Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Hubris—Recognizing in reading then applying to writing

In my non-writing life, I teach junior high and high school English, creative writing, and history in a small, rural public school. I also teach dual-credit community college classes to high school students. In my teaching capacity, I'm always looking for ways to illustrate and explain terms to students in a manner in which they can visualize and conceptualize what I'm saying. 

Hubris is one of those important literary terms that students must understand and be able to recognize in readings and also incorporate into creative writing activities. Shakespeare's Macbeth is a standard example of a character whose downfall is too much hubris. This example works for those of us who know the story of Macbeth, and it works for students after they've experienced Macbeth. However, it doesn't help students understand the concept of hubris before they actually encounter it.

Consequently, I use movies because they provide an excellent source of quick, visual examples. I set-up the scenes then show excerpts that illustrate the concept.

According to my fourth edition of A Handbook to Literature, hubris (or hybris) is "Overweening pride which results in the misfortune of the protagonist… It is the particular form of tragic flaw [error/defect in hero that leads to downfall] which results from excessive pride, ambition, and overconfidence. Hubris leads the protagonist to break a moral law [the ways and rules of personal and/or divine conscience], attempt vainly to transcend normal human limitations, or ignore a divine warning with calamitous results…"

For high school students, I use Iron Man 2 to illustrate hubris. Most students have seen these movies, so the Tony Stark/Iron Man character is familiar to them. Tony Stark as Iron Man, specifically in #2, is the epitome of a character reeking with a tragic abundance of hubris. At the end of Iron Man 1, Tony announces rather flippantly to the media that he is, indeed, Iron Man. At the beginning of Iron Man 2, Tony is on the hubris highway to self-destruction with a huge dose of tragedy and humility racing right toward him.

The following is only a sampling of my full lesson plan and the examples can apply to more than one descriptor. Once the students get the idea, they watch for every little detail, so this lesson turns out a little differently each time. Now we'll take the definition of hubris apart in fragments and apply Tony Stark's behavior in Iron Man 2.

Hubris Attributes:

1. Overweening pride which results in misfortuneTony/Iron Man states at the Stark Expo (early scene): "...I'm not saying that the world is enjoying its longest period of uninterrupted peace in years because of me. I'm not saying that from the ashes of captivity, never has a greater phoenix metaphor been personified in human history [bowing and obviously referring to himself]. I'm not saying that Uncle Sam can kick back on a lawn chair, sipping on an iced tea because I haven't come across anyone who's man enough to go toe-to-toe with me on my best day...

2. Tragic flaw which results from excessive pride, ambition, and overconfidenceTony/Iron Man: Early in the movie during the Senate Armed Services Committee inquiry, he calls his 'suit' a high tech prosthesis... "I am Iron Man. The suit and I are one. To turn over the Iron Man suit would be to turn over myself, which is tantamount to indentured servitude or prostitution, depending on what state you're in. You can't have it..." Then Tony interferes with the visual presentation. "Boy, I'm good. I commandeered your screens... But I did you a favor. I've successfully privatized world peace... My bond is with the people. And I will serve this great nation at the pleasure of myself. If there's one thing I've proven, it's that you can count on me to pleasure myself."
Pepper advises Tony that the Stark Expo is a waste of time: "The Expo is your ego gone crazy."

3. Breaks a moral lawTony/Iron Man: Tony repeatedly tempts fate with a death-wish attitude. In Monaco, he checks his blood toxicity level, looks in the mirror at his reflection, and says "Got any other bad ideas?" The next scene shows him preparing to drive a racecar—an obviously impulsive decision meant to laugh in the face of his own mortality.

4. Attempt vainly to transcend normal human limitations or ignore divine warning with calamitous resultsTony/Iron Man: Just after the senate inquiry scene, Tony is at home and discussing his blood toxicity levels with Jarvis. Tony: "How many ounces of this gobbledy-gook am I supposed to drink?" Jarvis: "We are up to 80 ounces a day to counteract the symptoms, sir... Blood toxicity, 24%. It appears that the continued use of the Iron Man suit is accelerating your condition... You are running out of both time and options. Unfortunately, the device that is keeping you alive is also killing you."

I also lead the students into a discussion of the price Tony pays for his hubris. For example, when Tony and his friend, Rhodes, engage in the Iron Man v. Iron Man battle in Tony's home and subsequently destroy it, this goes beyond human limitations and the result is wanton and irresponsible destruction for which there is a price to pay and atonement to make: Pepper turns from him and Tony has to reestablish himself with her. Ultimately, Tony had to 'self-destruct' in order to 'find' himself and come to terms with his feelings for his now deceased father.

...and so on. Students have a good time with this and the ensuing discussion is great. When we're finished, students understand what hubris is and can apply it to other reading experiences and incorporate the concept into their own writing.

Until next time,


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Stepping Out of the Page said...

Great post. Really interesting and insightful. :)

New to your blog,
Steph @ Stepping Out of the Page

Brenda said...

Holy doodle! This post is fantastic!

Angels Cove said...

Loved the post it was fabulas and also a great lesson in there like you stated
micheleAnn Oboyle