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.