Who Has the Power?

This is my submission to the Women in Literature edition of the Feminist Odyssey Blog Carnival. The following post contains discussion — some couched in literature, some not — of domestic violence and murder.

I had — and have — a lot of ideas rattling around in my head, but my writing always seems to come down to what is happening to me right now. And right now, I am guiding my ninth graders through what might be their first ever comparative literary analysis. I mean, I’m sure they’ve been doing compare and contrast, even if not using those exact terms, since they started school, and I know we’ve been wading ever deeper into literary analysis since August — but this may be the first time they’ve ever had to put both of those skills together.

“Miss, what do you mean we have to figure out the themes of both stories, then decide whether they’re more alike or more different, then come up with evidence to support our ideas, then write about it? That’s haaaard!”

And, to be fair, it is.

They’re looking at Roald Dahl’s “Lamb to the Slaughter” and Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” — whose narratives both share some traits — and deciding whether the themes of the stories are more alike or more different.

[Spoiler alert: plot synopses -- In "Lamb to the Slaughter," a pregnant woman kills her husband after he ostensibly announces that he's going to leave her. She then attempts to hide the evidence and to stage a crime scene in order to avoid being apprehended as the murderer. In "My Last Duchess," a Duke is displeased that his wife takes pleasure in things other than him; he gives commands; she ends up dead.]

They — honors classes or not — pick up on it almost right away. And yes, I am good at scaffolding, but also, they are good at noticing.

Of the poem:

“Do we even know if she was doing anything wrong? Not saying that disrespecting her husband means she deserves to get killed. But do we know if she was even doing that?”

“He’s a Duke, so that means he owns people and stuff, right? Like, he could get people to kill for him or make it look like an accident or not get in trouble. Actually, during that time, was there anyone for him to get in trouble to?”

“What’s a dowry?”

I explain, “It’s money or land or other valuable goods that a bride’s parents would pay to her new husband, sort of like payment for the husband providing for his new wife.”

“But if he’s a Duke,” the kid eyes me, “he wouldn’t actually need a dowry, would he? Especially if it’s his second wife.”

“Maybe not,” I say. “It’s hard to know.”

“But, like, he’s royalty or whatever, and he’s already been married one time, so he’s probably already had one dowry. Is he getting married again just so he can get a second one?”

The kid next to him — “What happens when he wants a third?”

Good question.

From the story:

“He’s not just leaving her; he’s leaving her with his kid.”

“But he said he was going to give them money.”

“It’s not the same. He’s not going to be there with her when she’s having the baby. Or changing its diapers. Or getting up in the middle of the night with it. Or if she gets sick and can’t take her kid to school or soccer practice or things like that.”

“Plus, in the sixties or whatever — Miss, when was this story written? — Plus, in the fifties or whatever, wasn’t divorce viewed as more bad than it is now. Not that we’re all going, ‘Yay, divorce!’ now, but didn’t it hurt your reputation a lot more back then?”

“It doesn’t sound like she has a job right now. Would anyone even hire her when she was six months pregnant?”

“After the baby, would the kinds of jobs she’d be able to get be the same as the kinds of jobs Patrick” — the husband — “would be able to get?”

“He doesn’t need to get a job. He can keep his old one and maybe get promotions.”

“Miss, did they have real child support back then, the kind where you have to pay a certain amount? Or is he just giving her however much he feels like?”

As I was reading their post-discussion written responses, one word struck me. One word, repeated over and over again, in nearly a hundred paragraphs — power. While most argued that Mary’s murder of Patrick was still unjustifiable (as in, she does deserve to be found guilty of murder), the vast majority considered that crime more understandable because of the power dynamics inherent in the two relationships.

As the common thread of responses goes, in “My Last Duchess,” it was the Duke who had all the power: He owned the title and the land; after she married him, any dowry that had come from her father now belonged to him. In fact, she’d probably been bartered into the marriage via negotiations between the Duke and her father, without her voice, and as if her worth as a person could be valued in a certain number of dollars or chickens or goats. Once married, the Duke felt entitled to give “commands” either to her or about her because of his displeasure at her pleasure.

In “Lamb to the Slaughter,” they decided, not only is there still a power imbalance — before the actual moment of the crime — but it is still in favor of the man. Patrick is free to walk away from his marriage and essentially continue his life as he chooses without a whole lot of institutional barriers in his way. Mary, on the other hand, is the one who will have to deal with the immediate and physical reality of a fetus growing inside her body, coupled with complications such as employment discrimination and social stigma. Unlike the Duke in “My Last Duchess,” these aren’t all Patrick’s deliberate abuses of power, but they are the realities Mary has to deal with just the same.

Ultimately, that’s everything in one sentence: The Duke is abusing the power he wields; Mary is reacting to the power, both individual and institutional, wielded against her.

And while I do think it’s important not to treat retaliatory crimes (as opposed to acts of self-defense) as justifiable, I do think it’s important to plant this seed in my students’ minds — Pay attention to the way people use their power. In that, watch the whys of privileged people’s actions versus the whys of the actions of marginalized people. The two are not the same.

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2 comments on “Who Has the Power?
  1. Caitlin says:

    You are an awesome teacher. Loved reading the bits of the students’ conversations. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. cafeaulait13 says:

    Seriously, inspiring work here.

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