Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

The Hunt for Literary Allusions

Literature is everywhere. Well, literary allusions are everywhere, that is.

Students of today live in a time where they have always known cable television, computers and cell phones. Movies come in the mail or via the Wii. Yet that doesn't mean the classics of literature have faded away. They are around — often referenced in new forms or adapted completely.

Many times literary works ease their way subtly into popular culture. Tell a student that the original movie "Apocalypse Now"(and its remake) was based on Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness and most likely he will just blink. Yet oftentimes these fun facts are things that kids find interesting. After hearing Matt Damon talk on David Letterman about the remake of "True Grit" perhaps they will go pick up the book. Maybe they'll be interested in reading the poems found in "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" after seeing the musical "Cats" and realizing the TSE letters on the license plate stand for the initials of the poetry author T.S. Eliot.

In my teaching I show part of Matt Groening's animated television show "The Simpsons," specifically an episode called "Treehouse of Horror," which was based in part on the work of Edgar Allen Poe. Seeing Bart as the raven is rather comical, but suddenly kids are intrigued that there is more than meets the eye — and suddenly Poe is relevant again.

Same for the movie "She's the Man," which was based on Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night." Most students miss that the producers (who admit everything in the bonus features commentary) left character names the same, used town names for the school names, and so forth. Once I reveal these things to them, my students often look at me like a light bulb as gone off. They suddenly see that maybe there are things done deliberately that they didn't notice. I tell them it's like an inside joke that they didn't get.

They don't necessarily like it. They feel left out because for many, taking things at surface value is the status quo. While they know all about movies based on books (this is the generation that grew up with Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Narnia movies), they haven't learned the value of literature and how it subtly manifests itself in the culture. They miss the infusion of that literature in small ways only the literate catch.

For example, the movie "What a Girl Wants" used Colin Firth because of his role as Mr. Darcy in the BBC's version of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Throughout are references to Austen's works, such as the family being named Dashwood, which is the surname of the family in Austen's Sense and Sensibility. In the movie "Bridget Jones's Diary," there is again a Jane Austen reference: Colin Firth's character is named Mark Darcy. Helen Fielding, who wrote the novel that inspired the film, deliberately named her character after Austen's hero. Another place Austen appears is in the teen movie "Clueless," which is based on Jane Austen's Emma, but relocated to a California high school. Despite this modern twist, the key plot points are the same.

Writers love literature, and often they infuse this into their current works. The BBC television show "Doctor Who" just did a Christmas special with the new doctor (Matt Smith) called "A Christmas Carol." With Michael Gambon (who stars as Dumbledore in Harry Potter), it was positively Dickensian. Most of my students have not read the original book, but most everyone has seen one movie adaptation or another. As for "Doctor Who," the previous doctor (David Tennant) actually visited William Shakespeare in one episode that revealed how Shakespeare got his inspiration for many of his famous works and lines. It was fabulous.

We talk in the language of literature, and the more you read the more you see how ingrained literary allusions and references are in our culture. Joseph Heller's Catch-22 has become a phrase that means a no-win situation, understood even by people who haven't read the book. We all know the green-eyed monster called jealousy, even if we haven't read F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.

Movies can also reference other movies — which happened in the 2010 popular teen movie "Easy A." Not only did the movie reference and use to the hilt Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, but the movie paid homage to teen movies like "Sixteen Candles," "The Breakfast Club," "Say Anything" and "Can't Buy Me Love" through showing brief clips of scenes and using the music of the original films. While my daughter has seen those movies and understood the references, I wondered how many of my student who loved the movies had seen the originals.

Television episode titles also can be literary, although with a twist. The town of Dual Spires (aka Twin Peaks) served as the home for a "Twin Peaks" homage on USA's Psych. Even the guest stars were chosen deliberately — all had been stars of "Twin Peaks." Titles are also very important and often chosen for their references and word play. Psych has had such fun episodes as "Cloudy...with a Chance of Murder," "He Dead," "Romeo and Juliet and Juliet," and "The Polarizing Express."

Many of my students watch "Supernatural," which also has a lot of fun with its episode titles. While many might catch the titles that are also songs (and there are many), I wondered how many of my students caught the references in the titles "Are You There God? It's Me...Dean Winchester," "Metamorphosis," "It's the Great Pumpkin, Sam Winchester," and "The Curious Case of Dean Winchester."

Even commercials get into the literary action. ATT has a great Blackberry advertisement using Hermann Melville's Moby Dick and a clip of Sheen from the cartoon "Jimmy Neutron" saying, "Call me Ishmael." The background music comes from an artist called Moby.

Perhaps I'm an English geek, for I love stuff like this. I also like having my students search what they watch for references and bring them in to share. The allusions and infusion of language are like being on a scavenger hunt, one forever changing in new and interesting ways. Feel free to share your examples in the comments below. I'm always interested in learning more.


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Michele Dunaway is an award-winning English and journalism teacher who, in addition to teaching English III, advises the student newspaper, yearbook and news website at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, MO. In 2009, the Journalism Education Association awarded Michele with its Medal of Merit. She has received recognition as a Distinguished Yearbook Adviser in the H.L. Hall Yearbook Adviser of the Year competition and was named a Special Recognition Newspaper Adviser by the Dow Jones News Fund. She also practices what she teaches by authoring professional journal articles and writing novels. Look for an upcoming Christmas-themed book from St. Martin’s Press later in 2014. Click here to read more articles by Michele Dunaway.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday February 8th 2011, 1:19 AM
Comment by: Noel B.
Good stuff - this will certainly broaden the outlook of many!!
Tuesday February 8th 2011, 3:56 AM
Comment by: Len P. (Barcelona Spain)
Very good indeed! Nice way of getting students involved and curious.
But Jane Austin? New to me ...
Keep up the good work.
Len

[Apologies for the typos! Fixed now. —Ed.]
Tuesday February 8th 2011, 10:07 AM
Comment by: Trapper (Vero Beach, FL)
Where do I begin a reading list? For example, Sharpen The Saw says to read the Harvard Classics. If someone where to start from scratch to get a firmer grasp on the essence of etymology and the things you write about in this article, where do I begin.

I was amazed when I saw a warden on the tv show Criminal Minds the other night walking the detectives to the lady on death row. The warden once played a prisoner on death row probably 20 years ago in the show Heat of the Night. It was great!
Tuesday February 8th 2011, 11:40 AM
Comment by: Judy L. (Bellevue, WA)
Back in the dark ages ('70s) when I was teaching middle school English I told my students, "The more you know, the more jokes you get. Stop complaining and just read the darn book!"
Tuesday February 8th 2011, 11:49 AM
Comment by: Trapper (Vero Beach, FL)
Referencing the back in the dark ages above.

Okay, that is good.
Tuesday February 8th 2011, 1:28 PM
Comment by: David D.
I love this. Literary allusions are everywhere and I feel that I get so much more out of a movie or TV episode from catching these things. It is a bit disconcerting that many of my friends do not "get" the allusions and clear to me that they have less pleasure than I do. A problem though, is when I catch an allusion and cannot remember the original. Oh darn!
Wednesday February 9th 2011, 3:19 PM
Comment by: Diane M. (Toronto Canada)
TS Eliot is "the poetry author”??

Would you refer to Emily Dickinson as “the poetry authoress?

Three words where one brief yet potent word would do... Ah, “poet”.
Wednesday February 9th 2011, 10:02 PM
Comment by: Trapper (Vero Beach, FL)
I think the "the poetry author" seems more fitting in this analysis of literary allusions.

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