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Debating Interpretations: How Objects Are Used in Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber”

Lesson Name: Debating Interpretations: How Objects Are Used in Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber”

Primary Museum Pedagogy: Materiality

Course Title and Description: English 130, Writing about Literature: The Gothic (theme)
This is a course for second semester freshmen that is meant for hopeful literature majors, but which all Queens students have to take in some form. This means that in practice, the class has a diverse range of majors.

Lesson Overview: In this lesson, students will perform a close reading of an individual object (with significance to the story) in groups. They will then have a debate in which one group presents an argument, another group defends their argument with further evidence, and the third group critiques, or finds examples that go against their argument. We use Angela Carter’s feminist fairy tale, “The Bloody Chamber,” which retells an adaptation of Charles Perrault’s “Bluebeard,” the story of a woman’s escape from her serial wife-killing husband. However, you could use any story you want in which objects play a major role as symbols. This story works particularly well because of the rich range of resonances objects often have in the Gothic genre, and also because of the story’s emphasis on class. However, there are many other genres in which objects take on a range of resonances (i.e. horror, realism, Southern Gothic, fantasy) and for an uthemed basic course, this activity could be altered to accommodate whatever text uses objects prominently as symbols.

Skills:
• Students will practice putting important moments/symbols in a text in the larger context of the whole work.
• Students will learn how to piece these moments together in order to come to a credible reading of the text as a whole.
• Students will practice gathering evidence for an argument and using different evidence to refute an argument.
• Students will be able to define motive–why their argument needs to be made and why other people might have other arguments–and will be able to anticipate and address counterarguments appropriately.

Pedagogical Considerations:
• This course is themed “the Gothic,” so assignments are tailored to this theme, but the course is mainly aimed at teaching students methods for reading and writing about literature.
• This lesson comes midway through the semester, so students have already practiced the basic skills for finding meaning in literature–close reading–which they usually learn in Composition I.
• Before the lesson, a handout should be given about the uses of objects in Gothic literature. To understand how Carter uses objects innovatively, students need to have already been presented with information about how they usually function in Gothic literature (or whatever genre of text you are teaching). Students also need to have already discussed the story to establish basic comprehension and some of the important issues or themes arising in the story.
• This lesson goes along with the following assignment: Identify an interpretive problem concerning the role of materiality and/or objects/things in the text. Use one of the theories we have read (John Berger’s theory of how women are objectified in Ways of Seeing or Marx’ theory of commodity fetishism) to help you analyze your interpretive problem. Therefore, the next lesson focuses on helping students understand and apply literary theories to texts.
• Tracking the meaning of a single object across an entire work helps students better understand the goals of close reading. Students often neglect to put their readings of a text in the context of the rest of the story. Tracking an object makes this task feel more material and concrete, since in such instances, meaning is anchored in words that refer to material objects that are meant to be striking and stick out in readers’ minds.
• English 130 uses three different genres, so poetry is discussed first, followed by prose, followed by drama.

Content Objectives:
• Students will understand the way that objects are used as signs in Gothic literature
• Students will be able to use this knowledge to think more deeply about Carter’s use of objects

  • Students will be able to think through how objects are used as symbols in literature.
    • Students will be able to compare the themes and generic conventions in the literature discussed earlier in the semester to those in the current work
    • Students will be able to recognize how these themes and generic conventions are translated from one literary form to another (poetry to prose, in this case).

Materials:

  • Board markers or chalk for writing on the board, or a projector and computer. Any of these options can be used, depending on the instructor’s options and feelings about technology. The important thing is that students have somewhere they can write the argument that they will present, so that the class can see it, and that the instructor has a place to write ideas the class comes up with.
  • A handout for talking about how objects are used in the Gothic.

Lesson Length (90 minutes)

In class writing (silent, individual, on a piece of paper to be turned in at the end of class): How do you see Carter fitting into the Gothic from what you know about the Gothic so far? Feel free to write about any specific feelings you get from her writing (terror, etc)., and link these to moments in the text. You can also use any terms we have learned so far to describe how Carter fits into the Gothic (the uncanny, female vs. male Gothic, etc) (10 minutes)

Discuss how objects are sometimes used in the Gothic (as signs foretelling doom) with handout with examples (5 minutes)

Ask students to come up with some examples of objects that seem to be important in the story (5 minutes)

Discuss story at a basic level, addressing any burning questions, issues students want to bring up, and asking students to come up with issues they think are important (10 minutes)

Discuss story, going into greater depth (I usually assign blog posts, which we discuss at this time) (20 minutes)

Group Debate Activity (35 minutes)
Instructions for the group activity:
• Divide students into 3 groups.
• Each group will address the same object in the story (opal, lilies, etc.), tracking it throughout the story, and accounting for any changes, inconsistencies, complexities, or interesting aspects that they see in the meanings of the object throughout the story.
• Then each group will develop a thesis that explains or accounts for these meanings.
• The instructor then chooses an argument made by one of the groups to present in front of the class, and assigns each of the remaining groups to be “defenders” and “naysayers.” finding examples to bolster or undermine the presenting group’s argument. The presenting group will then be able to respond.

As part of giving instructions to students, instructor can present questions to guide students in making their group interpretation like the following ones:

Questions for group discussion:
1. What is the context in which the object appears in the story? What else is going on in the plot when it appears? Is there anything that appears significant about this placement?
2. What language is used to describe the object? Are there adjectives? Is the noun that is used the same as what we would typically call the object in everyday speech, or does the noun seem strange? Does any of this appear significant?
3. How do objects function in the text? What are they described as doing? Do they have important functions in the plot? Do they have important psychological functions for the characters? Do they help to create a sense of the world the characters live in (setting)? These are just some suggestions, but there are probably others you could think of!
4. Finally, when you compare each individual instance to other uses of the object, do any aspects that didn’t seem significant at first seem significant now? Describe why.
5. What is our hypothesis, given the interpretive problem that arises from this object?

Questions for debate:
Presenting group:
• Tell the class your group’s hypothesis about the significance of the object in your story.
• Present your evidence for your hypothesis.

Defenders:
• What pieces of evidence can you use to support their interpretation?

Naysayers:
• What pieces of evidence (that support a different interpretation) can you use to challenge their interpretation?

Instructor can also present a model of how to track an object throughout the story such as the following one (and talk students through it):

Examples I found or ways objects are described or function:
Lilies – are described as having “pampered flesh” (with page numbers in parentheses)
Are said to look like a “disembodied arm”
Remind one of the husband in the story…and the wife
Stand in for the main female character
Foretell her doom

Questions that arise from the contradictions I found in the way lilies were used/discussed:
Are lilies people or vegetable? Are they alive or dead? Do they symbolize happiness or doom (for brides and dead people)?