The Modern Gothic: Joyce Carol Oates

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SWBAT analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama by determining how the author relies on the reader's imagination to determine theme.

Big Idea

Modern problems encrypted in the Modern Gothic.


This lesson rounds out the unit on Gothic literature.  Students will see how the genre has changed from the days of Edgar Allan Poe where every Gothic detail was apparent in the text.  Oates's strategy is to leave out significant information and force the reader's imagination to fill in the blank.  Students will have an opportunity to decide which is more effective: the description of Gothic elements or the inference of these elements.

Notes: The Modern Gothic: Joyce Carol Oates

20 minutes

In this section, I want to introduce students to the concept of the modern Gothic and how it differs from the traditional form of Gothic literature.  This part of the lesson is aligned with RL.11-12.5 as it is necessary to understand the characterisitics of the Modern Gothic in order to make sense and arrive at meaning as the story progresses.  Oates leaves many matters uncertain; therefore, an understanding of the genre will provide the reasoning to grasp this story.  In the Modern Gothic, the horror and the grotesque is more inferred and there are more holes in the narrative.  Oates relies on the reader's imagination more than traditional Gothic writers.

Following the notes, I ask students to refer back to their notes and we complete a Venn Diagram comparing and contrasting the traditional Gothic to the Modern Gothic.  My goal is for students to see that the horror lies in the imagination and other psychological effects.  There is reliance on tangible violent acts.

I have attached a short video that speaks of the Modern Gothic in terms of how it portrays the anxieties felt in modern times.


Read: "Where is Here?"

30 minutes

In this section to demonstrate the characteristics of the Modern Gothic, the class reads "Where is Here?"  This story is quite eerie and tells the tale of an adult man who goes back to visit his childhood home.  While visiting he displays many strange characteristics where he seems to regress into a child.  The reader can sense that there is a violent past, but Oates does not explicitly state whether there is or not.  The "stranger" (the adult male) also has an obsession with riddles, which may be the key in understanding the plot of the story.  There is not much literary criticism on this story, but as the riddles demonstrate infinity, this may be the point of the story.  The family may be stuck into a cycle of abuse that keeps replaying itself.  Also, Oates may be making a statement as to the redundancy of middle class life, and in some cases, this would include the cycle of violence.  This, anyway, is the explanation I give to my students that the infinity riddle and the family are a display of infinity.  As the math riddle never ends, neither does the abuse of the family ever cease.

Students will complete a guiding reading check sheet as they read.  This activity aligns with RL.11-12.1 as students must use text evidence to answer questions.  I use the guided reading check to check for understanding and to make sure students are paying attention.  I often call on students to answer questions as we are reading along, or if it becomes overly monotonous, I will segue into a think-pair-share where students answer questions and then check them with a partner.  Usually, as we read, students have an abundance of questions.  For example, they wonder why the mother in the story suddenly changes her mind and invites the stranger in the house.  Students catch on right away that the stranger has been abused.  They really think it is strange when he wants to see the basement.  "The happy place" is also a dead ringer that something has gone awry when the stranger lived in the house.  I also have them concentrate on the name--the stranger.  I ask them to think of connotations to the word.  The instantly see that Oates is assigning a mystery and perhaps horrific element to his character.  Plus, the stranger limps.  Most students relate that characteristic to many horror flicks with a murderer with some sort of physical deformity.


20 minutes

This assignment I want students to draw parallels between the stranger and one other character:  most likely the father or the son.  I will explain that a doppleganger is a Gothic technique used in literature to denote a double.  For example, the two cats in "The Black Cat" are doubles.  This activity of course is aligned to RL.11-12.1 and W.11-12 1.9 through the specific use of text evidence to support ideas.

Students will use a graphic organizer to fill in a description of each character and write several quotes from the text which demonstrate a parallel between the two characters.  These quotes may be written around the graphic organzier.

Students will then write a reflection as to what information Oates neglects to add to make the action of the short story more clear.  They will also attempt to identify what effect she achieves by leaving out key information.  This section is particular in tuned with RL.11-12.1 where it states "where the text leaves matters uncertain."  The entire resolution to the story is uncertain.  Students will need to go back in the story to infer the ending. Additionally, the resolution touches upon RL.11-12.5 where the uncertain resolution contributes "to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact."  The story becomes eerie when the reader must use his or her experiences to fill in the gaps.  Oates relies on the reader's wild imagination to make sense of her work.