Monday, April 16, 2007

meta-education and V for Vendetta

In my Comic Books as Lit course we're in the middle of our discussion of V for Vendetta and we just reached the prison scenes. So I had them write today about how they felt about what V did to Evey. I asked them, "Do you support his actions or decry them? Is he justified in what he does or not? Are you for or against what he did?" and then I suggested that you could call what V does brainwashing. I then had them write half a page to a page in response.

I was as careful as I could be in my wording leading into the prompt, so I could put it to them in as many ways as possible without my own bias creeping in. I didn't want them to know what I thought before they told me what they thought. I was trying to avoid leading them in a particular direction, pointing them towards a particular answer, because... doing so fits with the subject matter I was asking them about.

After they wrote we jumped into our discussion, taking a step back from the question and talking about Evey's evolution as a character, the change she undergoes in the story and how she essentially grows up before our very eyes. That idea then led us naturally to the prison scenes, which is that linchpin moment in which she goes from innocence to experience, becomes Eve not Evey.

But is that transformation worth what she had to go through to get there? Do the ends justify the means? These questions led to some very lively discussion from the class. I talked to them about it being a matter of perspective in some ways, whether or not we see the book as V's story or Evey's. If we think of Evey as the main character, then this is a horrible thing that she goes through, abominable. but if we tend to think of V as the main character, then we understand the motivations because it is something he himself went through as well.

Many of my students made just that point, that V did not create the experience himself and instead is simply demonstrating to her what both he and Evey's father had to go through. One student compared it to the Holocaust, saying, "you can hear about the Holocaust in class and not really comprehend its scope. but if you hear the story from a survivor, if you visit the site, then you can really know what it's like." In a way then, they argued, V is simply showing her the true methods of the government she lives under.

Another student said that Evey wasn't being brainwashed but rather deprogrammed. She had been brainwashed for years before by the government into thinking this was all she could get out of life, that she was happy where she was. All V did was to reveal to her the dark underbelly. A third student referred to it as an anti-venom, that the government had left her paralyzed from snake bites over the years and now she's receiving the antidote.

Finally they also raised the very valid point that Evey was, at the moment she was abducted, about to kill a man, something she surely would have been captured after doing. And after this capture, she would have been treated exactly the same way by the real Fingermen, except that they WOULD have killed her in the end. All V did is let her have the experience without paying the ultimate price for it, let her learn the lesson and live to tell the tale. All V did was save her from herself.

There were a few students who did raise the question of what gave V the right to do such a thing? One student said, "all parents tell their children not to touch a hot stove, and to a degree the children don't listen and have to learn for themselves. But what V is doing here is essentially building the stove." I then replied, "worse than that, he's grabbing her hand and making her touch it." Also, the question was raised that, by V putting Evey through the exact same things he's gone through, is he trying to free her mind so she can be an individual, or is he giving something new to follow? The words "Disciple" and "carbon-copy" came up in this point of the discussion more than once.

One student had raised the point that V asks her if she wants to pluck the rose and hand it to him, thus signifiying that he will kill the man who killed her lover Gordon. This student mentioned it as evidence of it not being brainwashing, because he gives her a choice, but I countered with the idea that maybe he wanted her to make that particular decision and manipulated her into it.

Finally it was explored that no matter what we do in life, we will be influenced by the thoughts, opinions, and actions of others. We are educated by teachers and parents alike, and the whole scene ties into Evey's parental issues, her search for a father figure. V is educating her, but he goes about it in a horrible way. And I mentioned then that, placing the story in a real world context, if we were forced to go through what Evey does, we would NOT be as supportive of what happens, but because it's a piece of fiction and because our sympathies lie with V, we look at the message and what he's trying to teach her rather than his methodology.

This brought me around to explaining why I had them write their responses first before I gave them mine, why I played devil's advocate often during the discussion, and why I tried to let them lead the discussion and argue it out back and forth. I did not want to forcefeed them a lesson and have them regurgitate it. I wanted them to really analyze it on their own and come to their own conclusions based on their own filters.

I ended saying that it's a very morally ambiguous scene and that really the whole book is morally ambiguous. V is no saint by any means, and the level to which we support him or decry his actions (also the level to which the characters in the book do the same) is a matter of personal ethics. these questions of V's methodology (terrorist or freedom fighter) and how Eve accepts or denounces them (protege or disciple) are of course especially important in the finale of the book, so I asked them to continue mulling these ideas over as they finished reading.

All in all, it was a tremendous and thought-provoking class period, one that even challenged me and what I thought, and I wanted to share it in the hopes it would do the same for you.