What can you learn from a single chapter of a classic novel?

Posted on September 26, 2014

How much can you learn about a novel from the first chapter? That was my experiment in today’s literature class (for homeschoolers in grades 9-12).

I read the first chapter of Jane Eyre aloud and asked my students to tell me everything they noticed that might provide a clue to the rest of the novel. Here are some of their comments:

  • John Reed will be beaten up — at least I hope so! [Several of the guys said they would be happy to teach John a lesson.]
  • Jane will leave the Reeds.
  • Jane could be really happy later, but she could also be really devastated.
  • This doesn’t sound like what a ten-year-old would say. Is Jane a reliable narrator?
  • Jane is a bookworm and artistic. She is very descriptive and uses vivid imagery.
  • Jane will be kicked out and won’t trust people for a while.
  • Sounds like a Cinderella story.
  • There won’t be a happy ending.
  • Jane will have problems in the real world because she is an orphan.
  • I’m not used to a story told in first person. This is very different from Pride and Prejudice. Not sure I like it.
  • Where is Mr. Reed? Why isn’t he controlling his family? Maybe he’s a jerk too, or maybe he’s nice but uninvolved. I think it will be worse if he’s nice but uninvolved.
  • Jane seems strong now. Will she turn out to be a weak character? I hope not.
  • Jane is streetwise.

Jane_Eyre_title_page

 

That’s a lot to get from 4 1/2 pages! If you’ve read Jane Eyre, you’ll know whether or not these theories were on target. I added only these observations — based strictly on the first chapter, without spoilers from the rest of the book:

  • There’s a lot of emphasis on atmosphere, mood, and setting — mostly dark and gloomy.
  • Jane has usually been “obedient” to John out of self-protection, but when she finally has enough, she turns on him.
  • The one happy bit is when Bessie (who’s not always nice to Jane) tells the children stories from old fairy tales, ballads, and novels, so we know that Jane’s imagination has been fed.

All the students were eager to continue reading. In fact, I suspect it will be hard for some of them to stop at the end of volume 1 (chapter 15), our first week’s assignment, although I asked them not to read ahead. (One guy commented that if John Reed doesn’t get his comeuppance by the end of this week’s reading, he will have to keep reading until he finds out what happens to him!)

This was a really fun exercise that sparked a lot of discussion. I may try it again with another book!

Do you have a favorite way to introduce a new book to your students?

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