I sometimes have well-meaning people ask me why I am such a champion of high literature and why Ambleside has such a “difficult and challenging curriculum”. I happened to grow up in a family that loved Literature. It was not unusual for one of us to stop the entire family in their tracks and read out what had struck us so that they too could share the appreciation; for my father to call to our attention some beautiful lines of poetry, or an article published in the newspaper; for my mother to comment on how we had articulated a thought in writing, all this was woven into our lives in a very natural manner. But that was over 40 years ago, is it necessary today? Does the 21st century deem such pursuits worthwhile?
As it is, our present age seems to prefer screen time to book reading, texting to writing, while constraining and decimating language into phonetically boggling acronyms (Idk, tbh etc.). One simple adjective might serve every single situation encountered (who needs a thesaurus?); and while some shows and movies might call for brain numbing mirrors of plots within plots, deep literary reading and analysis has undoubtedly taken a back seat. Perhaps it’s too difficult and not worth the time and effort?
Charlotte Mason advocates that the books put before the students “evoke an intellectual stir” so that they labor in getting at the ideas within the text. This is the only way that knowledge becomes their own personal possession. “… [T]he labor of thought is what his book must induce in the child. He must generalize, classify, infer, judge, visualize, discriminate, labor in one way or another, with that capable mind of his, until the substance of his book is assimilated, or rejected, according as he shall determine; for the determination rests with him and not the teacher.”
Is this truly necessary? Shouldn’t we adapt to modernity and utilitarianism? Are we being rigidly old fashioned in putting before our students ‘outdated’ books of archaic vocabulary and ideas – some even 600 years old (as with Don Quixote, or older still, The Bible)! Is this high literature relevant? Can students access the language and the ideas? Shouldn’t we simplify? Or can it be possible that the God-designed human mind and heart actually craves to labor for the deep things – the difficult, the beautiful, the elusive? Is it possible for normal teenagers to rise to the challenge that complex texts present? To answer these questions, I submit an Ambleside Sophomore’s response to a Literature assignment. Charles Dickens’s understanding of the human psyche, his exposure of corruption, elevation of virtue, passion for social reform, empathy for the faint hearted, and compassion for the suffering in rich language undeniably induces intellectual stir. A Tale of Two Cities was written to highlight the French Revolution depicting characters who communicate the frustration of the age and the urgent call for change. The Marquis St. Evremonde is one such character. With Grace Garri’s labor of thought, I rest my case.
Monsieur the Marquis
“Repression is the only lasting philosophy. The dark deference of fear and slavery, my friend, will keep the dogs obedient to the whip, as long as this roof shuts out the sky.” In Charles Dickens’ book, A Tale of Two Cities, this “philosophy” was that of the nobility of France during the French Revolution. They ignore and continually subjugate the people of France living in squalor, committing countless injustices for their own gain. Charles Dickens comprises these injustices and haughty levels of ignorance into a single character: Monseigneur the Marquis. The Marquis is the personification of the French nobility and its corrupt apathy towards its own people.
In terms of the Marquis’ personality, he is irrefutably static. As Charles Dickens states it, “Monseigneur had the other truly noble idea that it must all go his way.” The Marquis contains a constant expostulation and indifference towards the poor, starved people that swarm France at the time around the revolution. His static-ness is represented in the way Dickens constantly compares him to the stone-faced gargoyles outside of his lavish home. At the same time, the Marquis is a much more dynamic character simply because of what his apathetic dissolution illustrates of France. Dickens portrays the pure and unrelenting corruption of the state through this one character. He is ostentatiously dressed, lacks any ardour for anything other than himself, supercilious in his expressions and treatment of others, and sees the inundation of poor, begging, starving people in France as a blight to be eradicated.
When returning home from his party at the palace, the Marquis orders his carriage to move as fast as possible, regardless of what or who was in the way. When his cart abruptly comes to a halt because of hitting and killing a child on the street, the Marquis judges it a mere waste of time, throwing a single coin at the agonized father. During this scene, Dickens repeatedly describes the people as rats scurrying about and tainting France because that is what the Marquis sees them as. These people are something to be exterminated. When a poor woman stops his carriage once more, begging simply for a tombstone for her dead husband, he leaves her in the dust.
It is in this depiction of the French nobility, that is, the depiction of the Marquis, that Dickens foreshadows what is to come during the French Revolution through his death. The Marquis was found, stone-faced as ever, with a poniard sticking out of him along and a note that read, “Drive him fast to his grave. This is from Jacques.” As it is stated in a later chapter, the killer was found to be a man named Gaspard, who was the father of the deceased child. The father represents the unfortunate people of France as they become enraged at the injustice acted out towards them and lash out at their oppressors when compensation is refused. The nobility do not expect it, for as far as they know—or pretend at least—everything is fine with their parties and plentiful food. All they have to do is ignore the people whenever they go out on the streets.
But those streets were soon to become impassable with an ocean of blood-thirsty men and women. They had let the wound fester for too long, and now the infection was irreversibly eating France from the inside out. It seemed the nobility would rather die than admit that the painful reality was there at all—so they did. The Marquis, as well as the rest of the French nobility, was foolishly confident in his “dark deference of fear and slavery,” but in the end, the dogs were anything but “obedient to the whip.”