Shakespeare, Oppression, and Today

During class last week, I showed students how to break down practice AP Language and Composition argumentative essay prompts. The one I used to model for them was an excerpt from a speech in King Lear.

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An Oxford Class? Really? Oxford University?

I am taking a class on Jane Austen via Oxford University online, specifically Trinity College.

Typing that sentence makes me: completely geek out, giggle, feel a sense of pride, and anticipate the next class I get to take. Also, it reminds me that, in addition to finishing out a semester, I’ve got homework that needs finishing!

Posting that information here helps me explain why I’ve not posted anything in a while. The course requires us to read several books, some of which I have read, some of which I have not, so I had to switch from reading Mansfield Park to reading Northanger Abbey, which of course I don’t mind at all, but it did throw a slight kink in my progression of writing on my blog.

All that being said, there is the update. I will return to posting shortly, most likely in the next week, because my seniors are done and I’ll have afternoons actually at school to finish grading and planning work, and therefore time at home to work on my homework/prepare posts for my blog.

It’s that time of year…

I’ve been remiss in my posting, I admit – but it’s that time of year. The time of year when I’m buried in research papers to grade, as well as essay questions from tests, and I cannot keep my head above water professionally, so of course everything else suffers – including the cleanliness of my house.

Naturally, I have to make sacrifices, and needless to say, until I get my grading under control, my examination of Jane Austen is on a bit of a hiatus. Mansfield Park still rests on my bedside shelf, but by the time I make it there every night I am too mentally exhausted to pick it up.

I’ll pick back up on my reading, analysis, and writing soon – like I said, when I have my grading under control.


Well, I finished one book.

Although I was disappointed in my quest for a disappointing father figure (with one only very minor exception in Mr. Palmer), I have to admit that I found Austen’s first official publication enjoyable. I can’t believe, having a Jane Austen action figure as I do, that I hadn’t read it before now.

That being said, here are my final thoughts about Sense and Sensibility. This may take a while.

Mr. Palmer

Remarkably like Mr. Bennet, Mr. Palmer was “a little soured by finding, like many others of his sex, that through some unaccountable bias in favour of beauty, he was the husband of a very silly woman.” Well, in an age where marriages were arranged to increase fortune far more often than as a love match, it was quite astute of Austen to say he was “soured,” rather than saying that he should have known better (80-81). One can hardly find fault in him for adhering to the standard norms of society. Oh wait, Jane Austen can. Every heroine ends up with her man based on a good, strong, attachment – not an empty-headed match based on society’s expectations.

There is this snippet, however:

“Mr. Palmer maintained the common, but unfatherly opinion among his sex, of all infants being alike; and though [Mrs. Jennings] could plainly perceive at different times the most striking resemblance between this baby and every one of his relations on both sides, there was no convincing his father of it; no persuading him to believe that it was not exactly like every other baby of the same age; nor could he even be brought to acknowledge the simple proposition of its being the finest child in the world” (175).

That definitely is not a real black mark against his character, or cause for nominating him as a disappointing father figure, despite Austen’s use of “unfatherly” and the fact that he wasn’t entirely impressed with his wrinkled-raisin newborn. I for one know that in contemporary society, not all men are “into” how absolutely adorable newborn babies are, nor can they, like a woman can, pick out the child’s resemblance to random family members. So, for Mr. Palmer, no harm, no foul.

Lady Middleton

How lovely is it that Lady Middleton can maintain absolutely no control over her children at all?

“‘John is in such spirits to-day!’ said she, on his taking Miss Steele’s pocket handkerchief, and throwing it out of the window. ‘He is full of monkey tricks.’

And soon afterwards, on the second boy’s violently inching one of the same lady’s fingers, she fondly observed, “How playful William is!'”

The above scenario plays in perfectly with Austen’s presentation of how Lady Middleton didn’t care for Elinor and Marianne: “Because they neither flattered herself nor her children, she could not believe them good-natured, and because they were fond of reading, she fancied them satirical: perhaps without knowing what it was to be satirical; but that did not signify. It was censure in common use, and easily given.”

Wow. How loaded can an explanation of such an empty-headed woman’s feelings be? Well, pretty loaded.

“Because they neither flattered herself nor her children, she could not believe them good-natured…” My interpretation: Lady Middleton = self-involved, vapid wench who likes to always feel that either she or her children are at the center of everyone’s attention.

“…and because they were fond of reading, she fancied them satirical:” Of course we all know that well-read, educated women were nothing more than a danger to themselves and others.

“perhaps without knowing what it was to be satirical; but that did not signify.” Lady Middleton, as I said above, is vapid. She considers the Miss Dashwoods to be satirical without even having a complete understanding of what it actually means to be satirical. But, of course, because it was not necessary for a woman to be educated enough to understand the basis of her opinions, Lady Middleton’s opinion of the girls was entirely justified and the fact that she was unaware of the meaning of satirical was entirely insignificant. I. love. Austen.

Mrs. Dashwood

Well, I set out looking for a disappointing father figure, and found a bit of a disappointing matriarch instead. When Mrs. Jennings asks the Miss Dashwoods to accompany her to London, Mrs. Dashwood takes no issue with the prospect, and gives her consent for the girls to go. Elinor, however, experiences some disquiet, and she

made no further direct opposition to the plan, and merely referred it to her mother’s decision, from whom however she scarcely expected to receive any support in her endeavour to prevent a visit which she could not approve of for Marianne, and which on her own account she had particular reasons to avoid” (108).

Well, let’s first look at the phrase “scarcely expected to receive any support.” The phrase in and of itself contains a negative connotation, but then added to the fact that Elinor herself did not approve of the visit to town because of her concern for Marianne seeing Willoughby, a concern with entirely credible foundations considering the uncertainty of Marianne and Willoughby’s engagement.

Then, when all is settled, though, Mrs. Dashwood makes her apology to Marianne, as Marianne attempts to apologize for her own “folly.” “‘Rather say your mother’s imprudence, my child,’ said Mrs. Dashwood; she must be answerable'” (249, not my emphasis).

So, then, Mrs. Dashwood is not entirely irredeemable, and at any rate, I didn’t set out to examine mothers in the Austen novels. I just thought the arc of “detached mother” to “I’m-so-sorry-I-should-have-been-more-involved-mother” interesting.

Favorite quote:
“I have no notion of people’s making such a to-do about money and greatness” (182).

Thank you, Jane. Speaking in terms of a contemporary context, I find the above quote ironically pertinent. With all the furor over teachers, how much money we make, how hard we work, what we do, etc., it’s true – I absolutely don’t understand why people are making such a big deal about teachers’ money, and not such a big deal about the money made by “great” entities such as GE, who get what are in fact ridiculous tax breaks that amount to more money than I will likely ever make in my lifetime. I don’t want to overly editorialize a current situation based on a single line from a novel written 200 years ago, so I’m done.

A curiosity about curiosity…

My 12th grade students are working on a research project. To help them, I decided to provide them with a model of how I decided on my own research topic. So, to give them a helping hand toward the right researching direction, I gave them the following fill-in-the-blank template:

I am researching __________________ to find out (who, what, where, when, why, how)_____________ in order to understand _____________________.

My model ended up looking like this:

I am researching Jane Austen novels to find out what the deal is with the father-type figures in her works, and how the issues repeat themselves in order to understand if there was an event or something else in her life that influenced the way she wrote about father figures.

Well, my students “got” what I was trying to help them “get,” and they narrowed down their topic appropriately. However, in the process, they asked, “Why do you care about that?”

I had to think about my response…but in the end, it ended up being, “Because I’m curious about the topic.” Therein, I believe, is the disconnect in some of today’s students. They don’t understand that sometimes, there is a curiosity inherent in some people about things like connections between literary works, the people that wrote them, and the history of both. Not only that, but some of them do not possess such a curiosity.

Contemporary students are so accustomed, thanks to the “drill and kill” mentality and single-answer possibilities of standardized testing, to looking for the “one answer,” that they either don’t take the time to think about other possibilities, or, an even more depressing possibility, they don’t know how.

I believe that one of the reasons students don’t possess curiosity or don’t develop it is because they’ve been “conditioned” for standardized testing rather than for developing their intellectual curiosity and critical thinking capacities. I also believe that a deprivation of humanities is connected to the conditioning for standardized testing. As educators, we’re forced to focus on development of testing skills rather than development of thinking skills.