By Sujata Iyengar and English 2310 Students
In March 2020, many universities, including the University of Georgia, suddenly closed their campuses and sent students, staff, and faculty home to isolate during the first wave of the SARS-COVID-19 pandemic. Teachers and students suddenly “pivoted” from our active, in-person, communal sessions to remote, asynchronous, text- and video-based learning, supplemented in many cases by regular, synchronous conversations on the virtual meeting platform Zoom.
I was teaching English 2310, the so-called “sophomore survey,” an overview of 1500 years of literature in Neo-Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Norman, Middle Welsh, Irish Gaelic, Middle English, and Early Modern English languages in the North Atlantic archipelago (the “British Isles”). Many of my students did not plan to major in English. What was the point, I asked these first- and second-year students at the end of the semester, of studying old literature during this global health crisis? Didn’t they feel their time might be better spent, for example, learning how to sequence DNA or serve as paramedics?
My students’ answers surprised, comforted, and uplifted me. Many wrote that seeing how human beings a thousand years ago coped with disease outbreaks, ageing, and mortality offered them material for, in Katie Kellam’s words, "perseverance and reflection in a difficult time.” Others wrote that reading about earlier periods of self-imposed solitude and characters who treated their isolation as “powerful acts of self-determination" (Jay Nark) helped them tolerate the loneliness of lockdown because it reminded them that the sacrifices they had made would serve their communities. A few mentioned that the religious or spiritual focus of much older literature offered them what Deion Peoples called a “spiritual strengthening,” whether a renewed commitment to a religious tradition or a meditative reflection practice with loved ones, what one called a secular “felix culpa” or fortunate fall.
And a student who prefers to remain anonymous movingly commented on suddenly becoming “disabled” by her immune condition during the pandemic, and how that change in status made her reflect again on the characters and writers in our course who were likewise treated as outsiders.
Below we present extracts from these first- and second-year students, whose college experience will have been irrevocably transformed by the pandemic. I have slightly edited them for continuity, and incorporated links to any freely available online editions of the literature, but have otherwise tried to let these students speak as themselves.
Anonymous, from “I am immunocompromised.”
I am immunocompromised. This means that my immune system is weaker than that of the average individual. I have made my peace with my condition and how it affects my life, but the COVID-19 Pandemic has changed the way my family sees me.
As the youngest person in my family, I have always dealt with my family being...overprotective....I understand why they worry....I simply find my family is far more afraid of me catching it than I am. Especially toward the beginning of the quarantine, I was uncomfortable with suddenly being seen differently by everyone when I had not changed at all...It is unnerving to feel defined so completely by others’ perceptions of you, but it is not a feeling unique to my situation. It is one I have seen mirrored in stories throughout time.
It can be seen in Orsino’s treatment of Viola in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and how it changes completely as soon as he sees her as the woman she is, rather than the eunuch Cesario who she claimed to be. While Orsino loves Cesario and says so repeatedly he is also willing to “sacrifice the lamb that [he does] love” by which he means kill Cesario, simply to spite Olivia for spurning his affections (V.i.133). Orsino’s affection for Cesario is little changed by the time he discovers her true gender...[but] Orsino...acts on his feelings toward Viola in a way he never would have with Cesario....the decisions he makes are all dependent on how he sees Viola and not on who she truly is.
The early second-century poem Bisclavret (The Werewolf), one of Marie De France’s lais, also includes a depiction of someone defined by how others perceive them. Bisclavret, a man trapped in a wolf's body due to his wife’s betrayal, finds himself being hunted as a wolf:
The king went hunting;
he went straight to the forest where the werewolf was.
When the hounds were unleashed, the found the werewolf.
The hounds and hunters chased it all day,
so that they very nearly caught it
and completely tore it to shreds and destroyed it[.]
While Bisclavret convinces the king that he is an intelligent and gentle wolf, and so prevents his death, the reason he is ever hunted is because of the fact he is in his wolf’s skin. Were Bisclavret a man at the time there would be no danger him being hunted. And despite the fact he saves himself from the king’s hunting party he is still seen and treated as a wolf; albeit a tame one. While the king and his advisors accept the wolf is intelligent and are certain it bears a grudge against Bisclavret’s wife (after he bites off her nose in what seems a shockingly violent action for the normally gentle wolf), no one suspects that he is a man until his wife reveals the truth. Their perceptions of him are completely dependent on his form (something he has no control over at the time) and what he can and cannot do is entirely dependent on those perceptions.
The protagonist of Margaret Cavendish’s The Description of a New World Called the Blazing World is another character whose power is dependent on how others view her. As the story begins, she subjected to the whims of various men, in both our world and [the] Blazing World ...She soon marries the Blazing World's Emperor, however, and he “[gives] her an absolute power to rule and govern all that world” (1159). From then on, she is known as The Empress and retains complete dominion over that world. Despite this drastic change in power, she is essentially the same as she always was, only now she is seen as an empress rather than a lost girl.
These characters all have this in common: they consistently act like themselves and yet seem to portray two different characters each. This apparent duality is completely dependent on how other characters view them. They are themselves always, it is only others' views of them that make them seem different. Their stories are far more fantastic than my own, and their situations are far more dramatic than most people will ever experience. Despite this, they face the same issue I do of being defined by others' perceptions. Despite living in a chaotic time, I am simply a human facing issues humanity has for centuries. For me at least this is a comfort.
Deion Peoples, from “Our Literature, My Strengthening”
[T]he situation of Julian of Norwich did seem to strike similarities to my situation of isolation and finding my spirituality. In solitude, Julian of Norwich thinks of the “image of the cross” as a “common light” (Julian of Norwich 390). Although not as extreme, I, too, was looking towards my faith or “image of the cross” as guidance through the “stay-at-home” order. In this context, the text felt more spiritually connected than it did when I had first read it weeks earlier in the semester. This connecting capability can be used as evidence that hardship does not devalue the power or purpose of literary art.
Jay Nark, from “On Isolation, Self-Imposed and Mandated”
In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the protagonist Sir Gawain embarks on his own yearlong sojourn of solitude. During his quest to find the Green Knight, Gawain spends months alone, wandering through the wilderness, with “no fellow but his horse by forest and hill, / And no one but God to talk to on the way” (696-7). This separation is both a physical and mental one, but it is undertaken in order to protect Gawain’s liege, King Arthur, from the murderous Green Knight; Gawain had embarked on this quest on behalf of his king, and his isolation, though painful, does successfully protect his lord. Just like the Bisclavret, however, Gawain does eventually return to civilization, emerging on the other side of his isolation a changed man; these isolations, self-imposed for the greater good, did succeed in sheltering others from harm’s way, inspiring hope that our own separations, too, will successfully defend ourselves and our communities.
Katie Kellam, from “Rekindling Hope”
The Irish poem “Pangur Bán” highlights a period of relative isolation and the peace and fulfillment that is possible when such a time is used well. The situation of the world beyond our front doors (and in some cases not even that) can be frightening. The sudden cessation of social life and our usual leisure activities brings with it an increased risk for loneliness and depression. Yet I believe that by treating this long pause as a time for serious personal reflection and growth, it is possible to mitigate the tendency towards feeling helpless. By anchoring ourselves in the things that are within our control and leaning into the solitude, it is possible to take an unfortunate situation and create good out of it. It would help us much more to think as the author writes, "Truth to tell, just being here, / Housed alone, housed together, / Adds up to its own reward..." (9-11). This period provides its own challenges and its own unique opportunities which we will likely never see again in our lives.
Anonymous, “Finding Light During COVID-19"
Living in quarantine has ironically given me hope for the world and our future generations. I feel more connected to my body and mind; I go on walks by myself and focus on what I am eating. The drastic improvements in air pollution soothe my ennui about climate change....There are lows as well – fear for my grandparents who are in their 80s, death's constant presence in the news, and a bigoted and unproductive leader – but I am learning to shift my perspective. ...Reading, spending time with my parents, and cooking have become my light, allowing me to see my experience with COVID-19 as a felix culpa.
The surrealness of a socially distanced world strikes me whenever I turn on the news: an empty Kaaba in Mecca, dead rush hours, deserted airports. Like Pepys, I mourn "how sad a sight it is to see the streets empty of people." Yet, there is something hauntingly beautiful about these images[, which]...allow us to see the beauty of highway structures and flickering subway lights that usually get ignored in lieu of complaining about traffic and crowds. Now, it's the routine of traffic that we miss....
I look to books for solace, sometimes to be taken away from the present and others for the reminder that everything will be okay....The highs and lows I have experienced during quarantine are reminiscent of the felix culpa in Milton's Paradise Lost. Milton presents the argument that though Satan has fallen for being the anti-hero, the experience proves his heroicness. I think that much of the world's response to the horrors of COVID-19 have shown our resilience. Satan addresses the fall of his comrade Beelzebub, "From what highth fall'n, so much the stronger prov'd" (Milton, Book 1, 92). What was meant to be imprisonment in a weak place only proves Beelzebub's strength. Similarly, the steps made during quarantine to fight against loneliness, xenophobia, and the spread of disease demonstrates the strength of our local and global communities. Air pollution has fallen in unprecedented levels across the world. We have united in our fight against food insecurity and resistance to Governor Kemp's premature business openings. Satan states that one "Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n" (Milton, Book 1, 255). This dichotomy translates to all aspects of life – but is emphasized by how we choose to approach quarantine. We can use it as an opportunity to practice problem-solving, look introspectively at how we connect to others, and commune with our environments.
I am not naïve. I...sorrow for those who have lost loved ones and peers. But it does no good to live in negativity and despair. This time can constructive; we can hold Royal Society meetings in our living rooms, philosophizing like Cavendish and acting in healthy debate through online discussions or zoom calls. [Milton’s archangel] Michael proclaims in Book 12 of Paradise Lost:
I have found light in the darkness of quarantine, allowing me to appreciate the highs and lows I've experienced throughout my life and will continue to face. Now, I only have hope for what they will teach me.
Anonymous. “Pangur Bán.” The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: Concise Edition. Edited by Joseph Black et al., Broadview, 2019, pp. 34-5.
Anonymous. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” The Broadview Anthology of British Literature:Concise Edition. Edited by Joseph Black et al., Broadview, 2019, pp. 225-90.
Cavendish, Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle. “A Description of a New World, Called the BlazingWorld.” The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: Concise Edition. Edited by Joseph Blacket al., Broadview, 2019, pp. 1157-62.
France, Marie de. “Bisclavret (The Werewolf).” The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: ConciseEdition. Edited by Joseph Black et al., Broadview, 2019, pp. 180-87.
Julian, of Norwich. “A Vision Showed to a Devout Woman.” The Broadview Anthology of BritishLiterature: Concise Edition. Edited by Joseph Black et al., Broadview, 2019, pp. 388-98.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. The John Milton Reading Room. Edited by Thomas H. Luxon. https://www.dartmouth.edu/~milton/reading_room/contents/text.shtml. Accessed 30 Apr. 2020.
Pepys, Samuel. “Wednesday 16 August 1665.” The Diary of Samuel Pepys Online. Edited by Phil Gyford. www.pepysdiary.com/diary/1665/08/16/. Accessed 30 Apr. 2020.
Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. The Folger Shakespeare. Ed. Barbara Mowat, Paul Werstine, Michael Poston, and Rebecca Niles. https://shakespeare.folger.edu/shakespeares-works/twelfth-night/entire-play/. Accessed 30 Apr. 2020.
Sujata Iyengar is an UGA English Professor, Director of the Mobile Digital Editing Lab, and Co-founder and Co-editor of Borrowers and Lenders: The Journal of Shakespeare and Appropriation.