Recently I discovered this blog, Love Among the Ruins, dedicated to publishing students’ essays about the intersection of Theology of the Body and culture:
The Theology of the Body, at its deepest point, is intended to provide a fundamental framework for thinking about and interpreting all of reality. The task of your paper is to bring the insights of the Theology of the Body to bear upon some aspect of culture (contemporary culture, pop culture, or “high” culture). You may choose a work of fiction or drama, film, music, or some other form. Your interpretation, at its best, should help to illuminate your subject through the Theology of the Body, as well as the Theology of the Body through that subject.
My attention was drawn by way of a piece on Jane Eyre, “You Shall, Yourself, Pluck Out Your Right Eye”;: Theology of the Body in Jane Eyre”. Now the piece reads like a college essay: good ideas, a little stiff in the execution. Not that I could have done any better at the same age. But its main function was to remind me of a pet project I’ve had on the back burner for a long time now, an idea for a literature course for teens and young adults that would explore theological, moral, cultural and practical aspects of courtship and marriage. Through great works of literature. Not quite the same thing as this TOB culture project, but close enough.
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You know you were born to be a literature teacher when you find yourself compiling syllabi even though you haven’t set foot in a classroom in almost a decade. (Yes, I’m homeschooling, but planning books to read with my family is not the same thing as planning literature classes for teens or young adults.)
Anyway, for a long time now I’ve been keeping a mental book list for a course on marriage in literature with a theological bent. A sort of nebulous idea, teaching about marriage for those who are immediately confronted with having to deal with the possibility of being called to marriage using literature to talk about both practical and theoretical issues of courtship and dating and chastity and all the stuff that comes up any time you are talking with teens and young adults.
I think the idea sort of coagulated when I was reading Kristen Lavransdatter, it occurred to me what a lovely depiction it is of the problems that plague a marriage that begins with the husband and wife having premarital sex together. I wished I had read it when I was younger. And I began to keep track of all the different depictions of marriage I came across.
Or maybe it began when I was teaching Persuasion (was that before or after reading Kristen?) When I was preparing to teach Persuasion, I began by asking my students to think about their own preconceptions about courtship and marriage. We talked a little about the problem of how to choose a spouse. And to me that’s the central drama in Austen, not girl meets boy, but man and woman form a family.
In any case, I started to think about what Austen and Undset and others can teach young people about the interconnectedness of sex and marriage and family.
I think teens are still very concrete in many ways and the theological and moral teaching of the Church can seem abstract and impractical. They need stories to see how these teachings play out or how the lack of these teachings plays out.
So I’ve had a sort of mental list of interesting stories about marriage. Both those that act as models of what to do and those that are clearly examples of what not to do. The problem with my hypothetical class is that there is so much literature about marriage. The real limitation for this class would be fitting in all the books. Though if it’s a homeschooling class, then I suppose I could plan it to stretch over a much longer period of time. Several semesters, even several years, even.
Jane Austen, of course, is a master of writing about marriage. I don’t think most readers pay enough attention to her beautifully drawn minor characters, to all the examples she provides of people who have made foolish choices and then have to live with the deficiencies of the spouse they have chosen.
And then Charlotte Bronte’s masterful Jane Eyre.
And the aforementioned Kristen Lavransdatter. What else?
Shakespeare of course. I have a hard time choosing just one or two. I especially like The Taming of the Shrew and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Twelfth Night is a favorite too. Brideshead Revisisted.
Walker Percy? Thanatos Syndrome or Love Among the Ruins? It’s been too long since I read any of them.
Middlemarch, of course.
James Joyce’s The Dead.
Chaucer– I think the Canterbury Tales have quite a few tales that look at marriage from different angles.
What else would be on your list? Why?
I’ve started this post and lost it and started it again so many times. I’m not happy with it. It feels choppy and uneven. I wanted to have an actual list, but that doesn’t want to happen. So I’m going to publish and then maybe come back to it later. But let’s chat about what a literature as a formational tool and literature.
Updates Wednesday April 8
Yes, many people have suggested Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar. A friend also bought it for me. It’s in my pile of books to read. But that book while it may be a valuable resource, doesn’t really do what I’m talking about. What I’m thinking of here is whole novels. Excerpts are ok in their place, but there is something vital in reading the entire work if you can, understanding scenes in context, development of characters.
1. A friend and I have been discussing this post on Facebook. Some thoughts from our conversation. She suggested some foundational reading for before the teen years, and I concur with her choices: “we started them early with these series: Anne of Green Gables, Little house, all of Louisa May Alcott. Those set us up for all of Austen. First Pride and Prejudice (read out loud together when the eldest was 12 and the second was 11), then Sense and Sensibility (when the girls had a bit more self knowledge and could see tendencies in themselves in the characters) then Emma. Jane Eyre, Gaskell’s books, as sophomores Anna Karenina. ” Then Kristen Lavransdatter, she said, is up next.
She also suggests that “Poetry is also important in the way Shakespeare acting and memorizing the Baltimore Catechism are: words are provided for ideas that otherwise would remain amorphous in their minds and might just fade away without phrases ready at hand to express them.” I really like that about memorization pinning things down and sticking with you.
2. Other books I’d add to the list:
Dickens. I think David Copperfield maybe and Bleak House? Possibly Great Expectations too.
And what about Till We Have Faces? It’s not really about marriage or courtship, except tangentially, but it’s about self knowledge and touches on the way marriage intersects with our relationships with our families of origin.
And oh Rumer Godden. The Battle of Villa Florita, Peacock Spring, China Court, are all strong possibilities.
3. Also, I found an old post on Kristen Lavransdatter and the Theology of the Body that I wrote ages ago and that I think holds up pretty well.