Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them: a reflection on heroism

As I move toward the end of the semester with my students, it has occured to me that one of the topics to which we keep returning is the concept of the hero; it began during the Romantics unit, when I gave a brief lecture on the Byronic Hero. Then, of course, while discussing the various social constructions of gender during the victorian period– the rise of the age of imperialism–naturally the subject of the hero, specifically the battle hero/the conquering hero, emerged yet again. Now, as we study the literature of the twentieth century–a century strewn with the carnage of multiple wars–we return once again to the subject of the hero. Yesterday morning as I walked to class, I found myself pondering why it is that we continue returning to this subject, and I wonder if perhaps it’s a reflection of the fact that, given the current state of war, that heroism is naturally at the forefront of social consciousness–especially with the current generation of college students.
Now, admittedly, I’m not much older than the traditional college student, but it’s only just struck me how young some of my freshmen were on 9/11 and later when we declared war on Iraq. Some of them were probably just beginning middleschool and have been living in the shadow of war for almost half of their lives. some of them have probably lost fathers and brothers to the war, and now, six and a half years later, they find themselves and many others of their generation standing on the frontlines. I think it says a great deal about the fact that, for some reason, times of war call us to reexamine and sometimes redefine our concept of heroism more so than in times of peace. Of course, the war hero is only one construction of the hero; there are many models of heroism, some more subtle than others: the single father who works three jobs but never misses his son’s baseball games; the woman who pulls over onto the side of the road to rescue a stray puppy; the child who befriends the social outcast on the playground.
But right now, it’s obvious that for many people–if my students are any indication–heroism is mostly bound up in patriotism, which is hardly surprising. Once again I find myself confronting the paradox of being a teacher–that more often than not, I’m the one who learns something. I’m reminded yet again that every day, my students are sharing themselves with me, and that sometimes, interwoven with talk of child psychology in Jane Eyre or the gender politics of Pride and Prejudice, are the stories that they bring with them every day for me to listen to and learn from.

BBC1’s Sherlock

This past week I had the opportunity to view the first season of BBC1’s new series “Sherlock”, which, in short, features everyone’s favorite consulting detective and his faithful sidekick in the 21st century. As a Victorianist, I was intrigued about how this would work, but on a completely non-academic note, delicious Britishness is always welcome to a starved American anglophile.

Having only watched each episode once (so far), my comments are pretty generalized, sprinkled with some rather interesting observations made during the shows with the friend who introduced me to the series. For me, at least, the plots of the cases, though certainly interesting, were secondary to the unfolding relationship between Sherlock and John; the writers make no secret of the fact that they’re teasing out an oft-overlooked romantic and/or homoerotic element of this friendship, and it is, I think, done tastefully (deliciously so). One can certainly ignore the hints, but they’re there if you choose to observe them (i.e. the suggestive addressing each other by their first names–something that never occurs in the original stories, primarily because Victorian gentlemen typically addressed one another by their surrnames).

I definitely want to watch each episode again before I can really draw my conclusions, but I felt the need to put my initial reaction in writing. Generally speaking, what intrigued me most was how the series calls into question the way that we categorise the relationship between John and Sherlock: are they lovers, or is it a “romantic friendship”? (Tangentially, it’s delicious that the series is addressing something so taboo for the Victorians). I think the initial response would be to read the homoerotic subtext, and while one could certainly do so, this would imply that there can’t be romance between two men, not to mention our difficulty in separating the dominant/submissive roles in a relationship from gender–the notion that dominance is characteristic of the male in a relationship, and submissiveness characteristic of the female. Sherlock is undoubtedly the dominant one in the relationship, and even I found myself slipping and referring to him as “masculine” and John as “feminine” because it’s just a knee-jerk reaction; without meaning to, I automatically tried to analyze their relationship and make sense of it within a heteronormative framework. In general, we can’t seem to wrap our minds around the possibility that dominant and submissive roles can exist independently of gender roles.

I was also pleasantly surprised to find that the contemporary setting works quite well, mostly I think because there’s no time-travel involved; it’s as if the characters were created to exist in the 21st century, which still takes considerable imagination and creativity to pull off. Admittedly though, since I grew up on the original stories, there were several jarring moments: seeing the London streets full of cars, Sherlock comunicating via text rather than employing the irregulars–though he does use them in the third episode because, despite the advancements we’ve made in technology, the boys are still the most efficient and unobtrusive way to have ears and eyes all over the city.

In short, it’s an innovative way to make the stories accessible to a 21st century audiance, and it’s an interesting coincidence that Doyle’s Dr. Watson is a military man who’s served in, of all places, Afghanistan. Highlighting that element of the original character is something that would certainly resonate with the viewing audience.

I’m certainly going to need to watch each of the three episodes again before writing up a more detailed reaction, but my appetite has certainly been whet, and I’ll be curious to see how the American audience will respond when it airs here in October.

Writer and Teacher

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