This Week in My Classes (January 25, 2008)

We wrapped up our discussion of The Moonstone today in Mystery and Detective Fiction. This is a novel that provokes thought (as well as pleasure) on many levels. Today I felt inclined to emphasize some of the neat formal and thematic balancing Collins provides with his conclusions. (I say ‘conclusions’ because we get both the English ending, wrapping up the ‘marriage plot,’ and the Indian ending, with the restoration of the diamond to its rightful place–or is it?) For instance, the Prologue gives us a kind of murder mystery with the figure of John Herncastle poised with the bloody dagger over the body of the dying Indian (surely he’s guilty, but we draw this conclusion from insufficient–moral, not legal–evidence); then at the end we get the body of the English thief (see, no spoilers!) and draw the conclusion that he has been murdered by the Indians in pursuit of their stolen treasure, but here too (even the phrasing is the same) we have moral rather than legal evidence. The English characters continue to believe the diamond really belongs to Rachel, exposing the limitations of their own notions of justice and guilt, but the Indians have killed without remorse to steal it back. English religiosity has been exposed as hypocritical, vicious, and intrusive; how far is the representation of the Indians as pursuing spiritual goals at the expense of fortune, caste, and security supposed to be a good alternative? Also, how far can we trust the story we think we know by the end, given the doubts Collins’s narrative technique has so effectively raised about first-person testimony? Do his multiple narrators cumulatively overcome the presumption of unreliability? Lots of questions, lots of answers, lots of fun. Monday we’re on to Sherlock Holmes.

In The Victorian ‘Woman Question’ we had our last classes on The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Today was student presentation day, and the group put on a good show, with lots of relevant information about literary and critical contexts, and a fun activity too, because I always ask presenters to find some way to get everyone involved. Today we had a “Choose Your Own Adventure” version of Tenant, prompting us to examine Helen’s (and Bronte’s) choices, including how far they really were choices, given some of the social and economic constraints on Helen’s situation. My rule for this part of the presentation is that the activity can be nearly anything–a debate, a group discussion, a game, a dramatic sketch–provided it engages us in some substantive way with our class readings. I’ve played “Who Wants to be a Pre-Raphaelite?” (when in doubt, you can “Phone Dr. Maitzen,” check your notes, or ask a classmate), adjudicated a “Worst Mothers in Victorian Literature” contest, seen fallen women (dressed for the part) debate their respectable counterparts, tried to decide who else could die in The Mill on the Floss without losing the novel’s main ideas (this was a good one, as it convinced me of the necessity of an ending that can seem gratuitous or uncalled for–which is not to say that we couldn’t think of people we would rather see die, but it’s remarkable how different the book quickly becomes if you try to get rid of them)….I’m always impressed at my students’ ingenuity, and I think the classes always appreciate the change of pace and the opportunity for some fun.

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