Don’t let the lack of new posts between last week’s teaching update and this one mislead you: there has been plenty of novel reading around here lately! Specifically, I have finished A Suitable Boy–yes, just a few short weeks after deciding it would be the perfect complement to a term already well-stocked with loose baggy monsters. It became a thoroughly enjoyable and often surprisingly poignant reading experience (and there was some melodrama and some humour in there too), and I hope to write a proper post about it soon. For now, though, here’s what I’ve been doing for my day job:
In Mystery and Detective Fiction, after Monday’s midterm (too short, apparently, as over half of them were done well before time was up), we’ve moved on to hard-boiled detective fiction. For today we read Chandler’s great essay “The Simple Art of Murder” and Hammett’s “The Gutting of Couffignal.” This stuff will really wake you up when you’ve been reading Agatha Christie for a while. Though it’s not at all to my personal taste, I get pretty energized teaching it, partly from the intensity of the language and the fast-paced plotting, and partly, I think, from exactly that contrast between the world Hammett puts us in and the much more artificial world of the puzzle mystery. I am also (nearly) convinced that puzzle mysteries, though far less graphically violent, are far more morally problematic. Even Poirot’s sombre analyses of the corrupting effects of small moral lapses on ordinary men–blunting their moral fibre, as he says of Dr. Sheppard–are not sufficiently weighty to compensate for the essential frivolity of the murder story itself, the insouciance, for instance, with which Poirot seats himself in the very chair where Ackroyd’s body was found as he works out possible theories of the crime. I think Chandler is right when he argues that such works have little to do with live as it is lived–or, more important, with violent death as it is died. But the degree to which we accept violence by our hard-boiled protagonist because we accept the ends he serves does, itself, become problematic, as I know we will discuss more next week with The Maltese Falcon (yes, I faltered in my resolution to replace in with The Big Sleep).
In my George Eliot seminar, we’ve moved on to Romola, which I am thoroughly appreciating now that I’ve made it through the painfully ponderous early portion. And, having described it that way, I should add that we talked quite a lot in class yesterday about the challenge of reading it, yes, but also about the effect of struggling through so much information and about the thematic and generic purposes it serves. As I recall, George Eliot said (in a letter, I think) that she hoped to create as rich a sense of the Florentine context as she had of the environment of St. Ogg’s in The Mill on the Floss. How do you achieve such a goal, so that your characters can be seen to move in a milieu that is richly historically specific and also intensely local and personal–so that their language, values, and behaviour belong, as it were, to their place and moment–when that milieu is not already familiar to your readers? Though (as we also discussed) there seems to be even more pressure in Romola than in her earlier novels towards the universal or mythic, all of the characters embody their characteristics in ways that are entirely within realistic parameters (OK, until we get to the very end, but that’s next week). It’s fascinating how she takes her favourite abstractions (egotism and altruism) and makes them more concrete by associating them with major intellectual strains of Renaissance humanism, on the one hand, but also fanatic Christianity on the other: the impulses may transcend history, but their expression is determined by history, or constrained by it, and so in a way we are being prepped for Dorothea’s inability to express her heroic spirituality in the ways that Romola can. Last week we talked a lot about Maggie’s moral appeal to Stephen Guest: “‘If the past is not to bind us, where should duty lie?'” And here we have Tito, who personifies just the moral unmooring that results when you cut ties to the past–or try to. Of course, you can’t escape your past, and in Romola we are reminded of that with the thrillingly literal clutch of Baldassare’s hand on Tito’s arm. Romola herself is, surprisingly, not that prominent in the first half of the novel. Our installment for this week ended just as her alienation from Tito begins to undermine her dreams for fulfilling herself through marriage; next week we will be able to consider the various ways in which she (or George Eliot) attempts to imagine a different future, even a different identity, for her that will satisfy her ardent soul (yes, she’s another one of those).
In British Literature Since 1800 we are finishing up Great Expectations this week. The students are also hard at work (or so I hope) on their first major assignment for me. I’m rather proud of its design, though I have not given it before and so I won’t know whether it takes them where I hope they’ll go until I see the results late next week. In brief, it’s an annotated bibliography, but it’s tailored to a general topic which they are then supposed to shape as they build the list of sources. In the end, they will submit a list of their “best” (most relevant) sources, but also a narrative of how, through the process of the research, they identified their narrower topic and then pursued it. It’s the backstory of an essay, as I told them. I’m not actually having them write the essay, though their commentary will include a preliminary working thesis. Too often when I’ve assigned essays on Great Expectations students in past classes have skipped the preparatory stages and turned in plagiarized papers. But the thinking and reading and researching part is every bit as important as the final “writing it up into an essay” stage, so that short-cut is not only dishonest, since it isn’t their essay, but irrelevant. I’m hoping that by emphasizing this part of the exercise they will really feel that difference. Also, one of the course objectives is research skills (citation and stuff), so I wanted an assignment that would really highlight research as a process, as well as giving lots of practice in the fun stuff like MLA style.
All that and A Suitable Boy too. No wonder I’m feeling a bit run down!