The Gift of Pop Culture to the Open-Minded English Teacher

I firmly believe that young people are capable of developing an understanding and appreciation of classical literature, but it is the naive teacher who thinks that his or her students will arrive at this appreciation at first glance; naturally, it requires nurturing. I have found that the best way to inaugurate this nurturing is to explain the various elements of classical literature using pop culture, films in particular. The teacher must structure the lessons so that the films are studied as seriously as any classical text, of course, but once an analysis of this nature has been facilitated, the students will have been exposed to the various ways to analyze classical literature. This in and of itself will not immediately turn young people onto the classics, nor will it give them much in the way of being able to understand the more difficult diction and syntax; but it will provide them with the basic framework needed to view complex texts, and it will provide useful reference points that the students can connect to later when reading the literature; e.g.: “Gawain’s complaining a lot and doesn’t want to really do anything — he’s gotta be one of those reluctant heroes, like Frodo.” Reading specialists have long upheld the importance of making connections like these while reading. (Follow this link to a brief discussion of that topic.)

A major unit in my curriculum each year is tragedy, which I divide into two parts: plot-driven (or fate-driven) tragedy; and character-driven tragedy. The former employs a narrative that is driven to its tragic conclusion by way of the plot events alone, which can be termed “fate” within the context of the narrative; the latter, on the other hand, arrives at its catastrophic conclusion by way of the protagonist’s faults — or, perhaps, those of other characters. Romeo and Juliet, in which every major character is in some way flawed and guilty of the lovers’ downfalls, is clearly -fatedriven; we know this from the chorus’s employment of the term “star-crossed” in the prologue to Act 1. Most ancient Greek plays are fate-driven in some way, especially Oedipus Rex, in which many characters try and fail to avoid their inevitable destinies. I would argue, however, that in our world of religious skepticism and scientific cultisms that fate-driven tragedies, as such, have little application anymore: this is not to say that these plays have little relevance to us as humans, but rather that we quite quickly overlook most of the discussion of fate, seeing it as “archaic.” Instead, we focus on the characters within these plays: we look at, for instance, Juliet’s near-perfection and Oedipus’s steadfast ignorance of the truth. In this light, character-driven tragedies have a greater relevance to our modern society and universal humanistic experiences, for these focus on how negative character traits lead to disastrous actions and, ultimately, to catastrophic endings. These require no acceptance of faith, but instead require us to accept that humans are inherently flawed — or, failing that, that humans are at least capable of being flawed.

Thus, character-driven tragedies are structurally quite complex, particularly for young people at first glance. Fate-driven tragedies are generally easier for them to accept, for when asked why something happens, they can easily respond with something along the lines of, “Because fate says it has to.” Character-driven tragedies, however, require a close analysis of the narrative’s plot structure and the characters’ personalities before any inherent flaw (or flaws) can be identified. As an English teacher, I could follow the tradition route and jump right into a character-driven tragedy like Hamlet while explaining the structure along the way, but this allows for much confusion among the students: not only do they have to decipher the archaic diction and syntax, but they also have to figure out the structure as they go. Instead, I like to prepare the students beforehand by having them study the structure of “pop-culture” character-driven tragedies. The Star Wars films — particularly the Original Trilogy — lend themselves well to archetype analyses: Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell prove this wondrously in The Power of Myth. While the Prequel Trilogy — at least Episodes I and II — tends only to appeal to young boys (and George Lucas’s ego), Episode III is a surprisingly perfect example of the classical character-driven tragedy: the protagonist has a clear fatal flaw, he struggles with a clear inner conflict, and he suffers a clear catastrophic downfall because of his actions at the end. In fact, you can even perfectly apply Gustav Freytag’s plot diagram — initially intended to analyze the plot structures of Shakespearean tragedies — to Episode III. Thus, I have my students view the full film and simultaneously take notes on the various types of characters (protagonists, antagonists, round and flat characters), the various types of conflicts, and the various plot elements. This is easy, because the film is generally fast-paced and thus engaging to the younger audience; and yet, it is also an obvious depiction of the classical character-driven tragic structure. They type these notes up into a more organized and formal form, and in so doing complete a classical structural analysis of a narrative that is easily accessible to them; in this way, when they approach more difficult texts such as Hamlet, they already understand the structure so that all they need to struggle with is the archaic diction and syntax — certainly, enough of a struggle for them as it is.

Showing films in class is always a dangerous activity for teachers, especially English teachers, since this has traditionally been the sign of a lazy teacher. The key to side-stepping this, of course, is to keep the kids active and productive while viewing the film: taking notes, for example, or completing graphic organizers, or even frequently discussing what they see. I use films in class to demonstrate structure, and generally nothing else; I only rarely show film adaptations of the texts we read since these movies are generally quite inferior to the original narratives. Familiarizing the students with the structures of the various types of texts we study sets them on the path towards the understanding and appreciation of classic literature. The truly unnerving aspect of this for the concerned English teacher is that we cannot force them to go any farther down this path, for it is a journey they must undertake alone. We can certainly provide them with the opportunities to travel down the path — we can, for instance, assign some classic literature for reading, once the necessary structure has been introduced — but we cannot make them become lovers of the classics. This individual act of reading is best illustrated by Harold Bloom, who says in his introduction to Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages,

The child alone with her or his book is, for me, the true image of potential happiness, of something evermore about to be. A child, lonely and gifted, will employ a marvelous story or poem to create a companion for himself. Such an invisible friend is not an unhealthy phantasmagoria, but the mind learning to exercise itself in all its powers. Perhaps it is also the mysterious moment in which a new poet or storyteller comes to birth. (21)

I am not so naive as to think that this illustration represents all young people, or even most, but they are out there, and it is the charge of every English teacher to ensure that these children do not disappear. If I have to nurture the potential of these children by showing the occasional film — well, I guess there are worse things I could do.


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