The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne (2006) is about a boy called Bruno who is 9 years old. He makes friends with another Jewish boy called Shmuel who is imprisoned in a concentration camp. This makes the contrast between the two boys explicit. The novel ends with both Shmuel and Bruno being killed in a gas chamber, with Bruno holding the hand of his friend. What’s most upsetting is how Boyne writes from the point of view of Bruno – a child, and therefore the world is seen through a cloak of naivety; Bruno thinks the gas chamber is a room used to shelter people from the rain. The novel has a clear intention: to show the effect of war with specific focus paid to its effect on children and how nonsensical and unnecessary war seems compared to friendship: ‘Despite the chaos that followed, Bruno found that he was still holding Shmuel's hand in his own and nothing in the world would have ever persuaded him to let it go.’
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill (1982) is a ghost story written in a dense, multi-subordinated Dickensian style. The protagonist, Arthur, a London solicitor, is requested to go to Eel Marsh House located on a mysterious marsh. There, Arthur is repeatedly haunted by the ‘malevolent’ ghost of the woman in black, the sounds of children screaming and horse and carts that don’t exist. It is a fantastic read, rich in description and vocabulary. The novel ends with Arthur’s newborn son Joseph, and his fiancée, Stella, being killed as the horse and cart they’re riding in crashes into a tree because the ghost of the woman in black stands in the middle of the road and deliberately seeks her revenge. Stella is described as ‘broken’ – doll-like, precious.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (1937) has been on English curriculums for years. My mentor has taught it every year for 22 years. It tells the tale of Lennie and George, two American farmhands who are forced to leave their old home, a place called Weed, because Lennie (mentally disabled, child-like) is accused of rape. By the end of the novel, Lennie accidentally kills the illustrious Curley’s wife (we never know her name as she’s seen as the possession of Curley) by breaking her neck. Lennie flees before the other farm workers find Curley’s wife lying dead in a barn. George, his only friend, finds Lennie before he is found by everyone else. After the theme of dreams is revisited again (Lennie wants land to own rabbits), George asks Lennie to turn around and proceeds to shoot his long-term friend in the back of the head, point-blank. He feels no pain. Perhaps an act of kindness was to shoot him rather than allow the farmhands to kill him, perhaps more savagely?Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954) is also a stalwart of the English literature curriculum, telling the tale of a group of boys who get marooned on an island. The novel explores human nature – what happens when we are with the same people for long periods of time. By the end of the book, 2 main characters are dead with the boys slowly descending into savagery.
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (approx 1594) details how the original star-crossed lovers are destined not to be together due to their warring families – the Capulets and the Montagues. By the end, both the protagonists have committed suicide by drinking a lethal poison. Death may provide more of a comfort to them than life where they can’t be together.
Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo (2003) is about how World War One impacted on family. The narrator is a young teenager, Tommo, who sees the world at war through a naïve eye, as with Bruno in TBITSP. Both Tommo and his older brother Charlie enlist to fight, and after going over the top of the trench, Tommo is wounded. Charlie disobeys a direct order and stays with his younger brother, looking after him like he did at home. For this, he’s punished – and executed at dawn, for being a caring brother. As each chapter’s title is a time which is counting down to Charlie’s impending doom, the sadness is inescapable.
And finally, there is war literature itself – the poetry of Brookes, Sassoon and Owen, and the play Journey’s End by R. C. Sherriff (1928) about a group of soldiers in a trench during the First World War, before they go over the top and face imminent and probable death. More than 37 million people were killed from WW1, so it’s no wonder the literature of war is studied to give an insight into that sad part of human history. The play is an example of what literary buffs call a ‘verisimilitude’ play – naturalistic drama made to mimic real life.I told you you’d probably need Prozac!
Despite humans still lacking the ability to live together peacefully, many decades after the World Wars finished, works of literature on the English literature curriculum remain tough, heavy-going and emotionally-wounding. But perhaps that’s literature at its best? It’s memorable, it’s timeless, it has a point, it’s real.