Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Teaching Lit

In the course of refining a general education literature syllabus, I've noticed a few common themes that repeat in the works I include. These recurring issues have mostly been unintentional.

Some of these common threads make sense. We read a lot about parent-child conflicts, and I suppose that is as close to a universal theme as you'll find--generational tension abounds in the history of Western literature.

Another common theme is "Ideal versus Reality." I do have a theory on why so many works involve some exploration of a fantasy, image, or ideal conflicting with reality. Fiction is fake, phony, not real. When devoting energy to making up stories, to telling of things that never happened, the writer may become keenly aware of the tension between fantasy and reality (or may feel driven to work out this tension in art). Many writers confront the fakery of fiction directly with metafiction, but even those that don't feel that tension, and so that conflict of an image against reality recurs in literature.

But one unintended subject I always find is insanity ("The Yellow Wallpaper," The Bluest Eye, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, King Lear, Death of a Salesman, Equus). I still don't have a coherent theory on why I fill the course with books about madness. Is it my own esoteric selection process? Or is insanity a very common subject of literature? And to either of those questions, why?


  1. Insanity seems to be everywhere. It's hard to define the blurring edges between strangeness, eccentricity, defiance, and madness. I am teaching literature too and it seems imbued with madness of varying degrees. Perhaps because the subject of the human psyche is among the most compelling?

    I am really enjoying your blog.

  2. I bounced this idea off my students: insanity in literature is a symbol/exploration/contrast for "reason" and "unreason." But I never even convinced myself of that--seems phony.

    I think you're probably onto something. A lot of literature does take up the subject of the human psyche in many of its forms, and since conflict is inherent to most narrative, literature often features the human psyche in crisis.

  3. Along with the exploration of insanity almost always comes commentary on societal norms and expectations--what it means to be acceptable versus unacceptable in a given society at a given time.

    We can also measure a lot about societies through history by how they handled their mentally ill.

    That's why I think insanity is such a big one; it opens up these kinds of discussions.

  4. That's true, and books examining "societal norms and expectations" may often make it into the canon.