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Dumbledore’s Uncertain Past: A Harry Potter Approach to Evaluating Sources

Kathryn N. McDaniel
Marietta College
Marietta, Ohio, USA



Teaching students to evaluate sources—for accuracy, bias, and agenda—and to use them effectively despite their weaknesses, presents a challenge, and yet is essential in today’s crowded media landscape. Most humanities and social science teachers spend at least some class time helping students develop a critical eye for documentary evidence. Using the fictional informational sources J.K. Rowling presents in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to understand Albus Dumbledore’s troubled youth can provide students the analytic skills they need through an entertaining exercise. The Harry Potter stories intrinsically value the past, though Rowling is not naïve about the difficulty of understanding the truth from flawed sources. Throughout the series, but particularly in the last book, characters must weigh evidence and gain important information from biased sources to help them determine their future actions. Conflicting views of Albus Dumbledore in The Daily Prophet, Rita Skeeter’s book The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore, and Aberforth Dumbledore’s eyewitness testimony about his brother, raise questions about the Hogwarts headmaster’s motivations and moral integrity. Only by sorting through these contradictory accounts can Harry, Ron, and Hermione defeat the evil Lord Voldemort. When muggle students sort through these fictional accounts from the wizarding world, they nevertheless gain experience needed for navigating real-world sources to determine their own future paths. As a result, this exercise allows students to develop their critical thinking skills and their sense of historical consciousness.

Keywords: Critical Thinking, Historical Consciousness, Source Evaluation, Analysis, Evidence, Harry Potter, Albus Dumbledore, Pedagogy

With cries of “fake news” at every turn, the urgency for teaching critical reading skills has mounted in recent months. Teaching students to evaluate sources for quality and usable content remains a constant challenge at almost every educational level. Despite the topic’s relevance, students are likely to approach the material with either an indifferent shrug or rolling eyes, chin in palm. For historians, the ability to analyze sources of information about the past and to use them appropriately has always been a central requirement of the discipline. But any educated person must have these abilities. Most humanities and social science teachers spend at least some class time discussing how to regard documents and other evidence with a critical eye. Although today we find ourselves inundated with information, most of our sources are not vetted by experts, are partisan (with varying degrees of openness about their bias), or have entertainment instead of accuracy as the top priority. Given this crowded yet flawed information landscape, evaluation of the quality and content of source materials has become a more essential skill than ever before. Students will find even more valuable the knowledge of how to use inherently biased sources effectively as evidence.

Pop culture approaches to source materials can make this rather workmanlike topic more immediately interesting to students. A useful and suitably complex exercise asks students to evaluate sources within the wizarding world of Harry Potter, particularly focused on the topic of Albus Dumbledore’s uncertain past. It may seem counterintuitive to base an assignment about source accuracy on a fictional text—and fictional informational texts within it—but the key is the thinking process behind discerning source limitations and strengths. By developing the analytic skills to examine and effectively use documentary evidence about past events, even imaginary ones, students can apply this critical thinking to real-world situations. Developing critical evaluation in a relatively politically neutral subject area helps students and faculty focus on the skill itself instead of politicized content. J.K. Rowling possesses a surprisingly strong critical sensibility about historical (and other) sources, which makes her books ideal for this kind of exercise. Requiring thoughtful decision-making about what happened in Dumbledore’s youth, this assignment helps students develop the essential skills needed to assess the quality of sources, identify the role played by their own expectations and biases, and even determine how to use imperfect accounts by biased authors in nevertheless responsible ways.

J.K. Rowling’s Personal, Political Past

In the Harry Potter universe, the past is never far removed from present-day problems. Rowling builds into the fabric of her stories an urgent need to know what really happened in history. In “Hermione Raised Her Hand Again: Wizards Writing History,” Anne Rubenstein examines the way that socially accepted history (what historians call “social memory”) butts up against scholarly sources in the wizarding world, with very serious consequences. She notes, “A historian who asks just the right question and uncovers just the right evidence to answer the question and interprets the evidence in just the right way can end up challenging what everyone believed the story of the past to be. And once in a while, changing the official story of the past changes the present as well” (310-311). Rubenstein examines the variety of sources wizarding-world characters use to discover information about the past, including official ones and counter-cultural or hidden ones. Her most significant take-away is the value Rowling places on historical knowledge and the ability of her characters to sort through many different kinds of accounts of the past in order to solve current problems.

In underscoring the usefulness of the past to the present, Rowling acknowledges what scholars of history and pedagogy have learned in recent years: that people intuitively know that the past is relevant and useful to the present, but that their confidence about where to find accurate information is low. In The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life, Roy Rosenzweig and Daniel Thalen explain the results of a survey of Americans about their sense of history’s relevance, and where they might find the most accurate sources. Their study revealed that Americans have a strong sense of the usefulness of the past to the present, but that they distrust both commercial sources of historical information and official ones (like textbooks and school teachers). Instead, they tended to value most the personal testimony of people who have lived through historical events. This connection people feel to the past (if not to historians or history books) is vital to human endeavors. Klas-Göran Karlsson refers to “historical consciousness” as “a time compass that assigns meaning to past events and directs us to future projects” (129-130). As such, it is an essential tool for all citizens to be able to use. Rowling’s depiction of a highly personal past demonstrates this same sensibility. In the final book in the Harry Potter series, Harry uses his conclusions about Dumbledore’s youth as a “time compass,” pointing him to the next steps on his quest.

Harry’s detachment from his own roots makes his development of critical thinking about the past more difficult, yet also more necessary. His status as an orphan targeted by the evil Lord Voldemort and the Death Eaters stems from a past of which he has no memory, his parents’ involvement in a conflict that continues from their generation to his, and living friends and foes among those who experienced the prior conflicts. As a result, Harry must become adept at uncovering valid sources of information about what occurred before he was born. His friends assist him in this regard. Ron Weasley, as a wizarding-world insider, inherits and absorbs common knowledge (social memory) about the past from his family. Hermione Granger is an outsider like Harry who learns of the past through authoritative sources like their history teacher Professor Binns and books, specifically Hogwarts: A History. 

Harry must also identify and exclude invalid sources of information. Some presumably authoritative sources, like the Daily Prophet, reveal how easily they may be manipulated by either government censorship or the desire to pander to a fearful paying customer. Hermione also becomes wise to the (to her, unforgiveable) omissions in Hogwarts: A History when she learns of the role house-elves’ unpaid labor played in the school’s history; she claims the book should be renamed A Highly Biased and Selective History of Hogwarts, Which Glosses Over the Nastier Aspects of the School (Goblet of Fire 238). Harry’s very survival in the present depends on the ability to analyze sources of history. But, importantly, so does the ultimate victory of good over evil. For the most part, Harry gleans relevant details from conversation with adults who lived through past traumatic events (the favored historical source of respondents in Rosenzweig and Thalen’s study), Hermione’s research, and occasional magical intervention like the Pensieve, which recreates the historical memories of individuals.

A crucial conflict emerges, however, when Albus Dumbledore dies in the sixth book. Harry has lost one of his chief and most credible sources of information about the past, present, and future. Indeed, the end of every prior book in the Harry Potter series involved a usually lengthy commentary on past events and how they relate to the present, either by Dumbledore himself or facilitated by him (as with Barty Crouch, Jr.’s veritaserum revelations at the end of Book 4). Now that authority is silent. Harry will have to go forward with Dumbledore’s plans to defeat Voldemort without his mentor’s reassuring presence or valuable historical perspective. Harry will have to find his own perspective on the past in the last book in order to complete his quest.

Unfortunately, in the seventh book Harry discovers that perhaps Dumbledore was not the man he thought. He encounters sources about Dumbledore’s youth that seem to contradict Harry’s personal understanding and that consequently call into question his mission in the present to fulfill Dumbledore’s quest for the horcruxes. Harry will have to decide how to weigh these sources about the past in making his own decisions in the present. He will find truth in unexpected, undeniably biased sources, ones that contradict his personal understanding of Dumbledore’s role in wizard history. He will agonize over the idea that Dumbledore’s past was complex and perhaps tainted by impure motives and aims. The end of the last book will show Harry confronting his own memory of Dumbledore and coming to terms with his mentor’s uncertain past. In the process of revealing these personal struggles that will determine whether good triumphs over evil in the end, Rowling provides readers with an opportunity to consider how to evaluate a variety of sources about the past.

Dumbledore: The Histories

Dumbledore is mostly silent about his own past. What Harry knows about the Hogwarts headmaster he knows from other sources. His first knowledge comes from what we might call a pop culture source of history, Dumbledore’s chocolate frog card:

Considered by many the greatest wizard of modern times, Dumbledore is particularly famous for his defeat of the dark wizard Grindelwald in 1945, for the discovery of the twelve uses of dragon’s blood, and his work on alchemy with his partner, Nicolas Flamel. Professor Dumbledore enjoys chamber music and tenpin bowling. (Sorcerer’s Stone 102-103)

Harry comes to accept uncritically what we might think of as the social memory of Dumbledore, based on his heroic defeat of Grindelwald, especially when it is confirmed by Dumbledore’s mission to defeat Voldemort in the present. Importantly, this understanding of the headmaster conforms to the image shared by the adults around Harry—Mr. and Mrs. Weasley and the other Hogwarts faculty, for example—and therefore preserves an uncomplicated, heroic image of his mentor.

But in Book 7, The Deathly Hallows, Harry encounters new sources of information that tell him unexpected, important details about his deceased mentor. One he is inclined to agree with: Elphias Doge’s starry-eyed eulogy appearing in the Daily Prophet, which Harry reads early in the book. The other comes from shady journalist Rita Skeeter: a salacious exposé entitled The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore. Harry hears unsavory rumors about Dumbledore’s past from Ron’s Aunt Muriel, and then reads Skeeter’s promotional interview in which she heavily criticizes Doge’s account. He reads an excerpt from the exposé much later that, despite its scandal-mongering, nevertheless throws into question everything that Harry thinks he knows about Dumbledore’s character and ambitions. Toward the end of the last novel, when the children meet up with Albus’s brother before the Battle of Hogwarts, Harry will hear Aberforth Dumbledore’s eye-witness testimony, another undeniably biased account that nevertheless contains important elements of truth.

Rowling presents these sources for her readers so that we are similarly drawn to question their accuracy as well as what we thought we knew about Albus Dumbledore. Each of these accounts describes occurrences at the Dumbledore household shortly after Albus’s completion of Hogwarts and in between the deaths of his mother and his sister Ariana. For this exercise in source evaluation, students should read the documentary source excerpts Rowling provides in the text of the seventh novel. The two main sources are published documents: the first, the Daily Prophet’s eulogy, and the second, an unauthorized (and, we are told, lengthy) biographical book.

  1. “Albus Dumbledore—Remembered”: Doge’s eulogy of his friend mostly confirms Harry’s perspective on Dumbledore’s life, but reveals that there were complexities in his youth of which Harry has been unaware. As a former schoolmate, Doge portrays Dumbledore as the heroic defender of muggle rights, the powerful victor over the dark wizard Grindelwald, and a modest man who remained active in the politics of the wizarding world without seeking its highest office, Minister of Magic (Deathly Hallows 16-20).
  2. “The Greater Good”: the chapter excerpt from Skeeter’s exposé, The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore, throws Harry’s understanding of Dumbledore into serious question. Students should read a little before the excerpt in order to see the note that accompanied this copy of the book, which Skeeter gave to Bathilda Bagshot as “thanks” for being interviewed (“You said everything, even if you don’t remember it” (Deathly Hallows 352)) as well as the caption for the picture of Dumbledore standing with “his friend” Gellert Grindelwald (353). This except dwells with malicious glee on Albus’s “missing year,” during which he befriended the young dark wizard and penned a letter (also excerpted) advocating for wizard dominance over muggles “FOR THE GREATER GOOD” (352-359).

Students will evaluate these two main sources for their quality and should compare them to see where they corroborate each other and where they disagree. To facilitate questions about bias, students should also examine “Dumbledore—The Truth at Last?,” the Daily Prophet’s interview with Skeeter as a promotion of her soon-to-be published book (Deathly Hallows 22-28). This interview appears in The Deathly Hallows immediately after Doge’s eulogy, and allows us to see both Skeeter’s view of “Dodgy” Doge’s limitations as a judge of Dumbledore’s life and character, as well as her particular biases and quite unsavory journalistic methods.

Historic Detection: Finding Dumbledore’s Missing Year

On the basis of these three excerpts—all printed material available to a mass wizarding audience—students should determine the relative value of these sources and what might be useful about them despite their biases. Here’s an example of a homework assignment that may be used to prime the students for class discussion:

Based on these three readings, evaluate the quality and reliability of the two main sources (by Elphias Doge and by Rita Skeeter). What are their perspectives, what evidence do they have, how useful is that evidence, and how well do you think they represent the truth about Dumbledore’s past? Ultimately, explain what you think a person reading these two descriptions can know about Dumbledore’s youth. What does this tell us about historical biography in general?

A short assignment like this allows the students to wrestle with the material outside of class and bring their own impressions, supported by evidence, into the discussion. This exercise may, of course, be done entirely in class, with students given this charge individually or in groups. The benefit of coming in with prior preparation is that students will have considered the documents at more length and probably in a more deliberate fashion. The benefit of carrying out the whole assignment in class is that students who have not previously formed an opinion may be more open to persuasion by other points of view. Either way, students will grapple with the key questions of what makes a source useful and whether biased sources (which each of these obviously is) can provide “true” information.

Whether they have prepared in advance or not, students in discussion should consider some of the following questions.

  • Why did Doge and Skeeter write their accounts? How do their purposes affect the validity of their versions of Albus Dumbledore’s life?
  • What are Doge’s and Skeeter’s personal perspectives on Dumbledore, where do their perspectives come from, and how to do they show themselves in these documents?
  • Do these perspectives amount to a detrimental “bias”? Why or why not?
  • On what authority do Doge and Skeeter claim to know the truth about Albus Dumbledore? Are these believable claims? How might they be challenged?
  • What sources do Doge and Skeeter rely on? Which of these has the most authority as evidence? Which are, therefore, the most believable?
  • How do Skeeter’s methods of getting information affect the reliability of her evidence? Do you find Skeeter’s implication that she used veritaserum  believable and does this enhance her credibility or detract from it?
  • Based on this analysis, what can a savvy reader determine to be likely true from these accounts? How can we reconstruct at least parts of Albus’s “missing year”?
  • What questions remain that cannot be satisfactorily answered by these sources? Where might wizards look for answers to these?

Once students have evaluated these written sources, show them the “oral” testimony of Albus’s brother Aberforth Dumbledore for comparison (Deathly Hallows 563-567). Harry, Hermione, and Ron ask Aberforth about the events of that pivotal year and listen to his version of events. Bitterness toward his high-achieving older brother colors Aberforth’s description of Albus’s friendship with Grindelwald and treatment of their sister Ariana. Students should consider whether this eyewitness account constitutes a more authoritative source of information than Doge’s or Skeeter’s and evaluate Aberforth’s biases, some of which were pointed out in Skeeter’s interview and book. Aberforth’s motives for talking about these episodes—for the first time, we’re told—should be a part of the discussion, as well.

  • Does this testimony confirm or undermine the version of events we determined from the published accounts?
  • Do we see Aberforth as a better source, given that he was an eyewitness to many of the events discussed? Or do those standing at a remove from history have better access to “the facts”?
  • What does this tell us about who can speak authoritatively about historic events?
  • Does this show that we value oral testimony more or less than we should?
  • Do Harry, Ron, and Hermione consider this to be a definitive account? How does hearing from Aberforth affect their course of action?

Students who have read the Harry Potter series will have an advantage in some respects in this last part of the conversation, but their knowledge of the larger story may also play into their judgment on these accounts. In the last book, even after his death, Albus Dumbledore has laid out a course of action for Harry, Ron, and Hermione: for them to seek and destroy the horcruxes so that they may defeat the evil Voldemort. Dumbledore’s own youth, however, reveals that he, like Voldemort, searched for the Deathly Hallows instead—the elder wand, the resurrection stone, and the invisibility cloak, which together defeat death. Harry must decide whether to seek the hallows or the horcruxes, and his doubts about his mentor’s moral purity make him question Albus Dumbledore’s direction. Aberforth tells his version of events in order to discourage Harry, Ron, and Hermione from entering Hogwarts to seek the remaining horcruxes. The three protagonists will have to sort through the varied accounts of Dumbledore’s youth in order to decide their course to victory. Ultimately accepting a less-heroic image of the Hogwarts headmaster, the Trio will nevertheless pursue his path in seeking horcruxes instead of hallows. This does, indeed, lead to the victory of good over evil. Knowing this result in advance may cause students to look at the documents differently. It may be useful to ask students about whether they think their prior knowledge of the Harry Potter story influenced their decision-making in this exercise.

To cap off this exercise, students may be encouraged to read Harry’s conversation with the deceased Albus at King’s Cross station toward the end of the novel, in which they discuss his guilt and temptation by dark magic (707-723). This passage contains clues that this is not the actual Dumbledore, but rather represents Harry’s cohering understanding of this complex man (Perez). Students might consider the degree to which various sources influenced Harry’s perspective in the end, and whether they arrived at conclusions similar to Harry’s from a critical reading of all the available sources.

Toward a Useable (Muggle) Past

Although this exercise uses fictional sources in a fantasy universe, it can—paradoxically perhaps—help students find the unexpected relevance of sources about the past. Ask students who know the larger Harry Potter story how a different interpretation of Dumbledore’s past might have changed Harry, Hermione, and Ron’s actions, and thereby changed the story’s outcome. How are interpretations of the past in the present, muggle world affecting both personal and political decisions? Where do they see this in their own lives? Have they ever had the experience of learning something new about the past that shook their understanding of themselves in the world or their sense of what they should do in the future?

As students navigate research projects of various kinds, they will need to be able to evaluate the quality and usefulness of their sources. More than that, they must be able to find what is useful even in problematic sources. Rare indeed are pure and unbiased sources of information. In their absence, we are all called upon to find what is true and important even in flawed materials. This exercise can help students to go even further than identifying bias; it can help them to determine how to use biased sources for valid research anyway. What could be more useful in our often unfair and unbalanced world today?

Works Cited

Karlsson, Klas-Göran. “Processing Time—On the Manifestations and Activations of Historical Consciousness.” Historicizing the Uses of the Past: Scandinavian Perspectives on History Culture, Historical Consciousness and Didactics of History Related to World War II. Eds. Helle Bjerg, Claudia Lenz, and Erik Thorstensen. Transaction Publishers. 2011. 129-144.

Perez, Jeanina. “Magical Rememory: How Memory and History Collide to Produce Social Change in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Saga.” Southwest Popular/American Culture Conference. Alburquerque, New Mexico. February, 2016. Presentation.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic). 2005.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic). 2005.

Rosenzweig, Roy and David Thalen. The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life. Columbia UP. 1998.

Rubenstein, Ann. “Hermione Raised her Wand Again: Wizards Writing History.” Harry Potter and History. Ed. Nancy Reagan. John Wiley and Sons. 2011. 309-321.

Author Bio

Kathryn N. McDaniel is Andrew U. Thomas Professor of History and Chair of the Department of History, Philosophy, and Religion at Marietta College in Marietta, Ohio. Although her specialty is early modern British history, she teaches a wide variety of courses in world history, modern European history, feminism, history of science, and historiography, and is the editor of Virtual Dark Tourism: Ghost Roads. In addition to teaching a course on Harry Potter and the Liberal Arts, she has published several articles on Harry Potter scholarship and pedagogy, hosts the MuggleNet podcast “Reading, Writing, Rowling,” and is the co-editor of Harry Potter for Nerds II.

Reference Citation


McDaniel, Kathryn N. “Dumbledore’s Uncertain Past: A Harry Potter Approach to Evaluating Sources. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol. 5, no 1, 2018


McDaniel, K. N. (2018). Dumbledore’s uncertain past: A Harry Potter approach to evaluating sources. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 5(1).

Considering Ethical Questions in (Non)Fiction: Reading and Writing about Graphic Novels

Gene McQuillan
Kingsborough Community College /The City University of New York
Brooklyn, NY, USA


Teachers often feature graphic novels in college courses, and recent research notes how these texts can help make the process of reading more engaging as well as more complex. Graphic novels help enhance a variety of “literacies”; they offer bold representations of people dealing with trauma or marginalization; they explore how “texts” can be re-invented; they exemplify how verbal and visual texts are often adapted; they are ideal primers for introducing basic concepts of “post-modernism.” However, two recurring textual complications in graphic novels can pose difficulties for students who are writing about ethical questions. First, graphic novels often present crucial scenes by relying heavily on the use of verbal silence (or near silence) while emphasizing visual images; second, the deeper ethical dimensions of such scenes are suggested rather than discussed through narration or dialogue. This article will explain some of the challenges and options for writing about graphic novels and ethics.

Keywords: Graphic novels; ethics; literacies; Art Spiegelman; Maus; Alison Bechdel; Fun Home

I am committed to using graphic novels in my English courses. This commitment can be a heavy one–in my case, it sometimes weighs about 40 pounds. If one stopped by my Introduction to Literature course at Kingsborough Community College (the City University of New York), one could see exactly what I mean.

A substantial part of the course focuses on Art Spiegelman’s Maus (and Meta-Maus); these texts are often paired with excerpts from Elie Wiesel’s Night and recent critical commentaries about constructing the “canon.” During one class in the Maus sequence, I bring two large bags of books, all of them graphic novels.1 I leave class with a lighter load, since ALL of the students browse through the texts and choose one as an independent reading. Certain texts get snatched quickly: Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, Kejii Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen, Marisa Acocella Marchetto’s Cancer Vixen, Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World, Adrian Tomine’s Shortcomings, Frank Miller’s Sin City and Brian Vaughn’s V: The Last Man. Other texts usually require a bit more “selling”: Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, Joe Sacco’s Palestine, Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s Skim, Mat Johnson’s Incognegro, Gene Luen Yang’s American-Born Chinese, Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor, Emmanuel Guibert’s The Photographer and, of course, Will Eisner’s classic, A Contract with God.

Reasons for Featuring Graphic Novels in a Course

Graphic novels tend to create converts, and converts often get a bit carried away. This sort of enthusiasm is often evident when students browse through graphic novels. The students can and often do take more than one text, and they soon realize that there is a wide and surprising world of “literary” texts out there. While I surely appreciate their engagement, I have also been investigating whether and how graphic novels will remain an essential component of my teaching practices. Why bring bags of graphic novels to a college Introduction to Literature course? At least five criteria seem crucial. Graphic novels:

  • Help students of many different readings levels and backgrounds develop a wide range of “literacies.” This process relies on a very broad and nuanced approach to how people and groups “read” and construct meaning.2
  • Encourage innovative texts for encouraging dialogues about “otherness,” about illness, about marginalized groups and outsiders, about the ways in which both individuals and groups use images and narratives to create, assign and/or challenge identities.3
  • Provide concrete examples of how texts are “constructed” or “re-invented,” since even simple matters such as fonts and punctuation and pages are often radically re-imagined.4
  • Represent an on-going shift toward “visual culture,” and allow students to get a clearer sense of how verbal and visual texts are adapted for different media and how they have they own distinct discursive expectations.5
  • Serve as ideal primers for introducing students to some basic concepts and binary tensions of “post-modernism”: construction and deconstruction, chance and design, irony and intertextuality, high art and pop culture, linear and non-linear texts.6

My research about graphic novels also led to an innocuous blog entitled “Getting Graphic.” The blog is primarily a basic review of recent scholarship on teaching such texts, yet one of its concluding claims led to writing this article: “Graphic novels have received attention for their ability to motivate reluctant readers and support multiliteracies. However, graphic novels are not only for readers who struggle. Sequential art benefits already motivated students and supports the examination of ethical issues with gifted students” (4; italics added). I am convinced that graphic novels can present some serious challenges for all students, for “reluctant readers” as well as “already motivated students” and “gifted students.” Yet I will be direct about my concern: a series of problems can arise when writing assignments about graphic novels encourage students to engage in an “examination of ethical issues.”

Of course, the previous sentence demands some immediate clarifications. As for “writing assignments,” I will focus on writing courses in community colleges, especially those courses known as WAC and/or WI sections: the acronyms stand for Writing-Across-the-Curriculum and/or Writing Intensive. I have been tutoring and teaching at CUNY (the City University of New York) since 1983, and I have been a full-time English professor at KCC (Kingsborough Community College) in Brooklyn since 1993. While at KCC I’ve often taught ENG 30, an “Introduction to Literature” course, also listed as a Writing Intensive / Honors course. In practical terms, we do numerous revised and in-class essays, and roughly 30 percent of the students will be affiliated with the college’s Honors Program. I have often taught texts such as Maus, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, David Small’s Stitches, and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home in ENG 30, and while doing so, I have had to remain aware of a basic fact. I am teaching a Writing Intensive course about Literature in which very, very few students—even those in the Honors program—are potential English majors. As I write this, no program for an English major or minor is available at KCC, so for the great majority of students, “Introduction to Literature” is their first and last English elective. Roughly 60 percent of our incoming students speak English as their second language, many represent the first generation in their family to attend college, and many have a family income below $30,000 a year. The challenge of teaching such courses has become a serious issue at many other colleges, and an intriguing study of such courses appears in a 2015 article from The CEA [College English Association] Forum. The article “‘You are asking me to do more than just read a book’: Student Reading in a General Literature Course” makes a series of claims about how a literature course for non-majors can and should work. The authors state:

Study findings indicate that both students and teachers find students to be most engaged in literature when given some autonomy to direct their reading choices and when prompted to identify the relevance of texts to their lived experiences; that a literature course for non-majors offers opportunities for students to develop or reclaim reading habits; and that both students and teachers perceive such a course to offer students opportunities to learn transferable reading and writing skills. (Amicucci et al. 2-3)

This statement serves to identify a few crucial ways in which teachers and students alike can make active decisions about finding readings that are both serious and appealing. As I consider the article’s references “autonomy” or “relevance” or “reclaiming” certain “transferable” skills, they seem both familiar and convincing; they neatly summarize much of what I aim to do in my daily practice as a teacher.

Graphic novels would thus appear to be a helpful resource in a course for non-majors. Yet the term “graphic novel” also deserves clarification, since “graphic novels” are so varied that generalizing about them would be pointless. Thus, my argument will focus on four well-known graphic memoirs: I will directly discuss Spiegelman’s Maus and Bechdel’s Fun Home, and I will briefly note the relevance of Satrapi’s Persepolis and Small’s Stitches. All are memoirs in which an adult tries to reconstruct how the traumas of his or her youth are paired with very painful or contentious family matters. While teaching these texts, I’ve seen ample evidence in support of the five criteria previously noted: improving literacies, discussing otherness, deconstructing texts, analyzing visual culture, and contextualizing post-modernism. Reluctant and struggling readers have eagerly asked for my personal copies of Persepolis II and Maus II, even though these sequels are not assigned. Other students have shared their interests in comics and other forms of visual culture, such as anime and manga, providing us with accessible examples of how terms such as “literature” and “literacy” are far from self-explanatory.

Students from highly diverse (and potentially divisive) backgrounds have worked together to explain, for example, how and why religious “veils” are significant or how societies have created complex (and often vicious) associations between people and animals. Noting how these associations are often visualized has lead in turn to discussions of how seemingly neutral and objective images, such as a newspaper photograph, draw from a deep well of assumptions. Such discussions became concrete when we considered two seemingly simple concepts, namely “page” and “scene.” We read Meta-Maus and noted how Spiegelman often drew many different versions of the same page, or we chose a single scene from a text and watched as it is then adapted, as one can see in the film version of Persepolis; after this, students needed little convincing that artists and authors actively “construct” their texts. We have had vigorous discussions of what qualifies as a “literary/non-literary” or “fiction/non-fiction” texts. Can a “comic” (or a Campbell soup can or an upturned toilet bowl) be considered “art?” Can they explain why the best-seller list of the New York Times initially listed Maus as “fiction?” Also, students were often highly motivated when other students spoke boldly of how their experiences inform their reading. Examples abound in the highly diverse microcosm of KCC classrooms, and when students speak of the Holocaust survivor in their family or the reasons why they wear hijab or a decision to “come out” to their family, one can almost feel the room spin as the students’ attention and voices shift to become more attuned to a new revelation.

KCC teachers continually try to navigate the various and shifting cultural codes in a college where a “typical” class of twenty-five students might feature a dozen nationalities/ethnicities, an even higher number of bilingual students, and a fascinating range of religious beliefs. It would require a far longer text than this to try to register even a partial set of these cultural variables and to suggest some methods for addressing them in a class setting. My goals are more modest, and will focus on certain distinct formal aspects of graphic novels that may become a crucial part of the process of writing a complex “examination of ethical issues.” Graphic novels surely share numerous formal characteristics with traditional prose narratives; for example, both a graphic novel and a traditional novel might feature multiple narrative lines as well as distinct narrative voices and perspectives. These multiple viewpoints might in turn encourage readers to consider a more nuanced and multi-faceted discussion of ethical issues. However, there are certain features of graphic novels—such as presenting crucial scenes by relying heavily on visual images while offering little or no verbal contexts—which might engage students as readers while also presenting them with a potentially frustrating occasion for doing academic writing.

What Do We Write About When We Write about Ethics?

The term “ethics” comes pre-loaded with assumptions and associations that often lead people to the sort of impasses mentioned by David Foster Wallace: “Am I a good person? Deep down, do I even really want to be a good person, or do I only want to seem like a good person so that people (including myself) will approve of me? Is there a difference? How do I ever actually know whether I’m bullshitting myself, morally speaking?” (257). In an attempt to settle on a practical way to frame these debates, I have focused on how “ethics” might be discussed in WAC (Writing-Across-the-Curriculum) courses. One current option is to use the term “ethics” to refer to a prescribed code of professional conduct. This choice is more likely for students in fields that lead to some sort of licensing: graphic novels (or at least very reductionist versions of them) have already been recommended for use by students of medicine and law. Columbia University’s School of Continuing Education is developing a more innovative version of this process. It offers an M.S. in “Narrative Medicine,” and courses such as “Giving and Receiving Accounts of Self” focus on medical ethics while also reviewing texts by Henry James and Hannah Arendt and Judith Butler, as well as graphic texts such as Stitches ( Other teachers have considered employing graphic novels (or other literary texts for that matter) as a redemptive means of building character or morals or making students “better people.” Scholars such as Martha Nussbaum have long argued that literature can and should have a crucial place in a society’s discussion of ethics. She is very direct in calling for the humanities to play a strong role in directing the moral development of today’s college students. As she states in “Compassionate Citizenship,” “Through stories and dramas, history, film, the study of philosophical and religious ethics, and the study of the global economic system, they should get the habit of decoding the suffering of another, and this decoding should deliberately lead them into lives both near and far” (3). Other scholars, such as Richard Rorty, are suspect of the over-arching narratives that govern the “moral work” that remains implicit in such ethical contexts. As Rorty claims, societies “might work better if they stopped trying to give universalistic self-justifications, stopped appealing to notions like ‘rationality’ and ‘human nature,’ and instead viewed themselves simply as promising social experiments” (193). I am not offering this statement as a one-sentence encapsulation of post-modernism, yet it may help to frame one basic issue facing teachers who try to introduce ethical terms into various assignments. Teachers who try to introduce and clarify traditional terms (perhaps “liberty” or “human rights”) may feel a sense of both urgency and hesitancy while doing so. If one invokes Derrida and places such terms sous rature (that is, liberty), or cordons them off inside quotations marks, or literally erases such terms from the board while teaching, then what replaces them? At the risk of generalizing about KCC students, many seem to prefer their metaphysics and universal values delivered without a chaser of irony or contingency. How then can one speak to students of “ethics” when the term calls forth so many different and contradictory meanings?

One particular statement from John Rothfork has helped frame the debate about the contentious status of post-modern ethics. His phrasing seems well-suited for describing how teachers negotiate the many and varied “contact zones” in their classes: “There is currently a fight in America over the operational logic or vocabulary which enables public or ethical discourse to proceed. The fight is over how we—as women, Native American Indians, Buddhists—talk about our ethical performative knowledge” (18). This search for an “operational logic” is indeed crucial, and the reference to “we” suggests how tenuous this process can become. In this case, Rothfork’s initial use of “we” seems to indicate a unified group, but the next phrase reminds us of our shifting and multiple allegiances. As I have read and re-read Rothfork’s statement, I’ve found it hard to isolate and name “the operational logic or vocabulary” that guides the “performative” aspect of ethical discussion (18; italics added). KCC students represent such a diversity of backgrounds that it seems more likely we’ll discuss pluralities—that is, “logics” and “vocabularies” rather than some singular and comprehensive term. When I do ask students to consider ethical questions, I’ve found that there are crucial places in graphic novels that leave us wondering about how this might be done, and both the students and I have found this to be problematic.

Writing the Ethical: An Assignment about a TraditionalNovel

What might I consider to be a text which provides students with a challenging option for writing about ethics? My ENG 30 course usually features Edwidge Dandicat’s 2004 novel The Dew Breaker, a series of nine interwoven stories. The “dew breaker” is an unnamed 65-year-old Haitian immigrant who lives with his wife (Anne) and daughter (Ka) in East Flatbush near the Brooklyn Museum. A reader need not wait long to find that this man has committed and hidden horrific crimes—namely torturing and killing both political prisoners and completely innocent civilians—during the revolutions in 1960‘s Haiti. He had semi-confessed to some of his crimes to his wife years ago when their daughter was born. Now his secrets are causing all sorts of trouble. His daughter, an artist who had fully believed her father’s stories about being a political prisoner, has created an evocative sculpture in his honor that is about to be sold to a prominent Haitian TV star; his tenant in the basement apartment has recognized the “dew breaker” as the man who killed his parents years ago in Haiti; the Haitian community is openly seeking for retribution against the killers among them; a young college student and rookie journalist named Aline devoted herself to telling the stories of the victims of these crimes; his wife, who had found some consolation in prayer and faith, now believes that she is living a soul-destroying lie.

By the end of the book, there’s no clear resolution of the braided narratives sketched above, just a scenario in which every character must soon act, each knowing full well that most of these actions could lead to their own downfall. This ending, of course, presents a reader with much more than just a narrative “cliffhanger,” and in one of my writing assignments I ask the following:

During the final pages of the book, Anne is left wondering whether “reparation and atonement are possible”—and the book then ends without clarifying this for a reader. What do the terms “reparation and atonement” mean in general, and what specific meanings might these words have for these five characters in the book: Ka, Anne, Dany, Aline, and “the dew breaker” himself? Please analyze the varied responses of at least TWO characters. What key criteria or terms would seem most important to these characters? Please make sure to refer to specific scenes and/or statements from the book and to explain their significance.

Students generally do not find it hard to start a response, since the characters have often studied the contours of their own entrapments and silences. One story within the novel, “Book of Miracles,” features one scene that students often cite. Anne is in church for midnight Mass on Christmas Eve with her husband and daughter. During a moment when the entire congregation is hushed, Ka urgently whispers to her mother that she has spotted—or thinks she has spotted—a notorious torturer also known to be living a shadowy life in Brooklyn. Faced with the ethical dilemma of speaking or remaining silent, the two women frame their choices using very different vocabularies. Ka (who does not yet know of her father’s crimes) is furious, and barely restrains herself from shouting out. Anne is having other thoughts :

What if it were Constant? What would she do? Would she spit in his face or embrace him, acknowledging a kinship of shame and guilt that she’d inherited by marrying her husband. How would she even know whether Constant felt any guilt or shame? What if he’d come to this Mass to flaunt his freedom? To taunt those who’d been affected by his crimes? What if he didn’t even see it that way? What if he considered himself innocent? Innocent enough to go wherever he pleased? As a devout Catholic and the wife of a man like her husband, she didn’t have the same freedom to condemn as her daughter did. (81)

As the students reply to the essay prompt, I am not looking for a firm prescriptive answer about what a character should finally “do,” nor am I expecting that the students will take Anne or Aline or Dany’s dilemmas as a means of achieving some personal epiphany about their own ethical bearings. If I have any particular theoretical framework for my writing courses, it would be that of a socio-linguist, one who is intrigued and compelled by the “code-switching” that we all do while assuming various discursive roles. As James Paul Gee states in Social Linguistics and Literacies, “Any time we act or speak, we must accomplish two things: we must make clear who we are, and we must make clear what we are doing. We are each not a single who, but different whos in different contexts” (124). The conflicting arguments of Nussbaum and Rorty and Rothfork indicate that the ability to firmly define “ethics” remains elusive—yet the deep and recurring desire to try to share even a provisional public exchange of ideas about ethics is undoubtedly what keeps this conversation going at all. Which “vocabularies” are in play in The Dew Breaker, and just who is employing them? Might one start with Anne’s tortured silence as a believer and a cowardly co-conspirator? Or Ka’s hip art-school atheism and activism? Or Dany’s return to Haiti to learn how his parents’ pastoral community deals with their own members’ transgressions? Or the declarations of universal principles from human rights’ groups that are directly quoted in the novel? Or might it be Aline’s decision to look past her academic training as a journalist intern and to now write as an advocate for those “men and women chasing fragments of themselves long lost to others?” (137).

While dealing with texts such as The Dew Breaker, students usually can write their way into a fairly nuanced discussion of how ethical decisions can be shaped and informed by culture and language, by images and symbols, by legal codes and social customs. Traditional prose narratives often encourage this process. One reads of a character and notes how their ideas arise in a sequence, one that may not be quite rational and consistent, but one that has its own cadence, structure, phrasing, evasions, echoes. It is this process of speaking and restraining from speech, one that Dandicat calls “coded utterances,” that demands careful attention. How might a similar process take place while reading (and then writing about) a graphic novel? How might the reading of graphic novels complement, and perhaps complicate, the ways in which students read more traditional prose narratives? And finally, how might the reading of a graphic novel present students with a strikingly different perspective? For example, what if Dandicat’s description of Anne’s tormented self-examination featured few or no words? What if readers were presented instead with a few close-ups of Anne’s face and hands as she glanced again and again at the man she believed to be Constant? How might they write their way into a discussion of the ethical contexts for that moment?

Writing the Ethical: Assignments about Graphic Novels

“Every act committed to paper by the comics artist is aided and abetted by a silent accomplice” (68).
— from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics

As we read Spiegelman’s Meta-Maus, students can work on various topics about trauma, about post-modern memory, about adapting and re-adapting, about the careful composition of every page. The publication of Meta-Maus, with its archival pictures and video and interview transcripts, allows students to see how memory is both retrieved and re-created in a survival tale. How then might students write about moments in a graphic novel when a character/person finds themselves at the edge of an ethical cliff?

Maus certainly features many such moments. One obvious context for reading most “survivor tales” is that the author cannot rely too much on suspense. We all know from the start that Art Spiegelman and his father Vladek lived to tell this tale, so the question “Did they eventually survive?” is almost immediately displaced by the question “What did they do to survive?” and some version of its implicit corollary: “And did they lose their souls/compromise their dignity while doing so?” The latter chapters feature a series of almost unbearable decisions facing the Spiegelman family and their friends as they move from one “hole” to the other. In class, we generally focus on three distinct scenes. In the first, the Spiegelman family must decide whether to turn over their elderly relatives to the Nazis for deportation (or be taken away themselves); in the second, a group of Jews hiding desperately in a secret bunker must decide whether to kill a fellow Jew who has found them, and who may also be a Nazi informant. The third scene is given the most careful attention. The Nazis have overrun a town, and they are rapidly approaching the home of Vladek’s sister Tosha. She then faces a horrifying decision, as she must quickly decide whether to allow herself, her two young children, and her nephew Richieu (Art’s older brother) to be captured—or to poison herself and the children (109). Students often respond very strongly to these scenes when we discuss them in class, since they present such painful and irrevocable choices. Yet there are two recurring textual complications in many graphic novels that can pose difficulties for students who are writing about these texts. First, graphic novels often present crucial scenes by relying heavily on the use of verbal silence (or near silence) while emphasizing visual images; second, the deeper ethical dimensions of such scenes are suggested rather than discussed.

Students soon notice that Speigelman often uses relatively long and patiently detailed series of panels for seemingly minor events (Vladek’s complaints about his glass eye or his pills or Vladek’s joking with Anja about losing and finding a pillow during a refugee march) while retelling more disturbing events (the death of his own father or even the arrival at the gates of Auschwitz) in very terse and compressed sequences. Perhaps the most extreme example of this is the death of Tosha and Richieu, which Vladek calls the “tragedy among tragedies.” The entire sequence fills less than a page (see Image 1). It’s a very painful and evocative scene, and students are quick to notice how the elimination of details forces one to be attentive to what remains. For example, imagine the tone and volume of the word “NO!” Just note what her face and her collapsing shoulders convey as panels 5, 6 and 7 zoom in closer and closer. Or shudder as she quickly turns from the window, calls the children to her, and _______. (Dare we imagine the details of what follows?) It also challenges the whole premise of the book, that is, how one needs to both “retrieve” and “create” memory. (The news of Richieu’s death was gathered in fragments. Maus II mentions how Vladek and his wife Anja spend months after the war looking for Richieu, unaware of the scene described above.) When I’ve met students again in subsequent semesters, it is often that scene which has formed their sharpest recollections of graphic novels, of representations of the Holocaust, of “the creation of memory,” of our course in general.


Image 1: Maus

Yet can they then write about the scene’s ethical dimensions? For example, as we read Maus, we often read related scenes from Elie Wiesel’s Night, including one in which Wiesel considers throwing himself into a ditch filled with burning bodies. He does not, yet he is devastated to realize that the men around him are reciting the mourner’s Kaddish as they continue walking. Wiesel presents his ethical anguish in much bolder terms and closes this section with his famous invocation: “Never shall I forget that night…” While writing about that section, students often notice the seven repetitions of “Never,” the imagery of children being turned into “wreaths of smoke,” the implications of a “silent” sky, the despair which “murdered my God” (30-31). As one of their writing options, students are asked to consider the differences between these two types of texts:

COMPLEX COMMIX?: The graphic novel Maus obviously challenges a reader’s assumptions about whether a seemingly simple form can fully convey the complex emotions and ideas of people or characters. The book feature a series of scenes in which people must make very difficult ethical decisions. To what extent and in what ways might a graphic novel be more or less convincing or insightful than a traditional literary text while trying to represent the ethical conflicts of such scenes? You may refer to any of the texts we’ve read (or will read), or you may choose your own examples.

Here’s where a recurring issue has arisen–students often find it not just difficult but almost impossible to develop a sustained analysis of the ethical contexts for a scene such as the death of Richieu. It’s not that this moment lacks an ethical charge. Yet students have grave difficulties getting past the obvious points that Tosha has two horrifying options (infanticide and suicide vs. handing over herself and the children to face unspeakable violence) and that she is feeling desperate, hesitant, tormented, resigned. Students often struggle to provide an analysis which moves beyond these obvious points How might they move past their initial obvious statements, or, as I might ask in somewhat more technical terms, “What do you/we imagine to be in the gutter?” Don’t look at the text for some rain-filled trench–in the terminology of comics, the “gutter” refers to the literal/imagined “spaces” between panels or other distinct sections of the text, and as Scott McCloud says in his classic text Understanding Comics, “Despite its unceremonious title, the gutter plays host to much of the magic and mystery that are at the very heart of comics” (66). In this scene, the “gutter” between panels 7 and 8 seems especially resonant—the first panel features Tosha in near-collapse from the burdens now upon her, while in the next panel she has straightened up, wheeled around, and started an irrevocable act. “Gutters” get filled with all sorts of things besides basic assumptions about narrative continuity or what some comic artists simply call “closure.” Gutters invite us to fill them with allusions and voices-that is, they become intertextual. As teachers we may need to resist the urge to presume this knowledge of other texts and contexts that lead to a nuanced analysis. As an obvious example, a reference to suicide or infanticide may remind experienced readers of various characters and authors and texts: Hamlet, Sylvia Plath, Henry Scobie, Ernest Hemingway, Rebecca Harding Davis’ “Life in the Iron Mills,” Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Mother.” Many literary associations may be unfamiliar, and even if they are, that brings up a further impasse. My students and I (and dare I say any other readers?) are the ones projecting these assumptions into the lacunae between these panels, rather than actually analyzing the contexts most crucial to Tosha. Might we be vaguely “right” while making certain assumptions about her doubts and terrors? Probably–but as I ask “What’s in the gutter?”, the ethical contexts generally become vague or even remain inaccessible.

One should not immediately be dismissive of the use of “silence” in a text, and many readers will already know of Foucault’s dictum that “There is not one but many silences.” However, for writers who are still struggling with the nuances of academic discourse, such “silences” in the “gutter” can lead to a lot of vagueness and potential confusion, and in courses where the development of precise language is so very crucial, this surely matters. Maus is surely not an isolated example, and it is almost chatty compared to Persepolis or Stitches. For example, a pivotal sequence in Persepolis depicts Marjane’s visit to the jail cell of her beloved Uncle Anoosh on the eve of his execution for being a political dissident. During this full-page sequence of panels, the two are alone in his cell—and Marjane says not a word (69). In Stitches, Small is a told a devastating truth about his place in his family—and this is followed by eleven pages (often referred to as the “rain sequence”) in which not a single word appears (257-268).Of course, this silence is an intentional effect, and an interview with David Small suggests a crucial distinction about visual and verbal communication. He notes, “I like to say that images get straight inside us, bypassing all the guard towers. You often go to the movies and see people with tears streaming down their cheeks, but you don’t see this in libraries, not in my experience at least.” He adds, “If told in words—even if I could have—the story would have lost that visceral impact” (2). Small’s memoir seems to both confirm and challenge some of the suggestions made in the previously cited article from The CEA Forum about assigning reading for non-majors. The text allows for students to find “relevance” in Small’s depictions of family, alienation, trauma, therapy, imagination, and a text that is able to “bypass the guard towers” often gives credence to deeply felt personal narratives. It can be used as a way to move from a “visceral” text to the more verbally oriented texts often found in academic disciplines. Yet teachers still need to be attentive about the “transferable writing skills” that non-majors might learn from these crucial sequences from texts such as Stitches. To be direct, what can we ask students about what Marjane and David are thinking in the sequences mentioned above? If there are “vocabularies” for their dilemmas, how might one know them and comment on them?

So could I name a graphic novel which might be less “evasive,” which might employ “gutters” in a way that allows for a fuller discussion of ethical discourse? I would suggest Alison Bechdel’s acclaimed 2006 memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. The book itself is all about evasion after evasion, primarily about how a closeted gay father and lesbian daughter “speak” of their own sexuality. Both seem to “know” that the other’s public identity is a shadow-play, but for the greater part of the book neither ventures to speak directly of their presumptions–instead, we read of their mumbling and code words and knowing glances. Above all, father and daughter “speak” through books, some given as gifts that seem more like invitations for dialogue, others that are discussed in English courses, others used to suggest what cannot yet be said. Toward the end of the book, Bechdel becomes increasingly aware that these silences are not just awkward but damaging, and she resolves to speak out. A crucial exchange appears on pages 218-219 (see Image 2). In a panel near the top of the page 218, Alison is lying on the couch as her father approaches and asks her to help polish some silver. While in the kitchen they have yet another failed dialogue about the movie Cruising, and the scene could easily be read as a pair of missed chances—the chance for Alison to speak, and the chance for readers to know more of what Alison is really thinking. It should be noted that none of the four books I’ve mentioned use extended dialogues, and nor do the vast majority of graphic novels; often this choice isn’t a rejection of dialogue but simply a recognition that the visual format of most graphic texts simply does not leave much space for verbal exchanges. Also, while memoirs rely heavily on voices, the voices of Vladek Spiegelman, Taji Satrapi, the Small family, and Bruce Bechdel are generally terse and understated. The key difference is that the “gutters” of Fun Home are like over-flowing baskets of interior monologue and literary allusion. Neither of these terms is really adequate here. “Interior monologue” is a barren label for a memoir in which self-conscious over-writing appears on almost every page. Readers need to engage with lines such as “I was adrift on the high seas, but my course was becoming clear. It lay between the Scylla of my peers and the swirling, sucking Charybdis of my family” (213). These brief allusions are often paired with lengthy and direct quotations from writers such Proust, Fitzgerald, Wilde, Joyce, and so many others, which in turn may be contrasted with both images and text from movies, letters, album covers, news headlines, dictionary entries, and her own somewhat neurotic diary. The effect of these methods is that they allow for a much more substantial discussion of an ethical issue.


Image 2: Fun House

To be honest, my description of the previous dialogue was intentionally incomplete. Before the conversation starts, Bechdel adds a key reference. As her father is talking, Alison is reading a section of Kate Millett’s Flying, and this excerpt is quoted in full:

Jill sits across from me saying there is not enough opportunity for heroism over here. I am late coming into this mean old bar full of Americans. Too early for a martini but I have one anyway. Jill is eating a sandwich. Heroism is suspect, I say. She frankly wants to be heroic. “Admit it, you do too,“ she says. I do sometimes. Not now. Now it just seems deluded. Because she has said it out loud.

This brief excerpt from Millett introduces the themes underlying the strained conversation that follows: the desperate need to speak, the desire or fear of the “heroism” that this entails, the rising tension between “now” and not now,” the choppy declarations and the continued retreats into a veiled silence. All of these are given resonance, so that even Bruce Bechdel’s derisive “Snort!” becomes significant (219).

Non-majors who are becoming familiar with reading more complex literary texts can also learn a great deal about the form of an ethical argument or question simply by analyzing the ways in which Bechdel challenges the very idea of a “page.” In some ways, pages 100-101 are not that surprising: a splash page features a photograph overlaid by eight distinct text boxes containing questions, captions, and loose associations. The photograph is of a young man named Roy who had often done both child-care and landscaping for the family. Yet the underlying question is surely a resonant one: why would her father have taken—and kept—a photograph of Roy lying almost naked on a hotel bed? What was the father trying to reveal or conceal? What may she as an author now assume or reveal about her father’s semi-hidden past? The answers are neither immediate nor conclusive. Instead, the text boxes are arranged almost chaotically, both forcing and allowing a reader to create some sort of logical sequence—or a variety of sequences. In David Small’s terms, the image of Alison’s hand holding this picture does “bypass all the guard towers” and create a very “visceral” response while also using the text boxes to voice themes that echo throughout the book. As the “final” text box states, “In an act of prestidigitation typical of the way my father juggled his public appearance and private reality, the evidence is simultaneously hidden and revealed” (101). Bechdel provides a suggestive—but far from prescriptive—context for judging her father’s life and her own reactions, and this sort of context is quite helpful for writers who are still trying to learn academic discourse. The following is a writing question I use about Fun Home, one based loosely on the prompt that I use about The Dew Breaker:

One of the most pressing issues in contemporary society is that of being “silent.” What are some situations in which being “silent” develops into a complex ethical dilemma? Please refer to the choices of TWO or more people from Fun Home. How and why do they remain “silent?” What, if anything, do they reveal about their silence, how do they reveal it, and what conflicts arise from such revelations? Please make sure to refer to specific scenes or statements from Fun Home (and/or other texts you’ve read) and to explain their significance.

In this case, students have ample options besides projecting personal associations into the “gutters” of Fun Home. In academic terms, the students now have more than compelling visual imagery–they also have complex verbal contexts for the sort of investigation that one would hope they will engage in as they take Introduction to Literature. (Or as Spiegelman would say, they have “commix” to draw upon.) Whether the scenes from Bechdel rely on relatively straight-forward bits of narration or on more intertextual references, the students have a much fuller opportunity to write and to analyze, while also reading a very bold, timely and innovative text!

 “Deep Thinking” and Honest Questions

“There is no philosophical area that cannot potentially be given a graphic novel treatment” (49).
— from Jeff McLaughlin’s “Deep Thinking in Graphic Novels”

Perhaps I have wound up arguing that graphic novels are best at confronting ethical quandaries when they rely upon seemingly traditional fictional techniques such as dialogue and narration. If that does wind up to be the case, then that might prove to be unhelpful, since there are not many graphic novelists who use the densely allusive verbal references and echoes of Fun Home.8 Of course, those who prefer to use traditional prose texts in a Literature course can find ample support for that choice. One might start with Mark Kingwell’s claim that “On Cartesian principles, we cannot directly know the mind of another; but words printed on a page give us the best possible chance at coming close, better even than interacting with others” (5; italics added). It would seem obvious that graphic artists would soundly reject this premise, and the scholarly articles cited earlier generally presume that this notion of “the best possible chance” is exactly what graphic artists are trying to usurp. However, I was surprised by a comment from Scott McCloud about “gutters” and “closure.” As he states, “Closure in comics fosters an intimacy surpassed only by the written word, a silent, secret contract between the creator and audience” (69; italics added) Consider the various “gutters” that were discussed above. When Tosha turns to face the children, when Marjane sits silently in a jail cell, when David withdraws into his own drawings, when Alison’s attempt to speak is met with “Snort!,” there surely is an “intimacy” created. What can one say about moments? As Kingwell reminds us, this question may be merely speculative, since directly “knowing the mind” of another simply can’t happen. Yet we can at least glimpse a tentative map of that interior by reading what our students write, and if they can’t write much about Tosha’s last thoughts, for example, then perhaps that “intimacy” remains hesitant and amorphous; it is often one based primarily on personal assumptions rather than textual analysis.

What then might teachers keep in mind as we ask students to write about situations that demand a consideration of ethical issues while also denying readers many of the narrative techniques (such as dialogue, omniscient narration, interior monologue, allusion, etc…) that they may expect to find? If readers, especially those who may be still learning the basics of college-level academic discourse, must rely instead on a great deal of inference based on non-verbal cues, then what are some possible compromises that arise, and how might teachers work through these compromises? It might seem to be petty and even self-defeating to raise such challenges when I’ve already decided that graphic novels have much to contribute to the study of reading and writing–of course, one could just settle for the obvious disclaimer that there is no form/genre that lends itself to all types of writing assignments. Yet in discussions among fans and scholars of graphic novels, there remain nagging doubts, and students surely are not shy about sharing their own suspicions. During the sequence of lessons on Maus, I ask them to do an in-class assignment based on Daniel Correia’s article “A Novel Idea,” in which he asks students and teachers at the University of California at Santa Cruz for their thoughts about reading graphic novels in Literature courses. Most of the article’s commentators are supportive, and some of them even read graphic novels as their own academic declarations of independence. The students are also quick to note a section of the article in which a graduate student named David Namie expresses the reservations that he and some of his students had. As Correia explains:

“Namie admitted that his students found something lacking in the graphic novel he used for his course. ‘Although there wasn’t resistance to the idea of reading a graphic novel, there was the feeling that something wasn’t there,’ Namie said. ‘Students expect more substance or something more intellectual from traditional texts like Wuthering Heights.’” (4)

There are usually a few critical students who agree with him, but the obvious problem is that claims about “something lacking” or “something wasn’t there” or “something more intellectual” can sound suspiciously like the disengaged comments given by someone who doesn’t care for cricket or rap. I am not trying to shame Namie or my students here—I have been fumbling around with my own phrasing for awhile as well. So I have arrived at the tentative conclusion that this absent “something” is not about the five reasons that I mentioned at the beginning of the essay. It is not about literacy or identity or meta-narratives or visual culture or post-modernism–the elusive “something” seems to be the ethical dimensions of reading and writing about such texts.

For the many reasons that I outlined earlier, I will be teaching graphic novels again in ENG 30. I will keep in mind Jeff McLaughlin’s article, while also be questioning his basic assumption. There are fascinating things that one can find in the “gutters” of graphic texts, but a fully realized “examination of ethical issues” remains an elusive one. Of course, McLaughlin is careful to qualify his statement with the word “potentially”–and the “potential” of graphic novels to do so many others things is quite strong. When a graphic novel such as Fun Home allows for such a discussion, I will be glad to encourage it, but I will also be wary of assigning students to make such “examinations” of ethical dilemmas when I find myself having trouble doing so.



[1] Many writers and teachers have noted the inadequacy of this term. Many graphic “novels” are actually non-fiction memoirs, and others read more like novellas or short stories. Many have little similarity with more traditional definitions of the “novel.” Yet it remains the most commonly-used term to refer to texts such as Maus, so I will use it for convenience. For a fuller discussion of this issue, see Hatfield, “Defining Comics.”

[2] For a basic review of literacy issues, see Schwarz, “Expanding Literacies.”

[3] More specialized uses of graphic novels can be found in MacDonald, “Hottest Section in the Library,” and Smetana, “Using Graphic Novels.” Also see Redford, “Graphic Novels Welcome Everyone,” and Gerde and Foster, “X-Men Ethics.”

[4] For an overview, try Aldama’s Multicultural Comics and Royal, “Introduction.” For more focused discussions, see Boatwright, “Graphic Journeys” and Squire, “So Long As They Grow Out of It.”

[5] McCloud’s Understanding Comics is a classic tour of these innovations. Also see Almond, “Deconstructed—Chris Ware’s Innovation.”

[6] Courses that analyze visual culture are proliferating. Simply google “CUNY courses on visual culture” for a sampling. See Drucker, Graphesis for broader contexts.

[7] See Roeder, “Looking High and Low”; Chute, “Comics as Literature.”

[8] Readers might try Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia or the obscure Gemma Bovary by Posey Simmonds or even Radioactive: A Tale of Love and Fallout, Lauren Redniss’ stunning graphic biography of Marie Curie. Of course there remains Alan Moore’s classic V for Vendetta, which has enough allusions and speeches to keep a graduate seminar busy. Moore’s Watchmen is even more complex, and gives preferences to long-winded dialogues rather than subtle silences; as a colleague once remarked to me, this text doesn’t have “gutters,” it has canyons of highly self-conscious prose interspersed among the graphic passages. Yet these texts are the exceptions, and many recent graphic novels are featuring less and less dialogue and/or interior monologue.

Works Cited

Aldama, Frederick Luis, ed. Multicultural Comics: From Zap to Blue Beetle. U of Texas P, 2010. Print

Almond, Steve. “Deconstructed–Chris Ware’s Innovation.” New Republic 13 (Dec. 2012): 1-3. Print.

Amicucci, Ann. N. et al. “‘You are asking me to do more than just read a book’: Student Reading in a General Literature Course.” The CEA Forum 44, 1 (Winter/Spring 2015): 1-29. Print.

Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Houghton Mifflin, 2006. Print.

Boatright, Michael D. “Graphic Journeys: Graphic Novels’ Representations of Immigrant Experiences.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 53 (March 2010): 468–476. Print.

Chute, Hillary. “Comics as Literature: Reading Graphic Narrative.” PMLA 123, 2 (2008): 452–465. Print.

Program in Narrative Medicine. Columbia University Medical Center. Accessed 15 Jan. 2016.

Correia, Daniel. 2007. “A Novel Idea.” City on a Hill Press Accessed 20 Dec. 2015.

Dandicat, Edwidge. The Dew Breaker. Vintage, 2004. Print.

Drucker, Joanna. Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production. Harvard UP. 2014. Print.

Gee, James Paul. Social Linguistics and Literacies. Routledge, 1996. Print.

Gerde, Virginia W. and R. Spencer Foster. “X-Men Ethics: Using Comic Books to Teach Business Ethics.” Journal of Business Ethics Vol. 77, No. 3 (Feb., 2008): 245-258. Print

“Getting Graphic: Using Graphic Novels in the Language Arts Classroom.” Accessed 12 Aug 2014.

Hatfield, Charles. “Defining Comics in the Classroom.” Teaching the Graphic Novel. Stephen E. Tabachnick, ed. Modern Language Association, 2009. Print.

MacDonald, Heidi. “How Graphic Novels Became the Hottest Section in the Library.” 3 May 2013. Web.

McCloud, Scott. “Blood in the Gutter.” Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Harper, 1993. Print.

McLaughlin, Jeff. “Deep Thinking in Graphic Novels.” The PhilosophersMagazine Vol. 60 (2013): 44-50. Web.

Nussbaum, Martha C. “Compassionate Citizenship.” Commencement Address. Georgetown University. Accessed 15 Aug. 2014.

Redford, Kyle. “Graphic Novels Welcome Everyone into the Reading Conversation.” The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity. Accessed 25 Aug 2014.

Roeder, Katherine. “Looking High and Low at Comic Art.” American Art. 22, 1 (Spring 2008): 2-9. Print.

Rorty, Richard. Essays on Heidegger and Others: Philosophical Papers, Vol. 2. Cambridge UP, 1991. Print.

Rothfork, John. “Post-Modern Ethics: Richard Rorty and Michael Polanyi.” Southern Humanities Review 29.1 (1995): 15-48. Print.

Royal, Derek Parker. “Introduction: Coloring America: Multi-Ethnic Engagements with Graphic Narrative.” MELUS (Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States) 32 (2007): 1-16. Print.

Schwarz, Gretchen. “Expanding Literacies Through Graphic Novels.” The English Journal 95 (2006): 58-64. Print.

Small, David. Interview. Accessed 15 Jan 2016.

David.Smetana, Linda et al. “Using Graphic Novels in the High School Class: Engaging Deaf Students with a New Genre.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy (2009): 228–240.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus: A Survivors Tale. Pantheon, 1986. Print

Speigelman., Art. Meta-Maus: A Look Inside A Modern Classic. Pantheon, 2011. Print.

Squier, Susan. “So Long as They Grow Out of It: Comics, the Discourse of Developmental Normalcy, and Disability.” Journal of Medical Humanities 29 (2008): 71-88. Print.

Wallace, David Foster. “Joseph Frank’s Dostoyevsky.” Consider the Lobster and Other Essays. Back Bay Books, 2006. Print.

Wiesel, Elie. Night. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. Print.

Author Bio

Gene McQuillan is a Professor of English at Kingsborough Community College (the City University of New York) where he has taught since 1993. His writings and teaching have often focused on various forms of non-fiction, and he has published articles on travelogues, natural history, memoirs, and graphic novels. He has also published a series of articles on contemporary narratives about the Human Genome Project. In 2006, he served as the President of the Mid-Atlantic Popular/Culture Association (MAPACA). He is currently the co-facilitator of a FIG (Faculty Interest Group) at KCC that focuses on “Graphic Novels, Cartoons, and Comics.”

Reference Citation

McQuillan, Gene. “Looking in the ‘Gutter’ for Ethical Questions: Reading and Writing about Graphic Novels.” 2018. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy vol 5. no 1.

McQuillan, G. (2018) Looking in the ‘gutter’ for ethical questions: Reading and writing about graphic novels. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 5(1).

“This Cabal Guy Could Be Right”: Numeric Correlations in Maury Yeston’s In the Beginning

Leonard Vandegrift
Cal Poly Pomona
Pomona, California, USA


The study of gematria and isopsephy, the numeric conversion of Hebrew and Greek words, yields an abundant harvest of biblical insight. Though applying this method to more secular literature is rare, we have a unique set of circumstances in Maury Yeston’s musical In the Beginning that renders its use appropriate. Derived from Hebrew and Greek, the names of the show’s principal characters can be converted to numeric values, all of which share at least one of three common factors. Moreover, the names are often connected thematically, and their factors reflect key elements in the first five books of the Bible.

Along with contributions from fellow collaborators Larry Gelbart and David Hahn, Yeston appears to be the most likely candidate to have included these numeric features, the intention of which is expressed in the words of the antagonist Romer, who draws particular attention to Kabbalah’s use of numbers: “There is something about the number forty. This Cabal guy could be right” (2.4.65; emphasis added). The character only skims the surface of the number 40’s implications and misses entirely the deeper meanings that further reflection offers, but having drawn some attention to the matter, the script seems to have left the question open for any observant director, performer, or audience member familiar with such things and with sufficient interest to investigate further. In the case of this article’s author, his background in theatre, literary criticism, and gematria provided the key to unlock a rich subtext of the writing that until now had lain otherwise dormant and awaiting discovery.

Keywords: Gematria, Isopsephy, Number, Numeric Value, Standard Value, Ordinal Value, In the Beginning, Hebrew, Greek, Musical Theatre

Maury Yeston’s In the Beginning has been described as a work in progress that is not yet ready for a Broadway stage. One critic holding such an opinion is Richard Connema who says the show is better suited for regional theatre. However, Connema also compliments certain aspects of the production he saw at the Willows in 2000:

Mr. Yeston has fashioned an old fashion Broadway musical with toe tapping songs, romantic ballets (sic), songs of hope, and vaudeville routines . . . The score does have some beautiful romantic songs . . . “Till the End of Time” . . . is lovely[,] and . . . “No Man’s as Wonderful” . . . is one of the most memorable moments of the show.

Most of Connema’s praise is reserved for the music and represents the view of much of the industry. Stephen Sondheim, for instance, named “New Words” one of “the songs he wishes he had written himself” (Pogrebin E1). Likewise, in an interview with Pat Cerasaro, Yeston says that Alan Jay Lerner decided to mentor him on the merits of that song alone, and in a review of The Maury Yeston Songbook, Matthew Murray declares that “You’re There, Too” is “perhaps the most perfect expression of Yeston’s talent . . .” Consequently, most admiration for the show is based on its score.

Not so much ado, however, has been made over the book, which was originally drafted by Larry Gelbart and later revised by David Hahn. Speaking about a 2001 production, which included Hahn’s revisions, Connema admits to being somewhat entertained by the writing: “There is some good material here with zingers and corny routines.” Less amused, however, is Albert Williams, who flatly states of the History Loves Company iteration, “. . . what [the show] sorely lacks right now is a good book.” Though Yeston does not address the writing per se, he does classify the show as one of his “misses.” In the interview with Cerasaro, he attributes the show not being Broadway-ready to very talented people not sharing a common vision. Citing Peter Stone, he says,

“the reason shows don’t click sometimes is because everyone on the team at the same time isn’t necessarily doing the same show.” I think that’s very true. That would be true of a number things. Well, in that particular show I think we all wanted to get a very funny take on the Bible. I think everyone just wasn’t on the same page in terms of the tone of the show.

Yeston’s sentiments are reflected in Hahn’s comments about the book, which foretell the show’s enduring struggles to be deemed Broadway-worthy: “No one has ever left a musical saying, ‘Wow! What a book!’ . . . You never hum the book. But if a musical doesn’t work, you blame the book” (Price 2E).

Despite Yeston’s brilliant compositions, Gelbart’s mastery of comic writing, and Hahn’s worthy efforts at revision, we can rely on the critics’ assessment that In the Beginning is not yet ready for Broadway success and requires further work before it can be received as a truly great show. There are, however, reasons to reconsider its status as a “miss,” primarily due to a book that never measured up to the score. In fact, there is evidence of something concealed in the text that evokes the themes of the show in a way that is entirely unlooked for. This becomes clear when we apply two methods. Commonly employed in the interpretation of literature, the first is to analyze the meanings of characters’ names, most of which are derived from either Hebrew or Greek in this case, and then consider how they correlate thematically. The second is used in biblical interpretation and involves calculating the numeric values of each Hebrew or Greek name using gematria or ispopsephy and then considering any correlations between the factors thereof. In the end, the application of these methods will reveal that the show, while not exactly Broadway-ready, has received somewhat short shrift critically and merits more consideration as a piece of theatre that has not been fully understood or appreciated.

The Fundamentals of Letters and Their Numeric Values

Analyzing the meanings of names in fiction and how they might represent certain themes is a common practice in interpreting literature. However, as part of such an analysis, using gematria and isopsephy—that is, converting Hebrew and Greek names and words to numeric expressions, noting any common factors between them, and deriving meaning from such correspondences—is rare outside biblical exegesis. Still, the textual conditions present in In the Beginning are ideal for viewing the show through such a lens as most of the characters’ names are derived from the biblical languages. While the use of these methods does not necessarily lead to a final judgment on which interpretations of the story are exclusively true, we can see with a high degree of certainty how particular interpretations have their foundations in the numeric values that sets and subsets of names share.

To arrive at a firmer understanding of how these values are determined, we need to review the foundations of gematria and isopsephy. As most of the characters’ names are Hebrew in origin, a Hebrew alphabet and numeric values table is included below.

Table 1

Numeric Values of the Hebrew Alphabeta

Name Letter Standard Ordinal Name Letter Standard Ordinal
Aleph א 1 1 Lamed ל 30 12
Bet ב 2 2 Mem מ 40 13
Gimel ג 3 3 Nun נ 50 14
Dalet ד 4 4 Samekh ס 60 15
Heh ה 5 5 Ayin ע 70 16
Vav ו 6 6 Pey פ 80 17
Zayin ז 7 7 Tsadi צ 90 18
Chet ח 8 8 Quf ק 100 19
Tet ט 9 9 Resh ר 200 20
Yod י 10 10 Shin ש 300 21
Kaph כ 20 11 Tav ת 400 22

Source: Alter, Michael J. Why the Torah Begins with the Letter Beit. Aronson, 1998, p. 8.
Munk, Michael L. The Wisdom in the Hebrew Alphabet: The Sacred Letters as a Guide to Jewish Deed and Thought. Mesorah, 2010, p. 42.
Reproduced from The Wisdom in the Hebrew Alphabet by Michael L. Munk with permission of the copyright holders, ArtScroll / Mesorah Publications, Ltd.
a. Those interested in the Greek alphabet and the corresponding values of each letter may refer to the appendix.

As reflected in the numeric value columns above, each of the 22 Hebrew letters has standard and ordinal values assigned to it. In the case of standard values, letters are assigned numbers based on succeeding decimal places increasing from ones to tens to hundreds. In the case of ordinal values, the numbers assigned reflect the placement of the letter within the alphabet. With this in mind, consider the following example of how Hebrew words and their numeric values combine to produce insights and interpretations that go well beyond the simple meaning of the words themselves.

Table 2

Words Numerically Equivalent to the Word for God

Name/Word Hebrew Translation Standard Ordinal
El אֵל God 31 13
Al אַל‭ ‬ No/Not 31 13
Lo’ לֹא No/Not 31 13

Source: Strong, James. The Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Revised by John Kohlenberger and James Swanson, rev. ed., Zondervan, 2001, p. 387; p. 3773.

In the first row, we see the word for “God” transliterated in English and spelled in Hebrew. Likewise, we see that the standard value is van-hebrew-equations-1 and the ordinal is van-hebrew-equations-2. By looking at the two values together, we recognize that the word’s standard and ordinal values are numeric reflections of each other as the first calculates to 31 and the second to 13. We may also note that both are prime.

If we consider this word and its numeric values in light of other Hebrew words that have the same values, we begin to see connections between them that would not otherwise be apparent. In the case of those listed, when we reflect on how they relate, we are struck by the synchronicities among them. As the Hebrew words for “no” and “not” have exactly the same standard and ordinal values as the word for “God,” we may conclude that, without God, there is only negation, and no one and nothing can exist outside the context of a divine creator.

Gematria and isopsephy are esoteric means of interpreting the Bible and not widely employed. Such methods are even more rare for interpreting texts originated in English. In the case of In the Beginning, however, we have a unique set of circumstances in which most of the principal characters have been given Hebrew or Greek names. Therefore, we are able to calculate both their standard and ordinal values and determine whether any numeric relationships exist. In some cases, we can even translate a name from one biblical language to another, calculate its value, and note numeric correspondences. After converting all the names into numbers, we find that each value can be derived using 11, 13, or 40 as a factor. As Yeston, Gelbart, and Hahn all contributed to the work, it is difficult to surmise exactly which character was named by whom, but the fact that all ten names correspond numerically indicates that this feature of the text is intentional.

Yeston’s influence on the text seems very likely as he has the appropriate educational background to use gematria as described. As Mary Kalfatovic reveals in Contemporary Musicians, Yeston attended Hebrew school in his youth, and his grandfather was a cantor in a synagogue (251). She also says he taught religion at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania (252). Additionally, Sarah Douglas, the vice president of Abram Artists Agency, writes in private email correspondence, “It is perhaps not generally known that Mr. Yeston attended an Orthodox Jewish Yeshiva for the first 10 years of his education—learning the Hebrew and English alphabets simultaneously at the age of 5. That education did indeed include Biblical studies, Commentary, Mishnah, Gemmorah, folklore, a smattering of Gemmatria and all other manner of Hebraic learnedness.” Gelbart and Hahn possibly contributed to naming the characters, too, but there is little evidence to suggest that they had the requisite background to coordinate the names numerically. In fact, just three principal characters retained their original names from Gelbart’s initial draft to Hahn’s final—that is, Avi, Arielle, and Romer (Dietz 338; Williams; Martin H10). During the intervening years, only Yeston remained a constant on the project as its creative team changed from production to production and its characters developed in the revision process (Dietz 338; Williams; Martin H10).

The Number 13

We will begin this analysis with the names of characters whose values either equal 13 or are multiples thereof as they provide the thematic foundation on which the rest of the story is based. There may be more than one interpretation of how these characters correlate, but the evidence is strong that they have been named according to certain themes. The names, along with their values and factors, are summarized in the following table.

Table 3

Names of Characters Whose Values Share 13 as a Factor

Name Hebrew Translation Value Factors
Avi אָבִי My Father 13 13 x 1
Ben בֵּֽן Son 52 13 x 4
Zymah זִמָּה Wickedness 52 13 x 4
Romer/Romaa רומא Rome 247 13 x 19

Source: Strong, James. The Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Revised by John Kohlenberger and James Swanson, rev. ed., Zondervan, 2001, p. 1467; p. 1481; p. 1495.
Waldstein, A. S. English-Hebrew Dictionary. Mizpah, 1939, p. 443.
a. Though Romer serves as antagonist to Avi’s protagonist, he fits the discussion best in the sections covering the numbers 11 and 40.

It may be too much to hope that a direct relationship exists between all names that share the same factor. However, many of the characters’ names seem to have been chosen based on both their meaning and numeric correspondence. Perhaps the best examples are Ben and Avi. On the one hand, we note the thematic connection in that the former’s name means “Son” and the latter’s “My Father.” On the other, we see the numeric association (Avi = 13 x 1 and Ben = 13 x 4). Taken together, the two correspondences are compelling features of the text that suggest a conscious decision in storytelling (see fig. 1).


Fig. 1. Chart depicting numeric and thematic relationships between Avi, Ben, Zymah, Romer, and Leviticus 16.10

Even correlations within the biblical literature can be called on to support the conclusion that gematria was used to select character names. In the case of Avi, who is hiding his true identity as Cain, we find a correlation with Genesis 4.1: “And she conceived and bore Cain…” (The Interlinear Bible). If we calculate the value of this passage, we find it is a multiple of 13 (or 13 x 124 = 1,612). Also, Cain’s genealogy calculates to 2,223 (or 13 x 171) (see table 4).

Table 4

The Cain Line of Names

Name Value
Adam 45
Cain 160
Enoch 84
Irad 284
Mehujael 95
Methushael 777
Lamech 90
Jabal 42
Jubal 48
Tubal Cain 598
Total  13 x 171 = 2,223

Source: Bullinger, Ethelbert W. Number in Scripture: Its Supernatural Design and Spiritual Significance. Martino, 2011, p. 207.

As the number 13 is so well represented in the record of Cain’s birth and genealogy, the name “Avi,” which calculates to 13, seems a fitting alias.

Understanding the numeric connection between Avi and Cain, as well as between Avi and Ben, helps us also see Avi’s connection to Zymah, the character representing God. Like Ben, Zymah’s name calculates to 52 (or 13 x 4). As the Hebrew word from which the name Zymah derives means “Wickedness,” diverse opinions on the authorial intent behind the name could be offered. On the surface, one might wonder if the name is meant to express a Gnostic view of the Old Testament God—that is, the Demiurge that created matter, which, according to Gnostic thought, was inherently evil (MacRae 258; Powell 230). This is possible, but the use of gematria, combined with Romer’s assertion that “[t]his Cabal guy could be right,” suggests a more direct relationship to Kabbalistic tradition than an indirect one to Gnosticism (2.4.65). Also, while Kabbalah does parallel Gnostic doctrines, it does not go so far as to accept the premise that matter was produced from an evil source (Ginzberg 477).

A more consistent view is that, like Avi, Zymah himself is a scapegoat who bears the “wickedness” of immature humanity as represented by the members of the tribe. In fact, this interpretation can be supported both numerically and thematically. In Leviticus 16.10, we read the following: “And the goat [ha sa`iyr] on which the lot for a scapegoat [`aza’zel] fell shall be caused to stand living before Jehovah to make atonement by it, to send it away for a scapegoat into the wilderness.” The Hebrew word for “the goat” calculates to 585 (or 13 x 45) (see fig. 1). Also, though not a multiple of 13, we find that both the name Cain and the Hebrew word for “scapegoat” calculate to the ordinal value 43.

We can see a clear connection between the number 13, the theme of the scapegoat, and how they apply specifically to Avi/Cain, but how exactly do they relate to Zymah? The answer is to be found in Romer and Lydia’s frequent refrain of who is to blame for their misfortunes, a question invariably followed by Zymah’s appearance or a veiled reference to him. Below are instances in which this is employed most clearly:

  1. After being expelled from the garden, Romer says, “I want to know whose fault it was” (1.3.11). Lydia and the group point to Adam, Eve, and the serpent when Zymah enters with the intention of teaching the tribe to hunt and gather.
  2. In the flood aftermath, Lydia asks, “Who’s [sic] fault is it?” (1.8.37). After some tribal infighting and delusion about the garden returning, Zymah appears again, this time to teach them the principles of agriculture.
  3. During the drought scene, Romer superstitiously identifies Avi’s son as the cause of the tribe’s suffering. Sarcastically, Ben responds by leading the group in their ritual chant: “Avi’s fault. Avi’s fault” (1.10.48). If we refer back to the translation of Avi’s name, we see the pattern with Zymah repeated: “My Father’s fault. My Father’s fault.”

On the one hand, we see how Avi represents Zymah, the Father of All Things, and the responsibility he shoulders for the tribe’s welfare. On the other, we observe Avi perverting this responsibility into blame and unconsciously shifting it from Zymah to himself when he indicates that Romer may be right (1.10.48). Because he believes the group’s suffering is a direct result of God’s judgment on him, Avi offers himself as a scapegoat, providing for their desire to blame someone for the troubles they experience along the path to maturity. The scenes cited above reinforce the various associations discussed in that Avi (13 x 1) represents Zymah (13 x 4). Likewise, both take on the role of “the goat” (13 x 45) assigned to bear the collective guilt of others (see fig. 1).

When Avi and Zymah appear alone together in the final act, their identification with each other is completed and theatrically most obvious. In this moment, Avi realizes who Zymah is and, recognizing he is quite literally “meeting his maker,” prepares to be struck dead. When Zymah corrects his assumption on this, Avi explains his reason for thinking it in the first place:

AVI. You already took everything I love.

Upon hearing this, Zymah denies taking responsibility for Avi’s misfortune and reverses the running theme of bearing such burdens for others:

ZYMAH. I took? Well, I like that. Romer blackmailed you and you caved in. How does

that become my fault? You want your son and your wife, go fight for them. (2.8.75)

Avi’s persisting belief that he is being punished for his crime against Abel is revealed to be an unjust scapegoating of God. It is during this conversation that Avi finally realizes Arielle is justified in her faith that all things have a purpose and it is his responsibility to finish strong in the life he has been blessed with, despite his past wrongdoing.

The Number 11

If the evidence informing these interpretations ended with the foregoing correspondences, the results could be coincident. However, what we have seen is only the beginning, so please consider the following as further evidence of authorial intent.

Table 5

Names of Characters Whose Values Share 11 as a Factor

Name Hebrew/Greek Translation Value Factors
Lydia/Lud לוּד Strife 22 (ord)a 11 x 2
Arielle אֲרִיאֵל Lion of God/Jerusalem 242 11 x 22
Zeke/Zechariah זְכַרְיָה The LORD Remembers 242 11 x 22
Dottie/Da’ati דַּעְתִּיb My Knowledge 484 11 x 44
Romer/Rhomaios Ῥωμαῖος Roman 1,221 11 x 111

Source: Strong, James. The Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Revised by John Kohlenberger and James Swanson, rev. ed., Zondervan, 2001, p. 1476; p. 1491; p. 1495; p. 1519; p. 1641.

a. Ordinal values are distinguished by the abbreviation ord.

b. This spelling of Da’ati may be found in Proverbs 22.17 with particular attention to the Masoretic Text (MT).

The set in Table 5 can easily be subdivided according to character relationship (e.g., Zeke and Dottie). In other cases, such relationships are not immediately apparent but, nonetheless, present. For instance, Arielle’s and Zeke’s values are identical (11 x 22 = 242). This suggests that Arielle, whose name means “Lion of God” and refers to the city of Jerusalem (Isa. 29.1-2), is in some way related to Zeke, whose full name Zechariah means “The LORD Remembers.” These characters rarely interact, so the identical values of their names seem at first coincident. However, further investigation into the characters, as well as into the themes that emerge through them, reveals much.

Both, for instance, are staunch advocates of Avi. While Romer and Lydia continuously blame him for the tribe’s suffering, Arielle and Zeke repeatedly demonstrate their trust in him. Arielle, for example, seems to see Avi as more than just himself, apparently perceiving the divine through him. On the one hand, her song “Is Someone Out There” foreshadows Avi’s imminent advent onto the scene. On the other, we are keenly aware that she is yearning to understand herself and the world outside the context of the garden. She wants to know if someone transcending her physical experience is guiding events and if she can depend on that someone now that the garden and its low-hanging fruit are gone. Avi’s introduction to the story appears to answer these questions on some level, and Arielle seems vaguely aware that he represents a response to her previous petition to the unknown “Someone Out There.” Perhaps seeing Avi as a pledge of her initial act of faith, Arielle becomes more and more convinced that there is a divine purpose to the group’s trials, never losing faith that this purpose is for their benefit. Therefore, even when learning that Avi is Cain, she continues to see the good in him, apparently looking past his recently revealed identity to what he represents on a divine level.

Zeke demonstrates a level of trust similar to Arielle’s. Though his lines are few, he spends a good number of them defending Avi and his judgment. When Avi is first introduced to the tribe, for instance, Zeke immediately requests that he join them, setting off a heated debate over whether he should be included (1.5.23). In other examples, Zeke seconds Avi’s aversion to following the people of Abraham into Egypt (1.10.49), and when Romer begins to blame Avi for the tribe being sealed in an Egyptian tomb, Zeke jumps to his defense (2.2.61). Even after learning Avi is actually Cain returning with the Ten Commandments, or what Romer perceives to be only a bag of broken rocks, Zeke counters that they are rocks “with writing on them” (2.9.77).

In addition to trust, another thematic connection between Zeke and Arielle exists. Bearing the name of the “eleventh” minor prophet, Zeke seemingly takes on such an office when seeking answers through Arielle on two occasions. On the first, he asks the reason for the drought (1.10.48). On the second, he inquires how crossing the Jordan is different from the tribe’s previous wanderings, a question echoed by others as well (2.9.79). These examples of inquiring through the medium of Arielle, who represents Jerusalem, very much parallel a prophet making inquiries at the house of God.

Finally, a curious correlation with the biblical literature should be considered in the case of Arielle and Zeke. While “Arielle” is used as another name for the city of Jerusalem, it also refers to one of the exiles returning from the Babylonian captivity as recorded in Ezra 8.16: “And I sent for Eliezer, for Ariel, for Shemaiah, and for Elnathan, and for Jarib, and for Elnathan, and for Nathan, and for Zechariah, and for Meshullam, head men; also for Joiarib, and for Elnathan, men of understanding (emphasis added).” There are several curious points about this passage. First, the list includes the names of both characters under observation. What compounds this curiosity is that the name Ariel appears only six times in scripture—five times in Isaiah 29, referring to Jerusalem, and once in Ezra 8, referring to one of the chief men. Were Ariel’s and Zeke’s names selected from this list because their values are identical and the only two that factor to 11? The fact that there are also exactly eleven men named and that the entire passage totals to a multiple of 11 (11 x 511 = 5,621) suggests that someone was indeed aware and meticulously selected these names for thematic purposes (see fig. 2).


Fig. 2. Chart depicting numeric and thematic relationships between Arielle, Zeke, Dottie, Romer, Lydia, and Ezra 8.16

As multiples of 11, the values of Romer’s and Lydia’s names are not as closely aligned as those of Arielle and Zeke. However, they bear special recognition. Romer means “Roman” in German (Martini 352). In Greek, “Roman” is translated as Rhomaios and has a numeric value of 1,221 (or 11 x 111). The Greek name Lydia corresponds to the Hebrew name Lud, which has an ordinal value of 22 (or 11 x 2). In both languages, the meaning of her name is similar (“Strife” in Hebrew and “Travail” in Greek).

Allegorically, Romer and Lydia’s relationship seems to parallel that of the western and eastern regions of the Roman Empire. Lydia was a kingdom in the ancient world whose borders were within what is now the modern state of Turkey.  In antiquity, it eventually became a province of the Persian and Greek Empires and was finally bequeathed to Rome by the last king of the Attalid dynasty (Herodotus 51; Freeman xvi-xvii; Allen 84).  In other words, the Attalid Kingdom, which seems related to the character Lydia, was legally transferred to Rome, which is clearly represented by Romer.  The ease with which Romer acquires Lydia as his wife parallels Rome’s acquisition of the Attalid Kingdom and stands in direct contrast to the resistance he faces in Arielle, who represents Judea’s capital city Jerusalem struggling bitterly to remain an independent state married to God.

These interpretations can be extended to include the Christian conversion of Rome, too. In the final scene, Romer claims the Ten Commandments as “Romer’s Rules” (2.9.79). On the one hand, he seems to undergo a kind of conversion to Avi’s (or “My Father’s”) code of ethics. On the other, he supplants the Father and declares the code his own. Just as papal Rome is often accused of usurping God’s position, Romer seems ready to supersede Zymah and his chosen agent Avi and to use the Commandments for his own personal gain.

This reading is further supported by the Romer-Lydia connection. Thematically, Romer has obvious ties to Rome, including its imperial and papal manifestations. Less obvious, however, is Lydia’s relationship to Rome ecclesiastically. During the imperial period, the region once named after the former kingdom of Lydia and ultimately given to Rome came to be known as Asia Minor and included the seven churches mentioned in Revelation (1.4). The part the region played in church history provides a clear connection between Lydia and the churches most important during the apostolic period.

Later in the 4th century, Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. Following his defeat of Licinius and becoming sole emperor, he united the western half of the empire with the eastern (MacMullen 138). As a result, Rome in the West (as represented by Romer) was united with Asia Minor in the East (as represented by Lydia). In so doing, both formed a political and ecclesiastical corpus that would dominate most of the known world, a development very much reflected in the ambitions of the tribe’s power-couple, Romer and Lydia.

The Number 40

The final value addressed in this paper is 40. This value is explicitly highlighted in the text when Romer says, “There is something about the number forty. This Cabal guy could be right. I mean, the flood was forty days and forty nights. It’s been forty years in the desert. And Moses has been up on that mountain for how long? Forty days and forty nights. There’s something fishy in it” (2.4.65). The fact that Romer invokes the number 40 as one invested with Kabbalistic implications strongly supports the view that the characters’ names have been selected because they correlate numerically. In light of this, consider the following names, all of which either calculate to 40 or are multiples thereof.

Table 6

Names of Characters Whose Values Share 40 as a Factor

Name Hebrew/Greek Translation Value Factors
Lydia/Lud לוּד Strife 40 40 x 1
Romer/Roma רומא Rome 40 (ord) 40 x 1
Aaron אַהֲרֹן a Light Bringer 40 (ord) 40 x 1
Mavis Μαβής Purple 40 (ord) 40 x 1
Cain קַיִן Possession 160 40 x 4
Ben/Huios υἱός Son 680 40 x 17

Source: Spilias, Thanasis. Greek Phrasebook and Dictionary. Edited by Brigitte Ellemor, 5th ed., Lonely Planet, 2013, p. 229.
Strong, James. The Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Revised by John Kohlenberger and James Swanson, rev. ed., Zondervan, 2001, p. 1469; p. 1519; p. 1561; p. 1650.
Waldstein, A. S. English-Hebrew Dictionary. Mizpah, 1939, p. 443.

a. This particular spelling of Aaron may be found in Numbers 16.50 (MT).

Here we see a much closer connection between Lydia (as represented by the standard value of her Hebrew name Lud) and Romer (as represented by the ordinal value of his namesake “Rome” spelled in Hebrew). The fact that “Rome” calculates to 40 speaks directly to Romer’s conclusion that there is “something fishy in it” (2.4.65). Practically all the examples he lists of the number evoke cataclysm, judgment, and testing, a common understanding of how the number is applied biblically. This is ironic as Romer and Lydia themselves are so often the agents of trouble, whether they are oppressing the tribe in the town, which is ultimately washed away by the flood, or leading them to Egypt, where they are all enslaved.

In fact, Romer and Lydia’s destructiveness is mirrored in Avi’s alter ego Cain, so it is not surprising that the name Cain is also a multiple of 40. And yet, we can see Arielle’s purpose even in Cain’s fall when we realize that the standard value of his name correlates with the ordinal value of Aaron. In the first act, Avi (“My Father”) brings Aaron (“Light Bringer”) into the tribe. In the second, a reformed Cain brings them the light of Torah (see fig. 3). In the numeric correlation between the names “Cain” and “Aaron” then, we see that the number 40 is not confined to expressing simply trial and testing, but also two other themes—that of bringing forth children through the bodies of their parents and bringing forth good fruit through a spirit governed by God.


Fig. 3. Chart depicting numeric and thematic relationships between Lydia, Romer, Ben, Mavis, Cain, Aaron, and Exodus 20.3-17

For one, the theme of bringing forth children is expressed by 40 in that the number reflects the average length of pregnancy in terms of weeks. Likewise, the Talmud applies the number to the 40th day of gestation, which marks the transition to fetal viability, whereas prior to this, “the semen . . . is only a mere fluid” (The Babylonian Talmud, b. Yev. 69b). Therefore, the number 40 is understood as applying to the duration of time leading to something brought into being, whether an embryo on its 40th day, a newborn in its 40th week, or even a nation in its 40th year.

Moreover, when we reflect on the fact that Ben (“Son”) and Avi (“My Father”) are thematically connected to birth and that Ben’s name in Greek (Huios) and Avi’s original name Cain share the factor of 40, we are all the more impressed with such authorial attention to detail. Even with these realizations, however, we do not appreciate the fuller scope of this vision until we recognize that the number 13 is connected to 40. In other words, the 13th letter of the Hebrew alphabet is Mem and has a standard value of 40. With this in mind, compare the following names and factors in the table below.

Table 7

Avi/Cain and Ben

Name Factors Name Factors
Avi 13 x 1 Cain 40 x 4
Ben (Hebrew) 13 x 4 Ben (Greek) 40 x 17

Here we see that Ben, whose name means “Son,” and Avi, whose name means “My Father” and who is otherwise known as Cain, share the factors 13 and 40. This correlation not only punctuates the relationship between the two characters’ names, but also further develops the theme of begetting and birth (see fig. 4).


Fig. 4. Chart depicting numeric and thematic relationships between Ben, Avi, Cain, and Mem (13th letter in Hebrew with a standard value of 40)

The related theme of bringing forth good fruit through a spirit governed by God is revealed when we consider how the use of the number 40 reflects the show’s literary progenitor—that is, the Bible and, more specifically, the Ten Commandments (see fig. 3). The original title of In the Beginning was 1–2–3–4–5 (Kalfatovic 253). In one sense, this sequence of numbers relates to the first five books of the Bible. However, its significance runs much deeper than this in that it suggests a factorial equation of all five numbers (i.e., 1 x 2 x 3 x 4 x 5 = 120). The number 120 is divisible by 40 and can be read as a multiple thereof (40 x 3 = 120). With this in mind, we may recall that Moses lived until the age of 120 and his life was divided into three periods of 40 years each. At the age of 40, he fled Egypt (Acts 7.23; The Midrash, Ex. R. i.27), at 80 he returned to lead Israel out of bondage (Exod. 7.7), and at 120 he died (Deut. 34.7). This may seem just an interesting coincidence to some, but when we learn that the Ten Commandments themselves can be calculated using 40, 80, and 120 as factors, we discover a compelling numeric relationship between the Commandments (Exod. 20. 3-17) and the life of Moses. With this in mind, consider the following table, which accounts for the individual value of each commandment and the sum total.

Table 8

The Value of the Ten Commandments

Commandment Value
I 696
II 12,573
III 4,451
IV 17,303
V 2,783
VI 729
VII 562
VIII 486
IX 1,522
X 4,855
Total 45,960

Source: The Interlinear Bible. General Editor, Jay P. Green, Sr., 2nd ed., Hendrickson, 1985.
McGough, Richard. “The Holographic Decalogue.” The Bible Wheel, Accessed 14 Nov. 2014.

As a complete set, the Commandments may be divided by either 40 or 120; subdivided from I to III and IV to X, they may be divided by 40 and 80 respectively. The relevant factors and divisions are summarized in the following table.

Table 9

The Ten Commandments: Divisible by 40, 80, and 120

Commandments Factors Value
I-X 40 x 1,149 45,960
I-X 120 x 383 45,960
I-III 40 x 443 17,720
IV-X 80 x 353 28,240

 Source: McGough, Richard. “The Holographic Decalogue.” The Bible Wheel, Accessed 14 Nov. 2014.

The numeric significance of the Ten Commandments goes far deeper than what we can develop here. However, we can easily discern from the original title of the show read as a factorial equation, from the prevalence of 40 as a factor in certain characters’ names, and from Romer’s Kabbalistic invocation of the number that In the Beginning correlates with the Commandments and the life of Moses on a highly profound level.1 More specifically, we can see in Avi’s response to the Commandments a genuine conversion experience in which the spirit of a lost soul bears fruit once it becomes subject to the law of God.

A Possible Connection Between 11, 13, and 40

The foregoing evidence demonstrates how all the names of the principal characters are divided into sets sharing 11, 13, or 40 as a factor. Depending on whether names are calculated using standard or ordinal values, a name can fall into more than one of the numeric categories represented (e.g., the factors 11 and 40 are reflected in the ordinal and standard values of Lydia’s name in Hebrew).  Likewise, a similar correlation may be seen even in a translation of a name from one biblical language to another (e.g., the factors 13 and 40 are reflected in the standard values of the name Ben in Hebrew and its translation in Greek). Furthermore, the evidence shows how 13 and 40 are related and how certain characters’ names sharing both factors correlate with each other thematically (e.g., Avi/Cain and Ben share both factors and reflect the themes of begetting and birth).

However, can a case be made which ties 11, 13, and 40 together? It may be that there is a connection between the Ten Commandments and God’s very first commandment to humanity in Genesis 1.28: “. . . and God said to them, Be fruitful and multiply . . .” The value of the verb phrase “Be fruitful” (p’ru) is 286 (or 2 x 11 x 13), and that of “multiply” (r’vu) is 208 (or 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 13). Consequently, we see the role that the numbers 11 and 13 play in God’s very first commandment in Genesis. Moreover, the sum of 11 and 13 is 24, which represents the product of the factorial equation preceding 5! = 120. That is, 24 is the product of the sequence 1 x 2 x 3 x 4, while 120 is the product of the sequence multiplied by the next factorial number 5. If we reflect on the significance of this, we can see that God’s first commandment, which is expressed by 4! = 24 (or 11 + 13), precedes his commandments to Israel, which are expressed by 5! = 120 (or 40 x 3). Accordingly, these numeric correlations interconnect in ways that help tie In the Beginning to its original source of inspiration—God’s commandments to humanity in general and to Israel in particular.


Despite being an esoteric means of expounding on musical theatre, interpreting In the Beginning in such a way reveals a kind of hidden wisdom locked inside what is so often deemed an unremarkable book. While the show would almost certainly benefit from another revision and further workshopping, seeing these numeric and thematic correlations helps us expand our appreciation beyond the score so as to include certain features of the writing that have been otherwise unobserved. The fact that all the principal characters’ names in In the Beginning can be grouped into at least one of three numeric categories is compelling. Likewise, evidence of thematic correlations between names that share common factors supports the conclusion that an elaborate subtextual framework has been built into the writing.

Under Yeston’s leadership, the creators have not simply lampooned the Bible, but developed, on one hand, a Mishnah of their own, and on another, a parallel set of scriptures. This blend of Mishnah and scripture includes not only narrative and psalm, but also underlying numeric strata that reflect the themes being developed. This effort is notable in that, even in the midst of its amusing dialogue, the text goes to great pains to mimic its literary parent’s more mystical qualities. The high degree of emulation evident in the writing, all the way down to the numeric foundations, belies a deep love for the original source material, even while the creators have sought to poke as much fun as possible in the process.


Table 10

Numerical Values Ascribed to Greek Alphabet


















































































































Source: Barry, Kieren. The Greek Qabalah: Alphabetic Mysticism and Numerology in theAncient World. Weiser, 1999, pp. 206-207, table 2.
THE GREEK QABALAH © 1999 by Kieren Barry used with permission from Red Wheel Weiser, LLC Newbury Port, MA

Bullinger, Ethelbert W. Number in Scripture: Its Supernatural Design and Spiritual Significance. Martino, 2011, p. 49. 

Works Cited 

Allen, R. E. The Attalid Kingdom: A Constitutional History. Clarendon, 1983.

The Babylonian Talmud: Seder Nashim. General editor, Isidore Epstein, vol. 1, Soncino, 1936.

Connema, Richard. Review of In the Beginning, by Maury Yeston. Talkin’ Broadway, [2000?] Accessed 23 May 2016.

Dietz, Dan. Off Broadway Musicals, 1910-2007: Casts, Credits, Songs, Critical Reception and Performance Data of More Than 1,800 Shows. McFarland, 2010, p. 338.

Douglas, Sarah L. “Answer to Academic Question.” Received by George Roegler, 31 Oct. 2014.

Freeman, Philip. Alexander the Great. Simon, 2011.

Ginzberg, Louis. “Cabala.” The Jewish Encyclopedia. General editor, Isidore Singer, vol. 3, Funk, 1925, pp. 456-479.

Herodotus. The Histories of Herodotus. Edited by E. H. Blakeney, vol. 1, Dent, 1964.

The Interlinear Bible. General editor, Jay P. Green, Sr., 2nd ed., Hendrickson, 1985.

Kalfatovic, Mary. “Yeston, Maury.” Contemporary Musicians. Project editor, Luann Brennan, vol. 22, Gale, 1998, pp. 251-254.

MacMullen, Ramsay. Constantine. Dial, 1969.

MacRae, G. W. “Gnosticism.” The New Catholic Encyclopedia. General editor, Berard Marthaler, 2nd ed., vol. 6, Gale, 2003, pp. 255-261.

Martin, Douglas. “The Characters Don’t Know from Adam.” New York Times, 18 Dec. 1988, pp. H5+. Proquest,

Martini, Ursula, editor. “Roman.” German-English Dictionary. Barron’s, 2007, p. 352.

The Midrash: Exodus. General editors, H. Freedman and Maurice Simon, vol. 3, Soncino, 1951.

Murray, Matthew. Review of The Maury Yeston Songbook. Comp. Maury Yeston. TheatreMania, 11 Apr. 2011,

Pogrebin, Robin. “A Song in His Psyche, As Hummable as Fame.” New York Times 19 May 2003: pp. E1+. ProQuest,

Powell, J. M. “Albingensias.” The New Catholic Encyclopedia. General editor, Berard Marthaler, 2nd ed., vol. 1, Gale, 2003, pp. 229-231.

Price, Cathy Nelson. “MSMT’s Gift to Mainers: ‘A World Class Out-of-town Tryout.” Portland Press Herald 9 Aug. 1998, city ed.: p. 2E. Proquest, docview/276882717/6B4D7D08DED54479PQ/1?accountid=10357

Strong, James. “Asia.” The Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Revised by John Kohlenberger and James Swanson, Rev. ed., Zondervan, 2001, p. 1596.

—. “Be fruitful.” The Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Revised by John Kohlenberger and James Swanson, Rev. ed., Zondervan, 2001, p. 1555.

—. “Goat.” The Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Revised by John Kohlenberger and James Swanson, Rev. ed., Zondervan, 2001, p. 1577.

—. “Multiply.” The Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Revised by John Kohlenberger and James Swanson, Rev. ed., Zondervan, 2001, p. 1564.

—. “Scapegoat.” The Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Revised by John Kohlenberger and James Swanson, Rev. ed., Zondervan, 2001, p. 1545.

—. “Travail.” The Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Revised by John Kohlenberger and James Swanson, Rev. ed., Zondervan, 2001, p. 1625.

Williams, Albert. Review of History Loves Company, by Maury Yeston, and Phantom, by Maury Yeston. Chicago Reader, 12 Sept. 1991. Sun-Times Media,

Yeston, Maury. In the Beginning: The Greatest Story Never Told. MTI, 1998.

Yeston, Maury. Interview by Pat Cerasaro. “InDepth InterView: Maury Yeson – Part 1: Getting Tall.” Broadway World. Wisdom Digital Media, 2016,


[1] The curious reader may wish to consult Richard McGough’s more involved calculations in “The HoloDec: Two Divisions of the Law” and “The HoloDec: The Spirit Shines” to see how the numbers 11 and 13 are also reflected in the Ten Commandments.

Author Bio

Leonard Vandegrift teaches composition, argument, and research in the English and Foreign Languages Department at Cal Poly Pomona and serves as program coordinator of the campus’ University Writing Center.  In his leisure time, Leonard has performed in various musicals and plays and pursued the study of gematria and isopsephy.  In 2014, he had the rare privilege of portraying Avi in a local production of In the Beginning, which ultimately led to the current study.

Reference Citation

Vandegrift, Leonard. “‘This Cabal Guy Could Be Right’: Numeric Correlations in Maury Yeston’s In the Beginning.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol. 5, no. 1, 2018.

Vandegrift, L. (2018). “This Cabal guy could be right”: Numeric correlations in Maury Yeston’s In the Beginning. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 5(1).

Social Justice from the Twilight Zone: Rod Serling as Human Rights Activist

Hugh A.D. Spencer
Toronto, Ontario, Canada



Rod Serling achieved critical acclaim in the First Golden Age of Television writing realist teleplays that express a strong moral sense and social consciousness. With the decline of anthology drama at the close of the 1950s, Serling created The Twilight Zone, which would become a forum for telling relevant stories while circumventing commercial and bureaucratic interference. As a means of exploring Serling’s use of drama as a tool for social justice, this paper compares themes from The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery with charter and constitutional statements of human rights. The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the moral template applied in this discussion. Serling saw drama as a political act and his commitment to social justice often extended to his activities off the page. The content and consequences of his 1968 speech at Moorpark College are cited as an important example of his real world political behavior.

Keywords: Rod Serling, Twilight Zone, Night Gallery, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Science Fiction Television, Golden Age of Television, Television Censorship

Things and Ideas: Politics and Science Fiction

The use of futuristic settings and narratives to convey social messages and political arguments is not new to science fiction in any medium. Examples range from the techno-optimism of Hugo Gernsback’s Ralph 124C 41+ (1911), the dystopias of Huxley, Zamyatin, and Atwood; the literary and cinematic future histories in Wells’ Things to Come (1936); and even the morality plays sometimes found in the television series Star Trek (1966-29) and Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94). Not every science fiction story may be a political tract, but science fiction can be a relevant and powerful vehicle for social commentary. As the scholars Hassler and Wilcox observed:

The politics of the real world on our planet continues with events, with struggle, with individual and collective success and failure. The fictional world of science fiction continues to be reinterpreted, newly invented and widely attended to in our culture. (vii)

In other words, ongoing and active connections exist between politics and science fiction – with events, things, and ideas forming the basis of social polemics and serving as part of the fictional world where the stories take place. From Jonathan Swift’s book Gulliver’s Travels (1726, amended 1735) to Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother (2008) and the Canadian television series Orphan Black (2013-2017), politics have provided both cultural fuel and creative structures for speculative storytelling, most especially for the science fiction genre.

Rod Serling started his writing career as one of television’s “angry young men” from the medium’s first golden age in the 1950s and the author of many critically acclaimed realist dramas.1 He is now primarily remembered as a leading practitioner in the fields of science fiction, fantasy and horror; his best-known television projects were The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) and, to a lesser extent, Night Gallery (1969-1973).

On the surface, Serling’s literary career path might appear to represent a major change in genre and creative focus (from realist to fantasist), but on closer examination, there is a consistent and growing concern with human worth and social justice in all of his major works. As noted by scholar Leslie Dale Feldman: “…his writing was more than science fiction; it was political theory” (6).

This paper examines three episodes of The Twilight Zone and three Night Gallery segments and compares them with specific articles from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [UDHR]. These examples represent the range of Serling’s work in speculative fiction with some of the most overt statements of political themes. The purpose of this comparison is not to assert that Serling set out to deliberately educate viewers about a specific international legal charter, but to explore how the political message of one of the 20th Century’s most important television dramatists closely parallels and complements the goals of a landmark proclamation of human freedom and dignity.

Cultivating the Vast Wasteland

Examining the broader cultural and political contexts in which these episodes of The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery were produced is informative because the state of American broadcast television in the 1960s both shaped the course of Serling’s career as a writer, and influenced the content and format of his scripted dramas.

In his famous 1961 speech, “Television and the Public Interest,” to the National Association of Broadcasters, Federal Communications Commission Chair Newton Minow noted that there were indeed some excellent television programs on the three existent national networks and he even named The Twilight Zone as one of them. However, the FCC chairman then issued the following challenge to network professionals:

But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland [emphasis added]).

Creating and communicating in such an intellectually and creatively bankrupt milieu filled with (in Minow’s words): “unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence and cartoons” offered little opportunity to tell stories of any value or artistic integrity. After Minow’s speech, “a vast wasteland” became critical shorthand for the argument that television was undergoing an inevitable process of crass commercialism and the “dumbing down” of content to the lowest intellectual denominator. As of 1961, there seemed little potential to use drama and storytelling to explore political issues or advance the cause of human rights and social justice.

Traveling Through Another Dimension: The Activist Disguised as Entertainer

By the end of the 1950s, Rod Serling was one of the most famous and honored writers in television. Teleplays such as Patterns (1955), Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956), and The Comedian (1957) were powerful and respected highlights of television’s first Golden Age of drama. He received six Emmy awards for these and other plays, as well as the Peabody and Sylvania awards (Doll).

The impact of Serling’s vision is found in Jack Gould’s review of Patterns in The New York Times, printed soon after its first broadcast:

Nothing in months has excited the television industry as much as the Kraft Television Theatre’s production of Patterns, an original play by Rod Serling. The enthusiasm is justified. In writing, acting and direction, Patterns will stand as one of the high points in the TV medium’s evolution … a repeat performance at an early date should be mandatory.

In the era of live television drama, when programs were not routinely videotaped, a call for a rebroadcast was quite extraordinary and one that NBC agreed with, setting up a second performance the next month.

A survey of the body of Rod Serling’s work reveals that he viewed the processes of writing and storytelling as political acts. Much of his fiction contains moral and political themes, and Serling publicly stated that it was the duty of writers to explore relevant and socially significant content in their work. He resisted the interference of sponsors, censors, or outside agencies in the exercise of this artistic responsibility stating that: “I think it is criminal that we are not permitted to make dramatic note of social evils that exist, of controversial themes as they are inherent in our society” (Zen).

Serling also had astonishing creative output. He wrote 99 of the 156 episodes of The Twilight Zone, and penned several major motion pictures including Seven Days in May (1964) and Planet of the Apes (1968). He found time to teach at Antioch College and was involved in political causes including the Unitarian Universalist Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, and campaigning for incumbent Pat Brown against Ronald Reagan in the California 1966 gubernatorial race (Zen).

Serling’s concerns about the political meaning and artistic merits of scripted television led to the creation of The Twilight Zone. At the end of the 1950s, and increasingly in the 1960s, it was not unusual for writers to encounter regular interference with the content of scripts from sponsors who feared their products could be cast in an unfavorable light or that certain themes might alienate audience members and potential consumers. One biographer provides a specific example of this commercially-motivated censorship:

Serling was even more shocked and angered that year (1956) to what happened to “Noon on Doomsday”, which was inspired by a murder case then in the news – the Emmett Till case, in which a young black boy had allegedly been kidnapped and killed by two white men who went to trial and were exonerated on all counts. (Sander 117)

Later, Serling described to interviewer Mike Wallace what happened to his script:

…I wrote the script using black and white skinned characters initially, then the black was changed to suggest ‘an unnamed foreigner,’ the locale was moved from the South to New England – I’m convinced they would have gone to Alaska or the North Pole and used Eskimos except that the costume problem was of sufficient severity not to attempt it. (“Featuring Rod Serling”)2

To audiences in 1959 it may have sounded as though Serling, frustrated with the political and moral evisceration of this work, had surrendered in his artistic battle with sponsors and networks:

I don’t want to fight anymore. I don’t want to have to battle sponsors and agencies. I don’t want to have to push for something that I want and have to settle for second best. I don’t want to have to compromise all the time, which in essence is what a television writer does if he wants to put on controversial themes. (“Featuring Rod Serling”)

“Controversial” in this context equates with political content and social justice themes. In the same interview Serling goes on to describe his latest project, an anthology series called The Twilight Zone. Here, the focus would be on good, entertaining stories that would avoid “controversy” and interference:

…these are very adult, I think, high-quality half hour, extremely polished films. But because they deal in the areas of fantasy and imagination and science-fiction and all of those things, there’s no opportunity to cop a plea or chop an axe or anything.

The Twilight Zone did not, in fact, represent surrender, but rather a change in tactics, a covert operation. The anthology series would become a forum for telling relevant stories while circumventing commercial or bureaucratic interference. Serling’s creative strategy was to set the narratives in an imaginary setting with fantastical characters but to give them greater resonance and relevance by making them about something.

A Signpost for Social Justice: The United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Rod Serling may have started writing as a social realist, but he quickly developed a master’s understanding of the power of mass entertainment and how popular culture works in the context of broadcast media. He was a major dramatist with a prevailing political sensibility and with an awareness of the polemic potential of speculative fiction; the struggle for human rights was likely critical inspiration to his creative vision. Some of the themes and ideas in Serling’s speculative fiction are so central that it is possible, and even useful, to compare themes from Twilight Zone and Night Gallery episodes with charter and constitutional statements of human rights, such as, the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

Briefly, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1948 and in 1976 it was ratified as international law. The Declaration was a response to the atrocities and conflicts of World War II and is the first worldwide expression of the inherent rights of all persons. The UDHR is significant because it was developed by an international body and as such represents one of the most inclusive and comprehensive statements of human rights to date.

Referring to the values and principles set out in the UDHR can serve as a series of “signposts” into the significance of television dramas whose popularity endures and grows decades after they were first broadcast.

Robots, Militray Schools, and Truthful Education: “The Academy” and “The Class of ‘99” 

Access to, and the content of, education is viewed as a fundamental human right in the UDHR and the morality of education is also a central theme in one of Serling’s most powerful speculative stories. Article 26 of the UDHR states:

Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

Both of these dramas explore the role and process of education; or rather the potentially nightmarish consequences of the perversion of education where schooling is not directed to the humane growth of the student but rather dedicated to the subjugation of the individual to a controlling (and inhumane) social structure.

In the Night Gallery segment, “The Academy,” Mr. Holston is given a guided tour of Glendalough Academy by its Commandant. Holston’s goal is to determine the suitability of this military school for his son, Roger. The establishing shots and opening dialogue quickly reveal that Glendalough is an isolated and highly exclusive institution and that Holston is a man of considerable means. The conversation between Holston and the Commandant tells the audience that Roger has a chronic discipline problem and the application of a strict regime of traditional curriculum and military discipline may be precisely what the boy needs.

“Discipline is the major item word here,” the commandant states. Studies and the daily schedule are accompanied by continual drill: “Physical drill…drill at every level.” Shots of the Academy students in the mess hall, classrooms and grounds, uniformed and moving in unison illustrate the Commandant’s assertion.

The episode is structured as an expositional exercise where the Commandant gradually explains more and more about the nature and purpose of the Academy: First, Mr. Holston learns that Glendalough is a self-contained world with little contact with family and the outside world. Then, when Holston asks an older man in uniform how long he has been employed by the Academy, the man replies that he is actually a student and has been enrolled there for his entire adult life. This is the first major revelation in the story: essentially enrollment in the Academy is a form of life imprisonment. The final revelation occurs when Holston shares own beliefs and charges that his son Roger is “a rotter” and being locked in the Academy for the rest of his life is just the thing for him.

The dramatic tension emerges from the gradual discovery of the true terrifying nature and purpose of the Academy where education has been turned into an insidious form of incarceration, plus the sudden revealing of the antagonism between a father and his son – a generation gap in this American family.

So, who is the real villain, “the rotter” in this case? Could Roger’s behavior be a reaction to his father’s cruelty and callous nature? Is the audience witnessing some manifestation of a dysfunctional family? Or perhaps the son’s rebellion is some form of political action? The answers to these questions can’t be known because the story stops at this point. However, one could conclude that “The Academy” represents a monstrous distortion of the right to education, because in this episode, schooling becomes a form of punishment. The premise represented by the Academy is a violation of the next provision in the UDHR’s statement of educational rights, which declares:

Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. (Article 26)

Based on a 1965 story by David Ely, “The Academy” was broadcast in 1971 in the midst of a decade of anti-war and civil rights protests, and a climate of unrest and civil disobedience on many college and university campuses – including the Kent State University shootings on May 4, 1970. It is not difficult to imagine that at least some of the television audience believed that a return to traditional education with a heavy emphasis on conformity and discipline was exactly what the then-younger generation needed to restore order to society.  The unfulfilling resolution and lingering message of “The Academy” is a challenge to such socially conservative attitudes because the excesses of discipline run counter to the development of the student’s intellect and personality. Further, the suppression of civil rights undermines the fundamental values of a democratic and open society.

The Night Gallery episode “The Class of ‘99” also addresses the question of education, and produced in the same year as “The Academy,” shares the same sociopolitical context. The action in “The Class of ‘99” starts in a lecture hall of a slightly futuristic, co-educational university. The professor administers an oral exam to the class after informing them of the test’s format:

Let me review briefly our procedure: I will direct random questions to each of you and will grade you immediately. Keep in mind, however, that the question may be repeated at any time to someone else.

In doing so, the professor makes it clear that the audience is about to witness an extraordinarily difficult exam that is a manifestation of a very exacting and unforgiving educational system. The professor is very formal and authoritarian, and there is no evidence of empathy or even communication between the students.

For the first set of questions, the professor draws upon arcane fields of math and physics; and because the subject matter seems so far removed from the students’ normal experience, the exam is extremely taxing and with questionable relevance. The questions soon address even more challenging issues and the tone of the oral exam shifts from intense competition to outright hostility. When the Professor asks a student (Mr. Clinton) if an African American classmate (Mr. Barnes), represents a “special problem,” Mr. Clinton responds, “Possibly inferior,” looks towards Barnes, and adds, “Being black, he might be inferior.”

The rest of “The Class of 99” unfolds like a dramatization of a social psychology experiment that might have been designed by Stanley Milgram3, in which the students are coached through different conflict situations based on race, class, income, politics and war. Every time the students follow the instructions of the professor there is a certain amount of psychological and physical violence involved: Verbal abuse, slapping, spitting and even gunfire. As in Milgram’s experiments, students execute noxious, even criminal, behavior under the Professor’s orders because it all occurs at the behest of an intellectual authority.

Unlike most of Milgram’s test subjects, one of the students (Mr. Etkins) eventually rebels and refuses to kill another student, Mr. Chang, who has been identified as a member of an “enemy culture.” Mr. Etkins is gunned down by another student (Mr. Johnson) for his trouble and his destruction reveals the true nature of the Class of ‘99. They are humanoid robots built by the university to repopulate society, which has been devastated by war and environmental degradation.  As Mr. Johnson, now the class valedictorian, states, education is crucial to achieving the university’s ultimate goals for the class of ‘99:

All that we know…our attitudes…our values…are part of the integral data fed into us and we shall use them as a point of beginning. We must be just…but ruthless in terms of survival. We must recognize that many of the ancient virtues are simply weaknesses.

Clearly, the education of the Class of ‘99 is not dedicated to their personal development or to instilling a respect for human dignity and freedom. Instead, the university has inculcated the class with cultural misunderstandings, intolerance and hostility. Serling’s thesis can be understood both as a criticism of contemporary education which often stress so-called “utility” over morality and a fear of where such trends will take society in the future.

Privacy, Personhood, and Aliens: “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”

Just as “The Academy” and “The Class of ‘99” can be interpreted as critiques of educational systems, so too can the seminal The Twilight Zone episode, “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” be interpreted as a critique of McCarthyism and similar political witch-hunts. UDHR Articles 6 and 12 address the rights of personhood, privacy, and reputation, which were rights directly under attack during the McCarthy era:4

Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law. (Article 6)

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks. (Article 12)

At first, there is little to suggest the serious and dangerous subject matter of, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” The opening shots could be from Leave It to Beaver (1957-63), The Andy Griffith Show (1960-68), or any other family situation comedy of that era: A pastoral suburban neighborhood, with freshly cut grass, polished new cars in driveways, and friendly (and white) neighbors in every house. However, this is the Twilight Zone and not Mayberry and the narrator suggests that this serenity will not last long: “Maple Street. Six-forty-four P.M., on a late September evening. [A pause.] Maple Street in the last calm and reflective moments…before the monsters came!”

Happiness on Maple Street is the result of certainty, security and conformity. Ambiguity and the threat of danger stress community life; and in turn jeopardize the human rights of its residents. The tension in this story starts with a meteor passing overhead and the unexpected interruption of electrical power, communications and transportation – the essential services and infrastructure that make suburban life possible. A potential crisis of uncertainty is then made worse when Tommy, who looks to be between 12-14 years old, refers to science fiction scenarios from comic books as possible explanations to Steve Brand, the episode’s viewpoint character: “That was the way [the aliens] prepared things for the landing. They sent four people. A mother and a father and two kids who looked just like humans… but they weren’t.”

Steve replies, ironically: “Well, I guess what we’d better do then is run a check on the neighborhood and see which ones of us are really human.”

As the episode continues, events and situations that would normally be regarded as innocent or trivial by most suburbanites occur: Lights flash on and off, car engines start and stop, owning amateur radios
and suffering from insomnia (which one neighbor admits to) – are now seen as highly significant and potentially dangerous.

Steve Brand is one of the few residents who seriously questions the “aliens among us” theory and struggles to defend both his own and his insomniac neighbors’ integrity and reputations. Brand also defends his right to privacy when his neighbors insist on coming into his home to determine if he has been using his radio to signal the space aliens. Mrs. Brand, his wife, tells the insistent crowd of neighbors that he just has an amateur ham radio, and offers to show them the equipment in the basement. In response, Steve whirls upon her and orders, “Show them nothing! If they want to look inside our house – let them get a search warrant.”

This specific confrontation is interrupted by a car that mysteriously starts on its own and more flashing lights – but it is brief reprieve for Brand who is eventually overwhelmed by his neighbors as Maple Street degenerates into house-to-house warfare using torches, axes, and firearms. Meanwhile, actual alien invaders observe the chaos from their distant spacecraft, noting that the inhabitants of all the Maple Streets in the world cannot imagine any menace greater than themselves. The aliens have identified the inability to respect the rights and integrity of others as a fundamental human flaw that invaders can easily exploit. We are the monsters on Maple Street.

This episode concludes with the following powerful words literally delivered in Serling’s voice as the episode’s narrator:

The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, and prejudices to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy and a thoughtless frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all its own for the children and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is…that these things cannot be confined to The Twilight Zone!

This closing narration is a stark and unforgettable warning about the dangers of social paranoia and the failure to respect the dignity and privacy of others. When we disregard these rights we place the essential ties of trust that hold communities together at risk. The chaos at the end of “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” can even be interpreted as a demonstration of the need for legal and moral charters such as the UDHR.

Individuality, Community, and Asylum: “The Eye of the Beholder” and “The Different Ones”

Even by 1960, the values expressed in “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” would have seemed familiar to those followed Serling’s work. The inherent value of the individual and the need to protect the individual, are frequent themes throughout Serling’s literary career, starting with the abandoned executives in Patterns (1955) and the Night Gallery episode, “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar” (1971) through to the charity placement child in, A Storm In Summer (1970, remade 2000). 

The episodes “The Eye of the Beholder” (The Twilight Zone, 1960) and “The Different Ones” (Night Gallery, 1971) also explore the plight of nonconformists in a world that demands uniformity. These stories can be viewed as inversions of each other: In, “The Eye of the Beholder,” the audience meets a normal-looking woman surrounded by a society of monsters. In “The Different Ones,” a young man with bizarre facial deformities lives in a world of people who look just like ordinary humans.

In both episodes, the person who is different is abused by the conforming majority, which makes monstrosity not a function of outward appearances but rather of an internal failure to respect the dignity and innate rights of others.

In “The Eye of the Beholder,” Janet Tyler awakes in a hospital bed, her face completely covered in bandages, awaiting the results of the series of State-mandated cosmetic surgeries. Although the audience cannot see Janet’s face, the dialogue indicates that her appearance is considered so grotesque that she must undergo treatments to make her closer to “the norm.” Janet has little say in the course of her treatments or even in the details of her daily life – she’s not allowed sit in the hospital garden or even open the window of her room. Janet is not a citizen, a person with rights; she is a patient, a medical and social problem whose different appearance prevents her from functioning in society. Janet Tyler is defined by the State as a problem that must be solved by Janet’s surgeon, and the staff at the hospital who are agents of this paternalistic but ultimately oppressive society.  Janet’s experience exemplifies the medical deprivation of human rights and civil liberties. While the authorities stress their compassion for Janet’s situation they also say that this is her final treatment and that she is running out of options. Just before her bandages are removed, her surgeon, Dr. Bernardi warns her, “This is your eleventh visit to the hospital where you have received the mandatory number of treatments and afforded as much time as possible, Miss Tyler.” Even Tyler’s status as patient will not protect her from her persistent individuality indefinitely.

In the Night Gallery segment, “The Different Ones,” Victor Kotch is also marginalized because of his hideous appearance, albeit not as a hospital patient but as a housebound recluse who only interacts with his widowed father, Paul Kotch. Paul tries to protect Victor in the context of a traditional family, but both know they will eventually be unable to shield themselves from growing verbal and physical assaults from an increasingly hostile community.

Paul Kotch uses his videophone to contact the Office for Special Urban Problems for help, but learns that his son’s condition is so extreme that it is beyond the scope of the State’s compassion and capacity to help. Furthermore, Victor’s unusual appearance is in violation of The Federal Conformity Act of 19935, which requires Paul to “do something” about his son before higher authorities are called.

In both episodes, the “State” is the off-screen villain with the power to end both Janet’s and Victor’s lives. After the failure of Janet’s final treatment, she asks to be euthanized, but her surgeon, Dr. Bernadi is reluctant to do so, instead encouraging her to immigrate to one of the officially sanctioned colonies set up for “people of her kind.”

The State in “The Different Ones” is less compassionate, there are no such communities in Victor’s world, and the representative from the Office of Special Urban Problems even raises the possibility of euthanizing Victor, saying, “Putting him to sleep for humanitarian reasons is hardly an act of murder, Mr. Kotch.”

Victor Kotch and Janet Tyler escape death and their oppressive situations by fleeing to different, more tolerant, communities. Janet meets a representative of one the colonies who is “just like her,” beautiful and physically perfect by the viewers’ own standards but deemed “ugly” by her own society. Victor ultimately leaves the Earth as a part of an interplanetary cultural exchange program, where he meets people who are “just like him,” grotesque yet kind and accepting.

“The Eye of the Beholder” and “The Different Ones” can be viewed as test-cases demonstrating the need for the following principles expressed in the UDHR:

…All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights…Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country” and, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution…” (Article 14)

Both “The Eye of the Beholder” and “The Different Ones” have happy endings but they offer a qualified happiness; seeking asylum, which means an individual is forced to leave their native land, is a right of last resort. Though Janet and Victor ultimately find acceptance among “their own kind,” Serling criticizes actual modern societies that cast out the “different ones” because the societies refuse to tolerate nonconformity.

“The Obsolete Man” and the Right to Life

The “Obsolete Man” (1961) is an episode of The Twilight Zone that features direction and acting that could be from a Berthold Brecht play with sets and cinematography that are reminiscent of German expressionist cinema. As with many Twilight Zone and Night Gallery stories, the intent is to create a sense of nightmare and “The Obsolete Man” is a political nightmare.

Romney Wordsworth, who states his profession as “librarian,” has been tried by the State and has been judged in the words of the State’s Leader as “obsolete” and a “bug not a person.” This teleplay is one of Serling’s most passionate pleas for human dignity and the events of the story touch on the right of worship and belief, as when Wordsworth disputes the Leader’s broadcast proclamation, “The State has proven that there is no God!”

The “Obsolete Man” also refers to the right to freedom of expression and education when the Leader argues that Wordsworth’s profession has no value:

You’re a librarian, Mr. Wordsworth. You’re a dealer in books and two-cent fines and pamphlets in closed stacks in the musty finds of a language factory that spews meaningless words on an assembly line. WORDS, Mr. WORDSworth. That have no substance, no dimension, like air, like the wind. Like a vacuum, that you make believe have an existence, by scribbling index numbers on little cards.

Both freedom of worship and belief and freedom of expression and education are dependent on the more fundamental right to life, liberty, and security as stated in Article 3 of the UDHR.

Mr. Wordsworth is more effective in defending his human dignity and rights than Steve Brand was in “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” because he paradoxically exercises the one right the State does extend to him: the right to select the method of his execution.

By choosing death by explosion, which is broadcast live on television, Wordsworth demonstrates the cowardice and moral weaknesses of the Leader who, trapped in the same room with Wordsworth and the bomb, pleads for his life and is finally granted mercy by the condemned man. This action reveals the inherent contradiction of this totalitarian state and as the episode’s closing narration notes: “Any state, entity or ideology that fails to recognize the worth, the rights, the dignity of man…that state is obsolete.”

In the surreal closing scene, the Leader returns to the courtroom after Wordsworth’s death, only to be physically torn apart by his followers. One could interpret this scene as Serling asserting that a society that abandons respect of human rights, individual dignity, and social justice is ultimately doomed to barbarism and destruction.

Things and Ideas in the Real World: The Moorpark College Speech

Serling did not restrict his political statements and actions to fiction as noted earlier; he was active in a number of political organizations and supported a range of progressive causes, particularly those associated with the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements:

As he carved out a critically and commercially successful career as a scriptwriter and television producer, Serling maintained an active agenda of writing such letters6 to newspapers, to both fans and detractors and giving political speeches. (Boulton 1227)

Just one example of Serling stating and acting on his political beliefs is found in his 1969 lecture “The Generation Gap,” at Moorpark College. His talk has a truly remarkable opening:

… I refused to sign a loyalty oath which was submitted to me as a prerequisite both for my appearance and my pay… I did not sign the loyalty oath and I waived my normal speaking fee, only because of a principle. I think a requirement that a man affix his signature to a document, reaffirming loyalty, is on one hand ludicrous – and on the other demeaning…I believe that in a democratic society a man is similarly loyal until proven disloyal. No testaments of faith, no protestations of affection for his native land, and no amount of signatures will prove a bloody thing – one way or the other as to a man’s patriotism or lack thereof. (In Marshall)

Serling refused to comply with a requirement of the State of California, which he believed questioned his loyalty, personal integrity, and violated his rights of free expression and presumed innocence. He had a valid point; as Article 19 the UDHR states,

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

There were costs to Serling for taking this stance. For a successful writer and celebrity, foregoing the fee for a speech may seem insignificant; however it is very likely that Serling earned the enduring animosity of those in power who created and supported the loyalty oath legislation.

While Serling ends his lecture with specific reference to the American involvement in the War in Vietnam, his criticisms shed insight into twenty-first century concerns such as racism, the rights of privacy, and personal integrity, as well as the growing militarization of society.

Between Light and Shadow: The Artist as Disguised Activist

When we compare themes from vintage television programs with clauses from an international legal document we are engaged in much more than a curious categorization exercise. There is an almost intuitive appeal and intellectual impact when we view the artistry of The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery through the ethical lens of the UDHR.

The UDHR expresses values and principles that Rod Serling embraced as a writer, as a citizen of his country, and as a human being. Much of his work addresses the dangers of intolerance, prejudice, and systemic cruelty. It is not surprising that Serling used fiction, whether realist or magic-realist, in combination with real-world activism to oppose injustice and promote his political views.

The creative strategy that led to the creation of The Twilight Zone was ingenious because it became more than a way to avoid interference from sponsors and network censors. The ongoing popularity of The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery, and even later projects, such as Witches, Werewolves and Warlocks (1963), The Season to be Wary (1967), and Planet of the Apes (1968), generated vast audiences for Serling’s work and these audiences renew with each new generation. As biographer Joel Engel observes:

…(Serling) remains to this day…the only writer whose name, face and voice are easily recognizable to the masses…There can be no overestimation of the impact that Serling’s series has had on popular culture. (343)

Many viewers and readers may be drawn to the fantastical nature of such speculative stories for their entertainment value, but some audience members will probe deeper, seeking to discover the moral core of these narratives.

Part of Rod Serling’s legacy is undoubtedly political. It is difficult not to feel moved by the rejection and shame of Janet Tyler in “The Eye of the Beholder,” or experience rage and disgust at the cynical curriculum governing “The Class of ’99.” These are brilliantly produced works of science fiction, but they are also powerful pieces of political fiction. The opening narration to the first season of The Twilight Zone provides insight into the still-extant popular appeal of Serling’s stories more than half a century later:

There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.

These narratives originate from the fringes – those aspects of our experience that are hard to define, that are about more than one thing – and makes viewers want to keep thinking about the social challenges and moral choices facing humanity. Ultimately, the ideals of human worth and dignity cannot only be appreciated at the legal or intellectual level – they must be embraced in our hearts and imaginations, and, as Serling demonstrates, science fiction is a frequent reminder that we must do so.


[1] The Last Angry Man is the title of Gerald Green’s 1956 novel about an uncompromising physician and struggling television producer. The term was sometimes paraphrased to describe radio writers and producers such as Norman Corwin, Arch Oboler, and Orson Welles, whose work often addressed controversial social issues. The expression “television’s angry young men” was also applied to emerging writers including Rod Serling, Paddy Chayefsky, Reginald Rose, and Sterling Silliphant, who were primarily associated with live and anthology drama in the 1950s. Of the latter group, Serling was the one to remain the longest and most involved with television, both asserting the artistic and political potential of the medium while denouncing its trivialization and excessive commercialization (Sander iv).

[2] The context of the Mike Wallace interview does not reveal the full extent of reviews, revisions, and re-writes that “Noon at Doomsday” and an alternate version of the Till case, “A Town Has Turned to Dust,” were subject to. Christopher Metress’ overview of the development process for these scripts makes a persuasive case that the core problem was a deep and intractable reluctance by sponsors and networks to address the issue of racial injustice at a time when television advertising markets were opening up to Southern States in the 1950s.

[3] Stanley Milgram (1933 –1984) was a social psychologist, best known for his controversial experiment on obedience conducted in the 1960s at Yale University. Milgram studied the willingness of study subjects to obey a researcher (an authority figure) to the extent that they thought they were administering potentially fatal electrical shocks to another study subject.

[4] From 1950 to 1956, thousands of Americans were accused of being communists or communist sympathizers and were subjected to intense investigation by government and private-industry agencies. Named after the dogged anti-communist pursuits of Senator Joseph McCarthy, “McCarthyism” now describes reckless accusations and attacks on the character or patriotism of individuals.

[5] A fictional construct in this story.

[6] Here, Boulton is using as an example a letter written by Rod Serling to the LA Times where he both satirizes and criticizes a leading pet food maker for sponsoring a televised speech by the founder of the John Birch Society (1226).

Works Cited

Boulton, Mark. “Sending the Extremists to the Cornfield: Rod Serling’s Crusade Against Radical  Conservatism.” Journal of Popular Culture, 6 (47), 1226-1244. 2014. Print.

Doll, Mike. “Rod Serling’s Binghamton Obituary.” Binghamton Press & Sun Bulletin. Web. 30 June. 1975.

Ely, David. “The Academy.” Playboy 12 June. 1965. 113-14. Print.

Engel, Joel. Rod Serling: The Dreams and Nightmares of Life in The Twilight Zone. Contemporary Books. Chicago. 1989. Print.

Feldman, Leslie Dale. Spaceships and Politics: The Political Theory of Rod Serling. Lanham, Lexington Books. Maryland. 2010. Print.

Fried, Albert. McCarthyism: The Great American Red Scare: A Documentary History. Oxford University Press. New York, N.Y. 1997. Print.

Gould, Jack. “Patterns is hailed as a notable triumph.” New York Times. Web. 17 Jan. 1955.

Hassler, Donald M., and Clyde Wilcox. New Boundaries in Political Science Fiction. Columbia, South Carolina: The University of South Carolina Press. 2008. Print.

Marshall, Jeanne. “Rod Serling rips loyalty oaths, the Vietnam War, and social inequity. “ Web. QUEST Magazine. Dec. 1968.

Metress, Christopher. “Submitted for Their Approval: Rod Serling and the Lynching of Emmett Till.” Mississippi Quarterly, 1-2 (62), 143-172. Web. 2008-2009.

Milgram, Stanley. “Behavioral study of obedience.” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67 (4), 371–8. 1963. Print.

Minow, Newton N. (1961). “Television and the public interest.” Speech presented at National Association of Broadcasters in Washington DC. Web. 1961.

Patten, Steven C. “Milgram’s shocking experiment.” Philosophy, 52, 425-440. 1977. Print.

Sander, Gordon F. Serling: The Rise and Twilight of Television’s Last Angry Man.  Dutton/Penguin Books. New York, N.Y. 1992. Print.

Serling, Rod. “Featuring Rod Serling.” The Mike Wallace Interview. Web. 22 Sept. 1959.

—. The Twilight Zone. “Where is Everybody?” CBS, Los Angeles. 2 Oct. 1959.

—. The Twilight Zone. “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” CBS, Los Angeles.  4 March 1960.

—. The Twilight Zone. “Eye of the Beholder.” CBS, Los Angeles. 11 Nov. 1960.

—. The Twilight Zone. “The Obsolete Man.” CBS, Los Angeles. 2 June 1961.

—. Night Gallery. “The Class of ‘99.” NBC, Los Angeles. 22 Sept. 1971..

—. Night Gallery. “The Academy.” NBC, Los Angeles. 6 Oct. 1971.

—. Night Gallery. “The Different Ones.” NBC, Los Angeles. 29 Dec. 1971.

“TV’s Rod Serling, 50, dies 2 days after heart surgery.” Los Angeles Times. 29 June. Web.1975.

United Nations. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 2016. Print.

Zen, Beringia. “Rod Serling.” Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography. Web. 16 Sept. 2001.

Author Bio:

Hugh Spencer (BA, MA, MMST) is President and Senior Consultant with the Toronto firm of Museum Planning Partners. He has completed graduate level studies in Anthropology (McMaster University) and Museum Studies (University of Toronto). His first novel, Extreme Dentistry, was published in 2014 and his collection of short stories, Why I Hunt Flying Saucers and Other Fantasticals, was released in 2016. He has written over a dozen audio dramas produced by Shoestring Radio Theater in San Francisco and broadcast over the Satellite Network of National Public Radio. He has been twice nominated for the Canadian Aurora Award. Hugh delivered an earlier version of this paper at the 2011 Rod Serling Conference at Ithaca College.

Reference Citation

Spencer, Hugh. “Social Justice from the Twilight Zone: Rod Serling as Human Rights Activist.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol. 5, no. 1, 2018

Spencer, H. (2018). Social justice from the Twilight Zone: Rod Serling as human rights activist. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 5(1).

Editorial: New Horizons

We are pleased to present issue 4.1 of Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, in which we explore belief systems, pedagogy, and politics. Across these nine works, ranging from explorations of social justice within teaching and learning to critical analysis of scholarship within the field, these articles provide an opportunity to think about the ways in which popular culture and pedagogy can deeply engage both within the classroom and beyond, as well as within informal learning spaces.

We begin the issue with Tara Propper’s “The Pedagogy and Politics of Racial Passing: Examining the Role of Visual Literacy in Turn-of-the-Century Activist Media” and Erika Quinn’s “Eastern Imaginaries,” examining important implications for individuals and society as well as suggestions for pedagogy. Using an historical lens, Propper’s article emphasizes the importance of the media in shaping individual racial identity, speaking to current topics of concern including racial passing. Specifically, she explores the use of African American activist media in theorizing the role of pedagogy in the public sphere through historical analysis. Moving from historical perceptions of race as seen in African American activist media, Quinn’s work addresses the historical influence of Western ideas shaped by Orientialist tropes of the East. In particular, she uses the imaginary Eastern European country of Ruritania as a central example of stereotypical beliefs. Quinn uses two contemporary artifacts—Wes Anderson’s film The Grand Budapest Hotel and China Miéville’s novel The City and the City— to explore the way in which popular culture can reify harmful stereotypes or reject such racial conceptions, pushing the audience to confront “issues about collective identity, power, corruption and violence.”

While the first two articles address key contemporary concerns as seen through news media and fiction, Jonathan Elmore’s, “More Than Simple Plagiarism: Ligotti, Pizzolatto, and True Detective’s Terrestrial Horror,” considers how horror can speak to common human issues. He explores how “Nic Pizzolatto, the writer of True Detective, ‘borrowed’ sections of Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race” and ultimately developed a new type of horror, “terrestrial horror,” which incorporates discussion of worldwide threats such as climate change and environmental collapse. The final article in this section discusses postmodern visual dynamics in film. Andrew Urie in “ Hyping the Hyperreal: Postmodern Visual Dynamics in Amy Heckerling’s Clueless,” focuses not on the standard reading of the 1995 film as an adaptation of Austen’s Emma, but instead, conducts an examination of the postmodern visual texture of Clueless, connecting feminine teen consumerism to the time frame of the in the mid-’90s era Los Angeles.

The second section of this issue, Applications in the Classroom, features Edward Janak and Lisa Pescara-Kovach’s “Four Decades, Three Songs, Too Much Violence: Using Popular Culture Media Analysis to Prepare Preservice Teachers for Dealing with School Violence” and Jason Gulya’s “Teaching Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out within the Tradition of Allegorical Personification.” Janak and Pescara-Kovach address the role of music in the context of teacher education, providing preservice educators with approaches for countering bullying and school violence. Gulya then examines a recent Disney film as a modern iteration of the historical literary form, allegory. Though approaching pedagogy from two very different perspectives—social justice teacher education and content delivery in the classroom—the authors provide innovative perspectives on the role of popular culture for both instructors and students on how to engage with others and texts.

We conclude the issue with three reviews, of copyright laws, of a design museum, and of popular culture in the classroom. Janet Brennan Croft takes on the ever-challenging topic of copyright laws in academia and the resources used by scholars, reviewing multiple texts to unpack the dynamic sociopolitical nature of US copyright laws. As Croft examines numerous sources, Laurence Raw likewise looks across multiple texts, critically discussing the use of popular culture in the classroom in high schools and universities. Lastly, Michael Samuel engages in a review of The Design Museum in London, discussing details of the museum ranging from architectural features and exhibitions engaging the viewing public.

We look forward to your engagement with these articles tackling new topics and approaches drawing intersections between popular culture and pedagogy.

Lynnea Chapman King
Editor in Chief


A. S. CohenMiller
Associate Editor

In addition to the new works presented here, we also find ourselves at a new crossroads with the Journal itself.

A word from the Editor in Chief:

In 2011, when the Southwest Popular/American Culture Association began discussions regarding the creation of Dialogue, we knew that there was a place in the academic publishing world for a journal devoted to the intersection of popular culture and pedagogy. Also in 2011, we were approached by Anna CohenMiller, who likewise recognized the potential for interdisciplinary scholars seeking a venue in which to share their experiences with popular culture in the classroom. The result of those conversations and negotiations is, of course, this journal, which concludes its fourth year of publication with this issue. As the profile of Dialogue has increased and as we have worked through the numerous logistics of launching a new publication, I have had the privilege of working closely with Anna, whose enthusiasm and creativity have served the journal well. As we look to our forthcoming issues, I am pleased to announce that Anna has agreed to step into the position of Editor in Chief, assisted by Kurt Depner as Managing Editor. Dialogue remains in the excellent, capable hands of this team, and I look forward to its continued growth and innovation under Anna’s direction.

Lynnea Chapman King
Founding Co-Editor,
Editor in Chief, 2011-2017
Advisory Board, 2017-


More Than Simple Plagiarism: Ligotti, Pizzolatto, and True Detective’s Terrestrial Horror

Jonathan Elmore Ph.D.
Savannah State University
Savannah, Georgia, USA



Of course, True Detective is neither a philosopher’s bedtime story nor supernatural horror, and yet there remains a productive affinity between Ligotti’s work and the HBO series. Where Ligotti provides substantial portions of the hallmark character’s identity and dialogue, True Detective puts Ligotti’s thought experiment to far more practical uses than does Ligotti himself.  By intertwining hurricanes and flooding alongside industry and pollution into the background and negative space of the setting, the series implicates the urgent material reality of climate change and environmental collapse into the setting: “all of this is going to be under water in thirty years” (“Long Bright Dark”). In doing so, the series employs Southern gothic conventions to look forward rather than backward in time. Rather than the decay and degeneration of the landscape as reflective of the past, such squalor points forward to a time, rapidly approaching, when the setting will itself be swallowed by the sea. Hence, True Detective enacts a more practical approach to Ligotti’s horror, one I’m calling terrestrial horror.

Keywords: True Detective, Terrestrial Horror, Thomas Ligotti, Pessimism, Ecocriticism, Cosmic Horror

It is no secret that Nic Pizzolatto, the writer of True Detective, “borrowed” sections of Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. Whether this use of Ligotti’s text constitutes plagiarism or merely allusion caused a minor furor in the media during the first season. Pizzolatto acknowledges that “in episode one there are two lines in particular (and it would have been nothing to re-word them) that were specifically phrased in such a way as to signal Ligotti admirers” (Calia 2). Mike Davis and Jon Padgett see Pizzolatto’s “signaling” as far more problematic. Davis points out that, “writers work hard to produce original ideas, stories, and dialogue, and it is unfair for another writer to pawn off those ideas as their own. Pizzolatto has been nominated for an Emmy for writing True Detective, while Thomas Ligotti labors in near obscurity” (1). Padgett explicitly addresses Pizzolatto’s claims that his use of Ligotti is a kind of homage to the writer:

‘Homage’ suggests that Pizzolatto was honoring Ligotti or showing him respect of some sort. Lifting Ligotti’s work without permission or attribution may have or may not have been a consciously malicious decision, but in any case it was neither honorable nor reverential.” (Davis 4)

While it seems dated to pass judgement on Pizzolatto’s use of Ligotti, Padgett is undeniably right when he claims, “in no uncertain terms, the pessimism and anti-natalism of Rust Cohle as articulated by Ligotti is the hallmark element of the show” (Davis 5). Given this, we should be further exploring the implications of such close affinity between the series and Ligotti’s work.

Ligotti’s project, in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, is quite simple on its face: he considers the possibility that being alive is NOT necessarily better than being otherwise: “For thousands of years a debate has been going on in the shadowy background of human affairs. The issue to be resolved: ‘What should we say about being alive?’ Overwhelmingly, people have said, “being alive is all right” (20). While conversational in tone, even flippant, Ligotti’s target is nothing less than humanity’s ontological positivism about itself. Ligotti takes seriously the notion that being alive is not “all right;” in fact, being alive may be tantamount to “inhabit[ing] a nightmare without hope of awakening to a natural world, to have our bodies embedded neck-deep in a quagmire of dread, to live as shut-ins in a house of horrors” (216). In short, Ligotti’s project explores the stakes of considering human existence as a burden rather than a blessing.

Ligotti grounds his considerations in the earliest stirrings of human consciousness: “For ages they had been without lives of their own. The whole of their being was open to the world and nothing divided them from the rest of creation. How long they had thus flourished none of them knew” (19). A species without self-awareness and without history, Ligotti paints pre-humans as inseparable from the natural world: “Then something began to change. It happened over unremembered generations. The signs of a revision without forewarning were being writ ever more deeply into them” (19). Citing a “change” toward consciousness, Ligotti marks this occurrence as itself outside of pre-humanity; as something that happened to them and not something they initiated or controlled. Furthermore, this change was ontological; it would become a constitutive property of what would later become human. As early humans “moved forward, they begin crossing boundaries whose very existence they had never imagined. After nightfall, they looked up at a sky filled with stars and felt themselves small and fragile in the vastness. Soon they begin to see everything in a way they never had in older times” (19). The ontological change overtaking early anthros, the very change that, in part, would make them human, also changed the way they perceived the reality within which they lived.

They begin to take bodies that were stiff and still to distant places so they could not find their way back to them. But even after they had done this, some within their group did see those bodies again, often standing silent in the moonlight or loitering sad-faced just beyond the glow of a fire.” (19)

Ritual and symbolism crept into the world alongside temporality, which, in turn, spawned self-consciousness:

Everything changed once they had lives of their own and knew they had lives of their own. It even became impossible for them to believe things had ever been any other way. They were masters of their movements now, as it seemed, and never had there been anything like them. (19)

Consciousness separates humans from the rest of existence. Humanity then becomes, by definition, that which is outside of nature, that which is unnatural. “The epoch had passed when the whole of their being was open to the world and nothing divided them from the rest of creation. Something had happened. They did not know what it was, but they did know it as that which should not be” (19-20). From its inception, the conditions of possibilities for human consciousness place humanity outside of the natural order, as a kind of violation of how existence otherwise functions.

Aside from clearly providing fodder for Rustin Cohle’s rambling monologues, Ligotti’s conception of human consciousness, and subsequently, of humanity, is that which “Because of consciousness, parent of all horror, became susceptible to thoughts that were startling and dreadful to us, thoughts that have never been equitably balanced by those that are collected and reassuring” (27).  In such a conception, Pandora’s Box is the human mind itself:

One minds now begin dredging up horror, flagrantly joyless possibilities, enough of them to make us drop to the ground in paroxysms of self-soiling consternation should they go untrammeled. This potentiality necessitated that certain defense mechanisms be put to use to keep us balanced on the knife-edge of vitality as a species. (27)

In order to set up defenses against our own consciousness, Ligotti offers an ontologically paradoxical version of humanity:

What we do as a conscious species is set markers for ourselves. Once we reach one marker, we advance to the next–as if we were playing a board game we think will never end, despite the fact that it will, like it or not. If you are too conscious of not liking it, then you may conceive of yourself as a biological paradox that cannot live with its consciousness and cannot live without it. And in so living and not living, you take your place with the undead and the human puppet. (28)

Limiting our own consciousness becomes crucial for survival. Setting insignificant goals for our lives, we must deceive ourselves into believing that these goals define our lives. Hence our consciousness of our lives must be turned to the task of obscuring our state of existence from ourselves. This state of “living and not living” results in human existence as a kind of dark parody of itself made manifest as the undead or the human puppet.

Ligotti’s use of horrific figures for conceptualizing humanity’s existence is no accident.  He accords “supernatural horror” a privileged place in the diagnosis of the human condition: “we are crazed mimics of the natural prowling about for a peace that will never be ours. And the medium in which we circulate is that of the supernatural, a dusky element of horror that obtains for those who believe in what should be and should not be” (222). And within this medium of the supernatural is where we must exist,

one thing we know is real: horror. It is so real, in fact, that we cannot be sure it could not exist without us. Yes, it needs our imaginations and our consciousness, but it does not ask or require our consent to use them. Indeed horror operates with complete autonomy. Generating ontological havoc, it is mephitic foam upon which our lives merely float. And, ultimately, we must face up to it: horror is more real than we are. (182)

A far-reaching claim to be sure, but once granted, Ligotti’s project then privileges the literature of supernatural horror as a site wherein we can contemplate our true plight of existing.

Of course, this contemplation can only be fleeting and fragmented. Closing his book, Ligotti remarks, “The hell of human consciousness is only a philosopher’s bedtime story we can hear each night and forgot each morning when we awake to go to school or to work or wherever we may go day after day after day” (226). In the end, Ligotti’s project is a thought experiment; in fact it cannot be anything else, since human consciousness paradoxically creates and cannot abide the horror of human existence. Certainly, Ligotti conceives of supernatural horror fictions as privileged sites of ontological insight. Yet, the book ends with humanity’s own inability to act on the only conclusion left:

…might we not bring an end to the conspiracy against the human race? This would seem the right course. [...] Overpopulated worlds of the unborn would not have to suffer for our undoing [...] that said, nothing we know would have us take that step. What could be more unthinkable? We are only human beings. Ask anybody. (228)

Still, True Detective is neither a philosopher’s bedtime story or supernatural horror, and yet there remains a productive affinity between Ligotti’s work and the HBO series. Where Ligotti provides substantial portions of the hallmark character’s identity and dialogue, True Detective puts Ligotti’s thought experiment to far more practical uses than does Ligotti himself.  By intertwining hurricanes and flooding alongside industry and pollution into the background and negative space of the setting, the series implicates the urgent material reality of climate change and environmental collapse into the setting: “all of this is going to be under water in thirty years” (“Long Bright Dark”). In doing so, the series employs Southern gothic conventions to look forward rather than backward in time. Rather than the decay and degeneration of the landscape as reflective of the past, such squalor points forward to a time, rapidly approaching, when the setting will itself be swallowed by the sea. Hence, True Detective enacts a more practical approach to Ligotti’s horror, one I’m calling terrestrial horror: “it’s all one big gutter in outer space” (“Long Bright Dark”).

It is worth noting that several television critics and scholars have cast True Detective into the traditional “cosmic horror,” and that I’m further refining that distinction with the label, “terrestrial horror.” “Cosmic Horror” has come to refer to a body of horror fiction related to and stemming from the work of H.P. Lovecraft, but also including other late 19th and 20th century writers, most noteworthy of them for discussions of True Detective being Robert Chambers and his The King in Yellow.  The label originates, at least loosely, in the two editions of Lovecraft’s own essay, “Supernatural Horror and Literature.” As Vivian Ralickas explains, drawing on the work of Bradley Will, “the force of cosmic horror is based upon Lovecraft’s presentation of the unknowable rather than merely the unknown in his fiction” (“Cosmic Horror” 364). Elsewhere, Ralickas continues,

it has become commonplace in Lovecraft scholarship to affirm that his antihumanistic creation narrative asserts that our social bonds, religious beliefs, and cultural achievements are not only irrelevant if considered from outside the limited scope of human affairs, but are based upon a false understanding of the cosmos and of our place in it. (“Art” 297)

Donald Burleson echoes this sentiment: stories of cosmic horror “form a sort of conceptual web, interlacing to provide a potential for expression of the one major idea that always emerges; [...] self-knowledge, or discovery of one’s own position in the real fabric of the universe, is psychically ruinous” (137). To think of Cthulhu is to risk one’s sanity. To read even a short passage from “The King in Yellow,” the fictional play occupying the negative space in the center of Chamber’s volume of the same name, is to lose one’s mind. Cosmic horror focuses on human limitations and irrelevance and traffics in questions of scale. From a cosmic perspective, both in terms of sheer size and in terms of deep time, humanity does not meaningfully exist at all.

There are obvious reasons why critics and scholars have aligned True Detective with cosmic horror: Cohle’s pessimistic soliloquies; the various ruminations about time circular and otherwise; the primeval imagery of death, and Cohle’s cosmic hallucination in his final encounter with Billy Childress. However, because cosmic horror positions humanity as irrelevant, it also relieves humans of any real culpability towards the conditions of its existence. Not so with True Detective, and therefore, the series needs a more precise set of terminology for codifying the elements of horror at work.

Terrestrial horror offers three things: (1) it employs the gothic setting so common to horror to look forward rather than backward, thus repurposing gothic conventions to the service of foreshadowing; (2) it implicates all of humanity in corruption rather than an individual or group; and (3) it changes the setting’s echo of the physical, mental, and moral corruption of the inhabitants from the symbolic to the literal. The end game of terrestrial horror is simple.  It opens a space wherein humans must confront the end of humanity.  This confrontation is not softened by a comforting conceptual veneer (i.e., theoretically humanity will end as all species must), nor does the terrestrial horror dilute its posthumanism with safe temporal space (i.e., of course humanity will end in the distant future). Moreover, terrestrial horror blames human corruption for the demise of humanity. Unlike Cosmic horror, wherein humans are irrelevant, terrestrial horror implicates human activity directly in the destruction of the environment and the horrors that ensue.  Terrestrial horror uses the traditional conventions of gothic horror to confront the real and immediate end of humanity as we have known it. Human life will discontinue as it has been existing within a generation or two. Terrestrial horror takes up the intellectual project of horror fiction more generally by forcing its audience to consider a radical and immediate posthumanism.

Gothic Conventions Look Forward

Certainly, True Detective offers traditional elements of gothic horror and of the Southern gothic more specifically: dusky swamp scenes, labyrinthine structures and neighborhoods, uncanny primitive symbols and markings, and erotized violence and death. In fact, the two central confrontations of the entire season are thoroughly encoded as gothic encounters. We get a rather heavy-handed preview of the first showdown, wherein Hart kills Reggie Ledoux and the Dora Lange case is supposedly solved.  As “The Locked Room” concludes, Cohle offers a gothically inflected rumination on the comforts of death: “It was all the same dream, a dream that you had inside a locked room, a dream about being a person and like a lot of dreams there’s a monster at the end of it” (“The Locked Room”).  As he talks, the scene cuts to Ledoux and his compound. The compound is literally the center of a labyrinth set into the Louisiana low country. Complete with concealed traps and cryptic, primitive stick made “devil nets,” the labyrinth contains a compound of decaying structures at its center, as a kind of perverse mad scientist’s lab containing captive children and the chemistry of 21st degeneration. Ledoux himself first appears in this scene as the monster at the end of humanity’s collective dream. Cohle’s lengthy voiceover, offering the audience the monster incarnate, the dissonant music, the striking body of the “monster itself” dangle at the end of the episode inviting speculation on Ledoux not as human but as monster.

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen reminds us that the physicality of monstrosity, the body of the monster itself is a primary node of meaning:

The monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy (ataractic or incendiary), giving them life and an uncanny independence. The monstrous body is pure culture. A construct and a projection, the monster exists only to be read: the monstrum is etymologically “that which reveals,” “that which warns,” a glyph that seeks a hierophant. (199)

The monster’s body is nothing but text; it exists only to convey. This machete wielding, tattooed, monster at the end of humanity’s dream in “a locked room” serves also as a critical turning point in the series’ use of animality.

Wearing only a makeshift loincloth and gas mask, carrying a machete, Ledoux, at this moment, functions as lycanthrope, as hybrid, as a figure suspended between human and monster, between man and beast. The mask protrudes from his face offering the suggestion of a snout and deformed trunk swinging under glassy, impenetrable eyes. In a series filled with humans sporting animal heads, Regional Ledoux recalls both the antlers crowning Dora Lange’s corpse, the paganized masks of the abusive collection of men driving the violence behind the plot, and enacts an important departure at the season’s midpoint. His animality results not from the performance of biological hybridity between human and animal but from technological hybridity between human and pollution. His “animal face” looks not backward in time toward an ancient paganism but forward to a horrific, present and future industrialism. The labyrinth at the center of the season houses an avatar of terrestrial horror: a human/animal made hybrid by a piece of technology rendered necessary by the advent of chemical warfare, pollution, and the chemical/commercial reality of street drugs. While terrestrial horror employs traditional gothic images and themes, it is the industry, technology, pollution, and climate change of the 21st century that actually haunts the series.

Repeatedly, even insistently, images of industry: smoke stacks, commercial boats, nondescript industrial buildings silently manifest in the mise en scene of True Detective largely unnoticed by the characters themselves; the audience is often the only witness to these ghostly avatars of industry. As Andrian Van Young has observed, “This gorgeously dilapidated region—every year more worried away by hurricanes, the oil-drilling erosion of protective wetlands, and sinking clay foundations—is the perfect earthly limbo for staging True Detective’s elemental drama” (2). The silent presence of these industrial sentinels embedded in the setting point to the presence and immediate future of the region, and consequently of the Earth itself. While the individual corruption of specific bodies and specific humans plays out, the harbingers of industry gesture to the global corruption that is underway marching toward the inevitable demise of the human race itself.

Only a few minutes into the pilot, Rust and Cohle visit the staging site of Dora Lange’s body. As their car arrives, a series of massive power lines tower over the scene silently stretching away out of sight. Subtle and seemingly part of the background, this line of giant steel towers strung together by electrical lines appears again as Cohle walks away from the scene contemplating his daughter’s birthday. Set in Erath, an obvious anagram for “Earth,” these giants, recalling crucifixes and industrial “devil nets,” themselves preside over the scene of a specific corrupted body but point towards the corruption of the planet itself as the cane still smolders under the industrial power that courses through the lines hanging above the entire scene.

The critical presence of industrial pollution and corruption in the setting of True Detective, recalls traditional gothic horror conventions but does so to different effect. As Sharla Hutchison and Rebecca Brown articulate, traditional gothic horror settings and monsters represent “repressed transhistorical fears,” but they go on to elucidate the changing nature of horror fiction in the late 20th and early 21st centuries (1). “Monster” derives from monstrum, meaning “that which reveals” or “that which warns” (Cohen 4), and monstrous indeed is the industrial corruption seeping into nearly every aspect of the show. Unlike the traditional uses of the gothic setting, which look backward toward repressed cultural fears, and unlike cosmic horror which takes a temporal perspective measured in eons looking both to the impossibly ancient or the impossibly distant future, True Detective, as an example of terrestrial horror, uses its setting to look to the immediate future, to events just a generation or so away. The setting, then, of terrestrial horror is the ever looming spectre of environmental collapse brought about by industrial pollution and corruption. Not only is the series about posthumanism, it is literally set in the final days of humans living in industrial societies.

All of Humanity is Corrupt

Cohle further aligns the specific corruption of the murder with a general corruption of humanity itself. Following their investigation of Dora Lange’s body in the cane fields, Rust offers his version of pessimism casting doubts as to the tenability of humanity ontologically. Yet the scene ends not philosophically but again industrially: “I get a bad taste in my mouth out here. Aluminum, ash, like you can smell the psychosphere” (“The Long Bright Dark”). If we take psychosphere literally as the atmosphere of human thought or human consciousness, that atmosphere is itself permeated by the pollution of industry. Our collective destruction of the planet is seeping into the thoughts and consciousness of humanity as a whole.

While the corruption of the actual murders and local politicians remains at the center of the season, True Detective implicates every character in some degree of corrupt behavior. For example Tuttle, and his cousin the governor, using his position and relationship to steer the investigation away from the truth; Geraci and the boys “canvass[ing] the bars pretty good;” or “a Man’s game charg[ing] a man’s price.” (“Seeing Things” and “Haunted Houses”). Marty’s philandering and murder of Reggie Ledoux, and their systematic cover-up of the true events surrounding their “big 419” implicate the detectives themselves in the corruption rampant throughout the series. In fact there are no “innocent” characters to be found in True Detective.

A particularly instructive example of this is Maggie. The long suffering wife of Marty Hart certainly has cause to be angry with her husband; however, even she is finally guilty of violence as she destroys the relationship between Hart and Cohle. Following Marty’s final infidelity, Maggie takes matters into her own hands and attempts to reciprocate the infidelity. However she “couldn’t do it:” couldn’t “go home with a stranger” (“Haunted Houses”). Instead, she approaches a recently suspended Cohle, and they consummate her plans. She then explains, “Now, he’ll have to leave. He won’t stand for this” (“Haunted Houses”). Herself a victim of Marty’s indiscretions, she perpetuates the degeneration of relationships.

Along with the absence of innocent characters, the series is rife with corrupted human bodies. Opening with the posed corpse of Dora Lange, the series parades various mutilated corpses across the screen, underscoring that the corruption of humanity (as represented by the bodies), is epidemic and largely manmade. The pitcher’s “cerebral event” implies steroid abuse. However, the family was never told what really happened.  Dora’s mother’s body has been wrecked by the chemical exposure associated with years in dry cleaning. Her ruined nails and tremors offer an outward sign of a damaged mental state made worse by the gruesome murder of her daughter. Burt did his time in Angola where he was mutilated due to “bad medicine.” Cohle himself has hallucinations caused by prolonged drug use, and Billy Childress’s oft remarked upon face results from his father’s violence and is a permanent living reminder that the corruption of flesh in this series extends far beyond the actual murders driving the plot.

Traditional gothic corruption localizes itself around an individual, family or small group wherein the evil, alienated, or traumatized individual(s) become the nexus of the gothic horror of the narrative. For example Dr. Frankenstein and his creature, Lord Ruthven, The Usher family, or Count Dracula. The fascination of the traditional gothic works in the collapse of the individual human mind and body. María Negroni looks back to the original gothic narrative:

In 1748 [Walpole] begin obsessive constructing Strawberry Hill. For more than sixteen years, he labored at that collage, constantly tacking new structures onto his mansion. [...] One day, while fighting a fever, he dreamed of another castle and the Imperative to bring it to be. The second castle, The Castle Otranto (1764), is a book that he wrote in a single sitting, by channeling the excesses of his dream. And so, he finally built a house not for himself but for his desire and finally grasped the imagined–that is real– form for his castle. (6)

Herein lies the individuality of gothic horror. One troubled mind, forging for itself an expression of that abnormality, the abomination residing within the singularly corrupted mind and body: “this episode is crucial. It shatters, for the first time, the effective myth of the Enlightenment. Here its confidence wilts; night tinges its sunshine. His intuition was simple: if reality exceeds what is observable, then darkness is a gift, as is awareness of the darkness in the world” (6-7). As The Enlightenment and its handmaiden, Liberal Humanism, glorified the individual human and individual human accomplishments as central to existence. The gothic was ever the dark side of that equation.  Wherein individuals could be exceptional, they could just as easily be exceptionally corrupt.

Cosmic horror alternatively positions the corruption on a cosmic scale, rendering questions of individual or communal human corruption mute. As Lovecraft himself explains,

The unknown, being likewise the unpredictable,  became  for  our  primitive forefathers a terrible and omnipotent source of  boons  and  calamities  visited  upon mankind  for  cryptic  and  wholly  extra-terrestrial  reasons,  and  thus  clearly belonging  to  spheres  of  existence  whereof we know nothing and wherein we have no part. (1)

Lovecraft’s Old Ones and his extraterrestrial beings exist so far from human experience that it is the very unknowing that renders them terrifying and generates the horror of cosmic horror.

True Detective falls between traditional gothic horror and cosmic horror. While the series offers the gothic cult of a few corrupt individuals at its center, by implicating every character in corruption, the series uses the convention of gothic horror to point to the general corruption pervasive throughout humanity. However, this is not horror on a cosmic scale. Industrial pollution has seeped into humanity twisting bodies and destroying communities.  The horror of True Detective is not classical gothic, nor cosmic; rather, it is terrestrial.

Setting goes from Symbolic to Literal (haunted by real ships and industry)

Traditional gothic horror relies heavily on its setting to convey its terrifying meanings. The house of Usher is symbolically a representation of its inhabitant’s decaying mind.  At the moment of Dracula’s death, it is his castle that draws attention: “The Castle of Dracula now stood out against the red sky, and every stone of its broken battlements was articulated against the light of the setting sun” (Stoker 325). Mr. Rochester’s attic becomes his mind locking away his first wife from the world and from his own thoughts. In America, lacking the long medieval history and architecture onto which writers could map their gothic visions,

the swamps helped solve the problem. American writers of the bizarre and macabre, such as Edgar Allan Poe, could utilize the dark fens of the new world–particularly in the South–to create the appropriate symbolic landscape upon which the quintessential gothic tale depends. (McIntyre 39)

Cosmic gothic, too, relies heavily on its setting to function symbolically. The very title of “The Mountains of Madness” foreshadows the connections between the alien, Antarctic landscape and the sanity shattering discoveries waiting under the ice.

While the setting of True Detective certainly contains the swamps and decaying structures of gothic fiction, these are not merely symbolic representations of moral or social corruption, but also literal markers of impending environmental collapse. The presence of hurricanes, for instance, prove central to the plot not as symbols but through the destruction of records and the disruption of social order. The entire pretense of bringing Hart and Cohle back after to rehash their “big 419” is that hurricane Rita destroyed the case files.

In fact, hurricanes figure prominently in the backdrop of the series. The swirling symbol left on the victims’ bodies recall the cyclonic storms. When Rust shows the minister of the “predominantly African American congregation” the symbol, he remarks that it “looks like something might be carved into the trunk of a tree, subtly suggesting human corruption of the natural world (“Seeing Things”). The swirling spiral repeatedly pops up throughout the season. Marty comes home and finds that Rust has mowed his yard, and a paper plate hangs on his kitchen wall colored into the same spiral, presumably by one of his daughters. When the detectives come upon the burned out church, a flock of birds flies up from the marsh and assumes the same spiral shape momentarily. While these recurring spirals certainly allude to the cult markings of Carcosa’s followers, they also, and more importantly, alert viewers to the literal coming horror of climate change and massive flooding via strong and more frequent hurricanes. The series achieves this through reference to famous storms of the recent past.

The storms provide opportunities for corruption to occur or erase the evidence of its happening. Hurricane Andrew apparently washed out the school Dora Lange attended, which was also no doubt attended by other victims of the Carcosa cult’s violence. Flooding and hurricanes are repeatedly blamed for destroying files and evidence, covering up potential leads and erasing victims and predators alike. Hurricane Katrina figures perhaps most prominently, when Rust conjectures that the killer they pursue, “had a real good time after [Katrina]. Chaos. People missing and people gone. Cops gone. I think he had a real good year” (“Form and Void”). In many ways the literal setting of the series is the presence and effects of hurricanes.

Furthermore, the series implicates humanity and human action in the impending disaster. Rather than placing the horror of climate change at the feet of formidable Nature, red in tooth and claw, as Cosmic horror does, True Detective blames human industrial pollution, and it does this, in part, through the literalness of the industrial backdrop of the season.

Concluding by Looking Forward

This piece began with the affinity between Ligotti’s Conspiracy Against the Human Race and True Detective, yet there is a broader conversation underway.  Eugene Thacker, Thomas Ligotti, David Peak, John Gray, Maria Androni, and Michel Houellebecq, among others, have been, in various ways, sounding the call for approaching horror fiction as a research program. However, the parameters, scope and methodologies of such a program have yet to be determined. The humanities, as a collection of disciplines, contributing to the recent interest in horror fiction, must stop merely calling for horror as a research program and must formalize, theorize, and practice this research. The water is rising and time is literally running out.

The task of formalizing this research program is already underway performatively. That is to say, that horror fiction itself, defined broadly, is formalizing our research program for us, and we need to follow that lead and theorize our research program from there. For example, Victor Lavalle’s The Ballad of Black Tom and Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country: A Novel, both set Lovecraftian supernatural horror and mythos in Jim Crow era racism and productively connect the horrors of white supremacy and institutional racism with the supernatural terrors so emblematic of Lovecraft’s mythology. In doing so, these authors have initiated the most productive engagement to date with the profound racism of Lovecraft and his writings and, more importantly, implicitly demonstrate how Western notions of monstrosity powerfully manufacture the demonized black, male body. These authors take the next logical step, and in so doing, point scholars in the humanities toward the formalizing of horror as research program: Horror fiction can be a powerful tool for undermining the demonized black male figure that institutional racism relies upon so heavily.

Similarly True Detective, and terrestrial horror more generally, perform the same kind of formalizing; in this case circulating around the cultural and social implications of climate change. While researching the scientific elements of climate change is best left to the STEM fields, horror as research program is particularly well suited for investigating the social and cultural changes that environmental collapse will bring. In this case, True Detective begins to lay the groundwork for the kinds of cognitive and practical preparations called for by the imminent collapse of social and civil order following the coming climatic changes.

Works Cited

Austin, Wendy Warren. “What We Can Learn from Two Plagiarism Accusations in 2014: Slavoj Žižek’s and Nic Pizzolatto’s Summer Scandals.» The CCCC-IP Annual: Top Intellectual Property Developments of 2014, 2015, pp.11-17.

Burleson, Donald R. Lovecraft: Disturbing the Universe. University Press of Kentucky, 2015.

Calia, Michael. “The Most Shocking Thing about HBO’s True Detective.” The Wall Street Journal, 30 January 2014, p. 7.

Cavallaro, Dani. Three Centuries of Horror, Terror, and Fear. Continuum, 2002.

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (seven theses).” Gothic Horror: A Guide for Students and Readers, edited by Clive Bloom, Palgrave, 2007, pp. 198-216.

Davis, Mike. True Detective Creator Nic Pizzolatto Accused of Plagiarism.” The Week, 5 August, 2015, p. 1.

“Form and Void.” True Detective: Season 1. written by Nic Pizzolatto, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, HBO, 2014.

Gray, John. Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals. Macmillan, 2007.

Harman, Graham. Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy. John Hunt Publishing, 2012.

“Haunted Houses.” True Detective: Season 1. Written by Nic Pizzolatto, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, HBO, 2014.

Hutchison, Sharla and Rebecca A. Brown. Monsters and Monstrosity from the Fin de Sièle to the Millennium. McFarland, 2015.

Ligotti, Thomas. The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: a Contrivance of Horror. Hippocampus Press, 2011.

“The Locked Room.” True Detective: Season 1. Written by Nic Pizzolatto, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, HBO, 2014.

“The Long Bright Dark.” True Detective: Season 1. Written by Nic Pizzolatto, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, HBO, 2014.

Lovecraft, H.P. “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” Courier corp., 1945.

Mcintyre, Rebecca. “Promoting the Gothic South.” Southern Cultures, Vol 11, No. 2, 2005, pp 39-51.

Negroni, María. Dark Museum. Translated by Michelle Gil-Montero, University of Notre Dame, Press, 2015.

Ralickas, Vivian. “‘Cosmic Horror’ and the Question of the Sublime in Lovecraft.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Vol 18, No, 3, 2008, pp 364-379.

–”Art, Cosmic Horror, and the Fetishizing Gaze in the Fiction of HP Lovecraft.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Vol 19, No, 3, 2008, 297-310.

“Seeing Things.” True Detective: Season 1. written by Nic Pizzolatto, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, HBO, 2014.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Norton Critical Edition, 1977.

Thacker, Eugene. In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy: Vol. 1. John Hunt Publishing, 2011.

Van Young, Adrian. “Santeria and Voodoo All Mashed Together.” Slate. 4 March, 2014, pp 16-24.

Author Bio

Jonathan Elmore is Managing Editor of The Watchung Review and Assistant Professor of English at Savannah State University where he teaches composition, British and contemporary literatures. His research interests include composition theory and pedagogy, 19th and 20th century literature, Gothic and horror fiction, modernism, multimodal literacies, and the future of English departments. He has published and presented work on speculative fiction, dystopian fiction and on figures such as Cormac McCarthy, James Joyce, Joseph Conrad, Iris Murdoch, H.G. Wells, H.P. Lovecraft, Bram Stoker, and others.  

Reference Citation

Elmore, Jonathan. “More Than Simple Plagiarism: Ligotti, Pizzolatto, and True Detective’s Terrestrial Horror.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. vol. 4, no. 1, 2017

Elmore, J. (2017). More than simple plagiarism. Ligotti, Pizzolatto, and True Detective terrestrial horror. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 4(1).

Eastern Imaginaries

Erika Quinn
Eureka College
Eureka, Illinois, USA



Orientalist tropes shaped Western ideas about the East in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries through travelogues and fiction, and have persisted into the twenty-first. One central set -piece of these stereotypes is the imaginary Eastern European country, “Ruritania.” The advantages and drawbacks of such an imagined place are explored more thoroughly through two recent pieces of pop culture, Wes Anderson’s film “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, and China Miéville’s novel The City and the City. While Anderson’s film entertains and sustains Orientalist stereotypes, Miéville’s novel demands the reader go deeper to empathize with characters and grapple with key issues about collective identity, power, corruption and violence.

Keywords:  Wes Anderson, China Miéville, World War Two, Stefan Zweig, Bruno Schulz, Identity, Kitsch, Ruritania, Holocaust, Orientalism


Popular culture artifacts often reveal the “terrain” of social and political conflict (Mukerji and Schudson 1). In the West, fantasies about the mysterious, dangerous, inscrutable world of the East have played a central politico-cultural role since the nineteenth century. Travelogues, novels, operas and other works have perpetuated a particular understanding of the East that underlines Western rationality, civilization and power, and such ideas have persisted into the twenty-first century, articulated in film, fiction and by the mass media. It seems that when conflict arises in a part of the world coded Eastern, this Orientalist Western view gains a new voice and audience. Its most recent iteration is media coverage of the rhetorical and physical violence that broke out in Ukraine in 2014. Ukrainians accused each other of being fascists or stooges of oppressive Russian power, replaying conflicts from the 1930s and 1940s (Snyder). It was difficult for U.S. Americans to understand why World War II seemed so unresolved in that part of Europe. While coverage has generally been more sympathetic and contextual than that during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, when Western media all too often talked about “age-old ethnic hatreds” as the cause of genocidal violence (Wachtel 14; Glenny xxi), the popular view of the East as a confusing, nonsensical place peopled with irrational hotheads persists.

A central set piece of these stereotypes is the imaginary Eastern European country. Such countries resulted from Westerners’ ignorance of Eastern realities, given license by those lands’ alleged illegibility and irrationality. Because Westerners perceived on-the-ground conditions as impossible to understand, making up details about the region was a solution for easy “comprehension” through Orientalist codes.

Edward Said’s pioneering Orientalism of the late 1970s argued that Western imperial powers looked at the East through distorting, self-interested lenses. The nineteenth-century study and scrutiny of colonial holdings, an exercise in knowledge acquisition and domination, was not a project solely of the Western powers vis-à-vis their imperial lands. This core-periphery dynamic was also at play within Europe itself.1 German-speakers looked at Slavs and Magyars as lesser peoples, and the West generally viewed Eastern Europe as “irrational, depraved (fallen), childlike, ‘different’; thus the [Western] European [was] rational, virtuous, mature, ‘normal’” (Said 40). The violence of World War I, as well as its outbreak in the Balkans, plus the rise of authoritarian regimes and the final catastrophe of the Holocaust seem to give credence to these ideas. After World War II, communism appeared to anchor Eastern Europe in a quagmire of oppression, ignorance and backwardness anew. These projections and stereotypes have persisted past the Cold War era, which itself presented one of the most striking displays of Orientalist thought (Wolff 3), and have only been bolstered in the Western imagination since 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Two recent popular culture artifacts which work with ideas about Eastern Europe by creating imaginary locations, Wes Anderson’s acclaimed film, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)), and China Miéville’s novel, The City and the City (2009), display the pitfalls and promises popular culture can offer the student of the region. Are these imaginary locations just more “ambiguity about the definition of Eastern Europe,” a place which “is still so often defined in terms of pathology as much as geography” (Zahra 786)? While both artifacts were inspired by the works of Central European Jewish writers of first half of twentieth century and explore the powerful and all too often destructive nature of nationalism, only Miéville’s does so in a three-dimensional way that can actually illuminate human motivations and fears. Anderson’s alluring film features a dazzling array of actors, from F. Murray Abraham and Ralph Fiennes as the leads, to Bill Murray, Jude Law, Tilda Swinton and Jeff Goldblum as supporting cast. What the viewer actually finds in the film is a disappointment, however. Yes, Anderson’s world is fully imagined, but he fails to grasp the magnitude and gravity of the events and decisions facing Eastern Europeans in the late 1930s and 1940s. Choosing to set his film in “Zubrowka,” Anderson simply recasts old Western stereotypes of fear and longing onto Eastern Europe. Miéville’s novel, on the other hand, imagines cities of uncertain location but whose features clearly conjure the history of and current challenges facing East Central Europe, inviting readers to think more deeply about the region’s past and future by exploring questions of collective identity, the origins of conflict, and the possibility of transcending it. Miéville’s imagined world evokes historic and current conflicts in a suggestive, open-ended fashion, inviting the reader to be a participant in understanding.

Imagining Eastern Europe

The “family of ideas” (Said 41) propagated by the Orientalist mindset dates back to the Enlightenment of the late 1700s. Larry Wolff’s brilliant study explores how Enlightenment travelers and thinkers created the image of Eastern Europe—: backward, undeveloped, barbaric, in relation to the civilized, enlightened West. The idea of Eastern Europe as a foil to Western European enlightenment and progress was “produced as a work of cultural creation, of intellectual artifice, of ideological self-interest and self-promotion” (Wolff 4). Ideas about the lack of freedom of Eastern peoples, their sexual violence and promiscuity, their superstition and ignorance all clearly reflect back on an enlightened bourgeois agenda. Not only did these ideas serve to bolster Western confidence, they also forwarded a real project of extending Western power. Making Eastern Europe more “legible” by flattening out details and creating broad categories, the West enhanced its ability to extract labor and resources (Scott 25).

Travelers were essential to this constructive work of defining spaces culturally. As they wrote letters and essays about what they saw and encountered in the East, Western travelers participated in constructing the image through the Orientalist lenses they were unwittingly wearing. Often, travelogues attempted to sort out or “unscramble” the populations living in the East into clean, distinct ethnic categories (Wolff 286). Since “so many little wild peoples” settled the region and anthropological and archaeological data was scarce, writers often telescoped time between that of the area’s original settlement and their own period, creating a perpetual primitivism (Wolff 305). In the late 1800s, at the height of European imperialism, travel books created “domestic subjects” to engage metropolitan reading publics with expansionist enterprises. Writing, then, helped to produce “the rest of the world” (Pratt 5).

Popular fiction strengthened the trope of the dangerous, barbaric East by the authors’ blending of geographic, historical and imagined details. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) begins as a travel narrative with Jonathan Harker’s diary excerpts in which he records his journey to Dracula’s castle in Transylvania. The pedantic Harker, after assuring the reader of his knowledge of the region, notes that “Buda-Pesth” serves as a gateway to the East, and then lists the regions that make up East Central Europe as well as “unscrambling” their inhabitants by ethnic or national group (Stoker 9). He complains that when he arrived in the country, “we seemed to dawdle” through it, and the peasants are “very picturesque,” even though the Slovaks are “more barbarian than the rest,” wearing cowboy hats and wide leather belts studded with brass nails. Harker’s sense of the slow passage of time (and therefore, of his movement through space) betrays his Western perspective about the ancient, backward East, unchanging and eternal, as well as the inhabitants’ lackadaisical ways. Upon nearing the castle, he is surrounded by a crowd of people all making the sign of the cross and pointing two fingers at him, which one man reluctantly explains is a charm against the evil eye. While this detail works as foreshadowing, it also portrays the locals as superstitious, ignorant people (14). His host Dracula welcomes him with the observation, “We are in Transylvania, and Transylvania is not England. Our ways are not your ways, and there shall be to you many strange things” (27). This statement underlines Dracula’s dangerousness. He is a threat from the East—, a powerful, well educated creature who possesses an uncertain but dangerous heritage; he is not easily legible. The vampire recounts his lineage in a long monologue: “We Szekelys,” he boasts, “when the Magyar, the Lombard, the Avar, the Bulgar, or the Turk poured his thousands on our frontiers, we drove them back” (33). Dracula, too, telescopes time between the conquest of the region and his own present; as he is a vampire, perhaps they are one and the same. Passages like these fall back on “a Western tradition of seeing unrest in Eastern Europe primarily in terms of racial strife” (Arata 628). Dracula himself has a hybrid racial identity of Székely and vampire, two lineages that cannot be unscrambled.

Imaginary people and places that were nonetheless coded “Eastern” were a favorite among British authors of popular fiction. Like imperial adventure stories, these mysteries and stories of mistaken identity paint “the Other” as backward, particularly in the political realm. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story “A Scandal in Bohemia” (1891) echoes many of the clichés and concerns expressed by Stoker. Doyle’s story indulges the Western tendency to blend fact and fiction regarding the East, contributing to the idea of Eastern illegibility. The story revolves around Holmes’ introduction to the scion of the imaginary House of Ormstein, the hereditary kings of Bohemia. When Holmes first meets the aristocrat, Sigismond von Ormstein is dressed richly, “akin to bad taste” with a cape lined by “flame-colored silk,” a “brooch of flaming beryl,” and riding boots halfway up his calves, which were trimmed at the tops with fur. Ormstein embodies, in short, “barbaric opulence” (Conan Doyle 244). The case which the King wants Holmes to resolve is one of sexual impropriety that could bring earthshaking scandal to Europe.

A similar story unfolds in The Prisoner of Zenda, first published in 1894 by Anthony Hope. Readers may be more familiar with the 1937 screen adaptation starring Ronald Colman, Madeleine Carroll and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. It revolves around competition and plotting for the throne of a fictional Eastern European country, Ruritania. This idea of an imaginary Eastern kingdom—these stories are populated by aristocrats and monarchs, never republicans and liberals, since freedom has not arrived yet—is so pervasive in the West that an entire genre of adventure stories known as “Ruritanian romances” exists, and the term “Ruritania” is used in academia to refer to a hypothetical country.2 The Ruritanian trope—a collection of stereotypical characteristics applied without any regard for the actual because of its allegedly nonsensical irrationality—is by its nature a hegemonic construct.

World War II and the Holocaust in the Orientalist Imagination

The fraught 1930s and 1940s continue to fascinate audiences, as the ongoing flood of fiction, film and other forms of popular culture addressing Nazism, World War II and the Holocaust illustrates. It is important for this devastating historical material to reach a broad audience and its events to be addressed in a myriad of ways. The primary purpose of popular culture is entertainment, but it can, as above, also illuminate contemporary cultural values and mentalities. Popular culture also makes claims to artistic status at times, and sometimes achieves it. When pop culture treats the interwar and war periods, the collision of entertainment and historical accuracy can often be disturbing, for example, in the 1997 film Life is Beautiful. As Ruth Kluger recently observed, “the arts . . . promise pleasure” (392-393) and taking on serious, morally complex and disturbing topics like World War II and the Holocaust sets up a possible dynamic of conflict. Can horrific historical content still sit comfortably with pleasing or beautiful aesthetics? In short, should we enjoy reading about death camps and gas chambers? For American consumers of popular culture, the mainstream triumphalist understanding of World War II and the Holocaust particularly lend themselves to a kitschy, that is, historically ungrounded or inaccurate, aesthetics. Kluger asserts that art, whether literature or film, “can both enlighten and obfuscate, but if the subject is the Holocaust, it cannot be judged apart from history” (400). If historical truth is not present or if the author relies on well-worn stereotypes, the film “denotes contempt vis-à-vis the very horror for which the author professes his or her humanitarian concern” (403). Unfortunately, Anderson’s Golden Globe best picture winner is guilty of exactly that.

The Grand Budapest Hotel creates an entire world, one that reproduces a Mitteleuropean style and atmosphere through Anderson’s customary highly stylized, lovingly detailed production values. The film is set in the late 1930s as his fictional country Zubrowka, “on the farthest Eastern boundary of Europe” faces occupation by hostile German forces and war. The hotel itself, one of the finest in Europe, is situated in the town of Lutz in the Alps. The film combines the genres of “war films, prison break movies, and screwball comedies” (Gross) to produce a kitschy, campy Orientalist result.

The film follows its protagonist, Gustave H., the concierge of the hotel, played by Fiennes, as he trains a new lobby boy, Zero, and seduces elderly ladies passing through the hotel as guests. When one of them with whom he has conducted an affair for many years, Madame D. (played by Tilda Swinton), dies under suspicious circumstances, Gustave and Zero attend the visitation and reading of the will at her castle. There, the possibility of the existence of a second will is aired and her children are outraged. They are also incensed because she has bequeathed a valuable painting, “Boy with Apple,” to Gustave. Because he knows the heirs hate him, Gustave steals the painting and secures Zero’s aid in hiding it. Gustave is framed for Madame D.’s murder, arrested and thrown into prison. He meets a gang of motley prisoners, plies them with pastries and breaks out of prison. Thereafter he and Zero are rescued by his colleagues from the Brotherhood of the Crossed Keys. Meanwhile, Dmitri, Madame D.’s fascist son, played by Adrien Brody, is searching for the second will. Gustave and Zero make their way back to the hotel, rescue the painting, engage in a shooting match with Dmitri, find the second will and after much struggle, secure “Boy with Apple.”

In an interview with Terry Gross, host of National Public Radio’s Fresh Air program, Anderson explained that his choice to create an imaginary country was grounded in the desire to reinvigorate over-familiar World War II material. He claimed, “this series of events in Europe are somehow still right in the middle of our lives . . . we feel the impact in a daily way somehow” (Gross). In order to create the world of Zubrowka in the late 1930s and 1960s, he and his creative team traveled throughout Europe. They made a Ruritanian “pastiche of the greatest hits of Eastern Europe,” casting people they met in Budapest, Prague, Berlin and Poland. The fictional city Lutz was modeled on Budapest, Prague and Vienna. The team found a department store in Görlitz in Saxony, very close to the border with Poland and twenty minutes from the Czech Republic, which they transformed into the hotel itself. The Alpine backgrounds were inspired by Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings, especially his majestic landscapes (Gross). This rich imagination created a visually stunning, complex, entertaining film.

The sets and miniatures do strongly evoke aspects of the German-speaking former Habsburg world. For instance, at Madame D.’s castle, the grand foyer’s rug is adorned with crowns and an eagle. The large marble staircase, encased in dark, carved wood paneling on which coats of arms and antler wreaths hang, could be anywhere in Central Europe. The reading of the will seems to take place in a hunting lodge or the gentlemen’s salon, where there are more mounted heads as well as preposterous stacks of rifles. When Gustave is arrested, he is sent to a “criminal internment camp” whose enormous metal gate reads “Check-point 19,” evoking a gulag. When Gustave steals “Boy with Apple,” he and Zero replace it with a very Egon Schiele-like painting of two women pleasuring each other. While some details do ring with authenticity, many others simply evoke tired clichés and prejudices, such as Gustave’s insistence on wearing his favorite perfume, which is included in several scenes.

Anderson was inspired by the Austrian-Jewish writer Stefan Zweig’s work, and some parallels stand out immediately. Zweig was a cosmopolitan figure known for his popular short stories, essays, and novels of the early twentieth century. The film’s narrator is probably meant to be Zweig, but Zweig’s style shows up more strongly in the character of Gustave H. Gustave’s elegant, formal speech and diction, refined artistic taste (Gustave is an aficionado and writer of Romantic poetry), and sense of despair about the decline in taste and comportment echo Zweig’s World of Yesterday (1942). As Gustave’s protégé Zero later observes, “To be frank, I think his world had vanished before he ever entered into it.  But I will say, he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.” The setting at the hotel, with its moneyed, cosmopolitan clientele, could also be inspired by the fact that Zweig elected to live in Salzburg upon his return from traveling in Russia in the 1920s and 1930s. He and his wife enjoyed offering hospitality as a hotel does to a huge “variety of visitors” while living there (Zweig 347). So while Zweig’s writing and life may have inspired some details and the general diction of the film, Anderson has failed to really understand his source material, particularly in terms of tone. For example, Anderson chooses to punctuate Gustave’s dialogue with unexpected obscenities, sprinkled in for laughs. This is a kind of vulgarity Zweig would likely not have embraced. More serious are the facts of Zweig’s despair and ultimate suicide. He described in horrified, outraged detail the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914, the heated nationalism of the time and, tragically, the arrival of German National Socialists in Austria and the anti-Semitic violence they encouraged there in the 1930s. To make slapstick comedy from this material misses the mark; making a joke out of Gustave H’s fussy, particular taste, love of poetry and elegant diction seems to mock Zweig as well.

Comedic moments generally overwhelm and undermine the film’s serious content, primarily through comic-book violence and two-dimensional morality. When Gustave is taken away to prison on murder charges, Zero next sees him with two badly blackened eyes. Given the gulag-like setting, Anderson’s reversal, to make those black eyes the result of a prison fight for dominance won by Gustave, who declares you cannot let people think “you’re a candy-ass,” both relieves the tension and trivializes the violence. Another scene, when Zero and Gustave are interrogated and beaten on a train, has a similar choreographed, comic-book violence about it. An important point about fascism—its contempt for the law—is raised in a scene between Dmitri, Deputy Kovacs and Dmitri’s enforcer Jopling. Dmitri wants Kovacs to disregard the possibility of a second, more recent will. Kovacs sternly replies, “I’m an attorney . . . I’m obligated to proceed according to the rule of law.” Dmitri angrily gestures to Jopling, who throws Kovacs’ cat out the window. This is all filmed in a comic fashion. Perhaps one could accept and enjoy the film simply as comic entertainment had Anderson not evoked Zweig’s memoir. In addition, given Anderson’s claim that such films as The Sorrow and the Pity and Shoah “triggered something” in him and “made [him] want to enter into this area“ (Gross), his films seems all the more kitschy and immature. In addition to the comic-book violence, the film’s morality is also immaturely straightforward and black-and-white, as far from Central European reality during the twentieth century as possible. It is crystal clear who the villains are; they wear black, literally. As the leader of the “Zig Zag Division” modeled on the SS, Dmitri wears long, sabot-like black gowns, a pointed mustache and towering wavy black hair. He is homophobic as well. Jopling, played by Willem Dafoe, is an even more two-dimensional caricature with his death’s head rings (or brass knuckles) on all ten fingers, his black leather jacket, sunken cheeks and fangs.

As with costume and set design, Anderson and his team enjoyed playing with names of people and places: a sign in front of a gas station reads “Fuelitz”; one of the local mountains is called Gabelmeister’s Peak; the local paper is called the Trans-Alpine Yodel; a famous spa Nebelsbad; and the surrounding forest, the Sudetenwald. Because of these careful appropriations and word play, cognoscenti will enjoy the loving attention to detail, but the pleasure of Anderson’s film is only skin deep.

While The Grand Budapest Hotel prettifies and trivializes the region’s history, Miéville’s novel, also set in an imaginary location, invites the reader to think more deeply and empathize with its characters. The novel is a noir-style police procedural. It opens with the discovery of an unidentified young woman’s body. While they try to identify the body, Inspector Tyador Borlú and his assistant Lizbyet Corwi learn it was taken to the drop site by a van. Once the body is identified as Mahalia Geary, an American doctoral student studying archaeology, her parents claim her dissertation topic may have led to her death. She had antagonized many scholars at conferences by asking impolitic questions and making unpleasant claims. As Borlú tracks her killer, tracing her connection to other foreigners, extremist groups, historians and politicians, he raises vexing questions about the past and how it is remembered, exposes political corruption and the existence of terrorist cells and ultimately identifies a villain who violates the most basic codes and taboos of the fictional world in which he lives.

The novel is set in two city-states, Beszel and Ul Qoma, which share identical geography. “Grosstopically” then, they are the same location (Miéville 66). Yet within the territory on which the cities are situated, two separate metropolises exist. They exist in a state of permanent tension and distinction deeply imbued in their citizens’ minds. The two-in-one territory requires that each city’s population fails to perceive the other. They are deeply committed to the differences between the cities and one can see this refusal to perceive as a deep kind of respect for sovereignty or as the abrogation of civic decency and responsibility. Inhabitants “unsee” features of the other city: its roads, buildings, people, even plants. When Borlú leaves work, he describes his route.

As I turned, I saw past the edges of the estate to the end of GunterStrász, between the dirty brick buildings. Trash moved in the wind. It might be anywhere. An elderly woman was walking slowly away from me in a shambling sway. She turned her head and looked at me. I was struck by her motion, and I met her eyes. I wondered if she wanted to tell me something. In my glance I took in her clothes, her way of walking, of holding herself, and looking.

With a hard start, I realized that she was not on GunterStrász at all, and that I should not have seen her.

She was in Ul Qoma; Borlú was in Beszel (12).

Like Anderson’s film, Miéville’s novel was also inspired by the interwar writing of a Central European Jew. Bruno Schulz’s 1934 short story collection, The Street of Crocodiles, chronicles his family’s life in a Galician town, inhabited by Poles, Ukrainians and Jews, that is undergoing slow but visible change. The respectable areas seem to lie in gloom and decay, which relates to Schulz’s own family of textile merchants and the decline of their business brought on by the early twentieth-century oil boom. In the titular story, a sense of mystery, illusion and even deceit linger in the town. “There open up, so to speak, double streets, doppelganger streets, mendacious and delusive streets” (49). The narrator continues, “One’s imagination, bewitched and misled, creates illusory maps of the apparently familiar districts, maps in which streets have their proper places and usual names but are provided with new and fictitious configurations by the inexhaustible inventiveness of the night” (49). Miéville’s cities emphasize the illusory and constructed nature of identity and that apparently evident truths may in fact obscure the true nature of things. As a boy, Schulz’s narrator was obsessed with a wall map his father kept in a desk drawer.

On that map, . . . the area of the Street of Crocodiles shone with the empty whiteness that usually marks polar regions or unexplored countries of which almost nothing is known. The lines of only a few streets were marked in black and their names given in simple, unadorned lettering, different from the noble script of other captions. The cartographer must have been loath to include that district in the city and his reservations found expression in the typographical treatment. (58)

The blank spot on the map, a classic image of European exploration of Africa, conjures associations with imperial power and the backwardness of the town. Maps represent not only physical space, but also, often, its contestation by different demographic groups. Perhaps, already in the early 1930s, Schulz already possessed a sense of foreboding about impending ethnic tensions and his own fate. Caught up in a revenge cycle between two Gestapo officers, Schulz was shot while walking through the “Aryan quarter” of his German-occupied hometown Drohobych in 1942.

Miéville’s cities, corrupt, decaying and mysterious, and full of the foreboding of Schulz’s work, possess a myriad of potential internal frontiers, “where crossing from one side to the other means switching the sovereign political authority under which one lives” (Bartov and Weitz 1). The cities control this process very tightly by creating only one legal method to perform such a crossing, through Copula Hall. Any other crossing constitutes Breach—the transgression of territorial and social boundaries, the cities’ deepest and most terrifying taboo. The two cities depend on their utter discreteness and their citizens’ ability to live in this kind of fiction. Children have to learn early to “unsee” the other city; in places of crosshatching, where the cities interact in a Swiss cheese-like fashion, “Ul Qoman children and Besz children clamber past each other [on the same tree], each obeying their parents’ whispered strictures to unsee the other” (195). Both cities’ inhabitants live under intense psychological pressure to deny the reality their senses take in, much as inhabitants of Soviet Communist or other totalitarian states did.

While Miéville is reluctant for readers to “identify” where Beszel/Ul Qoma is located, the cities strongly evoke Central Europe, although this is by no means definitive: some may see parallels to the Middle East. In an interview, Miéville cautions readers that his novel is not allegorical. He suggests the cities are a metaphor; unlike Anderson’s film, the reader’s task is not to simply decode (320-21). Miéville’s invented languages, Besz and Illitan, nonetheless echo many patterns of Central European spelling and names, for example GunterStrász and KünigStrász in Beszel, as well as its Venceslas Square (9, 65, 44). One can fly direct from Beszel to Budapest, Skopje, and Athens, and Bucharest and Turkey are also close by (72, 31).

The air of paranoia that pervades both cities, as well as Borlú’s somewhat hard-boiled affect, contribute to the noir atmosphere. The fact that there is a mysterious entity—Breach—that polices the borders between the cities deepens the sense of diffused Foucauldian power, and Breach is a kind of bogeyman possessed of  “powers . . . almost impossible . . . to make out” (66). Here, morality is much more ambiguous than in Anderson’s film; the villains are revealed only at the end. One of them is simply a corrupt, greedy politician, while the other, his puppet master, truly has destructive designs.

The political landscape of the city-states features collective identity as a key issue. Both sides are troubled by ultranationalists and unificationists, those who wish the two cities to become one. When talking about the Dissident Units on the police force, Corwi explains that their focus is “all Nazis and reds and unifs and so on” (39). Both Beszel and Ul Qoma have extremist groups willing to use violence to forward their programs: Borlú is sent a mail bomb, and Mahalia Geary faced several death threats for investigating the cities’ shared past and origin myths. Because there is no physical frontier demarcating them, the cities’ overlapping geographies heighten typical nationalist fears of internal fifth columns; the borderland, so to speak, is inscribed in every minute detail of daily life for the cities’ inhabitants, and their own instincts and reflexes can betray them and their cities in turn. It takes great effort to uphold the artificiality of the cities’ discreteness.

The languages spoken in the two cities are the anchors for their different national identities and went through the kind of engineering most Eastern European languages did during the nineteenth century. Nationalists “forced linguistic differences to stand for a host of alleged qualitative differences” because the cultures were actually very similar (Judson 20-21). Borlú comments on the cities’ languages, Besz and Illitan:

If you do not know much about them, Illitan and Besz sound very different. They are written, of course, in distinct alphabets. Besz is in Besz: thirty-four letters, left to right, all sounds rendered clear and phonetic, consonants, vowels and demivowels decorated with diacritics—it looks, one often hears, like Cyrillic (though that is a comparison likely to annoy a citizen of Besz, true or not). Illitan uses Roman script. That is recent. . . . Read the travelogues of the last-but-one century and those older, and the strange and beautiful right-to-left Illitan calligraphy—and its jarring phonetics—is constantly remarked on. . . . The script was lost in 1923, overnight, a culmination of Ya Ilsa’s reforms: it was Atatürk who imitated him, not, as is usually claimed, the other way around. (41)

But language is perhaps only a surface detail: Borlú continues that

these distinctions are not as deep as they appear. Despite careful cultural differentiation, in the shape of their grammars and the relations of their phonemes (if not the base sounds themselves), the languages are closely related—they share a common ancestor, after all. It feels almost seditious to say so. Still. (41)

The cities share an unknown origin. Mahalia Geary’s archaeological research at the Bol Ye’an dig in Ul Qoma makes nationalists defensive because it challenges their origin myths. The “uncertainties of history” have been transformed into “readable spaces” (Silberman, Till and Ward 4) by ironing out nuance and uncertainty with totalizing categories. Borlú muses,

It may or may not be Beszel, that we built, back then, while others may have been building Ul Qoma on the same bones. Perhaps there was one thing back then that later schismed on the ruins, or perhaps our ancestral Beszel had not yet met and standoffishly entwined with its neighbor. (42)

The importance of history for shaping identity for both those in Besz and in Ul Qoma is all too present for Borlú. His awareness of the historical revisionism at work in both cities only deepens his pessimism about their futures.

That beginning [of the two cities] was a shadow in history, an unknown—records effaced and vanished for a century either side. Anything could have happened. From that historically brief quite opaque moment came the chaos of our material history, an anarchy of chronology, of mismatched remnants and delighted and horrified investigators. (50)

It is clear that the cities’ official arrangement is meant to manage some kind of problem, and the “solution” mirrors that which was common in postwar peace treaties of the twentieth century. Where once diversity and plurality existed, strict segregation was put in place, in Beszel and Ul Qoma’s cases, more a “wall in the head” than a border fence; the distinction is enforced every moment by how people “act, dress, or move” (Silberman, Till and Ward 1-2). Both cities at one point worked together at least tacitly to develop the system. Both adhere to it, accept it, although they also need the supervisory power of Breach to enforce the distinction between them. Like Havel’s greengrocer, everyone is complicit—all participate in perpetuating the system (Havel 132).

Rather than reifying them, Miéville directly engages the stereotypes and prejudices the West projects onto the East. When Mahalia Geary’s parents arrive, clueless and disbelieving not only about their daughter’s death but also about the nature of the city where she lived, they have an encounter with James Thacker at the U.S. embassy in which Miéville directly addresses those prejudices and seeks to debunk them. The Gearys want to know why they can’t simply go to Ul Qoma immediately, lacking an understanding of the strict diplomatic and security protocols that exist between the cities. As recounted by Borlú, Thacker says,

‘Inspector Borlú, I’ll be happy to explain this.’ He hesitated. He wanted me to go. Any explanation carried out in my presence would have to be moderately polite: alone with other Americans he could stress to them how ridiculous and difficult these critics were, how sorry he and his colleagues were for the added complications of a crime occurring in Beszel, and so on. He could insinuate. It was an embarrassment, an antagonism. (78-79)

Thacker, an agent of the imperial metropole, has adjusted to the unusual local conditions, but he still sees them as unnecessary, irrational, and indicative of their inhabitants’ basic otherness. Miéville also addresses the instrumentalization of developing countries during and after the Cold War when the inspectors Dhatt (from Ul Qoma) and Borlú compare each city’s socio-economic development. Borlú observes, “Washington loves us, and all we’ve got to show for it is Coke” (194). Dhatt thinks that the cities are pawns of international power plays, and Ul Qoma’s apparent wealth compared to Beszel’s is but a temporary condition. “All this is old Cold War bullshit. Who gives a fuck who the Americans want to play with, anyway?” (194). The backwardness of Beszel in particular reflects Schulz’s sense of his town being left behind by the forces of history, neglected to molder into meaninglessness.

Miéville’s novel ends much more ambiguously than Anderson’s film, with Borlú becoming deracinated in a fashion, as he becomes Breach, the all-powerful authority that enforces the separation of the two cities. What this suggests is unclear—perhaps that national difference and hatred can be transcended? Or perhaps clandestine, authoritarian powers are pulling nationalist strings to serve their own interests, an interpretation presently circulating in East Central Europe? The novel lends itself to myriad interpretations, both historical and contemporary through its fully imagined world, its serious investigation of questions of national identity, borders, political violence and power.

Imaginary places in Eastern Europe have a long history as orientalist tropes. The alleged illegibility, backwardness and barbarity of Eastern lands tempted Westerners to “unscramble” them as well as dominate them. Depicting the East bereft of its full historical context is to be guilty of creating kitschy art, something that may be aesthetically pleasing yet historically inaccurate and therefore, irresponsible. Not only does Anderson’s film miss the mark in those terms; it also reifies national identity by perpetuating stereotypes through his exaggerated characters. Miéville’s novel avoids this trap through its fully imagined world and its serious investigation of questions of national identity, borders, political violence and power. Miéville seems to suggest that we need to remember how artificial collective identity is and that we can alter it. That hopeful vision has me thinking about it yet again as events in Ukraine and East Central Europe unfold.


Works Cited 

Anderson, Wes, and Terry Gross; March 12, 2014: Wes Anderson: ‘We Made a Pastiche’ of Eastern Europe’s Greatest Hits., accessed 6 July 2014.

Arata, Stephen. “The Occidental Tourist: Dracula and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization,” Victorian Studies vol. 33, no. 4, Summer 1990, pp. 621-645.

Bartov, Omer, and Eric D. Weitz. Shatterzone of Empires: Coexistence and Violence in the German, Habsburg, Russian, and Ottoman Borderlands. Indiana UP, 2013.

Berman, Nina.  Orientalismus, Kolonialismus und Moderne: Zum Bild des Orients in der deutschsprachigen Kultur um 1900. J.B. Metzler, 1997.

Doyle, Arthur Conan. “A Scandal in Bohemia,” in Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories, vol. 1, Bantam, 1986, pp. 239-262.

Glenny, Misha. The Balkans: Nationalism, War, and the Great Powers, 1804-2011. Penguin Books, 2012.

Gross, Terry, and Wes Anderson. “Wes Anderson: ‘We Made a Pastiche’ of Eastern Europe’s Greatest Hits.” Fresh Air, 12 March 2014,, accessed 6 July 2014.

Goldsworthy, Vesna. Inventing Ruritania: The Imperialism of the Imagination. Yale UP, 1998.

Havel, Vaclav. “The Power of the Powerless,” in Open Letters: Selected Writings 1965-1990. Edited, edited by Paul Wilson, Vintage Books, 1991, pp. 125-214.

Hope, Anthony. The Prisoner of Zenda: Being the History of Three Months in the Life of an English Gentleman. Dent, 1894.

Judson, Pieter M. Guardians of the Nation: Activists on the Language Frontier of Imperial Austria. Harvard UP, 2007.

Kluger, Ruth. “The Future of Holocaust Literature,” German Studies Review vol. 37, no. 2, 2014, pp. 391-403.

Kontje, Todd. German Orientalisms. U of Michigan P, 2004.

Marchand, Suzanne. German Orientalism in the Age of Empire: Religion, Race, and Scholarship. Cambridge UP, 2010.

Miéville, China. The City and the City. Ballantine Books, 2009.

Mukerji, Chandra and Michael Schudson, Rethinking Popular Culture: Contemporary Perspectives in Cultural Studies. U of California P, 1991.

Pratt, Mary Jo. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. Routledge, 1992.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979.

Schulz, Bruno. “The Street of Crocodiles,” in The Collected Works of Bruno Schulz. Edited and translated, edited by Jerzy Ficowski, Picador, 1998, pp. 18-99.

Scott, James C. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Yale UP, 1998.

Silberman, Marc, Karen E. Till, and Janet Ward. Walls, Borders, Boundaries: Spatial and Cultural Practices in Europe. Berghahn Books, 2012.

Snyder, Timothy. “Fascism, Russia, and Ukraine.” The New York Review of Books, 20 March 2014,, accessed July 11, 2014.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Edited by Nina Auerbach and David J. Skal, Norton, 1997.

Wachtel, Andrew Baruch. Making a Nation, Breaking a Nation: Literature and Cultural Politics in Yugoslavia. Stanford UP, 1998.

Wolff, Larry. Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment. Stanford UP, 1994.

Zahra, Tara. “Going West,” East European Politics & Societies vol. 25, no. 4, September 2011, pp. 785-791.

Zweig, Stefan. The World of Yesterday. Translated by Anthea Bell, The U of Nebraska P, 1964.



[1] My thanks to Alexander Vari and the journal’s anonymous readers for their helpful suggestions on this piece. See Berman, Kontje, and Marchand.See Nina Berman, Orientalismus, Kolonialismus und Moderne: Zum Bild des Orients in der deutschsprachigen Kultur um 1900 (Stuttgart: Verlag J.B. Metzler, 1997); Todd Kontje, German Orientalisms (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2004); Suzanne Marchand, German Orientalism in the Age of Empire: Religion, Race, and Scholarship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[2] See Goldsworthy.


Author Bio

Erika Quinn is an Associate Professor at Eureka College. Her research interests lie in Central European cultural history, focusing on the formation of subjectivities and the history of emotions. Her book Franz Liszt: A Story of Central European Subjectivity, was published by Brill in 201. She has also published articles on twentieth-century bereavement, with an emphasis on discourses and practices of grief and war widowhood. Quinn’s work can also be found at,

Reference Citation

Quinn, Erika. “Eastern Imaginaries.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol. 4, no. 1, 2017

Quinn, E. (2017). Eastern imaginaries. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 4(1).

Hyping the Hyperreal: Postmodern Visual Dynamics in Amy Heckerling’s Clueless

Andrew Urie 
York University
Toronto, Ontario, Canada



An iconic staple of 1990s Hollywood cinema, director-screenwriter Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (1995) is a cult classic. This article examines the film’s postmodern visual dynamics, which parody hyperreal media culture and its connection to feminine teen consumerism amidst the image-saturated society of mid-’90s era Los Angeles.

Keywords: Clueless; Amy Heckerling; Jane Austen; Emma; Popular Culture; Visual Culture; Film Studies; Media Studies; Postmodernism; Hyperreal

A contemporized reworking of Jane Austen’s 1816 novel, Emma, director-screenwriter Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (1995) stands out as a notable cultural artifact of 1990s Hollywood cinema. While an abundance of scholarly articles exist on how Heckerling adapted the key plot dynamics of Austen’s novel for a postmodern audience,1 this article will largely eschew such narrative analysis in favor of focusing on the film’s unique postmodern visual dynamics, which constitute an insightful parody of hyperreal media culture and its particular connection to feminine teen consumerism amidst the image-saturated society of mid-’90s era Los Angeles.

Less an adaptation of Emma than a postmodern appropriation, Clueless pays parodic homage to an oft-overlooked thematic element embedded in its source text. Transposing the decadence of Emma’s upper echelon Regency-era society for the nouveau riche decadence of Beverly Hills and its attendant culture of conspicuous consumption, the film focuses on the travails of its affluent sixteen-year-old heroine, Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone), whose narcissistic preoccupations revolve around consumerism and fashion. By emphasizing the spectacular nature of postmodern consumerism in mid-’90s era Los Angeles, the film reworks a key theme from the novel, which draws attention to the historic onset of consumerism and the bourgeois practice of shopping for luxury goods. Set in the fictional village of Highbury, Emma draws attention to how both the town’s gentry and its rising bourgeoisie partake of the then relatively new ritual of shopping for luxury goods at Ford’s, the village’s local store.

As literary critic Adela Pinch notes, “Historians of shopping have seen the era of Emma as a crucial moment in the development of consumer culture, one in which luxury shopping could become in [Sir Walter] Scott’s phrase, ‘social habit’ – habit that allowed for an everyday sense of connection to the larger social world” (Pinch xxii). Pinch’s comments can of course be related to the realm of the visual, for Regency-era consumer culture was not just about purchasing goods, but also about being seen within the larger social sphere. As both the director and screenwriter of Clueless, Heckerling appears to have picked up on this consumerist theme from Austen’s novel, for her film cleverly explores a postmodern culture in which image has become everything. To borrow an insight from Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (1967), one might say that Clueless offers a depiction of a corporate-dominated spectacular society in which social relationships have become “mediated by images” (Debord 12).

Clueless and Amy Heckerling: A Brief Overview

The sleeper hit of the summer of 1995, Clueless was a Paramount production that cost thirteen million dollars to make but ended up grossing nearly fifty-seven million dollars at the North American box-office alone (Douglas 101). A critical success as well as a commercial one, the film went on to win the 1995 National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Screenplay. In addition to inspiring a popular television series of the same name that aired on ABC from 1996-1997 and UPN from 1997-1999, Clueless revitalized the then sagging teen movie genre by igniting a filmic wave of youth-oriented adaptations of literary classics like Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1997), Alfonso Cuarón’s Great Expectations (1998), Gil Junger’s 10 Things I Hate About You (1999 [an adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew (c. 1593-1594)]), and Tim Blake Nelson’s O (2001 [an adaptation of Othello (c. 1603-1604)]).

Marked by vibrant visual dynamics that simultaneously complement and parody consumer culture, Clueless was also a notable influence on the visual style of such future so-called “chick flicks” as Legally Blonde (2001), Legally Blonde 2: Red, White, and Blue (2003), and Mean Girls (2004). Indeed, Clueless’s enduring popularity and influence have been most recently materially attested to in Australian pop star Iggy Azalea’s music video “Fancy” (2014), which functions as an overt simulational homage to some of the film’s most famous scenes. In this regard, Clueless has proven to be of such popular historical significance that Heckerling is now currently in the process of working on a treatment for a spectacular Broadway musical adaptation (Handler).

Bronx born and raised, the prodigiously talented Heckerling (b. 1954) studied film at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and then earned an MFA in Directing from the American Film Institute Conservatory in Los Angeles. A teen comedy veteran when she began working on Clueless, Heckerling had first risen to prominence with her Hollywood directorial debut, Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), which significantly influenced ’80s-era American popular culture by helping ignite the decade’s teen comedy craze upon which director John Hughes would subsequently secure his fame. An adaptation of Cameron Crowe’s 1981 novel of the same name, Fast Times at Ridgemont High is today regarded as iconic for its depiction of 1980s Southern California teen culture. In 2005 the Library of Congress selected the film for preservation in the United States Film Registry.

Clueless and Teen Consumerism

Clearly, Heckerling found the American youth landscape had changed by the time she began drafting Clueless in the early ’90s, for she had not depicted the lives of Ridgemont’s students as being anywhere near as colonized by consumerism as those of her teen characters in Clueless. While, for example, the teens in Fast Times at Ridgemont High spend time at the local mall, they experience a far more ambivalent relationship to this corporate space than do Cher and her friends, who view the mall as a consumerist haven. Taking note of this distinction in Branding: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers (2003), cultural critic Alissa Quart notes, “The Sherman Oaks Mall in Fast Times is strange to the movie’s characters: a giddily forbidding fortress of mirrored walls, a place where one practices a future of wasting one’s life in dead-end jobs or being hit on by older men. . . . In Clueless, by contrast, the mall is the film’s safe space . . .” (Quart 86).

This seismic shift towards teen consumerism was undoubtedly influenced by the increasing popularization of MTV music videos and teen-oriented commercials that developed throughout the ’80s and early ’90s. Whereas Fast Times at Ridgemont High had been released in 1982, roughly one year after the launch of MTV, Clueless seems both a byproduct of and a commentary on the hypercommodified, image-driven teen culture that had since developed in MTV’s wake. Indeed, as a film produced at the dawn of the ’80s, Fast Times at Ridgemont High was itself out of sync with the more stylized MTV-oriented youth fare that would come to define American popular culture throughout the decade. As cultural critic Susannah Gora writes in You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried: The Brat Pack, John Hughes, and Their Impact on a Generation (2010), the film conveys a “laid back 1970s feel” that makes it seem “more like an important predecessor to the later eighties teen movies than a true part of that canon” (Gora 5).

Hyping the Hyperreal: Postmodern Visual Dynamics

By the time of Clueless’s inception, MTV had become an internationally recognized logo that was part and parcel of corporate America’s burgeoning global expansionism. This increasing omnipresence of American corporate capitalism and its attendant culture of advertising and conspicuous consumption had not gone untheorized in academic quarters, for the ’90s witnessed the relative popularization of such postmodern theorists of so-called “late capitalism” as the American Marxist critic Fredric Jameson and the French poststructuralist Jean Baudrillard. While Jameson’s 1991 book, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, was read by academics and intellectually curious readers alike, Baudrillard had been embraced as something of an academic superstar in America from roughly the mid-’80s onwards. In 1986 he even authored a popular travelogue entitled America, which offered his philosophical meditations on his travels throughout America’s media-saturated consumer society.

Commenting on Baudrillard’s emergence as a public intellectual, scholar Richard J. Lane notes, “During the 1980s and 1990s, Baudrillard travelled and lectured around the world, putting most of his energies into the ‘non-academic’ side of his work” (Lane 2). It was somewhere within this period that Baudrillard’s concept of hyperreality began to gain popular intellectual currency as a term used to denote a postmodern simulational culture composed of advertising, filmic, and televisual images that seemingly improve on reality while also simultaneously and paradoxically leaving it behind. Characterizing this hyperreal condition in Simulacra and Simulation (1981), Baudrillard associates the “aesthetics of the hyperreal” with “a frisson of vertiginous and phony exactitude, a frisson of simultaneous distancing and magnification, of distortion of scale, of an excessive transparency” (Baudrillard 28).

An intensely visually attuned filmmaker who formally studied her craft in an academic setting, Heckerling has alluded to her familiarity with Baudrillard’s concept of hyperreality and its influence on Clueless. Discussing her film in a retrospective 2006 interview, Heckerling described Clueless as possessing an overtly hyperreal visual texture, noting, “I wanted to treat high school the way Merchant Ivory films treated England in the 1800s. I wanted a hyperreal [emphasis added], stylized, more elegant vision of reality” (qtd. in Rapkin). Yet if the visually sumptuous Merchant Ivory adaptations of various literary classics have blurred the boundaries between historical reality and fantasy, then Clueless takes things a step further by parodying the youth-oriented media images of its era via its “hyperreal hyperrealism.” To this end, the film functions as both a parody of hyperreal media culture and an incisive critique of hyperreality’s own relentless excess. Indeed, as sociologist Michael Ryan has wryly observed, “Even hyperreality has the ability to become hyperreal. . . . In other words, the beautiful as more beautiful than the beautiful in fashion, the real as more real than the reality of television, sex as more sexual than the sex in pornography” (Ryan 387).

Alluding to Clueless’s distinct hyping of hyperreal media culture in his glowing July 19, 1995 review of the film, Roger Ebert writes,

“So, OK, you’re probably like, what is this, a Noxzema commercial?”

First words of Clueless. That’s exactly what I was like. The hand-held camera was tilting crazily, showing the sun-blessed teenager of Southern California, and I’m like – what is this, an MTV video? Then Cher, the heroine of the movie, says the line and breaks the ice. Not Cher who won the Oscar. Cher the heroine of this movie. A little later she explains that she and her friend Dionne “were both named after great singers of the past who now do infomercials”. . . . Clueless is a smart and funny movie, and the characters are in on the joke. (Ebert)

Ebert’s indication of initial befuddlement at the MTV-like camerawork that frames Clueless’s opening shots speaks volumes about the film’s stylized visual dynamics, which parody the hyperreal, jolt-dominated MTV music videos that had become a staple of ’90s-era popular culture.2

By the dawn of the ’90s, MTV was known not just for its jolt-dominated televisual effects, but also for the apparent influence these media effects were having on the neurocognitive processes of American teens. As Gora notes, MTV “changed, fundamentally, the way in which narrative was presented, notoriously reducing the American attention span in the process” (158). Fittingly, Clueless includes a sly, self-reflexive scene that humorously illustrates the influence of such jolt-driven media fare on Cher’s neurocognitive state. The scene occurs as Cher, the perennial matchmaker, surveys the teachers’ lounge of her high school with the intent of finding a suitable female love interest for her debate teacher, Mr. Hall (Wallace Shawn). Presented from Cher’s point-of-view, the scene incorporates jerky MTV-like camera movements that emphasize her erratic gaze, which is symbiotically linked to her haphazard voiceover in which her thoughts easily wander from the ostensible task at hand to a conspicuously placed chocolate bar: “The trolls in the math department were actually married. Ooh, Snickers.”

Throughout Clueless, Heckerling places verbal and visual elements within a particularly accentuated symbiotic relationship, for a good deal of her film’s witty dialogue is heavily dependent on references to visual culture. In having Cher compare the film’s opening images of her West Coast lifestyle to a Noxzema skin wash commercial, Heckerling was obviously catering to the visual literacy of “hip” young audiences of the era given that Noxzema’s ’90s television commercials were famous for featuring beautiful, trim, flawless skinned young girls who were presented as the very paragons of girlish perfection. Every such Noxzema commercial of the era concluded its display of hyperreal, idealized girlish beauty with the same superficial, sloganeering voiceover, which proclaimed, “Noxzema girls get noticed.”

Postmodern Visual Dynamics and the Female Teen

Getting noticed within the spectacular realm of Los Angeles’s vainglorious, youth-obsessed culture is, of course, the main concern of Cher and her female friends. One of the most interesting aspects of Clueless resides in how it slyly draws attention to how young women have been conditioned to cultivate themselves for visual presentation. As art critic John Berger notes in Ways of Seeing (1972),

To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men. The social presence of women has developed as a result of their ingenuity in living under such tutelage within such a limited space. But this has been at the cost of a woman’s self being split into two. A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself… She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another.  (Berger 46)

While Clueless may chiefly be a film about being young and female, it is obvious that the image-deluged postmodern society that Cher and her female friends inhabit is very much a man’s world, in which women are subject to the implicit surveillance of an overarching male gaze.

It was the British film theorist Laura Mulvey who famously defined and schematized this male gaze in her essay “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema” (1975), in which she argued that a patriarchal unconscious had “projected its fantasy onto the female figure, which is stylized accordingly” (Mulvey 33). By harnessing Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalytic theory and applying it to the domain of classic Hollywood cinema, Mulvey argued that Hollywood had been historically complicit in perpetuating patriarchy by consigning women to disempowered cinematic roles in which they were rendered mere passive objects of an active, objectifying male gaze. Intriguingly, Clueless includes a scene that rather notably anatomizes the core principles of this male gaze, while also implicitly challenging its patriarchal, heteronormative foundations.

The scene occurs as Cher sits in Mr. Hall’s class seductively crafting her attire so that a hint of her bare shoulder will be visible to her handsome new high school classmate, Christian (Justin Walker). Coyly waiting for Christian to take notice of her sexualized appearance, Cher makes the following comments via voiceover: “Sometimes you have to show a little skin. This reminds boys of being naked, and that makes them think about sex.” Given that Cher is at this point unaware of the fact that Christian is gay, she does not realize that he is romantically and sexually immune to her crafted appearance. In essence, the scene reinforces how the heteronormative male gaze has been historically constructed and privileged at the expense of the gazes or viewing pleasures of others (i.e., in this instance gay men).

An inherently self-reflexive text, Clueless is as much concerned with images as it is with image making and the consequent manner in which mass media has the ability to influence and shape popular conceptions of social reality. In one of the film’s early scenes, Cher sits in her bedroom and uses her desktop computer to preview and select the clothes that she will wear for the day. Given that Clueless was released just prior to the popularization of the World Wide Web and the attendant Internet boom that would occur in the mid-’90s, the film’s sardonic conceptualization of this link between technology and fashion was uncannily prescient. By following a template of computer-generated images in order to determine how she should dress, Cher is engaging in a form of third-order hyperreal simulation in which the model has come to precede and determine the real, for as Baudrillard notes in Simulacra and Simulation, “the simulacra of simulation” is “founded on the information, the model, the cybernetic game” (121).3

This issue of the model preceding the real is also suggested via the Barbie-like physiques for which Cher and her African American best friend, Dionne (Stacey Dash), strive. The duo seemingly suffer from what has been colloquially termed “Barbie syndrome” to refer to the manner in which young girls seek to emulate the physical appearance and lifestyle associated with Mattel Corporation’s iconic Barbie doll. As they venture throughout Los Angeles’s consumer-driven landscape clad in their flamboyant clothing, these perpetually body-image-conscious ingénues evoke the notion of Barbie and her early ’90s African American companion doll, Shani. In consummate hyperreal fashion, the pair have seemingly mistaken dolls based on non-existing existing female anatomical measurements for the real. Indeed, the Barbie mold bears no feasible relation to the anatomical reality of a woman’s body given that its designer, Jack Ryan, engineered it to accord with a male fantasy of the female form.

Although Heckerling presumably chose not to address this Barbie theme too directly given the notoriously protective copyright zeal with which Mattel Corporation has historically presided over its Barbie products, Clueless contains one overt reference to the doll.4 It occurs in a notable context when Josh (Paul Rudd), Cher’s father’s ex-stepson (the child of his ex-wife, whom he married after Cher’s mother died), accuses Cher of treating the tomboyish Tai (Brittany Murphy) as her personal “Barbie doll” via an elaborate makeover project, in which she attempts to transform the Brooklyn born and bred girl into a West Coast debutante.

While Clueless takes evident glee in mercilessly parodying the popular mass-mediated visual culture of its era, it is also very much a social satire of Los Angeles’s superficial West Coast society. As Cher remarks of her gaudy, nouveau riche mansion’s faux neoclassical architecture, “Isn’t my house classic? The columns date all the way back to 1972.” In this sense, Clueless’s setting provides yet another avenue for Baudrillardian theorization, for Los Angeles was a favorite source of analysis for Baudrillard. As he famously contends in Simulacra and Simulation, Los Angeles is home to Disneyland, which is “presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest [of society] is real, whereas all of Los Angeles and the America that surrounds it are no longer real, but belong to the hyperreal order and to the order of simulation” (12). Elaborating further upon Los Angeles’s hyperreal geography, Baudrillard notes, “Enchanted Village, Magic Mountain, Marine World: Los Angeles is surrounded by these imaginary stations that feed reality, the energy of the real to a city whose mystery is precisely that of no longer being anything by a network of incessant, unreal circulation” (13).

Los Angeles is, of course, also home to Hollywood’s celluloid dream factory, which generates the hyperreal filmic, televisual, and advertising images of feminine perfection that have played a crucial role in shaping North American femininity’s skewed perceptions of social reality. The power such media-generated images possess to adversely affect young women’s feelings about their own bodies had reached a particularly disturbing point by the early ’90s. As Lasn notes in Culture Jam (1999),

Nine out of ten North American women feel bad about their bodies. A 1992 survey of eleven- to fifteen-year old Canadian girls revealed about 50 percent thought they should be thinner. . . . If you randomly survey North American women, you’ll find that around 50 percent of them are on a diet. If you ask adolescent girls and young women, you’ll find that figure around 60 percent. Healthy young women are sometimes led by magazines or unscrupulous cosmetic surgeons to believe they suffer from such “afflictions” as “violin deformity” (a flaring of the hips, which is in fact many women’s natural body shape) or “batwing disorder” (loose skin under the arms, which is in fact quite normal) – and feel compelled to go under the knife to remedy them. Some models have removed their bottom ribs to accentuate the thinness of their waists. (Lasn 75)

Despite its status as a popular teen comedy, Clueless drew surprisingly marked attention to this then burgeoning North American issue of negative female body image.

In scenes at Cher’s Beverly Hills high school, for example, Heckerling includes numerous incidental shots of teenage girls whose noses are obscured by bandages. Such shots constitute an obvious satirization of the emerging consumer culture of cosmetic surgery, which was becoming increasingly targeted towards young girls during the ‘90s via such procedures as rhinoplasty, breast augmentation, and liposuction. In one of Clueless’s most oft-quoted scenes that also appeared in its original theatrical trailer, Cher’s high school nemesis, Amber (Elisa Donovan), explains to her female physical education teacher (Julie Brown) why she can’t participate in gym class, noting, “My plastic surgeon doesn’t want me doing any activity where balls fly at my nose,” to which Dionne sardonically replies, “There goes your social life.” Humorous as such scenes may be, they suggest a compelling point about cosmetic surgery. In drawing such marked attention to the bandaged visages of Cher’s female classmates, Heckerling presents cosmetic surgery not as surgical enhancement but rather self-mutilation.

As Virginia L. Blum observes in Flesh Wounds: The Culture of Cosmetic Surgery (2003), “Young children and adolescents receive their body images wholly from the outside. The adolescent girl, especially, enters the world tentatively and waits for it to say yes or no to her face and body” (2). The roles that Hollywood and consumer culture play in affecting the body ideals of young women are in this regard undeniable, for as Blum writes, “The body is nothing until it is jolted into being by the image of something it could become – a movie star, a supermodel, a beautiful body” (54). In hyperreal fashion, aesthetically manipulated images of beautiful actresses and models have come to be accepted as real in contemporary society, for as Blum notes, “The beauty of images symbolizes what is now experienced as their essential lure, and plastic surgery is the cultural allegory of transforming the body into an image, an allegory that is deeply linked to the effects of a celebrity culture” (61).

A link between the fashion industry and female body image is implicitly foregrounded as Cher and Dionne primp Tai during the film’s makeover sequence, which is set to Jill Sobule’s satiric pop song “Supermodel” (1995), which features the following lyrics:

I don’t care why my teachers say,

I’m gonna be a supermodel.

Everyone is gonna dress like me,

Wait and see. (Sobule)

Obsessed with comparing their daily food intakes, Cher and Dionne strive to maintain lithe, trim bodies, which they accentuate with revealing, form-fitting fashions. When Cher prepares to depart her mansion for a date wearing a tight white dress that could pass for a slip, her father, Mel (Dan Hedaya), expresses incredulity, and the following exchange occurs:

MEL. What the hell is that?

CHER. A dress.

MEL. Says who?

CHER. Calvin Klein.

The designer du jour of the era, Calvin Klein is today notorious for having pushed female body image to a new low during the ’90s. Throughout the decade one of his star models was the waif-like Kate Moss, who was known for her seemingly prepubescent body that spawned what came to be known as the “heroin chic” look in fashion.

Reflecting on Calvin Klein’s borderline exploitative commodification of the teenage form throughout the ’90s, Lasn writes,

As no other company in the last fifteen years, Calvin Klein has commodified sex, and in the process brutalized our notions of sexuality and self-worth… Most people remember his 1995 campaign in which young models were crudely filmed in cheesy wood paneled basements as an adult voice called instructions from the wings. The ads reeked of chicken-hawk porn. Advertising Age’s Bob Garfield called it “the most profoundly disturbing TV campaign in TV history.” The spots so offended public sensibility that they prompted an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department to determine if the models were underage or child-porn laws were violated. (Lasn 176)

As the key player in ’90s fashion, Calvin Klein, Inc.’s advertising campaigns promoted hyperreal images of the very teen-lean forms for which Cher and Dionne strive. Obviously Heckerling was conscious of the significant impact Calvin Klein was having on youth culture of the era. While at least two of the slip-like dresses Cher wears are Klein designs, Clueless is also peppered with references to the rapper Marky Mark (today known as the actor Mark Wahlberg), who was then known for his 1992 appearances in popular Calvin Klein underwear advertisements.

Popular Pedagogy: Postmodern Visual Dynamics and Teen Culture

Marked by a pastel-drenched color scheme, Clueless parodies the popular visual style of various teen-oriented advertisements, films, music videos, and television programs of its era. The film’s Los Angeles setting and its shots of Cher’s high school, for example, evoke the overall mise-en-scène of the popular Fox television series Beverly Hills, 90210. As scholar E. Graham McKinley observes in her book, Beverly Hills 90210: Television, Gender, and Identity (1997), this television series was especially popular with teenage girls: “In 1992, a startling 69 percent of female television viewers watched this show” (16). To be sure, teens picked up on the these hyperparodic elements, for as John Wiltshire notes in Recreating Jane Austen (2001), when Los Angeles teens were questioned as to what they thought about Clueless, they remarked that it was “way exaggerated” (qtd. in Wiltshire 53).

Obviously, Heckerling was under no illusion about the type of film she was making, for Clueless is first and foremost a rather gleeful teen comedy, which contains a requisite happy ending in which Cher ends up with her love interest, Josh. In this regard, Clueless stands apart from such later critical postmodern filmic fare of the ’90s as The Matrix (1999) and Fight Club (1999), which offer radical critiques of consumer culture.5 While Clueless may not constitute a postmodern détournement of spectacular society given its rather conscious status as a popular commercial text, Wilthshire’s comments suggest that the film clearly did succeed in parodying the spectacular, hyperreal images of postmodern teen visual culture to which youth audiences had grown accustomed.6

Clearly, Heckerling recognized that young people can be entertained by popular visual culture and yet also learn something from it – a fact evidenced by the scene in Clueless in which Josh’s pretentious university girlfriend, Heather (Susan Mohun), misattributes Polonius’s line “To thine own self be true”(1.3.78) from Shakespeare’s Hamlet (c. 1600) to Hamlet himself, thereby triggering the following exchange with Cher:

CHER. Hamlet didn’t say that.

HEATHER. I think I remember Hamlet accurately.

CHER. Well I remember Mel Gibson accurately, and he didn’t say that. That Polonius guy did.

It is surely appropriate that Cher should in this instance cite not Shakespeare but rather Mel Gibson, a popular leading man of the ’90s, for one could indeed argue that the visual medium of film had by this point emerged as the dominant literature of a postmodern era.

Although Clueless is today routinely studied in university and college English courses, pedagogical emphasis is generally placed on how Heckerling adapted the plot dynamics of Emma for a contemporary setting rather than on her film’s status as a rich visual text. Filled with an assortment of overt and veiled allusions to various figures drawn from the history of both “high” and “low” visual culture throughout the ages, Clueless stresses the cultural power of images via nods to such visual maestros as Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli, French impressionist Claude Monet, director Stanley Kubrick, pop artist Claes Oldenburg, children’s writer and cartoonist Dr. Seuss, and classic Hollywood film star Betty Grable – amongst numerous others.  While some may contend that such intertextual referencing is mere confirmation of Fredric Jameson’s view that late capitalism entails an ahistorical postmodern culture of pastiche in which “depth is replaced by surface” (Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism 12), I would argue that Clueless’s intense visual awareness stems from its production at the cusp of a pictorial turn during the mid-’90s when American society approached the Internet boom, which would result in the proliferation of an online culture in which social relationships would become increasingly mediated via images.7

To this end, it is useful to turn again to Jameson, who in Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), proposes that postmodern subjects have lost the ability to map their positionalities amidst late capitalism’s “great global multinational and decentered communicational network” (44), and thus require “[a]n aesthetic of cognitive mapping – a pedagogical political culture which seeks to endow the individual subject with some new heightened sense of its place in the global system” (54). Although Clueless does not hide its obvious complicity with capitalist consumerism, it does succeed in parodying the postmodern media culture of its era via its hyperreal hyperrealism. In this regard, the film is amenable to Jameson’s notion of instilling cognitive mapping via pedagogy, for in keeping with Russian literary critic Viktor Shklovsky’s notion of defamiliarizing readers via language designed to “render[] the everyday unfamiliar” (Sim 168), Heckerling was perhaps attempting to visually defamiliarize young people’s – and in particular young women’s – accustomed perceptions of mass media images so that they might be “clued in” to viewing them more critically.


Similar to how Anita Loos’s 1925 novel, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, satirized female consumerism during the roaring 1920s just prior to the stock market collapse of 1929, Heckerling’s film offers an exaggerated visual depiction of the culture of American girlhood amidst the consumer-driven, image-saturated society of the economically booming 1990s.  As Lesley Stern observes in her article “Emma in Los Angeles: Clueless as a Remake of the Book and the City” (1997), Heckerling’s film is a “movie about movies, about the place where movies and dreams are manufactured, and about what it is like to be young and female in today’s multi-media world” (Stern). By employing a hyperparodic, hyperreal take on the nature of hyperreal media itself, Heckerling ultimately crafted a clever, historically prescient film that employed keen postmodern visual dynamics to shed light on the popular visual culture of its era. In this regard, Clueless surely deserves recognition for being a far more clever film than its moniker might initially suggest.

End Notes

[1] Previous scholarship on Clueless includes examinations of the film’s relationship to adaptation (see Parrill; Galperin), genre (see Mazmanian), and feminism (see Hopkins).

[2] As Adbusters magazine founder and anti-consumer activist Kalle Lasn notes in his book Culture Jam (1999), a jolt is “any ‘technical event’ that interrupts the flow of sound or thought or imagery.” Referencing cultural critic Jerry Mander’s 1978 book, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, Lasn notes that while Mander’s 1978 statistics had indicated an average of ten jolts per minute in regular television programs, ’90s-era MTV programming had reached an astounding average of “sixty events [jolts] per minute” (Lasn 15).

[3] Summarizing Baudrillard’s orders of simulation in Jean Baudrillard (2000), Richard J. Lane writes, Richard J. Lane writes,

With first- and second-order simulation, the real still exists, and we measure the success of the simulation against the real. Baudrillard’s worry with third-order simulation is that the model now generates what he calls hyperreality – that is, a world without a real origin. So with third-order simulation we no longer even have the real as part of the equation. (86-87)

[4] Discussing the issue of copyright in Popular Culture: A User’s Guide (2010), Susie O’Brien and Imre Szeman note, “Mattel, which jealously guards its major product, Barbie, has been one of the companies to press its [copyright] claim over its product the farthest” (144).

[5] Jean Baudrillard’s influence on The Matrix is hinted at in an early scene in the film in which the character Neo / Thomas A. Anderson (Keanu Reeves) conceals money and discs of illegal software inside a hollowed out simulacrum of Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation (1981). In later describing the nature of the Matrix to Neo, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) remarks, “Welcome to the desert of the real.” The lines are, of course, a thinly veiled allusion to Baudrillard’s following lines in Simulacra and Simulation: “It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts that are no longer those of the Empire, but ours. The desert of the real itself [sic]” (Baudrillard 1).

[6] A technique embraced by Guy Debord (1942-1994) and the neo-Marxist Situationist International (1957-1972), the détournement was characterized by Debord as “the fluid language of anti-ideology” (Debord VIII.208, 146). By removing an image from its intended context and repositioning it, the Situationists sought to rupture the spectacle by jarring individuals out of ideology.

[7] The phrase “pictorial turn” was coined by visual theorist W.J.T. Mitchell, who uses it to refer to a “turn to the visual” during “specific moments when a new medium, a technical innovation, or a cultural practice erupts in symptoms of panic or euphoria (or both) about ‘the visual’” (Mitchell 94).

[8] Heckerling has acknowledged that Loos’s novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925) helped inspire Clueless (Saito).

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. 1981. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser, Michigan UP, 1994.

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. British Broadcasting Corporation, 1972.

Blum, Virginia L. Flesh Wounds: The Culture of Cosmetic Surgery. 2003. U of California P, 2005.

Clueless. Directed by Amy Heckerling. 1995. Paramount, 2005. DVD.

Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. 1967. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith, Zone Books, 1995.

Douglas, Susan J. Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work Is Done. Times Books, 2010.

Ebert, Roger. Review of Clueless, directed by Amy Heckerling. 19 Jul. 1995, Accessed 5 July 2017.

Galperin, William. “Adapting Jane Austen: The Surprising Fidelity of ‘Clueless.’” Wordsworth Circle, vol. 42, no. 3, pp. 187-193. JSTOR,

Gora, Susannah. You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried: The Brat Pack, John Hughes, and Their Impact on a Generation. Random House, 2010.

Handler, Rachel. Interview with Amy Heckerling. “Director Amy Heckerling on Clueless The Musical, Stacey Dash, and ‘Absolutely Necessary Boobs.’” 11 May 2016, Accessed 5 July 2017.

Hopkins, Susan. “Clueless.” Philosophy Now. Aug.-Sept. 2015, Accessed 5 July 2017.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. 1991. Duke UP, 2003.

Lane, Richard J. Jean Baudrillard. 1999. HarperCollins, 2000.

Lasn, Kalle. Culture Jam. 1999. HarperCollins, 2000.

Loos, Anita. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. 1925. Liveright Publishing, 1998.

The Matrix. Directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski. 1999. Warner Bros., 2009. DVD.

Mazmanian, Melissa. “Reviving Emma in a Clueless World: The Current Attraction to a Classical Structure.” Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal On-Line, Occasional Papers, no. 3, 1999, Accessed 5 July 2017.

McKinley, E. Graham. Beverly Hills, 90210: Television, Gender, Identity. U of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.

Mitchell, W.J.T. “Showing Seeing: A Critique of Visual Culture.” The Visual Culture 

Reader, edited by Nicholas Mirzoeff, Routledge, 2007, pp. 86-101.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” 1975. Issues in Feminist Criticism, edited by Patricia Erens, Indiana UP, 1998, pp. 28-49.

O’Brien, Susie, and Imre Szeman. Popular Culture: A User’s Guide. 2nd ed., Nelson Education, 2010.

Parrill, Sue. “Metaphors of Control: Physicality in Emma and Clueless.” Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal On-Line, vol. 20, no. 1, 1999, Accessed 5 July 2017.

Pinch, Adela. Introduction. Emma, by Jane Austen, 1816, Oxford UP, 2008, pp. vii-xxix.

Quart, Alissa. Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers. Perseus Books, 2003.

Rapkin, Mickey. Interview with Amy Heckerling. “The Unbearable Awkwardness of Being.”, 12 Oct. 2006, Accessed 5 July 2017.

Ryan, Michael. “Hyperreality.” The Encyclopedia of Social Theory. Edited by George Ritzer, Sage Publications, 2005.

Saito, Stephen. Interview with Amy Heckerling. “Amy Heckerling on ‘Clueless’ – the Movie and Hollywood Execs – and the State of Women in Film.” The Moveable Fest, 12 July 2011, Accessed 5 July 2017.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Circa 1600. Edited by G.R. Hibbard, Oxford UP, 1998. Sim, Stuart. Introducing Critical Theory. Edited by Richard Appiganesi, Icon Press, 2001.

Sobule, Jill. “Supermodel.” Clueless: Original Motion Soundtrack, Capitol, 1995. CD.

Stern, Lesley. “Emma in Los Angeles: Clueless as Remake of the Book and the City.” Australian Humanities Review, no. 7, 1997, Accessed 5 July 2017.

Wiltshire, John. Recreating Jane Austen. Cambridge UP, 2001.

Author Bio

Andrew Urie is a PhD candidate (ABD) in the interdisciplinary graduate program in Social and Political Thought at York University (Canada). He specializes in American intellectual history and popular culture. His research interests include literary studies, textual sociology, and cultural political economy.

Reference Citation 


Urie, Andrew. “Hyping the Hyperreal: Postmodern Visual Dynamics in Amy Heckerling’s Clueless.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. vol. 4, no. 1, 2017


Urie, A. (2017). Hyping the hyperreal: Postmodern visual dynamics in Amy Heckerling’s CluelessDialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 4(1).

Using Popular Culture in the Classroom in High Schools and Universities

Reviews of:

Janak, Edward, and Ludovic A. Sourdot, editors. Educating through Popular Culture: You’re Not Cool Just Because You Teach through Comics. Lexington Books, 2017. Hardback, 341 pp. $120.00. ISBN: 9781498549372;

Buckingham, David, editor. Teaching Popular Culture: Beyond Radical Pedagogy. Routledge, 1998. Paperback, 207 pp. $43.95. ISBN 1857287932;

Reiser, Elana. Teaching Mathematics Using Popular Culture. McFarland, 2005. Paperback, 235 pp. $29.95. ISBN 9780786477067;

Dong, Lan, editor. Teaching Comics and Graphic Narratives: Essays on Theory, Strategy, and Practice. McFarland, 2012. Paperback, 272 pp. $35.00. ISBN 9780786462462.


Laurence Raw
Baskent University,
Ankara, Turkey

Lexington has recently released a very large anthology of essays on teaching popular culture. Most of the contributions came from the Popular Culture Association conferences – both national and regional – so it should be of interest to all readers of Dialogue. It’s very pricey, unfortunately ($120), so unless you are fortunate enough to receive a review copy, it is predominantly destined for library use. It is divided into five sections, each devoted to some aspect of teaching popular culture: Looking Behind, Looking Around, Looking Globally, Looking Ahead, and Looking Theoretically. They provide an effective way to organize the book but only incidentally reflect the content of the essays themselves. Using Popular Culture is best approached as a text to dip into as and when required, with many points appearing regularly in different essays.

However, the book as a whole raises a bigger question facing all educators and learners in popular culture, which relates to how the subject should be taught. Should educators approach popular culture in similar fashion to more conventional subjects as a primarily top-down subject, with learners regularly given lectures, worksheets and other teacher-initiated material, from which they can make judgments? Or should popular culture make use of its advantages as a wide-ranging subject and essay a bottom-up approach, with learners given a full say in how the course (or courses) should be structured, delivered and assessed? Whilst it might be attractive to embrace this form of learning, several teachers reject it, fearing a loss of control and potential censure from their senior managers. In this piece I want to address the topic of learning, using extracts from Using Popular Culture as well as extracts from previously published books on the topic, in an attempt to see whether teachers at all levels are prepared to let go the reins and allow the class to be truly collaborative. It’s a risky strategy to be sure, but one that can pay dividends if boldly implemented.

In the late Nineties, the spirit of Cultural Studies was dominant, especially in the anthology edited by the Briton David Buckingham. His Teaching Popular Culture was full of bold statements, inviting teachers to experiment with new methods of learning, including video production that not only taught children production skills but produced the pleasure in “exploring the boundaries between work and freedom” (Grace and Tobin 54). This approach created extensive debate among educators about the “naughty, resistant and transgressive behaviours of students,” which to some were neither emancipatory nor progressive but simply reinforced existing gender divisions, with the boys aggressively asserting their authority (55). Such beliefs overlooked the potential for establishing transgressive and carnivalesque elements in the curriculum: “sexual, grotesque, and violent ways of working can be ways of working through rather than just reproducing dominant discourses and of undesirable social dynamics, and of building a sense of community in the classroom” (Grace and Tobin 56). There was a fundamental ambiguity about this apparently libertarian spirit: while giving students the power to experiment with their own material, it was circumscribed by a Bakhtinian paradigm that was determinedly educator-oriented. Because Bakhtin favored the carnivalesque spirit as a way of liberating learners, this approach was justified. What the authors did not address, however, was how teachers could encourage the “sexual, grotesque, and violent ways of working,” without losing control of what they were doing during the lesson.

In general books about teaching tended to be slightly more conservative in their scope, concentrating on how popular culture could enhance the impact of certain classes on learners. Elena Reiser’s Teaching Mathematics Using Popular Culture offers a series of strategies drawn from film and television for improving the quality of Mathematics teaching. The book is divided into sections, including algebra, geometry, probability and modeling, and offers examples from US television programs to illustrate particular points about each subject. The book has obviously been designed as a series of resources for educators to draw upon while creating their own individual classes, rather than as a course-book. I am not a mathematician, so I cannot comment on the quality of the materials, but the book as a whole conforms to what most educators expect from popular culture: to provide a vindication for what they have already done in the subject. Educators offer the theory; textbooks like Teaching Mathematics Using Popular Culture offers examples of that theory in practice. In such learner/educator exchanges, the educator retains overall control of the classroom. The same basic principle applies to Lan Dong’s Teaching Comics and Graphic Narratives, which incorporates a series of suggestions about classic graphic novels and how to teach them. There is nothing wrong with this approach, especially for the tyro educator, but this kind of volume limits learner potential for implementing their own approach fundamentally different from that of their educators.

In Educating Through Popular Culture, the views of the writers are much more cautious: learner-centered activities are encouraged but within a framework that is educator-centered. The general consensus seems to be that this approach is the only one that can orient the semester’s work towards examinations. Tonia A. Donsay’s “Karma in Comics” offers a case-study of her class in which learners have freedom to choose texts but are expected to follow a series of guidelines relating to the primary and secondary source documents and the folklores they involve, and how the comic renditions of such texts are constructed, with special attention paid to the storyboard as well as the individual frame. Paul Chaozon Bauer and Marc Wolterbeek want to “made academia cool” (61) by combining traditional literary study with popular culture in the form of comic books. This involves relating such texts to literary criticism as well as involving processes of genre comparison (77). Learners have the freedom to bring in texts that they might like to study, but the focus is very much on the educator directing classes towards a predetermined end – the exams.

Yet there are alternatives. Cadey Korson and Weronika Kusek explore patterns of internal and external migration in the US through popular media. They have devised their own critical pedagogical approach with its particular aims and objectives, but learners embark on a series of discovery learning projects to understand the power of stereotyping, complemented by a use of social media to understand other people’s feelings about the topic (123). Educators guide but try and refrain from offering too many comments – not at least until the papers are marked. Maha Al-Saati has a more difficult task while working in a Saudi university as he had to provide some cultural context for his activities before encouraging learners to work on their own (127-45). Any form of learner empowerment is a step forward on the road to independence, according to Chad William Timm, who persuasively argues for popular culture-related activities in all forms of classroom to develop individual philosophies of education (221-41).

However much we admire the contributors’ accounts, there still remains a feeling that compared to the pioneering spirit of Buckingham’s Teaching Popular Culture, the articles in Educating Through Popular Culture are somewhat muted, that the potential for liberating learners has been limited somewhat by institutional forces such as exams or the need to keep justifying the subject to heads of department and other opinion-formers. Partly this can be explained by context; when Buckingham’s book was first published, tuition fees did not exist in British universities and there wasn’t the emphasis on providing subject-specific outcomes for each course. Educators could get away with relating their popular cultural work to more general issues, that involving the learners in the planning stage of a course would produce a greater feeling of being responsible for their own learning, especially if they could negotiate about the content and form the assessment would take. If educators were brave enough, they could go out on a limb and co-create a course with learners and justify it to their superiors. At that point it seemed as if popular culture embraced much of cultural studies’ pioneering spirit in creating new learning approaches.

Now the atmosphere is no longer so conducive to experiment. Most students have to find their own money for fees and accommodation and hence have become more concerned with value in education. It is up to the educators to provide the stimulus for them through educator-initiated activities. Meanwhile the educators have to justify their courses in numeric rather than pedagogical terms; if a program does not attract sufficient numbers, then it will be closed down. The desire to experiment has been replaced by the instinct to survive. Courses should have their own subject-specific aims and objectives; the fact that a Popular Culture course can improve the abilities acquired in the world of work is considered less of a priority. There may, of course, be exceptions to this rule, but I believe that institutional changes have been fundamental in limiting popular culture’s potential to encourage learner independence and therefore encourage a top-down view of learning amongst educators desperate to survive.

Some readers might consider my views too negative; after all, there are related disciplines such as Fan Studies that actively encourage learner participation, and the effect of such courses should impact Popular Culture courses as well. However Paul A. Crutcher and Autumn M. Dodge sound a cautionary note at the end of the Educating Through Popular Culture anthology; however much we might want to promote Popular Culture in the curriculum, learners might not feel the same way, having been brought up in a world where value for money counts more than intellectual and personal development (313). Clearing that obstacle might be more difficult than we anticipate.


Grace, Donna J., and Joseph Tobin, “Butt-Jokes and Mean-teacher Parodies: Video Production in the Elementary Classroom.” Teaching Popular Culture: Beyond Radical Pedagogy, edited by David Buckingham, Routledge, 2005, pp. 42-63.


Author Bio

Laurence Raw teaches in the Department of English, Faculty of Education, Başkent University in Ankara, Turkey. A long-time contributor to popular cultural journals on the subject of teaching, he is the author of Adaptation Studies and Learning – New Approaches with Tony Gurr (Scarecrow, 2013). He recently wrote Six Turkish Filmmakers (U. of Wisconsin P., 2017).

Reference Citation

Raw, Lawrence. “Using Popular Culture in the Classroom in High Schools and Universities.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol. 4, no. 1, 2017,

Raw, L. (2017). Using popular culture in the classroom in high schools and universities. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 4(1).


Applications in the Classroom: Teaching Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out within the Tradition of Allegorical Personification

Jason John Gulya
Rutgers University
New Brunswick, NJ, USA



Several years ago, I noticed that the widespread distinction between high and low culture was wreaking havoc on my classroom. My students would read and analyze texts like Robinson Crusoe and Pride and Prejudice with little to no prompting because (in their minds) these texts were already part of the recognized canon and it was therefore permissible to pick them apart and analyze them closely. But I would get strange looks when I asked undergraduates to think critically about how the mock-news programs The Daily Show and The Colbert Report worked or when I asked them to discuss how the popular TV show Once Upon a Time adapts and revises certain fairy tales for its modern audience. Because of these looks, I started searching for ways that I could use popular culture to encourage my students to think about how literary forms and texts persist through time and about how they could turn their ever-sharpening acumen on the world around them. This article focuses on the use of Disney/Pixar’s Academy Award-winning film, Inside Out (2015), as a powerful pedagogical tool for getting students to think about just how writers and filmmakers reimagine and reformulate earlier forms for modern purposes. I argue that instructors can usefully teach this film within the frameworks of literary precedent and modern film and, by so doing, encourage their students to think differently about texts they encounter every day.

Allegory, Personification, Popular Film, Disney/Pixar, Film and Literature


I recently taught a course at my home institution titled “Allegory from Piers Plowman to Inside Out.” The project of the course was to study how the allegorical form changed over time. We began by reading medieval allegories, including William Langland’s Piers Plowman (c. 1370-90) and the anonymous play Everyman (late 15th century). Then we moved to the knights and ladies of Book I of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590) and to John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), a religious allegory that goes even further than Spenser’s in its use of empirical, concrete detail. In the final section of the course, the students and I turned to modern uses of the allegorical form. We read C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950) and watched Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece The Seventh Seal (1957). Towards the end of the course, we also watched the very recent and very popular Disney/Pixar film, Inside Out (2015). We spent a great deal of time teasing out how this text works with and within the tradition of allegorical personification and, in so doing, treated the recent film as fundamentally (and surprisingly) connected to what medieval, early modern, and eighteenth-century writers were doing with the allegorical form.

Many scholars believe the allegory died as a viable narrative form shortly after the Renaissance.1 Inside Out provides my students with a powerful example of how literary forms like allegory do not simply fade away. Writers, filmmakers, singers, painters, etc. continue to adapt those literary forms to their own historical and cultural surroundings, giving them new life even if doing so results in cultural products that look strikingly different than, for instance, Piers Plowman and Everyman. To give my students a strong sense of how modern writers and artists reconceptualize and reformulate the allegorical form, I taught Inside Out within two major contexts. The first was within literary precedent. I asked them to think through how the film compares to earlier uses of personified abstractions ranging from the medieval period to the middle of the eighteenth century. The second context was modern film. My students and I discussed Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) before moving on to Pete Docter’s Inside Out. This article will work through my experiences teaching the animated film within these two contexts and then will open up to think more generally about how the film can be used to demonstrate to students how they can use their critical thinking skills to analyze the world around them.

The goal in working through my experiences is not only to talk about Inside Out in particular but to enter an ongoing conversation about designing a course syllabus that extends from the medieval period to the present day. My course ranging from the medieval Piers Plowman to the recent Inside Out models one such way: though it focuses primarily on Restoration and eighteenth-century British Literature, it focuses on a single literary form in order to encourage students to test their ability to think transhistorically. It uses my students’ current historical moment as a lens through which to see earlier texts, while also using those earlier texts as a lens for seeing—and reseeing—their own historical moment.

Teaching Inside Out Within Literacy Precedent

The truly exciting thing about teaching a course like “Allegory from Piers Plowman to Inside Out” is that it encourages students to think about how literary forms and texts persist and adapt. When I went over the syllabus on the first day, I found myself mounting an argument: the course will push against the tendency they might have to regard texts such as Piers Plowman and Everyman as far removed from their own historical and literary moment. Reading earlier allegorical texts should improve their understandings of what is going on in more recent texts. The question, for me, was how to design a course that would emphasize the continuities as well as the discontinuities between older and more recent uses of the allegorical form.

I decided to begin my students with one of the most influential scholarly books on allegory to date, Angus Fletcher’s Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode (1964, reprinted in 2012), coupled with the Everyman. Fletcher creates a spectrum between, on the one end, “persons” and, on the other end, personified abstractions. Persons exhibit agency and self-possession: in Fletcher’s words, the literary person has “freedom of choice in action” (Fletcher 65). The reader cannot accurately predict what the literary person will do from moment to moment based on their identity within the text. Personified abstractions, on the contrary, perform what Fletcher calls “fated actions” (33), which directly relate to what that abstraction embodies. Everyman gave my students some strong examples of how the notion of fated action works. The characters Death and Fellowship, for instance, speak and act in a way that is in accordance with what they represent. We are not shocked when Death asks Everyman to come with him to God or when he claims that everyone must die. Talking about death is squarely within Death’s wheelhouse, as it is indicated by his name (Anonymous 39). We likely would have been shocked if Death resurrected a character or went to the supermarket because his name puts certain limits on what he can and cannot do and say within the play.

Fletcher does not mean for the distinction between person and abstraction to be hard and immovable. In fact, the reason Fletcher’s formulation was so helpful for my students was that it was a flexible tool for thinking about traditional as well as modern uses of the allegorical form. My students regularly referred to Fletcher’s book in discussing the vast majority of our texts, often placing particular authors’ depiction of allegorical personifications on his scale between persons and abstractions. This was particularly true when they talked about Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, and Samuel Johnson’s The Vision of Theodore (1748).  The perpetual question was how different authors treated certain personifications: for The Pilgrim’s Progress, for instance, my students reasonably argued that Christian and Hopeful are much closer to Fletcherian persons than are abstractions such as Obstinate and Pliable.

When my students and I turned our attention to Inside Out, we justifiably talked about how the film represents different personified abstractions, especially Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. Each of these personifications perform actions that are somehow associated with the concepts they embody, and in this way my students could readily see how Inside Out’s use of personifications is continuous with the fated agents they had encountered in earlier literary texts. For example, early on in the film Joy describes the use of each personified abstraction for the purposes of keeping Riley Anderson, the girl they inhabit, healthy and happy. She explains that Fear is “really good at keeping Riley safe,” that Disgust “basically keeps Riley from being poisoned, physically and socially,” and that Anger “cares very deeply about things being fair.” In each of these explanations, Joy works through the benefits of Riley feeling each emotion from time to time. However, Joy runs into a problem when transitioning to Sadness, saying that “she…well, she…I’m not actually sure what she does.” Joy’s inability to pinpoint the usefulness of Sadness sets up the film because Inside Out is largely about Joy trying to figure out when and why it is important for Riley to be sad. My students worked through this scene and discussed how the movie opens by assigning real-life uses for each emotion besides sadness and by having each emotion act in accordance with what they represent.

Then, something very interesting happened. I prompted my students with the question, “Is Riley a fated agent?” Addressing this question required my students to apply the reading from Fletcher’s book to the modern film. My students started to work through how the film represents the relationship between the actions of the personifications and the actions of the girl they inhabit. To help them push their ideas and questions further, I asked them to home in on a particular scene. They chose one that takes place relatively early on in the movie, after the Andersons move to San Francisco and Sadness starts to feel inexorably compelled to touch memories and give them an element of sadness:

[Riley approaches a stairway]

Joy to Sadness: Just don’t touch any other memories until we figure out what’s going on.

Sadness: Ok.

Joy: All right. Get ready! This is a monster railing and we are riding it all the way down.

[Joy turns around and looks at Goofball Island, which is functioning. Then, she 

looks back at the window representing Riley’s eyes, to see what happens. Riley sits on the railing and looks down it with a smile, ready to slide down. Her smile suddenly fades away and Riley gets off of the railing.]

Joy: Wait, what happened?

[A core memory rolls from behind Joy and hits her in the back of her leg.]

Fear: A core memory!

Joy: Oh no!

[Joy picks up the core memory and turns to see that Sadness is where the core 

memory used to be and that Goofball Island is now down.]

Joy: Sadness! What are you doing?

Sadness: It looked like one was crooked, so I opened it and then it fell out.

[Joy puts the core memory back in, and Goofball Island become functional again. 

Riley— who is walking down the stairs sadly—stops, gets back on the railing and slides down it.] (Docter)

My students and I were in a position to appreciate how truly bizarre and perplexing this moment is, precisely because we had encountered such a wide variety of personified abstractions by this point in the course. Riley has very little agency. Inside Out, in fact, duplicates the idea of fated agency so that 1) the personified abstractions themselves only perform actions that are in accordance with what they represent and 2) the person whom they inhabit can only act in accordance with what those abstractions do. Inside Out thus features a range of characters who are compelled to action. Riley wavers between sliding down the railing and sullenly walking down the steps because of the actions performed by Joy and Sadness, just as these personifications are tied to certain actions because of their identities. The movie, to take this slightly further, brings the actions of Riley and the personifications into an analogy with one another.

I ended my session on Inside Out by asking my students what the movie gets out of expanding the notion of fated agency so common in allegorical personification to include even literal characters. My students pointed out that the movie effectively makes Riley’s actions redundant. We watch the events happening in Riley’s mind and then we see how those events manifest themselves in Riley’s behavior: there is thus a significant lag between the world of allegorical personification and of literal persons. It shifts the Fletcherian scale that ranges from persons to abstractions, making Riley into more of an abstraction than a person by shining a light on Riley’s inability to behave in a way independent of her emotions. My students, for instance, focused on that strange moment in the film when Anger, Fear, and Disgust decide to put a light bulb in the control panel—which encourages Riley to run away from her parents and go back to Minnesota—and are then unable to remove it. At this point in the narrative, the emotions are not able to stop what Riley is doing nor is Riley able to get the idea of running away out of her head.

Together, Fletcher’s scholarship and literary precedent provided a fruitful, flexible framework for thinking about the place of Inside Out within the tradition of allegorical personification, and any successful framework needs to be flexible because this flexibility is what will encourage our students to connect seemingly disparate texts.

Teaching Inside Out Within Modern Film

In the section on contemporary uses of the allegorical form in my class, I started by giving students three films to analyze: The Wizard of Oz, The Seventh Seal, and Inside Out. The point was to give students three examples of dramatically different uses of the allegorical form. The Wizard of Oz creates a set of corresponding figures, using characters in Oz to register commentary on literal persons. The first eighteen minutes of the film focuses on real occurrences in Dorothy’s life. For instance, the film describes a series of scenes revolving around three farmhands: Hunk accuses Dorothy of acting as if her head were filled with straw; have courage, before he saves Dorothy after she falls into the pigsty” to “Zeke tells Dorothy to have courage, before he saves Dorothy when she falls into a pigsty; and Hickory is described as “tinkering” with an old contraption instead of fixing the wagon. The movie uses the language of these scenes to justify representing these characters as, respectively, the scarecrow, the cowardly lion, and the tin man. My students and I talked about how the film modifies the kind of political allegory we encountered in texts like John Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel (1681), using characters to comment on and even criticize literal persons. We also talked about how The Wizard of Oz manages the transition from Kansas to Oz, using the shift into Technicolor as a way to distinguish the literal events in Kansas to the allegorical events in Oz. The point was not to classify the movie as an allegory—since there is not nearly enough evidence to do so—but to think about how the movie uses various components of the allegorical form without necessarily being an allegory in and of itself.2

The Seventh Seal was especially fruitful for returning my students’ focus to personification. This movie toggles back and forth between the literal journey of Antonius Block, a Swedish knight who is returning from the Crusades during the breakout of the Black Death in fourteenth-century Europe, and a chess match between Block and Death. Death makes eight appearances in the film, most of which take place in the last thirty minutes of the film. He is introduced from 4:01 to 5:25; he masquerades as a priest from 19:15 to 23:30; he continues his chess match with Block from 57:26 to 58: 44; he kills Skat, an actor travelling with Jof and Mia, by cutting down a tree from 1:08:43 to 1:09:55; he poses as a monk from 1:15:36 to 1:15:50; he continues his game with Block from 1:22:04 to 1:25:10; he claims the lives of Block and his friends from 1:32:07 to 1:34:15; and he lead Block and the others in the Dance of Death from 1:35:20 to 1:35:37. For the majority of the film, no one besides Block and Jof is able to see Death, whose invisibility keeps him somewhat separate from the literal persons.

The Wizard of Oz and The Seventh Seal use two fundamentally different ways of managing the distinction between the literal and the allegorical. The first uses the convention of the dream vision—so popular within the allegorical tradition—and the transition from black-and-white to Technicolor to keep Kansas and Oz mostly separate from one another. The second uses Death’s invisibility in order to keep his actions distinct from those of literal characters like Block, Jöns, and Jof. The desire to keep the literal separate from the allegorical—here, manifested in two modern films—very much emerges out of the eighteenth century’s focus on literary decorum and correctness.

Like The Wizard of Oz and The Seventh Seal, Inside Out distinguishes allegorical from literal characters, though in a slightly different way. It does not, like The Wizard of Oz, create a dream vision that comments on real-life occurrences nor does it, like The Seventh Seal, focus on a mostly invisible personification that comes in and out of the story. Inside Out, rather, toggles between the intrapersonal world of Riley’s mind and the interpersonal world of Riley’s surroundings. The first of these worlds is strikingly mechanical, with fixtures such as a major control panel, an apparatus that moves the core memories from Riley’s eyes to a small compartment in the middle of her mind. The latter of these, on the contrary, is inhabited by other people who—the movie shows from time to time—are behaving in certain ways because of their own thoughts and emotions.

What did my undergraduates gain from analyzing Inside Out within the context of films such as The Wizard of Oz and The Seventh Seal? They gained a stronger sense of how certain elements of the allegorical form have been appropriated for visual storytelling. Allegory is not merely a form of writing. It is, on the contrary, a narrative form that cuts across literature, art, music, and many other kinds of cultural production. They also improved their ability to work from two different frameworks—one from literature and one from film—in order to better understand a single modern text. By the end of my students’ discussion of Inside Out, the fields of literature studies and film studies were much closer to circles on a Venn diagram than distinct disciplines.

I believe, first, that one of the most important jobs of college-level instructors is to push against the all-too-common distinction between high and low culture and, second, that the use of popular culture within the classroom is an invaluable tool for pushing against this distinction. Working against the distinction is so important because it encourages students to think critically about the world around them. Instructors need to find ways to point out to their students that they can analyze anything critically, including recent texts and films, television shows, and the advertisements they encounter on trains and subways. A lot of what I do in the classroom involves emphasizing the complexity of the texts making up our surrounding environment, whether the text is an eighteenth-century poem, a modern novel, a song released this year, or a recent film. Setting up a course similar to my “Allegory from Piers Plowman to Inside Out” is one such way to do this because in asking students to connect a wide range of seemingly dissimilar texts, it asks students to develop the skills they will need to turn their ever-sharpening acumen on the world at large. By the end of the course, my students had been trained to see the ongoing relevance of the allegorical form and had started to understand the ways in which contemporary writers and filmmakers reformulate, rather than abandon, traditional narrative forms. They had also improved their ability to think critically about modern culture.


Works Cited

Anonymous. Everyman and Other Miracle & Morality Plays, edited by Candace Ward, Dover Publications, 1995.

Brown, Jane K. The Persistence of Allegory: Drama and Neoclassicism from Shakespeare to Wagner. U of Pennsylvania P, 2007.

Fletcher, Angus. Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode, 1964. Princeton UP, 2012.

Francus, Marilyn. Monstrous Motherhood: Eighteenth-Century Culture and the Ideology of Domesticity. The Johns Hopkins UP, 2012.

Hansen, Bradley A. “The Fable of the Allegory: The Wizard of Oz in Economics,” Journal of Economic Education, vol. 33, no. 3, 2002, pp. 254-64.

Honig, Edwin. Dark Conceit: The Making of Allegory. Brown UP, 1959.

Inside Out. Directed by Pete Docter, performances by Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Lewis Black, Bill Hader, and Mindy Kaling. Walt Disney Studios, 2015.

Johnson, Gary. “Introduction,” The Vitality of Allegory: Figural Narrative in Modern and Contemporary Fiction, edited by Johnson. Ohio State UP, 2012.

Kelley, Theresa. Reinventing Allegory. Cambridge UP, 1997.

Littlefield, Henry. “The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism,” American Quarterly, vol. 16, no. 1, 1964, pp. 47-58.

Murrin, Michael. The Veil of Allegory: Some Notes Toward a Theory of Allegorical Rhetoric in the English Renaissance.  of Chicago P, 1969.

—. The Allegorical Epic: Essays on its Rise and Decline. University of Chicago Press, 1980.

The Seventh Seal. Directed by Ingmar Bergman. Performances by Max Von Sydow, Bengt Ekerot, Gunnar Björnstrand, Nils Poppe, Bibi Andersson. Janus Films, 1957.

The Wizard of Oz. Directed by Victor Fleming. Performances by Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, and Bert Lahr. Loew’s Inc., 1939.


1 The notion that allegory dies is ubiquitous in literary criticism. For particularly influential examples, see Edwin Honig’s Dark Conceit: The Making of Allegory and Michael Murrin’s The Veil of Allegory: Some Notes Toward a Theory of Allegorical Rhetoric in the English Renaissance and The Allegorical Epic: Essays in its Rise and Decline. Marilyn Francus, more recently, argues for the demise of allegory in Monstrous Motherhood: Eighteenth-Century Culture and the Ideology of Domesticity, 41. For a brief discussion of accounts of allegory’s supposed death, see Gary Johnson’s introduction to The Vitality of Allegory: Figural Narrative in Modern and Contemporary Fiction, 1-5. Only relatively recently have scholars begun to rethink the supposed demise of allegory. See Jane K. Brown, The Persistence of Allegory; Theresa Kelley, Reinventing Allegory.

2 I introduce my students to the scholarly debate about The Wizard of Oz as a monetary allegory but do not go through it in much detail. This is a conscious decision on my part, because there is not enough evidence to argue that The Wizard of Oz itself encourages reading it as a monetary allegory. But for some influential discussions of how the film may be an allegory in this sense, Henry Littlefield, “The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism.” Bradley A. Hansen provides a counterargument in “The Fable of the Allegory: The Wizard of Oz in Economics,” Journal of Economic Education.


Jason John Gulya earned his Ph.D. in English Literature from Rutgers University in 2016. He currently teaches at Rutgers, Raritan Valley Community College, and Brookdale Community College. He specializes in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British literature as well as pedagogy, writing studies, the relationship between literature and composition studies, and the origins of Children’s Literature. His writing has appeared or is scheduled to appear in Literary Imagination, Pedagogy, and the book Reflections on Academic Lives (Palgrave Macmillan). He is always looking for innovative ways to teach reading and writing to his college students.

MLA Commons:

Reference Citation

Gulya, Jason John. “Applications in the Classroom: Teaching Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out within the Tradition of Allegorical Personification.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol. 4, no. 1, 2017

Gulya, J. J. (2017). Applications in the classroom: Teaching Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out within the tradition of allegorical personification.  Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 4(1).