In addition to
, we will read and discuss the titles below. Emphasis will be on the family issues presented in individual works, and on the commonalities in all our readings. Other titles include:
The Human Comedy
by William Saroyan. This episodic, far-ranging story of a family and a community during wartime makes allusions to
. The family, despite separation and death, continues and endures. Students seem to have the most difficulty with episodes which are seen through the eyes of Homer, the youngest child in the Macauley family. It is as if his sense of wonder at the world were alien to them.
Lord of the Flies
extends the concept of the family further. Family now is taken to mean the law-giving, civilizing agency. After experiencing initial difficulty with the “English-ness” of the novel, students respond to the story: the separation from adult authority, the battle of good and evil, and the rescue of a group of boys corresponding in age to my students. Independence, the development of rituals, as well as questions of fairness, intrigue eighth graders.
The Member of the Wedding
has a teenaged protagonist who feels she belongs to no one and nothing. Frankie is dealing with a changing body, mercurial shifts in moods, changing world views, emerging sexuality, the need to leave, and the desire to belong. Her family situation—a dead mother, an all-but-absent father, a housekeeper who is a mother-figure/fountain of wisdom, a young cousin—provides much of the impetus for Frankie’s actions and confusion. The desire to belong, to be loved, is the strongest link between this novel and
The Diary of Anne Frank
has assumed a cult status with eighth graders. Many of the same themes appear in
The Member of the Wedding
. The sense of family is much stronger in
, however, as it is in
. Forced to live in close quarters by a terrifying necessity, two families find that everything is intensified: love, courage, the desire for learning, friction between parent and child.
, I’m reminded of an important point: I try to give students a sense—sometimes brief, sometimes detailed—of what was going on in the world during the time portrayed in our reading. We may read selections from popular histories or view and discuss documentaries. A sense of history—“the why”—is sadly lacking among the students.
The plays in the unit have met with success.
A Thousand Clowns
, a comedy about an unconventional family unit, generally delights students. It is quick, lively, and sophisticated. Nonconformity, a theme central to the play, is of great interest to eighth graders who are looking for ways to find and express themselves. The issue of the “fitness” to be a parent is also central to the play.
I Remember Mama
is a traditional play about a conventional nuclear family. Students usually give an adequate reading to this gentle play. Not much happens during the course of the play: a lack of action, which can be deadly, is counterbalanced by the view of a family straining to survive and realize its potential.
A black Chicago family struggles with seemingly insurmountable problems in
A Raisin in the Sun
. Confronted with moral and financial dilemmas, the family insists on surviving and realizing its potential. Thematically similar to
I Remember Mama
, this play is decidedly more dramatic and well-written.
The overall year-long unit will also include short stories and poems centering on the family. Short stories will include:
“Raymond’s Run” by Toni Cade Bambara. This story details the development of a sense of responsibility for a handicapped sibling. How the main character realizes her potential while helping her brother realize his is beautifully depicted.
“All Around the Mulberry Tree” by Kristin Hunter. A family from the south adjusts to life in a northern housing project, frequently running into trouble with the authorities. They refuse, however, to submit to dehumanizing elements and continue to grow, literally and figuratively.
Poems will include works by twentieth-century British poets. I will use poetry’s direct appeal to the particular and the universal throughout the course of the unit. The poems by British poets briefly discussed below will be used with
. Comments are drawn from my lecture notes in ‘Twentieth Century British Literature, Drama, and Culture” at the University of London summer school.
W. B. Yeats spanned two eras; he was writing at the end of the Victorian era and well into the Modern age. Yeats’ theme of making, unmaking, and remaking is evidenced by his concern with reshaping and making myth and reworking poetic forms.
“The Cold Heaven” and “Among Schoolchildren” are memory poems. Yeats saw imagination as inseparable from memory. Both poems extol the surprise and stimulation of involuntary memory. “The Cold Heaven” illustrates Yeats’ view that at death we live our lives backward again (the “dreaming back”) and so live it all again, enduring against pain. He counterpoints the heat and passion of youth with the coldness of old age.
The idea for “Among Schoolchildren” came into being after an inspection visit Yeats made to a convent school. The poem moves from the poet’s musings on the children in the classroom out into the universe: the past, the present, and the future; the baby, the child, and the “old scarecrow.” For my purposes, the poem will center on students’ dreams and hopes and will be used to show the multiplicity of ideas, events, influences which goes into the formation of our “selves.” The poem concludes with an image of complete integration; the dancer swept by music
Thomas Hardy, a Victorian novelist and Modern poet, was under the guidance of a rural Muse. Hardy turned from novels to poetry, seeking greater freedom of expression. In general, Hardy’s poems were dramatic, anecdotal narratives which tended to universalize experience. “Time” is the continuing theme in his poetry. I feel his poems will be accessible to students, for there is very little “literary” language.
“The Self-Unseeing” suggests that many of us go through life in a state of somnambulism, not seeing the people and objects around us. All too often, we realize too late how happy we were. Like the two Yeats poems, “The Self-Unseeing” was triggered by an involuntary memory—in this case, recalling a doorway. The people referred to might be lovers; they might be mother and child.”
“Regret Not Me” ranges back and forth through time. A spirit speaks of the peace found in death, ruefully and ironically regretting a somewhat haphazard path through life. Regret, however, is overshadowed by the joy the memories occasion.
“The Boy’s Dream” asks a question: What desires influence our dreams? The boy yearns for a symbol of beauty rather than for the strength his lameness denies him.
Dylan Thomas drew on the strong oral and visionary religious traditions of his native Wales. Firmly rooted in the Modern Age, Thomas was indebted to the past for inspiration.
In “Fern Hill,” an adult remembers a carefree childhood existence: a happy home life, freedom, and adventure. As with Hardy, the memories are tinged with a slight ruefulness. Though they can be confusing, Thomas’ word constructions and puns are illustrative of the sheer joy and power which can be found in words.
Thomas wrote “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” for his dying father. Wise men, good men, wild men, and grave men have their different regrets. The regrets should lead to rage at—rather than quiet acceptance of—death. A dying person can be viewed as an inspiriting source of strength.
Because literature concerning the family abounds, I envision numerous additions to the reading in the unit.
The family is a vital theme, one important to us and our students. To explore some of the problems, to see ourselves as members contributing to the richness and variety of family life—indeed to Life itself—is crucial to the development of our students.