Monday, October 19, 2015

How many children had the Wife of Bath?

So I do this thing in my gen ed lit classes where students have to write down their thoughts, questions, and reactions to the reading on an index card before class. I'm generally happy to give credit to anything, as long as 1) it shows the student actually did the reading; and 2) it isn't plagiarized from SparkNotes. (I guess #2 is a subset of #1, but it is a special pet peeve of mine. Really, you need SparkNotes to have ideas for you?)

It's interesting seeing the trends in the questions, the way each new group of students seems to have its own character and set of concerns. This semester, everybody seems to want to know all kinds of stuff about the characters that's fundamentally unanswerable, things that are simply never addressed in the text: How old exactly is Beowulf? Did the Wife of Bath ever have any kids? What did Olivia's father and brother die of?

I wonder where this comes from. Do they think the answers must be somewhere in the text and they just haven't read carefully? Are they assuming that fictional characters have some sort of independent existence, so there must be a "right" answer even if it isn't mentioned in the text? (To be fair, this might be a reasonable assumption for the Wife of Bath question, since -- like most Brit Lit survey courses -- we're only reading the General Prologue and three of the tales, so it's quite possible, from their point of view, that the Wife of Bath could say something about her children or lack-of-children somewhere else in the work. She doesn't, as it happens, but she could.)

And sometimes the lack of a textually warranted answer is interesting, like with the student today who wanted to know why Viola disguises herself as a boy. She doesn't actually tell us. One might reasonably expect her to tell us: Rosalind does, Julia does, Portia and Imogen have reasons that can clearly be inferred. Viola doesn't. The closest thing to an answer we get comes much later in the play, when we find out her disguise is a way of keeping her lost brother "yet living in my glass." Pragmatic-but-wistful Viola doesn't confess that desire to the sea captain, but she also doesn't invent a more practical-sounding reason, which she could do. It's one of those nice little character notes that abound in Shakespeare.

Student questions. Even the naive ones are really pretty cool.


Bardiac said...

The Viola question IS really good! We make assumptions because we've read the other cross-dressing plays, but she doesn't actually say...

Anonymous said...

I like your two hypotheses--I think sometimes one, sometimes the other, sometimes both! No one asked me about the Wife's children this year in the tenth grade, but I've definitely gotten other "independent existence" questions like "Where is the Knight's wife?" (He has a son, so there must have been a wife, right?)

The thing that's currently puzzling me is twelfth graders who always want to make up a really specific narrative about a lyric poem. "I think the speaker has been married for a long time, and maybe he just cheated on his wife, and in the line about the dog he's thinking about how he's going to have to leave the dog when they get divorced..." Maybe they are picking up some hint of, say, regret in the tone, but they have trouble saying "I sense regret," they need to decide there's a whole story for which there is no support in the text. I've taught poetry for a long time, but I'm really struck by this impulse toward filling in all the blanks with narrative.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Huh, that's a really interesting phenomenon too! Maybe they've previously seen teachers develop interpretations that look to them like they've been pulled from thin air, so they think that's what you're supposed to do?

Susan said...

Or maybe they read fanfic? Because in fanfic you can make up the stories?

Fretful Porpentine said...

Sure, but in that case I'd expect them to recognize the distinction between Things That Are Defined In Canon and Things That Are Not Defined In Canon.

Fretful Porpentine said...

... and, come to think of it, I wonder if the Wife of Bath's childlessness is an example of a fan-theory that has become quasi-canon? Because I'm pretty sure I had at least one professor, and quite possibly two, who made much of it, but in fact we don't know; she could be like Margery Kempe, with fourteen kids back at home that she simply doesn't talk about very much!

Anonymous said...

I always assumed Viola disguised herself as a boy for security reasons and to deal with her los. She's a single woman by herself, on an island, inhabited by a lord and all his men. And a woman who has shut herself away from the company of men. She asks the captain to disguise her as and later in the scene muses that she wishes she could serve Olivia until she figures out what her condition is. I assumed it was both a security issue and a desire to hide away in the disguise until she is able to figure out what has happened, deal with her loss, and settle herself to her new life.

"Oh, that I served that lady
And might not be delivered to the world,
40Till I had made mine own occasion mellow,
What my estate is."