Great Expectations, Charles Dickens

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I remember doing an Independent Research Project in my second year of university on Dickens… and I’m embarrassed to say I just had to look up what novels I used, as I barely remember writing it! Turns out, this must be my third or fourth Dickens novel, as I wrote on Nicholas Nickleby and Hard Times previously and I’m 90% sure I read Oliver Twist at some point in my past. A Christmas Carol doesn’t really count as it is just a short story, and by far Dickens best work of course (thank you Muppets!).

So why is it that I have found the novels that I have read so forgettable, and why have I struggled so much to get through Great Expectations? And most importantly, since this is a GCSE curriculum text, what are my views on teaching it? Rather than analysing the story a bit, as I normally would, I’m going to focus on these points of discussion, as for me at the moment, they seem much more relevant.

The Great Struggle

Dickens is a fantastic story teller. His characters are full of life, flaws and honesty, and his endings are far from fairy-tale products churned out time and again. Much of our preconceptions concerning Victorian England, and London especially, come from Dickens’ portrayal of the county and the industry within it.

I love the story lines of his novels, and the fact that we are still producing new and innovative media from them, such as BBC’s recent show Dickensian which took hold of characters before their stories truly start in Dickens’ writing and showed you their implied histories.

So why has it taken me weeks to read Great Expectations? I believe the answer is simply this: we don’t write like that anymore. We don’t even talk like that anymore. Take the Wheel of Time series, for example, that I am currently taking a break from. Each book is far bigger than Dickens’ novels, and yet I haven’t struggled to get through them. We just don’t write like Dickens anymore, and as a result we don’t have the patience to persevere.

It seems to me that Dickens will use 20 words where one would suffice. He takes his time describing every inch of a room, or a street, and his characters are thoroughly described from the outset, rather than allowing the reader the process of getting to know them themselves as the novel progresses. Take Mrs Joe Gargary, for example, who within the first few pages is shows as ‘bringing up by hand’ Pip, and who doesn’t change except for a massive bump on the head which totally changes her personality. Dickens tells, rather than shows, what people are like and as a result I find it harder to connect with them, because I haven’t been allowed to form my own opinion. With these basic story telling ‘faults’ (I use the word ‘faults’ cautiously, because perhaps it is more a fault of our society that we can’t stand to read like that anymore than a problem of Dickens’) is it any wonder that I have spent weeks trying to read this, and each chapter was a struggle?

But the story is beautifully crafted and moving. Pip’s progression up society, the bumps in the road that lead to his illness, the side stories of Miss Havisham, Estella and Joe, all form a beautiful narrative that shows both the best and the worst in society. There are no characters that are truly one sided, except for possibly Compeyson, whose destruction of Miss Havisham and manipulation of Magwitch are the source of the wrongs that throw everything into turmoil. This variety and development of the complexity of human nature really add to the story, making this a classic well worth reading.

Teaching?

I’m in two minds about addressing Great Expectations as a curriculum text.

The Problems

I struggled reading this novel. How on earth am I supposed to motivate a GCSE class with 10 other subjects, 15 poems to remember as well as Shakespeare plays and modern drama, to read an entire novel of this density? How many hours of class time am I supposed to dedicate to simply reading together to ensure that all pupils have read the novel? How can you teach such a tapestry of writing from just extracts, if you are not going to read the entire thing, and hope that pupils will engage enough with the story to be able to remember huge chunks of it for examination? What about those of a lower ability, who will struggle simply with Joe’s manner of speaking, let alone anything more complex? I skimmed over anything Joe had to say because I just couldn’t find the energy to try to translate it. And it’s just so long… it will literally take pupils hours and hours to read, and I’m not sure I’m comfortable teaching such a complex piece of literature from extracts alone. All of these problems, and that before the pupils get bored, struggle with the language or just the complexity of the story line. Yes, there are movie versions and BBC adaptations to help, but it’s English… it’s the English literature heritage… if we’re going to study it, we should be reading it.

It total opposition, however, are the characters, the story and the complexity (both a blessing and a curse!). Just take Miss Havisham: victim or perpetrator? eccentric or reasonable? Exploring her motivations, her desires and her upbringing of Estella is going to be full of rich discussion. Great Expectations is a novel that will allow you take sides, to form firm opinions and be able to back them up. There is a character rich cast to choose from, there are incidents and twists to discuss. If a class has the ability to retain the information, the quotes, and put it all together, then Great Expectations is an ideal text for an exam.

So, I both dread and look forwards to the opportunities of teaching it in the future. I suppose, since I’ll be going in as a trainee teacher, if my school does have this on the reading list then I will take from the expertise of my colleagues and learn from them the best way to handle such a classic, difficult yet beautiful text.

Only time will tell…

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Lord of the Flies, William Golding

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This is the first text that I’ve read with a view of how to teach it – ie how to use my ‘expert’ knowledge that I’ve gained during my degree and life experiences to teach a novel. Of course, a key part of Subject Pedagogical Knowledge, as defined by Quigley, is knowing and adapting teaching to your class and the students you are speaking to, which is something that I cannot yet do! However, I have tried to look at this novel with an idea of teaching it and what it can teach me in the process of breaking it down. There is, of course, far too much to go into one blog post, mostly because I will bore you, but I’ll briefly spin through a small number of ideas.

Background

Lord of the Flies (henceforth LOTF) was published in 1954 by William Golding, a member of the Royal Navy, present at the sinking of the Bismarck who taught in universiteis and colleges and was knighted in 1988. The influences of WWII and the Cold war are evident in the opinion of the boys  that the world as they know it has ended, that ‘they’re all dead’ (p. 9). Golding presents the children of a society which is poised to destroy itself, and as a result it is no wonder that the young boys in his tale descend into madness and anarchy.

Dehuminisation

The huminisation and dehuminisation of the characters throughout this novel are stark reminders of the degeneration of their makeshift society. Initially, after the crash, the boys are described as ‘the boy with the fair hair’ (p. 1) or ‘the reverse fat boy’ (p.2), until finally a name is given on p.3 – ‘Ralph’. It is clear from the fact that he doesn’t ask Piggy’s name until much later that he does not appreciate or understand how names can create and make a a person so that they cannot be harmed. By adopting Piggy’s hated nickname, Piggy, Ralph initiates the destruction of his humanity which ultimately leads to his death when others see him as nothing more than a source of fire (because of his glasses).

After the initial pause in giving names and creating the characters as human, Golding allows them all to retain their names and individual preferences. Jack and the choir start to hunt, while Ralph and the ‘littluns’ set up home. It is clear that there is little desire to know about anyone – Piggy gives up trying to make a list of all the names, the ‘littluns’ are bunched into a group called just that. There is a slow and steady decline towards not viewing the others on the island as human, or equals. However, those characters that enforce these stereotypes (Jack, Ralph) are given personalities, responsibilities and ideas that make them stand out as individuals, humanising those who will later become enemies in an equal and effective manner.

The worst dehuminisation comes when Jack’s new ‘tribe’ lose their names and their status as children and become simply ‘the chief’ and ‘savages’ (p.186). In taking Piggy’s glasses from him, they take his humanity and his necessity from the island, and the inevitable slide towards his death begins.

Roger, armed by the rock, looks down on the two boys who are challenging the leadership of his tribe. But he doesn’t see them as boys. Instead ‘Below him, Ralph was a shock of hair, and Piggy a bag of fat’ (p. 199). Piggy is no longer a person to the minds of the ‘savages’ and so his death means little.

However, there isn’t an irredeemable ending, despite the shocked views on the society that Golding created. The Naval Officer who arrives as their rescuer sees them as children – ‘a little boy who wore the remains of an extraordinary black cap on his red hair and who carried the remains of a pair of spectacles at his waist…’ (p. 224). For the past three chapters, Jack has simply been referred to as the chief or, rarely, by his name, or as a mask behind which he hides. But the reader is reminded that these are young boys, that to the world outside they are vulnerable and need protecting. The reader knows the darkness and fear that overtook them, but they are still children and still need rescuing. So, after an entire novel dehuminising the group of boys, Golding offers that hope at the end that despite what they have witnessed, perhaps they can become people again.

Pathetic Fallacy

Of course, to teach English you must be willing to express your ‘expert’ knowledge in the themes of technical language, as well as literary and contextual understanding. Here, I will focus on Pathetic Fallacy. From p. 1, the island and nature show outwardly the damage and harm that has been done to the boys on their crash.

‘The Scar’ (p.1) is automatically named as such because of the damage the falling plane has done to the island. The use of the noun ‘scar’ implies that it will never fully heal, that there will always be this damage and harm caused human kind on the island.

When Simon is killed, the children are fuelled by the storm and their fear of the night. The lightening that should have lit up the sky enough to save Simon and remind them that he was human instead are the motivator for their actions – the close weather and the heat and the storm are all a part of what drive the group into a frenzy. The storm shows the weather echoing their mental state, which is fragile and at the same time, powerfully harmful.

When the boys find the Naval Officer, ‘the sky was black’ (p. 223). This represents that their rescue has come too late. They have committed murder and turned on the vulnerable in their society. They have proven themselves no different from the generation of adults in their lives that are fighting a war that could destroy the earth. The black sky takes away the final beauty of the island, because between the fire and the deaths, there is nothing beautiful left to admire.

Overall

Of course, there are many other themes and ideas buried in LOTF. The degeneration of language which represents the degeneration of society. Fragmented speech and the twins, samneric, becoming one person. The conch and what it represents. The parallels between the attempted killing, eventual killing and chasing of the pigs, and the deaths of Simon and Piggy. The parts of humanity that really matter, and why those aren’t always the bits that the boys try to keep. It is a rich and full text which offers plenty of teaching material and some memorable quotes.

A few activity ideas to finish

I know that I’m not yet a teacher, and I know that I’m not yet the expert that I need to be. But, whilst reading, I have had a few thoughts, and I thought I’d share a few of them here.

What if you set a class a task and just left them to it, before even starting teaching the novel? Let them see how hard hierarchy and order can be to establish.

Drawing ‘the beast’. Fear is a key theme throughout the novel. Have pupils take all the ‘descriptions’ of the beast throughout the novel and draw what it would look like.

Design your own rules for the island in groups, and then narrow them down to a shared class sheet.

Pick a side – whose ‘tribe’ would you join and why? – Debate.