It has been my experience, not only as a teacher but also as a scholar, that developing an understanding of the circumstances surrounding the creation of a piece of literature can greatly enrich the understanding and interpretation of the work. At the same time, it is important to understand the differences between actual events from an author's life and the fictional events an author chooses to write about in his or her work. This duality, the effect of reality on fiction and the separation of fiction from reality, is the area of focus for this unit.
In the classroom, I have recognized a difference in students' engagement with a text when they have some understanding of the author's motivations in creating that text. An understanding of the writer makes the reading take on a different meaning to the students: it becomes more authentic to the artist's intentions and more significant to the student. This unit aims to foster that level of engagement between students and various works by Percy and Mary Shelley.
Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley were major forces in the Romantic Period in English Literature. In order to understand and appreciate the impact of these significant writers, the experiences of their lives (as both individuals and as a couple) must be understood, at least on a basic level. Percy Shelley's life is evident in the themes, motifs, and imagery of his poetry. Many of Mary Shelley's experiences mold characters and themes of her novels.
This is not to say that Mary's Frankenstein or Percy's poetry should be read with blinders on, forcing the reader to accept either one as a direct retelling of life-events. The historical and biographical connections that students find in a text should not cloud a reading of that text as a fictional work. Often, students adopt an all or nothing policy when it comes to their analyses of literary works. If they are told to make connections between the life of an author and her work, they tend to read the work myopically, seeking out only those elements which help to further their assumptions and ignoring those which counter them. Analyses should be a means of expanding students' understanding of the literature, not a means of narrowing that understanding. Good literature is complex. An insightful and accurate reading of the literature should be as complex.
Another advantage of adding biographical understanding to the analysis of a text is that it helps students in reading an author's motivations and intentions. Students in today's classrooms have been so steeped in Reader-Response theory that they have come to believe that they can make any interpretation of the text they want as long as they can point to some piece of evidence within the text. They are encouraged to make personal connections to the text and interpret it in light of their personal experiences. Though this is a great way of introducing students to analysis of a text when they are younger, students must be aware that every text is not about them. Author's have voices in their text and wrote intentionally.
For example, the first two lines of Percy's "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" speak of a "Power / [that] Floats though unseen among us." Without at least a minimal understanding of Shelley's thoughts on religion--he was a much avowed atheist--students often interpret this "Power" as the Christian God. They bring their own beliefs and experiences to the poem, leading to a misreading of Shelley's intended meaning. Allowing students to misread poetry, to believe that all writing is written for them to interpret as they wish is an injustice, not only to the poetry but to the students as well. Students need to be aware of multiple interpretations of the text, but in order to understand and function in a world that grows more socially complex each day students need to be aware of an author's, a speaker's, or an orator's intentions in creating his work and choosing her words.
Likewise, Mary and Percy Shelley both developed interests in science and scientific experimentation during their youths which lasted into their adult lives. According to George Herbert Clarke in his introduction to Selected Poems…, Percy had a deep interest in "physical and chemical" experiments during his time as a student at Sion House Academy. Understanding this aspect of the Shelley's lives should not lead the reader to believe, however, that Victor Frankenstein is Mary's representation of her husband in the novel. In other words, students do need to draw a distinction between fiction and reality while at the same time drawing connections. This is complex.
This complexity is apparent in the closing scene of Frankenstein, where the creature explains to Walton that he has decided to end his own life. There are again strong parallels between the ending of the novel and events from the Shelleys' lives.
Mary was deeply affected by the suicide of her half-sister, Fanny Imlay, and of Percy's first wife, Harriet Shelley. In fact, Mary may have felt some of the responsibility for each of these deaths. But how does this translate into the creature's promise of ending his own existence? This is perhaps the most humanizing event in the story for the creature; he is now feeling the deep effects of his actions. The creature recounts the happiness he first felt in the days after his creation, contrasting that happiness with the bitterness and desolation he now feels. Is this what Mary feels at the death of these two close associations in her life or is this merely an attempt at figuring out the motivations for suicide? Is the creature noble in his promise that Walton will be the last human to set eyes on him or is simply giving up because he has lost all hope of ever receiving the companion he so desperately wanted throughout the novel?
These questions have no simple answer. They demonstrate the complexity of literature, of human emotions, and of finding connections between the two.
In this curriculum unit, students will explore the lives of these two individuals. They will then apply what they have gleaned from their biographical study to several of the authors' works (poetical and fictional) to develop thorough analyses which take into account the historical and personal forces at work in their writings. This does not imply dogmatic retellings of the author's intentions of the works, but rather encourages students to see that the artist's life and intentions may be echoed her/his work.
While this unit focuses specifically on the Shelleys and their writings, it has potential to be adapted to other authors. I have selected the Shelleys because of their dramatic lives and the impact they have on students in my classroom. Helping students see as individuals those writers they are exposed to will create an arena for deeper connection to their writings and help mold our students as lifelong learners and readers.
Finally, this unit is only a single attempt at helping students to understand a complex and difficult issue. Students need exposure to various lenses and to various methods of analysis, just as they need exposure to various authors writing throughout history. This is one step towards developing students who read, understand, and appreciate the complexity of literature and its importance to life and society.