This Week in My Classes (November 25, 2008)

It’s the last full week of classes–unbelievable, how fast the term goes by. That means it is wrapping up time. It would be nice if the end of a course could feel like a culmination and a triumph. Instead, it’s always a struggle to keep the momentum (and the attendance) up and the focus on the intrinsic interest and merits of our work. In my new-found cynicism, I now always save one “surprise” quiz for the last day of class, to maximize the number of students who will actually be there for my closing perorations. I do think there is more at stake than what will be on the exam, and I like to take a little time during our last meeting to say a few things about that; it’s disheartening if nobody is there to listen! So coercion is my little helper.

In Introduction to Prose and Fiction, the students’ final papers are due next week. As it is a designated Writing Requirement course, we are supposed to spend time explicitly on writing, so I have scheduled two class hours this week for editing workshops. Last time, they did peer editing. I always have to fight my fear that peer editing is simply a case of the blind leading the blind; I have almost never seen evidence on their drafts or worksheets that I’m wrong about this, but I remain committed to the principle that it is good to read and edit other people’s work, and also that it is excellent to finish a full draft a week before the final due date so that you have at least the opportunity to improve it before you submit it. This time I am asking them to edit their own essays. I think this is an even harder task, and yet in many ways, for a writer, nothing is more important than learning to look critically on your own writing, to achieve enough distance to identify weaknesses in your arguments or evidence, and to develop the fortitude to mess with something you worked hard to produce in the first place. Their worksheet includes a “reverse outline” exercise: the idea is to produce an outline working backwards from the draft, checking as you go whether you have in fact put all the parts in place that you need. One small detail I have come to see as important, though it often seems trivial at first, is whether they have a strong title for the paper. In my experience, a bland (“English Essay”), vague (“Interpreting The Remains of the Day), or simply missing title is a symptom of an essay without a strong organizing idea. We’ll see how it goes. At the very least, again, they have won themselves a few days to reconsider their first try. Many of them will not take advantage of the time they have to rewrite (they tend to tinker with individual words, rather than move pieces around, reconsider their thesis, or choose better examples). But those who are motivated and listening to our advice will end up with much better essays, which ultimately makes our work of grading them more pleasant too.

In The Nineteenth-Century Novel, we are nearly through The Mill on the Floss. After emphasizing last week how important the long, detailed account of Maggie and Tom’s childhood is because it prepares us (and them) for the complexities of their adult decisions, now we are getting to the moral heart of the book: Maggie’s struggle with the conflict between her own needs and desires, and the demands of her conscience and her duty to family and her past. So far this week we’ve focused on the limitations of available stories or narratives for Maggie (helped along by Carolyn Heilbrun, in Writing a Woman’s Life, for instance, and Nancy Miller’s “Emphasis Added: Plots and Plausibilities in Women’s Ficton”). We can take this issue up fairly literally by considering Maggie’s reading of Thomas a Kempis, and a bit more literarily by considering the significance of the Scott novels with which Philip courts her, and which lead to her famous resolution to “read no more books where the blond-haired women carry away all the happiness.” Sadly, of course, her quest to read, much less live, a story “where the dark woman triumphs,” “to avenge Rebecca and Flora MacIvor, and Minna and all the rest of the dark unhappy ones,” is doomed. To help explain why, I’ve handed around copies of George Eliot’s essay “The Antigone and Its Moral: the analysis she offers of the intractable opposition of competing goods clarifies at least one way of understanding the structure of the novel’s ending, though we’ll have to get into specifics of Maggie’s choices to see just what goods are in opposition for her and why she can’t come up with a better resolution (and here “she” could refer with equal reason to Maggie or George Eliot, I’d say).

It is a treat to be reading The Mill on the Floss. Much as I love Dickens’s verbal acrobatics and all the other qualities that make Bleak House one of my top 3 Victorian novels, the combination of intelligence, philosophical breadth, social and historical insight, humour, and charity in George Eliot’s narration is enormously stimulating, and her language, so very different from Dickens’s, has its own aesthetic as well as intellectual beauty. Here (because it’s my blog and I can!) is a long and wonderful passage from a chapter with the unpromising title, “A Variation of Protestantism Unknown to Bossuet.” Bossuet, the notes tell those of us who wouldn’t otherwise know, was a 17th-century French bishop who wrote a history of Protestantism; the unknown variation belongs to Tom and Maggie’s family and “consist[s] in revering whatever was customary and respectable’–it is based on convention and habit, on material and social habits and expectations, rather than on any grand spiritual notions. The Dodsons and Tullivers invite, deserved, and get plenty of satirical treatment and criticism, but, characteristically, George Eliot is concerned to contextualize both their “theory of life” and her own analysis of it, and to prepare us for how their beliefs in turn provide a crucial constraining context for the ardent efforts of her protagonists. I’ve copied the text from this nice searchable e-text.

JOURNEYING down the Rhone on a summer’s day, you have perhaps felt the sunshine made dreary by those ruined villages which stud the banks in certain parts of its course, telling how the swift river once rose, like an angry, destroying god sweeping down the feeble generations whose breath is in their nostrils’ and making their dwellings a desolation. Strange contrast, you may have thought, between the effect produced on us by these dismal remnants of commonplace houses, which in their best days were but the sign of a sordid life, belonging in all its details to our own vulgar era – and the effect produced by those ruins on the castled Rhine which have crumbled and mellowed into such harmony with the green and rocky steeps, that they seem to have a natural fitness, like the mountain pine: nay, even in the day when they were built they must have had this fitness, as if they had been raised by an earth-born race who had inherited from their mighty parent a sublime instinct of form. And that was a day of romance! If those robber barons were somewhat grim and drunken ogres, they had a certain grandeur of the wild beast in them – they were forest boars with tusks tearing and rending, not the ordinary domestic grunter: they represented the demon forces for ever in collision with beauty, virtue, and the gentle uses of life: they made a fine contrast in the picture with the wandering minstrel, the soft-lipped princess, the pious recluse and the timid Israelite. That was a time of colour when the sunlight fell on glancing steel and floating banners: a time of adventure and fierce struggle – nay, of living, religious art and religious enthusiasm; for were not cathedrals built in those days and did not great emperors leave their western palaces to die before the infidel strongholds in the sacred east? Therefore it is that these Rhine castles thrill me with a sense of poetry: they belong to the grand historic life of humanity, and raise up for me the vision of an epoch. But these dead-tinted, hollow-eyed, angular skeletons of villages on the Rhone, oppress me with the feeling that human life – very much of it – is a narrow, ugly, grovelling existence, which even calamity does not elevate, but rather tends to exhibit in all its bare vulgarity of conception; and I have a cruel conviction that the lives these ruins are the traces of were part of a gross sum of obscure vitality, that will be swept into the same oblivion with the generations of ants and beavers.

Perhaps something akin to this oppressive feeling may have weighed upon you in watching this old-fashioned family life on the banks of the Floss, which even sorrow hardly suffices to lift above the level of the tragi-comic. It is a sordid life, you say, this of the Tullivers and Dodsons – irradiated by no sublime principles, no romantic visions, no active, self-renouncing faith – moved by none of those wild, uncontrollable passions which create the dark shadows of misery and crime – without that primitive rough simplicity of wants, that hard submissive ill-paid toil, that child-like spelling-out of what nature has written, which gives its poetry to peasant life. Here, one has conventional worldly notions and habits without instruction and without polish – surely the most prosaic form of human life: proud respectability in a gig of unfashionable build: worldliness without side-dishes. Observing these people narrowly, even when the iron hand of misfortune has shaken them from their unquestioning hold on the world, one sees little trace of religion, still less of a distinctively Christian creed. Their belief in the unseen, so far as it manifests itself at all, seems to be rather of a pagan kind: their moral notions, though held with strong tenacity, seem to have no standard beyond hereditary custom. You could not live among such people; you are stifled for want of an outlet towards something beautiful, great, or noble: you are irritated with these dull men and women, as a kind of population out of keeping with the earth on which they live – with this rich plain where the great river flows for ever onward and links the small pulse of the old English town with the beatings of the world’s mighty heart. A vigorous superstition that lashes its gods or lashes its own back, seems to be more congruous with the mystery of the human lot, than the mental condition of these emmet-like Dodsons and Tullivers.

I share with you this sense of oppressive narrowness; but it is necessary that we should feel it, if we care to understand how it acted on the lives of Tom and Maggie – how it has acted on young natures in many generations, that in the onward tendency of human things have risen above the mental level of the generation before them, to which they have been nevertheless tied by the strongest fibres of their hearts. The suffering, whether of martyr or victim, which belongs to every historical advance of mankind, is represented in this way in every town and by hundreds of obscure hearths: and we need not shrink from this comparison of small things with great; for does not science tell us that its highest striving is after the ascertainment of a unity which shall bind the smallest things with the greatest? In natural science, I have understood, there is nothing petty to the mind that has a large vision of relations, and to which every single object suggests a vast sum of conditions. It is surely the same with the observation of human life.

Who wouldn’t want to spend more time in this company, at once erudite and ironic, astutely critical and warmly compassionate? The demands are many, but the rewards are too.

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