What do Odysseus, Stephen Dedalus and Shane Share?

Odysseus and the Sirens

Odysseus and the Sirens

We were recently asked a question about our experience teaching and how we developed an interest in certain literary devices such bildungsroman, which is a novel about the moral and psychological growth of the main character such as Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

First, some background. We graduated from (then) Western New England College (WNEC) with a degree in English Literature. At the time, we thought we wanted to earn a PhD in the same arena and applied to a few graduate schools. We selected Arizona State University because they awarded us a teaching assistantship that came with a stipend.

We (and others with TA’s) taught English Composition (freshman) and as part of the TA process we had regular classes with a professor on how to teach. The  course we taught was pretty much by the book explaining and writing basic exposition, e.g., description, process, comparison/contrast, etc.

The PhD became less attractive. We finished up with our Master’s in 1974 and returned to the east coast. We started teaching at Western New England about 1985. Initially we taught evening classes of freshman composition to primarily engineering and business majors. We taught there about five years, mostly evenings, but a couple of semesters teaching days and some upper level courses in literature and “creative” writing. We even designed one course we taught called “Journeys” which included fiction and non-fiction works about people travelling. There was Blue Highways, The Swimmer, On the Road, Clay, and others.

At WNEC, we had several good teachers. One was a stickler for proper grammar usage. Much of what we learned about “themes” in writing was from another. He’d talk about early English literature and how it all contained reference to the three big temptations, the world, the flesh and the devil. Plus, we also always liked stories about the single protagonist operating against all odds. Therefore, you combine the journey and the individual you get stories like The Odyssey, Canterbury Tales, Beowulf, Dracula and movies like Shane, High Noon, and Chinatown. That’s where we learned about “bildungsroman,” as in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or Catcher in the Rye.  Joyce had a phrase for when a character has a sudden insight or realization, which he called an “epiphany.” On the other hand, the character may not have an epiphany but the reader does.

That’s what we attempted in our story That Four Barrel Summer when the protagonist for the first time sees his father in a different light when he argues over the price for the car part. It’s an epiphany for the protagonist which is also the story’s thesis.

We like stories with patterns (themes), stories about individuals meeting challenges and stories where a principle is involved and standing by that principle creates a realization in either the protagonist, or the reader, or both.

That doesn’t always apply to blog posts, but in article writing we prefer those that deal with real people and how they meet challenges and, hopefully, overcome them.

Comments welcomed!

Copyright 2014 Rob ert S. McCarthy. All rights reserved.

About Bob McCarthy

Originally from the Northeast, I now call Southwest Florida home. I have been a professional copywriter and editor since 1979, both freelance and in house. I have had article published in regional, national and international magazines. Plus, a video for which I wrote the script won an industry award as Best Training Video.
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