Gloomy Required Reading

As I reviewed my 9th grader’s required reading list for English class I saw good and bad news.  The good news is he is reading some excellent literature, including Romeo and Juliet, Of Mice and Men, Night and To Kill a Mockingbird.  The bad news is that these works are remarkably gloomy. 

To Kill a Mockingbird is the most upbeat of the bunch and can at its most positive be described as a bittersweet recollection of childhood and at its most negative a horrifying tale of the lynching of an innocent man.  The other books are more consistently downbeat, featuring mutual suicide, killing an innocent retarded man, and the holocaust.

I know that the world can be a nasty place and I know that great literature tends to explore that nastiness.  But I have to wonder whether it is really such a good idea to require our moody adolescents to read a steady stream of such depressing works.

Can I suggest that we break-up the persistent gloom by substituting some more upbeat books?  Maybe students could read Measure for Measure instead of Romeo and Juliet.  Measure for Measure would appeal to youthful resistance to authority without modeling overwrought teen crushes.  Maybe schools could add some Kurt Vonnegut, which softens the gloom with absurdist humor.

Don’t get me wrong, I think my child’s reading list is pretty typical and I like everything on it.  I’m just wondering if people have thought about how downbeat the list is.

11 Responses to Gloomy Required Reading

  1. The retarded man in Of Mice and Men has killed (inadvertently) a woman, so he’s not entirely innocent. That said, I agree that a lot of required reading in high school is very downbeat.

    I’d recommend “Julius Caesar.” The killing is not the sort that appeals to adolescents.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    Bad news, Jay – Measure for Measure (my favorite play) is no less gloomy than Romeo and Juliet. Don’t let the respective endings fool you. R&J, in spite of the sad ending, contains much that’s uplifting, while MFM, in spite of the happy ending, contains much that’s depressing.

    In fact, the happy ending to MFM is so out of synch with the very dark play that precedes it that scholars don’t classify it as a “comedy,” even though in most cases they classify Shakespeare plays into comedies and tragedies based on the ending. MFM is one of three plays usually referred to as “problem plays” because the ending doesn’t match the overall tenor of the play.

    Many people even find the happy ending to MFM forced and artificial. Myself, I think there’s an important theological point being made by the abrupt structure of the ending. But either way, there’s no getting around the fact that the play itself is really dark stuff.

  3. Kay Brooks says:

    Thank you! I have long held that much of the required reading for students is incredibly negative and does more harm than good. Personally, I still remember feeling assaulted by “The Lottery”.

    I’ve had conversations with teens about this and they agree…it’s too much. They hardly get a chance to come up for air before the next one comes along. Wonder why we can’t get them to read? They recognize negative garbage when it’s forced on them. There is plenty of good, uplifting and encouraging literature out there available.

  4. Ellen W. says:

    This was a running joke in my literature classes through High School. We also only watched tragic movies (my sister got The Killing Fields taken off the list of movies allowed on campus because she cried so hard she had to go home when they watched it her freshman year.)

    I think the problem comes from the definition of “serious” literature. All 5 National Book Award finalists fail the “good reading for a person liable to depression” test. So do all the 2008 finalists. Uplifting tends to be schmaltzy, and teens HATE schmaltz, and comedy isn’t “serious” enough.

    The way my teachers got around it is by teaching some heavy books and then mocking the melodrama. The Scarlet Letter got particularly merciless treatment. Books we felt deserved to be treated with sensitivity, All Quiet on the Western Front and Beloved were.

  5. Greg Forster says:

    The Scarlet Letter deserves particularly merciless treatment.

  6. Ah, The Scarlet Letter. I was known in English class for my dramatization of a “nuptial smile.”

  7. Hal says:

    Kay’s reference to “The Lottery” brought back a similar high school freshman memory of reading that story. We even watched the associated short film in class … ouch.

    I recommend a novel recently assigned to my 9th grader, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which I just read this weekend. Refer to numerous favorable reviews on Amazon and elsewhere.

  8. These are all great comments. Some brief replies:

    Joanne — Lenny is only innocent is the sense that he is not responsible for his actions. And who knew you had a reputation for your “nuptial smile.” : )

    Greg — Yes, Measure for Measure is very dark, but it is the kind of darkness that is less personally relevant for moody adolescents than a teen romance with mutual suicide, so it can be viewed by them more impersonally.

    Kay and Hal — Yes, I also remember The Lottery. At least we were being taught the virtue of liberty.

    And Ellen — You are right that we have to distinguish between serious and bleak.

  9. Cassyt says:

    Here’s my son’s school’s Upper School reading list. All classics, plenty of choices, yet my 8th grader still has trouble picking one. He hated Asimov. His goal now is to get the teacher to allow him to read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, because technically, Jane Austen is an approved author.

  10. Greg Forster says:

    Let us know if that works! 🙂

  11. anonymous says:

    Yes. Many English teachers call this the “death curriculum.”

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