The Benefits and Drawbacks of Using Wikipedia in Literature Based Assignments

The Benefits and Drawbacks of Using Wikipedia in Literature Based Assignments

When you hear the phrase “Classic Literature”, there’s a strong possibility that what you proceed to think is, “Big.Boring.Book.” Aside from being dismally misguided, the unfortunate masses who adhere to this notion are probably alike in one prominent, product of the 21st-century way—as an alternative to reading “Titanic.Tedious.Text” they skim, and look to online sources to fill in the gaps. Their primary source of sorts becomes none other than Wikipedia: the study guide made easy. With its cohesive formatting and often thorough plot summary, The Free Encyclopedia is lit class made easy.

Or is it? Because if you’ve ever actually tried to rely on Wikipedia as an alternate to actually reading a book, you’ve probably found that upon taking the test for said piece of literature, you run into an awkward situation in which you don’t actually know the answers to the questions. And why is that? Because you have deprived yourself the opportunity of befriending the characters, absorbing the themes, and noticing the small details. In short, you’re screwed. On the plus side, you can rattle off the plot summary for Chapter 9. That’s just the cincher though: in the grand scheme of education, possessing a vague knowledge of plots from that great collection that is the “English Canon” isn’t worth much. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in the world of academia who would be impressed to hear your recap of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Even less likely is the chance that non-scholars would care to listen to your summary at all (after all, they too can type “wikipedia.com” into their web browser). Ultimately plot comprehension is the one of the more trifling aspects of literary studies. Far more important is what you glean from the story—by dissecting the language, symbols and characters, you are not simply learning about the book, but you are also learning how to learn. French literary theorist Roland Barthes stated, “Literature is the question minus the answer.” To tweak an old cliché, the final destination in reading “a classic” isn’t as important as the journey there. In literature, you aren’t given one concrete “answer” as to the meaning and significance of the work. Rather, you are given the material to decipher and navigate on your own, even though people will not always end with the same conclusions. So, yes, Wikipedia and other internet study sources offer generally acceptable synopses of a book’s important motifs and themes. But, no, these summations do not advance the learning process. Only by reading with a sharp eye and fine tooth comb can authentic analysis occur.

Consider Jane Eyre; beyond its plot and character overviews, Wikipedia offers an entire section to “Themes”. Under this header is a brief subsection on the topic of social class and its role within the novel. It is so brief in fact that it appears in its entirety below:
Jane's ambiguous social position — a penniless yet moderately educated orphan from a good family — leads her to criticise discrimination based on class. Although she is educated, well-mannered, and relatively sophisticated, she is still a governess, a paid servant of low social standing, and therefore powerless. Nevertheless, Brontë possesses certain class prejudices herself, as is made clear when Jane has to remind herself that her unsophisticated village pupils at Morton "are of flesh and blood as good as the scions of gentlest genealogy."

Okay fine—but wait. While it would appear that this synopsis is factually correct and accurately interpreted, is it really? First we have the explanation of Jane’s social standing, “a penniless yet moderately educated orphan from a good family.” Well that is true and supported by the book itself, but look now to the very next line, which says that Jane’s social position, “leads her to criticise discrimination based on class.” Okay. Where’s the evidence? Though it’s all too easy to assume validity, on closer look this really is a pretty broad statement, yet it is completely unsubstantiated. Disregard for a moment your opinion of idea itself, and instead consider this: with no textual examples to back it, and no reference to a secondary source (such as a scholarly article) to legitimize it, how can we possibly trust in the claim? After all, for much of the novel doesn’t Jane willingly adhere to the expectations of her social position? In fact, recall the scene in which she discovers Mrs. Fairfax is the housekeeper, not the owner of Thornfield. She reflects, “I felt better pleased than ever. The equality between her and me was real; not the mere result of condescension on her part” (Bronte 85). Here we see an example straight from the text that contradicts Wikipedia’s statement. Jane is decidedly eased by the knowledge that the “affable and kind little widow” is in fact her social peer, rather than a superior whose kindness was simply a consequence of “condescension” (85). Rather than criticizing “discrimination based on class,” in this scene we see that Jane is actually more comfortable in an environment with conventional social standards. As noted by Esther Godfrey, “Jane is painfully aware of her poor circumstances and the tremendous improvement a situation as a governess would be over her position at Lowood, a step that doubles her salary and raises her social rank considerably.” So, using even one example of textual evidence and scholarly sources it seems pretty easy to debunk Wikipedia’s unsupported statement. That said, it would be equally easy to find reliable confirmation of it—the point is that because Wikipedia does not provide it, we as readers need to take their analysis with a grain of salt.

Now, compare the Wikipedia excerpt with similar claims by another infamous student study tool, Sparknotes. This time, the passage is too long to include in its entirety:
Jane herself speaks out against class prejudice at certain moments in the book. For example, in Chapter 23 she chastises Rochester: “Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!—I have as much soul as you—and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you.”
Note that the Sparknotes claim is equally brief to its Wikipedia counterpart and very thematically similar. However, where Sparknotes trumps Wikipedia is in its use of textual evidence. A specific moment is cited to effectively support the statement. It’s only one moment in the book, but it at least provides a concrete example of Jane “speak[ing] out against class prejudice.” Don’t get too excited though, there are still some issues to tackle! First off, notice the brevity of both lines of analysis. Your English teachers have probably told you all about how to outline and format and standard 5 paragraph essay right? Well what would they think about a paragraph that has a lot of text from the book but only a one-liner of how all that text is significant? I’m guessing that it wouldn’t go over so well. That’s why although Sparknotes trumps Wikipedia in its use of textual evidence to back their claim, neither synopsis elaborates on their analysis very thoroughly (maybe because both only intend to offer a synopsis…are lights going off yet?)