The longer I teach English, the more interested I become in etymology. I find that learning and then teaching the roots of English words has a way of illuminating texts both for myself, as a lifelong learner, and for the students that I am lucky to encounter. For instance, I think something about reading Hamlet and analyzing the antic disposition changes when you remember or learn that the English words, “person” and “persona” come from the Greek word for a theatrical mask. In that same light, I think an already existing appreciation for Shakespeare can be augmented by remembering or learning that the English word, “poet,” comes from the Latin words, poeta (meaning, maker) and vates (meaning, visionary). After all, what lover of Shakespeare hasn’t learned to see something they had never recognized in their own world as a direct result of reading something that he made (for instance, stars as “wonder-wounded hearers”)?
One of the things I loved most about my time at the Folger Shakespeare Library’s 2015 Summer Academy was learning that their belief is that what matters most, when reading Shakespeare, are the words. They maintain that the plot, a reader’s feeling about the play, the Elizabethan context in which it was written, are not unimportant considerations; but that they are secondary to the words, themselves. It may be surprising, but this deceptively simple notion radically changed the way that I approach teaching—not just Shakespeare, but all literature.
This year is my first year teaching an AP English Literature and Composition course at Bayonne High School in Bayonne, New Jersey. Part of the privilege of teaching the course is that I was able to design the syllabus with central idea in mind: the person. What does it mean to be a person? The course begins, naturally with my first love, Hamlet, but then progresses through a number of texts that—in my opinion—unveil unique aspects of what it means to be a person: Frankenstein, Heart of Darkness, A Room of One’s Own, Slaughterhouse Five and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. In exploring each of these texts, my students pay attention to the words of which they are composed and to the words with which we use to speak of them.
I began teaching Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with this idea in mind and developed two summative assessments that I think do a good job of having students fixate on words. At the beginning of the unit, I instruct my students to pay close attention to the many ways that Shelley, in her book about making bodies, uses language that denotes either “making” or “bodies.” For instance, in her author’s introduction—which she is careful to refer to as an “appendage”—she writes about the experience of writing her manuscript—a word denoting a body of text, which comes form the Latin words manu and ascribo, and literally refer to writing that is made by hand. Students discover that she structures her novel with a framed narrative that is composed of many disparate parts and then proceeds to tell the story of the making of a man with a colossal frame, who is composed of many disparate parts. Students have also noticed the poetry in the text—from Milton’s epigraph, to Robert Walton’s former desire to be a poet, to the many times Shelley quotes her husband, Percy—and Shelley’s confession to her reader that the first image that she had envisioned when she started writing, was the creature, looking at Victor, “with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.” What the students begin to realize as a result of this closer look at language is that Mary, for all of her eighteen years, was impossibly clever and that close reading, if it is done well, has its payoffs.
Of course the most significant word of Mary’s text is, “monster.” As students engage with the text they learn that the assigning of that word to a particular character is more difficult than they had initially imagined. Pop culture has taught them that Victor has created a monster called, “Frankenstein,” but Mary’s text demonstrates that from time to time, both Victor Frankenstein and his creature behave monstrously. Therefore, to help clear up some of the confusion, one of the two summative assessments that I give my students is that they are to engage in a debate in which they pick sides and answer the question: who is the true monster of the novel—Victor, for having irresponsibly made the creature, or the creature, for how he responds to having been irresponsibly made?
To aid the students in their quest to answer the question, I inform them of the etymology of the word. “Monster,” comes from the Latin words, monstrum and monere, which mean, in English: to warn and instruct (it is the origin of the word, “demonstrate”). What results is that as the students look closer and closer into the language of the book, they respond to my initial question about who is more of a monster, with better questions of their own: Who does the warning in this novel? Who does the instructing? What is the warning implicit in Frankenstein.
The other summative assessment also relies on words and Shelley’s insistence on referring to her text as a “manuscript.” However, I think that it could be employed to take a closer look at nearly any text. I ask the students to choose any medium that they desire and to manifest (make by hand) the creature in a way that incorporates as much of the text as possible. The students couldn’t have responded any better to the task. Two of the boys in one of my classes made life-sized models of the creature that have both a permanent place in my classroom and have terrified BHS’s unwitting custodians. One girl very artfully arranged lines that are spoken by the creature in such a way that when looked at from a distance, reveal a silhouette of the creature. Another girl cracked a mirror into many pieces and attached a short essay in which she wrote, “Dear reader, consider the tyranny you impose upon this mirror. How do you know it is willing to unconditionally share the features of your face, the joyous blossoms of your smile and the terrific wrath of your scowl? Did creature not suffer similar attacks by society, which unforgivingly allowed him to reflect its mercilessness and greed?”
Though each of my students stunned me with their careful and creative responses to this assignment, what was most surprising was the conversation we had in class on the day the projects were turned in. My students—many of whom are children of immigrants, or immigrants themselves—were expressing worry about the current political climate and how it might impact either their or their families’ futures. One student raised her hand and said, “You know, it’s clear that from this book that though Victor and the creature are both in the wrong, it does take a village to make a monster.” Then she continued asking, “but if we look closer into all of this—what is the warning? What can we learn from this novel?”