Monday, March 29, 2010

Unleash the inner Puritan

One of the nice things about teaching literature that's not from the 21st century is that students get to have a window on the past and to think about things that they might not have thought about before. There are two areas or subjects, though, that they seem especially fascinated by: race relations and sexual mores.

Because we still (sadly) live in a racist culture, they "get" the racism of the earlier texts pretty well, although they bridle at the unfairness of racist practices and are angry at the laws reinforcing them. The whole white panic over "mixed blood," and the pseudoscience that supported theories of race in the 19th and early 20th centuries, seem to them so deluded as to seem incredible to any rational person--which it is, of course, even though we have to understand those attitudes in order to understand points in the plots.

The harder sell, I think, is the issue of sexual mores. Just think about the books in which either reputed sexual waywardness (by 19th-century standards) or evidence in the form of the unmarried mother appear:

Pride and Prejudice
Adam Bede
The Scarlet Letter
Bleak House
Daisy Miller
Tess of the d'Urbervilles
Jude the Obscure
My Antonia
The House of Mirth

(I know there are more--commenters?)

The difficulty lies in trying to get them to see what a huge deal it was to be pregnant and unmarried in those days, and the amount of scandal that it would have brought not only to the woman but to her family. Even if she married the man who had impregnated her, she'd be at the very least a topic for gossip--and a target of barbs from malicious family members who refused to go along with the polite fiction that the baby was "premature" if born less than 9 months after the wedding. Other possibilities, if marriage wasn't an option, included abortion (illegal), being sent away to live with relatives or put into a home, putting the baby up for adoption, or even having the baby and then having the family pretend that the grandmother was actually the mother.

Students are problem-solvers, and even after they understand that unmarried pregnancy is a problem, they have a lot of questions:

"Why can't she just go and get a job somewhere?" Respectable employers aren't going to hire an unmarried woman with a baby, so she'll have to pretend to be a widow and risk being found out. Also, there's no day care, and "baby-farming" means the death of the child, pretty much.

Can't she go back to her family?" She can--Tess does, for example--but a lot of families considered the disgrace too great.

What if the man marries her?" Too late--the stigma is already there, except perhaps in a farming community like the one Antonia lives in, and Antonia doesn't marry the father of her child.

The really heartening part of this exercise is that they genuinely don't see what the big deal is about this issue. What that says to me is that huge portions of that whole pernicious culture of shame and secrecy and having one's life ruined over this issue are just not part of their vocabulary, even if they joke about the "walk of shame." But to get them to understand the literature and the importance that the characters place on their sexual situations, I have to put them back in that culture momentarily. I have to get them to unleash their inner Puritan.*

*Yes, I know: a lot of Puritan brides were pregnant before marriage, but you know what I mean.


Bardiac said...

I've read that one third of first babies born to married couples in early modern England were born within 7 months of the parents' marriage. As long as the kid wasn't a charge to the parrish, seems like folks were pretty at ease about premarital sexual activity.

I tend to explain it in terms of the attitudes people have towards taxes and welfare in our culture. My students get earfuls of anti-tax commentary, so they get that.

Sisyphus said...

I was at a family reunion once (back in the 80s) and a young woman in her twenties showed up asking for my mom's niece (what does that make her for me? anyway.) Turns out the niece, Muriel, had gotten pregnant and was sent away to Arizona to a "home" and made to give up her daughter. Twice. And this woman had tracked her down. (but not before Muriel had died young of breast cancer).

Nobody still alive in my family knew *anything* about it --- so even in the 60s this was still a shameful secret that was and could be hidden from the community.

PS, you got any good sermons about hellfire and lust that you could have the students read to get an eyeful of how prior times loathed unmarried pregnant women? Maybe The Little Professor would have some good examples. Sometimes nonfiction stuff forms a great background to what is more subtle in the literature.

Moria said...

I have the opposite problem: students importing (their reductive understanding of) Victorian social politics – generalized to include THE PAST as a whole – onto early modern texts. "Women in Shakespeare's time couldn't do x, y, z" in this context is invariably wrong, and it's hard to get them to see why, even when the very text they're writing/talking about provides evidence that runs contrary to their claims.

profacero said...

My students' are like Moriah's. Their official attitudes about sex are also *very* conservative, and they still believe all the 19th century things about "improving the race" through whitening and so on.

undine said...

Bardiac, that's about the proportion I read about in (I think) _Albion's Seed_ (which I know historians despise). I hadn't thought of explaining it in terms of taxes and welfare.

undine said...

Sisyphus--how sad for Muriel's daughter. That does speak to the shame, though. There was a neighbor when I was growing up who'd only allow her sister--her SISTER--to visit after dark, after the kids were in bed. Turns out that the sister had had a baby out of wedlock and the neighbor apparently didn't want her own kids "exposed" to the sister.

undine said...

Moria, my students in other classes sometimes like to generalize like that, as though there are two eras--present and past--and whatever isn't present is all the same.

undine said...

profacero, it's amazing (and chilling) that the whole "whitening" idea is still going on. When we talk about the "one-drop rule" in class, sometimes students will speak up to say, "well, I'm part African American/part Cherokee" or whatever but have always just considered it part of who they are--and that's a good thing.

The Bittersweet Girl said...

I teach a lot of "seduction narratives" about precisely this topic -- but in my experience my students understand instantly and implicitly the stigma of unmarried pregnancy. Maybe because I teach in a deep red, conservatively religious state -- and maybe, sadly most of my students still hold to these ideas -- but I generally don't have to work hard to convey the idea that sex is the absolute ruin of a woman's options in much early fiction.