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A Lively But Pointless Conversation About Literature

I would first like to offer you a lively, robust classroom conversation about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and then I’d like to explain why the conversation is nonetheless rather pointless, and what the conversation needs in order to be productive.

Teacher: So, do you think Frankenstein’s monster has a soul? Is he a real human being?

Tom: I think so.

Teacher: And why do you think that?

Tom: Because he can talk.

Dick: But parrots can talk.

Tom: That’s different, though. Parrots don’t know what they’re saying.

Dick: How do you know that? Parrots ask for crackers. They want crackers.

Harry: That’s different, though. If a parrot asks for a cracker and you don’t give it a cracker, it’s not going to say, “Why aren’t you giving me a cracker, pal?”

Teacher: And why is that?

Harry: Because animals don’t think.

Dick: Of course they do. An animal makes decisions. You can train an animal to make the right decisions.

Tom: An animal doesn’t know those decisions are right, though. Animals aren’t moral.

Dick: I think they are. I have a dog and he genuinely loves me. He’s always happy to see me.

Teacher: How do you know he’s happy to see you?

Dick: He wags his tail.

Teacher: Does that necessarily mean he’s happy?

Dick: I think so. He looks happy. It’s the same thing he does when we feed him. He likes being fed.

Harry: Do plants like being watered?

Dick: Sort of. Maybe plants have emotions, too. I’ve heard that if you play music for plants they grow faster.

Teacher: Where have you heard that?

Dick: I don’t know. It was on the internet.

Teacher: So, is Frankenstein’s monster more like an animal or a plant?

Tom, Dick, and Harry: An animal.

Teacher: Is he more like an animal or a person?

Tom: He’s not made in God’s image.

Teacher: What does it mean to be made in God’s image?

Tom: It means being human. Being able to love.

Teacher: Can the monster love?

Dick: He says he can. I think he’s human.

Tom: He doesn’t have a mother, though.

Dick: Animals have mothers, though.

Harry: You could say that plant’s have mothers, too. Mother Nature.

Teacher: What is Mother Nature?

Dick: It’s some weird thing environmentalists came up with back in the 70s.

Teacher: Was the term “Mother Nature” never used before the 70s?

Dick: Maybe, but it probably meant something different back then.

Teacher: How do you know?

Dick: Because the people who talk about “Mother Nature” these days don’t care about people having jobs. They’re just like, “Animals are more important than people.”

Harry: I talk about Mother Nature, and I don’t feel like animals are more important than people.

Dick: You’re a Christian, though. You know we’re made in God’s image. Most people who talk about Mother Nature don’t know that.

Tom: The fact that Harry is a Christian doesn’t mean he can’t be fooled. His aunt voted for Joe Biden.

Teacher: Why is that relevant?

Tom: It means Harry’s dad was raised by someone who—

Teacher: I want to get back to my question about Frankenstein’s monster. Is he a real human being? Does he have a soul?

Tom: He acts like he does.

Dick: But some animals act like they have souls. I feel like some animals are cruel.

Harry: Do tornados have souls?

Dick: No.

Harry: But tornadoes are cruel, if you really think about it.

Dick: Tornados don’t have faces. I feel like only a thing with a face can be cruel.

Harry: What about demons? Demons don’t have faces. They don’t have anything.

Dick: Demons don’t have souls, though.

Harry: Demons are souls. Demons don’t have bodies, which means the only thing left for them to be is souls.

Teacher: Have you ever heard of diaphanous bodies?

Harry: No.

Dick: Demons could have faces, though. They can appear in whatever form they want, according to the Bible.

Harry: But a demon is always cruel, even when it’s not taking the appearance of something with a face.

Dick: Demons can’t be everywhere at the same time, though.

Harry: What does that have to do with anything? It’s not relevant.

Teacher: So does Frankenstein’s monster have a soul?

Harry: It has a face, so yes.

Dick: But animals have faces and they don’t have souls.

Harry: Maybe animals have diaphanous bodies.

Dick: You just said you had never heard of diaphanous bodies.

Harry: What are diaphanous bodies?

Teacher: Some people say they’re like spiritual bodies.

Harry: Like the kind we get in heaven? No way. Demons don’t have those.

Dick: You’ve never met a demon, so how do you know?

Harry: You’ve never met Frankenstein’s monster, so how do you anything about him?

While this conversation is robust, lively, colorful, and all the students both ask and answer a number of interesting questions, it simply doesn’t go anywhere. It’s fun, perhaps, but not profitable. If this conversation continues for another five minutes, ten minutes, or ten hours, no one will arrive at the truth. No one will arrive at a moral imperative which must be acted upon. No one will learn virtue. Nonetheless, Tom, Dick, and Harry may go home and report they had “a good time in British Literature today,” and their teacher may tell his colleagues, “We had a robust conversation in class today about Frankenstein.”

This conversation is missing a number of important qualities. To begin with, it is missing real authority. The teacher does not have any more authority than the students. He asks questions, but so do the students, and the students do not feel compelled to actually answer his questions or their own.

Second, it is missing knowledge. These students are not aware of conventional Christian teaching about animals, demons, souls, or the imago dei, and they are not going to arrive at those conventional teachings if they continue on in this manner. This conversation lacks proper parameters.

Third, this conversation lacks conviction. The students occasionally state their beliefs, but a good deal of what goes on here is vain speculation and skylarking. The students haven’t considered any of these matters deeply enough to arrive at thoughtful conclusions, neither is the teacher guiding them towards such conclusions.

Fourth, this conversation lacks sound priorities. Debating whether Frankenstein’s monster has a soul is—at least among high school students—a bit of a waste of time. He does have a soul. The book doesn’t make a lick of sense if he doesn’t. Far better for the teacher to simply declare that the monster has a soul and spend class time debating more pressing matters, like all the ways in which Victor fails his child, what it means for fathers to love their children, and psychologically plausible reasons why parents are tempted to not love children.

Finally, a good classroom conversation needs a direction. This isn’t true of a conversation a fellow has with friends over dinner, wherein mere intrigue or curiosity is sufficient reason for asking a question, and the subject can meander aimlessly over many hours. A classroom conversation should be a little open, but it can’t be quite as open as a conversation among friends or equals. This isn’t to say that every class should have an exactly calculated landing point, or that a guided conversation can never stray far afield, and yet a literature class is not a book club. Neither is it a dinner party. The teacher is one who constantly struggles to make his opinions and his interpretations of a book worthy of sixteen other people’s time. This skill is honed over the course of a career which is why there is no replacement for experience. A good teacher is not merely a moderator. A good teacher is always converting his own life into the lesson.

2 thoughts on “A Lively But Pointless Conversation About Literature”

  1. “Debating whether Frankenstein’s monster has a soul is—at least among high school students—a bit of a waste of time. He does have a soul. The book doesn’t make a lick of sense if he doesn’t. Far better for the teacher to simply declare that the monster has a soul and spend class time debating more pressing matters, like all the ways in which Victor fails his child, what it means for fathers to love their children, and psychologically plausible reasons why parents are tempted to not love children.”

    – Doesn’t it matter what the author is asking or saying? I’m not denying Shelley is speaking to fatherhood – but it seems rather pointed toward a father as Creator, not father as parent. And isn’t she asking the reader to consider what constitutes a soul, what makes a person truly human? Isn’t she questioning the boundaries of science and technology and our responsibility with them? Isn’t she asking what one ought to do when one has used science and technology without considering the consequences?

  2. Thank you for saying this. Not long ago I was reading the comments on my course evals in a college literature course I teach. One comment expressed dissatisfaction with the relatively small amount of time my course devoted to discussion. But another comment expressed appreciation for the way the class is devoted to expert commentary rather than to student discussion that was merely “pooling ignorance,” as the commenter put it.

    Looking back on my own studies, I understand the tension. I likes classes that allowed me to have my say every day. But I learned the most from classes that were devoted mainly to lecture by a teacher (and this is the critical part) who REALLY knew his or her stuff. So I’ve stopped feeling bad about devoting a lot of class time to pointless discussions. When I want to generate discussion, it needs to be about some specific matter in the text: given the context of this soliloquy, why do you think would the speaker use this kind of imagery? In this dialogue, where do you detect a shift in tone? This character’s choice came as a surprise to us, but what hints appeared in previous chapters that turned out to have foreshadowed this decision? These are the sorts of questions that might reveal or at least promote genuine understanding.

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