This Week In My Classes: The Final Countdown

In both of my classes, we are now on the final book of the term. The bad news is, this means that in both of my classes, we aren’t working on Middlemarch any more. It was fun while it lasted, that daily double dose! I tried to do different things in them, especially once I’d done the basic introductory work. I also tried to work up some new material, particularly in the interests of covering some topics or plot lines that I haven’t always had time for. And for the 19th-century fiction class, I took pains to crack open some of the more neatly crafted lectures I had prepared over previous years, both to get the students more involved and to give myself more room to wander around people and ideas. For our final session I talked about forgiveness and secular grace in the novel, bringing in some of the ideas about how Eliot humanizes the religious impulse that I talked about in this long-ago post on ‘George Eliot and Prayer.’

Now we’ve moved on to Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day in Close Reading and Jude the Obscure in 19th-century Fiction. I love The Remains of the Day, both to read and to teach. It invariably moves me to tears, but Ishiguro approaches Stevens’s tragic fallibility with impeccable delicacy as well as moral rigor. I wrote a bit at The Valve once about why I admire it so much.

On the other hand, I don’t much like Jude the Obscure. Well, that’s not exactly true. It’s also very moving, and it’s extremely provocative. It’s also depressing and not particularly well written–at the level of sentences, anyway, though on a larger scale it is pretty carefully built. I really should take up a different Hardy novel (can’t avoid him altogether as the course is called “Dickens to Hardy”), except every year when book orders come due (this year, April 1!) I feel too rushed with ongoing immediate business to scope out the alternatives. Tess of the d’Urbervilles seems an obvious choice. Maybe I’ll just order that for next year’s version–except (another disincentive to mixing things up) I’m very aware of how helpful it is to work with familiar texts, especially at the end of term when everything else is very busy, and especially in a term when I will be teaching three courses including one with all-new prep, which will be the case in the fall. A final point in favor of Jude is that it is generally very popular with the students. Tune in next week for the thrilling conclusion of ‘What’s On Order?’ In the meantime, I must get my thoughts together for Jude this afternoon. “Nobody did come, because nobody does” is pretty much my whole idea so far. Happily, the gloom will be offset by the stunningly beautiful weather. It’s supposed to go up into the mid twenties today!

Update: I just remembered that we’ve switched the terms for my classes so I need to have the Mystery books for next year decided pretty soon but I have longer to consider my options for the 19th-C Fiction class. So–any suggestions for how best to get out of my Jude the Obscure rut? I haven’t read The Mayor of Casterbridge in ages–is that a popular one with students? Does Tess teach well? I could do some Hardy re-reading in the summer.

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7 Responses to This Week In My Classes: The Final Countdown

  1. Rachel says:

    Hello! I’ve just found your blog and am having a wonderful time reading through. We both seem to be on a WW1 reading tangent at the moment; I’m delighted to read of your love for Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby; I am just about to get started on Testament of Friendship and I can’t wait.

    Regarding your Hardy question – I love Jude the Obscure but I can understand why you are weary of it. Tess is wonderful but I have always preferred The Return of the Native. I haven’t read any of his novels in a very long time and also need to return to them – but from what I remember of being taught The Return of the Native, there was a great deal of discussion to be had and we all enjoyed it very much.

  2. Colleen says:

    Far From the Madding Crowd is my favourite Hardy novel to date….but it *has* been awhile, so I don’t remember why I liked it so much. That isn’t helpful. Except it’s a good book you can look forward to reading when this term is over!

  3. Rohan says:

    Welcome, Rachel – always glad to run (virtually) into a kindred spirit.. I’ll look forward to your post on Testament of Friendship. I just finished reading the volume of Brittain’s letters and in some ways they are even more gripping than the autobiography, mostly because the young men’s letters are included in their entirety. I’ve got Honorable Estate from the library and have to read it soon as it’s interlibrary loan and has to go back quickly, and I’ve started The Crowded Street which is pretty good so far.

    Thanks for the tip, Colleen! Your taste is pretty trustworthy, so that goes on my shortlist. So far, then, I have one vote each for Tess (on Twitter), Return of the Native, and Far from the Madding Crowd. Hardly a helpful Hardy consensus! Guess I will have to buckle down and do some (re)reading. Because I know it best (I did teach it a couple of times, many years ago, in a seminar), Tess is the easiest one for me to think through in terms of connections to other books I teach (it seems to me it would be a good pairing with The Mill on the Floss).

  4. Charlotte Mathieson says:

    I taught both Tess and Jude on different units of the same module (c19th English Novel) this year. Personally, I much preferred teaching Tess as I find Jude altogether less engaging as a text, despite all the interesting questions it raises around women, education, culture etc. Tess taught well, the students really enjoyed it and I find it has more opportunities for close analysis which I find more limited with Jude. To me, Jude feels more straightfoward in many respects, whereas Tess seems to be much more problematic in its moral codes and representations (not that Jude isn’t problematic in its own right, perhaps more that it feels Hardy’s thinking on these issues is more developed and smoothed-out?)

    However, the students really got to grips with both texts – in my final seminar of the term I do a short “what did you enjoy most” discussion and both the Hardy’s were firm favourites- they especially enjoyed doing Jude after Tess, drawing out similarities, contrasts and developments etc. Incidentally, I also ask the students to think of one novel they’d argue to be included on the course and had a surprising number of Hardy suggestions, so perhaps I just had a lot of Hardy fans this year! (and this is only the 1st year I’ve taught the course, so I’ll have to see if the Hardy goes down as well next year)

  5. Rohan Maitzen says:

    Thanks for the input, Charlotte. It’s always a surprise to me how much my students like Jude. I sometimes think it’s because most of them are still barely out of their teenage years and it suits the kind of teenaged angst. I agree that Tess is kind of straightforward: it’s almost mechanical, at points, in working through its central oppositions, so even though there is great pathos in some aspects of it, it rarely moves me really deeply. It sounds like it’s more than time for me to reread Tess.

  6. Maire says:

    My book club (most of whom are only a few years past college) read Far from the Madding Crowd recently and just loved it. We thought it had a great combination of twisting plot, excellent character development, and beautiful writing. The main female character in the novel might actually make for a good comparison with Maggie in Mill on the Floss. Although that might just seem obvious to me because our book club actually read those two novels around the same time.

  7. Rohan says:

    Maire: OK, that makes two votes so far for Far from the Madding Crowd. Since I’ve read Tess before (and even assigned it once, long ago), and thus have at least some idea how it would work for me, I think FFTMC is the first alternate I’ll read.

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