The World’s Most Famous Diary: Robinson Crusoe, the First Novel

The first novel, Robinson Crusoe, written by Daniel Defoe in Britain, was published in 1719 and next to the Bible is the most published book in history. It was inspired by the life of a Scottish man, Alexander Selkirk, an officer in the British navy who was Alexander_Selkirk_Statue smallershipwrecked on an island in the South Pacific by his captain and survived there for about a year and a half before being rescued by pirates. (You can find a statue of him in Fife, Scotland.) He was incorrigible and probably did not have the redemptive experience which the fictional Robinson Crusoe has.

The novel is composed in the form of a journal wherein Crusoe recounts in detail how he survives and is converted to a holy Christian life through his reading of the copy of the Bible he has found in the shipwreck, and eventually meets his friend Friday. It seems to me that this revelatory tale of one man’s conversion to faith may be the template for the religious tradition which blossomed forth later on of the personal “testimony,” where church members (usually protestant) stand up and confess the details of how they came to faith. As far as I know, this tradition is peculiarly British and American, which is why I ponder this possibility. The novel is also rife with allusions to biblical stories and topics, keeping continuity with the trajectory of previous English language works.

Robinson Crusoe shifted the trajectory for how a myriad of great authors would write. It affected the future of our cultural understanding of what it means to be an individual, and stands in line with the great Western works which have rob prayingtaken us from classical times when individuals and their stories were viewed primarily as a part of the group, a cog in the wheel of their culture, to a time when each person as seenias “a world in himself” to be investigated, understood, and affirmed.

While it is true that the story is rather long-winded, given the fact that Defoe was inventing an entirely “novel” genre of literature the book is astounding. The first person narrative by Robinson himself gives a personal tone to the story which works well in concert with the major theme of the work, which is that of Crusoe’s slow repentance from a corrupt life to that of a holy and prayerful Christian. The tale imagines what it would be like to be stranded with no distractions and nothing except a few items, completely alone with only oneself and God.

The highly personal nature of this first novel and its deep dive into the state of the protagonist’s soul set the stage for novels to follow: they would be stories about individuals, but these would reach beyond the particular characters, expanding the meaning of their experiences to exemplify sighting smallerinstances of the universal themes of life and morality as worked out in the lives of people and the society surrounding them. Defoe’s choice of the “journal” as his vehicle for telling the tale also set the stage for what became known as the epistolary novel, which would consist of a series of either letters or journal entries, commonly interspersed with narration by the letter writer, or possibly, by another narrator who is telling that person’s story.

The possibilities are endless: a narrator might “discover” the letters of a person from another era in an old attic, or might by chance find the diary of a person whose story otherwise would not have been known, or known as it truly happened. A recent renaissance of the epistolary novel has included elements such as time travel, parallel worlds, and other innovative tropes. Thanks to the ingenious mind of Daniel Defoe the novel lives on, always new, rebirthed and reimagined by countless writers who entertain and inspire us with their innovative characters and stories.

Works Cited:
http://www.britannica.com

A Controversial Bird: Thoughts on “To Kill a Mockingbird”

I’m sure you are aware of the classic American novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper HarperLee. What you may not yet know is that recently this important book has been banned in quite a few schools and school districts because, like Huckleberry Finn, it contains characters who use an extremely offensive racial epithet. But that’s not what this article is about: I want to talk about other aspects of the book that parents of younger students may not know about which make it inappropriate for younger students to study, no matter what your views on the banning of books.

Some home school programs, including online, require early middle school students to read this book: I know because I was required to teach it at this grade level. Over those years I developed the strong opinion that this book should not be taught until at the very youngest, the 9th grade. People think of the book as having the theme of the evils of to-kill-a-mockingbird nightracism, and while this is true, the plot revolves around the case of Tom Robinson, an African-American falsely accused of raping a white girl, and also includes a scene of an attempted lynching. While there are no directly graphic descriptions in the book (according to today’s standards), implications in the text about these incidents, especially during the courtroom scene, naturally pique students’ interest, causing them to want to know “more” about the repugnant details alluded to.

It’s possible that you’ve never read the book (somehow I got all the way through receiving a master’s degree without having done so), or perhaps if you did read it a long time ago, you don’t recall the details. It’s an important book–one of the most read American novels both here and throughout the world. Its nuanced yet honest atticus and kidsconsideration of the troubled history of the American South leaves the reader with a sense that there is hope that injustices of this society can be overcome through the goodness and the moral strength of brave individuals: As Atticus Finch says,  “You never understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” It is, in the end, an affirming and redemptive novel, a gem of the American canon, but it should be assigned to younger students with a judicious eye.

I plan to write an another article about Harper Lee’s brilliant appropriation in the novel of the southern mockingbird as her symbol for innocents who suffer injustices. If you haven’t read the novel recently, you might be enriched by doing so. You gain something new every reading.
Mockingbird tire horizontal (put on bottom)

The Prophetic Agony of Frankenstein’s Monster

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Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus is a monster of a story. It incorporates the mores and tropes of the Romantic era in literature while pointing prophetically to the ethical scientific dilemmas of our own time. This much most of us know: In pride and a desire for importance, Dr. Frankenstein creates a nameless creature known only as “The Monster” out of the body parts of corpses, and through a vague sort of electrical process he animates the monster.

But unlike most 20th century movie portrayals, the original story is not a primitive horror film appealing to our base instinct of fear, but rather, a visionary and prophetic tale which imagines a horrific scenario in which man’s attempts to gain the powers of God result in the creation of a misshapen creature who retains the sensibilities and soul of a human being. Since all those he encounters find his visage viscerally repellent, The Monster cannot find happiness and satisfaction for the longings of his all-too-human soul. He aches for human companionship, including a wife and family, but those he meets reject him in kenboth fear and disgust before he can reveal his compassionate, loving spirit to them.

So the story is both a psychological insight into a person who is rejected by society – an outsider – and a monolithic statement about the devastation which occurs when man tries to play God. As the plot progresses we trace The Monster through his agonies: he attempts many times to connect with others, but eventually the continuous rejection he experiences fosters a pain in his heart so great that his bitterness turns him towards hatred and a revenge so all-encompassing that The Monster becomes a murderer. He then seeks reparation from his creator for the very act of his creation, murdering Frankenstein’s best friend, his fiancé, and his brother when Frankenstein will not cooperate with his demand to create a wife/companion for him.

While Shelley did not foresee the specifics, she did accurately imagine the philosophies of the 20th and now 21st centuries, as many scientists now coldly glorify eugenics, create and destroy test tube babies, offer parents the choice of destroying unborn children because of their gender or perceived handicaps, and develop new life from harvested fetal cells. In short, she foresaw the philosophy of Hegel’s “Superman,” borne out first in the

Hercules and Prometheus
Hercules and Prometheus

Hitlerian Third Reich and in the policies of many “civilized” nations today. The fact that the full title of the first edition of her novel is Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus reveals the depth of her understanding of the ultimate consequences in a society which was already rejecting the spiritual and sacred meanings of what it means to be human. She did, indeed, predict the future.

The ancient desire for power – the power to be like the creator, and the ways in which it would be played out in our world today through misuse of the discoveries of the Enlightenment – is so mightily and uncannily portrayed in Frankenstein that it’s almost unbelievable. Shelley truly saw what would happen if we were to choose to believe that the material world is the seat of our being, replacing the beauty of the soul and the true sense of the creator’s natural order with a mythical “perfection” which cannot be attained in this world.

*Recommended: Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 movie, “Frankenstein,” which is faithful to the original story.

Cindy C. Lange, MA

Sherlock’s Secret

Sherlock Holmes is perhaps the most curious character in all of literature. By curious I sherlock 1 left par 1don’t mean strange, although he certainly is eccentric; I refer to his voracious appetite for understanding how humanity and the world interact with each other. He observes, induces, then deduces, putting all of the facts together in ways even today’s reader doesn’t “get” until he enlightens us. Like his biographer the dense Dr. Watson, we too wait to be enlightened by the Master about the enigmatic mysteries the great detective investigates.

Although it has been 130 years since his creation, and though the detective mystery genre is overrun with popular stories with their lovable or quirky detectives, Holmes remains the king. Why? While we might not actually enjoy knowing him personally, his pure ability to reason, to sort out truth from falsehood and genuine clues from red herrings, remains the pinnacle of the art form. If “imitation is the highest form of flattery,” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle must be the most admired author of all time: not only has the genre bloomed since the creation of Holmes, but Holmes himself has 221been remade in story, tv, and movies.

Why? In spite of his calculating and rather cold personality, Holmes’s brilliance is what most of us wish our own intelligence to be. We don’t want to only be a logic machine: instead, Doyle somehow has us imagine incorporating Holmes’s gifts into our own personalities. This is the genius of the creation of Sherlock Holmes.

The Real Winnie-the-Pooh

It would be difficult to find someone who doesn’t appreciate the Winnie-the-Pooh stories, but I do have a question for you: Which Winnie-the-Pooh do you know?

Pooh and Tigger confer

Do you know only the cute cartoon Pooh Bear whose facile, happy-go-lucky visage traverses the screen in classic Disney cartoons? If so, you may want to become familiar with the original Winnie-the-Pooh whose seemingly dense but truly thoughtful proclamations speak to the depths of a child’s heart. His friend Tigger is not the hyper, bouncy-flouncy character he is portrayed as in the films or Disney versions in their little children’s picture books. You can even see these contrasts through Milne’s drawings. For instance, Tigger’s visage and persona are not goofy: he is joyous, and there’s a difference. He may have silly aspects to him but like the others who inhabit the wood, he and his friends are sober-minded, genuine characters who express real questions and observations about their world. For instance, Eeyore is the personification of the side of us which thinks the worst; he reveals to children how others see pessimism, but he also “allows” them to feel this sad side of life. Children with a melancholy bent may find comfort in knowing Eeyore while at the same time recognizing that there is more to life than the discouragement he personifies. Christopher Robin’s living stuffed animals are only stuffed in the sense that they are full of the wonderment and curiosity of God’s children.

Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet discuss; Christopher Robin, Tigger, and others read.

The inhabitants of The Hundred Acre Wood reflect Milne’s trust in the insights of children and also, the puzzlement they express about the larger reality, for they do not yet know the infinitude and the limits and of the world. They don’t know what bees can do; they don’t know what balloons cannot do. They don’t know that they may get stuck in a knothole in a tree. Unlike many children today, they (and Christopher Robin) have occasion to do a lot of waiting. They wait by their homes: they wait, and wait, and wait. And while they wait, they have the opportunity to think and we, their friends, get to hear their cogitations and ponder along with them. We especially get to know Pooh’s thoughts about that which he considers or does not understand as he navigates his way through a world he doesn’t comprehend but believes in.

The tone and atmosphere of Milne’s books are in stark contrast to the Disney movies. The stories are placid and meditative. They are slow-moving and polite. They focus on the interior lives of children. When Christopher Robin first bumps down the stairs with Pooh, he opens our eyes and returns us all to a world of childlike wonder where the imagination is celebrated with bliss, freedom, and a sense of rightness. The real Winnie-the-Pooh belongs alongside The Tale of Peter Rabbit as one of the best children’s/adults’ stories of all time.

*You can find the original Winnie-the-Pooh stories by A. A. Milne in any good bookstore or online. There are several books of stories and a book of poems for younger children, also, entitled Now We are Six.

The Art of Peace in Learning

In the homeschooling arena there are two distinct camps: those who believe in highly structured education (often labeled “classical”) and the “unschoolers” who push against the strictures of what seems to them to be a soul-crushing pedagogy. Both have their points but there’s a third way. Since children’s souls and minds are meant to be just as unified as those of adults, it’s up to us to give them instruction which fulfills their emotional well-being while simultaneously guiding them into how to learn and love to learn. 

We all know that stuffing children’s minds full of facts is not the way to feed their souls. Rather, our constant commitment is to focus on how to help them enjoy learning so that they naturally and gently fold the facts they learn into the wider, larger scheme of their lives and environments. It’s not an easy job to pass on a love of learning, but as I contemplate starting another school year I remind myself that all children have a natural love of life and a curiosity about the wonders of the rich world surrounding them. There is much truth to the quote that learning is “caught, not taught”; as adults we are motivated by inspiration, and it’s the same for our students.

Learning in peace is the third way. Especially when it comes to the literary canon, the adage “quality, not quantity” is applicable. The point of the humanities is to learn how to generalize truths and incorporate them in our lives and society. This is particularly true with literature. Truly reading and appreciating literature is a spiritual experience wherein students ponder and enjoy the characters, plots, and themes they encounter. Whenever possible they should have time to read in leisure rather than rush frantically through a mass of texts. As they grow older students will learn how to take in and integrate more knowledge while retaining the sense of peace and appreciation engendered in them when they were younger. They will become educated in the deepest and most genuine sense for they will be equipped to seek the virtuous “pursuit of happiness” the founding fathers of the United States understood to be the highest calling and fulfillment of the human experience.

The Eternal Jane Eyre

Choosing the “best” novels is a nigh to impossible task, but at the top of my list is Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. The book both exemplifies and defies the genres of the Romantic Era and Gothic mystery; Brontë skillfully uses them as tropes to explore her complex, frustrating, challenging, lovable protagonist. The book is beloved by professors and “lay” readers alike because Jane’s inner life is so real that she not only lives in the pages of the book but with each subsequent reading she seems to grow and speak in a new way to the reader. 

Brontë does a deep dive into so many themes through Jane’s persona that it’s impossible to explore them all in just one or two readings; topics such as the roles of women, freedom of the will, the consequences of arbitrary class distinctions and the challenges of living out moral values are presented with subtlety and believability.

If you think about it the plot of Jane Eyre is similar to that of an epic story, both externally and internally. From her bitter and angry response to the abuses she endures as an orphan to her metamorphosis into a woman of strength of will and deep principles, Jane’s journey takes the reader on a wild emotional ride. At first blush it might appear that the plot is a rather picaresque story as Jane moves from place to place encountering various people and experiences. But it is not: it is a plot unified by the development of Jane’s soul as she learns from her forbearing friends to replace her hardened heart with one overflowing with forgiveness and mercy. By the time she meets Rochester Jane’s fundamental Christian character is established, but her ethics are tried by the surprising moral choice with which she is presented. Like the “Crossing the Threshold” stage of Joseph Campbell’s Heroic Cycle, she must emerge from the Valley of Death before finding her true and spiritual heroic status.

After the author has developed the superior character of Jane, presenting it in terms of Christian goodness and morality, Brontë brings in her antithesis, St. John Rivers. (It is not a coincidence that we discover he is a cousin, for he is her alter ego in many ways.) His zeal for religion is real but self-serving, and he himself says he is “ambitious.” It seems odd for a person who is consumed by ambition to want to dedicate his life to missionary work, but Brontë is bringing home the point that true religion must come from a humble servant’s heart. A life dedicated to others is not enough if it does not flow from a loving spirit, and contrarily, a soul which is can serve others anywhere.

The novel also follows both external and internal mysteries. Brontë uses these plot angles to spur the reader on, but the deeper significance of them is to highlight Jane’s spiritual development as she encounters the challenges of life. She could have responded to Rochester’s deceit with bitterness as she did when she had been wronged when younger, but instead she sees his plight and forgives him. She successfully crosses the great moral threshold of her life when she freely both loves and leaves him.

Jane’s desire for freedom – including the freedom to choose right – is prominent in the story. The motif of birds in cages and in flight comes to the fore when Jane says, “I am no bird and no net ensnares me. I am a free human being with an independent will.” Jane’s strength of will comes from her belief that she has the ability to choose her moral destiny and she will not, under any circumstances, relinquish that right.

~Check out our courses where we teach the classics of literature in unity with composition at integritasacademy.com!

Redemptive Reading in Times of Seclusion

For the present, most of us have more “leisure time” than usual and this lifestyle might more truthfully be called “mandatory leisure time.” It might be tempting to watch more Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, etc., but an alternative is to set aside some time for reading great literature together. I like to read literature which is redemptive, myself. This doesn’t always mean that a book has a “happy ending,” but perhaps in our present homebound state it would be most uplifting to read books which conclude joyfully! Some good modern literature does not qualify but much 19th century literature does.

If you haven’t read many works of the masterful Charles Dickens other than, perhaps, A Christmas Carol or A Tale of Two Cities – they are treasures awaiting you! You will find that his other novels are page turners filled with memorable characters who beckon you into their worlds. His works were originally set up to be read by chapter, out loud. I have found that A Tale of Two Cities is much less accessible for young people than his other novels, and while I appreciate the allegory of A Christmas Carol, it is not in the category of his best works.

Dickens and other authors of his era wrote weekly “chapters” and submitted them in a “serial” way to the magazines, periodicals, and newspapers of the day. People read these novels aloud the way we watch television today – their stories brought much delight and were a mainstay of households in both Britain and America. Families would gather together in the evenings to hear the latest “chapter” of the book together, laughing or crying at the exploits and complications in the lives of their favorite characters. In our present situation it might make for an enriching alternative to binge-watching your favorite tv show, or at least – be a pleasant addition to it. 

Dragons and Devils and Knights, Oh MY!

The epic poem Beowulf and the Arthurian romance poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are enduring works which continue to enthrall us today with their stories of brave heroes who sometimes exhibit superhuman powers. What is the appeal and importance of these works–what makes it worth sorting out and sometimes slogging through the challenging diction of these classic tales, today? 

In order to grasp the entire picture, we need to understand the context of Beowulf. The hero of this story (think “Viking”) is a figure who straddles the period between pagan and Christian somewhere around 500 A.D. and the tale is set in the Nordic countries of Sweden and Denmark. The unknown author was British, possibly a monk, and probably wrote the work c. 900. Some scholars see the epic poem as a pagan story, based on the elements of the bloodlust and boasting incorporated in some scenes. Others see the poem as Christian, given the analogies made to biblical stories, and the incidents of humility which Beowulf and other characters attempt to exhibit in the midst of their tests and triumphs. 

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Because the story is “transitional” in time and nature, it presents the reader with an understanding of the cultural/religious changes which occurred in the west during this early medieval period. In Beowulf, the evil monster, Grendel, traces his lineage back to Cain, the first murderer, chronicled in the book of Genesis. And the dragon which our hero battles in the end may be more than just an outward evil, but perhaps also represents personal sins such as greed and envy. 

In contrasting Beowulf to classical works such as The Odyssey, the shift in values becomes clear: while ancient heroes must seek kleos (glory), the heroes of medieval stories must strive towards the Christian virtues such as humility, chastity, and self-sacrifice. Since Beowulf  straddles the two worlds, the story displays the contrasts and conflicts between the two cultures, and the ways in which Western culture was entering into the Christian ethic.

In the later medieval poem, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” the Christian ethos is pushed further, as Gawain must learn that striving towards the virtues a knight has vowed to embody is not enough. As Gawain experiences powerful temptations and tests (magically induced by the evil Morgan le Fey), both he and the reader learn that while he may strive for perfection, he cannot accomplish this only through his own personal strength and will. Rather, the knight must rely on the power of God as he turns in to Him in humility after learning that he is in need of heavenly support, no matter how sincere his intentions. 

These enduring tales of heroes and knights give insight into the culture, religion, and psyche which formed our literary tradition, and provide the background for how audiences even today long for icons to emulate. The yearning for the “super” character continues today, as anyone who goes to the movies knows. Everyone loves a hero!

~ Cindy C. Lange, MA

~Check out our courses where we teach these classic works and others at integritasacademy.com

The Middle School Advantage: From Known to Unknown

While middle school might seem like a time of uncertainty and confusion for both student and parent, it is also a time of wonderful opportunity: students begin to realize that the world of facts is the precursor and foundation to the even more engaging universe of ideas, thought, and personal creativity. This is particularly true in the area of composition and literature, wherein is the opportunity to develop the ability to think logically, through reading great texts and writing about them. 

Students do not need to wait until high school to begin to develop their analytical skills in writing, and in fact, after climbing that initial steep hill, they discover that what at first appeared to be a long, painful journey has turned out to be the preparation for entering an entirely new kingdom which they now have the keys to enter. Truth to tell, it’s the best time in life for them to part the curtain and enter into entire the adult world. They now can unlock the codes which open the doors to understanding the mature thought found in great literature. The ability to grasp the themes and deep riches of literature is also the ability to truly grasp history within the context of human nature. Dostoevsky knew this, and stated that it is through literature that the Russian people understand history. Perhaps this explains the love people have of historical fiction, or any great novels which thematically reflect the history of various incidents and people in history. 

The book which has most influenced my own understanding of Dostoevsky’s assertion is Witness, by Whittaker Chambers. One of the unsung masterpieces of 20th century literature, this historically accurate book (not fiction) is the story of an influential American journalist’s journey from being a communist spy when he was Time Magazine’s religion editor to his gradual change of worldview during the 1950s and the “Mccarthy Era.” Witness had a profound influence on me when I was a young college student, and shaped my philosophy and future approach to life in immeasurable ways. I will forever be grateful to the college friend who handed that book to me when I was questioning my own belief system. 

Perhaps you have a book which has meant a lot to you throughout the years; I personally find that revisiting my own experience with Witness is rejuvenating and encouraging, especially in times of discouragement or doubt. The ways in which literature can shape our consciences and define our lives are myriad because the relationship between words and the ways they express truths about our reality is profound and never-ending. There is no logic or understanding without a grasp of language and its handmaid, writing.

In my experience middle school students are ready for this philosophical and literary journey: in fact, though they may not know how to express their desires yet, they are yearning for it. When a parent/teacher/mentor guides the way, most students jump at the opportunity to begin the pilgrimage. Even if it means a steep climb at the beginning of the trip, the reward is worthwhile. Surrounding students with fine literature is a wise way to start them on the path to learning to write and the foundation for their developing the logic they need to help them fulfill their life callings.

Questions about our courses? Check our website, integritasacademy.com, or email us at Cindy@integritasacademy.com.