This (Short) Week In My Classes: Canons and Catastrophes

houndThanks to Dalhousie benefactor George Munro, we have Friday off, which means that I’ve already wrapped up my teaching week. Hooray! Because although we are in the midst of some great books in both classes, I am feeling both tired and distracted, and an extra day or two to get my brain caught up with my schedule is very welcome.

In Mystery and Detective Fiction, we wrapped up The Hound of the Baskervilles on Monday and started on The Murder of Roger Ackroyd today. I’m not a Sherlockian at all — for me, a little bit of Holmes goes a pretty long way — but I like Hound a lot. There are always students in the class who are very keen on Sherlock Holmes (and, often, on his many reincarnations), so I count on them to fill in extra details about his history and character that aren’t directly presented in our readings. I, on the other hand, can point out the dangling modifiers in Doyle’s otherwise gripping prose: I figure that’s a fair trade. 🙂 More seriously, our discussion tends to focus on the tension between natural and supernatural explanations, which follows nicely on our earlier discussions of the emergence of detective fiction from the gothic tradition and leads nicely into our work on Golden Age mysteries, in which supernatural elements are strictly ruled out by documents like The Detective Decalogue.

I always particularly enjoy the first class on Agatha Christie: I have some fun setting her up as a victim of the modernist preoccupation with difficulty and the related elitism about work that is really popular. It’s not that I actually claim The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a better novel than Ulysses, or even its equal — not in so many words, anyway! But I do try to stir up questions about the idea of “literary merit,” and to historicize some of the presuppositions that often work against genre fiction. I also bring up related points about the literary curriculum (I’m reasonably certain, for instance, that Agatha Christie is never taught in classes on “20th-Century British Literature”) as another way of getting everyone thinking about what books we pay attention to or take seriously, and in what contexts.

vanityfaircoverIn 19th-Century Fiction, we focused today on Chapter 53, “A Rescue and a Catastrophe.” This is such an exciting moment in the novel, not just because it is full of dramatic action, but because it brings so many aspects of the novel into focus, from the real costs and risks of Becky’s climb up the social ladder to the narrator’s role as guide and moralist. “Was she guilty or not?” he asks at the end — and refuses to tell us, an evasion which I think is central to his insistence that the novel is not ultimately about Becky but about us. Chapter 53 also includes this memorable tableau of Becky after her great catastrophe:

She remained for hours after he was gone, the sunshine pouring into the room, and Rebecca sitting alone on the bed’s edge. The drawers were all opened and their contents scattered about — dresses and feathers, scarfs and trinkets, a heap of tumbled vanities lying in a wreck. Her hair was falling over her shoulders; her gown was torn where Rawdon had wrenched the brilliants out of it. She heard him go downstairs a few minutes after he left her, and the door slamming and closing on him. She knew he would never come back. He was gone forever. Would he kill himself? — she thought — not until after he had met Lord Steyne. She thought of her long past life, and all the dismal incidents of it. Ah, how dreary it seemed, how miserable, lonely and profitless! Should she take laudanum, and end it, to have done with all hopes, schemes, debts, and triumphs?

What a moment to incite us to pity! But this too seems to me strategically essential: like all of us, she’s really just another player, after all — just another fool “striving for what is not worth the having.”

saturday-canadianI got to do an extra class this morning, making a guest appearance in a colleague’s first-year seminar. I say “got to” because although it was extra work, it was of a particularly pleasing kind, as she asked me in to speak on the role of “Dover Beach” in Ian McEwan’s Saturday. I taught the novel myself an astonishing (to me) nearly 10 years ago, so I had some notes to draw on but, oddly, none specifically on the scene with “Dover Beach,” so that left me some work to do! I am a big admirer of McEwan in general, or at least of his later novels (I have not has as much success with his pre-Atonement works). Atonement remains my favorite, but reviewing Saturday I was impressed by it all over again. In this morning’s class I gave some context for “Dover Beach” then we talked a bit about the poem itself before turning to why it has the effect it does on the various characters, and whether McEwan is using its presence in the novel to assert the value of art against his protagonist’s resolute scientism. Perhaps he’s suggesting that we still need the consolations of poetry, despite our progress in other realms, especially if we (like Arnold’s speaker) don’t have the comforting “girdle” of faith. Rereading the poem in preparation for class, I admit that I felt consoled by it — it made me feel that I need to get more poetry into my own life.

For a short week, it has still been a busy one, then, and next week will be even more so, with paper proposals and midterms coming in on top of the usual class preparation. I also need to finish up the paper I’m writing for the Louisville Conference: I hope to make real progress on that on my day “off” this week. I’m kind of excited about the trip to Louisville, though I dread the travel days, especially with the risk that somewhere along the way everything will get screwed up by winter. Because our panel is on the first day, I’ve allowed a whole extra day so if things go awry with my flight schedules I still have a fighting chance of arriving in time. And if things go smoothly, I can play tourist for a day! Maybe it will even be above freezing there. Any suggestions for things to do in Louisville? I’m thinking about a visit to the Frazier History Museum.

4 Comments to This (Short) Week In My Classes: Canons and Catastrophes

  1. February 4, 2016 at 2:06 am | Permalink

    Are you going to have a car? I found it a challenge without one. I mean, they shuttle you to the conference but it was hard for me to get any sense of the city. The downtown is standard Tragic American.

  2. February 5, 2016 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

    Is it at the Brown Hotel? That’s nice enough, but it’s miles from campus. When I went, admittedly 7 years ago, there was a Borders right near the hotel, but they’ve been closing a lot of those. I found Louisville awfully dreary, but I’m sure there are some lovely neighbourhoods I just didn’t know how to find.

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