The Complex Inner Life of Teachers

Norman Rockwell, "Teacher's Birthday"

Norman Rockwell, “Teacher’s Birthday”

Yesterday I wrote about how Lilly King in The English Teacher draws on Tess of the d’Urbervilles to explore the interior life of a teacher struggling to come to terms with trauma. Today I look at the other literary works that the novel references.

First of all, however, here’s an observation that many teachers will relate to (I certainly did). The principal is coming to report that a fellow teacher has had a bathtub accident, meaning that Vida will have to double the size of her class:

“In the tub? She broke her leg in the tub?”

“There may be some head injury as well,” he said, as if to preempt further ridicule. He didn’t like ridicule, probably having suffered, like most teachers, so much of it in school as a child.”

Ah yes, the permanent defensive reflex of those of us who were nerds.

And now for the literary allusions.

T. S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Eliot shows up when Vida, who has never been married, receives a proposal:

The ring hovered now, too, caught in the tips of his fingers. Suddenly she understood the true role of the ring. It forced, as T. S. Eliot would say, the moment to its crisis.

The Prufrock allusion is apt and an instance of ominous foreshadowing. The marriage will force Vida’s traumatic past, which she has repressed for years, out of the shadows. She needs this crisis if she is to grow but it will prove painful for her and her loved ones. Prufrock, it’s worth noting, concludes that it’s not worth forcing the moment to its crisis. The English Teacher proves him wrong.

William Faulkner, “A Rose for Emily”

This short story is regularly taught in English classes. Vida is newly married and lying in bed after her husband has left:

She stretched her limbs in the enormous bed, her left arm and leg venturing across to Tom’s side, still slightly warm. She rolled over into his impression, and put her head just beside where his had lain. She thought of the grisly iron-gray hair at the end of “A Rose for Emily.” She would learn how to do this properly. “I promise,” she said into Tom’s absent ear.

We see more ominous foreshadowing here. Vida is imagining herself as a desperate spinster, lying like Faulkner’s character on the corpse of the man that she has had to poison to get him to stay. Vida loves Tom deeply but fears that, as a result, she will be exposed and destroyed should he ever leave—which is why she begins pushing him away. Until Vida can accept that she is lovable and that Tom wants to stay with her, her self-doubts will tear her apart and ruin her marriage.

Thomas Hardy, “The Voice”

Vida at one point murmurs the last lines of Hardy’s poem, which are overheard by her husband. The poem is about a fairy who has taken the place of a new bride. Here’s the second half:

The sprite resumed: “Thou hast transferred
To her dull form awhile
My beauty, fame, and deed, and word,
My gestures and my smile.

“O fatuous man, this truth infer,
Brides are not what they seem;
Thou lovest what thou dreamest her;
I am thy very dream!”

“O then,” I answered miserably,
Speaking as scarce I knew,
“My loved one, I must wed with thee
If what thou say’st be true!”

She, proudly, thinning in the gloom:
“Though, since troth-plight began,
I’ve ever stood as bride to groom,
I wed no mortal man!”

Thereat she vanished by the Cross
That, entering Kingsbere town,
The two long lanes form, near the fosse
Below the faneless Down.

When I arrived and met my bride,
Her look was pinched and thin,
As if her soul had shrunk and died,
And left a waste within.

The poem captures how Vida sees herself in their marriage. King explains the significance, drawing a connection with Tess in the process:

She didn’t want to explain. She wanted to think about this idea of love’s being cast onto someone like a spotlight, making her shimmer and glow for a little while, lending her qualities that she doesn’t possess. Is this really what we do to each other, find a victim and shine the light of all our dreams on them? Angel Clare places all his fantasies of the pure innocent country girl onto Tess, and when she finally forces him to listen to her story of Alec and the baby, she becomes vile to him and he banishes her. As if her soul had shrunk and died,/And left a waste within. She could hear Tom saying her name again, but he seemed so much less important, so much more immaterial than this theory of Hardy’s, which she’d always taught to her students, but had never suspected would ever apply to her own life.

William Shakespeare, Othello

Vida is very upset when her school spends half a million dollars on a computer center and then forces all the teachers to use it (the time is the early 1980s). To make matters worse, the school raids the scholarship fund to do so . She is asked to type something, and an early Othello speech to Desdemona comes to mind:

It gives me wonder great as my content
To see you here before me. Oh, my soul’s joy!
If after every tempest come such calms,
May the winds blow till they have wakened death,
And let the laboring bark climb hills of seas
Olympus-high, and duck again as low
As hell’s from heaven! If it were now to die,
‘Twere now to be most happy, for I fear
My soul hath her content so absolute
That not another comfort like to this
Succeeds in unknown fate.

Perhaps she surfaces this passage because, while she has married a man she loves, she knows what happens to Desdemona. “Unknown fate” lies ahead. The computer expert’s prediction that authors will become obsolete (“These babies are going to be writing better books.”) reenforces her fear that she’s expendable.

Edgar Allen Poe, “Annabel Lee”

This allusion doesn’t appear to have thematic significance but one can understand why the young Caleb would respond to Poe’s poem. Caleb is probably drawn to the poem’s hypnotic rhythm and, in addition, he recently lost his mother. She presumably is buried on the island where they live, not far from “the sounding sea.”

I also include the passage because it reminds me of how my father ritually read poems to my brothers and me—one for each of us—every night before we went to bed:

[Her new stepchildren] enjoyed, in fact, all rituals. They were like some prehistoric tribe, the way they found meaning in the repetition of acts. Once Vida had read “Annabel Lee” to Caleb before bed and now he wanted a poem read to him every night.

James Joyce, Ulysses

At one point Vida finds herself channeling stately, plump Buck Mulligan from Ulysses but she can’t figure out why:

When I makes tea I makes tea and when I makes water I makes water. Buck Mulligan imitating that old lady—Old Mother Gowan? Grisby?—and she couldn’t get it out of her head. It was a habit from childhood, letting a senseless cluster of words get lodged like that.

Later, as she frolics in the Pacific Ocean, she speculates that her recollection of Joyce signaled her desire for the water:

“It’s freezing!” Peter cried and leapt away.

“It’s the ‘scrotum-tightening sea!” she screamed and waded in farther, lifting her dress up over her knees.

“What!” Peter said, laughing.

Perhaps it was for this moment that she’d been remembering Joyce all week.

In the scene that follows, Peter thinks he’s lost her in the waves for a moment but then he sees her as Leopold Bloom sees Gerty sporting on the Sandymount Strand, an image of sudden beauty. Like Bloom, Peter feels restored:

Then he saw her, bobbing in the chaos, her hair pressed down around her face, her mouth open, laughing, saying something to him that the noise of the sea carried off. She was young, he saw now, with freckles across her cheeks. In all his imaginings he’d never guessed that his mother had gotten hurt. Always in in his mind there had been love on his father’s die, and sadness when she could not love him back. There had always been that man in his yard, raking leaves and waiting. Peter saw now that maybe that man was himself. Maybe he was the one who’d been waiting.

Virginia Woolf, The Waves

I read The Waves too long ago to figure out how King is using Woolf’s novel, which provides her with her epigraph:

Life is beginning. I now break into my hoard of life.

I can say that The English Teachers end, with what feels like a very Woolfian “moment of being,” stepping through the wave-like flux of existence to achieve a transcendent moment. She need not worry about the future–her fear of being abandoned–but can just accept what she has now:

But Vida had not had near enough [happiness]. Oh God, she thought, nearly unable to reckon with the vastness of the moment. This is it and I am right here. This is what there is.

Odyssey, Beowulf, Huckleberry Finn

After his own epic journey across the country, when he drives his ailing mother from New Jersey to California without a driver’s license, Peter sees these three epics in a new light:

It was all about courage. To live even a day on this earth required courage. All these things they read in school—The Odyssey, Beowulf, Huckleberry Finn—were all about courage, but the teacher never said, You may not have to kill a Cyclops or a dragon but you will need just as much courage to get through each day.

Given how Peter and his mother fight with inner demons throughout the novel, I find it interesting that the first two works may be the two foremost works of literature dealing with monsters—and that, seen symbolically, the monsters are interior states of mind. The Odyssey is about a man fighting to maintain his identity as a Greek king in the face of various threats and temptations that threaten to derail him. This helps explain why so many of the monsters threaten to swallow him up, either literally (the Cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis, the Laestrygonians, the Sirens) or metaphorically (the Lotus Eaters, Circe, Calypso). Beowulf, meanwhile, deals with the monstrous rage that threatens us from within.

Huckleberry Finn is ultimately about remaining integrous. All three dramas speak to the heart of adolescent rites of passage.

HardyTess of the d’Urbervilles

Finally, here’s a Tess allusion I missed in yesterday’s post. Vida’s Angel Clare, it turns out, is not her husband Tom. It is her son Peter, who she worries will leave her once he discovers the truth about his father. When she tells him, however, the result is much different than what it is in the novel:

She was terrified he’d take his arms away. Stay stay stay. He was the only skin she had. Everything else was gone. Stay. She had no more words, no more energy left to push them out. This was the last time he would ever come near her, she was sure of it. He’d never truly forgive. He was Angel, she saw now, like in her dream. He would leave her. Stay, she cried. The sun rose higher and hotter and the waves grew even larger, rising to thin tremulous ridges before smacking the rocks. And Peter stayed.

“I’m sorry, Mom,” he whispered. I’m so sorry this happened to you.”

This entry was posted in Beowulf Poet, Eliot (T.S.), Faulkner (William), Hardy (Thomas), Homer, Joyce (James), King (Lily), Poe (Edgar Allan), Twain (Mark) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.
  • Donna Raskin

    Hi Robin, I read this book on your recommendation and, at first, loved it (especially, I will say with honesty, after finding out that Ms. King taught at the school where I first taught so some of her descriptions are of places with which I am very familiar), but then I found that the plot was a bit thin and, at the same time, unbelievable. In terms of the inner life of an English teacher (which I am), those sections resonated with me quite a bit. I especially appreciated them because I hadn’t realized so many of the experiences were universal (being known for teaching a certain book; actually disliking a book you have to teach) (a lot of my feelings for To Kill A Mockingbird), and I also understood a lot of her feelings since I, too, am the single mother of a 15-year-old. Thank you for the blogs on the book! You informed my reading. Now, I will recommend a book to you: Our Souls At Night by Kent Haruf.

  • Robin

    Sorry for the late reply, Donna. I was frustrated with the protagonist until I learned her back story, at which point I could understand why she would hang on to literature as though it were a life raft–and how her reading habits weren’t entirely healthy. I was so enthralled with the idea of a book like Tess as being double-edged that I was willing to otherwise surrender to the plot.

    I’m intrigued by your reactions to To Kill a Mockingbird, which I loved when it came out but now see as somewhat problematic. I’d be very interested in hearing about what it is you dislike about it. And as I’m on sabbatical and need occasional breaks from my writing, I’ll look into the Haruf novel.

  • Donna Raskin

    Hi! How is your sabbatical going?

    Going back to the Lily King novel: Even though I understood her backstory, it was difficult for me to believe that such a knowledgeable and thoughtful woman would lack that much self-awareness. She never questioned her motives or behavior. That was what I found unlikely.

    In terms of To Kill a Mockingbird: I just never liked that a white man was the hero of what is a black story. That is very much a white liberal’s view of the racism in our country. That we (I am white) will help THEM. As we now know, that hasn’t worked.

    I hope all is well,

  • Robin

    Your instincts may be right on The English Teacher, Donna. On the other hand, one could argue that one may be very smart in certain areas of ones life and not at all in others. I was intrigued by the way in which the protagonist hated Tess because she didn’t want to acknowledge how much they had in common. I had a similar experience with Catcher in the Rye when I was in high school–I hated Holden and realized, decades later, that he and I had a lot in common.

    I think you’re right with regards to To Kill a Mockingbird. I posted a few years ago on Malcolm Gladwell’s similar response (this from a man of color) and then wrestled with my own response. In this case, I needed to probe my positive reactions, not my negative. But they were similarly revealing. My post is here:

  • Donna Raskin

    Hi. I have been thinking about this a bit, as I have used (not surprisingly) literature as a metaphor for my own life. For example, I read Madame Bovery and Anna Karenina when I was married in my 20s and I cheated on my husband (and ended the marriage) (and, ultimately, I don’t think either of them are sympathetic and, in fact, part of the reason that I then went to therapy to figure out how to change my own thinking about relationships, was because of how unattractive as human beings I found both Emma and Anna). I think it is protagonists not admitting to us, her reader, the truth of her life, that I found problematic. If she had told us, “well, this happened to me, and I had this baby, and here is why I hate Tess,” I would have been more understanding, but the lack of a conspiracy between she and us was difficult for me to buy into. If we had been on her side, then we would have been able to see her actions with more sympathy. But, having said that, the book clearly resonated, and that is a credit to the author, of course. I just read Dandelion Wine, which was so beautiful I had not read it before, and I am about to teach Going After Cacciato, which I loved in college, but don’t remember very well. What are you reading? Donna

  • Robin

    Sorry for the delayed response, Donna. Every time I come across a reading story like yours, the works themselves come back. You raise the issue of how aware are we of what we project into the books that grip us. It took me a while to realize that I could learn a tremendous amount about myself by scrutinizing my negative reaction to works–but I suppose that takes the same courage as is required to revisit a trauma, which in the heroine’s case is a rape that she’s buried. I think your own self examination is exemplary but I wonder if everyone, even those well-versed in literature, are capable of it.

    I’m enamored of War and Peace at the moment. I’m also reading British fantasy as I’m teaching that in the spring. I was impressed with Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. For some reason, I couldn’t get into Strange and Norrell, even though Regency gas lamp fantasy intrigues me as a genre. I’m working on Perdido Station at the moment–Victorian steam punk–which provides an interesting contrast with the agrarian preferences of many fantasists, including Tolkien and Lewis. Also Angela Carter’s Blood Chamber, which I’ll definitely teach.


  • 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.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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