Warning Labels for the Classics

Duncan Grant, "James Strachey"

Duncan Grant, “James Strachey”

“Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm” blared an ominous New York Times headline and then proceeded to mention The Great Gatsby in the first sentence. The article was about professors teaching material that could trigger reactions from sensitive students. As the author explained,

 Colleges across the country this spring have been wrestling with student requests for what are known as “trigger warnings,” explicit alerts that the material they are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in victims of rape or in war veterans.

I don’t want to make too much of the piece as it doesn’t offer many substantive examples. The idea of a trigger warning for The Great Gatsby, for instance, appeared in an editorial by a Rutgers sophomore English major and doesn’t seem to have been thought through. Many of those mentioned in the article as singling out works fear that others might insist on warnings. They aren’t advocating the practice themselves. Meanwhile, an Oberlin College draft of a proposal urging faculty to be sensitive was scrapped.

In short, most of the article is pretty thin tea. Anyone who loses sleep over future trigger warnings is like those culture warriors in the early 1990’s who warned that English professors were bringing down Western civilization by teaching The Color Purple.

Still, I enjoyed the article for the many thought streams it set in motion. First of all, I liked the notion that the classics could have a strong impact on readers, even an adverse one. Too often they are regarded as dry and dusty museum relics that put people to sleep rather than make them squirm.

But I also reflected that much of literature is actually designed to make people squirm. What Algernon says about modern culture in The Importance of Being Earnest could be extended to culture at large:

Jack: [Y]ou have no right whatsoever to read what is written inside.  It is a very ungentlemanly thing to read a private cigarette case.

Algernon: Oh, it is absurd to have a hard and fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn’t. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.

There’s a lot in the classics to make people squirm. Come to think of it, perhaps we should be worried about a returning war veteran reading Achilles’ killing spree in The Iliad, a scene so horrific that even the bloodthirsty gods are repelled. Or about rape victims reading Book II of Paradise Lost, where we learn first that Satan raped his own daughter Sin and then that she was raped again by the child of their union. And what about Sophocles’ most famous tragedy, which features a taboo violation that is so horrifying that one character hangs herself, another pokes his eyes out, and an audience member founds western poetics?

Come to think of it, is it safe to assign any of the great Greek tragedies without a warning label?

I don’t want to sound too flip here, however, because time and again I have seen students use classics to wrestle with painful personal issues. Some of this wrestling comes as no surprise, such as students who recollect instances of partner abuse after reading the Wife of Bath’s prologue. But I never predicted an Afghan war vet discovering, after reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, that his fatalism in the face of death was a coping mechanism designed to help him defuse IEDs without falling apart.

What we as English teachers must always remember that we are working with our own metaphorical explosives. Literature has the capability of radically reshaping perspectives and changing lives. We have to be sensitive to the reactions that a work like, say, Lolita will generate. I mention this work because I once had a student storm out of a class (“Madness and Literature”) when were were discussing Nabokov’s novel. I have taught Minority Lit classes where students yelled at each other. But the key is not to post warnings. The key is to create an atmosphere of trust where sensitive issues can be talked about. This is where true learning happens.

Maybe the biggest problem with putting trigger warnings on literature is that they would narrow the interpretive possibilities. If readers are warned about certain issues ahead of time, they will miss out on other aspects of the work. Figurative language is such that often one can’t tell exactly what is going to make readers squirm.

On second thought, however, maybe there is something to be said for trigger labels as long as they are general enough. Here’s one that I suggest all literature teachers post in large print upon their syllabi:

Warning: This course contains works that will bring you face to face with the most perplexing, the most painful, and the most profound experiences that flesh is heir to. Enter at your own risk. 

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  • Barbara

    Robin, as you know, For the past 3 years I have taught a First Year Seminar that deals with the social changes of the 196o’s by examining the lyrics of popular songs. The last time I had several students criticize me for not giving them trigger warnings (they didn’t use that term, but said I should give a “heads up” when disturbing themes were coming) and provide alternative assignments.

    The objectionable material was the film The Graduate (nudity(?) and adultery) and the cover of the poem Richard Cory by Simon and Garfunkel (suicide).

    My responses were always a variant of the explaining the material of the course was intrinsically disturbing and I didn’t think there was a way around that but I was open to their suggestions. But the underlying vibe, never resolved, was that that if they were uncomfortable, then something was wrong.

    So, if I teach it again, I think I’ll adopt your warning label approach. Then, at least, they will have been warned.

  • Robin Bates

    Barbara, As always, I look for the teaching opportunities in these situations. It seems to me that you have a golden opportunity with your course, talking about the confrontational tactics of the counter culture. If your students are uncomfortable, you can note how they are reliving the debates of the time period. In this case, it seems that you would benefit from letting them know ahead of time since you want them to see the songs in this light.

    I must say, however, that, while it was rated X when it came out (for that split second shot of Mrs. Robinson’s bare breasts), The Graduate seems awfully mild by today’s standards. Unless we really have returned to the 1950’s.

    I remember years ago about getting a complaint about Jitterbug Perfume from one student, Tom Robbins being one of the voices of the Sixties. I talked to her about the book three years later and she found herself amused at her earlier response. We sometimes forget how sheltered our students sometimes are. Since our primary goal is educational, it seems we need to figure out the best way to set up a work to insure that maximum learning happens. Giving them a context ahead of time through which to see the works can be very powerful.

  • Barbara

    I get that, Robin! Much of the class is devoted to setting up the context for the songs. But what I found quite perplexing, and have yet to account for, is the fact that no one expressed discomfort with one of the first songs we discussed, Strange Fruit.

  • Carl Rosin

    To your concluding warning, which ends “Enter at your own risk”, I would append this: “Also, ignore this literature at your own risk, for the only thing worse than being forced to confront humanity — in all its fervor and difficulty and ugliness — is refusing to recognize it as it is.”

  • Robin Bates

    Amen, Carl. I may have compared literature to explosives, but what really damages people is ignorance.

  • heteroclitejumble

    When I encounter a book I consider the possibility that it may be larger than me, greater than me, and it might cause me to disintegrate. It might recontextualize my soul, it might be a song for forgetting the self. Of course, with practice you can tune these things.

    You can only be enthusiastic about slapping these trigger warnings onto books if, I think, you are skeptical or unknowledgeable about what literature broadly actually is, and what it can do. Oh, I forgot: there are also people who have beheld its nature, and wish to curtail it.

    This has absolutely nothing to do with the neoliberal recommendation to “toughen up”, which gets confused, by some people, with the eternal play of artistry and logic backdropped by the numberless stars, for some reason.


  • 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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