What is the Good Life?

How do I live it and with whom do I need to associate in order to live it well?

mary wollstonecraft a vindication of the rights of woman

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

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.

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Annihilation of Caste B.R. Ambedkar

Annihilation of Caste

Annihilation of Caste is an authoritative text about social hierarchy and denial of basic human rights. It discusses how one class constructs political, legal, and social systems through which basic human rights including right to education, occupation, movement, and freedom to consume food of one’s choice is denied to a large section of the society, who then are forced to live in abject poverty. The first and second year students can effortlessly relate to the arguments made by Ambedkar as many of students have experiences discrimination based on race, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, or class themselves or are aware about these discriminations as they are discussed in news or social media platforms. Faculty should consider using this text as it demonstrates the universal aspect of class division and how different communities have established diverse methods to control one class over another.

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Audre Lorde, Selected Works of Audre Lorde. Ed. Roxanne Gay. Norton, New York

Audre Lorde

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.”

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gloria anzaldúa borderlands

Borderlands / La Frontera

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.

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Changes: A Love Story Ama Ata Aidoo

Changes: A Love Story

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.

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Manifesto of the Communist Party Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

Communist Manifesto

The Manifesto of the Communist Party is a pamphlet that discusses economic disparity. The primary aim of the text was to demand equal rights for all social classes. The inequalities of wealth discussed by the authors are ubiquitous in our present society, and the first-year students enrolled in community colleges are quick to recognize and can relate with the disparities of wealth discussed in the text. Marx and Engels argued that the capitalistic system established in Europe was inherently flawed, and presently our students are experiencing a world that is reeling with the aftereffects of a highly industrialized world. The present climate change and environmental degradation, food insecurity, pollution, inequality in pay, and refugee crisis are all products of the industrialized capitalistic world.

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Augustine's Confessions

Confessions

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.

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Death and the King’s Horseman

Death and the King’s Horseman

Soyinka was the first African writer to win the Nobel Prize for literature, awarded to him in 1986. He is an author with remarkable range, having published plays, poems, novels, stories, memoires, and essays. He is equally renowned for activism, especially his opposition to military dictatorships. He spent two years in prison during the Nigerian Civil War, and in 1994 escaped from the brutal regime of Nigerian dictator General Sani Abacha who sentenced him to death in absentia. He currently moves between homes in the United States and Nigeria. A brief introduction to Soyinka’s activism can be a good way to engage students, but the transformative power of the play transcends any particular political and cultural context. Who am I, and how is my identity shaped by my culture/religion/political structures? Do I choose my identity, or is it imposed on me? How do we face death, and who determines what is a good life, or good death? How do communities create and transmit meaning, and is it possible to arbitrate between different cultural claims? What is justice, and what is honor?

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Alighieri, Dante. Inferno. Trans. Allen Mandelbaum. New York: Bantam. 2004

Divine Comedy

Dante’s Inferno is an entirely new way of looking at the afterlife. Rather than envision a hell full of physical torments and punishments, which was common in his day, Dante envisions an afterlife with a new psychological, moral, and emotional depth to it. The text continues to influence culture centuries later with its ever-relevant questions about the origins and nature of evil. The text explores the depth of human nature and invites the reader to examine a multitude of questions relating to good and evil.

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Linehan, Katherine, ed. Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. Norton Critical Edition, Norton, 2003

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is suitable for a variety of community college courses and can be included in units of differing lengths and focuses. A seemingly simple story of approx. 60 pp., the novel has been frequently dismissed as “sensationalist fiction” concerned only with lurid, grisly violence and depravity. Jekyll is, however, an amazingly rich tale of a human who pursues indulgence in unspecified pleasures, vices, or criminal actions while attempting to maintain social respectability in Victorian society. As a result, in addition to literature and composition courses, the text is useful as a basis of discussion in the environments of psychology, sociology, criminology, genetics and physiology, human sexuality, gender studies, LGBTQ+ studies, and others.

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Dubliners, Vintage Classics, New York

Dubliners

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.”

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Foster, Benjamin R., ed. and trans. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Norton Critical Editions, Norton, 2019

Epic of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest pieces of literature, and the character Gilgamesh is the first epic hero. The poem is full of exciting adventures, as the demi-god Gilgamesh (sometimes with Enkidu) defeats monsters and other-worldly creatures, but it is also a profound meditation on the meaning of being human; human achievement and limitations; power and violence; civilization (and its responsibilities) and savagery; travel and homecoming; youth and age; suffering and maturity; knowledge, wisdom and understanding; the fear of death and appeal of eternal life; the duties of a good leader; as well as friendship, fame, culture, sexuality, and love. Although the gods are present in the action, the story less a myth about the actions of the gods or a religious poem than it is about human behavior and the achievement of understanding and wisdom.

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Essays of Michel de Montaigne

Essays of Michel de Montaigne

Readers of Montaigne revel in the way he shook many of the foundations of Western thought. Students may be most interested in his writing against violent governmental actions and corruption, both in French domestic policy and in the actions of Europeans attempting to conquer the Americas. His delineation of cultural relativism is also very relevant to students’ increasing interest in human diversity. Montaigne resists the inclination to normalize aristocratic and bourgeois European culture; he defines barbarism as a subjective term people use to describe difference from the dominant culture. Another assumption he questioned was that of the superiority assigned to humans over animals. Students may also be inspired by his celebration of human imagination, which he sees as the cause of miracles, visions, and extraordinary events.

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Fences August Wilson

Fences

Fences is a book about inevitability of change and adaptability. It’s about the choices we make when faced with the inevitable. But Troy is also a man in progress. His failings are human failings. It is a play about the enduring promise of family.

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Tolstoy, Leo, et al. The Kreutzer sonata and other stories. London: Penguin, 2008. Print. ISBN: 0140449604

Kreutzer Sonata

The Kreutzer Sonata raises important questions about the duality of human being as animal, governed by instinct and impulse, and spiritual, shaped by mutable law and tradition. Pozdnyshev’s story prompts readers to investigate this shared territory for the grounds of their own romantic relationships and provides a vivid physiological portrait of jealous rage. Tolstoy’s work highlights an often overlooked dimension of Beauty, its frightening capacity to inspire violence and self-delusion. While others exult the transformative power of love, music and culture in transfiguring human life, Tolstoy indicates that each may facilitate a transformation to a condition beneath the bestial. Pozdnyshev’s indictment of gender roles, sexual mores and so-called “high society” retains its power when applied to contemporary circumstances. While readers today will note great differences in our social relations, this text will implore them to ask which ones constitute an improvement, to what extent and at what expense.

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Hobbes, Thomas, and E. M. Curley. Leviathan : with selected variants from the Latin edition of 1668. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co, 1994. Print.

Leviathan

Hobbes’ text is one of the most transformative texts in this history of political thought. This text is a classic of political philosophy and foundational for social contract theory, which in part influenced the framing of the US Constitution and other modern political forms. While pre-hobbesian politics was concerned with the moral and spiritual development of citizens, the modern political projects ushered in by authors like Hobbes were decidedly not. Hobbes was a pioneer in applying the modern scientific method to the study of politics. He saw his work as bringing light into the “kingdom of darkness”, which is how he characterized the understanding of human moral and social life before the application of the scientific method to their study. Hobbes was to the study of politics what Francis Bacon was to the study of nature; truly revolutionary. The political thought of Hobbes continues to influence us today in our taste for representative political institutions, our deference to the will of the majority and in our understanding of the pursuit of power as fundamental to all human action.

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LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA

Love in The Time of Cholera

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.

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Never Let Me Go Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go

Since it is written as a first person coming-of-age novel, Never Let Me Go is accessible to all students. Students of traditional college age will relate to the late adolescent/early young adult experiences of Kathy H. and her peers, like negotiating friendships with romantic and sexual relationships and adjusting to life outside of adult guidance and protection. Non-traditionally aged students will remember these experiences as well. So, while the genre and narrative will be unlikely to challenge students, the experience of connecting emotionally to the characters, while coming to understand they have been bred to be used by non-cloned humans, will test students’ assumptions about technology and human exploitation of that technology. Rather than approaching the question heavy handedly, Ishiguro leads readers gently to interrogate not only the attitudes of humans to the clones, but the matter-of-fact resignation of the clones to their own fates.

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aristotle nicomachean ethics

Nicomachean Ethics

This text is transformative because of the absolutely direct way it takes up the essential question of what it is to live a good life. Aristotle’s definition of happiness is challenging to the modern reader on many fronts, and whether or not one ultimately agrees with him, his arguments will compel students to articulate, refine, and perhaps profoundly rethink, their own positions. Although the highest form of happiness is determined to be that arising from contemplation, students of less contemplative natures can also find themselves in the text as Aristotle looks closely at many different types of human excellence, including for example the compelling portrait of the “high-minded” (often translated as “great-souled”) person, described in book four. This person is much concerned with honor and dishonor, recognizes their own greatness, assesses it accurately, and makes claims that “correspond to his deserts.”(1123b 15)

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The Odyssey Homer

Odyssey

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.

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F.H.T. Willetts translation, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1991 (ISBN 978-0374534684)

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

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.

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Plutarch Parallel Lives

Parallel Lives (Selections)

Caesar is a truly compelling character, whose career brought Rome almost to the pinnacle of its power, but also brought about the end of the republic and the beginning of empire. Through the prism of his story, students can consider a variety of questions about power, ambition, various forms of government, and the relationship of people and their leaders, that bear upon our current political situation. The narrative draws students in more effectively than most more abstract philosophical consideration of such issues, while the historical distance can also allow a more thoughtful consideration and exchange of views around these issues than may be possible when discussing the contemporary situation more directly.

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Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice

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.

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republic

Republic

The Republic is a book of liberation and transformation. According to Dr. Simon Blackburn, “If any books change the world, Republic has a good claim to first place.” The Republic is the foundational text of political science and moral philosophy. The questions it raises regarding the nature of justice and its relationship to the good life are important for all human beings to consider. It may be impossible to find a notable thinker in the western or Islamic world whose thought has not been shaped in some meaningful way by this text. Apart from its world historical significance, Republic is one of the most meaningful texts to read and discuss with students of all backgrounds.

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Second Discourse (Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of Equality)

Second Discourse

Rousseau with his Second Discourse is a superlative example of the self-critique of the Enlightenment project from within the Enlightenment project itself. The development of civilization and political society, while bringing great benefits to mankind, is paradoxically the source of most of our evils. In fact, the ultimate progress of political society will end in tyranny! This is an innovative text featuring methods and conclusions new to the history of thought. Along with his revolutionary explanation of the origins of inequality in the invention of property, he has equally revolutionary proposals about the origins of language and its development. He engages in the earliest anthropological studies, utilizing physiological and biological arguments, especially in his notes to the text, to make many of his points about the peacefulness of the state of nature.

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“Sonny’s Blues” is also included in Baldwin’s story collection Going to Meet the Man, Vintage International, New York

Sonny’s Blues

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.

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Tao Te Ching

Tao Te Ching

The Dao De Jing is attributed to Laozi, translated as “The Old Master,” a possibly fictitious legendary contemporary of Confucius. As such, the Dao De Jing is a response to Confucianism and its emphasis on social relations grounded in the family to create a harmonious cosmos. Daoism criticizes Confucianism here by claiming that the exclusive focus on proper social relations is an attempt to fix and concretize dao in a way that will ultimately backfire and miss the mark. While both Confucianism and Daoism emphasize wuwei (non-action), Daoism seems to expand the sage’s realm of focus beyond the merely societal to include nature and the entire cosmos. Later, Buddhism would combine its unique features with Daoism to produce Zen. This text is fascinating to anyone interested in texts as a way of being in the world.

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Virgil The Aeneid

The Aeneid

While The Aeneid tells the story of Aeneas’s journey to settle in Rome, Virgil’s larger point is to highlight how Roman greatness was not by accident. The Aeneid is therefore seen as a glorification of Rome, its values, and its people. This can be seen through Aeneas, who Virgil uses to personify Roman ideals and values. Throughout the epic, Aeneas is presented as a man who is bound by duty. This can be seen as he leaves Dido, seeing his love affair taking him away from his destiny and responsibility. While The Aeneid is seen as a glorification of Rome, the work’s significance is tied to its ability to inform students of the values that defined Rome. This has relevance today, as many nations are defined by a set of values that people are willing to fight and die for. Furthermore, students can look at The Aeneid within its time and circumstance to see it as offering an insightful commentary on Rome during the early years of Pax Romana.

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Alice Walker, The Color Purple

The Color Purple

Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is not simply a novel that focuses on feminism. It is also a work that examines how people can break free of cultural shame as well as the pity that others feel to gain agency and empowerment. The Color Purple offers a moving narrative that focuses on growing up and self-realization. At the same time, the novel covers issues of gender equality through a story that illustrates women rejecting values and mores that society deems moral and respectable. For example, The Color Purple offers a new look at religion. Christianity played a major role in developing Black communities during the antebellum and postbellum periods. Yet, in The Color Purple, Walker presents traditional Christianity as patriarchal, facilitating female obedience. This is something that is ultimately rejected in favor of a more spiritual religion where God is not personified.

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The Decameron

The Decameron

The Decameron is about living through a pandemic. The text makes direct appeal to contemporary sensibilities and experiences, and students can immediately form a connection with the text due to its relatable narrative about a pandemic, including failure of a state in controlling the disease and spreading of nonhuman viruses in a highly globalized world. The Decameron is an example of excellent literary prose, the stories themselves don’t focus on the suffering from the plague, but engage the reader through extremely witty, and some gloomy tales about human endurance and experiences about love, justice, happiness and sexual intercourse and religious dogma.

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Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations

The Wealth of Nations

Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations is the foundational argument for capitalism, classical liberalism, neoliberalism, and derivatively, libertarianism. It is the central text of political economy. While the work is often invoked by the ideologues of free-market capitalism, it is just as often misunderstood, misread, or ignored by those same proponents. Smith’s analyses of how interventions and changes in one section of the economy have unforeseen ramifications elsewhere is always fascinating and insightful. His fundamental belief that the self-interested economic behavior of individuals can lead, as an epiphenomenon, or as he says, by an “invisible hand,” to economic prosperity for the whole of society, can be seen as the ultimate conclusion to a line of thought initiated by Thomas Hobbes.

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Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. Amistad (an imprint of Harper Collins)

Their Eyes Were Watching God

“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.

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Things Fall Apart_Achebe, Chinua

Things Fall Apart

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.

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One Thousand and One Nights

Thousand Nights and a Night

Tales from 1,001 Nights shed light on a different world for modern readers. Although highly fictionalized, even fantastic, the stories reflect social mores, political structures, family life, and daily occupations of another time and place, while simultaneously connecting to human concerns like the desires for happiness and justice, the presence of negative emotions like jealousy and anger, inequity and misunderstanding between genders, and the morality of those in power. Since almost all students have some familiarity with subgenres of folk literature, these stories are recognizable and accessible. They are also ideal for the classroom because they are (mostly) easy to extract and teach as free-standing pieces of literature. Further, students tend to find these stories interesting, funny, frustrating, entertaining, and even delightful.

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To the Lighthouse. Virginia Woolf. 9780156907392

To the Lighthouse

Students may feel challenged by To the Lighthouse, as it is less of a story, and more an experience in witnessing the interior thoughts and feelings of a group of characters set against the same backdrop. Each character brings not only their own focus, but their own set of preoccupations: Mrs. Ramsey wants to provide certain experiences to her family members and guests, Mr. Ramsey wants to feel challenged and successful intellectually, Lily wants to be able to capture her perception in her art. Young James wants to feel loved and protected by his mother and to go to the lighthouse. The structure of the novel allows Woolf to explore ideas such as aesthetics and creativity, intellectual ambition, romantic love and other relationships, gender, and loss. The novel allows readers to think about thinking—how we do it, how we do it differently from one another, and how frustrating it can be, which could lead to productive discussions about metacognition.

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Mill, Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism

The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals “utility” or the “greatest happiness principle” holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure.

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