Wednesday, March 30, 2011

In the Trenches

Tomorrow I will begin teaching The Hours to my class of freshmen for the second half of our fiction unit. The above title might at first seem more applicable to the first part of the unit - for which we read The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien's classic, 1990 National Book Award-nominated collection of short stories about the Vietnam War, memory, and storytelling - but I assure you, it's not. 

My students loved O'Brien's book even more than I hoped they would. And it makes sense: I was their age when I was first introduced to his work, and over the years he has come to be possibly my favorite author (though there's a strong case for the award going to Hemingway). 

While for me and certainly those generations older than me (read: those who were alive during the Vietnam War or its immediate aftermath), the potential stickiness of the topic is obvious. But these students are too young to have any investment in Vietnam and, to a large extent, anything more than the most superficial knowedge about Vietnam. And so, while the book's stance (anti-Vietnam Wat, though decidedly not anti-American soldier) is surely contentious to me or you, none of them seemed to interpret this as a political issue and, therefore, none took umbrage with it. 

Michael Cunningham's 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hours (which was the original working-title of Virginia Woolf's 1923 novel Mrs. Dalloway), however, is a littttttttle bit of a different story. 

Some of you may have seen the (very gripping) movie with Meryl Streep (love her!), Nicole Kidman, and Julianne Moore (who I could totally do without). It came out when I was a junior in college, so, 2003 or 2004. If you have seen it, jog your memory a bit. Yep, there you go - now you know why I'm anxious to see how teaching this book will go over with a group of freshman. Two of whom are in seminary. Many of whom have probably never interacted with a person they knew to be gay. 

Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf 
Basically, the novel follows the lives of three women in three very distinct historical time periods - the 1920s, 1950s, and the very end of the 20th century. One of these women is an open lesbian, another (a fictionalized version of Woolf) suffers from debilitating mental illness that leads to suicide, and the third contemplates suicide b/c she feels suffocated by her role as a 1950s suburban housewife. Oh, and did I mention Richard? He's a gay man suffering from AIDS, which has basically eaten away a large part of his brain. 

Yesterday, after they finished their peer workshop on their papers, I put a few of the book's "thematic concerns" on the board for them to consider as they read. My list looked something like this: 

Gender - questioning the traditional definitions and roles; questioning the relations b/t genders 
Sexuality - homosexuality, heterosexuality, bisexuality 
Mental illness/"madness" - how is it represented in society? in fiction? what are the effects of its being stigmatized? 
Performing "roles" - what does it mean to be a "wife," "mother," etc. 

There were not a few wide eyes when I mentioned "homosexuality." I was impressed, however, that when I asked for the difference b/t sex and gender (which, interestingly, we also talked about in my theory class later in the day), someone actually had an accurate answer. That, if nothing else, seemed promising. 

After a book focusing on all male characters, I'm glad to throw some female in the mix, but this experience might end up being one minefield after another. However, if I don't expose them to these issues, who will? I guess we'll see how this goes . . . .

1 comment:

  1. Well here's hoping it goes well, but I definitely understand your hesitation because these are obviously potentially very sticky topics.