Teaching Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter in an Online Introduction to American Literature Course

heartisalonelyhunterMy experiences discussing Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1941) with others all resulted in people either ecstatically loving it or shrugging with indifference and asking if I had read The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951), deemed a superior text. I imagine there are other less polarized opinions of it. Yes, I have read The Ballad of the Sad Café, and it made me want more McCullers, leading me to The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. When I first read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, I knew it was a text I wanted to teach. This past spring semester, I finally did, and not so shockingly, my students loved it—partially because I had starved them out for fiction with all poetry and nonfiction for the first half of the semester but also because my assignment deeply invested them in the characters.

This was my first time teaching an online course. I used a lot more media that I normally would because all communication whether written or recorded lectures happened online. Each week I sought out online supplements to the course material. For example, when we got to Sherman Alexie, I incorporated his twitter account and a collection of recent tweets into the lecture to enable students to see more of him as a writer and better understand the his style and tone.  I learned more about myself as an instructor and grew quite a bit. My ability to write discussion questions reached all new levels which was reflected in my students’ ability to produce their own stellar discussion questions half-way through the semester. It also took a different kind of reflection on the successes and failures of my previous courses because literature is a particularly difficult subject for students in the online format, especially an introductory course filled with non-majors.

This two part approach to McCuller’s novel can be done both in an online and in a face2face classroom. I am, however, emphasizing certain elements that are more challenging when real time dialogues are suspended in a field where discussion is one of the most important components to the learning process. Additionally, these two approaches don’t have to be done together and can be used for any novel.

Character Tracking

As I have previously discussed, one of my favorite novels to teach in American literature courses is Gayl Jones’ Corregidora. In Corregidora, there is one clear main character that is the  focus of the plot. While there is plenty to confuse students, they understand who they are following through the text. The first time I taught a different novel, I experienced an epic fail (which I have previously explained) because there were too many main characters. My fail resulted in this character tracking assignment for novels that have multiple main characters whose stories are weaved throughout the text.

Each student was assigned one of the main characters–in the case of this novel, each main character is also a narrator–Biff Brannon, Mick Kelly, John Singer, Dr. Benedict Copeland, or Jake Blount. We spent three weeks on the novel and students were responsible for that character for the entire text. Within the frame of the course, themed resisting the status quo in American literature, this section of the course explored the questions: 1) How are race, class, and gender critiqued in American literature? and 2) How does power function in these structures? So those were the broader concerns guiding students reading.

Since this was an online introductory class and our first piece of fiction, I had students tracking features of plot development in their character’s subplot lines and the main story’s plot line along with their character’s individual development. Each week the discussion board questions followed the same three part breakdown. First, I provided students with what I called a “guiding concept” which reiterated elements from the lecture and contained some focused questions to guide their responses to the actual discussion board prompt. Second, there was the “primary prompt” which was their lengthiest post. Third, there was the “secondary prompt” which gave them instructions on what to include when responding to their classmates’  primary prompts.

Week 1: The guiding concept was getting to know their assigned characters in terms of in depth character development in the novel. Their primary prompt asked them to introduce and asses their character: “We have been introduced to each of the main characters: both their external physical descriptions and their internal thoughts and emotions. Who is your character? What do we know about him or her? What events seem to be important to who they are so far, and why?” The secondary responses asked students to connect their character with their classmate’s characters: “What interactions has your character had with the others? Respond to your peers’ character posts with the connections your character has made with theirs. Again, which of these interactions seem most important and why?”

These questions, while the most simplistic of the semester, enabled students to gain insights into their characters and to become much more questioning of the interactions their character had with others. This lead them back to those much broader question for the unit, and many of their initial post and responses were working through the power structures at play for their character.

Week 2: The guiding concept for the second week of the text was more focused on plot. I asked students to reflect on plot elements, such as the 5Cs: conflict, complication, crisis, climax, and conclusion. With their character as their main focus for their primary prompt, they wrote about various subplots and there was disagreements between students working with the same character as to which events were the most pivotal to for their character. Similarly, their secondary prompt asked them to respond to the role their character played in their peers’ characters’ subplots and vise versa.

This is where the conversation really began to analyze those power structures. Students found very real, but invisible, forces at play for most of their character’s challenges. I became responsible for checking their expectations against some of the realities of the time period. The constant re-contextualizing of the novel temporally challenged students’ assumptions.

Week 3: Finally, the guiding concept for the final week stuck with the formal plot elements and discussed the role of resolution with the question of how we make sense of ends that are not what we were anticipating. The primary prompt asked students to tie everything together: “Last week you were tracking their character and plot developments. This week we are going to continue thinking about their development, but more specifically who are they by the end of the novel? How has your character grown or developed throughout the novel? What outcome were you expecting for your character versus the outcome that we are given? Why (use evidence from the text to support your position)?” Again, the secondary prompt required students to place their character’s role in the outcomes of their peers’ characters and vise versa.

Overall, students had big plans for their characters. I challenged them to really set up those expectations from the text, not from their own ideals being projected onto the characters. For the most part, they struggled to accept their character’s outcome, although some they did foresee more so than others.

Students invested in this novel and these characters more than I had previously seen. They were heartbroken, across the board, by John Singer’s death with some feelings of betrayal towards McCullers because he mattered for all of their characters. There was also quite a bit of annoyance on behalf of Dr. Benedict Copeland for his outcome, even though students understood his dilemma. The class was split on whether or not Mick Kelly’s future was wide open or bleakly limited; there was some good debate and alternative readings of her last scenes. They had the least sympathy for Biff Brannon and Jake Blount, with the exception of Biff’s analyzers; they loved him. I was not all that surprised by the lack of sympathy for Jake given America’s instillation of a love of capitalism. That said, they were beginning to understand him towards the end.

This sustained activity resulted in no plot or character confusion and put students in a position to more securely call one another out on questionable statements or weaker arguments because they had a slightly more refined knowledge from which to draw and because they were ready to defend their character to the end. We were also able to move into in depth discussions much more quickly because that comfort with a single character gave them a needed focus.

Book Covers

Let’s be honest, some contemporary book covers are just boring! How about the paperback Vintage editions Toni Morrison’s novels? A solid color with the title written in script, somehow even less interesting than the first edition of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter pictured above. Even these recent ones that feature the author’s picture or the peaches are let downs. A class activity that accents students’ character tracking, and can be done in various forms to accommodate the online or face2face learning environments, asks students to consider the role of the book cover when consuming a novel. The attachment that students develop to their character and their character’s plot points in the novel makes them more critical readers and visual consumers, especially when it comes to protecting the integrity of their character. I know this sounds odd, but it is pretty awesome to watch play out.

Step 1: Start with what the students have in front of them. These two covers are the ones that appear on the most recent editions of the novel, so they make a good place to start. The peaches can be tied to John Singer and his relationship with Spiros Antonapoulos, but they are definitely an odd choice. Or, are the peaches referencing McCullers as a Georgia writer? Why? McCullers’s image, particularly this one,  is in some ways very fitting, and students really like discussing everything from her posture to her facial expression to where she is sitting. But, at the same time, why put an author on the cover of her novel? These are the types of basic and cover specific questions I like to open with when discussing the covers with students.

Step 2: Find other cover images. After discussing the recent covers, I bring in covers from other editions of the novel. Goodreads features an “Editions” page for most novels. This is more helpful than doing a Google image search because it provides the publication company and year for each edition (I always cross reference to make sure the information is correct). It is one thing to ask students to analyze a novel’s cover, but it takes the analysis to an entirely different level when you ask them to assess the historical progression of cover art. Some students may have these covers, most probably won’t.

Step 3: Some very general questions to start the conversation and let students take it where they want to go. (My personal favorite of these three to discuss with students is the 1961 cover.)

    • Who or what is represented on the cover of the novel? While this seems like it would hold obvious answers, it actually isn’t always clear.
    • How do book covers reflect the social climate of the time?
    • How do the three above Penguin editions  from 1946, 1961, and 1981 compare to one another?
    • Which characters are represented in each image? Why?
    • Are book covers just about marketing and sales? If so, what is being sold in each image? If not, what accounts for these decisions?

If you are doing this along with the character tracking assignment, asking students to work through the cover art with their catalog of character knowledge begins to change the way they see the characters and the publishing industry. Even when characters are not present on the covers, students’ attention to their specific plot lines make them debate how well the cover represents the story.

This past semester, my students and I spent some time with the cover to Bantam’s 1956 edition. It was necessary to give my students some publishing company background, so they can recognize the differences in the covers and come to their analysis with a clearer marketing context. Last year Kirkus featured a helpful piece on US paperback book history, “The Rise of the Paperback Novel” that specifically mentions Bantam. Even though the piece’s specific focus is the rise of science fiction, it goes broad enough that is it helpful when thinking about any mass market paperback, especially at the rate that publishing houses take each other over.mccullers-1

For this cover, the character tracking assignment paid off big time. First. the cover attempts to represent each of the five narrators. My students and I took issue with those representations. My students had become advocates for their assigned character, and nothing about that changed here. They initially wondered if the illustrator even read the book, before they moved on to critique those images. Here were some of the questions we addressed:

  • Why is Dr. Copeland wearing overalls and not a three-piece suit?
  • How might racial stereotypes of the South be taking precedence over his descriptions throughout the hundreds of pages of the novel?
  • How might attitudes about communism in the 1950s be dictating the illustration of Jake Blount?
  • Where is our jean shorts wearing, cigarette smoking Mick Kelly?
  • In short, how does this cover undermine everything McCullers does in her novel?
  • As a mass market paperback, what exactly is it trying to appeal to in its target audience?

How do you make novels more manageable for students and your teaching? What activities work best? Let us know!

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