I am pleased to offer this prospective unit to you, the textbook publisher. This unit focuses on relationships between parents and children and the effects those relationships have on the individual. Adolescents are particularly interesting in that they are torn between the ways of their families and the desire to be an autonomous being. A parent’s influence may be immediate and obvious, permeating a child’s entire day and night. Sometimes it takes years to recognize what an impact a family member, particularly a parent may have on a person.
These selections explore these relationships and these impacts. The two short stories in this unit deal with the expectations and impositions that a parent may have on a child and vice versa; they are both set in the late 1960s/early 1970s,a tumultuous time for the United States and a time of changing values. For example, in “Everyday Use”, the mother and sister await the return of another daughter who has risen above their lowly standard of living.
Both the mother and sister, Maggie, deal with their anxiety at seeing Dee in different ways, realizing finally that the practical values of their own lives are superior to the successful values that Dee has adopted. This story will appeal to not only African-American students who will surely understand the heritage of the story but also with any adolescent who is caught between two clashing value systems, whether they involve money or not. This story is an excellent choice to study characterization and theme, including dialogue and dialect.
The second short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” is by a noted Southern humorist. The satiric story chronicles the ill-fated journey of a southern family. The son and daughter-in-law are parents to two out-of-control and mouthy children and a baby. The star, however, is the grandmother, whose non-stop chatter on philosophical and religious matters is combined with a nagging that gores her son to no end. Despite the humorous taint of the story, the family meets its unsavory end at the hands of a savage killer whom the grandmother tries vainly to save.
This story will ring true to anyone who has ever taken a car trip with family while also forcing the readers to consider their own destiny. It is an excellent choice in which to study character (the grandmother’s), tone, satire and humor. Even though adolescents claim to be afraid of poetry, they are easily captivated when the teacher points out that poetry can be used to work through feelings and emotions. Such is the case with both the poets that are included in this unit. Sylvia Plath had an emotionally tumultuous life which ended in her early death.
Particularly problematic for her was her relationship with her father who died when she was young. Her father was a German, most likely a Nazi, while her mother was part Jewish. Plath had a hard time reconciling her father’s role in the genocide of WWII. In her poem, “Daddy,” she addresses her father and lets him know of her turmoil through painfully direct diction and images of war, death and abuse. One particularly exemplary stanza is Not God but a swastika So black no sky could squeak through. Every woman adores a Fascist, The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you This stanza brings forth the images of hate in the swastika, the absence of feeling in her father and her final distinction of him as a “brute. ” She goes on to call him a devil and to say that she had wanted to kill him, but he had died before she could. She ends the poem with the pointed words: There’s a stake in your fat black heart And the villagers never liked you. They are dancing and stamping on you. They always knew it was you. Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through. This poem illustrates the pain that Plath experiences when thinking of her father.
The second Plath poem shows a less vindictive side of the same relationship. Here the speaker is walking among the graveyard which contains her father’s remains. The imagery here is more subtle and concerns her feelings of admiration before she learned the truth about him. However, the poem still presents the same theme – that her father was not the kind of man that was good for anyone- and leaves an obvious hole in the heart of the speaker. The third Plath poem is more of an introspective piece. “Mirror” is a poem that reflects the viewer.
In the poem, a woman consults the mirror and is upset at the honest image she sees. The mirror notes that “I am not cruel, only truthful. ” The objectivity of the mirror is a source of sadness and hopelessness for the viewers, who do not want to see the truth. Again, adolescents will connect with this metaphor for truth, especially when they understand the significance that Plath’s family had on her writings. The second poet in this collection is Theodore Roethke. Once again, Roethke had a strained relationship with his father who was more concerned with business than family.
His poem “My Papa’s Waltz” has been anthologized for its many levels of interpretation. Upon first reading it will seem that a small boy is having a fun, though strange, time dancing with his intoxicated father. Later, though, the students will see that the poem has a darker side. Through the diction of the poem, it may be deduced that the father is abusive, and the dance the boy is involved with is a dance for survival. Evaluating this theme will also be pivotal for honors level high school students. Roethke’s second poem, “The Lost Son,” shows another side of Roethke’s style.
This long poem is filled with images which may represent his subconscious mind. Again a first person, perhaps autobiographical narrative, the poem allows for much interpretation and discussion. The drama included in this unit is from the controversial and charismatic Tennessee Williams. His plays are often charged with themes that may make some audiences feel uncomfortable. In Glass Menagerie, Williams pinpoints the dysfunction mother/son and mother/daughter relationships that many students can identify with.
First, the mother seems to domineer over her adult children, ordering them to do things the way she would have done them during her glory days in Blue Mountain. Her daughter, slightly crippled, cannot stand up to her mother and chooses deception as a way to cope with her mothers demands that she go to college. Later, her mother’s insistence that she date only leads to heartbreak. Tom, the son, is also controlled, but he stands up to his mother. Their long, verbal fights make excellent material for analysis, as does the fact that Tom feels compelled to stay home to help the family in the absence of his father.
His resentment builds to the conclusion of the play. These relationships may be sadly familiar to the students, but even if they aren’t, the play provides a wonderful study in parent/child relationships as it deeply delves into the character of all three principle players. The final piece I would add to this unit is Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees. I would choose selections that focus on Lilly’s desire to find her mother’s roots and her torrid relationship with her hateful, abusive father who seems to resent his surviving daughter.
These scenes will lead students to understand why Lilly leaves home and why she finds comfort in a family of black female beekeepers. This play addresses racial issues and issues normally associated with rural families. This unit presents several genres which deal with parent/child relationships. The students will be obviously familiar with this relationship from the child’s point of view and may be able to project to a time in which they might be parents as well. The pieces represent both humorous and somber tones and offer a variety of techniques and styles to analyze.