LitBits Guest Blogger

Using the Tools of Literary Analysis to Teach Emotionally Charged Topics

Blog Post created by LitBits Guest Blogger on Mar 28, 2018

 

Today's featured guest blogger is Lisa DuRose, Professor at Inver Hills Community College

 

“These characters and what they represent are things that I normally don’t read about, but these stories compel me to look at the reality that some women face.”

 

My student, quoted above, echoes what many others tell me about the works we read in my Introduction to Literature course: these selections are not their usual reading material and these characters have little in common with the protagonists they’ve encountered in some of their favorite works. At this point in the semester, students have been unsettled by characters who face poverty, mental illness, and death.

 

This week, however, we venture into a terrain that is even more emotionally challenging. We are reading a collection of short stories by contemporary author Bonnie Jo Campbell entitled Mothers, Tell Your Daughters. Campbell’s stories often feature strong working class women who mitigate dangerous terrain—troubled relationships, economic hardships, and addiction. Campbell’s first person narrators, however, often present the greatest opportunity for critical analysis. In some instances, these narrators are processing through sexual assault and molestation, and readers are drawn into each woman’s effort to sort out the traumatic details of these violations. 

 

Although we know that posts about sexual assault and harassment swarm students'Twitter feeds, we may be reluctant to engage students in substantial discussions about these highly charged topics for fear that we are ill-prepared to deal with the emotional impact they may have. However, those of us who teach literature understand that the tools of our discipline provide a framework for such discussions. Through the lens of literary devices and critical approaches, we can create a space that allows for both analytical understanding and social empathy, even as we venture through the most emotionally vulnerable themes. 

 

In the case of Campbell’s stories, I ask students to consider how the author’s choice of narration allows readers to glimpse the thoughts of protagonists who have suffered through sexual assault. To aid in their analysis, I provide students with ample background information: my video interview Interview with Bonnie Jo Campbell: Difficult Topics in Literature, a critical essay I’ve written about Bonnie Jo Campbell's Sources of Inspiration, and several reviews of the short story collection. These resources coupled with Campbell’s writing style—which is both lyrical and plain spoken—move my students toward a critical space that invites exploration rather than judgment.

 

Applying literary techniques to Campbell’s story “Playhouse” has led to complex discussions about the roots of sexual violence and the often complicit social responses they prompt, especially among family members. In this piece, Janie, the narrator, gradually discovers that she was gang raped three weeks earlier during a party at her brother’s house. She “feels sick and weird” (15) and her brother hasn’t returned her phone calls. The story opens with Janie returning to her brother’s house and learning that her brother, who recalls more about that night than Janie, is inclined to chastise his sister’s behavior and excuse the actions of his friends, one of whom he calls “a decent guy” (31). As Janie struggles to piece together her memories of that evening, the reader glimpses the emotional nuances of her discovery—experiencing first confusion, doubt, guilt, and then a sort of sickening knowledge. However, even as the events of that night become more lucid, she still struggles to identify the violation. After she tells her brother that she thinks she’s been raped, she second guesses herself: “The word raped feels all wrong, and my heart pounds in a sickening way” (31). When she says the word again, “it feels even more off-kilter, like I really am a drama queen, creating from thin air a victim and perpetrators and accessories” (31).

 

Students are quick to comment about how upsetting this story is, but I’ve noticed that when they are asked to frame their responses around questions of literary techniques, they are able to articulate a deeper understanding of the stories and the theme. When students are asked to apply a range of critical responses—including feminist, Marxist, and reader-response—their interpretations are even more enhanced.

 

Since many of Campbell’s protagonists live in poverty, students learn about the connection between sexual assault and poverty through Callie Marie Rennison’s New York Times article “Who Suffers the Most From Rape and Sexual Assault in America,” which explores how “women in the lowest income bracket are sexually victimized at about six times the rate of women in the highest income bracket (households earning $75,000 or more annually).” 

 

For some students, these topics are highly personal; a few will identify themselves as victims of sexual violence, often commenting about the realistic depictions in these stories. In every case, these revelations have enhanced the level of respect and community in the classroom.

 

These are difficult topics to discuss, but such conversations are already happening outside of the classroom. When we include them in a literature classroom, we can provide a framework that not only enriches our students’ knowledge but stretches their capacity for empathy.

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