Friday, April 18, 2014

P: Perception

As I've been teaching Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, our class discussions have often centered around the question: "What makes a monster?" At one point in the unit I asked students to identify their personal monsters. A Native American student replied, "White people." 

My student's response represents a common perception among Native American students. They have reasons--very legitimate ones--for their perceptions. 

What shapes perception? That's a question I ponder often. Take a look at the image below. What do you see? 
Depending on your perception, you will see either a vase or the profiles of two people facing one another. Change your viewpoint--literally--just a little, and what you see will change. 

In Frankenstein the creature's perception evolves, and as his perception changes, so do the perceptions of my students. At first, the creature just wants his creator, Victor Frankenstein, to accept him. Then he seeks companionship and a family, but only the blind cottager accepts him--at first. In Frankenstein blindness functions as a corrective to warped social perception, which Mary Shelley represents in the cottager's reaction to the creature. The creature shares his desires:

Once I falsely hoped to meet the beings who, pardoning my outward form, would love me for the excellent qualities which I was capable of unfolding.

Realizing he'll never have a "beautiful" companion, the creature (He has no name and is often characterized as species.) asks Frankenstein to make him a mate like himself, as he perceives this is the only way he'll be accepted. The creature learns early that society's perception defines his fate, his destiny.

Hateful day when I received life!' I exclaimed in agony. 'Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and abhorred.'

I am alone and miserable. Only someone as ugly as I am could love me.

Through our discussions, which often take the Open Mic format, students begin to perceive the relevance of Mary Shelley's classic to their lives. We talk about feeling like we're alone. We discuss the desire for a friend, a companion. I ask rhetorical questions: Have you ever felt rejected by a parent? Who in our school society is admired? Who is abhorred? 

Students understand the social structure and their perceived place in it. They often enter a class assuming teachers have knowledge of the social order we may not possess, and they sometimes construct a self-fulfilling prophecy based on their perceptions. 

The psychologist Jacques Lacon's mirror stage offers insight into why literature speaks to identity formation. Lacan proposes that passing through the mirror stage leads to identity formation. Thus, the mirror tells us who we are by showing us how we are perceived. That is, ego depends on the external. Knowing this helps me understand my Native American student's response to my question about monsters. 

When students experience themselves or social structures in works of literature, they begin understanding how perception shapes both self and social identity. Lacon explains that the baby's first image of himself in the mirror is vital to identity (ego) formation because afterwards the person's identity is shaped from social perceptions, social constructs. That is, language acquisition and social interaction constructs images of the self as other.

Frankenstein's creature only has social constructs of himself on which to form his identity. He literally becomes what society perceives he is, and that perception ultimately shapes his self-perception. 

Really, we often see only what we're told to perceive, as the "Awareness Test" illustrates: 

"All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream."--Edgar Allan Poe


  1. Perception is an amazing thing. It can help create, it can destroy. One of the things that I greatly appreciate from my advanced studies at Northland College (Ashland, WI) is that they teach how to look at topics form many angles to gain a new perception of situations and the solutions, if there needs to be. Northland has a long history of educating those that were not perceived to need it. From the very beginning of the school (late 1800s) it was co-ed as well as inclusive of the local native population, without removing the ritual and customs of the native tribes from the people. It is an amazing thing when you look back at the educational system of the USA.

    1. I'll definitely look Northland up and share w/ my students. I try to teach students to look at multiple sides of issues. They have difficulty understanding that their own positions are stronger when they do acknowledge the other positions.

  2. Totally missed the bear, LOL!

    Happy A-to-Z'ing! ~ Susan at Haiku Corner.