Offering a welcome break from stale history texts, literature can be a valuable tool for teaching about different time periods. When they consider the context surrounding a fictional work, students can learn a great deal about actual history.
English Language Arts, History, Social Studies
Student learning objectives
By considering the context in which pieces of fiction and literature were written, students will learn about key points in history.
Familiarize yourself with several examples of historical literature. Draw from a variety of time periods, including antiquity and more recent history. The titles should be fairly well known and age appropriate. Three example books, along with details of their historical importance, are offered here:
The Iliad and the Discovery of Troy
As a child in 1800s Germany, Heinrich Schliemann fell in love with Homer’s classic work The Iliad, believed to have been written between 725 and 675 B.C. The romantic tale of a kidnapped queen, the Trojan War and gigantic hollow horse enthralled him so much that he dreamed of one day visiting the city of Troy.
The problem was that the overwhelming majority of scholars and archaeologists believed the city to be a work of fiction, created by Homer for the purposes of his epic poem.
This did not deter Schliemann. As an adult, armed only with his copy of The Iliad and hobbyist’s knowledge of archaeology, he set out for Turkey. While the scientific community dismissed the city as pure fantasy, the common belief was that if it had existed, it would have been located on a hill known as Bunarbashi.
Schliemann decided that this was inaccurate, based on Homer’s description of Troy in the book. The Iliad described the city as having a clear view of Mount Ida, and from Bunarbashi, the mountain could not be seen. The Iliad also describes the Greek warrior Achilles chasing the Trojan Hector around the walls of Troy three times. Bunarbashi has a steep drop on one side that makes such a chase impossible. Lastly, Schliemann deduced that the distance from the sea was also wrong. Bunarbashi was eight miles away, and by Homer’s description, Troy wasn’t more than four miles away.
Taking all of this into consideration, Schliemann determined that Hissarlik was the most likely site for the lost city of Troy. After organizing a dig there, he shocked the world when he unearthed the remains of several ancient cities, one of which, archaeologists eventually conceded, appeared to be the city of Troy.
Teaching Tip: While they’re reading The Iliad, have students pay particular attention to clues about the geography of ancient Greece and what life was like at that time. Compare these details to what is known about modern-day Greece.
The Secret Garden and Racism
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beloved work of children’s literature, published in 1910, makes clear the fact that people of color were considered second-class citizens at that point in history. The book illustrates this theme both directly and metaphorically.
The story is about a girl named Mary whose parents die in India and who is sent back to England to be looked after by her uncle. As she wanders her new home, she discovers a forgotten garden and a small, sickly boy who is healed through the magical power of flowers and wishes.
Before her adventure begins, however, Mary meets her maidservant, Martha. Martha has a matter-of-fact way of interacting with people, so much so that she tells Mary that she was under the impression that she would be black because she was told Mary was from India. Mary immediately throws a fit, exclaiming that blacks “are not people.”Rather than correct this racist statement, Martha blames the child’s behavior on the fact that she had been brought up in India and that there are “a lot of blacks there instead of respectable white people.”
A similar idea resurfaces metaphorically later in the story, when Martha and Mary get ready to begin their adventure. Mary makes a statement that she hates everything that is black. She can’t begin her journey until Martha changes out of her black clothes and into a white outfit.
Sherlock Holmes and Victorian England
Author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lived and worked during the reign of Queen Victoria in the mid- to late 1800s. Because of this, and his knack for injecting realism into his fictional stories, his greatest character, Sherlock Holmes, also lived and worked during this extraordinary time period.
Victorian England was a period of exceptional growth and optimism. The vast resources of the Imperial Colonies led to a time of English prosperity. Business flourished, and London’s population expanded six-fold in just 100 years, which led to pollution, unhealthy living conditions, poverty, homelessness, drug abuse and crime.
The author peppered his tales with vivid description that reflected the truth of the time period. In “The Bruce Partington Plans,” Conan Doyle writes, “In the third week of November, in the year 1895, a dense yellow fog settled down upon London. From the Monday to the Thursday I doubt whether it was ever possible from our windows in Baker Street to see the loom of the opposite houses.” This dramatically illustrates the city’s air pollution, caused by the burning of coal for light and heat.
Teaching Tip: While they’re reading The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892) or another Conan Doyle favorite from the late 1800s, have students note any mention of urbanization, pollution/environmental concerns, overcrowding or related themes.
Introducing discussion to students
If we look closely, sometimes we find that fiction contains elements of reality. What happens when we look beyond a book’s plot to examine the descriptions of the setting, or consider elements of the narrative that illustrate how society at that point in history differed from modern times?
Options for student discussion questions