Undisciplining Through Jane Eyre, Re Jane, and Parasite
Lesson Plan Production Details
Developer: Matt Poland Contact
Peer Reviewer: Barbara Barrow, Renee Fox, Cherrie Kwok, Jessie Reeder, Oishani Sengupta, Emma Soberano
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Cluster Title: Undisciplining In and Through Contemporary Texts
Publication Date: 2024
In this lesson plan I detail the 100-level composition course, “Imagining Identity,” which I have taught in the Expository Writing Program at the University of Washington in Seattle. Rather than centering literary analysis and adaptation as frameworks, the course is grounded in feminist theory, especially Black feminist theories of intersectionality, and autoethnography as a compositional practice.
The course is organized around three texts: Patricia Park’s Re Jane (2015), Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), and Bong Joon Ho’s film Parasite (2019). These mutually illuminating narratives ground students’ investigations into intersectional identity and its imbrication in communities, which is carried out through discussion and autoethnographic writing, as well as podcasting (see Example Assignments and Assessment).
I owe the pairing of Re Jane and Jane Eyre to Olivia Loksing Moy’s (2020) inspired article in the “Undisciplining Victorian Studies” special issue of Victorian Studies. On the surface a Korean-American adaptation of Jane Eyre, Re Jane is also a sophisticated and relatable novel about hybrid identity, gender performance, and cross-cultural comparison. It is relatable in a few important ways: it uses clear, contemporary language that students won’t struggle with, compared to Jane Eyre. It is also culturally legible to students from Asian American communities, and those from outside them find familiarity in the early-20s life scenarios it depicts. Re Jane is not just an intertext for the “canonical” novel, but rather a lens which focuses transcultural and transhistorical issues of gender, race, and social class, as well as a formally supple example for students to refer to in their own autoethnographic writing.
Connecting Victorian and twenty-first century imaginaries of race undisciplines normative Victorian studies practices by reorienting toward a critique of “White time,” in Charles W. Mills’ (2014) phrase. Scholarship and teaching on nineteenth-century literature and culture extensively critique imperial, liberal, and “exploitative bourgeois class temporal regime[s]” (28). But this pair of texts facilitates discussions about the limits of “normative discourse of the non-enslaved, the non-expropriated, and the non-victims of genocide...whose normative temporality need pay no attention in determining questions of justice to [the] past” in Victorian studies (40).
Screening Parasite at the end of the course brings the discussion right up to date in the 2020s and, uncannily, closer to the concerns of Jane Eyre. The film facilitates a synthesis of the course readings and writing assignments. Parasite allows me to frame Re Jane and Jane Eyre as fantasies about social mobility across discrete social spaces propelled by individual will. Both novels propose that, if you are able to become your authentic self, you will be able to navigate the hierarchies of unequal societies.
But Parasite is about economic forces so overwhelmingly unequal that the types of mobility Jane Eyre and Jane Re engineer for themselves are only possible through deceit. In the film’s (and our own) radically segregated world of post-Great Recession capitalism, you have to become an inauthentic self in order to survive. Together, these texts implore students to consider their own privilege and the hazards of an individualist outlook.
It is important to clarify the difference between the course’s learning outcomes and my goals as a Victorianist. My intellectual aims – decentering and reframing the white canonical novelist while investigating how (and if) Brontë’s novel still speaks to students now – inform every choice I made in designing the class. But these aims are necessarily subordinate to the learning outcomes for students: first, developing a critical perspective on lived experience and society by thinking about their multivalent identities and, second, complicating students’ sense of identity’s transcultural and transhistorical connections.
The readings and assignments facilitate what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1988) calls strategic essentialism: a temporary and self-aware focus on one aspect of identity for the purposes of analysis and, ultimately, political community building in order to redress inequalities within subcultures and society at large (202-207, esp. 205). I am mindful of how problematic essentialist thinking can be; indeed, Parasite can be read as a cautionary tale about strategic essentialism adopted in bad faith.1
In discussions and feedback, I encourage students’ own sense of the inadequacy of static definitions of identity, emphasizing instead flux and contingency while maintaining the analytical value of isolating a variable to consider it singly without losing sight of its intersectional affiliations. Extended first-person narratives, like the novels we read in class, become a useful model for understanding the fluidity of identity formation and reformation in time and between social/cultural spaces.
Rationale for Cluster Groupings
My goals as a scholar and a teacher align and become flush thanks to Moy’s ingenious strategy of reading Re Jane before Jane Eyre in the course. In other words, the simple act of reversing the text-adaptation sequence – using Re Jane as a lens through which to view Jane Eyre – keeps me (especially) and my students from unthinkingly genuflecting to Jane Eyre as a Great Novel.
In the classroom, I tell students I’m not interested in Jane Eyre as a canonical “classic of Western civilization”: I’m interested in what the novel in part as a tool to think with. I try to get students to “buy in” to the reading these books by saying that, if this book seems to have nothing to do with you, first, let’s discuss that, because it’s important and interesting. Second, in the case of Jane Eyre, we live in a “global Anglophone” socioeconomic system contoured by the nineteenth-century British world-system.
For those reasons, it is worth examining that world-system’s cultural artefacts from students’ own subject positions. This is a starting point for critiquing that world-system and its lingering grip on the planet. In the context of a 100-level composition course, modeling this disposition toward literary texts builds toward “close reading” of students’ own experiences.
Re Jane is not just a set of binoculars for Jane Eyre, however. It does important work all its own, which is easier to see when it is put first on the syllabus. One reason I thought this pairing would work well in my institutional context is because a significant proportion of my students are from Asian-American and Asian backgrounds.
The experiences described in Re Jane align and pull against students’ own experiences in productive ways. This facilitates identification with the novel’s characters as well as the subtle delineation between cultural identities, which is helpful in understanding a concept as variegated as “intersectionality.” But as with any interesting novel, identification is only the beginning. Re Jane’s narration is both approachable and conducive to articulating fundamental narrative concepts like “diegesis” and “realism.”
As readers of this lesson plan think about how to migrate this cluster of texts to other institutions, care must be taken to make sure Asian American and Asian students are not put in the position of acting as bridges to understanding for white students. In my own situation, I emphasize my own responsibility as a white person in intersectional spaces and the collective nature of the work of understanding identity, as well as undisciplining our scholarly practices.
Key Ideas and Critical Frameworks
Key Idea: Realism and the Politics of the Everyday
Realism in particular becomes a through line in the course, linking the novels to the autoethnographic writing assignments via a politics of the ordinary. Realism makes the radical political point that the ordinary experiences of ordinary people are of social and aesthetic significance.
But I don’t turn to George Eliot, the Lyrical Ballads, or even Jane Eyre to illustrate this at first. Instead, we spend time talking about the culturally-specific Korean concepts that shape Re Jane’s ethics, including nunchi (intuitive interpersonal awareness), jung (deep-seated regard for another person), and “good family education.”
In making connections between the novel and the writing assignments, we talk about the culturally-specific lenses students know from their backgrounds, how they might be applied by critically interpreting experiences using the methods learned from examining cultural texts, and what the unstated social assumptions underlying those lenses might be – that is, what they reveal about the values of those communities. Re Jane exposes students to literary sophistication while also modeling how to develop a critical subject position all their own in the autoethnographic writing assignments.
Key Idea: Using Literary Texts to Teach Critical Positionality
Adaptations do also have a way of “shed[ding] light on what was suppressed in their antecedents,” as Aviva Briefel (2021) puts it. Moy points out that Re Jane critiques gynocentric feminism through the character of Jane, who intuits that this type of abstract, white feminism is inadequate to her lived experience as a working-class Korean-American woman (414-15). This critique becomes an optic for Jane Eyre, in which the white heroine’s individual freedom is scaffolded on the subjugation of Bertha Mason as well as that of the Black and brown people whose forced labor produced the Eyre and Rochester families’ generational wealth.
Together, Re Jane and Jane Eyre permit discussion of what liberatory politics and ethics look like, which emerge from real communities and are equal to their complexities. Students perform a double movement, developing their own interpretive practices as they apply them to cultural artefacts and their own experiences.
Both novels, viewed through the frameworks discussed below and paired with the writing assignments, reinforce the idea that critical perspective emerges from the student’s own subject position and is augmented, but not determined, by concepts like intersectionality, rather than by adopting my type of critical positionality as the instructor. I want students to see that their critical understandings of society emerge from the lived experiences of being individuals in communities and are refined by theory, rather than learned by rote from some sort of predetermined set of discipline-specific lenses (“this is how we do things in literary studies,” “this is how we do things in anthropology”).
Framework for Class Discussions: Intersectional Feminism and Cultural Comparison
In order to think with these texts about identity and its imbrication in communities, I frame the course through the concepts of intersectionality and autoethnography. Early on, I articulate two main points about intersectionality. First, intersectionality is a concept that has high political stakes for addressing inequality and legal legibility in society. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s (1989) classic example of the legal invisibility of Black women makes this starkly clear: the contrast between the “multidimensionality of Black women’s experience with the single-axis analysis that distorts these experiences” (139). Quite frequently, this core concept of intersectionality is one that students have heard of in popular culture or conversations about social justice.
Second, intersectionality is also a way to understand the complexity of identity: how the individual sense of self is rooted in multiple intersecting communities, and how privilege is accumulated but also mitigated in dynamic ways. I try to disabuse students of a notion that can follow from the first point, which is that intersectionality itself “is a problem in our society.” Instead, while making sure the political consequences never disappear, I describe intersectionality as a neutral framework for articulating a critical understanding of things students already know. Their identities are complex, the dynamics of their communities are complex, and – by teasing apart aspects of those identities and dynamics without losing sight of their interconstitutiveness – students can gain insight into big social questions including race, nationality, gender, and class.
One student wrote about being a discriminated against as a racially minoritized American, interrogating the idea of being a “real American” and acknowledging the positionality that came from being considered a “model minority” and thus more “real American” than others:
My experiences were unfair, but these experiences instilled a passion to be educated about social issues. It is important that I recognize the privilege I possess as well: I am a U.S. born heterosexual Asian woman who is pursuing higher education. I am less likely to be killed by police, I am less likely to experience hate crimes, I am more likely to be given job opportunities. While I have these privileges, I will not say that issues like unequal access to education, police brutality, and unequal unemployment are not my problem. If I were to ignore these issues, I would only be contributing to the problem. America itself, American systems, and the American idea of being a real American should not be the same as it was centuries ago. Change begins with the recognition and education about America’s prevalent social issues.2
Framework for Writing Assignments: Autoethnography
If intersectionality is the paradigm for our class discussions of identity, then autoethnography is the method we use to investigate it through the writing assignments. The notion of the “participant observer” is a point of connection between nineteenth-century social sciences and realist novels including Jane Eyre, as James Buzard (2005) has shown. Autoethnographic writing allows students to develop a critical sense of their own “insider’s outsideness,” honed by reading the literary texts (209). Rhetoric and composition scholars teach us that autoethnography is also a versatile framework for academic writing because it activates the connection between the personal and the critical. Melissa Tombro’s (2016) scholarship was particularly formative for me in designing this course.
Through two short sketches and two versions of a medium-length essay (the second extensively revised – see the Example Assignments and Assessment section) students begin by describing how being a part of a particular subculture has shaped their identities and steadily develop a critical perspective on these experiences. The goal of this process, culminating in the medium-length essay, is to step back to reflect on and analyze what your experiences mean by asking, for example: where do values or practices come from in the subculture? What might be some of the unstated cultural or social assumptions that this subculture is founded on? For example, the implicit relations in terms of gender, race, or class on which the idea of “normality” in this community is based? How and why experiences, attitudes, and practices differ from dominant American culture?
Recently, ethical issues with autoethnography as a social science research method has created controversy (see, e.g., Mohammed et al., “Open letter”). As a composition practice, Tombro provides advice on helping students feel comfortable with disclosure of personal information and ethical practices in engaging with their chosen subcultures. She emphasizes that instructors should help students navigate how to pick an autoethnographic topic which “interests them and increase their understanding of the subculture while staying within their comfort zone” (Tombro 43).
The first rule of such writing should be “do no harm,” both personally and within the subculture. In assignment prompts and discussions with students I remind them that they are always in complete control of what they disclose and that I want them to feel secure in this knowledge. Following Tombro, I emphasize students’ agency in choosing to write about triggering topics and experiences:
When students decide to write on a topic such as abuse, sexual violence or experiencing the death of someone close to them, I try to have a one-on-one conversation about the choice of topic early in the drafting process. In no way do I wish to discourage students from choosing a topic if they feel this is a good time to explore it. Instead, in these meetings, I invite them to write about these topics and also advise them that sometimes exploring these topics can be difficult because they will relive them again and again as they revise their writing. They will even be critiqued on how they recount something very personal and painful, which can be difficult. Ultimately, I leave the decision to the students. (62)
These issues should be addressed at the outset of the assignment sequence and repeatedly throughout the course.
Extensibility is a key feature of autoethnography as a method in the writing classroom. The formal and analytical possibilities of autoethnographic writing are diverse, as are the ways that questions can be posed. I have only ever taught “Imagining Identity” during the Covid-19 emergency, so the types of autoethnographic writing students have undertaken has been relatively modest in terms of “embeddedness,” as the assignment prompt summaries show. But in an extended assignment sequence, or one made up of more short assignments, the sky is the limit. Tombro gives examples of writing assignments involving interviews with community members, about significant spaces or events, about forms of deep observation, and so on.
Throughout the term, I describe discussing the novels and writing the autoethnographic essays as linked processes of close reading. In the writing, I ask students to transfer the habit of slow, curious attention from the literary to the social, close reading their communities and experiences the way we have been close reading the books.
Adapting the Cluster to Literature and Cultural Studies Classrooms
As mentioned, I have taught this cluster of texts in a 100-level composition class setting during a 10-week quarter. But the cluster could be readily incorporated in courses with other pedagogical priorities. In a semester-long literature course, for example, pairing these texts with Barbara Barrow’s cluster of Wuthering Heights and The Lost Child would create thematic resonances about race and transcultural adaptation. Below I include a few additional ideas for other ways to scale up from this cluster.
The Hallyu Wave, Korean Feminisms, and the Politics of Transnational Cultural Identity
The conversations that Re Jane and Jane Eyre provoke about intersectionality, transcultural adaptation, privilege, and identity could be productively resituated in a course dealing more extensively with contemporary Korean/American culture.3
The Hallyu or “New Korean” Wave of music, television, film, and games provides a framework and a wealth of media through which to investigate the politics of cultural production and the transnational dynamics of neoliberalism (Jin 2016). These themes are readily tied to questions of identity, hybridity, and belonging in and between multiple cultures. Discussions of Anglo-American white feminism and Jane Re’s exploration of what it means to be a feminist could profitably engage with the history and theory of contemporary Korean feminisms.
Anchored by Re Jane and Parasite, and under the same umbrella of cross-cultural comparison outlined above, students could explore Korean feminist critiques of a normative family-centric society, resistance to beauty standards, the amplification of misogyny online, and the misogynistic alienation of young men (Seo and Choi 2020).
Finally, tying back to autoethnography, an emphasis could be placed on different forms of first-person narration by pairing this cluster with recent Korean-American memoirs including Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H-Mart and E.J. Koh’s The Magical Language of Others.
The Handmaiden and Fingersmith: Further Transcultural Encounters
This pairing could take the shape of an adaptation-focused course with more reason to develop an analytical vocabulary for film. Sarah Waters’ 2002 neo-Victorian novel Fingersmith renders nineteenth-century queer subtexts sensationally literal. Park Chan-wook’s film The Handmaiden (2016) transposes the story to Korea during the early twentieth-century Japanese occupation, accumulating colonial resonances while analogously subverting and exposing the decadence underlying rigid patriarchal power.
Discussion Questions, Key Passages, and Class Activities
In the first few classes when we discuss Re Jane, I say we should use the novel as a tool to help us develop a critical perspective on big societal issues which is rooted in the life experiences of the narrator, and by extension in those of the students themselves. Students are required to come up with discussion questions to “lead” one class discussion, but during the first weeks I give instructions on coming up with generative discussion questions and model doing so with my own discussion questions.
- Chapters 1-7: Discussions of the first 7 chapters of Re Jane focus on realism and diegesis as concepts that will frame our discussions of genre and narrative. I establish that realism as a genre has political stakes and consists partly of effects to persuade readers of verisimilitude and, in the case of the first-person narrative voice, of the trustworthiness and “relatability” of the narrator. There is a back and forth between these characteristics and the artifice of the plot and the subjectivity of the first-person narration – we return to this dynamic in Jane Eyre.
- Chapters 8-10: Discussion of chapters 8-10 apply the concept of intersectionality, introduced by the YouTube videos and an in-class discussion of them, to the literary text. In class, I also derive definitions of feminism and intersectional feminism from bell hooks (2014): “Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression” (117), and Sara Ahmed’s gloss on it. Since the early chapters of the novel focus on Jane Re’s ethnic identity, we focus on the intersections with class identity that are introduced in this section.
- Chapters 11-19: Ch. 11 begins as Jane unexpectedly flies to Seoul to join her family just before the 9/11 attacks. We discuss 9/11 generally as a significant event in American culture, and the effect of historical context on the realistic narrative, even as Jane’s unexpected flight revises our sense that we have unmediated access to her consciousness.
- Chapters 20-end: In our discussion of Re Jane’s last chapters, I draw attention to passages in ch. 21 about “gratefulness” in family relationships and romantic relationships, and why Jane resists these social expectations.
- Chapter 3: We close read this chapter, which on the surface narrates a subway trip, in order to analyze the layeredness of the diegetic world and narrative style – retrospective narration, shifting psychological states, social analysis, historical context – in order to establish this complex layering as a key feature of the novel as a medium. I also invite students to think about the effects Park uses as available to them as writers in a different genre.
- Chapter 8: Chapter 8 includes Jane and Ed Farley’s class-based meeting of minds (ch. 8, 73) and the snobbery of the academic characters in the Thanksgiving scene (ch. 8, 83-4). I conclude by emphasizing that social class is intersectional with other aspects of identity, and that, while these elements can be considered and analyzed separately, we can’t lose track of how they are all dependent on one another (as Beth Mazer-Farley does). The topic of Beth’s white feminism frequently arises in discussions, a concept which we return to in synthesizing Re Jane and Jane Eyre I ask students to write a short reflection about the idea of intersectionality and questions they have about it, to be addressed in the next class. Finally, I urge students to think of their unique critical perspective on society as emerging from their own intersectional identities.
- Chapter 15: Scenes in ch. 15 (155, 170), where characters at a café and then Jane and Emo discuss how women should dress and behave in ways that will help them get husbands, allow me to introduce two important concepts to think about these situations: gender performativity and compulsory heterosexuality (Butler 2010, Rich 2003). We tie these ideas back to the idea of intersectional, cross-cultural comparison using examples from Korean and American culture in these scenes, and I emphasize that these concepts will be throughlines to our discussion of Jane Eyre.
- Chapters 16-19: These chapters develop the cross-cultural comparison of gender performance in the US and Korea. I draw a Venn diagram of Jane Re’s intersectional identity as a jumping off point to think about students’ own identities and an aspect of it they want to focus on by writing about a particular community they belong to.
- Chapter 21: In this chapter (245, 248) Jane compares “gratefulness” in family and romantic relationships, and resists those expectations. I point out that Jane senses that gratefulness puts her in a passive position where she is dependent on others. As the novel wraps up, Jane is trying to synthesize these opposing forces: appreciation and understanding of her family but also an internal sense that she deserves to be loved independent of social expectations. This theme sets up our final, overall discussion of the novel and creates a connection to Jane Eyre.
In-between the two novels, we read Kwame Antony Appiah’s (2016) essay “There’s No Such Thing as Western Civilization.” This helps along the transition to Jane Eyre from Re Jane’s nuanced meditations on where “East” and “West” intersect and where they remain separate. More directly, I use the essay to frame Jane Eyre, attempting to leave behind the novel’s unhelpful and ideologically problematic baggage as a “classic of Western civilization.” We discuss Appiah’s remarks on cosmopolitanism and how Re Jane endorses some elements of this ethical stance while also highlighting its limitations in critiques of racial and class-based power. An audio version of the essay is also available.
For the first class of the Jane Eyre unit, I ask students to “Google the Victorians,” an activity that gives them general historical and cultural context keyed to their interests, which is more engaging than me delivering a dryasdust lecture about the period in a composition classroom. I ask them to bring one interesting fact about the Victorians to class to share with small groups and then the full class: who were they? When were they? What issues were important, such as gender, social change, empire? What did they do for fun? I provide links to BRANCH Collective, Victorian Web, and The Dictionary of Victorian London to direct their searches, and make sure that during the discussion I cover basic chronological details and` the themes of industrialization and empire.
After a quick introduction to Charlotte Brontë and the novel’s publication history, I use Re Jane to contextualize Jane Eyre. I tell students that they will find plot parallels and “easter eggs” between the books, but ask them to focus on the critical lenses Re Jane has provided for Jane Eyre: individualist/collectivist values, “good family education,” living in a formal, rules- and manners-based society; the “marriage market” and – maybe most importantly – how an individual can create her own synthetic, hybrid, independent sense of identity. I begin all discussions of Jane Eyre by asking students to share passages they found interesting, confusing, or boring. (Boring passages are especially useful for articulating cultural and aesthetic difference between 1847 and the 2020s – and students feel freed to be honest about their reading experiences.)
In many ways, the revelation of Bertha Mason in ch. 26 is the lynchpin not only of the novel, but of the entire course. Drawing on Spivak (1985), Meyer (1996), and Moy, I briefly contextualize this plot twist by discussing racial hierarchies and the practice of slavery in early nineteenth-century British colonies.
The revelation of Bertha Mason and its implications for Jane’s sense of her individual freedom continues to shape our discussion of the end of the novel. Students frequently observe that, in the last section, they have a keener sense of the limits of Jane’s ethical and social vision, as when she laboriously describes her difficulty in accepting the equality of her students in Whitcross (“I must not forget that these coarsely-clad little peasants are of flesh and blood as good as the scions of gentlest genealogy,” ch. 31, 320).
- Our discussions of the early chapters focus on the interplay between realist and Gothic modes, both as an indication of the novel’s narrative experimentation and as a way to dramatize the way young Jane, when describing traumas that she cannot yet fully comprehend, reaches for Gothic tropes she’s read. We discuss the elaborateness of the retrospective narrative technique to partly account for the prose’s layered texture.
- In discussing ch. 8-13, we return to our discussion of white feminism and intersectional feminism in Re Jane to ask: what does feminism mean to Jane Eyre? We parse out longue durée connections, like Jane’s radical and still legible self-assertion in ch. 12 (“women feel just as men feel,” 101), as well as historical differences like the closer connection between liberty, self-denial, and the desire for “a new servitude” (ch. 10, 79).
- In class discussions of the middle of Jane Eyre, we focus on gender and class performativity during the Thornfield house party scenes. As Jane and Rochester’s relationship develops, we discuss the way they are drawn to each other by their self-aware “participant observer” perspective on these social norms, e.g., when Jane confesses, “the ease of his manner freed me from painful constraint” (ch. 15, 133). Narratologically, I draw attention to the way that the house party scenes also build suspense as events that delay the resolution of the “mystery” plot.
- In the Moor House chapters, we discuss how Jane’s description of her students’ “native intelligence” domesticates the logic of empire: Jane is an outsider come to “civilize” the natives of the village. This leads to acknowledgment of the problematics and ambiguities of the “participant observer” narrative perspective that seeks to categorize and exert control over human experience, something I ask them to remember when revising their autoethnographic essay.
- In discussing the novel’s divisive conclusion, we return to the fundamental question of the novel: if Jane’s freedom is bound to Bertha's repression, then what does this do to our sense of Jane Eyre’s liberated individualism? This is the problem of individuality, then as now. Jane Eyre imagines that if you think of yourself as free, you are free – this is easy when imagining individuality as a beneficiary of industrial capitalism and empire, but impossible in actual slavery. Whatever students think about the novel’s ending (most hate it), I argue that Jane Eyre can help think through navigating the mix of privilege and disadvantage we each possess, to varying degrees.
- I reframe the final discussions by describing Jane as a proto-white feminist, and suggesting that white (non-intersectional) feminism is still a major problem. (Frequently, students are the first to use “white feminism” to describe Jane.) White feminism is a “practice” and “state of mind” in which gender equality is a matter of “personalized autonomy, individual wealth, perpetual self-optimization, and supremacy” versus addressing structural inequality and addressing problems for communities – which is what Jane Re saw through in Beth Mazer-Farley (Beck 2021, loc. xvii of 299). I conclude by saying that Jane Eyre can be read as the ultimate classic of white feminism but, when approached the way we have, it is also a call to reflect unsparingly on our own privilege. The ways it makes problems of whiteness and individualism visible are too important to see to be “canceled.”
- Chapter 2: In addition to students’ discussion questions, I direct attention to the “Red Room” scene (ch. 2, 15-17) to articulate the novel’s oscillation between realist and gothic modes, and what knowledge and feelings the gothic allows the narrator to disclose.
- Chapter 2: I return often to Jane’s unwillingness to “purchase liberty at the price of caste” (ch. 2, 25), especially as we get to the end of the novel. This passage registers the limitations of Jane’s feminism from an intersectional perspective (as well as her retrospective self-consciousness about it).
- Chapter 3: In discussing Jane’s famous statement, “I cry because I am miserable” (ch. 3, 23-24), I paraphrase Moy’s article to address the theme of untranslatability in common between the novels: how Jane’s emotional pain is misinterpreted as physical discomfort and Re Jane “recodes this failure of communication in cultural terms, highlighting the gap of untranslatability between Beth’s white feminism and Jane’s lived experience” (Moy 416).
- “Slavery” passages: In discussing the revelation of Bertha Mason, we return to painstakingly review the metaphorical use of the idea of “slavery” in the novel to this point, e.g., Jane describing John Reed as a “slave-driver” (ch. 1, 13) and Rochester talking about Jane’s “governessing slavery” (ch. 24, 243). As Meyer points out, Bertha Mason literally explodes the figuration of gender subjugation as racial subjugation, and (as Moy suggests) the Victorian hierarchization of race continues in Re Jane’s diagram of “facial three-dimensionality” (ch. 4, 24). We tie our novel discussions to the writing by talking about how Jane’s liberated sense of individual freedom is scaffolded upon the racial and economic oppression of others. We discuss the painful but necessary inquiry we must make into how lack of privilege intersects with privilege for each of us.
The last unit focuses on Parasite as a way to tie together the course’s concerns as a whole. Our discussions focus on theme rather than form: it is beyond the remit of the course as described here to develop a robust vocabulary for discussing film narrative techniques. Nevertheless, the movie brings especially the theme of individuality in late capitalism right up to date in the 2020s, as discussed in the “Cluster Description” section above.
As of January 2024, Parasite is streaming on Kanopy, which is licensed to many academic and public libraries.
In order to seed discussions, I ask students to take notes while watching the movie and to respond to a short free write prompt before the first Parasite class discussion. In addition to writing down lingering questions and the parts of the movie they found most striking, students reflect on these example prompts:
- representations of socioeconomic class in Jane Eyre and Parasite
- characters having to do whatever they can to find economic stability in structurally unequal societies, and the moral implications of that
- how people rely on honesty in the performance of identity in all 3 texts, and how characters like Rochester and Kim Ki-taek (the dad in the film) manipulate that to their advantage
- the relationship between formal/polite social expectations and the struggle for genuine human connection
- how privilege (in terms of money, gender, ethnicity) can cause blind spots in understanding other people's struggles
- the ethical implications of achieving upward social mobility, no matter the cost
- the way the houses in each of the three texts comes to represent inequality in different ways (the Mazer-Farley house; Thornfield Hall with Bertha Mason imprisoned in the attic; the Park family's house)
- Timestamp 16:40-17:25: Kim Ki-woo startles his erstwhile student, Park Da-hye, and her mother by saying she needs to focus on “Slashing through the exam, dominating it!” This becomes a metaphorical point of connection to the theme of domination in unequal relationships in Jane Eyre, and the subversion (or endorsement) of that domination.
- Timestamp 22:20: Da-hye describes her brother, Da-song’s attention-seeking behavior as “artist cosplay” to Ki-woo, who is himself pretending to be her tutor. The cosplay metaphor is a fruitful way in to discussing the theme of manufactured identities for the purpose of manipulation.
- Timestamp 51:25-53:10: Da-song says that Kim Ki-tek and Chung-sook “smell the same,” as does “Jessica” (Ki-jung, their daughter), one of the first cracks in the Kims’ plan. In the next scene, when the Kims debrief about this incident, Ki-jung describes it as “the basement smell,” referring to their semi-basement apartment. These observations have important implications for the theme of social class, as well as the plot. In the same scene, Ki-tek describes contemporary inequality in stark terms: “It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. Hundreds of college graduates compete for a security guard job, for Chrissake.”
- Timestamp 1:09:36: The former housekeeper, Mun-kwang, talks her way into the house to check on her husband, who has been secretly living in the panic room. Her confrontation with Kim Chung-sook precipitates the extended fight scene that is the pivot in the movie. At this moment, Mun-kwang appeals to Chung-sook as a “fellow member of the needy,” and is rebuffed. This moment shows the hostility and complete lack of identification between these two people used to fighting for scraps, and the impossibility of class-based solidarity in a system so radically unequal.
- Timestamp 1:03:20-1:17:00: The crucial extended set piece. The man hiding in the panic room is revealed and the Kim family fights ruthlessly to prevent being blackmailed, before the Park family unexpectedly returns home. It is full of significant echoes with Jane Eyre, with its spatialized, Gothic segregation flipped on its head.
- Timestamp 1:31:50: The key symbolic scene takes place when the Kim family flees the Park house through the rain, gradually descending from the upper-class neighborhood, where the rain is efficiently drained by city infrastructure, to their own slum neighborhood below, which is completely flooded. We talk about how this scene spatializes economic inequality, drawing parallels to the crisis of unhoused people in Seattle and other cities. We talk about how Parasite should make us think very hard not only about the fallout from the “miracle on the Han,” but about the analogous American dream: the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” foundational myth that has fallen apart due to wage stagnation and job loss from neoliberal globalization (the successor to the British empire in Jane Eyre). Mr. Park represents a global elite, Kim Ki-tek a working-class person who has been left behind and whose existence has become precarious: the movie could easily take place in an American city rather than Seoul. These concerns are given an ironic twist at the end of the film when news reports blame Park’s murder on an unknown “homeless man.”
The final class discussions tie together the texts and writing in preparation for Assignments 4 and 5, which are reflective on the course as a whole in different ways. We discuss:
- How has reading Re Jane and Jane Eyre and watching Parasite made you think differently about your own experiences and identity? The ways identity is shaped by ethnicity/race, socioeconomic class, gender, or other considerations? How did the books resonate (or not) with your experiences of juggling multiple aspects of your intersectional identity (e.g., American but also Pakistani, being a woman in a traditionally male field, striving for independence but wanting to keep close ties to family)?
- And vice versa: how has your unique perspective and background led you to interpret these texts in particular ways? What insights have you had into these novels that perhaps no one else could, and why?
- Finally: what is one idea or way of thinking (or reading or writing) that you will take away from our class?
Example Assignments and Assessment
Autoethnographic Sketch #1: Being Yourself, in a Subculture
In this set of assignments, you will begin a process of qualitative inquiry into how your individual identity is situated in culture and anchored by objects. In this particular assignment, you will think about how currently belonging (or not belonging) to a community shapes your sense of yourself.
I’ll use the term subculture to distinguish the type of community we’re interested in from, say, referring to your best friends or roommates as your “community.” Subcultures share distinctive ideas, beliefs, or ways of life. Subcultures can be unique (your particular neighborhood; the UW Deutsch Klub) or one group affiliated with others (the church you grew up in; South Asian immigrants in Seattle, or in Portland, etc.). This can be a subculture you are a part of by choice (cosplaying; social activism; Starbucks employees; YouTubers) or not by choice (an ethnic group; working class; the place you grew up in).
An outstanding essay will address all of the following, adjusting according to your individual case:
- Remember that you are an authority on this topic, just from your own experience. The key is to reflect on your knowledge and to communicate it to an outside audience, translating for readers who are unfamiliar with your particular subculture.
- What are the particular experiences, attitudes, or practices that define this subculture? How and why might they differ from dominant American culture? Be specific in your description, and choose with overall rhetorical effect in mind. You probably won’t have space to cover everything, so think about how this fits into the story you’re telling as a whole. It’s your ethical responsibility as a writer to convey multiple facets of this subculture and your own experience without being reductive
- How does your particular position in this subculture affect your understanding of it? Do other people occupy different positions, perhaps with more or less power? How do people relate to one another, and how does this affect interpersonal relationships?
- How has being a part of this subculture defined your sense of individual identity? Why? Has there been alignment or tension? Has that changed over time? How would you describe your connection to it now?
Autoethnographic Sketch #2: Objects and Identity
Some objects are so much a part of our day-to-day reality that we barely notice them: when is the last time you really contemplated your cast-iron skillet, or your bike? And yet significant memories, feelings, and connections to other people can repose in those same objects. Maybe that cast-iron skillet belonged to your great-grandmother; you might ride in the bike brigade that protects activists at a protest. Relationships like these make objects great vehicles for storytelling. Their concreteness creates a clear connection for readers that allows them to understand the ideas, memories, and feelings of being a part of your subculture more readily.
Your task in this assignment is to write about an object of significance to you that represents your connection to your chosen subculture in some way. You should describe the object as well as attempt to critically understand and communicate its meaning in your life and subculture to an audience that is outside the community (that is, your instructor and classmates).
An outstanding essay will reflectively and critically address all of the following, adjusting according to your individual case:
- As you think about the criteria below, always keep in mind that, in answering them, you should use writing about the object to reflect on your own identity and your relationship to your chosen subculture, to the values and practices which make it distinct.
- Take the time to describe the object itself thoroughly: what does it look like? What is the experience of handling it like? What is it made out of? How heavy is it? How does it feel? Does it have a smell? It might even have a particular taste: it’s your object!
- What is the object’s history, both in your life and in general? When and where did you get it? How old is it? Did someone in your subculture give it to you? Does the object itself give any indication of when and how it was made? Is it handmade or mass-produced, and does that affect its significance?
- What memories are connected with this object? What does it allow you to say about where you came from, your identity, and your values, and how those align (or differ) from your subculture’s values?
- What feelings are connected with this object? Try to describe the feelings and analyze them; we all know what nostalgia for the past feels like for us, for example. But this is a chance to understand that feeling more deeply, and why it reposes partly in this object.
- Why is this object important? Why should your reader think it interesting and important? How does it reveal links between you and your subculture? Between your subculture and dominant culture, or the wider world in some other sense? What is at stake in understanding it more thoroughly, for you and for your reader?
Note: a useful way to frame this assignment in class is to ask students to bring their chosen object to class for “show and tell” (if that’s feasible). We also discuss what object Jane Re might choose to write about if she were assigned this essay during her studies at Baruch College.
In the first two assignments, you began a process of qualitative inquiry into how your identity is situated in a particular subculture and anchored by objects. In this essay, you will continue that process by developing ideas you have sketched and by articulating a critical perspective on your experiences, giving your audience insight into what they might mean to them.
An outstanding essay will address all of the following, adjusting according to your individual case:
- Respond to the initial motivating questions from Assignment 1 by synthesizing (recombining), transforming, and adding to the ideas, details, and insights you have already sketched out in the first two assignments.
- Adding: are there rituals or routines specific to the subculture, particular types of language used, or other subtleties that you can describe and analyze to give your audience a clear understanding of what being involved in it is like?
- Synthesizing/transforming: As you plan, ask yourself questions like: could an insight I came to by writing about my object be decoupled from that object and put in conversation with details from the first sketch to make a new point? (These questions are examples, not strict requirements.)
- Focus your efforts on developing a critical perspective on the experiences you are writing about. As you rewrite and add new material, think about descriptively responding to the motivating questions (the what) and also – even more importantly – the how.
- The essay should step back to reflect on and analyze what your experiences mean. Ask yourself: where do values or practices come from in the subculture? What might be some of the unstated cultural or social assumptions that this subculture is founded on? For example, the implicit relations in terms of gender, race, or class on which the idea of “normality” in this community is based? How and why experiences, attitudes, and practices differ from dominant American culture? How and why have these experiences shaped your particular identity? This line of questioning could also potentially mean that you begin thinking through how to address problems in this subculture for you or other members.
Podcast Group Discussion: Imagining Identity and Community with Re Jane and Jane Eyre4
At the beginning of this class, we talked about how humanistic ways of thinking are especially useful for seeing connections between apparently disconnected ideas or aspects of life.
How might feminism look different for a young Korean American than for a white American intellectual? How might the history of slavery and imperial oppression be hiding in plain sight in a rural English mansion (or in our daily lives in Seattle)? We needed Re Jane and Jane Eyre to help us make those connections and change how we think about seemingly disparate topics.
What insight can we gain on big social issues like economic class, gender, race, and global migration from the life experiences of UW freshmen? You have found those insights by writing with a critical perspective on your own complex, intersectional identity, and how you fit into the communities that shape your world.
In this short, 10-12 minute podcast episode, you and your writing workshop group will synthesize together these two main elements of the course by discussing how reading Jane Eyre and Re Jane and the writing you’ve done have affected your thinking about identity, and how your own experiences have given you critical insight both into the literary texts and society itself. Think of it as one last small-group class discussion that you get more time to prepare for – and that happens to be recorded!
An outstanding podcast episode will address this prompt substantially, thoughtfully, and in conversation with each other.
Your conversation should respond to the following guiding questions, adjusting how thoroughly you respond to each according to your individual cases and what is most thought-provoking to each group:
- How has reading Re Jane and Jane Eyre made you think differently and more analytically about your own experiences and identity? The ways identity is shaped by ethnicity/race, socioeconomic class, gender, or other considerations? How did the books resonate (or not) with your experiences of juggling multiple aspects of your intersectional identity (e.g., American but also Pakistani, being a woman in a traditionally male field, striving for independence but wanting to keep close ties to family)?
- And vice versa: how has your unique perspective and background led you to interpret these texts in particular ways? What insights have you had into these novels that perhaps no one else could, and why?
- What connections did the novels and writing make more apparent for you? For example, between ethnicity and gender, class and gender, family values and individuality, how our identities are in some cases scaffolded on the oppression of other people (perhaps without you really knowing it)
- How do the forms of interconnectedness these literary texts describe relate to your own thinking about your identity and the communities you belong to?
- Have these texts and your writing changed your perspective on what it means to belong to a society? What it means to have a critical perspective on society?
- For an overview of some critiques of this concept in postcolonial studies, see Gandhi (2019, 126-9). Back to text
- I’m grateful to this student, who wished to remain anonymous, for allowing me to quote her insightful work. We also acknowledge and discuss the contingency and fluidity of racial stereotypes, such as that of Asian-Americans being “model minorities” giving way in recent years to racist attacks because of the “Chinese flu.” Back to text
- Special thanks to Ryan Fong for guiding me into this area of scholarship. Back to text
- Students are introduced to the basics of making podcasts through the "Short Radio Introduction" exercise developed by the University of Washington Libraries. I instruct students to take about one hour to complete it as homework, and share the results in class. Back to text
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Matt Poland is a lecturer at the University of Washington in Seattle and the assistant editor of MLQ. He writes and teaches about the global circulation and remediation of Victorian literature, settler colonialism, and archival histories of English studies. With Lars Atkin (University of Kent), he is co-editing a special issue of Victorian Periodicals Review about “Race and Transnationalism in Victorian Periodicals Studies” (forthcoming 2024). His work has appeared in Journal of Victorian Culture, George Eliot-George Henry Lewes Studies, Review19, and elsewhere. He is also a contributing editor to At the Circulating Library: A Database of Victorian Fiction, 1837-1901.
Tile/Header Image Caption
Trainholic. Parasite Prop. 23 Feb. 2020. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.
Page/Lesson Plan Citation (MLA)
Matt Poland, dev. “Undisciplining Through Jane Eyre, Re Jane, and Parasite.” Barbara Barrow, Renee Fox, Cherrie Kwok, Jessie Reeder, Oishani Sengupta, Emma Soberano, collab. peer revs.; Ryan D. Fong, les. plan clust. dev./copyed. Undisciplining the Victorian Classroom, 2024, https://undiscipliningvc.org/html/lesson_plans/contemporary-jane-eyre-parasite.html.