For our upcoming bildungsroman unit, you’ll have the choice between three texts.
I do have some copies I can lend out — and if you need one please don’t be afraid to ask — but you should try to get your own copy so you can write in it. Used is fine, so feel free to hit up McKay’s or thriftbooks.com .
The final project we are working towards will be a digital presentation of one of the characters in your novel complete with quotes from the novel and your own analysis. Keep this in mind as you read so that you can select a character you’d like to present and pick out quotes that best portray that character.
Click below for the choices
Winner of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides originated from his
appreciation for the character of Tiresias from Greek mythology, who was turned into a woman for seven years by Hera and thus knew what it was like to be both sexes. Middlesex explores nature vs. nurture, identity, and what it means to be classified as a man or a woman in modern society through its protagonist Calliope (later Cal) who was born intersex due to a genetic mutation. While this mutation is not unheard of, especially in interrelated families or small, isolated villages, the really interesting part here is that it was not treated at birth. Calliope grew up socially as a girl, then when her intersexuality was discovered as a teenager, decided to become Cal and assimilate as a male rather than undergo surgery. Just like Tiresias, Calliope is able to experience society both as a male, a female, and an other. Much of the first third of the book occurs in flashback as we trace the emergence of this gene through the two previous generations, starting with Cal’s grandparents in Fascist Greece. Then we get to the main event: Calliope’s development, first as a young girl with conflicting emotions and a quirky family in suburbia, next as a humiliated subject of medical inquiry and freak show exhibitionism, and finally as a man. Middlesex combines contemporary writing and issues with literary symbolism and allusions to explore age old debates of gender constructs.
“When this story goes into the world, I may become the most famous hermaphrodite in history.
[ . . . ] I’ve got a male brain. But I was raised as a girl. If you were going to devise an experiment to measure the relative influences of nature versus nurture, you couldn’t come up with anything better than my life.”
There are some interesting insights in Oprah’s overview of the book, including an interview and Q & A with Eugenides. And recently there have been several news stories and videos to come out bringing awareness to the concept of intersex. Many have had unnecessary surgeries and those who have had necessary surgeries have been fixed, but not healed as Ceclia McDonald points out in her Ted Talk. Definitely worth a watch! Identifying the need for healing, not just fixing in our society is a concept that goes far beyond this particular issue and becomes one of the central messages of the novel. The novel displaces mythology — the age old explanation for the unalterable — with biology. Middlesex explores the consequences of covering things up instead of addressing and healing them properly and the danger of subscribing to cultural beliefs that aren’t rooted in reality, for example: sex is biological; gender is cultural. Gender was a fluid quality in many cultures from ancient Greece to the Navajo Indians (who had seven genders) and the dichotomous gender construct many in the Western world grew up with was actually a product of colonization. This book opens wide the Pandora’s Box of social and cultural issues in our society.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison is another long one, but also important to our modern culture. Taking its title from H. G. Wells’ The Invisible Man, Ellison’s novel has appeared on numerous top 100 lists and has appeared on the AP exam more than any other work. (Yep, this is the same Invisible Man that Randolph County foolishly banned because they couldn’t find enough literary merit, until NC was embarrassed in national news and book stores sold out of it). Symbolism and allusion abound here too as Ellison offers a social critique exploring the various reactions to the race divide prior to the civil rights movement. The relevance of the work remains sixty years later as the race divide continues to be part of the American social, political, and cultural conversation – yet empathy struggles to find its way into that conversation, which is what makes this book so important as few today truly know what it was like to be invisible to society to the extent minorities experienced in the first half of the 20th century.
Invisible Man starts with the unnamed narrator underground, both literally and figuratively:
“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”
Check out Rap Genius’s annotated treatment of the prologue and click on the highlighted text for a great start to the novel!
After the prologue, the unnamed narrator then plunges back to the beginning of his story as he participates in a dehumanizing battle royal in order to win a scholarship. He is advised by his grandfather to “overcome [whites] with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death” but when he tries doing this with Mr. Norton, one of the benefactors of the college he attends, he finds himself expelled. The narrator then moves to New York where he bounces around between various identities and allegiances before discovering himself and his invisibility.
Remember when Childish Gambino released that video “This is America” and got the whole nation talking? Remember all those dorky newscasters who couldn’t figure out the running scene at the end? Read Invisible Man and you’ll understand.
With all the social relevancy of the previous two choices, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte — a nineteenth century English Romantic novel — may seem out of place to you, but once you dive in, you’ll notice there are issues of class, race, and gender just the same. Being old and British, of course, just means it’s more subtle. If you think about it, 19th century women knew what it was like to be free, but not really free. Characters like Catherine had the freedom that money affords, but not the freedom to do things like marry who you really want to.
The struggle to have equal access to what should be inalienable rights like voting, owning property, and the pursuit of happiness is still relevant for many people today. As a matter of fact, Emily Bronte chose the pseudonym Ellis Bell because it’s gender ambiguous; she didn’t want to lie and have an entirely masculine name, but knew she’d be more successful and meet less prejudice if she didn’t have a female name. In fact, there are three Bronte sisters who all published under gender ambiguous pseudonyms.
Even though we associate this genre with love and marriage and those sorts of struggles, and sure enough there is a love story, Wuthering Heights is really about so much more. Take the enigmatic foundling Heathcliff, for example,
Mr. Heathcliff forms a singular contrast to his abode and style of living. He is a dark skinned gypsy, in aspect, in dress and manners a gentleman [ . . . ] he has an erect and handsome figure — and rather morose — possibly, some people might suspect him of a degree of underbred pride — [ . . .] his reserve springs from an aversion to showy displays of feeling [ . . . ] He’ll love and hate, equally under cover, and esteem it a species of impertinence, to be loved or hated again (Bronte 27).
He is every bit as mysterious as the ghost our narrator encounters on his first night! (Wait, ghost, mystery, marriage/family rights, class struggle . . . there really is more to this book than meets the eye! Yes, yes there is).
To get a feel for the breadth that the text of this novel covers and the breadth of interpretations, just compare these two trailers:
and the young Tom Hardy version:
Wait, so is Heathcliff like Caribbean or Indian or Irish or what? And is this like a story about kids with scary stuff or about adults with mushy stuff? Like I said, enigmatic. I guess you’ll just have to read it. 🙂