Archives For AP Lit

No sooner are essays on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein handed in, then the copies of Paradise Lost are handed out to the Advanced Placement English Literature Students. Yes, there are over 10,000 lines of blank verse in the poem, but don’t shudder for them…they will be fine. This epic poem is a trip to the “dark side” like no other in literature. All it takes is a reading of Book One; a reading that says “Welcome to Hell”!

The connection is obvious. In her novel, Shelley has Frankenstein’s Monster explain how he gained his knowledge, not with the help of his “father”, but instead by reading several books while he hid from humanity. One of the books in his possession was the epic poem Paradise Lost. When the Monster finally confronts his creator, Victor Frankenstein, on a mountain glacier on Mount Montanvert, the Monster dramatically intones:

“I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed.”

Originally published as 10 books, Milton expanded the epic poem to 12 books in later printings.

Originally published as 10 books, Milton expanded the epic poem to 12 books in later printings.

The “fallen angel” the Monster references is a hero/anti-hero of Paradise Lost: Satan, aka Lucifer, aka the  “infernal serpent”, aka the ‘Arch-fiend’ (and a myriad of other Miltonic epithets).

Students in previous classes have always found Satan the most memorable character in this epic poem since he is given the most memorable lines. They have been particularly intrigued that John Milton’s purpose in writing the poem, “to justify the ways of God to man,” is soon drowned out by the creation of Pandemonium (Hell’s Seat).  From the moment in Book One of Paradise Lost when Satan frees himself from the adamantine chains that bind him to a burning lake, students are taken with his attitude and his defiance as read in his great challenge:

Here at least
we shall be free; the Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
to reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven. (PL 1 258-263)

No matter that in Book Six’s battle scenes in heaven are an exercise in futility, known as  the “great pie fight in the sky”, students root for the former archangel. They understand the sentiment in his statement,

‘The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven…” (PL 211-214).

Paradise Lost was only one of Milton’s great contributions to literature. He was not only a brilliant poet, but he was also a powerful statesman and a Puritan. He became associated with the Puritan partisanship in Parliament, which was credited with banning Christmas in England in 1644. This would seem to be a contradiction since he was already known for the beautiful Christmas Ode, “On the Morning of Christs Nativity Compos’d 1629”. Perhaps it was the general Puritan aversion to Christmas carols that could be blamed for such a heinous act!.

His political career experienced the extreme highs of an appointment as Secretary for Foreign Tongues (1648) and his association with Oliver Cromwell in the execution of Charles I (1649). In contrast there were the lows of an imposed exile upon the return of Charles II and the arrival of the Restoration in 1660. One of the reasons he was not executed for his implicit participation in Charles I’s regicide was that he was struck blind in 1654, and there were many who argued that this blindness was punishment enough. Milton was used to pain and suffering as the deaths of his first and second wives and several children were tragic interludes throughout his life.

Like another blind poet, Homer, Milton achieved greatness with an “inner sight”. Critics generally agree that his best poetry came after he became blind and dictated all the lines of verse to his remaining daughters. A painting by Mihály Munkácsy (1877) hangs in the New York Public Library (NYPL) and depicts a scene of a head-bowed Milton reciting to one daughter who is scribing lines into a book.

Milton & daughtersThe picture is an apt illustration for his opening thesis in Paradise Lost:

What in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That to the height of this great argument
I may assert eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men. (PL I:18-22)

In 2008, the NYPL held an exhibition, “John Milton at 400: ‘A Life Beyond Life'” which featured illustrated etchings by Gustave Doré for Paradise Lost. One illustration was of Satan on his flight to the Garden of Eden. As he travels, Satan pauses to tell the Sun how conflicted he is over his fallen state:

O Sun, to tell thee how I hate thy beams
That bring to my remembrance from what state
I fell, how glorious once above thy Spheare;
Till Pride and worse Ambition threw me down
Warring in Heav’n against Heav’ns matchless King:
Ah wherefore! he deservd no such return
From me, whom he created what I was
In that bright eminence, and with his good
Upbraided none; nor was his service hard. (PL IV:37-41)

Speaking these lines is a tragic Satan, fully aware that he has brought himself to ruin, as told by a poet, who had also come to political ruin. The reader can sympathize with such a character, and isn’t that the role of great literature? To draw on the reader’s empathy?

By the end of the poem, however, Milton restores the balance of sympathy towards Adam and Eve. They walk bravely, hand-in-hand, out of the Garden, into the sunset, ready to begin “his-story”.  In contrast, the character of Satan is reduced to a hollow hero, receiving accolades from a hissing mob of demi-devils. He is cursed, and like the Monster in Frankenstein, he is unreconciled with his creator.

So happy Birthday, John Milton, (December 9th), but let us not forget, that while your character Satan may dwell in evil, it was you who helped to cancel Christmas!

red tentMany of my students do not know Old Testament stories other than “Noah’s Ark” and “Adam and Eve”. There is the occasional biblical teen scholar who may be able to recount the origin a pillar of salt (Lot’s wife) or maybe there will be a student who saw the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and make a patriarchal connection. For the most part, students are not up to date on Methuselah or even which of the brothers killed the other (Cain or Abel). They are far more likely to ask, “So, where did all the other people come from if Eve was the only woman?”

Fortunately, The Red Tent, a novel by Anita Diamant (1997) does address other women of the Old Testament. Her fictionalized version of the story of Dinah, daughter of Leah and Jacob, is based on in a brief but particularly violent and gruesome incident in the Book of Genesis. In the King James Version of the Bible, Dinah is known as the daughter who is “defiled” by Shechem, a prince, who then wanted to marry her (Genesis 34: 1-3):

1 And Dinah the daughter of Leah, which she bare unto Jacob, went out to see the daughters of the land.

2 And when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, prince of the country, saw her, he took her, and lay with her, and defiled her.

3 And his soul clave unto Dinah the daughter of Jacob, and he loved the damsel, and spake kindly unto the damsel.

Dinah’s brothers, sought vengeance for the attack on their sister. They tricked Shechem and his family, claiming to come in peace, and exacted their punishment by killing the royal family and all males in the city:

26 And they slew Hamor and Shechem his son with the edge of the sword, and took Dinah out of Shechem’s house, and went out.

27 The sons of Jacob came upon the slain, and spoiled the city, because they had defiled their sister.

This horrific incident is explained very differently in the Diamant’s fictional retelling, as are many other familial incidents, from Dinah’s point of view. The rivalry between Rachel and Leah, the rivalry between Jacob and Esau, and the rivalry between the sons of Joseph, Dinah’s younger brother, are rich with detail and dialogue. The sparse accounts given in the Old Testament are fleshed out in this compelling narrative, with the women center stage, a striking contrast to the male-dominated biblical text.

Several of my female students in Advanced Placement English Literature choose to read The Red Tent as an independent choice, and their response is not unlike other female student responses chronicled in the article “The Wandering Womb at Home in The Red Tent: An Adolescent Bildungsroman in a Different Voice” by Holly Blackford. In this review, Blackford writes about the female students’ enthusiasm for the book:

So emotional about the story of The Red Tent that they can barely speak, and indeed continually interrupt one another, they cite the way in which the contemporary novel revises the patriarchal story of Jacob; represents the concerns of girls in terms of emotion and relationship; and details the entire lifecycle of girl-to-woman through engaging first-person narration:
  Carol: There are certain books I just can’t put down.
      Laticia: Seriously, I’ll read until like three in the morning . . .
      Interviewer: Like what?
      Carol: Like The Red Tent!

Blackford also points out that this revision of an ancient text  comes at a time when girls are, “hungering for an exploration of female-centered myths, deities, worlds, and power-structures.” Her claim in The Alan Review (March, 2005) is that books like The Red Tent:

“… appeal to adolescent women and grow their appreciation for contemporary women’s literature that speaks “in a different voice” (Gilligan) from the more masculine canon they expect in their school curriculum.”

There are about 20 copies of The Red Tent on the class independent book cart, all purchased at book sales for $1.00 each. Picador USA publishers produced an oversized text, about 2″ taller than a standard trade paperback; on the AP English Lit book cart’s top shelf, these copies stick out. The cover art, designed and illustrated by Honi Werner, is also eye-catching. Students always pick up the book with interest.

“What’s this about?” one asks.
“Read the back,” I reply.
“‘...told in Dinah’s voice, this novel reveals the traditions and turmoil of ancient womanhood-the world of the red tent,’ (*pause suspiciously*)…is this a ‘chick book’?”
“Yes,” I chuckle, “this is most definitely a chick book….probably the ultimate chick book, of ALL chick books.”

How else to describe a story that centers on celebrating the onset of womanhood?

After they read any independent book, the AP students are required to write an essay. The essay prompt this quarter for any book they choose is taken from the AP released exam list of questions:

In retrospect, the reader often discovers that the first chapter of a novel or the opening scene of a drama introduces some of the major themes of the work. Write an essay about the opening of the first chapter of a novel in which you explain how it functions in this way. *hint: the lens you use is the lens from the conclusion of the novel*

Students who choose to read Diamant’s The Red Tent will certainly want to return to the beginning to explain how Dinah’s life story begins and ends with the women who loved and supported her.  They will also have had a “crash course” on the Book of Genesis, which is the source of many other literary allusions. While The Red Tent is not great literature, this novel sets many female students looking for equally compelling contemporary novels about women, with or without that “chick book” label.

What better way to celebrate International Women’s Day 2013 but to pay tribute to Canadian author Margaret Atwood? Poet, novelist, lecturer, inventor, tweeter, and celebrity ice hockey goalie, Atwood’s achievements in each of these roles is accomplished with wit, grace, and aplomb.

Handmaid's tale

There are other earlier covers, but this one is my personal favorite.

My Advanced Placement English Literature class just finished reading her novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. The novel is set in the dystopia of Gilead, where in response to political and ecological upheaval, a quasi-Christian theocracy is organized in the eastern section of the United States. Astute Sparknote writers, graduates of Harvard, recognized many of the landmarks in the novel’s setting (the brick wall, the gymnasium) as that of their alma mater, an indication of Atwood’s wry sense of irony. In the novel, fertility is an obsession. Rituals and “ceremonies” are enforced; offenders and outliers are publicly executed or sent to labor in toxic waste dumps. The main character Offred, who had a daughter before the establishment of the Republic of Gilead, is valued only for her ability to reproduce.

Because of the mature themes, The Handmaid’s Tale is often taught in senior high school classes. The title is often suggested on the exam for the open-ended Question #3 on the AP Literature exam which means other schools assign the book. There are always plenty of copies available in the secondary market. Our classroom library has over 60 copies from a variety of library book sales and thrift stores. I have spent under $100.00 in adding this title to our curriculum; I’d like to think that Atwood might be pleased with this “ecological” way to have students read the text despite her loss of possible retail revenue. However, if one wanted a new copy, they are available at Amazon for $10.20 paperback or an audio recording by Claire Danes is available  at  for $24.95.

When we discuss the clothing that marks the different “castes” of people in Gilead,  I always use the endpaper story Atwood published in the New York Times Magazine published “When Afghanistan Was at Peace”

Six years after our trip, I wrote ”The Handmaid’s Tale,” a speculative fiction about an American theocracy. The women in that book wear outfits derived in part from nuns’ costumes, partly from girls’ schools’ hemlines and partly — I must admit — from the faceless woman on the Old Dutch Cleanser box, but also partly from the chador I acquired in Afghanistan and its conflicting associations. As one character says, there is freedom to and freedom from. But how much of the first should you have to give up in order to assure the second? All cultures have had to grapple with that, and our own — as we are now seeing — is no exception. Would I have written the book if I never visited Afghanistan? Possibly. Would it have been the same? Unlikely.”

Dutch Cleanser

The combination of the Dutch Cleanser girl with the chador is the inspiration for Offred’s clothing; the story and the visual always sparks a discussion on the symbolic effect of clothing.

My students always argue about the genre of The Handmaid’s Tale. This year there were a number of votes for political science book, others for a dystopian love story; no one said science fiction. Atwood would be relieved; she has always drawn the distinction between science fiction and her writing which she calls “speculative fiction”. Several of my students also read the other books Oryx and Crake and The Year of The Flood that are speculative fiction.

Here is Atwood with her take on the genre of specultive fiction.

The conclusion of The Handmaid’s Tale ends in an allusion to the story of Orpheus and Eurydice:

“We may call Eurydice forth from the world of the dead, but we cannot make her answer; and when we turn to look at her we glimpse her only for a moment, before she slips from our grasp and flees.”

After we finished the novel, the class read Atwood’s poem Eurydice. I asked them what they thought.

  • “There is a sense of longing in both.”
  • “The language is so similar. There is the white curtain…the gauze.”
  • “‘It is not through him you will get your freedom’ is just like
    from and freedom to…that is Offred’s problem”
  • “We could have just read the poem! They’re almost the same!”

One other area of speculative fiction where Atwood has shared her thoughts is on the topic of modernity…and Zombies. In an interview on George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight, Atwood was quite clear on the limits of Zombie stories:

“No zombie story is ever told from the zombie point of view… they’re not narrative…they don’t have language and that impedes one from telling a story.”

Outside of fiction, Atwood has also written about debt. Her non-fiction book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth came from her 2008 Massey Lectures. Not surprisingly, her interest in debt began in from her study of Victorian Literature. In an interview with Suzanne Ellis, CityLine “Margaret Atwood On Payback And The Concept Of Debt”  Atwood discussed how the Victorian stories that are on the surface about love and romance are really all about financial arrangements:

“In [Jane Austen’s] Sense and Sensibility, Marianne can’t marry the love of her life because he needs to marry a rich person. He doesn’t have any money. She’s devastated by that and gets a bad cold,” Atwood muses. “You start following the money in these novels and it takes you to the most amazing places. Where did Heathcliff get the money that he uses to buy Wuthering Heights, or I should say to gamble the owner of it out of it? How does he do that? We’re not quite sure but it’s something pretty shady.”

The book was made into a documentary and released in the spring of 2012. The New York Times critic A.O. Scott opens his film review with the premise of the documentary:

A glance at the headlines from Europe, the news from Washington or this month’s bills will confirm that we live in an age of debt. Debt, a concept at once straightforward and almost metaphysically complex, is a source of personal, national and global anxiety, and forms a link between the individual and the worldwide economic system.

While the film did not receive critical acclaim, Atwood’s ability to connect herself and link to the world through Twitter is often lauded.  She is an avid twitterer with 383,430 followers and over 15,000 tweets of her own. She links to political issues, comments on travels, and gives recipe advice:

Screen Shot 2013-03-08 at 11.06.17 AM Screen Shot 2013-03-08 at 11.07.07 AM Screen Shot 2013-03-08 at 11.08.58 AM Screen Shot 2013-03-08 at 11.09.56 AM

She also is the inventor of the “long pen”, a device that allows her to attend book signings from distances and sign books “virtually”. When she is tired of traveling to sign books, she can now meet her adoring public in virtual space and provide them with an authentic signature. Fortunately, I saw her before the “long pen” at a Barnes and Noble reading/book signing for her short story collection Moral Disorder. She was amazingly articulate; in the 40 minute talk, she never hesitated or once said “um”.

And just when you thought that Atwood could not be more accomplished, she starred in a video explaining “How to Stop a Hockey Puck” for the comedian reporter Rick Mercer. I put the video below. (Too bad her “Dance Party Video” was removed from YOUTube for copyright violations.)

So, on this International Woman’s Day, let’s hear a cheer for Margaret Atwood!

She writes. She tweets. She scores!