At a conference in town earlier this year, I presented several panel discussions centering around the difficulty of defining and quantifying art. Our discussions in these panels got me thinking about literature, and how one of my main points could apply equally easily to much of the literature that students read in high school. The point in question is this: one of the defining characteristics of art, in my view, is that it is something that creates an emotional response in the viewer. Experiencing it changes you in some way.
This is easy to see when the emotions are ones we generally see as ‘positive;’ if a play makes your heart swell with hope for the future, or a ballet duet makes you flush with the excitement of new love, or an epic novel makes your heart race with anxiety over the safety of the main characters, it’s easy to argue that those works are art and have changed you. But what if the emotions you experience are more negative – what if a novel bores you, frustrates you, or drives you nuts? For many high school students, it can be hard to recognize that even if your reaction to the work is boredom or frustration, the fact that you’re having a reaction that strong means that the book is affecting you deeply – and it’s probably intentional on the part of the author.
Here are a few examples of what I mean:
Waiting For Godot, by Samuel Beckett
Waiting For Godot is a play where nothing happens. Literally. The entire play concerns two characters, Estragon and Vladimir, who are waiting by a single scrawny tree for the arrival of someone they refer to as ‘Godot.’ They have various aimless conversations, run into a few odd characters, and at one point spend a good three pages of stage directions trading three hats between the two of them. Reading the play straight through is interminably boring, as you might expect. Many a high school drama student has been tortured with this play, as they groan and read through yet another pointless conversation about whether they were supposed to meet Godot here or somewhere else, today or yesterday.
The important thing to remember while reading (or watching) this play, though, is that this boredom is completely intentional. The play is an exploration of waiting, and the kind of non-events that suddenly become very important when nothing else is at stake. When you’re stuck in one place with nothing to do but wait, you can see how it might become immensely important to figure out who should wear which hat or exactly how far away you should stand from the others – anything to avoid dying of boredom.
In fact, I recall hearing a story once about a group of prison inmates who read this play and had it resonate so strongly with them that they self-produced it and performed it for the rest of the prisoners. Why? Well, it’s a story about waiting – while incarcerated, that’s pretty much all they were doing. It spoke to them on a much more personal level than it might speak to the average high school literature student. Beyond that, though, it can also be seen as a commentary on the non-committal nature and essential cowardice of mankind, particularly in the repetition at the end of each act:
ESTRAGON: Well, shall we go?
VLADIMIR: Yes, let’s go.
[They do not move.]
After spending an entire act waffling non-committally about what they should do, Vivi and Gogo finally decide to leave – forget waiting for this man, he’s never going to come! And yet…they can’t do it. They can’t leave even after they’ve decided to go. How many of us have experienced this failure of will before in our lives? It’s universal. And how many of those prison inmates do you think spent their days dwelling on past decisions, cursing their own cowardice? Sure, it’s boring, but it’s a very human kind of boring.
That’s a lot to chew on for a play about nothing, eh?
The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck
I remember HATING this book when I read it in high school. Finishing each chapter of homework was a slog – it was one of the only times in my school career that I had to force myself to keep reading through my interminable boredom. And then – I recall one night, midway through our unit, I suddenly finished the whole thing, reading the entire second half of the book in one sitting. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but re-reading the novel a few years ago with one of my students, I suddenly realized what had happened: the boring slog of the first half was entirely intentional!
The Good Earth follows the life of a Chinese farmer, starting just before the revolution and beginning with the purchase of his wife from a wealthy merchant. His life for the first half of the book is boring and cyclical – it is entirely governed by the harvest seasons and his wife’s yearly pregnancies. It is justifiably dull, as the life of a farmer would be. Standout events in his life – a good harvest, a lean year, an upsettingly-ill-timed pregnancy – seem meager and uninteresting to our modern-day imaginations, but to him they are his whole world. And then, in the middle of the novel, the revolution happens. Things start to take off – he finds an abandoned store of wealth and becomes a wealthy merchant. Intrigue. Arranged marriages. Bigger houses. The cycle is broken. And in the final scene, we see a repeat of the opening scene, only this time, he is the wealthy merchant and another poor farmer has come to purchase a wife from him. The cycle begins again, but our protagonist has a new place in it. No wonder I read the entire second half in one sitting – that was the exciting part of the cycle! What better way to prime the reader for the breakneck pace of the second half of his life than by exposing them to the boring cyclical stuff first?
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I remember reading The Great Gatsby in high school and having misgivings about it. I wanted to like it, I really did, but I kept finding myself hating each and every character. I couldn’t get into their excitement, share their joys, because I found them so frustrating. Even the young ingenue Daisy, who I genuinely expected to like, turned out to be vapid and careless and thought little of the consequences of her actions. Looking back on it now I realize that once again, that was the intention! You’re not supposed to like any of the main characters – the idea is that they are completely undeserving of their wealth and prestige. It’s a commentary on the faultiness of the idea of the “American dream;” the people who supposedly are living the dream are thoroughly unlikeable and leave a bad taste in your mouth.
Looking back on my own high school literature classes, I find myself wishing my teachers had impressed upon us the idea that not all books are written to entertain you, and you can be bored, frustrated, or upset by something in a novel and still see the merits of the novel itself. Sometimes those negative emotions are what the author intended to bring out in you, and in the process of trying to articulate why you’re experiencing them you can learn something valuable about the work as a whole.