Thursday, July 15, 2010

Reading Lolita in Hardwick

Last year, the school in which I teach adapted its curriculum so that, rather than have four quarters or two semesters, we have nine terms spread out over the year, allowing for courses of varying lengths. For instance, my "Songwriters' Workshop" is one term while "College Composition" is usually a full year. Anyway, as the English department head, it's part of my job to decide on the curriculum offerings for each year and I like to think that I arrive at a balance of standard classes like American Literature Survey and Journalism but also specialized courses like these:

Man Vs. Man: The Literature of War (4-9 terms)
Much of the world’s literature throughout history has dealt with the theme of war and conflict. From ancient texts such as Homer’s epic poem The Iliad through Shakespeare’s Henry V to 20th century masterpieces by Hemingway, Vonnegut, et al, the subject of war has inspired writers to look at it in a variety of ways, in order to better comprehend human nature. Students will read a variety of texts with an emphasis on placing works in their historical context.

The GLBT Experience in Literature (4-9 terms)
In this course, students read, discuss, and write about both fictional and non-fictional accounts of the GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual & Transgender) experience. From novels and short stories to memoir, poetry, plays, movies and documentaries, there is a rich pool of texts and media to choose from in exploring this topic. Students will discuss themes often encountered in post-secondary literature courses while still in high school so an open mind and a measure of maturity are expected on the part of interested students.

As you can see, teaching at a private school also offers the opportunity to include more unorthodox, possibly even controversial texts into the curriculum. With that in mind, one of the most popular classes I devised was one entitled "Banned Books! Reading Works of Literature Other Schools Won’t Let You Read." Last year, in my own section of this class, we started with the classic "1984" by George Orwell (yes, ironically, it has been banned in many high schools!) to get students thinking about censorship in society in general. Then the fun really began, as we also read a graphic novel called "Fun Home" by Alison Bechdel, Vonnegut's brilliantly chaotic "Slaughterhouse-Five" and others but it also afforded me the opportunity to work with students on a reading of "Lolita." While cleaning up my classroom here over the summer, I just found a response I wrote to a prompt given to the class that reminded me how much I (and the students in this class) enjoyed reading this novel together. By the way, sometimes I write along with my students, partly because it lets me know myself how difficult an assignment really is and helps clarify my objectives for it in the first place but also because I've found students appreciate it when you work along with them rather than just assign things and crack the whip on due dates and such.

Anyway, in Chapter 31, Humbert quotes a famous poet with this couplet:

"The moral sense in mortals is the duty
We have to pay on mortal sense of beauty."

Now, Nabokov invented this couplet himself, which can elicit a good discussion on whether the imaginary poet and his couplet truly exist in the fictional world of Humbert or whether Humbert himself is supposed to have made this up and is passing it off as real. Anyway, that's only one road to take in analyzing the couplet- the point of the assignment was to have students write an in-class composition (to be shared aloud) on the function of the couplet in the narrative at that point in the novel. Knowing that the students would probably go in certain directions, based on their previous understanding of the work do far, I decided to deliberately dive into a more particular, probably obscure interpretation:

"Although our attention is probably initially directed towards the resemblance between the words “moral” and “mortal,” I think the meaning of this couplet hinges on the word directly in the center of it, which is “duty.” The more common meaning of that word denotes something that has to be done, an obligation, therefore connecting to “moral sense” but that is not the meaning directly used here. “Duty” in this couplet refers to a price that must be paid, as in a tax duty, something unavoidable, yes, but also something that takes a toll (if you can forgive my own pun here) on a person. So while Humbert appears to be saying something to the effect of having a moral duty that is compromised by one’s own particular sense of beauty, in his case, a natural physical attraction to younger girls that goes against society’s “moral sense,” if you look more closely, that idea is only implied. He’s being deceptive, or if not entirely deceptive, at least tricking us with words. We may read too quickly and fill in the meaning; if we pause to consider the function of the actual meaning of “duty” as it is used here, we see that he has to suffer, that he has a price that he must pay for his “sense of beauty,” and that is the misery and melancholy he feels knowing that he has corrupted Dolores Haze. It is true that it is his own fault, that he overrode whatever “moral sense” he initially had to engage in sexual affairs with Lolita but when he addresses the reader through the quotation of this imaginary poet’s lines (and indeed, is the poet imaginary within the diegesis, too?), there is also the word “we” being used. Therefore, readers must place themselves within the world of the quote and think of the ways in which we are also made to suffer based on our own “sense[s] of beauty.” We may not be pedophiles but is there some aspect to our own aesthetics, or our own sexual desires, that would not be sanctioned by some element of society? Indeed, this brief chapter brings up the idea of the Catholic church and priests, who are asked to be celibate, to refrain from sexual life altogether, to deny their natural healthy sexual impulses for their “moral sense.” Once again, Humbert is slyly using language and the ideas contained therein to make us sympathize with him, in effect to see ourselves caught in the same trap, substituting our own deep desires for his and seeing how we too might suffer, how we must pay for whatever we naturally find beautiful, desirable."

Fun stuff, and so exciting to be working on this kind of heady literary stuff with high school students.

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