise Gluck both took titles in allusion to As You Like It. Yay, interwebs!

I must also mention one of my own titles: I wrote a play about two women whose great claim to fame is that they knew Jay Gatsby in high school. It's titled Rosa Krantz & Gilda Stern Say "Attagirl!" which is a direct allusion to Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which borrows two characters from Shakespeare's Hamlet. Yep. I like allusions.

The Huh?

Sometimes titles are confusing, even misleading, although the confusion may reside solely in the mind of the potential reader. For example, I somehow missed reading The Great Gatsby growing up, and formed in my mind the impression that the title referred to some kind of magician/circus performer. It was quite a shock to finally read the book a few years ago and discover that Gatsby is a Prohibition-era bootlegger, and not that great (the title is ironic, but tone is hard to convey in three words). A friend of mine was similarly perplexed to learn that A Tale of Two Cities isn't about London and New York City.

Obviously, these mistakes are mostly our fault, but some titles are confusing. Catch-22 isn't about baseball, and Gone with the Wind is not about disruptive weather patterns and their effect on farming. Ulysses isn't a Greek myth, and A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy shouldn't be packed for your space journey. And, of course, if you don't get the reference or understand the words, any title can be "Huh?"-causing. That's why it's important to make sure your students don't set out on their journey with a book completely misinformed about what they're going to read. I say this as a teacher who was once distressed to learn that a student of hers thought that Ethan Frome had been a President of the United States.

Finally...

The last kind of title is, simply, the title you like. It could be any (or none) of the above types. It simply works for you. Many people love Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as a title, and it is a great one (as well as a reference to a Paul Laurence Dunbar poem). I'm always thrilled by titles that reference songs I love, such as Kent Haruf's The Tie That Binds, but my own favorite title comes from a play I saw many years ago in development: The Joy of Going Somewhere Definite. I just love it: it gave me words for a feeling I love to have.

Ask your students, or your friends, what their favorite title is! I bet you're get some wonderful responses. Titles are such a wonderful and concise way of exploring literature.


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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday April 3rd 2012, 11:03 AM
Comment by: Debra B. (Oakdale, CA)
Titles are particularly important in poetry. Often my students would struggle with understanding a poem when the clue that they needed was sitting up above the words they were confused about. I was always amazed at how routine it was for them to skip right over the title. Learning to pay attention to these details is a critical part of becoming a better reader.

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