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This Week In My Classes: Strangeness and Subtlety

By (October 16, 2015) No Comment

millonflossBecause of the Thanksgiving holiday on Monday, my graduate seminar didn’t meet this week. If only Eliot had written her novels in a different order, we could have used that extra time for reading through Middlemarch — always the book for which I like to allow the most weeks because it demands and rewards such luxurious patience. But we are only on The Mill on the Floss, so instead we just delayed our discussion of the second half. Not that The Mill on the Floss doesn’t also demand and reward patient reading! In fact, rereading it has been one of the best parts of the past couple of weeks for me. It still absorbs me, especially as we rush towards the final catastrophe in Books VI and VII. I hope the students feel the same way.

My Introduction to Prose and Fiction class, however, has two meetings this week. We have wrapped up our work on essays and are in the middle, now, of our short fiction unit. We read “The Yellow Wallpaper” for Wednesday’s class, and I was reminded all over again what a strange, creepy, brilliant story it is. Though obviously one key thing I wanted us to discuss (which we did) was Gilman’s critique — through her narrator’s sad, horrifying, weirdly comic disintegration (“I got so angry I bit off a little piece [of the bed] at one corner – but it hurt my teeth,” she says, with such disquieting reasonableness!) — of a whole destructive patriarchal system, I also tried to keep some emphasis on literary details, including symbolism (an easy one, in this case), personification, and imagery:

It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide — plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard-of contradictions.

The colour is repellent, almost revolting: a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight. It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others.

All of these vivid details contribute, of course, to our sense of her character and situation: it’s not hard to pick up on the wallpaper, and then the woman she “sees” behind the pattern, as a projection of her entrapment and despair. That’s one reason that the story’s a classic, and that it’s so fun as well as useful to teach: there are subtle details, but as a whole it’s almost as flamboyantly expressive as the wallpaper.

bviewshortfictionToday in our smaller tutorial my group will be reading a story that is equally artful but far more subtle: Kazuo Ishiguro’s “A Family Supper.” Here, I think, we will have to work much harder to move past our initial impressions of what the story is about, of what details in it are significant and how they add up. Ishiguro is a master of understatement but also of moods and shadows. Despite its innocuous-seeming title, “A Family Supper” has an atmosphere of menace from the opening account of the poisonous fugu fish, and the title itself starts to seem less and less innocent as we learn first of the death of the narrator’s mother (at another seemingly-innocuous supper) and then of a father who killed himself and his whole family to escape the dishonour of his failed business. There isn’t much overt action in the story, and the ending especially feels like an anti-climax. With Ishiguro, though, the conflicts tend to shimmer around the characters, to be represented as much by what they don’t say or do as by what they actually say or do.

I’ve been following Dorian’s wonderful series of posts about his short fiction class, and it has got me thinking about the role of leading questions in our teaching — often he comments on what he’s hoping or expecting students to come up with in response to his prompts, for instance. This is not the same as trying to steer them towards one “correct” answer, of course, and the process he describes is intensely familiar to me. There’s no point asking completely open-ended questions that, as far as you go, will get you nowhere in particular in terms of understanding the story in front of you, so we ask leading questions to help our students discover what we know is there. But at the same time, you want to allow for different readings, for original observations, for the idiosyncrasy of genuine individual engagement. One reason I like to mix in stories I don’t already know well, like “A Family Supper,” is that it is easier for me to back off, to be open-mindedly curious and see where our discussion takes us. I have some ideas about the story’s central themes and how its specific details (the fugu fish, for instance) fit into them — but it’s still somewhat strange to me, and its subtlety means working harder to make something of it. I hope it isn’t too elusive for the students to take an interest in it. (Updated post-tutorial: I think we had quite a good discussion, particularly about the family dynamic in the story and the way both cultural and generational expectations and differences affect it. Some students said they found it frustrating that there’s so little action, or that the conflict feels so unresolved, but I suspect that’s one reason we ended up with so much to say about it — unlike a more plot-driven story, “A Family Supper” forces us to look for meaning in other places.)

Next week it’s “Araby” and then Mansfield’s “The Garden Party,” so back again to established classics. One of my TAs has volunteered to teach the session on “Araby,” which means I get to return to one of my favorite roles in the classroom — being a student again!