Dystopian Literature Discussion
We kicked off our first class of the new session with a look at what constitutes dystopian literature. According to American science fiction and fantasy editor, critic, and publisher, John Joseph Adams:
“The roots of the word dystopia—dys- and -topia—are from the Ancient Greek for “bad” and “place,” and so we use the term to describe an unfavorable society in which to live. “Dystopia” is not a synonym for “post-apocalyptic”; it also is not a synonym for a bleak, or darkly imagined future. In a dystopian story, society itself is typically the antagonist; it is society that is actively working against the protagonist’s aims and desires. This oppression frequently is enacted by a totalitarian or authoritarian government, resulting in the loss of civil liberties and untenable living conditions, caused by any number of circumstances, such as world overpopulation, laws controlling a person’s individual freedom, and living under constant surveillance.”
We defined key terms such as post-apocalyptic and totalitarian and discussed modern examples of dystopian literature such as Lois Lowry's The Giver and Susanne Collins's series, The Hunger Games. In dystopian literature, the story is often unresolved. Often the dystopia is not brought down. The hero (if there is one) may make their individual stand (or with a group) and often fails, but gives hope to others in the dystopia. Sometimes this climax is the hero's escape from the dystopia. Other times the hero fails to achieve anything and the dystopia continues as before. We may find this to be true in the case of Animal Farm or we may find that Animal Farm falls into a different genre (fairy story, fable, allegory, satire, prophecy?). George Orwell subtitled his novella "A Fairy Story." Orwell did not choose this sub-title lightly. A fairy story with a political purpose suggests a fable. We also defined allegory.
George Orwell is one of the original dystopian authors, although the genre pre-dates him, Orwell’s writings are some of the most famous and influential (ex., 1984). Animal Farm was published in 1945, in the same month that the US dropped the bomb on Japan in WWII.
Introducing the Author and Novel and Chapters 1-4
After a warm-up Q & A session on our author's background and introducing the novella, we dove into understanding the setting (time and place) of the story. This included a very brief lecture on the topic of the Russian Revolution, Josef Stalin, Leon Trotsky, and Karl Marx. Every time I teach this book I realize how much history is involved in understanding its meaning. It's difficult to cover all of the complexities of this time frame in our one hour lectures, so I try to give mini-talks each week that help illuminate one aspect of the back-story. We'll be devoting the majority of our time to discussing the story and defining terms. Early exposure to these terms and concepts will lay the foundation for more mature, fruitful discussions down the road.
We had some fun introducing all of the characters and finding out the historical counterpart for each one. For instance, Napoleon the Pig is thought to be Leon Trotsky, and Snowball (the pig) represents Josef Stalin. Interestingly enough, Orwell had a tough time getting Animal Farm published. It wasn't exactly cool at the time to be inferring that Stalin was a pig. After all, Russia was an ally in WWII. George Orwell was a socialist that fought alongside communists in the Spanish Civill War. During this experience, Orwell quickly realized that the communists he was fighting for could be just as totalitarian and oppressive as the fascists he was fighting against. And that's where Animal Farm comes in: it shows Stalin's version of communism as the exact opposite of socialist values—as a brutal, oppressive, and unequal regime. Ultimately, Orwell was an individualist that emphasized honesty, freedom of choice, love of family, and tolerance for others.
Preparing for High School Writing
Last week we began a couple of exercises in preparation for high school writing. This next five weeks will be a review of thesis and proofs. In the spring we'll pick up with open and closed form writing (exploratory and expository) and write a few of each. Next week we'll do an exercise that aims to ask two compelling questions that can be answered in the form of a thesis statement (with the option to use the idea for a final essay).
As usual, I ran out of time! Students should make sure they are completing all of the weekly homework (not just the homework they are asked to submit), including Active Reading Charts, discussion questions, and vocabulary glossary. Sometimes we can't get to everything in class; please don't neglect the self-study aspect of this course.
We are finished with Frankenstein...boo! One of my favorite book studies to date. Next week we move on to George Orwell's classic dystopian tale...Animal Farm. What happens when a bunch of pigs launch a rebellion? Hmm...gee, I wouldn't know....
William Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey"
In Week #5 we read and discussed a small passage from "Tintern Abbey" (also included by Mary Shelley in chapter 18 of Frankenstein)—probably the most famous poem by one of the most famous British Romantic poets. The Romantic period wasn't so named because the poets wrote a lot about love, but because they were interested in Nature, Beauty, and Truth (please note the caps!). In 1798, Wordsworth published Lyrical Ballads with his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge only contributed a few poems to the volume (including "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"). The Lyrical Ballads weren't just revolutionary in terms of the language they used (for the common man); they also changed the whole idea of what poetry could and should be about. Instead of writing about kings, queens, dukes, and historical or mythological subjects, Wordsworth and Coleridge wrote most of the poems in Lyrical Ballads about common people, like shepherds and farmers. "Tintern Abbey" is a little bit different in that it's about the poet himself, rather than a shepherd, but it is still representative of a lot of the changes Wordsworth wanted to make to the way poetry was written. It's written about common things (enjoying nature during a walk around a ruined abbey with his sister), and it uses a very conversational style with relatively simple vocabulary. It also introduces the idea that Nature can influence, sustain, and heal the mind of the poet. Before William Wordsworth wrote "Tintern Abbey" and the rest of the Lyrical Ballads, literature, and especially poetry, was written pretty exclusively for and about rich people. Wordsworth's mission was to open up literature and to make it more accessible and enjoyable to normal, everyday people. "Tintern Abbey" is about the ways that we change over time, and the ways that we try to figure out just when and how and why we've changed. In short, it's about trying to square the person you used to be with the person you've become.
What's the Big Diff? 1818 vs. 1831 (Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus)
In Week #6 we briefly discussed some of the main differences between the original 1818 edition and the 1831 edition (which we read). By 1831, Mary Shelley was no starry-eyed 18 year-old and had lost her husband, Percy, and two of her children. In the 1831 text, the tone is grimmer and nature is a destructive machine; Victor is a victim of fate, not free will. She made so many changes, in fact, that there's a real question about which version we should be reading. I went with the 1831 edition, because, well, that's the one most people read. Lately, many academic circles believe the 1818 edition is more “pure” to Shelley’s original intent. However, I noted that Percy Shelley may have exercised a heavy-editing hand in the 1818 version, and perhaps Mary felt it was time to make the story completely her own. The 1831 text is differently structured: after Letters 1-4, the chapters are through-numbered, from 1 to 24; this to a large extent obscures the original division into three volumes. Mary Shelley removed many of the references to new scientific ideas, thus detaching the novel from its original intellectual context and the issues that were being debated both publicly and in the Byron-Shelley circle. Frankenstein's character is very differently conceived: whereas in the 1818 version there are many points at which he could exercise free will and choose not to carry on with his experiments, in the 1831 text he is seen as being, like all human beings, entirely at the mercy of fate, helpless to counteract the forces of chance that appear to control the universe.
Frankenstein in the Movies and Monster Reveal
We closed our final class on Frankenstein with a quick look at both the classic Boris Karloff 1931 black and white film, and the more recent (1994) film directed by Kenneth Branagh starring Robert DeNiro. In the 1931 film, the creature is depicted as having a huge, square skull and pale corpse-like skin; he is gentle and childlike. In the more recent adaptation, makeup artists researched surgery, skin disorders, and embalming techniques from the early 1800’s. The result was a gray, scarred, hulking, patchwork sort of man. After a discussion about Doppelgängers (Double Goers) we revealed our OWN interpretations of Mary Shelley's creature (taken from her description in chapter 5). I share them with you here. Wonderful job everyone!
Our second 90-minute make-up class was a success! I do believe we are caught up and where we need to be. Regular 60-minute class will resume this week at the scheduled time (11 am Eastern).
The Poetry of Percy (Shelley)
No discussion of the Romantic Period would be complete without a mention and quick study of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Not only was Percy Mary's beloved husband (until he was tragically killed in a boating accident off the coast of Italy at the age of 30), Percy Shelley belonged to the second, younger generation of Romantic dudes and dudettes, along with Lord Byron. He was inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution, and he held some pretty revolutionary social and political views (boy, howdy!). He spent a lot of time hopping around Europe with his brilliant wife, Mary.
Percy was a bit of a controversial figure in his time, but then again, most of the Romantic poets were. That was the whole point, after all, of British Romanticism. If you think the poetry of the period is a bunch of highfalutin language written for the gentry, you would be mistaken. The Romantics wrote for the common man and in a conversational tone (and yes, this DOES say something about the devolution of the English language—just saying!).
Therefore, we took some time to read a passage from Percy Shelley's poem, "Mont Blanc." Mt. Blanc is mentioned numerous times in Frankenstein. Mt. Blanc is in the Swiss Alps, and both Mary and Percy spent time traveling in this area and being awed by:
"...broad vales between
Of frozen floods, unfathomable deeps,
Blue as the overhanging heaven, that spread
And wind among the accumulated steeps..."
--Mont Blanc by Percy Shelley (1816)
I "translated" the poem line-by-line, and we talked about its importance to the Shelley's, and therefore to Mary's novel, Frankenstein.
Another connection to Percy Shelley is in the full title to Mary's novel. You will often see it thus: Frankenstein: Or the Modern Prometheus. Who is Prometheus and why did Mary think so much of him to include him in the title of her gothic tale? Human beings owe pretty much everything to Prometheus, the Titan god of foresight. Not only did he make the first men out of clay, he also gave us fire (FIRE features big in Frankenstein), which he snuck away from the altar of Zeus in a fennel stalk. Prometheus paid big time for this burglary—Zeus had him chained to a rock, where every day eagles would come and eat his liver. To make matters worse, each night his liver would grow back, so the eagles would have a tasty liver snack all ready for them the next day. According to some folks, Heracles came by years later, set Prometheus free, and got Zeus to pardon the hero of mankind.
Percy Shelley wrote the play, “Prometheus Unbound” around the same time Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. Prometheus (as imagined by Shelley anyway) is one of the great Romantic heroes. Prometheus endures his pain and torture very heroically. Prometheus is heroic not only because of his act of bringing fire to mankind; he's heroic because he endures the (very, very terrible) consequences. He's courageous, and rebellious, and stoic all at once. Just like a Romantic. :) Victor Frankenstein is the modern incarnation of Prometheus because he suffers the consequences of seeking knowledge and power. So now you understand the full title of the novel!
The Paradise Lost Connection
If you've had enough of literary allusions in Frankenstein...too bad! There's more to come, specifically, the huge reference to John Milton's poem, Paradise Lost (1667). A quotation from the poem appears on the title page of some editions of the novel and of course, the creature finds a copy of Paradise Lost in the woods and since he has some new found literacy skills, he reads it...obviously! (Who wouldn't read Paradise Lost with extra time on his hands?) Milton's book-length poem is a retelling of the story of the fall of man from the Bible. When the creature confronts his creator (Victor) near the end of chapter 10 (in Frankenstein), he compares himself to Adam and the fallen angel, Satan. In chapters 11-16, the allusion to Paradise Lost is expanded upon, emphasizing the parallels between God and Victor and Satan and the creature. The tragedy of the creature is that he begins life as a perfectly lovely monster. He's done nothing wrong and he has no beef with humanity—frankly, he just wants to be loved and accepted by someone—anyone! When he is fully rejected by all of mankind, he becomes a demon. Who can blame him? Actually, we had a good discussion about responsibility. Victor is certainly responsible for creating the monster (even though he loves to blame fate in the 1831 edition) and the creature is still responsible for offing innocent victims. Just because you've been jilted a million times AND you're mad at your Creator doesn't give you the right to become a murderer (especially of five-year old children and young brides).
For every chapter in Frankenstein, we summarize the main events, read and interpret two - four quotes from each week's reading, and share our answers from the Glencoe Active Reading Charts and the weekly discussion questions. It is A LOT to get though and your students are moving through the material like champs. Thank you all for your dedication!
“Thrills and Chills:” What makes a gothic novel so…creepy?
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