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Teaching short fiction: a fairy tale beginning.


Non-majors in the general education curriculum respond well to a course in short fiction when they are introduced to familiar works and then prompted to consider variations on those works that force them to rethink comfortable traditions. My fiction course begins with well-known fairy tales followed by little-known variants, then contemporary rewritings. Engagement in the readings prompts students to sell-examination and exploration of the wider world.


"And Cinderella and the Prince lived happily ever after." A paraphrase of that fairy tale ending is one any teacher would like to stamp on the final exam of each student in her class: "May you live happily and well." In my fiction course I have learned how to make fairy tales contribute toward beginning that ending. The final learning objective for students in our freshman literature/composition courses at Spring Hill College is that "students will begin their quest for lifelong learning and inquiry." A corollary objective for our sophomore level literature courses is that students will be influenced to become lifelong readers. Those important goals seem oddly unrealistic for young men and women likely to be more concerned with the latest episode of The Apprentice or who spend much of their spare time playing video games. The rub for those of us who design and teach literature courses is how to get resistant readers to read well and to like reading.

The core curriculum requirements at this small Jesuit liberal arts college are heavy in the humanities. The place of a required course in literature can become murky to students weighted with heavy major requirements in a pre-professional field. Often they consider this core requirement simply something to be checked off as early as possible or put off as long as they can. The chore for the teacher is to create a course that entices this resistant reader into both enjoying the literature and finding it beneficial in his or her over-all growth as a human being. For me, a course in short fiction best approaches those two desired outcomes. As Annie Dillard says in Living by Fiction, fiction "is a subtle pedagogy" (155). In one sense it exposes unwitting students to remote or unknown worlds, places of wonder, beauty, or terror, and to situations of strange or quiet newness that can remove them from a reality that may be commonplace. Dillard adds that "a work's greatest value coincides with its greatest appeal; that literature is a joy and not a puzzle, essay, or lecture" (158). If we only launch our students to a lifetime of reading for joy, we will not have failed them.

But I am convinced that fiction has a second, and perhaps greater, place in fitting our students for the world that awaits them. It can create opportunities for interpretation that breach one's perception of the self or of the world that has felt snug and tidy. Students find characters that enact the roles they themselves felt they were playing all on their own. The smug, self-satisfied student discovers himself in young Goodman Brown; a young wife finds a soul-mate in Elisa in "The Chrysanthemums"; an adolescent shares Connie's anxieties in "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"; an African-American youth knows the pain of the narrator of "Battle Royal." A reader can stumble across his childhood or his adolescent years or even his coming-of-age in a work of fiction and find that he is not out on a limb all alone. At least one other figure has been there. This discovery can bring comfort to the isolate or outsider; it can also deflate the solipsistic ego that believes its experience of life is unique.

I propose another powerful means of fiction as a subtle pedagogy; it introduces the means of considering both one's own mental processes and the order of the world as one perceives it. Dillard asserts that "[a]rt remakes the world according to sense" (177). If reason aids the artist in ordering the world, it follows that "art's highest function is to shed light on the mind" (180). The work of fiction itself possesses "integrity, intelligence, harmony, and so forth, although their characters and events may not" (177). The reader sees in a piece of fiction an inherent order, a coherence, that launches an interrogation of her own thought processes as well as of the relationship of these coherencies (and incoherencies) to the world as she knows it. The average college sophomore is too often what the words derived from Greek suggest: a smart mind in a personality flush with self importance and naivete about how the rest of the universe fares. A major challenge for a general education college course is to shake up those easy assumptions and tease the student into questioning her narrow experience. Dillard seems satisfied that she never resolves the question of whether artists discover reason and harmony in the universe or invent it. But she rests in the position that artist and audience create some kinds of "relationships between ideas and materials" that allow us to "deepen our understanding" (184). This fact she (and I) celebrate.

In his provocative article "The Transition to College Reading," Robert Scholes quotes a colleague concerning the problems in teaching first-year literature students: "They want to read every text as saying something extremely familiar that they might agree with" (166). This assertion affirms my understanding of resistant readers. They want a text which does not challenge their own experience. Arlene Wilner, in "Confronting Resistance: Sonny's Blues--and Mine" writes artfully about the importance of students' needs to assimilate a text before they can accommodate or challenge it (174-75). I find that the best means of setting up this opportunity for movement from assimilation to challenge in the literature classroom is through short fiction. The course in fiction is organized around the theme of the making and telling of stories as one of the oldest ways human beings give shape and meaning to experience. ! will describe how I begin the course with the fairy, or wonder, tale as a very old tradition that crosses all cultures and one which most students already know. Assimilation is almost automatic when readers start with familiar tales they read or heard as children or watched on the Disney Channel. The oral tradition of fairy and folk tales provides a ready bridge to the formal, crafted tales of romance and literary realism that come later in the course and begs consideration of ways the folk traditions inform them all.

The Norton Critical Edition of The Classic Fairy Tales is a good choice for the first course text because it starts students with the comfortable stories and then introduces them to renderings of those tales from disparate cultures and centuries that begin to shake their sensibilities. I begin by asking a volunteer to tell from memory the Walt Disney version of "Cinderella." Then we are ready to discover other versions. The German Grimm Brothers' "Cinderella" has her sisters slice off their toes to fit their large feet into the glass slipper (121); Charles Perrault's French version of the story in "Donkeyskin" has the father go mad with desire for his beautiful daughter (110); a Japanese variant shows the stepsister "dragged around in a basket, [tumbling] over the edge of a deep ditch, and [falling] to her death" (101). Students initially resist these and other often shocking and violent narratives that shatter their memory of a happy-ever-after princess waltzing off into the sunset on the arm of her handsome prince. I ask them if they know of any long-term relationships that end in such a romantic fashion, and they have to smile and shake their heads. The stories continue to challenge their comfort zone. When students suggest it is unrealistic for Cinderella's lather not to come to her aid against her wicked step mother and sisters, I again ask if they know any blended families with sibling rivalry and a parent caught in the middle. Heads nod here. The notion of the step sisters' chopping off their toes and heels to fit into the glass slipper is always repugnant and unbelievable. But I ask students how girls and women today often mutilate their bodies for the sake of their conception of beauty, and then we discuss why small bodies seem so desirable. While the tiny slipper seems elegant, I remind them how high heels confine and cobble the wearers and mention that when I interviewed for my first teaching job I wore high heels and have now graduated to comfortable Birkinstocks.

We begin to ask why these narratives arise from so many cultures and find that the tales emerge as multi-layered cultural phenomena. The Norton reader provides critical supports that explain how gender and class roles tend to reinforce the mores and values of the society (Cinderella is a model fur female submission and obedience) or subtly challenge them (other Cinderella versions expose dangers of predatory fathers or vicious stepmothers). We discover that most fairy tale heroes are weak outsiders who achieve success through their wits, good fortune, or unexpected helpers. The act of telling usually asserts dissent from the hierarchy, explains experience, or expresses unfulfilled desires. Armed with knowledge about these authorial possibilities, students begin to critique their own assumptions about the texts and the values that underlie the tellers' choices. Reconsideration of their loved bedtime stories can be an unsettling literary experience, but, once begun, there is no going back. Here begins the negotiation between "old" knowledge and students' emerging awareness of the texts' value systems. I ask them to consider who might want to convey the importance of a young girl's acceptance of her place as a kitchen drudge? Or what motivates a narrator to make the stepmother the evil agent? Students begin to think about how an author shapes a text to support her own agenda.

Bruno Bettelheim's book on the psychological meaning of fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment, states the importance of these unadulterated tales for children: they "start where the child really is in his psychological and emotional being" (6). Children struggle against severe difficulties, and fairy tales help them acknowledge the reality, while providing them models of mastery of the struggle. In short, "the fairy tale ... confronts the child squarely with the basic human predicaments" (8). My experience in the classroom convinces me that fairy tales have the same effect on older readers as Bettelheim believes they have on children. Those who remember the narratives as innocent bedtime stories are pushed to rethink the cultural stew that produced this oral tradition of outsider voices resisting boundaries set by those in power. They come to understand that narratives arise from cultural settings that reflect a perceived reality, and the settings and attitudes change through time, even to the present time. Robert Scholes argues for "the need to teach texts that express conflicting positions" (168). These subtle pedagogies do just that, creeping up on unsuspecting students and then jolting them from the comfort of the nursery to a place where they confront themselves and their experience. Most students respond with amazement at what they discover when they unpack the fairy stories. The discussion takes off when one vocal female pities Cinderella as a victim of her mean "steps" and her passive father and seduced by a man who desires her only for her beauty. Another student jumps in to praise the young girl who uses her wits to escape an abusive family system. A young man rises to defend the prince as Cinderella's savior. A few female students still hope to marry a prince, and a few males still see themselves as charging up on a white horse. But most twenty-first century young men and women identify the subtle pressures toward role definition the ancient stories contain and rise to the challenge of examining those traditions. The women acknowledge that clothing and cosmetic ads lure them to desire a body and lace their mirrors deny. The guys admit they really don't want total responsibility for supporting a family, and a beautiful girl will not necessarily make the best wife. We are all led to question whether a "happy ending" may require unhappy compromises. I continue to ask how dreams work, how and where weakling outsiders gain power, how journeys influence lone characters, how family relations are negotiated, and always, what is left out, hinted at, avoided in the narratives.

This course also offers multiple opportunities for informal writing. Students respond in writing to my question (Why might marrying a prince be undesirable?), then pair with a neighbor and share answers; students write their own questions about the story and trade with their neighbors, writing a response to the question they receive (Why doesn't Cinderella's father come to her rescue?); students write another ending to a story (What happens if Cinderella doesn't want to marry the Prince?). The opportunities are endless. These informal ungraded writings are shared with the class as often as possible, and students continue to learn from each other multiple possibilities for meaning and enjoyment.

After beginning to assimilate the ancient stories, students are ready for contemporary versions of the old tales. Anne Sexton's Transformations offers rollicking poetic parodies of many of the fairy stories. Her "Cinderella and the prince / lived, they say, happily ever after,/like two dolls in a museum case / ... Regular Bobbsey Twins. / That story" (56-57). Students here think of Barbie and Ken and consider the significance of their childhood fascination with those dolls. In Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes the wicked stepsister substitutes one of her own large shoes for the glass slipper. When the prince fits it to her foot, he lops off her head rather than marry her, causing Cinderella to reject him and opt for "a decent man" (12). By now a few female students are beginning to cheer a heroine who acts on her own choices. Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories revises several familiar fairy tales to depict the power of the feminine and the exotic delight of wildness. Many students initially resist these revisions of the familiar stories, a further break-up of their perceived order, but most eventually find that the modern accounts speak directly to their contemporary experience of relationships. The lively discussions spawned by our reading between the lines of the fairy tales pique the class to go forward to see what follows them.

Next we consider other stories from the oral tradition in which the little guy or the outsider can get ahead by his wits just as the fairy tale hero does. Native American tales close to their original narratives exhibit a strong affinity with the natural world; later tales are colored by approximation to the culture of the United States and often depict the smaller animal (coyote or badger) or Native American getting the better of the big animal (wolf or bear) or the white man. A similar shift becomes apparent in the study of African American tales. By the time we get to the Uncle Remus stories, students often see for themselves how the wily rabbit always outwits the fox, suggesting subversive resistance of the black slaves to their white masters and, further, the possibility for any weaker creature to use cunning as a form of power.

Students' first formal writing assignment has three options. They may read a new fairy or folk tale and either analyze it from a critical perspective without use of library or electronic sources or respond to it personally in a reader-response fashion. An alternative assignment requires an original fairy or folk tale. Along with the tale, the student must attach to the story a short analysis of her own story and the problems / delights of writing it. This creative writing assignment has great appeal for the few students who yearn for self-expression in a curriculum that often privileges analytical writing and critical thinking over right brain activity. A few students furtively draw out stories begun in the past and harbored for fear of rejection. Now they revise for a sympathetic audience. Some write about childhood fears and find a way to work through them. One tale depicted a thinly-veiled biography of a little boy afraid of drowning who learns to swim in a critical moment. Another describes a child who fears a bully and gains the power to confront him. Students also describe their problems in writing. They fear giving away too much of the story, failing to force readers to fill in gaps. They want to afford readers the same opportunities of discovery that they have learned in the course. Some express difficulties in making their stories believable and not sappy. Their expressions about the writing process show me they have gained sophisticated notions about how a story should be told for enjoyment and challenge.

Students tell me they signed up for my fiction course because they heard about its beginning with fairy tales that are fun to read. This anticipation of a "fun" class sets them up for what I hope will be a semester of engagement and discovery with many texts that prompt them toward self examination and exploration of the wider world. The fairy tale is the "hook." I trust they learn that marriage to a prince or princess is only one option in a world where they hope to live happily ever after.

Works Cited

Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment. Random House, 1989.

Dahl, Roald. Revolting Rhymes. Puffin Books, 1995.

Dillard, Annie. Living by Fiction. Harper & Row, 1988.

Scholes, Robert. "'The Transition to College Reading." Pedagogy 2:2 (Spring 2002): 165-172.

Sexton, Anne. Transformations. Houghton Mifflin, 1971.

Tater, Maria, Ed. The Classic Fairy Tales, Norton Critical Edition. W. W. Norton, 1999.

Wilner, Arlene. "Confronting Resistance: Sonny's Blues--and Mine." Pegagogy 2:2 (Spring 2002): 173-196.

Margaret H. Davis, Ph.D, is Associate Professor at Spring Hill College, Mobile, AL.
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Author:Davis, Margaret H.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 2005
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