Teaching the Novel in Context

By McInelly, Brett C. | Academic Exchange Quarterly, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Teaching the Novel in Context


McInelly, Brett C., Academic Exchange Quarterly


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.

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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 He had certainly ability, would have understood that it was safer to exterminate than to cajole superseded proprietors, and would not have flinched from making things safe in that way" (655).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. …

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