A classic short story that combines a young boy's quest for his mother's love with archetypal symbols and deeply moral questions, "The Rocking-Horse Winner" is a heart-wrenching experience that will provoke students to question their own priorities and society's ethics. Written in a deceptively simple style in the manner of a ghostly fairy-tale, the story has an undertone of great anxiety and tension, masked by a veneer of civility and respectability in a high middle-class home where love gives way to the all-consuming need for "luck" and material success: "There must be more money! There must be more money!" Beyond the emotional pull of the story, senior students will find themselves exploring the complex issues of class, family love, and the notion of luck as the boy Paul obsessively rides his rocking-horse to find a "winner," never understanding what it is he is trying to win. What does it means to be a lucky person? Are luck and success the same thing? Where does love and happiness fit in amongst this mix?
Journal Entry: Part One
What are the mood and the tone of the exposition (if you don’t know what mood and tone are, look these terms up in the list of literary terms that have been provided to you earlier)? What do you learn about the mother? How does her portrayal compare with your concept of “mother”? What kinds of expectations does the opening sentence create? What elements in this passage clearly foreshadow coming events? What other literary devices are used in the story?
NOTE: Remember to address all of the questions above in your journal entry.
Journal Entry: Part Two
Describe what you see in the picture above. What do you think Paul is feeling as he rides the rocking-horse to find, “the winner”? Describe how you think the two other children in the room who are watching Paul feel as he rides the rocking-horse and what visual evidence supports your claims? What is the mood created by this image? Based upon this image and the reading, what do you think Paul is trying to win, even if he himself is not aware of this fact? What evidence supports this conclusion?
Elements: Characterization, climax, conflict, connotation, context, diction, foreshadowing, irony, mood, plot, setting, symbol, theme, tone.
Themes: Sense of self, Personal challenges, Close connections, Class and privilege, Ethical and moral question.
The Shining Houses
"Mary sat on the back steps of Mrs. Fullerton's house, talking - or really listening - to Mrs. Fullerton, who sold her eggs." And so begins "The Shining Houses," with two very different women conversing in an apparently normal and civilized way in a brand new, orderly, clean subdivision. Like many of Munro's beautifully-crafted stories, this one is notable for the depth with which these ordinary characters are developed through the author's typical and natural use of meticulously chosen images, phrases, and pieces of conversation that often say more in their omissions than in their actual words. As the students begin to explore these ordinary people, they begin to understand the tension and anger that exist in this new subdivision of shiny, new homes, where disorder, eccentricity, and non-conformity will not be tolerated by the upwardly mobile, good "people who win." Students will begin to see how Munro carefully characterizes the neighbours through their words and behaviour to reveal, ever so subtly, their beliefs and values - that the egg-lady, Mrs. Fullerton, is bringing down their property values and life-styles with her "shack, eyesore" of a home. As the students ponder the ethical dilemmas concerning stereotyping, competing rights and responsibilities, and the nature of an urban environment, they will appreciate the craft and artistry of one of Canada's pre-eminent writers. The concluding "Another Viewpoint" activity (p 73) encourages students to consider Mary as a "quintessential Canadian character" and then identify other characters in Canadian fiction (Hagar Shipley? Del Jordan?) who represent something central to Canada and who would not be "at home" in any other context.
Journal Entry: PART ONE
Compare and contrast the character of Mary in “The Shining House” with Paul’s mother in “The Rocking-Horse Winner.” In what ways are these two characters a critical response to society’s obsession with appearances?
Journal Entry: PART TWO
“The main character in ‘The Shining House’ is a quintessential Canadian character – she would not exist in any other culture.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?
Elements: Characterization, conflict, mood, plot, setting, theme.
Themes: Creating and breaking stereotypes, Rights and responsibilities, Nature and the environment, Home and exile, Ethical and moral questions.
As a fascinating companion piece to "The Rocking-Horse Winner," "The Winner" also explores the value people place upon money, and how it affects their relationships with others. But, unlike the tragic and intense tone of Lawrence's story, "The Winner" is a gentle, humorous exploration of human nature set in a modern Bugandan village in the former kingdom of East Africa, now part of Uganda. "When Pius Ndawula won the football pools, overnight he seemed to become the most popular man in Buganda." As the story evolves, students begin to see how luck and popularity do not necessarily translate into personal happiness and true friendship - as Pius's new-found friends and long-absent relatives soon reveal their greed, hypocrisy, and superficiality. In his play, Major Barbara, George Bernard Shaw has one of his characters say: "Money is the most important thing in the world. It represents health, strength, honour, generosity, and beauty as conspicuously as the want of it represents illness, weakness, disgrace, meanness, and ugliness." Through this story, students will be encouraged to discuss and analyze their own attitudes on what money represents, both pro and con. What do they think is "enough" money? The story also allows students to see how serious issues can be handled humorously, the value and purpose of gentler Horatian satire. Ultimately, using the stylistic techniques of Kimenye, they might be encouraged to write a light-hearted story based on an event in their own family life or in their own friendships. Who are their "winners"? Elements: Character, plot, setting, stereotype.
Themes: Close connections, Recreation, Humour.
W.O. Mitchell described the ages before the age of twelve as the "litmus years" because, during that time, we absorb experiences and react to our environment like litmus paper. "War" is remarkable for its insights into both the thoughts and linguistic expression of a twelve-year-old boy who is looking back on events that happened when he was ten years old, specifically to his discovery that his father was going to war. As students explore the boy's reaction to this devastating news - a reaction that escalates into another kind of "war" between father and son - they are able to appreciate Findley's use of shifting and maturing perspective (not unlike Dylan Thomas's "Fern Hill") as the boy begins to understand his own feelings and his own capacity for violence. Combined with that insight, students will also investigate Findley's use of first-person point of view, vocabulary, expressions, and syntax to relate the events of the story through the "voice" of a young boy at two different ages of his life. Students then may be encouraged to use their own childhood memories and experiences from their own more mature perspectives as a basis for their own stories or personal essays. Students might also be encouraged to read two of Findley's novels about war and young people: his Governor-General's Award winner, The Wars (1977), and his lesser known 1996 short novel, You Went Away, which takes place on the home front in 1942 and involves an eleven-year-old boy. Great reading for extending student perspectives on war and how it personally affects people!
Elements: Conflict, first-person point of view, symbol, syntax, voice.
Themes: Sense of self, Close connections, Conflict, War.
A remark that Le Guin made about her story, "The Wife's Story," could equally well be applied to "Mazes": "Some of my sorrow and anger at how human beings set themselves above all the other creatures on the earth and treat them with contempt, carelessness, and cruelty, certainly got into the story." Students will be intrigued by the first-person point of view and the irony through which this science fiction is told, as the alien narrator describes the "cruelty" and "torture" of its human captor's behaviour and attitude. Because of the perspective, the human being becomes the "alien." Certainly, students will want to discuss the ethical and moral questions raised in the story concerning human nature and its often xenophobic reaction and interaction with alien beings - or even other people who seem different than they are. Students may want to experiment writing their own story or script from an "alien" perspective, or perhaps write the notes that might have been kept by the scientific researcher observing the narrator in "Mazes." Students might also be encouraged to compare this story's attitudes to aliens and human beings to such films and television shows as E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Alien, Roswell, and Smallville. Finally, students should be encouraged to read high quality Canadian science fiction writers such as Robert Sawyer and Spider Robinson. Elements: Characterization, connotation, first-person point of view, irony, mood, narrator.
Themes: Mystery and Intrigue, Ethical and moral questions.
A Place to Stand On
Margaret Laurence (Canada/Africa)
"A Place to Stand On" not only provides many insights into Margaret Laurence's writing but also serves as an excellent departure for an analysis of the role of "place" in literature: "place" as both the physical environment and the people who inhabit it. Thus, this essay allows students to see and understand the role of place as an imaginative construct in the artistic process of a great, writer while encouraging them to re-examine and reflect upon the role of place in their own lives, memories, imaginations, and writings: how and why they see things the way they do. Toward the end of the essay, Laurence concludes that, for her, writing has been an "attempt to come to terms with the past," a process she sees as "one of freeing oneself from the stultifying aspect of the past, while at the same time beginning to see its true value." In a sense, then, students will further see how the artistic process involves a quest for freedom and truth - a quest that eventually finds its home in clearly-articulated artistic expression. Analyzing the structure of the essay itself will provide students with a model of solid essay writing - particularly in the use of relevant and interesting details to substantiate the thesis. The essay will also connect with students who have read such novels as The Stone Angel and A Jest of God, shedding further light on how important Laurence's "place" was to the development of her vivid characters and themes. Elements: Essay development, Thesis
Themes: Sense of Self, Close Connections, Creativity, Home and Exile, Reading and Writing.
Why I Write
George Orwell (Great Britain)
"From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer." George Orwell's analytical, autobiographical essay provides fascinating insights not only into the content and style of his writings, but also into the political and social factors that influenced him personally and professionally. Students follow through the key stages outlined by the author of Animal Farm and 1984 of his development as an individual and a writer, learning along the way the broader influences on an author's evolution, influences that will also affect them as well. Why do they write? Subsequently, students will analyze and assess the structure of Orwell's well-crafted essay - particularly his use of cause and effect and chronological organization - and then use it as a model for their own analytical, autobiographical essay, weaving key historical, political, and cultural events that parallel those in their own lives. This idea is reinforced in the "Another Viewpoint" activity in which students consider the relationship between an author's work and the context in which it was written - understanding the work beyond its own borders and as a part of its era. Best of all, students get to engage with the clarity, fluidity, and wit of a master of the essay form while analyzing, assimilating, and assessing his "four great motives for writing" - "putting aside the need to earn a living": sheer egoism; aesthetic enthusiasm; historical impulse; and, political purpose.
Elements: Autobiography, chronological organization, context, essay development.
Themes: Sense of Self, Creativity, Rights and Responsibilities, Reading and Writing.
QUESTION: Orwell believes that there are “four great motives for writing.” In your journal, state briefly each of these motives. Do you agree with Orwell’s choices? Can you think of others?
My Mother's Blue Bowl
Alice Walker (United States)
Alice Walker's biographical essay is both heart-warming and thoughtful - a glowing, loving, thankful tribute to her mother and the invaluable lessons she had taught her: "She had taught me a lesson about letting go of possessions - easily without emphasis on regret - and she had given me a symbol of what she herself represented in my life." As the students read through this touching essay, they will be gently encouraged to re-evaluate their own priorities and the real significance of the things in their lives. After examining the impact of Walker's style, particularly her intimate use of symbolism and her powerful use of sentence variety (from simple and complex to fragment and run-on), they might be inspired to write their own autobiographical essay in which they reflect on an object, place, or activity that symbolizes an important relationship with someone in their own lives. As they structure and develop their essay, they will be able to use Walker's essay as a superb model in naturally weaving together exposition, description, and narration to convey the nature and significance of the relationship and the sense of self that evolved from it: "The blue bowl stood there, seemingly full forever, no matter how deeply or rapaciously we dipped, as if it had no bottom…And in the light and warmth that was Her, we dined. Thank you, Mama."
The Death of History Is Bunk
Patrick Watson (Canada)
In this lively, persuasive essay, Patrick Watson takes strong exception to some people's opinions about the teaching and learning of Canadian history: "The assumption is that naming events and memorizing dates make for good citizenship and a wise life. Garbage! If the disappearance of history from high-school curriculums means that the kinds of classes I suffered as a kid are gone for good, then bravo." He makes a passionate defence of the exciting, innovative ways in which history can be taught in schools, as well as through the medium of television. His strong, provocative style using techniques and emotionally charged words that appeal to reason, emotion, and authority will move the students to suggest their own best ways of teaching history more effectively, both in the classroom as well as on History Television. Working in small groups and brainstorming some of their ideas, students can then write their own persuasive essays on more effective and stimulating techniques for teaching and learning anything - or they can compose a report and send it via E-mail to a history television channel, showing how history can be "a rewarding activity only if it produces meaning out of the chaos of experience."