This Week In My Classes: Hunkering Down!

Ah, the holiday weekend, with its leisure reading! It’s just a fond memory right now … Well, I exaggerate slightly, as I’ve certainly had more hectic terms than this one (this time last year, just for instance, I was teaching three courses, including one entirely new one), but I have been pretty busy with class preparation, grading, and meetings in the last couple of days, and so far I haven’t really focused on another fun book to read in the interstices.

The-Big-SleepToday I finished marking the 75 midterms for my Mystery & Detective Fiction course (which means, in case any students are reading this, that the grades should be checked and posted to Blackboard tomorrow afternoon). In class, we’ve just started working through The Big Sleep. It’s my first time teaching it, after going endless rounds with The Maltese Falcon. I’ve been thinking about making this switch for years but it took me a while to get over my initial aversion to The Big Sleep (soon after that 2009 post, however, I did add The Hound of the Baskervilles to the syllabus, where I have enjoyed it ever since). There are a few things I already miss about Hammett, but I think Chandler is going to give us plenty to talk about, and now that I have the plot more or less sorted out and some interpretive threads to follow, I am relaxing enough into the book that I almost like it a little bit! (Hard-boiled fiction is never going to be my favourite thing, but note to David Gilmour: teaching outside of your comfort zone is good for the brain as well as the character…) Yesterday was mostly warm-up stuff, with background on hard-boiled detection, Black Mask, “The Simple Art of Murder,” and so on. Then we started in with some consideration of the title: how does the gently euphemistic The Big Sleep suit the novel in a way that, say, Stone Cold Dead would not? (“Why this, not that?” is one of my favourite conversation starters for class discussion.) We had time for a few preliminary comments on Marlowe and that’s where we’ll pick up tomorrow: what kind of knight-errant is he, what kind of candidates for his version of chivalry are the Sternwoods, what’s the world like that he moves in, what hope does a lone hero — however untarnished and unafraid — have against the kinds of crime and corruption he’s up against? I would like to be able to talk about Spenser, but there’s just no room for Robert B. Parker on this syllabus: if I were ever to propose a 4th-year seminar on this subgenre, it would be to have an excuse to assign him. Actually, a course like that would be a great complement to the one I already offer on Women & Detective Fiction (coming up next term). Hmmm…something to think about. It wouldn’t play to my own tastes the way the other seminar does (oh, how I’m looking forward to reading Gaudy Night again) — but given how hard it sometimes is to be scholarly and objective about books I really love, that might not be a bad thing.

In 19thC Fiction we’re done with Waverley (to everyone’s relief, I think) and on to Jane Eyre, which is always a much easier sell. I’m not as passionate about Jane Eyre as I once was. It’s partly that I’ve gone through it so often (though reiteration doesn’t seem to diminish my enthusiasm for Middlemarch), but this time I’m also finding its relentlessly high emotional pitch tiring and somewhat artless (can I say that? is it heresy, for a Victorianist?). And yet I suppose that’s kind of the point (one point, anyway) of the novel itself — that our passions need to be checked by reason, that rage (however justified) quickly becomes self-destructive. I find myself coaching my students in quite the opposite way than I was doing with Waverley: instead of saying ‘try to throw yourself into it more,’ I’m saying ‘be careful about identifying with Jane too quickly or easily.’ She gives us lots of clues that she herself has grown up since she was thrown into the Red Room for fighting back against John Reed’s oppression. My favourite parts of the novel are the sparring matches she has with Rochester: so much of their dialogue is just so unexpected. By tomorrow everyone should have read through to Jane’s discovery of her inheritance and her relationship to St. John and his sisters: I want to start with some discussion about why she doesn’t marry Rochester (not the plot reasons, of course, but the reasons that marrying him at that point would be risky even if he weren’t already married) — that means looking at the shopping spree, probably, and talking more about Bertha and whether she’s a cautionary tale for Jane, an ally of some kind, or an antagonist. Then we can consider what Jane gains at Marsh End, as well as what risks she faces there, too, to her personal development.

oxford jane eyreI’m feeling a bit mad at myself for not learning the lessons of last term about the assignment sequence I’m using in 19th-Century Fiction. I’m doing reading journals again, and I’m also repeating the strategy of allowing students to choose which of our first novels to write their short essay on. Last time I worried that the journal entries were not well distributed across the term, and I’m seeing the exact same pattern this year — I didn’t change the instructions and rules because the degree of micromanagement required to key credit to specific stages of the reading seemed too much, but I’m not sure I can justify (to myself) doing the same thing again, given what actually happens (as opposed to what I’d like to happen). It’s a process-vs.-product problem again: mostly, they want credit for doing the journals, not the benefit the journals could be to their learning experience. (As always, there are exceptions who are absolutely making the most of the journals.) This term, I’m also seeing really uneven distribution in the essays: fully a third of the class wrote on Persuasion, nobody at all on Waverley, and it looks like the remaining two thirds are planning to write on Jane Eyre, which means nobody is writing on David Copperfield. (They all have to write ‘mini-midterms’ on each novel, though, and then a final exam with an essay question on our last book, North and South.) I want them to write on the books that interest and motivate them, but one effect of this uneven selection is to unbalance my workload. Before I design next year’s 19th-C novels class, I’ll revisit the great coercion conundrum. Maybe I’ll do a different assignment sequence altogether — though at this point I don’t think I can go back to the letter exchanges that I used to like so much. They had just become too much of a logistical nightmare!

But it’s too soon to fret about 2014-15 when 2013-14 isn’t even half over yet.

Hounds and Beasts: Catching Up on Some Classic Mysteries

The most frequent suggestion in the course evaluations for Mystery and Detective Fiction over the years has been “more Sherlock Holmes.” I’ve never been that engaged by Holmes, which is why I’ve always been content to represent him in the syllabus with just a short story or two, but there’s no denying his importance to the genre, so for the 2010 version of the course I added The Hound of the Baskervilles–without actually having read it first (shhh!). It seemed an obvious choice, and is certainly acclaimed enough that I felt confident taking it on faith. Now that I’ve actually read it, I have no regrets about having assigned it: of its kind, it is certainly good. I remain, personally, not that interested in its kind, but it is suspenseful and clever, and well-written, too, particularly in its evocations of the brooding moors on which the mystery plays out:

‘It is a wonderful place, the moor,’ [says Stapleton], looking around over the undulating downs, long green rollers, with crests of jagged granite foaming up into fantastic surges. ‘You never tireof the moor. You cannot think the wonderful secrets which it contains. It is so vast, and so barren, and so mysterious.’

Or there’s this, from Dr. Watson, who gets more than his usual share of this novel:

In the evening I put on my waterproof and I walked far upon the sodden moor, full of dark imaginings, the rain beating upon my face and the wind whistling about my ears. God help those who wander into the Great Mire now, for even the firm uplands are becoming a morass. I found the Black Tor upon which I had seen the solitary watcher, and from its craggy summit I looked out myself upon the melancholy downs. Rain squalls drifted across their russet face, and the heavy, slate-coloured clouds hung low over the landscape, trailing in grey wreaths down the sides of the fantastic hills. In the distant hollow oon the left, half hidden by the mist, the two think towers of Baskerville Hall rose above the trees. They were the only signs of human life which I could see, save only those prehistoric huts which lay thickly upon the slopes of the hills.

Though the competition between natural and supernatural explanations plays out just as we expect it to in a Sherlock Holmes story, the powerful atavistic forces evoked by this landscape with its stone relics of an earlier pre-scientific age give additional thematic resonance to Holmes’s eventual unveiling of the truth behind the ghostly hound. Even knowing there must be a rational explanation for this apparition does little to take away from its chilling description–the stuff of nightmares:

A hound it was, an enormous coal-black hound, but not such a hound as mortal eyes have evern seen. Fire burst from its open mouth, its eyes glowed with a smouldering glare, its muzzle and hackles and dewlap were outlined in flickering flame. Never in the delirious dream of a disordered brain could anything more savage, more appalling, more hellish, be conceived than that dark form and savage face which broke upon us out of the wall of fog.

As is conventional in “Great Detective” stories, we are spectators to Holmes’s work here: there are clues, of course, but there’s a lot we can’t know. Having Watson in charge for several chapters gives us the illusion of greater involvement for a while, but as ever, Holmes controls crucial information, and the conclusion is a typical display of his superior knowledge and ability. It’s a polished performance–for both Holmes and Conan Doyle. I think my students will enjoy it.

I’m not as convinced about The Big Sleep, which I similarly took on faith as the obvious alternative to The Maltese Falcon (I’ve done Falcon in this class five or six times running and have felt it getting a bit stale). I recall that it took me a while to work up an interpretive apparatus for Falcon, so before I give up on The Big Sleep I should certainly read around a bit. But my first impression is very negative. The plot is extremely confusing, for one thing. Mind you, the plot of The Maltese Falcon gets pretty convoluted too, but it gets a lot of momentum from the relationship between Sam and Brigid right from the start. Also, Falcon has a sense of humour: parts of it are fun, even funny (Sam’s first meeting with Joel Cairo, for instance, or pretty much every scene with Gutman), and I can’t think of any fun parts of the Big Sleep. Almost everybody in it is nasty, and though I know Marlowe is supposed to stand for a higher, more chivalric code (yes, I noticed that knight in the window trying to rescue the lady with the “convenient” hair), it wasn’t easy to see what he was fighting for. General Sternwood seems to get his loyalty, but not because he’s especially admirable or worth protecting, that I could see; there’s Harry Jones, I guess, but that’s setting a pretty low standard. And the women! At least Brigid is really in the game, and much of her ‘femme fatale’ posturing is theatrical. I’m not sure what to make of Vivian Sternwood’s play for Marlowe (Carmen, of course, is a psychotic nymphomaniac). Brigid at least never has a line quite as bad as Vivian’s “‘Hold me close, you beast.'” Is Vivian the damsel who needs rescuing? I guess her loyalty to her sister has a grain of something worth saving in it. Overall, anyway, I found the novel tiresome: sexist, homophobic, convoluted. Maybe I’ll warm to it–or maybe I’ll make a frantic call to the bookstore and see about changing back to The Maltese Falcon. Tips welcome on how to appreciate it!