Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Pedagogy of the Undressed: Sherwood Anderson's Kate Swift

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Pedagogy of the Undressed: Sherwood Anderson's Kate Swift

Article excerpt

Sherwood Anderson idealizes Kate Swift as "a tiny goddess on a pedestal" (160) (1) yet seemingly discards her once she has served her purpose. Critics tend to conclude that Anderson fails his female characters; Marilyn Judith Atlas points out that Anderson denies Kate Swift the kind of "ascension" toward a new life that he affords some of the male characters of Winesburg. (2) Kate is trapped within several female types, most notably, the modest, no-nonsense schoolteacher behind whom hides a sexual wildcat. Despite Anderson's attempts to define her and George's misunderstanding of her desire, in the role of the teacher she is at her most successful. By combining character analysis with critical pedagogy (3) in the context of Winesburg, Ohio, I aim to provide a thorough reading of Kate Swift as a teacher and to remain faithful to Anderson's explanation of Kate: "She was a teacher but she was also a woman" (164-65). (4)

Kate understands and controls her sexual desire but readily demonstrates that love and learning coexist. Kate's desire "to open the door of life" to George Willard was so strong that "it became something physical" (164) and Kate embraces that physicality as a teaching tool. Kate's readiness to teach eventually moves beyond her own awareness with the Reverend Hartman and is at its most deliberate with the young schoolchildren in her classroom. When Kate is teaching, her "biting and forbidding" character becomes passionate and beautiful; the children sit "back in their chairs and look at her" (161). She "was not known in Winesburg as a pretty woman" (160), but when she shares her passion with George he becomes "aware of the marked beauty of her features" (164). Kate does not touch the children in her classroom for they lack the maturity to understand what she carries within; instead, she walks "up and down in the schoolroom," her "hands clasped behind her back." The reader is told she is stern, "yet in an odd way very close to her pupils" (161). Indeed, the youngsters in her care often did not understand her--she sometimes made up stories that confused them, and once made a boy laugh so hard that "he became dizzy and fell off his seat" (162). After this Kate quickly resumed control of the atmosphere of the classroom.

Children are schooled in order to be trained in facts, but primarily to be taught the difference between public and personal behavior. Kate does not touch her students or seduce them into learning; rather, she is a model of restraint and public behavior. Children look at the teacher's body sensually and instinctively, and as Madeleine Grumet explains in Bitter Milk, intentionality, desire, and "the capacity to symbolize" (104) are learned through the gaze. Touch is retrained in school; the body must surrender in order to be educated. When the child is quiet, still and attentive, learning can begin. In the room full of children, Kate is clothed and physically inaccessible, conveying a lesson concerning public behavior. She is aware of the power of the body to send messages and uses that power appropriately. With the voyeuristic Reverend she is powerless and presents a humbling message about private behavior. With George Willard she uses her body's passion in a different way. Kate and George are on more equal ground, because they are both adults and because they regularly converse with each other. Kate enjoys speaking with George and allows her body to respond with the power of pleasure.

Teachers' bodies convey messages that alert students to the teacher's availability as a guide or confidant, the teacher's attitude toward her or his subject, or even toward the confines of the environment in which they are teaching and learning. The student comes to the classroom expecting to encounter "the subject presumed to know," which, Lacan explains, causes desire and, through transference, love. The teacher's body naturally becomes objectified as he or she stands in front of the class with something to profess. …

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