What my English teachers got wrong about literature

This is a post about Tess of the D’Urbervilles. But it’s not really about the story, or themes, or issues. It’s about the book, and how I am finally reading it for the first time. Enjoying it, too, if that’s not too odd a word to apply to such a tragic, disturbing novel. The enjoyment springs from discovering Hardy’s writing: how an already-known plot unfolds; how Hardy uses nature to show character moods; how the characters are drawn and shaded and brought to life.

Years ago, I had an ill-fated encounter with The Return of the Native; it was summer reading for high school, and either I was too immature to appreciate the work or too inclined to roll my eyes at my Christian school’s summer reading selections. Either way, I shunned Hardy’s work because I loathed that one book. But someone mentioned Tess in a blog comment, and I decided that it was high time to read it.

I’m thankful that I didn’t read this in high school. One of two things would’ve happened.

First, I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate it. Although I’d suffered depression for years, I still hadn’t reached the acute stage of mental crisis that I did in college and later. I hadn’t been through my own harrowing experience of darkness, my own crisis of faith, my own experiences of rejection and loneliness. Sometimes we have to go through things before we can empathize with certain characters (or real people!); other times, the characters evoke our empathy for their fictional trials, and that empathy extends beyond the page into the real world.

Second, my high school teachers would’ve ruined it. Don’t get me wrong; I mean no disrespect. My English teachers were fine Christian women, trying to stuff literature and grammar and writing into the chemically-imbalanced, hormonally-out-of-whack brains of teenagers. But they weren’t necessarily well-informed on literature. Being a book-crazy girl, I saw and was disgusted by the ignorance.

For me, their thinking had two major faults.

Too censored. As if embarrassed by the disturbing themes in classic novels, the teachers and administrators avoided these books entirely and picked safe (and inferior) works to study. My senior year of high school, we read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, an overview of the major Greek and Roman myths. My teacher told us to skip two chapters—the myths of Oedipus and Clytemnestra—because we “didn’t need to read it.”

I read these chapters anyway. For pity’s sake, it’s not like the guy acted intentionally, so why make a fuss? And if we can’t maturely (if awkwardly) discuss Clytemnestra’s affair and subsequent killing of her husband, then are we really mature enough for college?

Why be flustered by bawdiness in certain of The Canterbury Tales to the extent that they go unread? Why not address it in a Christian classroom to a group of college-bound seniors? We were going to encounter even more disturbing things at a secular university. So why not prepare us now, when we can learn how to think through the issues with a teacher who believes in moral absolutes and not moral relativism? Give a disclaimer or acknowledge the problematic contents, and work with the students through these issues.

Too narrowly-defined in their Christianity. For them, there was one Christian view of just about any subject. They didn’t want to stray from The Christian View of whatever. But Christians don’t all think alike—shocking, I know—and Christians are allowed to have different interpretations of Hamlet or Moby-Dick. Really. You don’t have to agree with me.

Even as a high schooler, I wanted to devour the texts: sniff out the potentials, dig deep into the dirt and grit of the novel, sink my teeth into the words until I tasted the truth amid the flavors, a dog ripping meat from a bone. But only the meaty texts. Not throwaway junk food.

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.

–Sir Francis Bacon

Reading too much of those junk novels is like eating too much junk food; it kills the taste for anything else. Artificial and sugary and chemical and salted to induce addiction: that’s junk food. That’s junk reading. That’s junk thinking.

I’m sure I’ve told this story before, but it illustrates my point. Years ago, when I ditched my favorite Diet Coke, I went for a year without another soft drink. I had to learn what water tasted like. Strange, but true. After a while, I preferred water, and I didn’t crave soft drinks.

Water tasted real.

Refreshing.

Thirst-quenching.

Nothing settled my thirst like water.

Then one night at my daughter’s track meet, there was nothing but Diet Coke to drink. My husband handed me a cup. I took a sip. Stopped. Stared at the styrofoam cup. “Are you sure? Taste this—” I thrust the straw at him “Does this taste right to you?”

“Tastes like Diet Coke.” He shrugged.

I was shocked. That was what I had been drinking: this nasty chemical concoction? I had preferred this over other beverages? I gave the drink to my husband and found a water bottle for myself. All those years, I had been quenching my thirst with something artificial, when the really satisfying object was just a water fountain away.

When we satisfy and satiate ourselves on inferior things, the junk food of thought, and read and swallow and listen to these things to the exclusion of all else, we kill our taste for the real.

And when our taste for the real is dead, we have difficulty thinking for ourselves, and thinking (and acting) in the radical, turn-the-world-inside-out manner that Jesus demands.

And that includes having empathy for those who suffer like the fictional Tess.

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19 thoughts on “What my English teachers got wrong about literature

  1. They tried to avoid bawdiness? I wonder what they did with the Song of Solomon, or Ruth visiting Boaz in the middle of the night and him telling her to leave before dawn so no one sees her.

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    1. Well, they ignored Song of Solomon as much as possible, and glided over the implications of that scene in Ruth, sanitizing it until no one (including myself) understood exactly how aggressive Ruth’s actions are. (A female pursuing a male? Shocking!)

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Tim,

      Personally, I never heard anything concerning Song of Solomon other than, yes it existed, in the Christian school I attended. Ruth was another matter, and all bawdiness was avoided for the basic husband and kinsman redeemer story. The scene where Ruth approaches Boaz at night after the festival did puzzle me for some time though. Perhaps no bawdiness was intended here, but there does appear to be an aggressive pursuit of marriage from Ruth. To be fair, Boaz was acting rather love-struck, already, I must point out.

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      1. What’s recently occurred to me about the Ruth-Boaz marriage is that we have no idea how old Boaz is, whether he’s already had a marriage (maybe widowed?), or has any children. When he commends Ruth for not running after the “younger men”, I wonder if that indicates that Boaz is much, much older than Ruth. And if he is, and he’s already had children (and their inheritance was jeopardized by his marriage to Ruth), then that highlights his selflessness even more.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. One thing to keep in mind: these were English teachers, so they didn’t deal quite as much with the Bible.

      My Bible teachers (mostly male, BTW) did talk about these subjects with much less prudishness. I can’t remember my Bible teachers my freshman and sophomore years dealing with any of the racy topics, though. I remember studying the division of the kingdoms and all kinds of other things, but not the Song of Solomon. The suggestive part of Ruth was downplayed (probably to keep hormonal teenage girls from getting ideas for flirting with boys.)

      My OT teacher was excellent and no nonsense. We moved so slowly, though, that I don’t think we ever got past Exodus! (I can’t remember his treatment of Lot and his daughters, though Mr. Hammond was so straight-forward that he wouldn’t have tolerated much nonsense from us. He more than likely would’ve emphasized that the resulting children’s descendants were the Ammonites and Moabites, both in the line of Christ.)

      My senior Bible teacher was stuck with teaching “Biblical worldview” and Romans (requirements for graduation). I do recall that one Friday, he attempted to talk about interracial marriage with us. We were assigned a short paper to share our opinion on the subject, and promised a discussion on Monday. It never happened. I suspect that certain parents told him not to approach the subject. Ugh.

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      1. Amazing that parents would object to interracial marriage as a topic of discussion. You lived in a much different place within a much different subculture than I. My parents, though politically conservative when I was young (now less so), were always socially liberal and encouraged critical thinking. I lived from 2 to 7 years old in Saudi Arabia and was taught to both respect Islam and think critically of the treatment of woman in Arabia. I am very thankful for my parents’ openminded teaching.

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      2. I’m guessing that the parents were the reason for the lack of discussion; I don’t know that for certain. But I knew many of the parents of my classmates for many years, and I think my guess is accurate. I was angry and disgusted by this inability to talk about racial equality, though.

        Another possible factor was that this was a primarily white school; we had two African American students in our graduating class of 45 people, so perhaps the teacher felt that it wouldn’t be a fair discussion. (I can easily imagine the one black boy in our class being teased by the more immature of the white boys: Hey, would you ever date a white girl? And then his answer was supposed to “represent” his entire race. Not really fair.) We’d already had an incident earlier that year after the O.J.Simpson trial verdict was announced, but the administration quickly squelched it.

        And you’re right, this Alabama subculture is very different from where you grew up. My particular area is more of a melting pot of different cultures because of the technology/army/NASA focus, and interracial relationships aren’t unusual now. Outside of Huntsville, though, it’s a different story. Interracial marriage was still on the books as illegal in Alabama (though the law could not be enforced because of the decades-earlier Supreme Court rulings) and that law wasn’t overturned until 2000 or 2001. Seriously!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. So well written, Laura! As one who prefers water to almost any other beverage, I was intrigued by your experience in eschewing the Diet Coke and returning to the “real” essence found in water. I loved how you tied that into an appreciation for real literature over the empty, pulpy stuff! Good reading and let us know what your next read is, if you feel so inclined!

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    1. Dyane, my experience with ditching Diet Coke was awful. I had horrible withdrawal symptoms, even though I didn’t cut caffeine at the same time. It was like I had a mild case of the flu. Yuck, but I’m glad I did it. That spring was the most mentally stable spring (March/April/May) that I’ve had in my adult life. So keep right on loving water!

      I’ll definitely let y’all know what else I read. I’m working on Dickens’ Bleak House, too, though my husband stole our copy when I started Tess.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. As a 16-year-old I commented to my English teacher that I’d read Jane Eyre when I was 12. She replied that I ‘couldn’t possibly have understood it’. I had always loved words and language and poetry and books upon books, but despite English being my favourite subject for years on end, and having been told by various teachers (not the one mentioned here) from the age of six that I’d be a writer, by the time I got to my GCSEs (16+ exams) I had lost my enthusiasm. I still loved everything that I’d loved before, but I found the analysis of texts suffocating. I hated being told what to think and how to think.

    As an adult, I can see that the teacher was right in what she said. I didn’t understand all the layers and use of language and rumbling subcurrents of passion in Jane Eyre, but that applies to all of us, and to every book. It also mirrors our walk with God. There are so many more things I understand now, and will no doubt go on learning, in my faith, and I don’t want what someone else thinks to get in the way of the good stuff.

    In regards to your post, I question the intellect and judgement of teachers who are afraid of questions – and I don’t mean that in a superior way (not at all). It just makes me sad. I have seen it so often (not in teachers, in churches).

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    1. Good tie-in with our faith journey! There are a lot of books that I read when I was young (teens or younger) and while I appreciated them, I didn’t appreciate them to the extent that I do now. Heart of Darkness (by Joseph Conrad) was one. We read it in AP English (senior year) and most of us hated it. I re-read it my first year of graduate school, and understood the story much more. (I had an older man, a Vietnam vet, in that class. He hinted darkly that the book mirrored his life in some significant way. That was a thing that I didn’t understand then, that I think I understand better now.)

      Still, having read a classic novel at a young age isn’t a bad thing. While the young person may not grasp all of it, the knowledge is still there in the back of their minds, waiting for a time when the person matures and is able to understand at a deeper level. Repeated readings can be good. It’s rather like teaching our little kids certain Bible stories. Is my seven-year-old going to understand everything about particular Bible stories? No, but it still helps to form them. And that’s a good thing.

      Regarding your experience with hating the analysis of books, I’ve heard that sentiment from many people. I’m the odd person who appreciates reading and doesn’t find the analysis of plot/character/theme off-putting. (I can’t turn off the analytical part of my brain, nor the part that wants to compare themes of one book with others.) What I find off-putting is being told how to think about a text. My college professors at the secular university were good about allowing disagreement and free discussion in the classroom.

      Regarding teachers not allowing questions, I agree with you. I think it’s sad and troubling when teachers or church leaders won’t allow respectful questions or disagreement to happen. Jesus never told anybody to stop asking sincere questions, especially those who truly wanted to find the truth.

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  4. This is such a good topic. I just got back from a teachers conference and it appears that there are some Christian educators that are beginning to realize that teaching children from the very beginning to be critical thinkers is more important than drilling and memorization of material. Kids come out of Christian school saying the “right” things but fall away because they have not been taught to think for themselves. What educators should really desire for their class is to give them a love for learning and the tools to make wise choices in life and reading and discussing a variety of literature helps to do that.

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    1. Excellent point. Many of my classmates from my Christian high school fell away from the faith once they reached college. An old friend of mine and I once discussed it, and we decided that we hadn’t been taught how to think, only what to think. (I resisted, thanks to my mother’s insistence that I think for myself and ask questions.)

      Being given the tools to learn and show discernment is so important. Parents need to teach kids, teachers need to teach students, church leaders need to help the congregation: learn how to think. But also, learn how to love thinking and love God with our minds, and how loving God with our minds helps us to make right choices.

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