Thursday, May 23, 2013

Teaching Allusions

Alternate title - What Is Piggy's Real Name?

Allusions can be hard for students to pick up on, mainly because they may not know the source material being alluded to.  For example, in Lord of the Flies, when the boys realize that they are on a deserted island with no grown ups, they shout out titles of books all about boy island adventures that all turned out great in the end.  Of the three books, the only one recognizable to the students is Treasure Island, and even that is because they saw Treasure Planet or Muppet Treasure Island.  

The story is actually much better with muppets in the place of the book's characters.

Even then, most of my students didn't know anything about the book.  Allusions to Coral Island and Swallows and Amazons were completely lost on them (actually, I did have one student who had read Swallows and Amazons as a kid).  This is a shame because Coral Island is obviously an important allusion to Golding as he mentions it twice as a book and a few other times as just a description of the island.
So what do we do as teachers to help remedy this problem (and it is a problem - many state tests use passages with allusions to make the reading selection harder and most movies and TV shows make allusions all the time with the expectation of the audience figuring it out)?  We can point out the ones in the texts that we read, of course.  Someone with more time on their hands than me could put together video clips of allusions in movies that would be well known to students (like Lion King).  Such a teacher should post that bad boy up to You Tube and share the link with us here at HCET.  I think we should go one step further and teach students how to spot them even if they do not know the alluded to source.  This is easier than it sounds.  Take this for example from "The Raven":

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door-
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door-
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Many students would not recognize who Pallas is, but a give away is that it is capitalized.  A student reading this poem should, after training, be able to spot that it is an allusion and, based on the context of the poem, be able to tell that whoever this Pallas person is, it must be a person that is either smart and wise (since the narrator gives so much weight to the bird's words) or foolish (since the narrator shouldn't be listening to the rantings of this monodical bird).

Some allusions, of course, do not have handy dandy capitalized names to clue us in, but the saavy student can still pick them out when they noticed some weird terminology, such as the allusion in Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress":

"But at my back I always hear / Time's winged chariot hurrying near;"

Here the allusion is also a personification and the student should be able to pick up on the fact that some sort of figurative language is going on here and even if they miss the Apollo allusion, should be able to figure out that time is passing quickly.

I think this is an important term to teach and one that we, as well read English majors, often take for granted as being a skill that our students can do.  The lower level readers certainly need help in finding figurative language in general, and any help in recognizing information that is not literal can make the difference in a student trying on a state test and a student giving up because he/she feels that there no way to understand what is going on.  Feel free to use my sad attempt to confront this problem and feel free to contribute your own solution as well.

Before I leave - probably the most extreme use of illusions is Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, decent enough movie (if you don't have high expectations), but excellent graphic novel.  There are so many allusions to 19th century literature packed into this thing that one guy spent hours trying to find them all and posted a web site to annotate the whole thing.  If you are a fan of Victorian Literature, then check out a copy of it from your local library, read it, see how many you spotted, and then feel stupid as you go through the web site and see all the ones you missed.

By the way, Piggy's real name is most likely Peter.  How can I say this?  Coral Island, the book alluded to most in Lord of the Flies, has three main characters - Ralph, Jack, and Peter.

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