As human beings, our tendency is to try and fit other people into A Story to help us define them. When we are children, this is necessary. We need words to define and classify and divide and conquer because otherwise, the world would be a series of sounds and movements we couldn’t fathom into coherent patterns. We need to define and we need to figure out a way of understanding things generally, or we will never understand anything.
But the more childlike we are, the more we cling to a single story, or a single understanding of something or someone. The person we’re dating is PERFECT and then they disappoint us and they are suddenly THE WORST PERSON EVER. We see black and white in all their terrible brilliance, but we fail to see the infinite shades of grey in between.
That’s right. I just called all the people in the world who only see a single story childish. And here’s the thing - there are issues where I see only the single story. There are issues where you only see the single story. It’s part of being human: if we could somehow actually see EVERYTHING complexly, we would explode trying to reconcile it all.
But we do get to choose the level of complexity we want to reconcile.
And it starts with ourselves. We know that we each have more than A Story, but we spend most of our life trying to tell that story in a way that takes into account overwhelming complexity but also base simplicity. If we’re lucky, we live a life where the people around us can imagine us complexly enough to not demand we fit the Single Story into which they’ve molded us.
So when a generally nice person acts like an asshole, we can reconcile the fact that it’s an unusual reaction and give them some compassion in trying to understand why. And when a selfish person does something so “out of their nature,” we can appreciate the goodness of the deed without changing our overall impression of them.
Part of why I love literature is that it forces us to deal with complex characters who refuse to be defined neatly. Odysseus is both a hero and not a hero. Holden is both a whiny brat and a sad, lonely kid. They defy our attempts to explain with a single story because they are Just Like Us. They can do beautiful, heroic things, and at the same they can be a passive coward.
So how do we take students who are used to telling a Single Story and help them see characters as complex human beings?
But more importantly, how do we help them accept their own complexity? And how do we help them accept the complexity of the world around them? And how do we help them move from a worldview in which a person can only be one thing to a worldview where a person is many things simultaneously and yet also just one thing?
Humanity is beautiful yet broken, complex yet crooked, terrible and yet transcendent. It’s art, and music, and war, and YouTube comments, and genocide, and Gatsby and Alyosha Karamazov, and Alaska Young. Humanity is all of that and none of that.
With all that complexity, how do we teach our students to be human? And how do we model for them what complex humanity is when they only see us, their teachers, as a single story?
We recently had students make short analysis videos about one of the two sons in Death of a Salesman. Their videos were supposed to do two things:
- demonstrate they can read with thoughtfulness and depth
- connect with the character and show them complexly
And guess what - they can do the first really well. But for some reason, most of them had a lot of trouble seeing their character as more than a stereotype. Happy is (to use his mother’s words) a philandering bum who gets ignored and so needs attention. Biff is (to use his father’s words) a good-for-nothing bum who steals and hates his father.
But those are the Single Stories that Arthur Miller gives us. And if we stop there, we miss the beautiful complexity of those two characters. Most critics spend more time talking about Biff. So I’m going to talk about Happy.
Happy is a walking contradiction: he never feels like his father loves him enough, and so he looks for love in the relationships he creates. But instead of looking for women like his mother - solid, loyal, the kind of woman you marry - he looks for women who are unavailable. He wants to want the right kind of woman so much that he takes those women from other men...thus making them the wrong kind of woman. And once he has slept with them, he loses interest and moves on. The need he has to gain approval is never met in the accomplishment of the conquest of women. But he also realises that his tendency towards philandering means that he loses the approval of his mother. She sees him as a single story - a story she loves, but a single story.
All of that can be determined by reading with thoughtfulness and depth - and most of my students said those kinds of things.
But nothing I just said shows you that I empathise with Happy or see him as a complex human being. So here’s my attempt.
When you have a parent who always expects more of you than you can possibly do, you choose one of two options: you try harder, or you give up. Happy knows that his life will never measure up - it’s clear that Biff is the superior brother, but even BIFF can’t make his father happy. He hears Willy say, “Good job, son.” And he hears what is not being said audibly, but is thick in the air nonetheless: “You did a good job. But not good enough.”
So Happy starts lying constantly - that he’s getting married, that he’s got a good job, that he is happy. He builds up an identity around those lies until his entire identity IS a lie, and he deals with the fact that he feels unimpressive by making himself seem impressive. Then he hits crisis point - his father dies. And his father’s death means that his chance to earn Willy’s approval is permanently buried alongside Willy. After nearly three decades of trying to live up to impossible expectations, he can either admit his failures and try to rebuild his identity from the ground up, or he can double-down and keep chasing the impossible dream.
So which is the easy choice? Is it easier to admit that your life is a lie? Is it easier to work towards something that is always a little out of reach? Is it easier to tell the truth or to continue to try to make the lie the truth?
And that leads to an overwhelming question: What if there is no easy choice?
What if Happy is far more complex than just a boy needing his father to love him more?
What if some of our own brokenness was the same as his?
THAT’S what my students didn’t see.
It’s the same reason why we started this semester with a discussion about the point of reading. My students thought that empathy was important in reading - they even made it one of the 5 E’s of reading: Entertainment, Escape, Equality, Education and Empathy.
But they don’t know how to do read empathetically AND academically.
Here’s what I believe about reading, now that I’ve been reading for 26 years, and reading academically for about 16 of those years.
Reading the whole book is important. You need to know the characters before you can understand them, and you need to understand them before you can imagine them complexly, and you need to imagine them complexly before you can empathise with them. Reading that way doesn’t make the author less important. It makes the experience more personal - just as it was to the author when they wrote it.
Reading closely is important. The words the author chooses are important, and chosen for greatest impact. When we read closely, we are engaging with the writer on their level. We are reading in the same way we write - carefully, thoughtfully, critically, and intimately. Reading that way doesn’t murder the text. It illuminates it.
We read because we believe that good literature can speak to us, regardless of the original time, place, culture or language. Good books tell us what it means to be human. If it’s a really good book, it does it in such a way that it sneaks up on us. It’s the grenade in the corner that the book leaves, glinting in the sunlight just enough for us to feel its presence. And when the walls collapse around our life of lies, it explodes, and in the rubble, it helps us see what should go in its place. It remakes us into more beautiful, equally broken, and stunningly complex human beings.
And the very best books are the ones that not only tell us who we have been, but who we can be.
They articulate the things we’ve always known, but could never say or explain.
They reflect us, in all our despair and loss and pain and joy, and help us understand ourselves and each other.
They leave behind pieces of the characters so that we are less alone.
And it is that feeling - the feeling of being less alone in a cold, painful, and lonely world - that I want my students to feel as they read.
That is my personal goal for the rest of this year: to teach my students how to read closely, understand deeply, and allow for complexity. To empathise with the characters, no matter how bad they seem. To look for the ways in which they reveal the humanity we all share.
To read empathetically, academically, and complexly.
Like I’ve learned to do.