Instructor: Rudy Ramirez
Class Description: English II: In the Land of Gods and Monsters
“The only way you’ll find happiness is to accept that the way things are is the way things are.”
“The way things are stinks!”
—the Cow and Ferdinand the Duck, Babe (1995)
The conflict at the heart of Babe, filmed in the ancient times known as the 1990s, stretches all the way back to the even more ancient times of the Greeks, when a bunch of Athenians decided that, instead of just reciting the stories of their gods and heroes, they would act out the characters and call it theatre. In the tragedies that have survived to this day, the Greeks return again and again to the social order, “the way things are,” what the Romans would later call the status quo. To disrupt the social order is to invite disaster, to call down the wrath of the gods, but as Sophocles explores in his play Antigone, it isn’t always easy to determine who has violated the social order and who is working to defend it. Writers throughout the years have adapted Antigone and other Greek tragedies to question not only when we should work to change the status quo, but whether it can be changed at all.
Certainly, the status quo seems impossible to change in Never Let Me Go, where the children of Hailsham face a mysterious fate mandated by the government, but it’s often just as hard to change the status quo inside your head. The family at the heart of Everything I Never Told You lives in times of great change for women and people of color, but old ideas are hard to shake, and those ideas can lead to tragedy as terrible as any brought on by the gods.
Monsters, of course, disrupt the status quo by their very existence, drawing inspiration from our fears and anxieties to reflect the changing world. William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, written as Britain was establishing its first American colonies, features supernatural creatures inspired by stories of indigenous Americans and African slaves. Centuries later, H.P. Lovecraft’s own fears of racial others in Brooklyn spawned the monsters of his horror stories even as African Americans were experiencing a cultural renaissance a few miles away in Harlem. Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom brings these two moments in history together to confront the racism that still affects African Americans today, while Philip Osment plucks a line from The Tempest as the title of his play about the racism and homophobia of 1980s Britain, This Island’s Mine. Both of these works look to the past and to the present to ask: who are the real monsters?
It isn’t only monsters that disrupt the social order: musicians and poets from Woody Guthrie to Janelle Monae have spoken truth to power with protest songs, and comedians since the time of the Greeks have used satire to laugh their way to a new world. The French playwright Moliere lampooned 17th Century religious hypocrisy in his scandalous comedy, Tartuffe, but change comes slow, and lessons need repeating, so the film Saved! takes on the same subject in the 21st Century.
Throughout English II, we will look to the past and the present to help us to a better future, to think about how all these creators looked the problems of their world in the face and reached for something different. We will read works from the Western Canon and the writers that have responded to them. We will work critically and creatively, we will write essays and autobiographical stories, stage a scene or two from the plays (I am a theatre teacher, y’all) and we will even do some grammar lessons along the way (sorry). We will not, sadly, watch Babe, but we will approach the following texts (which you will need to acquire by the beginning of the respective semesters) with all the bravery of a duck trying to avoid being Christmas dinner. Let’s do this!
Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
Course Reader, provided in class
Antigone, Sophocles, Translated by Anne Carson
Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng
Course Reader, provided in class
The Ballad of Black Tom, Victor LaValle
The Tempest, William Shakespeare, Folger Library Edition
Tartuffe, Moliere, Translated by Richard Wilbur
This Island’s Mine, Philip Osment