On the narrators and characters we love, those we don’t, and the value of both.
This spring I get to teach for the second time a really interesting upper-level lit seminar: the American Novel, 1950 to the Present (sequel to a pre-1950 novel course I’ve taught a few times as well). I had a lot of fun with it the first time, but I have to admit that one particular aspect was a serious disappointment: I was greatly looking forward to my first time teaching Sylvia Plath’s The Bell-Jar (1963), especially to a class of junior and senior English majors (given the age, literary interests and voice, and sarcastic temperament of Plath’s narrator); but the majority of them (at least those who voiced their opinions) didn’t like Plath’s novel. Or, more exactly, they didn’t like that narrator/protagonist Esther—and if you don’t like the first-person narrator of a novel that’s as focused on that narrator’s perspective, experiences, and identity as Plath’s is, you’re in for a long unhappy read.
Never one to let an opportunity for discussion and analysis pass us by, I made that unhappiness part of our class conversations—especially because many students had similarly negative takes on another narrator-protagonist, Calliope in Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex (2002); and yet they seemed as a group to like two other, potentially controversial narrators: “Tim O’Brien” in O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (1990) and Yunior in Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2008). There are lots of ways to analyze those different responses, including inescapable elements of gender and sexuality—Esther and Calliope foreground those themes in ways that (it seems to me) made my students uncomfortable. But it’s also the case that O’Brien and Yunior are novelist-narrators, overtly writing books that are focused in large part on characters other than themselves—and perhaps in that case we’re more willing to accept and appreciate their flaws and challenges than we are when the narrators are telling their own stories.
In any case, the discussions and analyses will continue this semester—not only because all four of those novels remain on the syllabus, but because I’ve added another with a narrator and main character who’s even more unlikeable than any of them: Patrick Bateman in Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (1991). Not only have I never taught Ellis’ novel before, but I’ve never read it all the way through; so this will be a learning experience for the professor as well as the students (and I’ll be sure to keep you posted!). But even if we all hate Bateman and/or the novel, I think there’ll be significant value in the experience—because the things that don’t work for us have just as much as to teach us, both about themselves and about our own perspectives and preferences, as the ones that we love. I’m excited to see how this next group of students respond and what we all can learn together in the process.
Next preview tomorrow,
BenPS. What’s on your spring calendar?
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