This Week in My Classes (February 5, 2008)

In Mystery and Detective Fiction, it’s Agatha Christie time. Our major reading is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I like to take this opportunity to talk a bit about canonization and literary value, highlighting the timing of the novel (1926) and considering some of the reasons we treat it differently from some of its near-contemporaries, such as Ulysses (1922) and To the Lighthouse (1927). Of its kind, Ackroyd seems to me nearly perfect, so the question has to be how we evaluate different kinds of things. We talk about the valorization of difficulty at this time, for instance, something I have often talked about with my colleague Leonard Diepeveen. I point out that Agatha Christie is apparently the most successful (English language) novelist of all time (2 billion copies sold!). Doesn’t that in itself provide sufficient reason to take her seriously? This question typically sparks some good debate. I also read some excerpts from Edmund Wilson’s provocative essay “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” And we talk about the ethics of puzzle fiction. Next class we’ll look, for example, at the scene in which the characters assemble in the room with Ackroyd’s body and carry on a long and completely collected conversation about his death, and then think about Poirot’s cool demeanor as he plunks himself down in the very chair that held the body, and the way the murder weapon (still dripping blood, presumably) is an object of great but, again, entirely cool and collected observation. We won’t get to the novel’s conclusion until next week, so I’ll hold off on any comments on whodunnit.

In The Victorian ‘Woman Question,’ it’s still East Lynne until Friday. I tried my handout with the excerpts from Vanity Fair and Adam Bede yesterday; interestingly, there were some who found Wood’s overt didacticism effective and engaging, and others who preferred Thackeray for leaving them some room to draw their own conclusions. We had some productive discussion about things like the way Isabel’s zombie-like presence in what was once her own household brings into focus class and gender anxieties that run throughout the novel, and about the way the election plot displaces the class and sexual rivalries between Carlyle and Levison–but why? How far does Levison’s humiliation in the dunking scene help in the restoration of our sympathies for Isabel, assuming we weren’t already on her side after the whole train wreck catastrophe? And we’ve begun considering the issue of the excessive pathos that dominates the last part of the novel; there will be more to say about this when we’ve read to the end, complete with the two wrenching deathbed scenes.

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