We are here today because the value of the literary canon and its influence on the current school curricula has been attacked and questioned. Classics, for English teachers like us, are the ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘The Last Supper’; the microscope and periodic table; the abacus and calculator. Harold Bloom, a giant defender of the literary canon, once stated that “All canonical writing possesses the quality ‘of making you feel strangeness at home’.” Every word in this type of books seems to express beauty, intellect and creativity. However, we all know that there is something more important than the flowery language. It is clearer than a crystal that classics should still be taught because these are works of literature that had stood the test of time. These are the literary books that continue to have relevant context and message because our society still accept the values and ideologies, we used to have hundred years ago. With this in mind, students will then be exposed to issues and outlooks beyond their immediate experiences, and hopefully will be more prepared for the ‘real’ world once they leave the comforting gates of our school. The pieces ‘A Farewell to Arms’ by Ernest Hemmingway and ‘Catcher in the Rye’ by J.D Salinger are perhaps the greatest examples of classics featuring literary and figurative devices intentionally used to reveal the sociological concerns and cultural norms we had, and still have today.
Inspired by the personal experiences of the author himself, Ernest Hemmingway wrote ‘A Farewell to Arms’ in 1928 in which the novel is primarily set during and after the Italian campaigns in World War I. Hemmingway, similar to the protagonist Lieutenant Henry, joined the Red Cross Ambulance Corps during World War I, where he was struck with a trench mortar along with three Italian soldiers. During his recovery, he met and immediately fell head over heels with a Red Cross nurse Agnes von Kurowsky, the real-life version of Catherine Barkley.
‘A Farewell to Arms’ is considered a classic due to Hemmingway’s unique and outstanding writing style – simple, direct and concise; every single word included is necessary in delivering the context. Another characteristic that identifies this piece as part of the literary canon is its relevant theme. The author presents us with complex insights into human life, particularly during the most difficult times of existence, through the theme reality vs fantasy. This dominates the novel as all characters continuously dream and create fantasies of better lives after war; however, due to the truths of reality, it was just simply impossible. We may not be living during a period of a war, but the unfair conditions still existing in today’s world force some people to live in such hardships and struggles.
Hemingway structures the plot of ‘A Farewell to Arms’ where harsh reality always insinuate and destruct the dreams that the characters construct to make them persevere and hopeful. Both Lieutenant Henry and Catherine Barkley foolishly tries to escape the war itself in multiple occasions, but complications and problems always seem to find and destroy them. For instance, even at the start of the novel, both of them pretended to be in love with each other in the expectations of escaping the pain of reality. However, their ‘love’ for each other was immediately challenge when Henry almost lost his life as he was hit by a mortar shell (p.50). The couple, again, used love as an excuse to escape the ‘real’ world and peacefully live in the mountains of Switzerland where Catherine got pregnant. It was almost perfect, but not quite. Henry was attacked with reality when Catherine had numerous haemorrhages during her childbirth leading to unfortunate death (p.293). By incorporating these incidents in the plot, Hemmingway positions the readers to realise the bitter reality of life- that sometimes, even positive forces such as courage, love and hope appears to be insufficient and worthless.
Throughout the classic, Hemmingway incorporated symbolisms in order to foreshadow the important events that are about to happen. Rain, not only in the ‘A Farewell to Arms’ but also in real life, symbolises death, defeat and darkness. From the beginning of the story, Henry vividly describes the destructive manner of rain:
“At the start of the winter came the permanent rain and with the rain came the cholera. But it was checked and, in the end, only seven thousand died of it in the army.” (p.4)
This fact already associates the rain with death and notifies the readers that weather plays a vital role in this novel. Catherine’s fear towards rain and her acknowledgement to the connection of rain and death is the most obvious evidence of this weather’s symbolic meaning (p.118). Her perception was further justified when the novel ended with Henry coming back to the hotel, drenched from the rain, mourning for Catherine’s death (p.294). Hemmingway successfully reminds the readers through this symbolism that tragedies are inevitable and are thrown unexpectedly; it might be like a light rainfall or it might be a disastrous, life changing rainfall. But, no matter how hard we try, it is impossible to avoid and escape these challenges.
Aside from the similar writing manner, ‘Catcher in the Rye’, published in 1951, is also inspired by the personal reflection of the author J.D Salinger. Before joining the army in World War II, Salinger moved to different universities but was unable to graduate in any of those schools. These life events are similar to the experiences of Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of the novel, who was living in post-World War II conditions and has not managed to finish any of his studies. Although criticisms and controversies were developed due to the novel’s features of adolescent sexuality, this is still included in the literary canon as the dominant theme of isolation is still significant, especially in younger generation. It is apparent that this kind of books should be in taught in school because students are at their point of their lives in which they can feel isolated. Often, older generations tend to just brush it away and deal with it lighter that they should have, making them feel more abandoned. Holden Caulfield represents young people who feels isolated and excluded by the ‘heartless’ and ‘selfish’ society we had and, to be honest, still have today.
Salinger included dialogues throughout his novel in order to lucidly displays Holden Caulfield’s desire for someone who will understand him. He attempted to communicate with others to talk about his emotions and perspectives towards life in general, but their conversations always ended up with him being awkward or the other rejecting him. For example, on the way back to his hotel, he invited the driver for a drink: ‘Would you care to stop on the way and join me for a cocktail? On me, I’m loaded.’ (Chapter 9). Despite his offer to pay, the cab driver declined, making Holden, once again, lonely. He again attempted to speak with someone by paying offering five dollars to a prostitute named Sunny, starting the conversation with the usual “What did you do during the day?” (p.14). Sunny instantaneously replied ‘Sleep. Go to the show.’ (p.14), evidently exposing that she is uninterested with any discussions and all she wants to do with him is the paid sex. By using dialogues like the examples above, the author positions the readers to understand how difficult and challenging it is for a teenage person like Holden to reach out and reveal his personal issues with others. Salinger was also successful in subtly demonstrating the act of selfishness of some people within the society and how they ignore and disregard the emotions of others.
In the society where the value of the widely considered books are declining, it is our responsibility as English teachers to exert effort in bringing back its power and influence. All of the books in the literary canon demonstrate technical brilliance, universal themes of significance and creation of new consciousness thus, they deserve to be part of the current school curricula. Aside from the literary and vocabulary skills, students will be able to comprehend perspectives that they might not be able to experience in real life. They will also be more prepared to enter the real world as they are now aware of the cultural norms that still underpins today’s society. For instance, by reading ‘A Farewell to Arms’, the students will realise that life is unfair and they should be fully prepared to take on any hardships in life because sometimes, there will not be any rainbows after the rain: sometimes, there will be challenges straight after challenges, to the point that it will push them to give up. Classics like ‘Catcher in the Rye’ will teach students that there will be times where circumstances will be tough, and they will feel isolated and rejected. But it will also teach them that once they have overcome these feelings, they will find true happiness and hope again. Overall, classics should only be disregarded in the curricula once the themes and messages presented are no longer relevant to anyone in this society.