During my first Christmas break as a high school English teacher in Florida, I sat down with the curriculum, a hand-written list of books Xeroxed so many times that the edges of the letters had become blurry. I had choices with the “Modern Novel,” the next unit of the year. The department head — an ardent, tough teacher of three decades, who had parents protest her teaching of Marquez, who taught Their Eyes Were Watching God to freshmen — reminded me, “If you care for it, you can make the kids care about it.”
When I saw that Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge was a “Modern Novel” on the senior year curriculum, I felt a great space open in my chest. I read Hardy’s poetry, Far From the Madding Crowd, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles in college. I didn’t know novels could so unflinching and unblinking. In Hardy, life doesn’t “work out” for everyone. Good people suffer and they die and the world does not ripple at their death. Survival, happiness even, demands compromise, eschewal, and tragedy.
Yes, I was making the choice to ask my students to read what I had. I allowed the kismet of the Hardy option to meet my impulse. His Wessex, the fictional Southwest England setting of his novels, had the same cycles of boom-bust Florida: nature razed for shaky industries, gray metal creeping across green fields. Men, always men, catching feelings about the money to be made, then deciding that the slow rituals of the past can be tossed away.
The Mayor of Casterbridge’s narrative is largely aftermath. In the first chapter, a 20-something hay trusser named Michael Henchard gets catastrophically drunk at a country fair and auctions off his young wife and infant daughter in a fit of self-pitying rage. Hardy’s narrator summarizes Henchard’s beta-male wallowing in the moments before the sale: “The conversation took a high turn…the ruin of good men by bad wives, and, more particularly, the frustration of many a promising youth’s high aims and hopes, and the extinction of his energies, by an early imprudent marriage.” Henchard awakes the next morning, takes a public pledge to abstain from liquor for 20 years, leaves the fair ground, and heads down the south coast of England to the regional hub of Casterbridge.
Almost 20 years later, Henchard has made himself into an agricultural plutocrat. But his white-hot rage and self-loathing burns on. He abuses his employees, fires them on a whim, and white-knuckles his sobriety. When we first see him in middle-age, he’s at the head of a table in Casterbridge’s upmarket inn, surrounded by subordinates, drinking “from his tumbler of water as if to calm himself or to gain time.”
The eyes through which we see this updated but unchanged vision of Henchard? A beautiful, naïve 20-something girl new to town: Henchard’s long-lost daughter, Elizabeth-Jane. The plot unfurls from there in a way that only serialized novels of the Victorian era can. Ancillary characters relay information under the drooping eaves of a shack, the narrator lingers on the symbolism of a bridge’s materials (Hardy himself was trained as an architect), lovers appear suddenly and die accidently, and a bright and decent young Scotsman named Farfrae with new devices for increasing grain production and eyes for Elizabeth-Jane becomes Henchard’s protégé.
In that first year, before asking the students to write a critical essay on the novel, I asked the seniors to “reboot” The Mayor of Casterbridge by writing five-page treatments set in 21-century south Florida.
The results astonished me. Students transformed the grain industry to the hotel business, peopled their stories with car salesmen, and even managed to work in the cocaine trade (thanks, lax bros!). The tumult of Hardy’s take on family and paternity became multi-ethnic families, hidden religious conversions, and addictions to pills or gambling. A right-wing Cuban patriarch (a Henchard) sells his wife and daughter not out of a corn-whiskey abyss but out of a shame for his Caribbean wife and child’s blackness. The end of the agrarian way of life in Hardy’s eyes became, in the eyes of a young woman whose family works on the boats and yachts in Palm Beach County, the transformation of a sleepy, humble fishing village into a glossy, anonymous eco-resort by a young, well-intentioned real estate developer (a Farfrae).
I had read their college essays in the fall. Adolescents, no matter how savvy or guarded, cannot help but disclose. Many of their Hardy-founded creative writings overlapped with their personal essays. Things that they had written in the fall, episodes from their young lives, came back again in their fiction: addiction, the working class, parents, how we live in the natural world, their stories in their towns in Florida, the unforgivable acts that only those close to you can commit, the things about yourself that you will never be able to change. They had shown me, in those college essays, glimpses of themselves at their most vulnerable.
My students conjured Floridian visions of Casterbridge that reflected the state. What would happen when the economy went cadaverous again and the boats and hotel guests disappeared, and Governor Rick Scott decided that fracking the Everglades was the future? How will my students react when the state tries to drug test SNAP recipients? What about when a private prison company tries to sponsor FAU’s football stadium? What about when another black child is killed by the police? To live in Florida in 2015 is to distrust beauty, to suspect relief.
The alchemy of book, classroom setting, geography, cultural moment, and motivated students had produced the godhead of the English classroom: Authentic connections across time, space, and between individual and group. Students were learning that literature’s “equipment for living,” to borrow Kenneth Burke’s phrase, could live inside a 19th-century novel, and that this equipment was honed by suffering resembling their own.
I wondered if I had done anything particularly special. Yes, I love Hardy. Yes, the book came late enough in the term for students to deploy their training in close reading and in claim making. Yes, I did well in setting up the novel, showing slides from the Lake District before showing an image of Picasso’s “Guernica” and asking the students to think about Hardy as the bridge between eras of thinking, ages of belief.
What I could never say, what a teacher should never say, is that I saw myself in one the characters: Michael Henchard. I drank fiercely in my 20s. I alienated peers; lost weekends; spoilt relationships with potential mentors; twisted quiet gatherings into loud, repulsive stand-up; said needlessly provocative things. I did not apologize. Living with shame felt like enough. When I read Henchard’s dialogue to the class, I felt the desperation. I felt how each stupid, instinctual decision he makes in the novel is an attempt to claw back the past, to scrub the quintessential, unnamable weaknesses out of his soul. When I made cases to my students for why Henchard could not be written off as “the worst” or “evil,” I rooted around for how I might defend the worst corners of myself. Sure, I played devil’s advocate for Henchard to present the pithy idea of “human frailty.” But I also played that part to uncover, label, and put away a version of myself.
Did I speak with particular power on Henchard? Did my voice rise in urgency? Did I offer the students a glimpse of the unexpected — digging for identification in a destructive character? What other doors had Casterbridge propped open? Was Henchard a glimpse of their mother? Their brother struggling with pills outside Tampa? How many Elizabeth-Janes did I have in my classroom? Had I made enough space for her story and the stories of my students who saw themselves in her?
In my second year teaching Casterbridge, I omitted the creative assignment. Instead, I asked the students to write an in-class essay about a symbol from the final chapters. Hardy wrote two endings for the novel, and I hesitate to spoil either of them. Both devastate. I foregrounded Casterbridge on our final exam, making the students juxtapose Henchard against other protagonists we read that year: Beowulf, Macbeth, and others. This time the student work was more clinical. Instead of mining their own lives, they examined, like astute literary surgeons, how exactly Henchard’s weaknesses and Elizabeth-Jane’s resilience circle each other in ways that recall Macbeth’s weaknesses and Banquo’s stoicism. One student — an international student, far from home, writing in her second language — wrote a brilliant in-class essay on how Henchard and Macbeth destroy their social and familial networks because their shared “unchecked” ambition confuses destruction with the desire to change. Her essay’s title: “Defeated By Life.”
I’ve just re-read her essay for at least the fifth time, and I wonder about what happened among Hardy, my students, Florida, 2015, and me. If the teenage years are hard enough, what business did I have adding to the misery? In Philip Larkin’s essay on Hardy, “Wanted: A Good Hardy Critic,” he makes the case that Hardy’s chief subject is “suffering.” Larkin argues that inaccurate readers see Hardy’s central characters as a “galleries of ‘losers’ against whom is ranged a contrasting gallery of winners.” We should instead, Larkin writes, see that suffering is “both the truest and the most important element in life, most important in the sense of most necessary to spiritual development.”
Moments of our Florida seemed comfortable: the blistering, pre-lapsarian beauty of seeing parchment-white ibises strolling between the school buildings and hearing students yelling happily as they run out of the school, the daily afternoon rain pausing overhead.
But high school English teachers know two things: adolescence is hard, and the literature you teach should reflect your students’ lives. Therefore, teenagers deserve literature that supplies suffering. For the students living through suffering, Hardy, and writers like him, can locate a student’s suffering and reflect it. That reflection can be a step toward recovery and development. The students living a life of comfort require the shaking alarm bell that survival is hard, people are deeply fallible, and life comprehensively unfair.
You, the teacher, have to dive into yourself to find the books that touch upon your suffering. You’ll teach them with greater urgency and match them to the sufferings of your students. They’ll engage with them — critically, imaginatively — with greater desire. In 2015, text complexity — the degree to which a book challenges, to the point of productive discomfort, a student with its vocabulary, syntax, rhetoric, and structure — is coin of the realm of the English classroom. Take that a step further. At the highest level, the deepest mode of text complexity should foster the deepest kinds of emotional engagements from the teacher and the students. If the book doesn’t affect and afflict everyone in the room, what’s the point? The prevailing winds of education theory seem to advocate for the opaque, “guide on the side” teacher who makes her or his stakes in the text mysterious at best.
Oddly enough, this desire reminds me of Henchard’s final act in Casterbridge: his writing of a will that demands that he be forgotten, that “no sexton be asked to toll the bell. & that nobody is wished to see my dead body. & that no murners walk behind me at my funeral. & that no flours be planted on my grave. & that no man remember me.”
But life, like the classroom, doesn’t work that way. Here, among teenagers and rough drafts, there is no place where the story cannot not see us. We, the students and the teacher, have to stand together under the discomforting light of what we might call suffering, what we might call literature.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.