SWOT and the Analysis of Literary Characters
By John Banschbach
Minnesota State University-Mankato
Like many teachers, I have a collection of teaching activities that can be used in different situations and that require little preparation. Freewriting, for example, can be used as an invention activity for writing or class discussion or it can be used as a classroom assessment technique (e.g., the “muddiest point” assignment). Another activity is “choose the word in this poem that you see as most important.” This activity and subsequent discussion can demonstrate a poem’s complexity and the variety of responses a poem can invoke. This year I have added another activity to my collection.
SWOT is an acronym for “strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.” If you have been engaged in formal strategic planning for your school or department, it is an acronym that is familiar. It was developed in the 1960s by Albert Humphrey and others at the Stanford Research Institute as part of a study of problems in corporate planning, and, since then, it has become an essential part of strategic planning for businesses. A business first determines its objectives and then identifies its strengths and weaknesses (the internal environment) and opportunities and threats (the external environment). The business goes on to revise its objectives, making them consistent with this analysis, and then it sorts the SWOT findings into categories and prioritizes them and finally creates an action plan for achieving the new objectives (Humphrey).
Consultants recommend this process to individuals to help them plan their careers (Quast). The individual identifies his or her career goals, the personal strengths and weaknesses that are pertinent to achieving those goals, any opportunities for enhancing strengths and eliminating weaknesses and achieving the goal, and any threats (such as competitors for a promotion). That analysis then becomes the basis of an action plan for achieving the career goals.
The SWOT method is easily applied to literary characters. Louise Erdrich’s novel, The Game of Silence, focuses on a year in the life of Omakayas, a nine-year-old Ojibwe girl and her family living on an island in Lake Superior in the 1850s. While Omakayas has several personal goals, she wants especially the respect, and even the admiration, of the adults. She is diligent and responsible, she knows about medicinal plants, she is part of a loving and extended family, and she has prophetic dreams. On the other hand, she resents having to do “women’s work” when other children don’t have to, she is jealous of another girl whom the adults praise as a hunter and who scorns women’s work, her desire for adult recognition leads her to make poor decisions that simply cause problems, and she is afraid to “take the charcoal,” to undergo a four-day fast alone in the woods, an important ritual for the tribe’s children.
“Taking the charcoal” is Omakayas’s best opportunity to achieve her goal. Ideally, during the fast one of the spirits of the area, a spirit of the plants or animals or waters, reveals itself to the child in a dream and become the child’s life-long protector. As the story progresses, Omakayas has dreams that reveal the whereabouts of lost members of the tribe and lead to their rescue, and the ritual could establish her as a seer in the tribe. But Omakayas is frightened by the dreams’ truthfulness and the power of the experience of them, and her fear of the dreams that the ritual might lead to is the greatest threat to her achieving her goal.
Since the SWOT method was designed for groups instead of for individuals, it is especially appropriate for stories that focus on social groups, such as The Game of Silence. An important Ojibwe goal is to remain on the island where they had lived for decades. The tribe had signed a treaty with the U.S. government granting them the right to live there, but now the government has ordered them to leave the island and to move west into Minnesota, the home of their enemies, the Lakota. The tribe has a good relationship with the white community on the island. The Ojibwe are valued for their skills in hunting, fishing, trapping, making baskets and canoes. They send their children to the village school and learn to read and write and do arithmetic. They negotiated a treaty in good faith and have met the terms of the treaty. The most compelling evidence of their good faith is their first response to the news that they have to leave the island. Rather than assume that the government has broken the treaty, they send messengers to discover whether any of the Ojibwe has killed a settler and so made the treaty invalid.
As in the case of Omakayas’s dreams, a SWOT analysis of the tribe reveals that an item can fit into more than one of the four categories, can affect the likelihood of success in different ways. The Ojibwe’s trust in the U.S. government, one of the strengths listed above, is necessary for the two communities to live together in some kind of harmony, but it also proves to be a weakness, since the government is not trustworthy. The messengers learn that no Ojibwe has killed anyone, that the government has broken its promise to provide the Ojibwe with money and food, and that some Ojibwe have died of starvation as a result. A second important weakness is numerical inferiority; there are few Ojibwe compared to the numbers of white settlers who will be coming to the area.
These weaknesses and strengths mean that there are no true opportunities for achieving their goal and remaining on the island. Further negotiation would be pointless, and the threat of military action by the government should the tribe resist makes resistance futile. Like a business, then, the tribe has to establish a new goal, in this case a successful migration to a new land.
While SWOT analysis appears to be static, it is in fact dynamic, and is meant to be revised as the circumstances and goals of the business change. The last two chapters of the novel recount Omakayas’s fast and dream vision and the tribe’s leaving the island. In her dream Omakayas sees her own future, a happy old age with children and grandchildren in an unfamiliar landscape. She is acknowledged as a seer and has achieved her goal of being valued by the tribe. This then changes the SWOT analysis of the tribe; their strengths now include having a seer who knows that, although they have to leave the island, there is a good life ahead.
SWOT analysis provides students with a clear structure for understanding character and plot. It can be used as part of a final study of a novel or as a way of mapping character and plot development as students read through it. The critical thinking skill emphasized here is classification, not only determining generally strengths and weaknesses and opportunities and threats, but also determining whether a strength or weakness or opportunity or threat is relevant to a character’s particular goal. Another important critical thinking skill in SWOT analysis is the forming of hypotheses. The categories of “opportunity” and “threat” ask students to extend the plot, to consider what the characters might to do to achieve their goals and to counter threats. Finally, if students are asked to determine the characters’ goals, then they engage in interpretation. This task is made easier for younger students when combined with the basics of story grammar. That is, students first identify the problems the characters are confronted with, and then consider solutions to these problems, both solutions the characters propose and ones students propose. Discussion of these leads to a statement of the characters’ goals.
Erdrich, Louise. The Game of Silence. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2005. Print.
Humphrey, Albert S. “SWOT Analysis for Management Consulting.” SRI International Newsletter. SRI International, Dec. 2005: 7-8. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.
Quast, Lisa. “How to Conduct a Personal SWOT Analysis.” Forbes. Forbes, 15 April 2013. Web. 20 November 2013.