I'm pairing the Wollstonecraft ladies (Mary Shelley and her proto-feministi mother Mary Wollstonecraft) with some contemporary authors who tackle similar themes. I love thinking about the way big ideas have followed us across the centuries and these pairings highlight exactly that.
A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft and *“Always Be Optimizing” from Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino
I’ve always enjoyed teaching excerpts from Mary Wollstonecraft’s proto-feminist manifesto A Vindication of the Rights of Women. In this 18th-century text, Wollstonecraft responds to the revolutions happening around her and the persistent claims about the unalienable rights of all men by arguing for the natural rights of women. She outlines the ways in which women are subjugated by patriarchal societies that expect them to be pretty, docile, and entertaining, and claims that women must receive equal education if they are to gain true equality. Her critique of 18th-century education for girls as being intended only to produce companions for husbands and not for the fostering of intelligent women is something I think about all the time as a teacher at an all-girls school. While reading Jia Tolentino’s essay collection Trick Mirror, I was struck by Tolentino's similar observations about the way self-improvement is sold to women today. While Tolentino doesn’t focus on education, in the essay “Always Be Optimizing” she critiques the industries that have convinced women that we're doing something good for ourselves (barre classes and fast-casual chopped salad restaurants, for example), when we’re really constantly working harder to fit into a patriarchal concept of the ideal woman. This essay has some content that may need to be cut from the classroom, but pairing it with A Vindication would be a fascinating way to consider how women have been conditioned to perform for men in different (yet startling similar) ways across time.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Most of us think of the horror genre when we think of Frankenstein, and of course that’s for good reason. But I actually think this classic horror novel pairs perfectly with the moody atmospheric tearjerker that is Never Let Me Go. Both novels tell imaginative and captivating stories that ask really big moral questions and reflect on what makes us human. I feel so deeply for the creature in Frankenstein who didn’t ask to be created and finds himself abandoned. In the same way, my heart aches for Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy’s isolation from the rest of society in Never Let Me Go. Through these isolated figures, both novels tenderly explore ideas of otherness and identity. It’s difficult to say much more about the ways in which these novels overlap without spoiling key plot points, but trust me that these are both fantastic stories that ask deep philosophical questions in very different ways. They’re both exceptional, and they’re even better together.