Choosing the appropriate literature for college students is essential in forming their personality and worldview because they see the role models for their behavior in the texts. Reading literature is necessary for students because it enriches their knowledge about social processes, interactions between people, and possible ways to react to situations. In other words, literature provides them with life experiences they do not have due to their age. It is possible to hypothesize that literature helps college students to develop their understanding of morality and critical thinking that might allow them to distinguish right from wrong. Therefore, literature will enable students to build two general competencies: understanding social processes and critical thinking.
For this paper, three short stories are chosen that can help students in their academic pursuits. They are The Yellow Wall-Paper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor and The Most Photographed Barn in America (excerpt from White Noise) by Don DeLillo. These short stories belong to different periods in American literature and reflect the most critical aspects of various times. Therefore, they allow students to develop a thorough understanding of the history of the United States and the crucial elements that determine the development of its society and culture. They can apply the moral lessons from these texts to their lives and learn how to see the existing social trends from a critical perspective.
The Yellow Wall-Paper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a Realist short story that focuses on the place of women in the American society of the 19th century. This text illustrates the vulnerable position of females in a traditionalist society that does not embrace the ideas of feminism (Berke et al. 193). The story’s main protagonist and the narrator are young women who become mad because she is trapped in her house. Her husband does not allow her to work because it is unacceptable in 19th-century America for middle-class women. He does not also allow her to write because it makes her nervous. Everyone in the community believes her husband because he is a reputable physician who knows how to treat nervous breakdowns (Berke et al. 195). Therefore, the woman cannot realize her potential, express her feelings, and choose her destiny because her husband thinks that she needs to have rest. This situation shows that society disregarded women’s desires in 19th-century America where only men had the right to live as they wanted.
The implied moral message of The Yellow Wall-Paper is connected with feminism and the need for equal rights for men and women. College students might not understand the historical context surrounding the life of middle-class females in 19th-century America, which foregrounds the need for additional research. The analysis of women’s place in the patriarchal society of the past and the modern context in American society allows them to develop critical thinking skills. Students need to think about potential challenges in making the contemporary American community more equal and objectively evaluate the situation with social justice in the United States.
A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor belongs to the period of the Southern literature Renaissance or the Southern Gothic that developed in the 20th century. O’Connor published this text in 1953, and it interacts with the topic of egoism (Berke et al. 730). The behavior of the female protagonist of the story, the old lady who manipulates her family and thinks only about her desires and needs, is repulsive. Moreover, the consequences of egoistic conduct are destructive because the old lady’s whims become the reason that leads to the death of her son, his wife, her grandchildren, and her death at the end of the story. The way the old lady communicates with others and evaluates the surrounding reality shows the readers that self-centered and prejudged thinking is morally unacceptable and leads to tragedy. For example, when the woman sees African American children on the road, she does not hesitate to describe them humiliatingly. This episode shows that she does not want to think about other individuals as equals. Instead of it, the older woman feels that everyone should listen to her and act according to her will.
The short story by O’Connor allows college students to develop critical thinking skills while reading it. The reactions to the behavior of the old lady in the text can be biased because her actions are irritating to most people. It is essential to explain to students that egoism and blind pursuit of own desires is the negative trait of personality that does not allow the individual to establish adequate communication with others (Ghanizadeh 102). Egoistic people are not happy in their family life because their relatives are usually tired of concentrating only on another person’s needs even though they can love them. Egoism leads to conflicts that are impossible to solve without changing own behavior. In addition, self-care in the situation when criminals kill their own families is regarded as a moral atrocity by most people.
Therefore, the short story illustrates the unacceptability of egoism that is not challenged even by critical situations and tragedy, including the death of own children. It is essential in morality development because it gives students an example of morally unacceptable conduct and illustrates the consequences of a self-centered worldview. The repulsive character of the old lady is easy to remember, which ensures that students will recall it when their behavior is similar to the one described in the text. Therefore, teaching morality by example allows teachers to persuade college students that the focus on their desires that do not change even in critical situations might have adverse outcomes for the individual, as the discussed work by O’Connor shows.
The Most Photographed Barn in America (excerpt from White Noise) by Don DeLillo is a postmodern text reflecting the worldview developed in the second half of the 20th century. It features the idea of simulacrum, the central concept in postmodern culture. This notion supposes that people are not interested in life itself; instead, they focus on the copy that provides them with the illusion of this life or the simulation of the real thing (Berke et al. 747). For instance, when people come to a picturesque place, they take pictures of the barn and the mountains surrounding the building because it is a photogenic image. They are not interested in this barn and do not pay attention to the real object they photograph. Instead, they perceive the barn in the mountains as representing rural life, which is the simulation.
The postmodern text by DeLillo teaches students to think critically about their everyday actions and their lives in general. This literary work shows that most people do not analyze their activities and prefer to live in an imaginary world. They substitute the meaning of reality with general concepts that facilitate understanding but do not represent the surrounding world. Students might ask themselves whether they use simulacrums to live in the simplified reality or if all their actions are conscious (Radhakrishnan and Srinivasan 192). From the moral perspective, an individual cannot make ethical decisions because they do not understand the actual situation, which deprives them of the possibility to choose the moral side.
The examples from the American literature of different periods show that American society developed together with the historical changes. The general cultural and historical context determines the choice of the topics that the authors describe. The works by Gilman, O’Connor, and DeLillo represent the development of American culture from the 19th century to the second half of the 20th century. The critical detail is that all three stories discussed in this paper focus on pressing social issues, including sexism, inequality, egoism, racism, and life in illusions. All these processes are dominant in the culture of the particular time, which makes them essential for the author’s contemporaries.
To conclude, the textbook provides sufficient examples of the works that represent the development of American literature because it features the most well-known pieces of the authors. It is possible to state that most authors in the United States focused on the issues relevant to their contemporaries, including the questions of social justice and morality in biased situations. Therefore, the analysis of these literary works allows college students to develop their critical thinking skills and views on character.
Berke, Amy, et al. Writing the Nation: A Concise Introduction to American Literature. University of North Georgia Press, 2015.
Ghanizadeh, Afsaneh. “The Interplay between Reflective Thinking, Critical Thinking, Self-Monitoring, and Academic Achievement in Higher Education.” Higher Education, vol. 74, no. 1, 2017, pp. 101–14.
Radhakrishnan, R. and Srinivasan Ragini T. “Thinking ‘Thinking Literature’ Across Continents Across Generations.” Comparative Literature Studies, vol. 55, no. 4, 2018, pp. 921–39.