Mr. Dame Among the Pages

“as I know that many have written on this point, I expect I shall be considered presumptuous in mentioning it again, especially as in discussing it I shall depart from the methods of other people.” –Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

Preface

I was asked by one of my friends what my favorite type of literature is. I think the shortest answer is “clever,” by which I mean that I want to be amazed by the author’s talent to weave a story that neither baffles nor bores, but in its refraction of reality suggests new meaning to human experience.

This book, however, has been written to address a long-standing difficulty I have with the way literature is taught in high schools throughout the United States. Great literature has its cleverness flattened out of it until there is only one way of thinking about it. It is reduced to what can fit in Cliff or Spark or Whatever Notes. It is diminished to something that has a right answer. Once there is a right answer, there is no longer the possibility of new meaning.

The purpose of this book is to make you think very differently about some of the literature which commonly appears in high school curriculum.

The structure of the book is established in the first two chapters, and then it repeats for the assortment of literature: odd numbered chapters are spent in a contrived classroom testing a wide variety of ideas, while even numbered chapters tend to pursue ideas in depth and from a specific point of view. The core literature which is covered in this book includes: HamletThe Great GatsbyThe Lovesong of J Alfred PrufrockTheir Eyes Were Watching God1984The Stranger, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

This book is intentionally short on beautiful drama and lacking in ugly crises as they would not serve its main purpose. For its part, it looks underneath and in-between those elements for, as T. S. Eliot listed them, “the boredom, and the horror, and the glory” of the not-uncommon experience. Its characters, both those named after my friends and those fictionalized into being from the subconsciousness of the titular protagonist, all hold more share in my conscious thought than Mr. Dame’s conscious self. The obvious side effects of this are that Mr. Dame’s awkward job situation (for which I would not be qualified) is as contrived as the composition of his classroom, and that the classroom discussions tend to sound more like college honors seminars than high school banter. Beyond that contrivance, however, there is a real world full of cultural references that provide support for various points of view; I try to name them as I hit them, or at least note them later, as I’m quite certain that almost everything is trademarked and copyrighted and the last thing I want is to be sued for infringement — after all, if I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t be quoting it.

Many thanks to my students for their support in this endeavor,
Jason Miller

Contents

  1. Mr. Dame: introducing the classroom
  2. The Box: introducing the apartment
  3. Vive Le Roi: on Hamlet and narratives
  4. Le Roi Est Mort: on Polonius and symbol/referent confusion
  5. The Dogged Gatsby: on The Great Gatsby and honesty in narration
  6. Old Sports: on missed symbolism and the leisure class
  7. The Lovesong of the Chitinous Bottom-Feeder: on missing the point of “Prufrock”
  8. The Loathesong of J Alfred Prufrock: on abdication from the self
  9. Their Eyes Were Watching Christie: on Their Eyes Were Watching God and the Other identity
  10. Plastic Jack: on constructing a self-identity
  11. Reality Control: on 1984 and how to build a dystopian society
  12. Unreality Control: on power and freedom
  13. Only the Ordinary: on The Stranger and boredom
  14. The Dizzying Wind: all about gravity
  15. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are: on the function of the theater and transition in time
  16. Eternal: recapping everything with mythology
  17. Endnotes
  18. Revision History