War. Death. Despair. Oppression. Environmental ruin. Yup, when it comes to demoralizing literature, dystopian novels have it all! Yet many of us love this genre, and there are good reasons we do.
And, my question? Why do we TEACH dsytopian novels?
It would be difficult to become a licenced literature teacher without knowing a bundle of reasons for doing so. Many of which are adequately identified in this article.
However, attentive literature teachers also know that there are many young students who are not fans of dystopian literature at all. In fact, there is a fairly common refrain among high school students running something like, "Mr. ______, Why don't we ever read anything with a happy ending? All we ever read are depressing books!"
I would suggest that although we know exactly why there is value in reading these stories, and may even resent the question, perceiving it as a short coming in the student's literary appreciation, that perhaps it isn't so much a case of THEIR inadequate appreciation, but "something else."
Last night I attended a local theatre performance of Arthur Miller's infrequently staged, "Incident at Vichey." A couple of weeks ago I attended a performance of Eugene O'Neill's "Moon for the Misbegotten." Both were powerful and challenging works capable of raising feelings of depression in even the seasoned literary scholar.
Both playwrights, as do many of the authors taught in high schools, address the "hard truths" that we hope our students can learn from in order to survive as good people in a not so good world.
But, those "implied" lessons too often become lost in the perceived "Truth Tsumami" of just how "not so good" the world too frequently is.
We obviously can not allow ourselves to support the naivete of innocence by avoiding these stories as too many "Wannabe Book Burners" might desire. We can not consciously send our students out into the "real world" wearing "happily-ever-after-blinders."
But, we can make professional decisions about HOW we attempt to use such literature as valued learning experiencing for our young charges who, we must remember, are in the midst of the transition from their innocence and naivete to a more knowing understanding of the "real world" they are preparing to live within.
We can craft intelligent "counter-balancing" experiences applicable to the real world as we see Atticus lose the case, yet continue to believe that good people can do good things in and for a society that has not yet overcome the evils of unquestioned cultural beliefs and biases. We can focus upon why Holden's distain for Stradlater is to be admired because he cares about the right things. Rather focusing ONLY upon his underdeveloped "immature responses" to life's disappointments, we can focus upon the rightness of his caring and the possibilities that optimism and hope depend almost entirely upon how we react to life's disappointments. That, the best of our heroes look for what can be done given the situation rather than sit and complain or resort to meanness or fatalism or contempt or cursing or ... other reactions, all of which produce fairly negative responses from the perpetrators and to the question, "So how's that (complaining/whining/sarcasm/pessimism/name calling...) working out for you?"
We can invite young minds to contemplate the responsibilities of good people in a world where there are bad people. To teach Animal Farm as though it was simply a story about how bad the pigs were and how innocently victimized the other animals were is, as Orwell even suggested himself, a "fairy tale."
If, however, we read Animal Farm as a fairy tale we can too simplistically"blame" the dystopia upon the perpetrators while absolving the victims feeling, well... "innocent," and thereby distancing ourselves from responsibility for being part of the solution rather than leaving us to suffer feeling sorry for ourselves accomplishing nothing by doing noting to help.
Yet, the animals weren't exactly innocent were they. Boxer failed to doubt; Molly failed to care about anything beyond her superficial vanity; Benjamin failed to believe that "something could be done;" the sheep failed to remember history.
These are the kinds of thought-provoking challenges to "basically" good people that can stimulate introspection in young readers to wonder about how they can rise to the call of goodness and to get beyond waiting for the knights in shining armor to ride into to town to save them.
It's actually quite invigorating to young people to see the lights go on illuminating a "deeper understanding of what it takes to keep optimism alive."
A last thought... I remember when I asked students to try to figure out the difference between the optimism of Pangloss and the optimism of Martin Luther King jr.
"That's easy! Pangloss did nothing to change anything because he kept rationalizing that everything was great just the way it was. Martin Luther King understood that everything was not great but had the ability to continue to believe that in spite of how "not great" the world was, he had the ability to believe that the "not great" could be made better.
Like Atticus who knew from the day he was assigned the Tom Robinson case, that he would lose that case, and teens just like our students who know they can't end poverty or hunber, but still make it a point to volunteer at a nearby food kitchen, we can help our students see not just the downside of the real world, but more importantly to find inspiration in those who believed that they could be part of the solution even if they could not solve the problem themselves.