5 Ways to Introduce a Novel
This week, I’m starting a unit on Beloved by Toni Morrison. It’s not the kind of book you can give to students and say, have fun, it’s great. But I don’t like to spoon feed students answers chapter by chapter either.
Some books, maybe most, don’t require much introduction. Novels, to some extent, exist in their own world. The writer crafts a fictional story independent of the place, time, and life of the writer. It is a world unto itself and shouldn’t require extra research to understand. But sometimes it helps to give students a heads up about what might confuse them as they read.
Here are the five things I talk about before asking students to read a novel:
1. Historical context
At some point, too much historical context will add an extra narrative that confuses students who might already struggle to understand a complex story. But with writers like Shakespeare or Austen, it’s important to remind students of some basics about how monarchies work or women’s rights. With Austen, students want to judge females without considering that they couldn’t work, go to school, vote, or even be taken seriously in conversation by males.
2. Biographical context
A writer’s life is yet another narrative that might confuse students. They could mix up what happened to the protagonist and what happened to the writer. But in the case of Achebe, Hawthorne, or Faulkner, it’s important to think about why these writers often told stories a generation before them, and whose story they are telling. When available, it can be fun to show interviews with the writer to make that extra modern connection.
3. Narrative style
I introduce the narrative mode of the story more than anything else. I always read the first page of a novel out loud to get a feel for the language and an understanding of who is telling the story. Many novels contain complex narrative techniques like limited omniscient narration, flashbacks, letters, dreams, or the stream of consciousness.
4. Relevant or essential questions
On the first day of studying Beloved, my students wrote down their questions about themes on an index card. I then projected the index cards and opened up a conversation about any confusing parts of the plot. Students also asked questions about the relevance of the novel and why it’s so controversial. It became a political football in a recent gubernatorial race, so I used that as a way of drumming up excitement about the book.
5. Plot outline or character tree
Many novels have characters with long names or large families. Minor characters can also be hard to keep track of, so students often need a one-page reference sheet so they don’t feel the need to look for online resources. For Beloved, I provide students with a one-page, bare bones outline of the major plot details that happen in each section. I also mark flashbacks with a symbol so they can look out for interruptions of the linear narrative of the plot.
Ultimately, I tell my students to embrace their confusion. Like a great movie that you watch more than once, a great novel requires many readings. This is why I read the text out loud as much as possible in class. It gives students a second chance to make sense of everything. The complex narrative structure of Beloved reflects Sethe’s attempts to forget the past, however impossible, for the sake of her daughter. The past comes back to her in the form of ghosts, memories, stories, newspaper clippings, and strangely, through Beloved. It’s not something she can avoid, or that anyone should avoid. Only through talking about it can she obtain mercy from herself, her family, and her community.
Because the full truth involves understanding multiple perspectives, a story that depicts reality will never be simple. Beloved functions more like a long poem than it does a traditional novel. If students know to read it that way before they read it, they will love reading it, instead of being frustrated by it. And if they can read Beloved, they can read anything.
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