March 3, 2009

This Week in My Classes (March 3, 2009)

We're back from reading week, and in true Maritime fashion the second phase (I think of it as the downhill rush) of the term was ushered in with snow, ice pellets, and several hours of freezing rain, meaning an awful lot of students didn't actually get back. Maybe that will be the last storm of the season. Ha. (Remind me again why the first European settlers in this region didn't just keep moving on when they realized what they were letting themselves in for? I guess you do have to go pretty far away from here, though, to get to a temperate, never mind a warm, climate.)

In Mystery and Detective Fiction this week, it's P. D. James's An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, which is one of the few books on the course list that I would actually read just for my own pleasure and interest rather than out of professional obligation. That's not to say I don't enjoy many of the other readings, but I consider James a good novelist, not just a significant mystery novelist. Unsuitable Job reminds me of Kate Atkinson's Case Histories (really, I suppose, it's the other way aroud)--not in any specifics of the cases, but in the attention to evocative atmosphere and compelling characterization achieved with considerable economy. The lectures I've worked up on Unsuitable Job emphasize the continuities James herself identifies between her work and that of the 19th-century realist novel, particularly in terms of the novel's insistence on the centrality of ethics. Though, as with all mysteries, there is a strong puzzle component here, a problem to be solved (and a grim one at that), I think it is Cordelia's development that the novel is really about, particularly the way she grows into the strengths she has by virtue of her compassion and strong sense of justice. Detection is pitched (by others) in the novel as an "unsuitable job for a woman" because of the presumably masculine qualities of toughness, objectivity, and rationality it demands, but she shows, first, that a delicate-looking young woman can have those qualities too, and that she can exercise them in the service of "softer" and more conventionally feminine values including empathy and love. James's usual detective, Adam Dalgleish, is notable also for the strength of his humanity and insight as well as intellect. Insofar as The Maltese Falcon is an indictment of modern society for making survival dependent on refusing to "play the sap," I find Unsuitable Job a kind of antidote, because Cordelia refuses to abandon those she loves but incorporates justice to her feelings for them as part of her larger quest for what is right. I find her confrontation with Ronald Callender suspenseful less because we know there's a murderer in the room but because it pits genuinely competing values against each other. By giving one set of them to a particularly repellent murderer, of course James is tipping the scales--but no worse, perhaps, than Dickens does by giving fairly similar values to Mr. Gradgrind.

In my Faith and Doubt seminar, we have moved on (sighs of relief all 'round) to Silas Marner, which is growing on me every time I read it. I so appreciate the rewards of re-reading George Eliot. In this particular case, the novel's engagement with religion is more interesting to me after several weeks discussing the ways other writers responded to the challenges to their faith in the period. I think she is both sharp and subtle about the ways religion is experienced and understood by people who are caught up, not in abstract theological disputes, but in human needs and desires, such as the need for one's labour, or suffering, to be (or at least feel) purposeful, and about the intricate ways in which religious practices are as much social and personal as spiritual or devout. We talked a bit yesterday, and I hope will talk more tomorrow, about the contrasts between Lantern Yard and Dolly Winthrop's version of church-going, for instance. We also had some interesting discussion about the genre of the book, and what seemed perhaps a fruitful (or perhaps just an unresolved) tension between its fabular form--the pressure in it towards standing as a parable, a secularized version of a fall, a casting out from Eden maybe, and then a humanistic redemption--and its realist aesthetic (or George Eliot's more general commitment to realism). After our work on Darwin before the break, I particularly enjoyed looking at the scenes which on the surface are most contrived and artificial, such as the convergence of Dunstan's crime and Eppie's appearance, the replacement of the gold coins with her gold hair, and seeing how these seeming coincidences or acts of what might (because so hard to explain at once) be attributed to divine (or just novelistic) intervention, are given such detailed backstories, so that we are reminded to be cautious about providing preternatural explanations when we are simply too ignorant to account for things naturalistically. Of course, that is one variation on GE's consistent theme that the good and bad in our lives is attributable to human actions and complicated circumstances.

In other news, I've become the proud owner of a Sony Reader, which I requested as part of a grant with an eye to making my research materials more portable and my research overall more 'sustainable.' The portability is a huge thing for a Victorianist, I must say. It is dazzling to think that in that small machine, I already have about 20 nicely formatted Victorian novels (I had fun picking my 100 free classics from the Sony ebook store) and soon will have several books central to my Ahdaf Soueif project. No more debating at the end of the day which books to bring home from my office! And this model has an annotation feature that seems quite simple to use. I find reading on computer screens quite tiring, which is what made this seem a better option for a reading-intensive project (and person) than something like a Netbook, which is nearly as portable. I'll report more on this later on, in case anyone else is brooding about the usefulness of an ebook reader for research or other purposes.


R/T said...

As someone who has used both mystery fiction and faith-and-doubt in past literature courses, I particularly enjoy your comments today. I would also enjoy "looking over your shoulder" by knowing a bit more about your syllabi (or at least your reading lists) for your courses.
All the best from R. T. Davis
Books and Notes

Rohan Maitzen said...

Thanks for your interest!

You can see basic course descriptions and reading lists by following the links from the 'current teaching' page here. The course syllabi really add only details about the course requirements and complete schedules (and all the fine print about attendance, intellectual honesty, and all that other good stuff). If you have world enough and time, you can track back through the posts here that are labelled "This Week in My Classes": they go back to the start of 2007-8 and include a run through the Winter 2008 version of the mystery class. I explored a number of other ideas for the reading list for this year and ended up not making a lot of changes but getting a lot of ideas for next year: I think the label "mysteries" would turn those up, if this is an area of interest to you.

christophervilmar said...

To respond to the first, less-substantial part of your post, during our recent snowstorm here in Maryland, I found myself wondering why anyone would willingly live in snowy climes.

Then I started thinking about how much harder that life would have been in the eighteenth century, before furnaces.

Whoever settled there originally must have self-selected for sheer cussedness.

Rohan Maitzen said...

My husband grew up mostly in Columbia MD and describes sudden crippling ice storms as a particularly nasty feature of winter there.