“Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” is the story of humanity. One goal of the slave narrative was to assert the African’s humanity. Douglass’ narrative addresses the important question what it means to be human and who gets to decide that for anybody. This text is a way to get students talking not just about the history of slavery, but about the importance of education, and self-awareness.
Mama Day explores the concept of home in multiple ways, and in ways that the reader may not be expecting. This novel unlocks the way we think about home, and then forces us to transcend those beliefs. It is also a novel about faith and the life-altering effects faith of any kind can have on our lives. This novel makes readers question the very definition of faith and what true faith can accomplish.
Dostoevsky stands among the great Russian novelists and world writers. In his characters, the reader encounters the complexity of human thought and desire, the quest for understanding ourselves, and the perennial questions that mark human interaction. Dostoevsky’s ideas at the time of the novel’s composition were very much informed by the radical political climate in St. Petersburg, ideas which Dostoevsky felt were morally and politically dangerous.
This book was transformational upon publication because of the way in which it exposed the harsh reality of the lives of even unexceptional political prisoners in the huge system of camps that made up the Soviet Gulag. Along with Solzhenitsyn’s other writings and the works of other artists coming out of the Soviet Union, it contributed to the eventual demise of that system. This can be a good place to start, but for most students the truly transformative aspect of the work will be the questions it raises rather than the abuses it uncovers.
This can be an intimidating text, especially for the non-Spanish speaker. Ask students to observe how they respond to the shift between Spanish and English throughout the text. Anzaldúa’s flow between languages is more than code switching. It is an enactment of mestiza consciousness. The same is true for the flow between genres in the text. Some students will feel empowered by Anzaldúa’s flow between languages and genres. Other students will feel they are missing something by not being able to interpret the Spanish sections. Other students may have a response to Anzaldúa’s counter narrative to U.S. narratives of exceptionalism, heroism, freedom, opportunity, and individualism.
“Their Eyes Were Watching God” is an epic feminist manifesto. But it also appeals to anyone who is in search of who they are. In this era of the “authentic self” this novel is a virtual user’s manual for that very thing. Men and women will connect to Janie’s quest for authentic self and for the ability to make her own choices.
Few students will not encounter Frankenstein without some preconceptions, as the character of the creature (if not the story itself) is ubiquitous. But popular culture versions of the story often exaggerate the monstrosity of the creature and minimize or even ignore Victor’s abandonment and renouncement of the creature and his responsibilities toward his own creation.
Salvage the Bones is one of those texts that force the reader to see the world on the other side of their comfort zone. Esch is unflinching in her observations, forcing the reader to go along with whatever she shows them, and daring the reader to pass judgment. It is impossible to come away from this story not understanding that the world is a complex environment.
In addition to its transformative impact on the civil rights movement, King’s speech also grapples with a timeless human question: is it just to disobey an unjust law? How do you overcome and end oppression? What in fact is the difference between a just and an unjust law? Is it wrong to fight for what is right if you know it will lead to violence?
This text raises very directly questions about the role of women in society, about the place of war, and about the role of sexual desire both in individual relationships and in relation to the state. Students are likely to sympathize strongly with the Lysistrata, who is far more than simply the leader of the sex strike. In her attempts to persuade the women to forgo sex (which, the play makes very clear, they enjoy as much as the men) and in her conversations with the magistrate, she reveals herself to be a talented leader and someone who has given serious thought to the proper administration of the state.
It is impossible to come away from these stories not realizing the trauma of growing up black and female in Packer’s world. The stories resonate with the complexities of race, gender, and class and the way Packer’s characters must maneuver each one with stealth and grace and sometimes violence. Packer provides an unflinching perspective on the many ways there are to be a black woman, from girlhood to adulthood.
Audre Lorde praises, rages, turns a critical eye, desires. The poems are relentless in their observations of Black lives and loves. Lorde was a cultural observer who spoke passionately about the oppressive structures of race, gender, class and sexuality. She articulated the ways that, in the name of sameness, Black women’s experiences were devalued by white women and black men alike and how lesbian sexuality was threatening to both groups and could be used to silence her in both movements. In an interview with James Baldwin, she argued, “We need to acknowledge those power differences between us and see where they lead us. An enormous amount of energy is being taken up with either denying the power differences between Black men and women or fighting over power differences between Black men and women or killing each other off behind them.”
The Metamorphosis is about human suffering and is a perfect novella to introduce students to Kafka’s work. While the story can be disorienting in the beginning, as the reader progresses, they can relate to Gregor’s situation. The story is a complex narrative with multiple layers that explores variety of human emotions and relationships including, fear, frustration, disappointment, love, loneliness, suffering, meaning of death, and disgust.
Beloved is a powerful novel. Upon finishing it, one student looked up and said, “I love this novel.” Perhaps the reason this student loved the novel so much is its insistence on the capacity for love and community, its belief in the possibility of healing. While Morrison focuses on the range of dehumanization of African Americans, from the image of the ceramic “blackboy’s mouth full of money” on the shelf in the home of two abolitionists (300), to the egregious dehumanizing capacity of schoolteacher who uses science as rationalization for enslavement and torture, she places the strength of community and the grace of self-love at the center of the novel. The novel is about memory, about how the past lives in the present but also the ways that the past can be healed and our bodies purified when we have a community toward which we can offer up our hearts.
Although much of the narrative of the Confessions happens during Augustine’s time in Italy, this book, so undeniably central to the western canon, is by a writer who was born, grew up, and spent the majority of his career in, Africa. Thus it challenges our conception of where such books originate and our preconceptions about the people who wrote them. It is often called the first autobiography, and presents a remarkable exploration of interiority – questions about the nature of the self, the will, the memory, the intellect, and the soul are central to Augustine’s investigations. Some students are immediately drawn to the beauty of the book as a work of literature, and to the intense self-examination it models.
Okonkwo is a man among men. Raised by a “weak” father, he is determined to undo the legacy of laziness his father left behind. Okonkwo works hard, has the best farm in the land, many wives and multiple children. He is, according to his village, a successful man. He is also one of the most feared men. His prowess on the battlefield is no less impressive. When he accidentally kills the son of a village elder, he is banished to the land of his mother for seven years. When he returns to his village, everything has changed. The colonialists have arrived and everything he knows about manhood and what it means to be a leader has changed. On one hand, he is angered and embarrassed by his village’s refusal to fight the colonial forces; on the other he is subject to the indignities of their rule on a daily basis. Ultimately he takes his own life.
“Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl” addresses the particular issues of being a woman and a slave. Few slave narratives focus on these specific details. Jacobs is writing early Black feminism and bringing the question of Black female empowerment into the feminist conversation that won’t really accept it for quite some time.
The emotional lives of these characters is the story’s most immediate concern and the text takes seriously the question of how we endure loss. As well, it is impossible to understand these characters fully without understanding the racial context of their lives. They grew up in Harlem, and they, as the narrator observes of his high school students, “were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities” (328). The suffering that the narrator and Sonny endure is individual as well as generational.
Smith tackles major issues around race, culture, history and the influence of science and religion with humor and humanity. There are many questions and few answers in the novel. Through her characters and their complicated histories, Smith explores the tensions between 1) the roots of history and the idealistic dream of a multicultural melting pot; 2) cosmopolitanism and patriotism; 3) science and religion; 4) idealized beauty and self-identity; 5) eugenics and genetic engineering. The story is told through multiple perspectives in both the first and second generations of the novel. It is at once funny, satirical and earnest. Smith has an ear for language and sharp observations of human desire, fear and motivation.
Don Quixote is often called the first novel. Despite the humor that suffuses the tale, it is a serious and even a tragic work. The laughter the novel provokes, and the distance combined with affection we feel for its noble yet ridiculous protagonist as he attempts to live out his ideals in a decidedly unsympathetic world, provoke examination of themes that students will feel deeply. Many of them, in coming to college, have themselves set off on a grand adventure. Like Don Quixote, they may be inspired by high ideals to advocate for causes to which they are deeply committed, only to find themselves met not with opportunities for heroism but by cynicism, bureaucracy, ridicule, and the insistent humdrum demands of everyday life.
In A Vindication, Wollstonecraft asks questions that are part of the human experience. How does who I am affect how I am viewed in the world in which I live? What has shaped others’ understanding of who I am? What are the assumptions, biases, misconceptions that impact how the world sees me? Wollstonecraft’s text examines the repeating social patterns that have led to the belief that women do not possess reason and that their singular purpose and potential is to be attractive and beautiful.
This novel is about Love and all its itinerant forms. Unrequited love. Platonic love. Romantic Love. Parental love. Forbidden love. It is about obsession and rejection. It is about the enduring nature of love and of hope. It asks difficult questions about what love is and who is entitled to it. No one walks away from this text not thinking that love is complex and nuanced and dangerous. Marquez presents love as an illness, with many of the same symptoms of Cholera. And the way the characters compartmentalize who they love and the way they love requires that your understanding of the text transcend traditional considerations of what love is.
This is a story about modern African women and their frustration at the status quo where women’s rights are concerned. At the heart of the story is Esi, an educated woman, unhappily married woman, and mother. Esi has a good job that provides the bungalow she and her husband Oko live in with their daughter. After Oko rapes Esi in a desperate attempt to remind her of her place, she divorces him and sends her child to live with his mother, essentially freeing herself from the traditional gender roles.
The Fire Next Time is a book about hate. The arc of these essays is about race, but more importantly, these essays are about hate and its destructive power. As first and second year students embark on their studies in these uncertain times, a lesson about the incendiary nature of hate will help anchor their emotions and attitudes about ideas they will encounter in their academic careers and their lives. There is always something to divide us, but here is a text that will help students understand why it is so important to aim for understanding.
In her imagery and in her diction, Dickinson captures the questioning nature of the human experience in her poetry. She grapples with questions of love, death, and eternity in a brutally honest way. Her poems appear to be incredibly straightforward, but there are multiple layers of meaning, and possible interpretations. The struggle and desire of a person trying to make sense of her place in the universe is palpable on the pages of Dickinson’s poetry. The poems are transformative because she captures beautifully, perfectly, and deceptively simply, the range of human emotion and wonder in her poetry.
Complex characters sit at the center of every Toni Morrison novel. She creates all her characters, these flawed and human people, the admirable and disreputable characters, with great empathy and love, and we as readers love them as well. She constructs the novel from a mixture of history, myth, spirituals and the supernatural that makes the writing deeply resonant. What is past is never past, as the ancestors are always present. In a Toni Morrison novel, understanding one’s ties to these ancestors and healing the traumas of the past brought into the present are integral to self-acceptance and moving forward.
Does Macbeth kill Duncan because he is fated to do so, or because he was tempted to do so? Would he have killed Duncan of his own free will without the influence of others? Why do people commit acts that they know are wrong, even when they understand the consequences of these actions? Unlocking such questions for students allows them to engage with some of the central questions about human agency, desire for self-worth and achievement, and the dark, unknowable impulses of all people.
Discussing The Odyssey is a productive way to begin an undergraduate education. Many first-year students see themselves in Telemachus, who is struggling to find his identity and to establish himself in the world as an independent person, worthy of respect and happiness. This text helps frame the transformative experience of beginning college through a narrative following the personal transformations of many characters. The text productivity raises questions about the conflict between safety and freedom, desire and devotion and helps students weigh their competing priorities as they begin their college journey.
Antigone confronts the audience with the questions- is what is legal always what is just? Creon’s law denies Polyneices a basic burial rite. It is illegal to break this law, but Antigone makes the case that Creon has no right to make this law since is flies in the face of the will of the gods. She refuses to obey an unjust law. The play makes clear that Creon offends the gods with his unjust law and that he perverts the relationship between the living and dead; first by refusing to allow Polyneices to be buried and then again by burying Antigone alive. The play also offers an interesting reflection on leadership and the role of the state.
There are many timeless questions addressed in this text. Part of the human experience is learning how to read the world around you, and to make decisions about relationships. Who is truthful, who is deceitful? Who is good, who is dangerous? Who is supportive, who is threatening? These decisions, in modern society, are also key when making decisions about love and marriage. In our lives, we all must confront our pride and our prejudice at some point and learn to see people for who they are.
These stories can introduce students to the Joycean epiphany, the moment at the end of the stories when a profound truth gets revealed to the characters. At the end of “A Painful Case,” Mr. Duffy “felt that he was alone.” The boy in “Araby” says, “I saw myself a creature driven and derided by vanity.” The boy’s realization is not so different from Jimmy Doyle’s realization of his “folly” at the end of “After the Race,” Little Chandler’s shame and remorse at the end of “A Little Cloud” as he sees the hatred in his wife’s eyes and understands his ineptitude in the domestic life he has chosen over his art, or even Gabriel Conroy’s in “The Dead” seeing himself as “a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous wellmeaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealizing his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror.”
Using Sappho is a way to bring into the classroom themes around beauty, longing, loss and subjectivity. There are a number of ways to approach this text. One way would be to situate students in the middle of the fragmentation and rupture within the poems, as described above, in order to think through the jagged and jarring structure of the text, the ways of not knowing who a speaker is, and the silences that are in many ways louder than the actual words on the page.
This is a short, riveting text that takes students directly to topics about human nature in extremity – questions of passion, the relationship between love and hatred, justice and the most severe vengeance extending even to children. It is almost impossible not to react strongly. It is helpful in the classroom that that the beautiful but challenging poetic language and the stylized, unfamiliar character of ancient Greek drama provide enough distance for students to be able to be able to examine the most violent emotions and actions, creating the opportunity for compelling discussion.