Classic Lit and Transformative Epiphanies

Joseph Seymour Guy, “Small Young Girl Reading”

Today I share with you a gratifying e-mail message from a student that reminds us what can be accomplished when we pair up a young person with the right classic.  I know there are many high school English teachers and some college English teachers who read Better Living through Beowulf, and I would love to hear stories where you have seen a student take off like this one did.

For that matter, I am interested in hearing from all of you accounts of classics that have changed your life.  Feel free to send me your stories in the comments section or via e-mail, and I’ll share them (either with your name or anonymously) in a future post.  I collect reading stories the way that some people collect silver spoons or China vases or baseball cards.   As I cradle them and turn them over lovingly, they cast new light on the works themselves while confirming the wondrous impact of reading. I would love to have your story (or stories) to put on my shelf.

The student that wrote the e-mail is the one who wrote the essay about her depression and Doctor Faustus, which you can read about here and here.  I have been calling her Kathy:

I’d also like to thank you for pushing me to bring out the more kind of human issues within my essay (I guess you would put it as “having something at stake”). By forcing myself to examine my ideas and Dr. Faustus more carefully and within the lens of my experience, I had several epiphanies that I feel were transformative both to my essay as well as to my understanding of my experience with depression. I was amazed that by just looking closer at Faustus I could understand something about myself that I think I tend to avoid.


The experience of better understanding your life through literature (especially older literature, which I tend to not connect with as well as more contemporary literature) is something I never really understood or entirely believed could happen when you talked about it during class, but actually having it happen to me really opened my eyes to what you often spoke of throughout the semester. I only regret that it took me until after the semester was over for me to truly figure that out. That being said, thank you for your great teaching skills, as well as your admiration and compassion. Dr. Faustus will certainly be a literary favorite of mine for years to come.


I should say that I usually do not know ahead of time what students are going to take from works. As inevitable as Kathy’s perspective on Faustus seems in retrospect, I didn’t see a depression essay coming.

To make this point another way, I have a student next year writing her senior project on the Faustus story and I don’t know what will emerge. Caitie will be looking at multiple versions including the original German story, Marlowe’s play, Eve’s temptation in Paradise Lost, perhaps Goethe’s Faust, Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus (she and I are both struggling through that one now), Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, Stephen Vincent Benet’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” and several film versions, including Murnau’s Faust and Al Pacino’s The Devil’s Advocate.

I don’t know what Caitie will find in her project even though I am aware of the biggest issue in her life.  Last summer her mother suddenly died when a cancerous tumor, in remission for ten years, unexpectedly returned. I have no doubt that Caitie has chosen the project because it will allow her to process that tragedy. It remains to be seen how.

If she allows me to, I will share what she discovers on this blog.

Not all student responses are unexpected. I can anticipate, to a degree, essays such as those I described in yesterday’s post; Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night almost always generates explorations of identity and relationship.  And sometimes a student knows exactly what he or she is searching for.

For instance, in another senior project that I will supervising next year, a woman whose mother has a malignant brain tumor will very understandably be writing about the literature of grieving.  (She will be looking at C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed (and keeping her own journal) along with Tennyson’s In Memoriam, the Father Zossima deathbed scene in Brothers Karamazov, and Gail Godwin’s novel Good Husband.) Erica, incidentally, first realized she could use literature in this way when she wrote about Beowulf two years ago (you can read her story here).

But whether students know or don’t know their motivations for writing on a certain topic, I have to keep the process open because each student is unique and there are always surprises.  This is when I feel blessed to teach small classes (25 in my survey classes, 16 in my seminars).  I listen for what I call “points of energy,” responses (sometimes no more than a blip) that indicate that an interpretation could go somewhere productive.  These  may show up in a comment made in class, in essay proposals, in rough drafts.  Sometimes an essay will signal an interesting idea only in the conclusion of a disorganized final version–which means that, while the essay will receive a low grade, an individual conference and a revision can work wonders.  It’s a labor-intensive process and a strong argument for small liberal arts colleges.  If you know a young person going to college, tell him or her to think small.

But back to Kathy’s point: classic literature can lead to transformative epiphanies.  Believe it.  And send me your stories about how literature has changed your life.


Thanks to Yvette Banek for steering me to today’s painting. Yvette posts a non-stop success of delicious visuals at

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  1. Posted June 2, 2011 at 1:28 am | Permalink

    As an English major at UCLA, I have been deeply affected by reading Boswell’s “Life of Johnson”. Actually, I’m writing my undergraduate thesis about Boswell as a biographer. It is amazing to me that this biography is not only a labor of love, but an act of incredible perseverance. Although Boswell gets a “bad rap” in the academic community, his dedication and technical mastery of the “Life” are fabulous.

    A favorite quotation of mine, when tempted to give up my writing and head for the hills:
    [Johnson to Boswell] “Resolve and keep your resolution; choose and pursue your choice”.
    As cheesy as that may sound, those ten words gave me fortitude to do the task at hand, to make a decision and to follow it with all of my heart. So yes, literature has changed my life. I’ve dedicated my academic career (and future) to the study of words. But always always, I will hear Johnson’s words in my head as I am tempted to throw in the towel.

  2. Posted June 2, 2011 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    I argue that it is precisely that works endure BECAUSE they spark trans-formative events in many people over a long time. If the work is unremarkable / impact-less (lets say, brain popcorn), then over time it will fade from the collective memory / imagination.

    My transformative event from classics came during the summer of ’88 when I worked SMCM grounds during the day and took classes at night. I took the junior level Shakespeare class (don’t remember the course number, or the professor), but it met 6-10pm, twice a week. It was probably my favorite class, almost a total immersion experience. I would listen to play on a walkman while mowing during the day, read / journal off evenings, and we’d see videos of plays / movies during class then discuss them. We also had a director from the concurrently running Maryland Shakespeare Festival speak in class, giving a completely different perspective on the plays than as reader / audience.

    The transformation came when I stopped having to translate most of the language into common idiom, and just understood the play. A whole world opened up, and I have been a huge fan of Shakespeare ever since (mostly the comedies, but I also have really enjoyed a lot of the interpretations of the tragedies, such as Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Ran’ which is ‘King Lear’ and a possibly better in the Japanese interpretation because it makes more sense to me how the Kingdom fell).

  3. Robin Bates
    Posted June 3, 2011 at 6:23 am | Permalink

    Jessica, I love this story of how you hold on to Johnson’s words like a life raft. I should write more about Johnson, who is one of the titanic figures in English lit. It seems as though, often in my life, I think that I’ve come up with a novel idea, only to discover that Johnson was there before me. And of course he has always said it better than I ever could. It’s great that you were writing on Boswell. As I recall, he was ready any number of times to chuck the whole biography and yet kept on going. (Maybe he was worried he couldn’t do justice to his subject.) Anyway, you’ve come up with great quotation, which I didn’t know. I’m sure you’ll hold on to it as you pursue life after graduation. And congratulations for finishing up at UCLA, which has a great English department.

    Kristian, nothing makes me happier as a teacher than when students do what you did, which is essentially take the works away from the teacher and make them their own. I’d be interested in hearing about your response to one of those comedies and a scene or character that really hit home. Or with Lear, for that matter.

  4. Posted June 5, 2011 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the plug, Robin. ; )


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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