When I was sixteen and a high school student at a private, Christian high school my English teacher handed me a copy of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Published in 1899, The Awakening faced a long and rocky road to critical acclaim. The novel’s protagonist, Edna Pontellier, is a wife and mother living in New Orleans. The Pontellier family vacations on Grand Isle off the Louisiana coast, and it is here that Edna meets and begins a flirtation with a young bachelor, Robert LeBrun. It is this flirtation that catapults Edna headlong into the existential crisis that is the heart of the novel. The novel challenges the Victorian ideals of Chopin’s day, particularly gender roles. It was labelled by some critics as morbid and vulgar and pulled from library shelves.
The Awakening is a beautifully written novel. Even those who cannot applaud Chopin’s subject matter must admit there are no flaws in her craft. I read it first at sixteen, again in my twenties when it was assigned in my American Novel course, and again a few years ago when I taught it to high school students. It’s a good novel to read at sixteen and then revisit after you’re married and have kids. I don’t want to spoil those who haven’t read it, but suffice it to say while I do not approve of all of Edna’s choices I think the novel absolutely belongs in the canon of great American literature that should be taught in our schools.
The story of Edna Pontellier immediately came to mind when I read news of an Alaskan school board voting to ban five novels they deem controversial. The list includes Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
Jeff Taylor, a board member who voted in favor of the ban, claims these five novels depict situations that are, “pretty serious problems, especially in our teenage world.” Ms. Angelou’s book depicts the molestation of a child as well as content the board deems “anti-white.” The Things They Carried, a novel about the Vietnam War, was flagged by the board for profanity and sexual references. Catch-22 landed on the banned list for its inclusion of racist attitudes, violence, and misogyny. Ellison’s Invisible Man, a poignant story that grapples with racial identity in pre-civil rights America, was banned for language and depictions of rape and incest. Fitgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby was banned for language and sexual references.
Is it Mr. Taylor’s belief that by banning these novels from classrooms the issues teenagers face will magically disappear? Do he and the other board members who voted to ban these novels believe problematic events and ideologies in America’s past are not worth studying and discussing?
Many teenagers are unfortunately living in a very adult world. They are exposed to images and ideas and situations many adults cannot adequately handle. This is tragic, but it is baffling that anyone would conclude that banning a teen from reading The Great Gatsby or any other novel on this list is in any way a step forward. I have taught high school. I have read The Great Gatsby several times. I can assure the Alaskan school board high school students are not learning about sex from The Great Gatsby.
Well written fiction is a gateway to empathy, to seeing the world through someone’s else’s eyes. It is the closest we can come to stepping in someone else’s shoes and experiencing the terror and heartache of sexual trauma, or the tumult of post-war America in the 1920s, or the horrors of Vietnam. Reading fiction is sometimes what sparks an interest in history in a student who is bored with a traditional history text. An egregious wrong is done to any student who is deprived of reading excellent literature in a classroom environment that affords the opportunity for teacher-led analysis and discussion.
In The Picture of Dorian Gray Oscar Wilde asserts that, “The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.” These novels do not create the unfortunate realities they depict, and removing the novels from shelves will do nothing but deny students access to excellent literature every American student ought to read. These novels present students with well-written characters and scenarios that reflect harsh realities students need to discuss among peers in a safe environment with a capable teacher.
It is incredible that over one hundred years after the publication of The Awakening some are still under the impression that books are shaping human nature rather than revealing and exploring human nature.