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[101] The Small Room – May Sarton

Outmoded Author Challenge #3

“It’s just that I feel overwhelmed. I don’t see how anyone can be a good teacher, let alone a great one. You can’t win; either you care too much or too little; you’re too impersonal or too personal; you don’t know enough or you bury the students in minutiae; you try to teach them to write an honest sentence, and then discover that what is involved is breaking a psychological block that can only be broken if you take on the role of psychoanalyst…” —Lucy Winter in The Small Room

The Small Room is a deeply questioning novel about women and the unique relationship between teacher and pupils. Set in a New England college for girls, the book explores how inveterate, established traditions and values of teaching are being challenged as demanded by the ever changing student body over time. Prizing excellence, the college presumes that by setting an uncompromising standard it might develop women who can take the lead, who can become responsible in the deepest sense.

The synonym to academic prestige is the invincible Professor Carryl Cope, a distinguished scholar, inspiring teacher who has been stimulating to her students. Despite her dominating over the faculty, she has adopted her students like orphans, push them, wrangle with them, and force them to grow in academic excellence. Her brilliance, dedication and strengths seem so flawless and formidable until a favorite student of hers, a rising star, fails to cope with the pressure to achieve higher ground, perpetrates an unethical act that threatens to shatter the very tradition of excellence.

Ranged against Carryl Cope is Lucy Winter, a fresh arrival to the school who lives on the heels of a disastrous relationship. Until the outburst of the scandal, Lucy has doubt and feels misgiving about involving with students at a personal level. That she has been haunted by personal affair makes her seek convalescence in this safe world in a college. But this temporary refuge turns out to be one that is reeled with tension, as immense amount of loose hostility and anger unveil and float around against Carryl Cope, who tries to hush up the student’s scandal.

Lucy Winter, who holds the students as individuals, snaps out of her teaching personality in the classroom, is able to answer students’ pleas for personal attention. What she gives to them is exactly the bane to Cope’s fall–for Cope has failed to penetrate to students’ personal lives and problems. In molding and pruning the students, Lucy has taught a most valuable lesson. “It’s not about winning.” Indeed, one can prove to be above the critic but if one doesn’t have self-respect and love, life has no meaning. This is a sentimental education that transcends scholastic merits. It’s about teaching students how to feel, how to live, and how to experience–the means to help ripen in life.

The Small Room is an absorbing work that probes into the most ambivalent and delicate quarters of human heart. It delves into the seemingly calm world of academia in which the faculty, beset by their conscience, are forced to reappraise their profession and motives.

6 Responses

  1. Matt: if you are interested in women’s fiction (and why women novelists were often neglected) have a look at Jonathan Coe’s review in yesterday’s Guardian, under the heading ‘My literary love affair’. It’s a very interesting piece on the virgao’s Modern Classics. here it is:http://books.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,,2184450,00.html
    Hope the link comes through!

  2. I am sure I left a comment here yesterday, rerring to Jonathan Coe’s article in last Saturday’s Guardian??

  3. Oops, I did, it has only just come through.. sorry Matt!

  4. I am now curious about the outmoded author challenge as May Sarton was a very visible poet and writer in New England for many years before her death, although very ambiguous in her identification as a lesbian writer. I have read two volumes of her journals which I found throughout more sure-footed than the novels I read. She is of course the author of the poem “Now I become myself” which many people read as a great poem of the gay liberation and feminist era.

  5. Seachanges:
    Thank you so much for the link. I’ve been so enthralled this year that I have read more women writers, more than all the years combined. I guess it’s inevitable when most of the book bloggers are women. 🙂

    Interglossa:
    Thank you for stopping by. 🙂 I’m sorry I didn’t get to response sooner.
    She surely has maintained a significant presence during her life and did not hesitate to leave vestige of woman-to-woman affection in her writing. I’ve finished yet another book, Shadow of a Man, yesterday. 🙂

  6. […] of Coetzee and Roth, and evocative of the academic setting in A Separate Peace (John Knowles) and The Small Room (May Sarton), Old School is essentially about lies, about what desire to impress will do to a […]

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