Updated: Oct 12
By Gabby Kramer '24
Now that the English course curriculums have totally changed, we look back to last year’s curriculum. The books included in last year's eleventh grade English Lit curriculum are all known to be exceptionally well-written literary classics. Some of the most prominent and influential authors of their times are featured, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, and Patricia Highsmith. But aside from the books' amazing reputations, what do the students think of them? I asked GFS then-11th graders their opinions on the curriculum's three main books—To The Lighthouse, The Great Gatsby, and Their Eyes Were Watching God— and told them to rate the novels on a scale of 1-5.
To The Lighthouse:
To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf is considered a literary masterpiece. The book's narrative encircles the Ramsay family— the pleasant and maternal Mrs. Ramsay, the tragic yet chaotic Mr. Ramsay, and their children— and their lives in the Isle of Skye. The book does not actually have a distinct plot, but rather tells its story by narrating a stream of consciousness; it constantly flips through different characters’ perspectives, allowing the reader a look into each individual’s psyche. A chapter may start with Mr. Ramsay detailing his existential crisis, flip to Lily Briscoe pondering her painting career, and end with Mrs. Ramsay attempting to fulfill her duties as a mother. In many cases, one scene or dinner event will be seen through the eyes of at least six different characters. The idea of a "stream of consciousness" is also implemented in Woolf's writing style. In order to capture the disorderly nature of thoughts, most of the book's sentences are at least 100 words long and held together by a combination of semicolons, commas, em-dashes, and every other existing form of punctuation. In her book, Virginia Woolf conveys a strong message about the isolating human experience as caused by the intangible barrier between our minds.
When it comes to this book, students either praise it or heavily critique it. According to Izzy Spaniel, an avid reader, "The book wasn't really a story, it was one dinner." Izzy is referring to the incredibly slow pace of the book—because it doesn't have an actual plot, there are no main events to move along the narrative. "I am a quick reader and because the sentences are so complicated, I always have to reread," she adds. To many students, Woolf's ‘beautiful’ phrases are a bunch of run-on sentences and her ‘innovative use of punctuation’ calls for a lack of flow. The abstract nature of her writing style therefore forces the reader to pause to think about the meaning of each sentence. While the unconventionality can ruin the book for a lot of students, others see it as adding to the book's exceptional reputation. Lily Jensen said the book was her favorite out of the collection: "I really liked it, I thought it was really intriguing and her language was very beautiful." Rachel Cusick also favored it because she "really enjoys existentialism books." This book may appeal to someone who is incredibly patient, not afraid of irregular use of punctuation, and enjoys a book that questions reality more than narrates a story.
The Great Gatsby:
The Great Gatsby, written by F. Scott Fitzgerald and published in 1925, takes place during the Jazz Age, an era defined by entertainment-seeking individuals and a cultural rise in dance and music. Although the book is told from the perspective of Nick Carraway, the storyline revolves around Gatsby— aka the "Great Gatsby"— and his past. Gatsby is a self-made or "new money," millionaire who one day moves to the West Egg, the wealthy part of town, in pursuit of his long-lost love Daisy Buchanan. Through a series of lavish parties and calculated schemes, Gatsby continuously and rather desperately strives to reignite their love. While the book follows Gatsby's romantic life, it also highlights themes such as material greed, hierarchy, and the American Dream. In the novel, through a series of parties, character relations, and more parties, the reader is set up to question the rather absurd, money-driven behavior of certain members of Gatsby's incredibly wealthy community.
The Great Gatsby was definitely well-received in the opinions of this year's eleventh graders. "I thought the language was really pretty and it wasn't too difficult to read or understand," shares Christina Campos. To many students, the book was a good balance between readable and analytical; the plot was easy to follow while the language was still relatively complex through its use of imagery, metaphors, and other literary devices. Elli Greenbaum described this book as having a "fun vibe" due to the absurdity of certain scenes and characters—the wealthy characters' extreme arrogance and narcissism calls for a lot of humorous content. This book suits a reader who enjoys extravagant, chaotic, but fun narratives.
Their Eyes Were Watching God:
Their Eyes Were Watching God was written in the early 1900s by the American writer Zora Neale Hurston. This book is a feminist novel centered around a young girl's quest to find identity and independence as a woman of color living in early 20th Century America. As the book progresses, the reader sees the girl, Janie Crawford, struggle to figure out what love is, battle social constructs, and endeavor through a series of both joyous and sorrowful life experiences. The book combines aspects of romantic, emotional, and analytical novels; it consists of heavy plot points, complicated relationships, and elaborate metaphors. Unlike the book To The Lighthouse, this novel follows the traditional storytelling trajectory—it involves character growth, a climax, and a takeaway. Hurston’s novel touches on themes such as womanhood in a conformative society, development, and individuality.
As for the student reviews, this book seemed to be a fan favorite. On top of its ability to captivate the reader's interest through an engaging storyline, various students have described the novel as being extremely moving: "There's a passage that talks about people being broken down by the world around them or 'covered in mud' and still trying to find each other ... the book presents a beautiful representation of human interconnectivity," muses then-junior Hailey Alt. Additionally, Janie Crawford's story is seen as incredibly realistic and relatable—it follows the struggles of a young woman growing up and trying to find her place in the world while she is facing the pressures of expectation. The realism of characters is then further reinforced by Hurston's inclusion of heavy Southern accents: "I liked how Hurston Incorporated the characters' accents into the book,” says Izzy. “It made them feel much more real." All in all, there are many different reasons to favor this book.