"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Eng. 180: Rebecca, Gender and Power

Lots to catch up on!  First, the Chronicle posted an great article on teaching true crime, so the conversation on teaching in this genre/subgenre is definitely happening--and it's definitely a conversation we need to have.  Obviously, I feel very strongly about the need to teach crime literature, the need to explore it from a critical perspective, and the need to engage those authors who are writing those texts right now.

Today, I started off 180 with a clip from Hitchcock's 1940 adaptation of Rebecca, the scene where the narrator (so gloriously unnamed) comes down the stairs to the costume ball in her dress, the horror of Maxim's reaction, and in the movie, the narrator flees upstairs and confronts Mrs. Danvers about the plot--and it's there that Mrs. Danvers has her speech...and then tries to convince the narrator to jump out the window and commit suicide.  It's only the fireworks that signal a ship has run aground save the narrator, who does look like she's going to jump.  Of the chapters we read for today, I said shit happens...and then more shit happens, which made them laugh.

On Monday, I had them read Nicky Hallett's article "did Mrs. Danvers warm Rebecca's pearls? significant exchanges and the extension of lesbian space and time in literature" and we talked specifically about gender and sexuality, especially in terms of place.  I was a little leery of this risk, knowing this is conservative Nebraska, but my students seemed game.  I divided them into their small groups, something I just need to keep doing and not think that my large group discussions are going to get anywhere.  This class is incredibly shy and quiet and they will talk in their small groups where they don't in the large group.  As a result, I've been trying to figure out more small group activities that are more than me coming to class with questions for them to answer and then we talk about those answers in the large group.  

Friday's exercise was "Dear Diary," which, at the time, I didn't think went that well, but several students mentioned it as helpful and interesting in their Think Pieces that they turned in on Monday, so maybe I'm a poor judge of what works and what doesn't.  The idea came from Longman's website:  Have students role play as characters in the story. They respond to events of the story from their perspective. Each diary entry begins with a quote from the story; the students then write 100 words minimum per entry from the character's perspective concerning this quote. The diary can have as many entries as necessary—for example: 4 quotes concerning rising action, 1 quote concerning the climax, and 1 quote concerning falling action.  I only had them write from one quote.

Monday's exercise was to talk through the issues we were focusing on for the day--gender and sexuality--and I had them start with a free write.  This class definitely does better if they have some time and space to think through their pens.  

  • What kind of spaces have we been exposed to?  Built spaces?  Natural spaces?
  • What kinds of actions take place in which spaces?  Where do various plot points happen?
  • How are these spaces gendered in a particular way (Hallett’s article:  the ball is gendered heterosexual, male-female dancing, etc.)

And then, in their groups, I had them talk through what they wrote and from there, I asked them to create a question that they would give to the next group to answer.  Here are the questions they came up with:

  • Group 1:  How does Mrs. Danvers and the narrator’s relationship compare/contrast to that of Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers?
  • Group 2:  What are the main examples of power and space that have led to the building of suspense in this novel?
  • Group 3:  In terms of setting and place, where does the narrator feel most safe?  Where does she feel threatened?  Why does she feel those emotions in those places?
  • Group 4:  When looking at the spaces of and around Manderley, where have you noticed different expressions of power?  Who has the power in those spaces—and where does that power come from? 
  • Group 5:  How would you describe the struggle of power within nature, specifically how the natural world is used within the plot of the story?
  • Group 6:  All of the spaces in Manderley and its environs belong to either Maxim or Rebecca.  How does place define their identities?  And how did they come to “own” those spaces in the first place?

Each group took their new question and answered it--and of course we ran out of time (my pedagogy has a real problem with these 50 minute classes)--and some of the depth we got to was really great.  I tried to bring back some of these in today's class, but we got very wrapped up in the actual plot of what was happening.

But it was worth mentioning that though we were in small groups today--and I did ask them to consider the specific gender and power issues in the exchange where Maxim tells the narrator the truth about himself and Rebecca after her boat has been found--that I brought up Jerome Stern and his book Making Shapely Fiction.  One of my favorite moments in that book comes when he is discussing scene--when you're a kid and you want an adult's attention, what do you do?  You throw a tantrum and make a scene.  As a fiction writer, if you want a reader's attention, you make a scene.  Why is the narrator's exchange with Mrs. Danvers important?  Why spent seven pages on it?  Why is it important to spend an excruciating number of pages on the lunch scene?  Why does du Maurier want our attention there?  Also, from the fiction writer's toolbox, if dialogue is what characters do to each other--why are these exchanges important?  It was neat to see new wheels turning in their heads in terms of what du Maurier as a fiction writer was bringing to her page.  It's more than just telling a story in which shit happens and more shit happens.

I did close out today's class by having them free write how du Maurier fits into this world of crime literature we've been reading.  This is the first real example we've had of crime literature that is not a detective story.  What did she learn from her predecessors?  What new angle is she bringing?  For myself, I want to explore what I was thinking today of the eco-gothic, that it's not Manderley or a human, really, that's holding the secrets that threaten to destroy the characters--it's the sea that holds those secrets.

But another thought for another day.

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