A new look at the old

A few days ago, in one of the Ted talks, I came to know about an initiative which provides Online education through a collaboration of elite institutes: Coursera. I was quite impressed with the idea, and decided to look through some of the courses offered. These courses are offered for free (at least for now, but there is a possibility of them becoming paid in the future, albeit affordable). Having come from an Engineering institute and being interested in Humanities, I decided to hunt for a few courses based on Literature/Art. I found one which looked interesting: Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World, a course offered by Prof Eric Rabkin at University of Michigan. The course aims to explore both these genres as insights and art forms. Unfortunately I was already 10 days late into the course (and hence missed one assignment), the reading seems to be a lot given my current pace with books, and the overall workload looked daunting. Nevertheless, I registered last week, and went through with the reading of Grimm’s Fairy tales (I needn’t have as I could not submit that assignment anyway) and then Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the looking Glass.

My first readings of these books were in childhood, and those must have been abridged versions adapted for classroom reading. I have had a sort of refresher into these stories with Tim Burton’s Alice and the latest HBO series Once upon a time which revisits the fairy-tales with seemingly dark shades. Both screen adaptations are made for a mature audience and I thought they took much liberty with their base material. However, when I revisited the readings, I discovered that the books themselves contained so many dark themes, and encompassed ideas far beyond the reach of children. For instance, Alice’s story is rich with themes of death, cultural misinterpretations, teenage angst – concepts alien to me on my first readings. The Grimm’s fairytales had more witches than fairies in them and constantly re-emphasized rebellion, cunning and the Universal truths that if you are beautiful, your lies are not necessarily evil and that beauty is a marker of moral superiority.
Of course it is not a new discovery or a complete surprise – leitmotifs from these stories keep cropping in many readings and therefore you learn to acknowledge them as more than just children stories, but re-reading them with this sensitization is a new experience – something I am enjoying so far.
Here is the little note I wrote on Alice (there were word limits of course, which helps me be in check and chose words more carefully, unlike this blog!)

While creating a fantastical world which serves to amuse, Alice’s story centers around the theme of growing-up and the angst associated with it. In the beginning of the story, Alice follows after a rabbit, seen as a sign of fertility, and goes into a long tunnel. Both these symbols indicate puberty and developing sexuality, as does her fascination with gardens (an allusion to Eden). At this stage, interacting with world always seems most difficult, as the individual constantly double-guesses herself, which can be seen in Alice’s reference to being two different people . Alice’s constant need to re-adjust her size is an effort to fit into this new world, not very different from young people constantly trying to adopt new styles, ideologies to feel in place with their peers.
Lewis Caroll attributes this growing-up anxiety to the many rules which children are suddenly exposed to and are expected to follow. While as children they spend most of their time in a homogenous environment, in the outer world they meet people of different status. They are expected to show concerns over the feelings of those weaker, and defer to the stronger. Alice is constantly worried that she would slip up on these rules and say something hurtful; her encounter with the mouse in the beginning shows her constant struggle to remember this. But as time goes forward, she gets more comfortable in these rules and is more careful of what she says to the mock turtle.
The simpler anxiety of forgetting rules is replaced with more complicated ones like political ideas, power games and unfairness, which cause more angst. The young deal with it either through rejection (Alice waking up from a dream) or alternatively with playing by the rules to become more powerful themselves (playing the chess game to become queen). In each case, they lose their blissful ignorance.

This week, its a read of Dracula, and despite the fact that I had done a second reading just 5 years back, I am still finding myself hooked to the book as if it was some new thriller.

3 thoughts on “A new look at the old

  1. Purnima – good to see a fellow classmate 🙂 How are you finding the course.
    I for one am struggling a little bit with the workload. The reading is a lot and I mind that I have had to put all other reading on hold. But Prof Rabkin's lectures are interesting and I also find myself writing more since the course, which is what I had hoped to achieve.


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