Entranced and horrified, I stood in the grip Picasso's Guernica, an eleven-by twenty-seven foot black, white, and grey mural inspired by Hitler's 1937 bombing and obliteration of Guernica, a little Basque village in northern Spain. While this encounter at the Museum of Modern Art in New York was years ago, I have never forgotten feeling dwarfed by this larger-than-life testimony against war, sometimes called, the end of innocence. I remember, once asking a student who knew nothing about the bombing of the village, what he thought of a large poster of Guernica hanging in my classroom, and he studied the body parts strewn across the canvas, the woman cradling a dead baby, her head thrown back as she cried out, and a naked light bulb illuminating the atrocities, and then he said rather matter-of-factly, "That's my life." His response confirmed for me that in the broken bodies laid bare by the light from a naked bulb Picasso had created, on his canvas, images that evoked very diverse meanings, in the eyes of his viewers.
Participating in the seminar The Modern World in Literature and the Arts has given me the opportunity to craft a unit that challenges my 10
grade college prep. students at New Haven Academy to peel back the layers of meaning found in the symbolism in parables as brief as a paragraph, and short stories that are many pages in length. While I have focused largely on literature, I will introduce Picasso's Guernica, whose highly charged symbols layered with meaning, may serve as a metaphor for this unit. With luck and coordination, my students will make a replica of the mural with the art teacher at NHA, while they read and learn about symbolism in literature. Modern literature and art may require more effort on the part of readers or viewers as they encounter new representations of reality, but these media invite and allow for a diversity of interpretations as well.
The most challenging story in my unit is The Bear by William Faulkner, first published in 1942 in The Saturday Evening Post before Faulkner expanded it to a novella; therefore, I am backing into symbolism with parables and fables that are brief and, perhaps familiar. Among these is the African The Parable of the Eagle by James Aggrey, Little Red Riding Hood which admittedly is not modern literature, but The Little Girl and the Wolf, a parody by James Thurber, in which the little girl, when she gets to grandma's house, takes a revolver out of her basket and shoots the wolf dead, is modern. Students will enjoy reading both versions to see how dramatically the little girl in the hood has changed. Among the fables that we will study for their symbolism are a few of Aesop's Fables. Symbolism can be found in the winsome children's rhymes of Dr. Seuss, such as in the allegories, The Sneetches and The Lorax, both of which I have incorporated in my unit in the media of books, and videos that are accessible on the Internet. But it is in reading The Bear that I will throw down the gauntlet.
With this diversity of stories that incorporate symbols, students will engage their creativity to craft their own fables, parables, allegories, or symbolic stories. They may use some of the skills for crafting their stories that they will have practiced in deciphering the symbols in the stories in this unit.