The Narrative Of Power on a University Syllabus

English classes come with a syllabus, a list of works that someone has decided are important and has curated into a course. If someone were reading independently, making their own list up along as they went it might take them years to have read all the books that appear on a single reading list and these books would be interspersed with an assortment of other works. It is arguable that organic reading would give a person a better sense of literature as a whole, or give them the opportunity to form their own opinion about what work is important outside of ‘expert’ opinions. However, this disregards what I believe is the intention of reading lists, that is to convey a very particular theme. The seven texts on the reading list for ENGL 2018A are the same whether a person encounters them in four months or over years but when they are placed beside each other in a conscious way by a person who is drawing from their own body of knowledge it forces a consideration of issues that would not have been obvious if studied individually. In the case of ENGL 2018A the question that arises is how stories creative narratives of power both in the real world and in creative works. In a course that contains both Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton as well as works like Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale and The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglas the kinds of narratives are diverse and the people telling them differ wildly but there are aspects of overlap.

Two of the works use storytelling  as a subversive tactic, the narrators are telling a story to an audience that experiences a life different from their own in order to challenge a world view. Atwood’s Offred is fictional and literary choices such as the Historical Notes at the end of the novel remind the reader that the story is a dark commentary on where the world has been and where it might be going. Douglas lays out his life at a time when his experience was still being lived by the many thousands of slaves in the American south and all he can do is tell his own story and hope that the white powerful elite realize the error of their ways. Offred and Douglas are vastly different narrators and to try to equate their experiences would do a disservice to both the historical commentary Atwood creates and the undeniable truth of Douglas’s life but when considered beside each other, without the centuries of other literature that separate them these two texts show the ways in which story telling is incredibly subversive and can seek to undermine those in power.

Oedipus Rex and Hamilton to me make the most interesting comparison when their writes and their narratives are considered simultaneously. Oedipus Rex is a myth retold by a playwrite who was a giant of his own time and presents a king who does not control the progression of his own narrative because it is already written by fate. Sophocles returns to Oedipus over several decades resulting in a trilogy that is debatably the most famous of his works. As it is studied in English classes today it the Theban plays stand as both a commentary on myth and on he legendary status of a writer. Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton also takes on a narrative that had existed before but he sends his work out into a world that is much wider audience than Sophocles’ Athens and his protagonist is not bound by fate but instead spends the entirety of the work trying to shape his own legacy. Ultimately both of these stories are about leaders who are shaped by the narrative they present to their people and the texts themselves become the pinnacle of their writer’s career. What is often forgotten though is that Oedipus Rex was not a new story for the Greeks of ancient Athens and Lin Manuel Miranda very much did not create the breakout Broadway show on his own, those are just narratives that society and the writer have collaborated on to decide who has control over the narrative of creation.

Then when the powerful men of Oedipus Rex and Hamilton are compared to the struggling rebels of the Handmaid’s Tale and Frederick Douglas’s life they show the wider power of story. The ability to tell one’s story to or to create a story about others gives power. Either for imagined characters or for writers who are seeking their own narrative to be remembered by. Even the course reading list that presented these themes through interlocking texts is a narrative created by the professor who designs it because they have the ability to present the ideas to the students. Students who will go on to debates among themselves, exams, essays, and rambling blog posts they send out into the void.


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