Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Forever After

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Okay, I know.  The title.

I couldn’t help myself.

Just a couple of notes about the things I said yesterday:

First, I’m not talking about allusions or references.   In Anne of the Thousand Days, the fact that a child borne out of wedlock cannot inherit from his father is not an allusion or a reference, it’s the foundation of the plot. 

For the story to make any sense at all, you have to know what anybody even as late as 1960 would have known–that sex outside marriage was not only frowned on by a few judgmental people, but that it came with real legal penalties.

There has been a real break in social assumptions in the West since the 1960s.   Entire great rafts of social meaning have changed, and changed so radically that they make this culture unique in the history of the world. 

You can think that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but what it is is an enormous barrier to understanding. 

I’ll agree that my students are mostly less curious than, say, my children are, but students with their level of curiosity would have had no trouble understanding  Anne of the Thousand Days fifty years ago.

Even my students who are (seemingly) devoutly religious have this problem, because they don’t see extramarital sex as any big deal–it might not be the best way to behave, but if everybody treats everybody else right and everything is consensual, then the practice is at most a venial sin.

The idea that a girl’s parents might respond to the fact that she was pregnant out of wedlock by throwing her out of the house wouldn’t surprise them–but it would surprise them to think that this response was the usual thing with parents, rather than the depredations of people who are too rigid and controlling for their own good, and therefore not like the society around them.

And although sex is the obvious arena for this kind of social dissonance, it’s hardly the only one, and it’s hardly the most seriously damaging one.

Many of my students have a hard time understanding what the big deal is about plagarism, or cheating of any kind–they don’t see it as a blow to their own honor or integrity, because they see school (and life) as a game where they try to win and we try to stop them and there are no holds barred.

They’re also completely innocent of a world in which it mattered how you made your money, or how you got “famous.” 

In the world in which they live, almost any way is good enough.   They don’t like child abusers or serial killers, but they see nothing wrong with being Bernie Madoff as long as he’s getting away with it.

And even when he isn’t. 

Which bleeds into why they see nothing wrong with getting a BA by cheating their way through–it’s as if achievement had no content, only a finish line. 

It is not just difficult, but damned near impossible, to explain most of Western literature to people who think like this, because they lack almost all the key concepts as concepts, never mind as realities.

Honor, duty, integrity, loyalty, patriotism–the closest they come to any of it is in their conviction that cheating on the person you’re sleeping with is a bad thing.

I used to wonder why that one had survived when none of the rest of it had, but I think it’s because they have direct and irrefutable evidence of the consequences–they know that being cheated on hurts.  They’ve seen it in their own lives and the lives of their friends and family.

I am not trying to be universal here.  There are exceptions, and the exceptions are often spectacular. 

But even the exceptions live in an atmosphere without the shape of an actual culture–using “culture” here in the anthropological sense, I guess.

They remind me, in more ways than one, of the rich kid syndrome I saw growing up–the I can do anything as long as I get away with it and I can probably get away with it attitude of the richest kids from the richest families in the most expensive private schools and colleges, the people my father was always warning me against as people who had let money erase their common sense.

My kids aren’t rich, though, except in the sense that everybody in this country is rich vis a vis people in the shack villages of South America.

They don’t care because the society around them no longer seems to care. 

And the lack of understanding is truly profound. 

Every once in a while, I give students the Apology and the Crito and try to get them to talk about why Socrates would not escape his execution even if he could.  They find him an alien from another planet, and that’s if they’re willing to deal with him at all.

And “death before dishonor”?  I’d have to translate it. 

A few years ago I had an adult student, once a boat person from Vietnam.  He came to this country as a child, got married, had a family, built a business, encouraged his sons to go to college–and then had a massive stroke at forty-five.  It put him in a wheelchair and made him severely and permanently disabled.

So the sons gave up college and went to work to support their parents. 

My students find this story not inspiring or heart breaking or any of the rest of it.  They find it impossible.  They wouldn’t do anything like that, and if their parents made them they’d fight back, because something like that is just not fair.

And yet, I’d guess that in my parents’ generation, and even to an extent in mine, it was taken as a matter of course that in circumstances like that you would quit and support the family.  It was what families did, and what “family” meant. 

Given fiction in which such circumstances play a prominent part, their tendency is not to sympathize with the boy who gives up his dreams to support his suddenly widowed mother–but to blame him.   He should have been strong enough to resist his family’s pressures and follow his dream anyway.  Any normal person would have done that.

This sort of thing is not the same thing as not understanding an allusion or not getting a reference to the politics or the popular culture of the time. 

It’s a change that’s much more fundamental than that, and I don’t think I’m being completely crazy to say that it’s difficult to know how you teach literature to people like that.

Written by janeh

April 12th, 2011 at 6:42 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Forever After'

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  1. I think that’s more or less what people are saying. You get the references because you understand the underlying culture. You don’t get them because you, well, you don’t understand the culture underlying them. You don’t even KNOW that there might be a reason some character is making an unreasonably big fuss about a divorce or an illegitimate child? Then you must lack curiosity, and without the curiosity to ask ‘why?’ you’ll never figure out that not everyone thinks and reacts the way you do, or the way that would be approved or accepted in your culture.

    It doesn’t really have much to do with religion, except that until recently, religion and religious ideas were so pervasive that everyone, believers or not, knew the basics, just like everyone, watchers or not, could name off a few TV shows from back in the day when there were only a couple channels. So even aside from any religious beliefs underlying laws and attitudes, Christianity provided a common vocabulary and set of references for everyone.

    While I agree that our culture has changed and is changing drastically, and I’m not too happy about many of the directions in which it is going (basic bloody dishonesty, academic and financial, being a particular pet peeve), not everyone was able – or expected to – engage in self-sacrifice in recent past generations.

    In the 60s – and social trends generally took 10 years or more to trickle from the US to the rest of Canada to us – parents with disabled children were very strongly pressured to send them off to distant institutions in order to preserve the other children and the rest of the family from struggling to support and care for the child. And he or she would be better off with professional help and living with others of his or her kind. I suspect that this was more a harbinger of things to come than a lingering on of Victorian values, though. A mere signpost on the way to euthanizing people who have painful and difficult lives, and who require a lot of care. Our own self-fulfillment is more important than caring for relatives.

    And I never heard of any family throwing a pregnant daughter out into the snow!! Unexpected pregnancies were a family crisis, but once the initial revelation was made, the usual response was to go through with it and give the child up for adoption, this being seen as a sacrifice the mother made for the well-being of the child, since she was generally not in a financial position to raise the child. Sometimes, the grandparents would raise the child, or a hasty marriage would take place. Rarely, the parents would try to hide the whole mess from public view by sending the girl away for the whole period (‘going to visit Auntie’), but that was rather looked down on in my old home town as a bit of hypocrisy. Sending her away to relatives might be done, but pretending it had never happened – why, everyone knew!! Do they (the family) think we’re stupid?? Hypocrisy was a worse sin than a bit of illegitimate sex, which after all, could happen to anyone.

    Then, a young mother who somehow managed to keep a roof over her head and the baby fed would be considered selfish for not allowing the baby to have a better and more secure life with an adoptive family. Now, she can usually manage to get a roof over her head through social assistance – and she’s considered an unnatural female and a bad mother if she gives up her baby, no matter how much the child might benefit, and even if an open adoption involving relatives is on offer.

    When I used to see some of these very young mothers and the way they handled child-rearing, I thought the old ways had some merit, particularly when there are plenty of adoptive homes (as there are now, but weren’t back then).


    12 Apr 11 at 8:27 am

  2. Hmph. Welcome to the 18th Century. This is the English-speaking world of the Augustan Age, with sexual integrity and patriotism the preserve of the middle classes, existing neither among the aristocracy nor the urban poor.
    But I bet some of them understand loyalty and honor–at least in the senses of group loyalty and individual reputation: the gang-bangers and drug dealers can’t get by without.

    A pity your time is so limited. There is science fiction, fantasy and historical fiction written in the knowledge that the readers will not share the norms of the characters. Starting with kids who aren’t even aware of the possibility of other codes, and turning them loose on works in which the codes are assumed is pretty well shock therapy. You’ll lose a few who might have survived a more gradual immersion.

    But yes, worlds pass. I always keep a copy of Agnes Sleigh Turnbull’s MANY A GREEN ISLE around. A major chunk of the plot concerns finding a husband for a girl pregnant out of wedlock. Another chunk is about academic integrity. It was written as a contemporary in 1968. Ten or 15 years later, that world was as dead as Margaret Mitchell’s.

    But I still visit from time to time. Some of your kids will visit other worlds too. A few of them will live in other worlds. A lot of people went down with the TITANIC. That doesn’t mean the lifeboats were useless–only that the couldn’t save everyone.


    12 Apr 11 at 5:00 pm

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