It should be no surprise that a troubled love relationship is commonly at the center of a great novel, short story or play. Depth fiction – as opposed to escape fiction — goes to the core of the human condition, where the troubles are, where the characters are in urgent need of new perspectives.
That’s where I, as an English teacher, have an outside chance of hooking my students into becoming readers. Many teens/early adults are in deep “love” pain a good bit of the time, while imagining that most others are doing fine. Depth literature addresses their need for new perspectives, too.
And “depth” doesn’t have to equate to “hard to read.” J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye comes to mind in that regard. The protagonist, Holden Caulfield, is starving for a love connection, but, just 16, is terribly inept and unprepared. But he’s smart and likable, and this I think helps young readers to appreciate themselves a little better in their youthful ineptitudes. Helps them to judge themselves less harshly, and to feel less alone in their heartaches.
Plus Catcher is a page turner, funny in a way that makes you sometimes want to cry — perfect for students who have never had the experience of becoming absorbed in a great book.
Sadly, for most of them, if they have anything resembling literature in their lives, it’s not even books. Typically it’s run-of-the-mill TV escapism that helps us momentarily forget our troubles — sit-coms along the lines of those Bill Cosby living room comedies of not too long ago. Or, in the case of melodramas, it’s good versus evil stuff, briefly comforting because we like to identify with good guys, but of no help in understanding a real life question, like why am I hurting so much inside; why am I so insecure.
And then there are the accompanying vignettes that we call commercials, which further expand the fantasylands of the programming: the Bud-light/Miller-light/Coors-light all beautiful fun-loving young people playing volleyball on the beach; or the Cialis/Viagra starry-eyed, handsome, virile looking middle aged men — albeit erectile dysfunctional — on the verge of making great love with their beautiful and equally starry-eyed partners.
Here is systemic escapism that only serious reading can begin to penetrate. Yet, after all those years of required English classes, it’s a rare student that emerges as a serious reader. Most students, at best, read grudgingly what has been assigned to them to pass a class or please their parents, etc. Extrinsic reasons.
I can imagine a student saying to friend, “okay, I have to die now for an hour while I read my English assignment,” because homework — which is mostly reading — isn’t meaningful to them. It isn’t its own reward. It hasn’t become a living experience, not even one time. There’s been far too much force-feeding, too much Hamlet, before they’re ready for Hamlet, and consequently they’re turned off to serious reading forever, as something pretentious or boringly distant from their lives.
Yes, something IS rotten in the state of Denmark (and America), but first things first.There is great literature out there that a ninth grader can relate to. A tenth grader, on and on. But only a few find it, and the majority of students enter college with atrophied reading skills, what would have been a few decades ago an eighth grade level.
Are kids less intelligent now. No. It’s simply that in all those years in school, the world of literature has never opened to them as something intrinsically valuable. I know this in part because I was almost one of those students. As a youth, only a couple of times did I have a moving experience with a great book, like The Catcher in the Rye. But it got the ball rolling.
Today, over five decades later, Catcher is still alive to me when I teach it. In the context of Holden’s misadventures, I sometimes tell my students about my first high school romance — my first real kissing in the back row of the Penn Theatre in Plymouth, Michigan. My sweetheart and I were both 15 (about Holden’s age) and our going together lasted a whole two weeks, before she went back with her upper-classman boyfriend. For that two weeks of bliss, I suffered a whole year. Two weeks of kissing, one year of suffering. Even back then, that seemed like an unfortunate ratio.
But to experience Holden suffering the way I was suffering, to experience Holden living close to his suffering and slowly working it through, was both a comfort and an inspiration. And meanwhile I was absorbed in a great book that was preparing me for the next such experience, a process which has never ended to this day.
God knows, if we’re going to become intelligent people, we need to be lifelong readers in earnest. We need the perspective that great literature brings with it, especially regarding love relationships, which is so often the starting point in getting honest with our lives. What can be right if love isn’t right. And it’s not like, okay, in adolescence love is hard, and then we mature and all is well: we’ll marry and live happily ever after. The facts are out there. In America one of two marriages splits up — more often than not, rancorously. For second marriages, the divorce rate is higher; third marriages higher still.
And we’ve all seen enough “mature” relationships close-up to know that staying together does not in itself describe a success. In the crucial world of intimate relationships, the distance between fantasyland and reality is a long arduous journey, and we won’t get far without help. To chart these troubled waters, we’ll need insightful thinkers who can also write. The guiding light of great literature is crucial at every stage of life.
John Updike’s “Separating,” offers a good case in point. In this short story, a longstanding husband and wife, Richard and Joan, with four almost grown children have decided to live apart, not because they don’t love each other, but because they don’t love each other enough. Don’t make each other happy enough. How brilliant of Updike to present their crisis in those terms. The story centers around their telling the children of their up-and-coming separate living arrangements. The children are shocked, had no idea. But how could they not have had, living in the same house.
That’s a good opening for class discussion, because any discussion of intimate relationships should take careful note of the efforts couples make to hide their troubles, to appear happy, i.e., “normal.” As such appearances begin to break down within, the effort to uphold them in the eyes of others typically increases, until finally the deception cannot be further borne.
It’s older, non-traditional students who are apt to be ready for a story like “Separating.” For some of them, it’s comforting to know that they are not alone in their connubial struggles, and that even in pretty good marriages there are huge pains. As Salinger doesn’t judge Holden in Catcher in the Rye, neither does Updike judge his characters. There are no good guys versus bad guys here. Joan and Richard are doing their best, but now in their 40’s, they are no further along in finding the love they so deeply desire than is 16-year-old Holden Caulfield.
Relationship discussions can be tense sometimes. People can hold tenaciously to the illusion that love (in the way of boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife) will be the answer. I’ve come to expect that a few of the students will say that the reason relationships fail nowadays is that people don’t want to work on them. But “Separating” posits the question, can you work on love? The husband and wife seemed to have tried their damnedest to make a successful union. And, at this point, I may confess that I, for one, don’t want to work at loving someone. It seems to me that love in particular is something that you can’t work at. It’s there, or it’s not.
On the other hand, if they mean by working on a relationship, working on yourself, then I’m all in.
They may not know what I mean by that. Well, I might say, working on yourself in the context of a relationship might mean fighting your way out of the notion that anyone ever belongs to you. The attitude of ownership eventually (and inevitably) brings with it a lot of pain, and is a knife in the heart of love. Why is love between couples so good in the beginning, but for the fact that the partners still see each other as other — not as extensions of themselves. They have not yet made ownership claims.
This is not the only new perspective a meaningful story may have to offer on relationship pains. But it’s a good example of an illusion great literature punctures time and again.
My classes have the reputation of being hated or loved. Nothing in between. I hear that all the time from my colleagues, who often advise and/or teach the same students I have. I tend to think that those who hate my classes (really, my assignments) are the ones who are fighting for their lives to make their illusions feel real. And those who like my classes are the ones whose illusions have so wounded them that they’re ready at least to entertain new perspectives.
The latter are the ones who may well become readers.