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Teaching the novel in context.

One of my aims when teaching the novel is to draw students' attention to the intricate relationships between text and context, and I operate from the assumption that greater historical awareness produces illuminating readings of novels. To prepare students to write what I call a context paper, we peruse a variety of primary sources, such as newspapers and periodicals, in an effort to recreate the historical and cultural contexts from which a particular novel emerged and to see what light this information sheds on our understanding of the novel. This essay explores the challenges and possibilities of teaching novels in context.


At a certain point in George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, the parlor room conversation of Eliot's main characters turns from the game of roulette to "Jamaica" (376). Eliot, who situates the action of her novel during the year 1865, has her characters discuss the Jamaican Rebellion, which occurred in the same year. Both the Rebellion and the ruthless tactics Governor Eyre used to restore order to Jamaica triggered debate and controversy throughout Great Britain. Thus, the parlor room conversation merges with a larger discussion regarding the management of Britain's colonies that raged in the wake of the Rebellion. And on another level, the references to Jamaica shape the meaning of Eliot's novel.

Without some historical awareness, however, readers can easily look past the significance of Eliot's allusions to Jamaica. Unaware of the brutal means by which Governor Eyre put down the Rebellion, readers may not catch the full meaning of Eliot's description of Grandcourt as a man who, "if ... sent to govern a difficult colony, ... might have won reputation among his contemporaries. He had certainly ability, would have understood that it was safer to exterminate than to cajole superseded proprietors, and would not have flinched from making things safe in that way" (655). References such as this indicate Eliot's keen interest in imperial politics at the same time British imperial history affects the import of her narrative.

One of my principal aims when teaching the British novel to upper-division English majors is to draw students' attention to the intricate relationships between text and context exemplified by Eliot's treatment of the Jamaican Rebellion. I encourage my students to read novels against history and history against novels, and we peruse a variety of primary sources, such as newspapers and periodicals, in an effort to recreate the historical and cultural contexts from which particular novels emerged. I invite students to learn more about the historical events, social issues, and cultural phenomena referenced in novels to see what light this information sheds on our understanding of these texts, and they eventually write what I call a context paper as the culminating experience in my course. This essay explores some of the fundamental challenges and rich possibilities of teaching novels within historical and/or cultural contexts.

Part of the challenge of teaching the novel in context involves dealing with students' inexperience. Students often conceive of the literary text as an autonomous object, somehow disconnected from historical conditions and influences, and they generally lack experience doing historically informed criticism, nor are they prepared to do the kind of research expected of them. While most juniors and seniors have at least some familiarity with the library, the majority typically have had no experience working in Special Collections, microfilm, and online archives. And the reading load, already heavy in a novels course, increases as a result of supplementary readings (e.g., historical documents) and the research requirement.

To address these challenges, I first show students how to produce historically informed readings by focusing class discussions on a few historical dimensions of a text. When teaching Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders, I situate our study of Moll's criminal life and experience as a transported felon in relation to eighteenth-century penal reform designed to remedy rising crime rates. Students read a few articles from eighteenth-century newspapers that illustrate the concerns regarding increased criminal activity. I likewise give students a copy of the Transportation Act of 1718, which was passed just four years before the publication of Moll Flanders and systematized what had been a haphazard practice of exporting felons to the colonies. As the preamble to the legislation reads, the Act was designed to "deter wicked and evil-disposed persons" from committing crime (qtd. in Coldham 165). The preamble further observes a need for servants in the colonies and suggests that such places as Virginia promise the opportunity to make an honest living. In a mini lecture, I inform students that poverty was seen as the primary culprit of rising crimes rates during the period and that transportation was seen as a merciful alternative to harsher penalties, including death, for those felons driven by necessity to commit crime. In actuality, however, most Britons supported the Transportation Act because it was, as one contemporary observer noted, the most immediate way to divest "the nation of [its] vermin" (qtd. in Durston 221). I even share with students accounts of actual convicts sent to the penal colonies, providing them a point of reference with which to compare Defoe's fictional account of Moll's experience in America.

As students turn their attention to Defoe's novel, I provide them a handout of questions they can consider while reading:

* What circumstances drive Moll to thievery?

* Does Defoe seem sympathetic to Moll's situation?

* How does Defoe depict the experience of transportation?

* In what ways does Defoe's novel participate in the discourse surrounding the practice of transporting felons to the colonies?

* In what ways does the historical information regarding penal reform in the eighteenth century inform our understanding of Defoe's novel?

These questions encourage students to pay particular attention to features of Defoe's novel they might otherwise ignore. Eventually, the questions become the focus of small group and/or whole class discussions, and we juxtapose passages that deal directly with the practice of transporting convicts with the historical materials we have studied. We might examine, for example, Moll's mother's description of Virginia's inhabitants: "Many a Newgate Bird becomes a great Man [in Virginia], and we have ... several justices of the Peace, Officers of the Train Brands, and Magistrates of the Towns they live in, that have been burnt in the Hand" (134). Such passages indicate Defoe's interest in penal reform at the same time the historical reality of transportation informs Defoe's novel on both a formal and thematic level. Transportation, in fact, provides Defoe a convenient option at a crucial moment in his plot, since shipping Moll to Virginia rather than sending her to the gallows enables Defoe to achieve the professed aims of his novel: "To give the History of a wicked Life repented of" (38).

A typical lesson plan for teaching the part of Moll Flanders that details Moll's criminal life and eventual redemption in Virginia takes up about a week of class time. I distribute the handout of questions as well as the historical documents I want my students to read prior to reading this section of the novel. I keep the secondary reading to a minimum (between five and ten pages) to avoid overwhelming students who already feel burdened by the reading load in a novels course. The week devoted to Moll's criminal life might unfold in the following manner:

Day 1: Discuss historical documents (newspaper articles and the Transportation Act of 1718) and give mini lecture. Share and discuss accounts of actual felons transported to the colonies.

Day 2: Focus discussion on Moll's criminal life and the circumstances that drive her to thievery as well as Defoe's attitude toward his protagonist's situation (the first two questions on the handout).

Day 3: Discuss Moll's experience as a transported felon and the extent to which Defoe participates in the discourse surrounding penal reform in the eighteenth century (the last three questions on the handout).

The time devoted to creating a context for our study of Moll Flanders enhances our discussion of Defoe's text in two important ways: one, the day spent discussing eighteenth-century penal reform and the minimal reading assignment for that day give students time to read well into the novel before discussing it. Since the length of most novels requires instructors to approach a novel a chunk at a time--in my case, 75 to 100 pages a class--the study of any one novel can easily be stretched over a one- to two-week period. Since class discussions tend to become more fruitful as students read further into a text, I find that delaying our discussion of the novel promotes more productive classes. And two, students' interest in any one novel--as well as my own--can wane over a two-week period if a particular novel remains the exclusive focus of study during that time. Students, in my experience, appreciate an occasional opportunity to divert their attention to issues and readings apart from the novels we study.

Of course, I realize that I am essentially requiring my students to do a kind of New Historical criticism. I should stress, however, that I do not want my novels course to evolve into a course in New Historicism, nor do I encourage my students to join the New Historicist "camp," if there is such a thing. But I do want them to recognize that many of the assumptions and methods that inform our approach to the novel derive from a particular school of criticism, and I discuss with them the theoretical underpinnings of New Historical criticism. At the very least, I want my students to see that literature is directly involved with social history; that is, literature is part of a collective historical network, not separate from it. I want them to recognize how history and literary text influence each other and how authors are shaped by their experiences and cultures. I insist that our focus and attention be on the novels themselves, yet I feel strongly that students be aware of and reflect on the assumptions that inform and make their readings possible.

Preparing students to write the context paper involves educating them in the library and Internet resources available to them, in addition to modeling historical readings in class. The resources available to students, of course, depend largely on the institution at which one teaches, and my approach, admittedly, presents problems for teachers at schools with relatively limited resources. The Internet, however, provides access to a wealth of information, including primary texts, and teachers should certainly take advantage of this resource. Students may likewise have to depend more on secondary sources if they do not have access to archival materials. Finally, the resources available in the library may very well dictate text selection for the course. Working with more recent novels may provide more research options than older ones.

To help orient my students to the resources available to them, I typically schedule two separate library sessions with a subject librarian, one in a computer classroom and the other in Special Collections. I provide the librarian with enough information so she can plan both presentations around the novels we have been reading and the context paper assignment. The computer session introduces students to library holdings, including microfilm and Internet resources accessible through the library (e.g., subscription sites like Literature Resource Center [LRC] and Literature Online [LION]). During the session in Special Collections, the librarian pulls several sample texts that relate to the issues and novels we have studied in class. In collaboration with the librarian, I prepare a bibliography of resources, including Internet sites, on a range of topics and distribute these following our trips to the library.

Another concern relating to the research requirement involves evaluating the appropriateness and validity of sources. Since my main concern is that students begin to map the cultural terrain surrounding a particular novel, they need only to familiarize themselves with some of the published materials that circulated at the same time and in the same places as the novel. Thus, a source's contemporaneity establishes its validity, since it was part of the same cultural fabric. But if students then perform the work of historians by using these materials to form generalization regarding the period, I ask that they substantiate their claims with evidence from secondary sources, such as histories and biographies by reputable scholars.

As students turn their attention to the context paper (See addendum #1 on issue's website <>), some students see themselves writing a historical paper as opposed to a literary analysis. A student writing on Jane Eyre will, for example, tell me more about governesses in the nineteenth century than he will about Bronte's novel. Helping students balance the historical detail with their readings of a text may be the most challenging aspect of this approach to the novel. As a result, I generally require student-instructor consultations to review rough drafts. Many potential problems can be diagnosed and addressed by merely examining a student's thesis statement and considering whether it forecasts a paper that analyzes a novel within an identifiable historical framework (e.g., Published on the heels of the Transportation Act of 1718, Defoe's Moll Flanders promotes transportation as a viable form of penal justice by depicting the colonies as sites of financial and moral regeneration). I also assign a few examples of historically informed criticism of novels we have studied, thereby providing students with models of how to incorporate historical information into a literary analysis [1].

While this approach works well with any literary text, it is particularly well suited to the novel. Novels, perhaps more so than other literary genres, tend to represent real-life, are set in specific times and places, and most often portray the historical eras in which they were written. Historicizing such texts makes sense. Indeed, given their attention to individual characters who inhabit particular spaces at particular times, novels cry out for study in their historical contexts.

The approach likewise allows instructors to focus students" attention on particular passages of a novel. One of the challenges of teaching any novel, of course, involves dealing with its length. Unlike most poems, which can be read and discussed in their entirety in class, the sheer length of any given novel forces teachers to focus on large thematic issues, and specific passages of text are often given little attention. Framing the study of a novel within a historical context, however, encourages students to pay close attention to particular passages of text.

The most rewarding aspect of the approach is watching my students grapple with a variety of compelling topics. One student, for example, recently studied Bronte's treatment of Bertha Mason in relation to several nineteenth-century treatises on mental illness and the anxieties surrounding the effects of tropical climates on English colonists. She concludes that Bronte, who was familiar with much of this information, saw colonialism as a potentially dangerous enterprise. Rather than bringing civilization to the "savage" corners of the world, she argues that Bronte feared that the supposed savagery of native peoples was contagious and threatened to corrupt the fabric of English domestic life. Another student, writing on Mrs. Dalloway, examined the discourse surrounding the invention of the airplane to help understand the significance of the airplane in Woolf's novel. She discovered that people at the time responded ambivalently to the airplane, seeing it both as a sign of progress and possibility and an emblem of destruction and war, insights that led to a perceptive reading of Mrs. Dalloway. The students themselves get excited about such topics, and a comment on a recent course evaluation sums up the attitudes of many of my students: "The term paper was one of the most challenging I have ever written, but it proved to be one of the most valuable learning experiences as well."


[1] I include examples of historically informed criticism with the last few novels my students and I study. This provides students with enough models of historically informed criticism without burdening them with too much reading. Below I include a lesson plan for Burney's Evelina, which includes a critical essay. I provide students a variety of excerpts from eighteenth-century conduct books, and we study the novel within the context of this information.

Day 1: Discuss eighteenth-century conduct books for young women. Mini lecture on courtship and marriage customs in the eighteenth century.

Days 2 & 3: Consider the education of Burney's heroine. In what ways does she embody the feminine ideal as described in the conduct books? What limitations do the codes of conduct prescribed young women place on her? How does Evelina's compliance with this code make her vulnerable?

Day 4: Consider the ways Burney's novel critiques the notions of ideal feminine behavior in the eighteenth century. Discuss "Cinderella or Bluebeard: The Double Plot of Evelina" by Kenneth W. Graham. (Graham analyzes Burney's novel in relationship to eighteenth-century conduct books and can be found in the Norton Critical Edition of Evelina.)

Works Cited

Coldham, Peter Wilson. Emigrants in Chains. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 1992.

Defoe, Daniel. Moll Flanders. Ed. David Blewett. London: Penguin, 1989.

Durston, Gregory. Moll Flanders: An Analysis of an Eighteenth Century Criminal

Biography. Chichester, U.K.: Barry Rose Law Publishers Ltd, 1997.

Eliot, George. Daniel Deronda. Ed. Barbara Hardy. London: Penguin, 1986.

Brett C. McInelly, Brigham Young University, UT

Brett C. McInelly, an assistant professor of English at Brigham Young University, specializes in the British novel, eighteenth-century literature, and composition.
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Author:McInelly, Brett C.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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