Teacher’s Corner: Slaughterhouse-Five

**Originally published on thedreamcage.com**

http://www.thedreamcage.com/2017/05/book-get-lit-on-lit-slaughterhouse-five.html

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Back again with another edition of Getting Lit on Lit, otherwise known as the Teacher’s Corner. This week, I thought we could dissect parts of an amazing novel, one of my favorites, for all those who may have loved the work but never really understood the end of the novel. This week we look at Kurt Vonnegut’s masterpiece Slaughterhouse-Five.

This novel is full of Vonnegut’s trademark wit and contains incredible lines of dialogue. I will share some throughout but what I really want to focus on today is the author’s use of the distorted and disorganized timeline. If you have ever read this novel, you know that events take place completely out of order and we are sort of thrust into each scene never truly knowing where we are at. Luckily Vonnegut does provide us with a topic sentence to explain what year the jump takes us to and what our hero, Billy Pilgrim, is doing at this particular time.

First, let’s start by prefacing this whole article with a giant SPOILER ALERT! I will be talking about different parts of this novel and I don’t want to ruin what is an incredible literary work for someone who wants to engage it at their own pace and on their own terms.

For a little bit of background, Kurt Vonnegut was a soldier in World War II, was captured and became a POW, and was being held prisoner in Dresden, Germany when the entire city was destroyed by Allied Fighters in what many consider to be one of the greatest military atrocities outside of the Atomic Bombs. Dresden was a non-military city full of classic architecture and an almost completely civilian population and between February 13th and 15th of 1945, there were four raids which firebombed and leveled 1600 acres of the city center. There were two more raids on later dates that destroyed what was listed as the strategic target, a major railway station, and in the end casualties have been listed as anywhere from 22,000 to over 100,000. They were not able to extricate many of the bodies from buildings and so those were simply burned to ash. I won’t comment on whether or not the firebombing was justified as this isn’t the appropriate theater for such a conversation but suffice it to say the event shaped Vonnegut as a person and a writer. Slaughterhouse-Five is, at its core, a very anti-war book.

Throughout the novel there are incredible lines that detail Vonnegut’s emotions regarding the war.

“I have this disease late at night sometimes, involving alcohol and the telephone.”

Or

“The nicest veterans…the kindest and funniest ones, the ones who hated war the most, were the ones who’d really fought.”

Or

“I think you guys are going to have to come up with a lot of wonderful new lies, or people just aren’t going to want to go on living.”

Vonnegut understood that the war, while necessary, was incredibly brutal and destroyed the humanity in people, especially in those young men who were forced to fight while still basically children. This is one reason for the subtitle of the book: Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death. In fact, the first chapter of the book is all about Vonnegut struggling to write the novel in question. There is a portion where the wife of an old friend yells at him, telling him not to glorify the war and declaring, “You were just babies.” The book itself doesn’t really begin until Chapter 2.

Over the course of the book, we see different moments in Billy Pilgrim’s life. He is taken prisoner, spurned by everyone who was supposed to be on his side in the war. We are treated to the senseless death of a man who, having survived so many terrible events during the war, was executed for stealing a teapot. We get to see Pilgrim meet and marry his wife, have a child, become obsessed with Aliens who have abducted him, see his wife die while he is in the hospital after surviving a plane crash, and more. His life is full of events which do not seem to phase him.

The Tralfamadorians, the aliens who abduct Billy, teach him that life is not linear. It is a series of moments: “There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects…All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist.” They help to explain some of the feelings we see and don’t see throughout Billy’s life. In fact, there is an amazing exchange between himself and the aliens which really hits home their view of life and helps us to determine some things about the novel:

-“Why me?”
-“That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?”
-“Yes.”
-“Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”

This goes a long way to explaining why, throughout all of these events, Billy stays relatively the same and doesn’t really seem to lose himself to any emotion. That will all come back to play a vital role later on. But, as we jump from place to place in Billy’s timeline, the burning question that remains is why construct a narrative in this fashion. What could possibly be achieved through this?

Well, simply stated, the timeline is there to represent Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or at least that is how I have always interpreted this function. People suffering from PTSD will often have flashbacks, lose track of where they are, and then come right back. The use of flashing forward and backward in time is simply a manifestation of where the damaged soldier’s mind is as he attempts to survive in a world that left him behind. Once again, we will deal with this and the overall meaning of the work in just a moment.

We can tell that Vonnegut is not whole anymore after his experiences in the war but that he needs to complete the writing of this book to survive and to finally be okay with himself. He references Lot’s Wife, the biblical character, discussing why she turned and how that caused her to become a pillar of salt. He says he thought her turning was the most human thing of all and then shortly after, he says, in regards to this book, “This one is a failure and had to be because it was written by a pillar of salt.” He understands that the book can’t be a great success because of the tragedy of the event, although a great success is really what it became. There is an amazingly introspective moment in the novel when he writes: “People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it anymore.” We can tell that he needs to move on and this book is giving him the power to do so.

Now, for the final scene of the novel. In the beginning of the work, Vonnegut tells us that the book ends with “Poo-tee-wet.” This is true. We flash back to the war, right after the bombing of Dresden, when Billy was free. Below is the text:

There were hundreds of corpse mines operating by and by. They didn’t smell bad at first, were wax museums. But then the bodies rotted and liquefied, and the stink was like roses and mustard gas.

So it goes.

 The Maori Billy had worked with died of the dry heaves, after having been ordered to go down in that stink and work. He tore himself to pieces, throwing up and throwing up.

So it goes.

So a new technique was devised. Bodies weren’t brought up any more. They were cremated by soldiers with flamethrowers right where they were. The soldiers. stood outside the shelters, simply sent the fire in.

Somewhere in there the poor old high school teacher, Edgar Derby, was caught with a teapot he had taken from the catacombs. He was arrested for plundering. He was tried and shot.

So it goes.          

And somewhere in there was springtime. The corpse mines were closed down. The soldiers all left to fight the Russians. In the suburbs, the women and children dug rifle pits. Billy and the rest of his group were locked up in the stable in the suburbs. And then, one morning, they got up to discover that the door was unlocked. The Second World War in Europe was over.

Billy and the rest wandered out onto the shady street. The trees were leafing out. There was nothing going on out there, no traffic of any kind. There was only one vehicle, an abandoned wagon drawn by two horses. The wagon was green and coffin-shaped. Birds were talking.

One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, ‘Poo-tee-weet?’

Now over the course of the novel, the phrase “So it goes” appears after every single mention of death, showing the almost apathetic feeling that Vonnegut has towards death. That being said, the emotions in the work are anything but apathy. “So it goes” simply shows that so much death has happened and will continue to happen and there is nothing any of us can do to stop it. The world will go on, even if we feel like we can’t. That raises questions about the bird and its simple question. Vonnegut tells us that there is nothing that can be said about a massacre. It simply is and so asking a nonsensical question like this makes as much sense as the massacre did.

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Why does he end the book in this fashion, flashing back to the description of the bodies and the death that was witnessed? Think about what we know of the novel and its timeline. He suffered great emotional distress from is experiences in the war and it unhinged his mind forever. The reason Vonnegut ends the novel in this flashback is because this-this is when Billy truly dies. He may live on but this is the moment that his sanity and his innocence and really all that made him human and alive died. This event destroyed what was left of his humanity and so, after the massacre and the death and the senselessness, the only thing we can end with is the nonsensical utterings of a bird. To Billy, and possibly even to Vonnegut, that was what made him the man he was. That event destroyed his life and so it seems most appropriate to end on—war is hell and it destroys and corrupts and disrupts life. To end this article and really drive home the point of the work, I think we should let Vonnegut shine some light:

Over the years, people I’ve met have often asked me what I’m working on, and I’ve usually replied that the main thing was a book about Dresden.

I said that to Harrison Starr, the movie-maker, one time, and he raised his eyebrows and inquired, ‘Is it an anti-war book?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I guess.’

‘You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?’

‘No. What do you say, Harrison Starr?’

‘I say, “Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?”‘

What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that too.

And, even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.

If you haven’t ever read this before, do yourself a favor and pick it up. It is incredible in its scope and power.

 

Teacher’s Corner: The Raven

**originally published on thedreamcage.com**

http://www.thedreamcage.com/2017/03/book-get-lit-on-lit-raven.html

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There are few pieces of American fiction more recognizable than Edgar Allan Poe’s seminal classic “The Raven.” It is taught at numerous ages and grades and is remembered and recounted at yearly Halloween specials. It is one of the most alluded to works in pop culture, appearing in episodes of The Simpsons (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bLiXjaPqSyY) – I use this every year because it cracks me up, Garfield and Friends, Tiny Toon Adventures, The Addams Family, Gilmore Girls, and countless others. This famous work, while beautiful and rhythmic harbors a dark, depressing secret, but then, if you have ever read it, you probably already know that.

In analyzing poetry, establishing an understanding of the context behind each work becomes as, if not more, important than doing so with novels. Poets usually pour their lives into their work and so at least a passing knowledge of the artist is usually needed to fully grasp the work as a whole. If any of you have ever studied Poe before, you know that his life was a terrible mess. Every woman in his life died tragically of tuberculosis, the last of which, his wife Virginia, seemed to spiral Poe out of control. Also, he suffered from depression, alcoholism, and failure in his work. While “The Raven” is easily his most recognizable work, Poe only received a total of $9 for publishing the work and miniscule proceeds, if anything at all, after.

Almost all of Poe’s poetry deals with death, especially the death of a beautiful woman. Most of these works, namely Poe’s other incredibly famous Poem “Annabel Lee,” deal with the loss of his wife. It is so commonplace in his work that an old student of mine titled her Thesis over his work: “Poe Cries Over Dead Ladies,” a title that made me laugh out loud. With all of this knowledge, we can now begin to look at the beautiful work which made Poe a household name.

The first thing to really notice about “The Raven” is Poe’s amazing ability to craft a rhythm. His constant use of internal rhyme (Words in the middle and at the end of a single line which rhyme) and alliteration (repetition of initial consonant sounds), propel the work forward and create a wonderful, dream-like sound, almost musical. Take for instance the following lines:

“Once upon a midnight dreary while I pondered weak and weary

That internal rhyme is repeated multiple times throughout the poem, giving not only the song-like structure but also the musical quality and a nice parallelism between the stanzas. As for the alliteration, there are numerous instances of that as well:

“And the Silken, Sad, unCertain rustling of each purple curtain”

Doubting, Dreaming Dreams no mortal ever Dared to Dream before”

These lines and the others in similar fashion push the tempo and rhythm and create not only an ethereal sound but also a very memorable one.

Besides the craft and structure, the poem also presents a tragically beautiful analogy. As before, we have discussed that figurative language and symbols help to build extended metaphors and allegories. There are multiple allusions and symbols present in the poem which help to develop the overall story of a man haunted by the loss of his lover.

The Raven, classically a bird of death (not because of the color but because of the fact that it is a carrion bird), is the most overt symbol in the entire work. It appears out of the world and stays to haunt the narrator, only ever uttering the phrase “Nevermore.” When it enters the room, it immediately goes and posts itself “upon a bust of Pallas” above the door of the room. Pallas refers to Pallas Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and the embodiment of the perfect woman.

The room itself seems to hold a larger meaning as well. We never see the outside world. Instead, when the narrator throws open his study door, there is simply nothing. The same is shown when he opens his window and lets the bird in. We are never given any indication of the description or even existence of the outside world as a whole and, in keeping with other works of Poe’s (“The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Haunted Palace”), that leads me to believe that the study in which the man sits is representative of his own mind. There is nothing outside because, in his state of sadness and grief, the outside world is nonexistent or at least inconsequential.

There are also multiple allusions presented. Poe first references Seraphim, a choir of angels, who come and perfume the room with incense. He also references nepenthe, a drug of forgetfulness in Greek mythology. When denied, he asks if there is balm in Gilead, a direct reference to Jeremiah and his curative medicine, and when that doesn’t work, he asks about a place named Aidenn (another name for Eden, referencing the Biblical paradise). All of these allusions deal with the speaker struggling valiantly to escape his sadness. We will come back to this later.

Now that we have looked at all of the elements of the poem separately, lets piece them together and discover what the work is truly about. Our narrator is sitting one night, in December, reading old books (volumes of forgotten lore) and struggling to escape the memory of his lost love, Lenore. We know that she is dead and not just gone by his diction – “the lost Lenore” and “nameless here for evermore.” All of a sudden the narrator is stirred form his pondering by a tapping sound at his door. He opens the door but to his surprise, there is nothing there. When he hears the same sound from his window, he goes to the sill, opens the window and in flies a Raven.

He startles as the bird perches atop the bust of Pallas Athena and stares at him. The narrator addresses the Raven, asking what its name is, and is given the response of “Nevermore.” The narrator spends multiple stanzas wondering and convincing himself that the bird had learned this phrase from an old master, but we are given another glimpse into the heart of our narrator when he says, “Other friends have flown before–/On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.” Our narrator feels abandoned and is convinced that like everyone else in his life, this bird—his new companion—will also desert him. Luckily, or unluckily as we soon find out, the bird says “Nevermore,” indicating that he will never leave the speaker.

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Next we are given multiple stanzas that show the speaker’s incredible sadness at the loss of his love. Remember those allusions from before? Here is where they will come into play. The speaker believes that angels have sent the bird and asks if it has brought him divine respite and nepenthe from the lost Lenore. He wishes above all else just to forget his sadness. Unfortunately, this is not the case and the bird says nevermore. Next the speaker asks if there is balm in Gilead, hoping that maybe the bird has brought him medicine to help heal his broken heart, but again, the bird says nevermore. Lastly, and at his wits end, the narrator asks the bird if in the afterlife, Lenore is in heaven. Once again, and frustratingly so, the bird answers again, “Nevermore.” No matter what the man wants—to forget, to heal, or to know about the afterlife, the bird simply will not oblige.

The narrator curses the bird, wishing him to leave the room and the bust of Pallas and go back to the hell from whence he came but the bird refuses, saying “Nevermore” once again. The poem ends with the bird sitting forever on the bust, looking down and casting his shadow over the man who will never escape.

So what does it all mean? The bird of death perching on the bust of Pallas is symbolic of not only the death of the narrator’s wisdom but also the death of the ideal woman. The speaker has lost the love of his life and because of this, he has lost the will to think logically. The speaker wants to escape his sadness and depression (the Raven as well) but the bird never leaves and never will leave, symbolizing that the narrator will never be able to escape his depression. The final lines of the poem are incredibly moving, showing us that no matter what happens, the man will never be able to escape the personal hell in which he is engulfed:

“And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!”

This poem is a true testament to the sadness and depression which can completely overtake a person when the one they love most has been taken too soon.

Teacher’s Corner: No Country for Old Men

**Originally published on thedreamcage.com**

http://www.thedreamcage.com/2017/05/book-get-lit-on-lit-no-country-for-old.html

It has been a while since I have had a chance to talk about literature so I wanted to cover something that I think is widely misinterpreted. Cormac McCarthy, the greatest American writer of the past fifty years, has blessed the world with multiple novels of immense power. He is known for Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West, Outer Dark, Sutree, and All the Pretty Horses. He also won a Pulitzer Prize for his unflinching and transcendent novel The Road in 2006. The novel I am going to talk about today is his famous 2005 novel No Country for Old Men, made even more famous by the amazing adaptation of the Cohen Brothers in 2007 (which was the recipient of four Academy Awards). I don’t want to ruin the novel for anyone because it is an experience. It was reviewed by our own Nate Mackenzie for The DreamCage so if you want a full review, check that out. This will be more about the final scene in the book/movie.

When I went to see the film in the theater, I was blown away by how accurately the directors had recreated the novel. Of course the incredible acting by Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones truly helped but it was nailed home by the portrayal of the novel’s villain Anton Chigurh by Javier Bardem (he won the Academy Award for best supporting actor for his work). Chigurh is easily my favorite book and film villain for multiple reasons but one in particular: he is strangely realistic for being such a murderous and systematic killer.

The entire novel focuses on the idea that the world is growing more and more violent as the years pass and that there is no room left for the men who came before. The world has surpassed them in darkness and very little the old world can accomplish could make a difference in a world that is increasingly violent and scary. The novel is punctuated by little frames of narrative from Sheriff Ed Tom Bell who gives commentary on what is/has happened. He is the ageing lawman who feels as though he no longer can compete with the modern world and he may truly be right. He tells the reader about his past, his shortcomings in the military, and his undeserved accolades in war which have led him to become the insecure, scared old man we see. Also, throughout the story we learn that his father was a fearless lawman who was unafraid to confront the world, even as it ended up killing him.

When the film cut to black, I heard multiple audience members scoff and complain about how the ending was worthless, didn’t make sense, was stupid, etc. All of the common complaints when something incredibly philosophical goes over the heads of people who either didn’t or refused to grasp the concept. THAT is what we are going to discuss here today.

The very last scene in the novel is Bell sitting at his table with his wife, days after he has retired from the force. He was never able to capture Chigurh who has disappeared into the ether as he does so well. Bell retired and now feels like he has no purpose. He talks about his father and the two dreams about his old man he has recently had. At the end of his second description the novel ends. It is a questionable ending and has caused a lot of confusion but I want to discuss the utter power of the last few lines.

Here are the dreams as McCarthy writes it:

I had two dreams about him after he died. I dont remember the first one all that well but it was about meetin him in town somewheres and he give me some money and I think I lost it. But the second one it was like we was both back in older times and I was on horseback goin through the mountains of a night. Goin through this pass in the mountains. It was cold and there was snow on the ground and he rode past me and kept on goin. Never said nothin. He just rode on past and he had this blanket wrapped around him and he had his head down and when he rode past I seen he was carryin fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. About the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin on ahead and that he was fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. And then I woke up.

First we should analyze the symbols presented by the author. One prevailing symbol that McCarthy uses in multiple novels (namely The Road) is the fire. To McCarthy it seems it represent the goodness inherent in human existence. That fire is so important to maintaining humanity in a dark world. Another symbol present is the horn in which the fire is carried. As Bell states, the horn was used to carry fire in the long forgotten past. That will be important later in the analysis. For now, just note that the horn is representative of times gone passed.

Now, as we have discussed, Bell feels somewhat lost since he has retired. His purpose as a lawman is now over and although he survived, the entire novel just went to prove how out of his depth he was in the modern world. It was wholly a loss on his part and because of that, he feels even more lost than before.

The dream serves as a sort of message to Bell that he has truly lost his purpose and that the world is for him no longer. Look at what he describes: He sees his father ride by on a horse carrying fire out into darkness and cold and he was preparing to build a fire and that if Bell went along, his father would be waiting for him. That is a simple summary of the dream. Now, if we look at the whole thing as a metaphor representing Bell’s veritable impotence in his job and his spirit later in life, the dream seems to mean so much more.

His father was a lawman without fear who ended up taking on crime without fear and although it cost him his life, he was a true hero. Bell however was a coward who was treated as a hero and never got over that fact. His father rides by on a horse, looking younger than Bell because he died as a young man. He is carrying the fire, human kindness, strength, and justice, in a horn representing the strength and courage of the old lawmen. He rides by and Bell watches him go. He says that he knows his father is “fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark.” His father was never afraid of the world and regardless of how scary or violent the world became, his father fought with everything he had to maintain that goodness. He was out there waiting in the world and Bell knows that if he just followed in his father’s footsteps, he could find that fire and live like his old man. Sadly, Bell wakes up before he can because he has retired from the force and he will never be able to go out into that darkness to help maintain the goodness and strength his father represented. Instead he ran the other direction and now, with his retirement, the chance to live up to his father’s legacy, to become one of the true good guys, to fight the darkness of a modern world has slipped through his fingers. He is an old man and the new world is too dark and violent a place for him. It truly is No Country for Old Men.

In essence, the last dream really exemplifies the meaning of the work as a whole. The last dream is a powerful image portraying the failure Bell feels as a retired Sheriff in a world that has passed him by.

Follow me on twitter: @TheDavidMAmes

Teacher’s Corner: The Minister’s Black Veil

**Originally published on thedreamcage.com**

http://www.thedreamcage.com/2017/03/book-get-lit-on-lit-ministers-black-veil.html?m=1


This week in class we have been discussing parables and allegories. After moving through the extensive extended metaphor presented by Gilding in Lord of the Flies, I moved my students to 19th century America and the classic works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. We mainly focused on my favorite of his works, the parable entitled “The Minister’s Black Veil” which is a wonderful story discussing human nature and the ways in which we hide from each other. Once again, as I discussed in the last post, the goal of these little teacher’s corner articles is to open up dialogue about great literature and to help us #savetheculture that seems to be dying.

As with most of Hawthorne’s work, “The Minister’s Black Veil” takes place in a small Puritan village in 17th century America. The story begins as the community funnels into their local church and waits from their pastor to emerge from his home. As he does, there is something noticeable about his appearance—over his face is a black veil which hangs to just above his lips. The rest of the short story details how this small piece of black crepe separates the pastor from the world and how many were so affected by the appearance of the veil that they shuddered and fled from his presence. As he grew older, he became a widely respected and celebrated pastor but his veil remained where it first was placed. It is said that he never removed the veil, even when alone, and that he was eventually buried with the fabric still covering his face. Love, brotherhood, and even death could not remove the veil which, as he aged, had made him such a powerful and important religious leader.

When discussing this story, it is first of note to mention that this is based on the true story of Joseph Moody of York, Maine, a clergyman who was involved in the death of a friend and wore a black veil until he died. Next, the context of this story is of great importance. The puritans were a group of people whose soul focus (ha, pun) was God and salvation. While they did believe in predestination, they worked tirelessly in God’s service and so sin, morality, and judgement were all driving factors in their everyday lives. Knowing this gives us an insight into the meaning of the work and the parable Hawthorne has crafted. Father Hooper, the veiled protagonist, refuses to remove the veil from his face for any reason, and even as his congregation, the children of the town, and his fiancé drift away from him, his resolve never falters. What then, is the symbolic meaning of the veil?

In the world of puritan New England, there was no grey area in regards to sinning. Also, if we look at ourselves as humans, we know that everyone sins and that many of us keep ours hidden away, either out of fear or embarrassment. IN the story, we see many people stare at the veil and eventually become not only repulsed but terrified by what it implies. Hawthorne has created a story that showcases the hidden lives and sin of everyone by creating a character who wears a physical representation of that sin on the outside. By showing everyone his own demons, others who see him are reminded of their own and that proves to be a powerful preaching tool.

In the end we are treated to the following lesson, one that I use parable/allegory squares to teach my students. The first step in understanding any allegory is to break down the predominant elements in the story and then make them into a simple statement showcasing the basic storyline. For example:

Father Hooper wears a black veil to hide his face from others and himself.

Pretty simple, right? Now what we need to do is figure out what elements are symbolic. To do this, we simply replace the major people or objects from the story with what they represent. We are left with this:

People wear a mask/fake face/façade to hide their sin from others and from God.

With that, we can see the message of morality that Hawthorne has constructed. In writing this story, he draws attention to the fact that everyone has secrets but we must acknowledge those and work through/past them if we ever want to grow as individuals. That is the human question present in Hawthorne’s “The Minster’s Black Veil.” Secret sin consumes all of us and to work through these issues, we must make them known not only to ourselves but to those around us—it is the only way to truly grow.

Our Polaris

Pushing forward into the burst

Of color and radiating beauty,

A somber reminder of how small we are.

And as the tires spin endlessly on axles,

Mimicking the Earth around the sun,

The city becomes our Polaris

And the night fills with endless possibilities…

These are the nights I live for

Teacher’s Corner: The Allegory in Lord of the Flies

**originally published at thedreamcage.com**
http://www.thedreamcage.com/2017/03/book-get-lit-on-lit-lord-of-flies.html 

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By trade, I am a high school English and Film teacher and an adjunct college professor. I love the world of literature and especially the way we can look into a written work and really explore the structure and symbolism of each piece, finding beauty and truth in every line. Literature is a wonder in that there can be multiple interpretations for a work and yet, we can usually still arrive at a unified idea of what universal truth the author is trying to portray. I had been talking with my colleagues at The DreamCage and we thought it would be fun to have a little teacher’s corner where I can discuss whatever work I am reading with my students. I will focus on one major aspect of the work and then discuss what it means as a whole, to the work, and to humanity. Great literature, at its core, usually discusses one thing: the Human question—what human truth is being expressed in the work, what theme has the author developed over hundreds of pages, what idea did the writer NEED to express to the reader? This corner will be a place where we can discuss these things. If you want to join in, leave a comment requesting a work and I’ll see what I can do. I am going to try and keep this centered on famous works of literature (novels, short stories, poetry) so try to keep your ideas in that realm. I will warn you that spoilers will abound so if you haven’t read the work we are discussing, you may want to wait until after. Maybe we will establish a lovely little community to help us continue the #savetheculture movement or, maybe, you will learn something yourself. Either way, I look forward to writing these articles.

Last week in my freshman advanced class, we finished reading William Golding’s brilliant 1954 novel Lord of the Flies. Most of the class was spent pouring over the allegory that Golding presents. First of all, let’s approach the human question of the work: humanity is inherently violent and without society and civilization, we will eventually devolve into savages. The book details the events of what happens after a group of British Schoolboys crash-land on an uninhabited island and try to establish society with disastrous results. Golding wrote this work after experiencing the atrocities of World War II. Today, I think we will look at the use of boys and the allegory Golding created.

In this novel, Golding creates a microcosm (a small community or group which represents a larger group) by using a group of British Schoolboys to represent humanity. Each character represents a different aspect of humanity and as the story unfolds, we are treated to a front-row seat as these differences in personality clash and flare.

Ralph, the elected leader of the party represents leadership and moral strength. He becomes the elected chief of the island in the beginning and we are treated to the story mostly from a third person limited perspective focusing on Ralph.

Jack, the foil to Ralph, is the aggressive character who represents the savage instincts of man. He is the cause of the divide between the boys on the island and the instigator of most of the violence.

Piggy, the fat and unpopular boy, represents logic and intellect. While the other boys are strong and virile, it is Piggy’s mind which his real strength.

Simon, the frail and sensitive boy, represents human kindness and spirituality. He also becomes a sort-of unfulfilled or imperfect Christ figure.

Roger, the strongest and most aggressive of the older boys, represents pure violence. He is shown throughout the book to be violent and actually results in the first completely voluntary murder on the island.

The Littluns, the rest of the young boys who follow the older children, represent the masses. They are ignorant and scared and fall in line with whoever is strongest and most charismatic and so they represent the masses of people who follow their leaders.

 

These personalities all work together in the beginning, as they establish a community where some hunt, others help to keep the signal fire burning, and still others help to build shelters. As with most things that seem perfect, this construct does not last long. The ones who are tasked with building shelters abandon their posts and become lazy layabouts while the hunters are away all day and come back empty handed. Even those who were tasked with keeping the fire burning lose track of their job and miss the chance to signal a passing ship. The boys side originally with Ralph as he is the first to bring them together and seems to be the oldest and strongest of them. He speaks with logic and reason and it is appealing to all at first but as the months pass, the boys begin to defect and eventually Jack faces off with Ralph and starts his own group where, in the end, most of the boys end up. IN the end, the boys burn half of the island down, kill three children (either through ignorance, carelessness, or just plain murder) and are only under control again when a British soldier sees a fire and lands to investigate.

One major aspect of the allegory is the relationship between leadership and the masses. Ralph is initially the obvious choice for leader because he is older, stronger, and much more pragmatic, but once the littluns are treated to meat (caught by Jack) and experience fear in the shape of a beastie (something unseen that frightens most of the boys), they begin to follow that fear and it leads them to Jack’s side because he can “protect” them from the monster. In these exchanges between Jack and Ralph, we can see the way political parties argue and work to manipulate their audiences. Ralph continuously tries to talk to the boys logically, using reason to hopefully alleviate their fears and to continue to hope for rescue. Meanwhile, Jack’s priorities change as he becomes driven with the passion to hunt. He begins to talk about the beast as though it was real, even though they know it isn’t, and in doing so, he plays on the littluns fear that they are in danger. In doing so, they go to his side because he can protect them from harm.

There are multiple symbols which also appear in the book: Piggy’s glasses represent science and technology (they are used to start the fire), the signal fire (which represents the hope of rescue), the clothes and facepaint (which represent the ties to civilization, the Pig’s head (which represents the Devil and evil), and of course the Conch shell (which represents community and togetherness). All of these symbols are used to help propel the allegory forward. As the adherence to the Signal Fire dissipates, the boys are losing their want or need to be rescued and as they disregard their clothes and begin to pain their faces, they sever their ties to civilized life. The conch, which once brought them together, becomes faded and white, losing its power. Eventually, it is shattered and their community is lost completely.

Arguably the most powerful scene in the book revolves around Simon and his death. Many times throughout the book Simon goes into the woods and communes with nature in a very Christ-like way. He is sensitive and smart and the most logical of all the group. He even has moments of prophecy such as when he tells Ralph cryptically that Ralph will make it home (alluding heavily to the fact that Simon will not). He even says once, as the boys are panicking about the beast, that maybe the beast is them, inside of them, all of them. The telling scene comes when he goes into the woods and has an encounter with the Lord of the Flies (the pig’s head). Simon hallucinates a conversation where the head tells him that the boys are going to have fun and Simon had better not stand in the way of that. He faints and as he comes to, he climbs the mountain on the island to see what the beast really is (two boys and then Ralph and Jack went up to see the beast at night and thought they saw a monster). What he discovers is a dead parachute soldier. He runs to tell the boys what he has discovered in hopes that it will help to stop the fighting but as he emerges from the woods, the boys (who are in a frenzy of fear and excitement because of a burgeoning storm) attack him, mistaking him for the beast. They stab him repeatedly, killing him, and the ocean takes his body out to see.

As I stated before, Simon is an imperfect Christ figure because Christ’s death resulted in salvation whereas Simon’s death plunges the island into chaos. With kindness destroyed, Jack’s group steals Piggy’s glasses, hijacking technology. When Ralph and Piggy approach the group to get them back, Roger drops a boulder on Piggy, murdering him and killing intellect, which sends the island headlong into a murderous rampage. The novel ends with Ralph fleeing from the group of boys who have planned to kill him and put his head on a pike. It is only stopped when they are once again presented with society in the shape of an adult. The book’s last scene contains all of the boys crying while the soldier looks uncomfortably at his own war ship, raising a wonderful question about war and whether what adults are doing is any different than the savagery of the children.

Using boys instead of girls was a brilliant choice on Golding’s part, as boys are naturally more vicious and violent than girls (although teaching in a high school has really made me question that notion). This book as well as others of Golding’s led to his reception of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1983 for, “for his novels which, with the perspicuity of realistic narrative art and the diversity and universality of myth, illuminate the human condition in the world of today.” It is an incredibly important novel, bleak and sad and dark, and a perfect treatise on the human condition, especially our penchant for violence. It is one of those works that speaks volumes about the shortcomings of people and our propensity for manipulation and war.

Memory: Pressed Between the Pages of My Mind

The human brain is a conundrum. Memory operates under different titles; episodic, spatial, semantic, and factual. All of these things coincide and create connections in our mind, associations which, no matter the want or need to dispel them, forever exist as memory, or at least as long as our human brains can hold onto them.

Episodic memory allows you to track back through your history, a veritable autobiography of events. Spatial memory helps you align the size and placement of things within your past. You can remember the size of a table or the arrangement of furniture through spatial recognition. Semantic memory is the gooey goodness in the center of your grilled cheese-like mind. It helps you to put meaning and substance to otherwise abstract concepts and words. Lastly, factual memory deals with the basic facts of memory. You may remember an event such as a party or a confrontation. This simple memory is the factual portion, but any feelings associated with that would fall somewhere in the realm of the other three. These four concepts blend together to create a tapestry in our minds and like a big fish tale, a lot of the time we get things wrong.

It is a big word. Memory…

The connotation of that word brings to mind, redundant as that may be, sweeping images and swirls of emotion from bygone days. These emotions and images are usually tied together, strung along the infinite highway in our minds, with road signs which point to specific memories along the way.

I remember being eight and sitting in the back of my mother’s maroon Corsica, an area that was overpopulated by a grouchy sister, two years my senior, and my aging grandfather who would chuckle under his breath as we suffered in whispered arguments, trying to avoid the punishment which would surely come again from the front seat.

It was summer vacation, we were in Virginia, and the temperature had skyrocketed to a blistering 97 which doesn’t sound that horrible but in 1992, air conditioning wasn’t quite what it is now.  I had delved into a new novel; one that would eventually consume me for random periods throughout the course of my life.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Still, to this day whenever I read it (or teach it), there is one associated memory which plays over and over in my head;  Michael W. Smith’s “Place in this World.”

Michael.W. Smith.

Can you believe that?

Somehow my mind draws together Dracula, a Victorian-era novel about female sexuality and gender role evolution and…a white-bread, adult-contemporary, Christian singer.

The song came on in the car on a continuous hour and fifteen minute loop so, on the long ride home to Ohio, as I sat in the back fully enthralled with my new book, I heard the song about ten times. In my eight year old mind, I connected the lyrics with the book.

I’m looking for a reason, roaming through the night to find my place in this world.
Not a lot to lean on, I need your light to help me find my place in this world.

As a child, I didn’t quite get the religious imagery in these lyrics. Instead, all I did was look at Dracula in a sympathetic light. All he wanted was a place in the world, and he lost his old life, his family, his love. Now that he had the ability to gain that again, and a foothold in a new culture, he just wanted to find and claim that place. In my young mind, I viewed Dracula as a sympathetic character; one where being a vampire was nothing but a tragic flaw.

When I read the book two years later, I saw that he was really just a monster. I mean, it’s pretty obvious, but at eight, I just couldn’t grasp that. Still, as I read the book time and again, the only thing I hear in my head is Michael W. Smith.

This doesn’t make any sense but it is forever engrained in my mind, like food poisoning and Kewpee.

Down that highway in my memory to another stop: Female trench coats.

Let that sink in for a moment. Female trench coats.

Whenever I see them, my mind obviously goes to X-Men, or more specifically, Gambit. He was the Cajun, sex-driven, rogue of the group. He wore a trench coat which was the epitome of cool when you are ten and Saturday morning brings you only gratuitous cartoon violence and mashed together life lessons against the backdrop of civil rights.

My mother had an olive green/brown trench coat, including those incredible, early 90s shoulder pads, and more pockets than anyone could ever need. Still, on Saturday mornings, I would strap that coat on, don gloves of which I had cut off the thumb, index, and pinky fingers, and grab a broom to fully become that Cajun badass.

He wore a leather trench, had fingerless gloves, and carried a staff. I had my mom’s poop green coat, butchered winter gloves, and a broom handle. I was so close I could taste it.

That’s memory for you though. You connect things together, objects and events which help to show you part of yourself. A lot of the time it is funny, but the association isn’t always pleasant.

Age eleven, I was a bullied kid who was beat up constantly, shoved into lockers in a never-ending, clichéd 80’s movie trend which would make up my life for the next two years, that is until I hit a growth spurt and outgrew the bullies. But at this age, I was miserable.

My parents had divorced months earlier, and although I was happy about the absence of constant fighting, I missed my dad. I wanted him there. I needed him there. Sadly, for that first year, I didn’t see him at all. Not once, not a phone call or a letter or a message. I blindly hung on to the idea that he was just busy while my now bitchy, mid-teens sister swore him off completely. I found out years later that dad was in Honduras, doing Black ops for the military. He never talks about it but I was told by people in his unit that it was rough for him, that he came back completely different.

The memory that sticks with me most is waiting patiently at the window for him to drive up. I think that in the back of my mind I knew that he wouldn’t, but at eleven, your dad is infallible and mine was no different.

To this day, every time I hear the old theme song for Monday night football, I go back to that time and it makes me sad, sometimes even tearing up. I remember waiting at the window in the living room, the TV on in the background as I stared out into the world for the patriarch of my family. He would be scheduled to show up at 4. The theme song to Monday Night football started like clockwork at 7 and when that happened, when I heard that sound, I knew that once again, he wasn’t coming.

That feeling of abandonment floods back before I can stuff it down because my mind keeps that wound fresh. I can’t remember any of the games or what played on the network before, but that sensation of disappointment has never left me.

Memories can bring us to our feet in reverence of the past or take us to our knees in overwhelming anger and disappointment. My memory from 2005-2010 is pretty much a blur. It is a scattered amalgam of night after night on tour. My band played all over the Midwest, three to six times a week and we drove everywhere.

I can’t quite pinpoint the exact nights but the memoires are fresh.

There is the night, in the backstage area of The Underground, a club in Ohio which was in the basement of an old wine distillery. The bar was amazing and the backstage area had couches, a computer, and some area to warm up. You would think that the shows were the most important part of these memories but it was always the time spent with my friends in between.

The computer in this instant had no filter. I cannot stress this enough. No filter, so as I was warming up my voice and tuning my guitars with the other guitarist, Matt, our drummer called us over to the desktop to stare at the screen. He was laughing to himself, almost hysterically, and he had something paused on the screen.

Dudes, you have to watch this. It will blow your mind.

We shuffled over behind him and he hit play and then the video horror in front of us began…soft serve ice cream. That’s what it was…

But it wasn’t…

It was “Two Girls, One Cup” and as that became apparent (I hadn’t seen it or even heard of it before), my lunch made a slight reappearance and burned my throat so harshly with stomach acid that I ad trouble hitting notes that night.

Another night, another city, another show. A toga party at a show, and I am draped in a blood red toga and nothing else. We walk in stage to the cheers of the two or three hundred people in attendance and I walk to the center. I scream “This is Sandusky” loudly into the microphone and then 300-Spartan kick the mic into the crowd. We were booted offstage and weren’t allowed to play until the very end.

Once again, don’t remember the shows, just the stupid things we did because although the shows were great and I loved every minute of playing, the emotional moments between my brothers and I were the most important.

The brain latches onto those emotional memories and drives the images home, forever to be kept in the vault of our subconscious. It may mix and match certain memories and add some flavor for the topping, but in the end it is nothing short of emotional importance that we remember.

WWF.

The World Wrestling Federation always reminds me of my great grandparents. I remember sitting on my grandfather’s lap as a very small child and watching WWF with my grandmother. These people were obsessed with wrestling and how real the melodrama playing out on screen was to them. I only have one real memory of my grandfather (he passed shortly after I turned five) and it is of watching Andre the Giant in the ring during a match with Big John Studd.

They were emphatically passionate about Andre. The big man was their child on screen and they loved him more than anything, possibly more than me, especially at this moment. Someone holds down Andre the giant and Big John shaves off his trademark hair.

The world exploded.

I’m on my grandpa’s lap and he starts screaming, his pipe still held between his teeth and spewing tobacco all over the place as he shook his head and shrieked, “THEY CAN’T DO THAT TO ANDRE THE GIANT!!!!” at the screen. My grandmother next to me, completely unhinged, is pulling at her hair and simply screaming unintelligibly, tears in her eyes.

I was young, too young to know what was going on, but I knew it was bad and Big John was not a nice man. This is the only vivid memory I have of my grandfather. I remember little snippets of him hugging me, giving me candy, things of that nature but the only discernable image I can muster in my mind is him screaming about pro wrestling.

That memory may or may not be accurate but to me, it is. It is what I think about every time I see a picture of my grandpa. It makes me smile, it makes me laugh, it bubbles with emotion, no matter the arbitrary event that it was. It is emotion, pure and simple.

Age 13, my father’s father dies. I am in the room. When I think back now, I remember only the Cincinnati Bengals. My grandpa was the only other Bengals fan in the family and so, as he choked on the cancer that would in a few hours take his life completely, he called me over to the hospital bed my family had set up in the living room of his house. I climbed up into bed with him and he smiled at me and lifted his blanket to reveal Bengals socks. He chuckled quietly and through choked, garbled breaths, said, ”You’re the only one left. Keep it strong.”

My mind gives me that so when I think about his dying scene, I remember something that we held so dearly and it makes me smile. And in return for this, when I think about the Bengals, I always remember him, not dying but healthy and screaming about how bad our team was always playing.

Smiles, tears, nostalgia. Our mind can store them all to bring out on a rainy day. I’ll see a picture of the WWF symbol and remember my great-grandparents; I watch the Bengals lose yet again and remember summers with my grandpa playing catch in the backyard; I hear the old Monday night football song and feel abandoned. These are the greatest moments and memories my mind can muster, depressing or happy and they have led me to become who I am because I am built by those memories.

This idea of identity through memory is not new. Think about an Alzheimer patient who goes through the experience of having those memories ripped away. Who are they now? They aren’t the same person you remember or grew up with and as the disease destroys piece after piece of their mind, they revert to who they used to be.

This reversion doesn’t destroy a person but it inherently destroys their relationships. Sons become husbands, daughters become cousins, mothers become girlfriends. It’s all very heartbreaking. Who are we without those relationships? They shape us into the person we are and through those memories we become an individual.

My grandmother went through this change. She approached it like an ice cream cone, positive at first but as things began to drip away, she became less enthralled and more bitter. Slowly I transformed from the dutiful grandson who would rollerblade (because we did that in 2003) to her house to visit into her son who never had enough time for her. My father, who didn’t look enough like his father, was wiped out completely. It got to a point where I couldn’t even see her anymore because she didn’t know who I was and became frightened that I would hurt her.

Unlike what Nicholas Sparks will tell you, Alzheimer’s is not a romantic event…it is world-shattering.

Memories are the oils we use on the canvas of our minds and although they can work in mysterious ways, they always leave us with some sort of feeling. It doesn’t matter the end game as the journey, cliché as it is, makes all the difference.

One more stop on the memory super highway. It is the moment I first felt as though I was truly important. It is the birth of my daughter, one of the happiest moments of my life, and what do I think of?

Ridley Scott’s Alien.