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The Dangers of the Postmodern Novel

Teacher: “How did you like the Scarlet Letter?”
Student: “I hated the way it ended.”
Teacher: “What do you mean?”
Student: “It was too sad.”
Teacher: “Are you saying you wished that Hester and Arthur Dimmesdale were able to stay together?”
Student: “Well . . . yes.”
Teacher: “So, you didn’t want there to be consequences for sin?”
Student: “Well . . . no.”
Teacher: “Interesting. I wouldn’t have thought that matched your worldview. See you tomorrow.”

Believe it or not, this conversation took place in the 1980s after a public high school English class. The instructor clearly understood the normative goals of teaching literature. I was the student who had been temporarily seduced into ignoring sin in favor of a deceptively happy ending. Of course, I was too young to understand that there would be no happy ending for these two lovers, even if they remained together. What a merciful provision that I had a Christian instructor who was willing to guide me back to the correct path.

Three recent events brought this conversation to my mind. The first was President Obama’s announcement of an education plan which calls for a large reduction in time spent reading fiction in high school classrooms. The current philosophy seems to be that students only gain any actual (or at least any measurable) benefit from reading nonfiction, even if that reading material is a government report on the environment. We have fallen far from the classical, Christian education model in which students read, memorized, and recited great literature to remind them to excel to the utmost ideal of human possibility. Apparently, we no longer want to ascend to greatness nor to be reminded of the opposite by studying examples of human folly. We have firmly declared our preference for values over virtues.

So, as classical educators, we are swimming upstream when we try to read literature and discuss what characters ought to do. This idea goes against the dogma of postmodernism in which anything goes. When my children were younger, I used the IEW history-based writing curriculum. This curriculum has a list of banned words which writers should not use. Apparently, our society has banned words, too, and “should” and “ought” have hit the top of this list.

One day a week, I tutor high school students in their core subjects. Recently, we read Jane Eyre together. Many of them were frustrated by Jane’s abrupt departure after she learned that Mr. Rochester had a mad wife living in the attic. Armed with the example of my own teacher and our Socratic dialogue about the Scarlet Letter, I dropped a few less-than-subtle questions. “So, are you saying that you wanted her to marry Mr. Rochester even though he is already married? Should she turn a blind eye? Do you believe his marriage is nullified by his wife’s insanity?” Reluctantly, the students began to consider the story in a new light. One day, they, too, will be called upon to make difficult choices. Often, these decisions will be made over issues that seem like gray areas. Perhaps they will be called upon to swim against the current of popular opinion in order to pursue truth and goodness. I pray that they are strengthened by Jane’s resolute moral conduct. I pray that they will be able to forsake temporary happiness in the face of honoring God’s law.

These same students and I later discussed my arguments in favor of all Christians reading Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Like Jane Eyre, the protagonist of this weighty tome is called upon to make a virtuous choice which will require him to forsake his personal happiness. Jean Valjean must decide if he will turn himself in to the authorities to save an innocent man from prosecution. His night of agony and prayer is one of the finest scenes in all of Christian literature. He emerges from the night with a clear sense of what God would have him do. There come those pesky banned words again—should and ought.

If all great novels are built on the tension of great moments of choice, what will happen when all choices are equally acceptable? Is it possible to write a postmodern novel? What would it be like? I had lunch last week with a friend who is a Christian writer. She had attended a lecture on the structure of the postmodern novel and wanted my opinion. We can be certain that it will not be like a Jane Austen novel, for marriage is not acceptable even as a happy ending for a Hollywood movie nowadays. We can be certain that it will not be like a Dickens novel in which Providence, often disguised in amazing “coincidences,” orchestrates the rescue and redemption of the main characters. We can be certain that there will be no moral judgments for characters like Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale. After all, if there is no sin, then there can be no consequences for sin. I think we can safely say that there will be no nights of agony and prayers like those of Jean Valjean. To whom would the characters pray and why?

Instead, I believe the postmodern novel will have a certain flatness to it. The postmodern novel will most often have a first-person narrator which mirrors our postmodern obsession with self. If there is a third-person narrator, it will not be the omniscient Dickensian narrator who presides over the lives of a large cast of very human characters and reliably shares their stories with the reader. No, indeed, this type of narrator would be too close to Truth, too Godlike. Instead, the narrator will be a flawed and unreliable narrator who leaves the reader wondering if it is possible to know anything about anyone. The plot will necessarily be flat and undramatic because there will be nothing to learn from these characters. We will not be allowed to judge them for the rightness of their choices. Who’s to say what is right or wrong, after all? We certainly will not learn from them how to avoid foolishness or to pursue wisdom. We have our own individual path to pursue which will somehow be right because it works for us. So, in the end, I think the postmodern novel will read like a diary of fluctuating emotions and daily activities. There will be no thread to connect the larger story together because there is no ultimate Storyteller directing our days. I believe I’ve read several of these postmodern novels already. I won’t give the author’s name to protect their reputation, but you can rest assured that the result was supremely boring.

At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I believe the classical, Christian educators are in the same position as the monks who saved civilization by tirelessly copying classical manuscripts. We must continue to hold these normative discussions, preserving the use of the words should and ought as we point our students to wisdom and virtue.

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