A Class of Their Own: Empowerment through literature in Coates’ Between the World and Me, Plath’s The Bell Jar, and Shelly’s Frankenstein


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By Alexander Fardy

(UBC Arts One, Brandon Konoval seminar)


Education offers empowerment. To know more about the world, the people in it, and how they respond to the hardship around them is to prepare for life as an independent adult. It would seem, then, that an adolescent hoping to find their way in an openly hostile world could look to the opportunity afforded to them by traditional schooling with great enthusiasm, as they receive the knowledge that they will need to survive their oppression. As Ta-Nehisi Coates describes in Between the World and Me, however, this did not reflect his experience as a black American. His experience in high school was confusing and offered no respite from the tumult of the streets, nor did it help to orient him on his path to understanding his place in the black diaspora. Instead, Coates had to seek out his own enlightenment, learning his place in the world from places outside of the education that was administered to him. This journey towards a unique avenue to empowerment is, of course, explored quite a bit in a reading list rife with forbidden knowledge: in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood struggles to find understanding in the classes assigned to her in university, and in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein’s creation grapples with his creator’s contempt for him through literature. These characters echo Coates’ experience with institutions of education, defying the distracting curriculum they offer by pursuing their own interests through independent study.

Expecting to find stability in his schooling, Coates found only another disorienting aspect of the black condition. While they seemed to offer a path away from the danger and fear of the streets, the schools were just another form of turmoil. Coates “suffered at the hands of both, but [he] resented the schools more,” bitter about the “distant and vague” laws that they demanded their students abide by (Coates 25). While the school’s stated purpose was to create “educated” children, that did not mean that they were growing any wiser, only more obedient:

To be educated in my Baltimore mostly meant always packing an extra number 2 pencil and working quietly. Educated children walked in single file on the right side of the hallway, raised their hands to use the lavatory, and carried the lavatory pass when en route. Educated children never offered excuses—certainly not childhood itself. (25)


The school was an institution that demanded absolute adherence to the rules first. Coates did not feel like he was learning anything pertinent to him, instead being made into a subservient student. The subjects that the school taught were thinly veiled “opportunities to better discipline the body” (25–6), rather than legitimate attempts to foster understanding in Coates. He summarises the issue well by writing that “the schools were not concerned with curiosity. They were concerned with compliance” (26). The schools are offering a backwards version of their professed purpose; favouring indoctrination over education.

Indoctrination may seem too harsh a word for the situation at a glance, but it is clear that the education institutions are targeting how their students think through this emphasis on conformity. One could look toward another character desperately confused by their education, Esther Greenwood, for another clear example of this. The institution she is a student of requires her to take classes that do not interest her and distract her from her own personal growth. While she may have excelled in her required course in physics, Esther felt “sick the whole time [she] learned it” (Plath 33). Although she could leverage her success in physics to wriggle out of chemistry, the class still affected her deeply. It left her “scared and depressed” (34), seriously doubting her academic abilities when the course had absolutely nothing to do with her English degree. Not that the courses of that English degree are free of distracting courses, either. Esther describes the honours programme as one “that teaches you to think independently” (31), a perfectly oxymoronic statement that once again showcases a college’s focus on the methods of teaching, rather than fostering genuine experience and intelligence. This course directs Esther to write on “some obscure theme in the works of James Joyce” (31), which leads her to her analysis of Finnegans Wake. Notorious as one of the most difficult pieces of literature in the English canon, it’s difficult to imagine that Esther would be able to glean much personal enlightenment from such a text so early in her education. (Not to say that she doesn’t make a valiant effort—her analysis of the first page is surprisingly insightful as she grasps at obscure symbols and details, such as the uncapitalized beginning and number of letters in the thunder-word. In an effort to understand the book’s relevance to The Bell Jar, I made my own foray into Finnegans Wake earlier in the year and, similar to Esther, had to lie down after about ten pages.) Esther’s teachers aren’t interested in her pursuing a unique path towards enlightenment, and would rather distract her with classes and topics that don’t pertain to her own interests or issues.

Something clearly drives these institutions to impede the development of students like Coates and Esther, whether it is intentional or not. In the case of Coates, the schools are another avenue of oppression for black people. School was presented not “as a place of high learning but as a means of escape from death and penal warehousing” (Coates 26). With the absurdly high incarceration rate for black high school dropouts visible to him now as an adult, Coates can see the purpose of these Baltimore institutions: they present the only path away from the streets while instilling values of conformity and obedience. As Coates explains:

I sensed the schools were hiding something, drugging us with false morality so that we would not see, so that we did not ask: Why—for us and only us—is the other side of free will and free spirits an assault upon our bodies? (26)


The schools may appear to offer a path away from the harsh and “amoral” streets, but the morals they champion destroy the spirit and identity of those that they prey upon. This creates an unwinnable dilemma for the black community; one that Coates felt trapped in as well:

Unfit for the schools, and in good measure wanting to be unfit for them, and lacking the savvy I needed to master the streets, I felt there could be no escape for me or, honestly, anyone else. (27)


This feeling is precisely what the education institutions want to foster. Esther’s situation is similar: in a correspondingly marginalized position as a woman, she experiences an education system tailored to the interests of other people, as her physics class was administered to her through a textbook designed for girls, and her intelligence is to be proven through topics unrelated to her own curiosity. Prohibited from pursuing their own empowerment, these figures are, in a sense, intellectually incarcerated. It is clear that if these issues are to be resolved, another source of knowledge, outside of the standard education system, must be found.

If the schools would not help Coates understand himself or the world he inhabited, he would seek out his own answers. Frustrated with the schools’ obstruction of the truth, Coates used the curiosity fostered by his parents to begin absorbing the literature offered by his predecessors in the civil rights movement. He found himself at Howard University, which contained his Mecca— “the crossroads of the black diaspora” (40). Although overwhelmed by the vast and confusing narratives and histories that he found at The Mecca, Coates resolved to read “the works of every writer [he] had heard spoken of in classrooms or out on the Yard” (46). Although his tour of the African-American experience was confusing and disorienting at times, his love of learning guided his way, rather than a teacher or a professor:

I wanted to pursue things, to know things, but I could not match the means of knowing that came naturally to me with the expectations of professors. The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books. I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free. Slowly, I was discovering myself. (48)


Coates’ independent pursuit of knowledge allowed him to truly reach towards truth, unimpeded by the goals of a higher institution. He was “directed toward the total possession of [his] body” (48), the exact opposite intent of his primary schools and the Dream that they served. That “Dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing” (50), and so Coates’ journey into the library is the perfect form of defiance. The independent study of individual authors and books allows one to escape the influence of the institutions that thrive on compliance and misinformation.

Not that Victor Frankenstein’s creation ever had access to those institutions, to begin with. He was born into a hostile world he understood nothing about, guided by instinct and sense. The only path towards friendly tutorship that was ever an option for the creature was his creator, but Frankenstein had formed “a monster so hideous that even [he] turned away from [it] in disgust” (Shelley 144). Viewing Frankenstein as the embodiment of a “traditional” educational institution (such as a father figure can be reasonably viewed in terms of), the creature’s situation begins to resemble the ones we saw previously: an oppressed figure kept in a state of turmoil by a lack of knowledge. With no other option, the creature must take it upon himself to understand his circumstances; principally through his observations of the De Lacey’s, but also through the literature that he chances upon in his isolation. The works, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, Plutarch’s Lives, and Milton’s Paradise Lost, seem to be as disparate and paradoxical as The Mecca of ideas that Coates found himself in, but like Coates, the creature is able to relate each of them to his struggles and synthesize a worldview from them. Reading The Sorrows of Young Werther, he sympathized with the eponymous character and “applied much personally to [his] own feeling and condition” (142). Plutarch taught, in a similar vein, how humans can strive toward grand acts of heroism and fall to crushing vice over a long history. But most central to his educational journey was Paradise Lost, a story of a son cast away by his creator, as “many times [he] considered Satan as the fitter emblem of [his] condition; for often, like him, when [he] viewed the bliss of [his] protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within [him]” (144). The creature found an exact representation of his frustrations in fictional form and felt emboldened upon finding them, lending credence to his feelings and situation. These books were an indication of belonging in a hostile world. Returning to The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood happens upon a story of a fig-tree that she can relate to her own life, imagining that she and Buddy Willard had met “under [their] own imaginary fig-tree” (Plath 52). She is first exposed to a positive female role model, Philomena Guinea, in books, not through her school, but from “the town library—the college library didn’t stock them for some reason” (37). These characters, along with Coates, find empowerment through their independent studies, rather than their restrictive educational institutions.

However, it is clear that another relationship is instrumental in fostering this behaviour: that between parent and child. The creature’s enlightenment occurs entirely by happenstance, as he chances upon his literature by accident. It is something of a marvel that he was able to come across any education at all in the wilderness. This character is deprived of a guiding force in its independent education, who can encourage and foster their curiosity. In contrast, Victor Frankenstein, who also “chanced to find a volume of the works of Cornelius Agrippa” (Shelly, 68), and was initially discouraged in his studies by his father and M. Krempe, found enthusiastic support from M. Waldman, who affirmed him intellectually and encouraged his interest in less conventional sciences. While one could, of course, argue that his interest in the unnatural sciences was detrimental to him in the long run, Victor benefitted from an educator, even if his father was not the one to fulfill that role. It is interesting, then, when Victor, thrust into a “fatherhood” role, refuses to take responsibility for the education (or any form of support) of his creation, resembling his own father’s negligence. This cycle of fathers inactive in the education of their sons is precisely what Ta-Nehisi Coates is aiming to break with Between the World and Me: with the entirety of the work framed as a letter to his son, Coates is sharing his experience of education through independent study to foster a similar love of learning in his son. By providing a warning against the biases of learning institutions and incorporating a cornucopia of influential black thinkers to study in his message, Coates embodies a positive example of educational guidance and of fatherhood, passing his experiences on to his son, rather than allowing him to make the same mistakes.

Despite every effort to keep the oppressed uneducated and disempowered, curiosity always finds a way forward. The sabotaging of traditional educational structures to teach only obedience, distraction, or even open hostility cannot dissuade a person with the will to reach into the works of authors outside of the schools’ sphere. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Esther Greenwood, and Victor Frankenstein’s creation relate deeply to works of literature and use them to foster a true understanding of their oppression. These cases, taken together, provide a moving spectacle not just to a son, but to a student as well. The irony is not lost on me, of course: these are texts that I would not have come across without the guidance of my post-secondary institution. But the opportunity to study these texts freely and deliberately produced a message championing the virtues of independent and autonomous study, made ever more important as schools and universities across the country begin to close. Although separated for the time being from academia, I am still left with a drive towards the unknowable, with a hefty reading list to guide me. What a reader may discover about themselves and their circumstances through their passion is more valid than any grade, lecture, or thesis.


Works Cited:

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. CNIB, 2016.

Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. Faber and Faber, 2005.

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, et al. Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus: the Original 1818 Text. Broadview Press, 2012.