Hannah Arendt on Storytelling

I’d been reading some Hannah Arendt for an upcoming post I’ve been working on and found this quote I liked. One of the reasons I love fiction so much is it is able to tell us indirect truths, truths we get to figure out for ourselves. Sometimes when a lesson is explained through a story it is more emotionally involving and impactful than non-fiction material.

How has fiction affected you?

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Teaching Narrative Structure with Kurt Vonnegut

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The hero about to embark on his journey

Hello all! It has been a very long time since I’ve posted because I’ve been busy pursuing my B. Ed. and with some major life changes (I’m having a baby in April!). I’ve also been posting mostly about education on my professional blog Teaching and Learning with Ms. McClelland. I’m still reading voraciously, currently reading Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and after that will be embarking on volume 5 (The Captive and the Fugitive) of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. This post though combines both teaching and literature, so I thought I’d share it here 🙂

I watched a video recently (see below) of Vonnegut delivering a lecture on the shapes of stories. It is entertaining and insightful, as Vonnegut often is, which made me think that it would be a perfect “Minds On” or “Hook” (or start of the lesson in layperson’s terms) in a unit on Narrative. This video is so approachable, it could be used for grades as young as 4, to as high as 12. First 24 seconds of the video is voiceover, so just skip ahead to get to the good stuff!

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“The Part of Me That’s No Fairy Tale”: Alice Major’s “puce fairy book”

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Fairy tales, originally folk tales from the oral tradition, transformed into stories suitable for children only much later, are fabulously entertaining studies of human nature. Fairy tales have a universal appeal; everyone enjoys a good bout of a hero’s journey through an enchanted forest to rescue a princess. I personally love fairy tales. I have some great illustrated versions of the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, and Giambattista Basile’s tales sitting on my bookshelf right now. However, many feminists, scholarly or otherwise, have criticized the role of women in fairy tales, as princesses are often helpless waifs in needs of saving.

Now, if you look more extensively at some of fairy tales (I’m thinking “Viola” from Basile’s The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones), you do find independent women, but for the most part if you are a strong, independent woman in a fairy tale, that probably means you’re an evil witch. Yikes!

Recently, female writers have been crafting revisionist versions of fairy tales, looking at them from a different perspective and challenging the social mores they uphold. Alice Major uses famous fairy tales in her poem “puce fairy book” to challenge the unfair expectations women are held to, especially by men in relationships. I present here the poem, and then an analysis of its meaning and significance:

puce fairy book

 

you wanted Rapunzel   waiting in a tower

braids of hair like ropes

stairs that only you could climb

 

my hair would never grow long enough

 

you wanted a lady   sleeping in a garden

no rings on her fingers

never been kissed

 

other princes had made it through my forest

 

so you tried revisionist tale-telling

and turned them into dwarves –

you wanted happy ever after

 

I forgot to water the roses round the door

 

I piled up mattresses    to cushion you

but you tossed and turned

bruised by that one small nub

 

the part of me that is no fairy tale

 

you brought me a crystal slipper

on a heart-shaped pillow

pretty    but slightly passé

 

my foot was too big to fit into it

 

you might have been the one true prince

but on mature consideration

I declined   with thanks   the honour

 

of cutting off my toe

 

First, let’s pay attention to the title. Puce is a nasty, reddish-brown, purple kind of colour, and its name is derived from the French “flea.” I probably don’t have to tell you how disgusting it is to associate a colour with a flea. Immediately it puts a bad taste in your mouth. Yes, the colour is purple, which is associated with royalty, but yes, it is a nasty-ass purple, indicating corruption or something being just plain wrong.

Maback of lacy dressjor focuses on a couple different fairy tales throughout the poem, each showing how the speaker is unable to meet the expectations of the “you” she’s addressing (presumably a man). The prince wants some specific things that the woman is unable to deliver such as Rapunzel’s “hair like ropes” (2), Sleeping Beauty having “no rings on her fingers/never been kissed” (5-6) and Cinderella’s dainty foot fitting in the crystal slipper. The reference to having strong, long hair is linked to female sexuality and traditional depictions of women, that show women with luxuriant, long hair. By the speaker’s hair not being “long enough” (4), the suitor is never able to access her sexuality in the way he would like. In contrast, the prince also wants a woman with “no rings” (presumably never been married) and virginal because she’s never been kissed. This brings up the impossible position many women are put in, as for thousands of years, a girl’s virginity has been honoured above all other things about her (apart from perhaps her ability to bear sons), and this is not a perspective society can get rid of at the stroke of midnight like Cinderella’s dress and carriage. Women are supposed to be empowered, confident, assured of themselves sexually, yet at the same time, slut-shaming is a very real thing, and men seem to oscillate between wanting a woman that is pure, yet one that will sexually satisfy him (and yes, I realize “not all men,” but just ride my train of thought as it relates to the poem). Think of Ludacris’s line about how he wants “a lady in the streets, but a freak in the bed.” Women are supposed to be sexual, but not too sexual, because that is threatening. The crystal slipper is an essential part of the poem that I will address later after looking at some of the earlier significant lines.

Like every other person on the planet, the speaker is not without her flaws. She “forgot to water the roses around her door” (12), implying that she did something wrong in the relationship, whether it was lying, cheating, or being distant, or even is guilty of an arbitrary slight that the suitor believes is unacceptable. Up until this point, it is the speaker associated with fairy tale princesses. It is interesting that after the speaker messes up, the suitor is the one who becomes the princess, as there is an allusion to The Princess and the Pea. Even though the speaker “piled up mattresses to cushion you…you tossed and turned” (13-14). This effeminization makes the suitor look absurd and like a prima donna (and let’s be honest, the princess from The Princess and the Pea was the prissiest, most high maintenance person ever).

The speaker admits, “other princes have made it through my forest” (8) (and yes, if you think that’s innuendo, you would be correct), but the would-be suitor reimagines them as dwarves to downplay the speaker’s other relationships. The suitor wants to control and manipulate the speaker, enclosing her within his idea of what she should be as a woman and a lover. The crystal slipper is the symbol representing his traditional viewpoints of relationship, with the woman being subservient to the man. You can tell that the slipper is supposed to be a “normal” nuclear relationship because it has all the trimmings of a kitschy Valentine’s Day gift, coming to here on a “heart shaped pillow” (18) despite being “passé” (19). Just as the speaker has failed the suitor’s expectations in other ways throughout the poem, here too her foot is too big to fit inbroken glass shoesto the shoe. This is her moment of power here because she refuses “the honour with thanks/of cutting off my big toe” (23-24). Just as the prince became associated with a princess earlier in the text, the speaker has changed roles too. In the Cinderella fairy tale, one of the stepsisters cuts off her toe in order to fit into the crystal slipper. So desperate is she to be married to a prince that she is willing to mutilate herself to please him and his shoe obsession. This hearkens to mind Chinese foot binding (or lotus feet) as one of the very real examples of how women have suffered to fit an ideal of beauty made by men. The speaker has become a stepsister, she is not even a princess anymore, showing her ultimate refusal to fit into mode of femininity.

Ultimately, Major presents a speaker who has a strong sense of self-worth. Rather than feeling bad about herself for having a part of her that is “no fairy tale,” (16) she rejects the suitor’s demands that she change for him. “puce fairy book” is an interesting take on the expectations we place on one another, the unrealistic pedestals we place others on and the disappointment that can come from that person not meeting our expectations. Using the allusions to traditional fairy tales, Major takes something associated with a universal, common sense kind of sensibility associated with fairy tales and twists it, showing a speaker that does not want to conform to rigid notions of what it means to be a real princess.


 

 

Twist Endings and the Morals of Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace”

“How life is strange and changeful! How little a thing is needed for us to be lost or to be saved!”[i]

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Twist endings to stories, apart from their entertainment value, are interesting because they always have a specific moral attached to them. One could say this of the ending to many stories, but twists seem to send home particularly strong messages. Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” for example, shows what happens when we don’t follow directions, what happens we mess with nature, and why we should never step on butterflies. Ever. Even if butterflies are creepy. Continue reading

What’s Love Got To Do With It?: “The Story of an Hour” and the Servitude of Marriage

“The Story of an Hour” is an excellent example of the idea that you don’t need to be wordy to get your message across. This succinct little story critiques the state of marriage in the late 19th century, showing the detrimental effects of power imbalance in relationships. Upon receiving news that her husband is probably dead from a railroad accident, Louise Mallard locks herself in a room where she doesn’t cry from grief, but exalts in the idea that she is finally free of the ol’ ball and chain. At the time, women were meant to be the “angel of the household.” In marriage, you are expected to become a domestic goddess, staying virtuous and in the kitchen. It was also very fashionable for women to be considered frail or delicate, and if they were rich enough, should busy themselves with sewing, music, or drawing, letting the servants do all the work, lest it strain their poor, hysteric nerves. Chopin is speaking out against this mentality, driving home the message that emancipation is preferable to staying in a stifling marriage. I wanted to offer a quick analysis of major themes and symbols in the text within this entry. If you haven’t read the story already, it is only 3 pages long, and you can access it here. Continue reading

Two Views of Poetry Part Two: Lowell’s “Fishnet” and the Poet’s Place in History

fishing nets

“I lie on a bed staring, crossing out, writing in, crossing out what was written in, again and again, through days and weeks. Heavenly hours of absorption and idleness…intuition, intelligence, pursuing my ear that knows not what it says. In time, the fragmentary and scattered limbs become by a wild extended figure of speech, something living…a person.”[i]

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