Saturday 9 January 2021

The literature curriculum in the age of #metoo (Anne Rooney)

Christmas, with dodgy post and Tier-4 lockdown coming on Boxing Day. I needed something to read and picked up Of Mice and Men. I'm not a great fan of Steinbeck but I'd not read any in decades. Perhaps  I'd been unfair to him and should give him another chance. And it's short. It's also recently been a set text for GCSE English literature and as I sometimes write York Notes study guides, it's useful to keep abreast of what else the students are being encouraged to read. I soon came to the conclusion that it's insane to set this book for GCSE.  There are spoilers here — if you haven't read it, or To Kill A Mocking Bird, you might want to scroll on by to someone else's post.

Of Mice and Men is promoted as a book for young people to engage with because it takes a liberal and compassionate look at how criminal responsibility and mental disability intersect. We know from the first time Lennie accidentally crushes and kills a mouse how the story is going to turn out; it's just a matter of waiting for it to do so. This, as it happens, chimed really well with reading in a pandemic that was quite obviously on the brink of hurtling into the abyss of unmanageability. I was reading OMAM as we approached that eventhorizon, and am writing this as we cross it. For Lennie, the eventhorizon was always in his DNA. In its inevitability, his fate has Aristotelian tragic hero written all over it  — except for the outmoded requirement that tragedy deal with 'great men' (meaning socially elevated and powerful). That all sounds like good GCSE material, even without the context of a pandemic to provide empathetic engagement with impending and unavoidable doom. 

But. The instrument of Lennie's undoing is a person and that person is, inevitably, a woman — the woman he kills, 'Curley's wife' as she is always called. 'Curley's wife' is a possession of Curley. She is 'trouble'; her attractiveness is a trap, her desire to talk to the men on the farm something to be avoided. She is a typical siren, luring them onto the rocks and the other men won't be sorry to see her gone. Steinbeck gives her a tiny bit of space in which to lament her position: "Ain't I got a right to talk to nobody? Whatta they think I am anyways?" But this is squandered by making her laughable — someone who believed she could have been a great movie star but was cheated of her destiny. (I have to admit, I might have been more sympathetic to this 'I was robbed' narrative if it hadn't come in the middle of Trump's stolen election nonsense.) The book generates no sympathy for Curley's wife; the verdict of the men is a not-quite-spoken 'she had it coming' and of the book is that she was the instrument of Lennie's unfair downfall. Lennie doesn't rape her, but it's a rape scene anyway. The novel is complicit in making what happens, her death and Lennie's death, the fault of Curley's wife. Is that a message we want to promote to teenagers? Especially as OMAM is a curriculum choice intended to appeal to boys who, it is well know, don't want to read long, nancy books about marriage like Pride and Prejudice. Aka books which explore the predicament of women in an unequal society.

OK, so maybe OMAM isn't a good choice. What about To Kill A Mocking Bird, that other stalwart of 20th century American literature, dragged in to do its jury-duty on literature curricula? This has long been popular because of its apparent (to white curriculum-designers) support of the Black man accused of rape. I'm not going into the issue of race in TKAMB here, and plenty has been said about it already. But it's another book in which a 'white trash' girl 'causes' the death of a marginalized character. Mayella accuses Tom of rape and that is his downfall. There is a lot to focus on in the power a white woman's word has over a Black man's fate. Mayella has no power in her own social group; she can only punch down. Mayella is an evil temptress. Mayella is the archetypal womann who cries rape. Mayella needs a #metoo t-shirt and a chance to opt for a different role, because enough already of getting teenage boys to read books in which the woman lures them to doom and it's All Her Fault.

What else could a student read if their teacher decided OMAM wasn't a good idea? There's been a lot of (quite right) publicity about the under-representation of BAME characters in the curriculum. But it turns out the representation of women is pretty bad, too, given they represent more than half the people sitting literature GCSE. Different exam boards specify different texts. Here's the list for 19th century prose:

Dickens, A Christmas Carol — by a man, about only men

Dickens, Great Expectations — by a man, about mostly men, but with a woman who is ridiculed for her loss of her only reasonable place (as a wife) in a society of men

Shelley, Frankenstein — by a woman, about men (and monsters), except for a couple of female victims thrown in for good measure (Justine, executed for a crime she didn't commit, and Elizabeth, murdered)

Brone, Jane Eyre — by a woman with a woman protagonist! yay!

Austen, Pride and Prejudice — by a woman, about women!

Conan Doyle, The Sign of the Four — back to men, with added colonialism

Stevenson, Jekyll and Hyde — by a man, about men; and a monster(ish)

Eliot, Silas Marner — by a woman (but disguising her identity as a man) about a man and a female child who plays a redemptive role. The man gets the title, the girl is interesting only in her impact on him 

Wells, War of the Worlds — by a man, about men (and monsters)

There are as many books about monsters as about women. Hmmm.

I'm not going to do this in depth for the other parts of the curriculum as it gets too long. Note that the Shakespeare options includ the entirely male-oriented Macbeth (boring men fighting, has a female psycho), Othello (has a female murder victim), Julius Caesar (boring men fighting), Henry V (more boring men fighting). Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest are the sops to teenage girls who want some romance and fairies (Midsummer Night's Dream is furloughed), but The Tempest is still really about a middle-aged man and his career disappointments. Merchant of Venice: woman as traded commodity, otherwise about men, with added anti-semitism. Then the transgender Twelfh Night. (OK, this is a fairly flippant paragraph. You have to work with what there is for Shakespeare.)

Modern prose includes, besides OMAM and TKAMB, Lord of the Flies (all male), The Power and the Glory (male), Animal Farm (male). It would be nice to have used the 20th century to make up for the lack of women with agency. It would have been particularly nice to have used the 20th century to reduce the number of women-blamed-for-men's-crimes and women-just-as-vehicles/victims. Obviously, a good teacher will challenge the presentation of Curley's wife and Mayella Ewell, but not all kids get a good teacher. In an age of rape culture and normalizing of sexual crime, is it really a good idea to set teenage boys reading 20th-century books in which women are first victims of male power and secondly blamed for male violence? What if your teacher doesn't call out Steinbeck on this? What if your teacher focuses only on the racsist aspect of TKAMB? A book that deals with an issue is one thing, but a book that perpetuates a troubling trope without challenging it needs careful treatment. Imagine if instead of a woman, Lennie had killed a Black or Jewish character and it had been portrayed as All Their Fault? Would we set that book for GCSE? I think we wouldn't (thank God). 

And your homework this week: compare the presentation of Mayella Ewell, Curley's wife and Desdemona. 

Anne Rooney

Relevant book:
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: York Notes for GCSE (9-1)
Pearson, 2015



Paul May said...

Thanks, Anne, I shall do the homework. I've not read either of these since I was at school so it should be interesting.

Pippa Goodhart said...

Really interesting. Thank you, Anne. I wish we had you in charge of the literacy/English Lit curriculum!

Leslie Wilson said...

Catcher in the Rye is another book that made me sick to read. The male narrative is shockingly dominant, still. A Guardian writer was talking about Norwegian Wood and trying to set it in the context of tacky furniture. Since there is no furniture:’ I looked around and I noticed there wasn’t a chair,’ the wood is clearly on the walls, as was fashionable in the 60s. We had a “dining alcove“ which my father lined with it. However, what has always struck me about that song - from when it first came out - is the horrible misogyny. The woman is a “teaser“. If you take it at face value, she has done nothing to justify arson (nothing ever does). However, if you dig in, it exemplifies the stalker’s mentality. This is the caricature of a woman which lives in the minds of rapists, abusers, and men like Donald Trump.

Mary Hoffman said...

Not sure where the transgenderism is in Much Ado?

Jane said...

As You Like It intended?

Stroppy Author said...

You're right! Amended xx

Sue Purkiss said...

Hm. I taught Of Mice and Men for quite a few years, and during the one horrific year when I marked GCSEs, I marked answers on Of Mice and Men and on To Kill A Mockingbird.

I think what you have to remember is that the main thing as a teacher you're looking out for is that the book will engage the members of your class - and they may well be a very disparate bunch, some of whom really don't want to be reading anything at all. It is very difficult to find books that fit that bill. Of Mice and Men was definitely one. It's short - excellent. It's emotionally very involving. Steinbeck takes you into an alien environment with such ease. There is masses to discuss. (I don't quite agree with what you say about Curley's wife: as I remember it, there was lots of discussion about the position she was in, the limitations of when and where she was living etc.) But most of all - it just absolutely held a class. Every time. And when that happens with a book - it's just gold dust. Sure, there must be others that fit the bill and that have more female characters - doubtless people have discovered some since I was teaching - but it's not an easy ask. The other texts at that level that really 'worked' with a range of students were The Lord Of The Flies, and Owen and Sassoon's war poetry. (More male orientated texts, I hear you say!)

As I say, there must be other texts that work really well - but it's not simply of case of finding a good book. On a Friday afternoon when everybody's had enough, you need something very special.

Andrew Preston said...

I read 'Of Mice and Men' as a teen.
In my opinion, Nick Hornby got it right..., "Such a perfect book.".

catdownunder said...

This is one reason why the late Judith Wright told me NOT to do English literature at tertiary level. She advised me to do History instead - a decision I have never regretted even though I often feel as if I am woefully ignorant of the "essential reading" in English literature. The two of you would have agreed on this Anne.