The Picture of Dorian Gray vs. Life of Pi

I have had the pleasure (and the pain) of teaching a variety of prescribed novels for literature which is why I was quite taken aback when I first saw the list for the DBE matric titles in 2017. I had been expecting something Afrocentric, like ‘Things Fall Apart’ or a traditional, classic title from English Literature, the sort that comes up on booklists year after year.

Not being much of a fantasy fan, I had to wonder what had inspired the selectors to offer such an extraordinary choice – a story about a boy who survives 227 days on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger vs a hedonistic tale of a man whose portrait bears the burden of his age, allowing him to remain forever young. Which one, given the opportunity, would I choose to teach?

Being involved in the production of resource material for both the novels, I had plenty of time to pore over the texts and was surprised to see how much they had in common:  

  • Both novels have a preface which is directly bound to the story. Unlike many other novels, this gives the preface a much greater significance.
  • The writers, while very different, are both wonderful wordsmiths with that marvellous ability to capture the sights, sounds and smells of the world they describe.
  • Both writers are sensitive about their craft and express opinions on the nature of storytelling and literary criticism.
  • The novels share similar themes which are relevant to us all: relationships, humanity, morality, religion, and society.

While studying the novels, I also came to realise how perfectly suitable both are for this time and place.

The obvious advantage to teaching The Picture of Dorian Gray is that the text is short. But I also think that learners will relate to the novel extremely well.  After all, how different is Dorian’s dark world to what is imagined on our TV screens. Learners are often all too familiar with the weird and macabre, different sexual orientations and immoral behaviour. Another parallel with life today is the tendency for people to look at outward appearances as a measure of true character. We are constantly bombarded with glamourous images in magazines, adverts and celebrity shows. It is easier than ever before to create illusions of reality, not only in the media, but through personal channels like Facebook and Instagram. I have no doubt that there will be much to discuss and learn while exploring the plot, characters and themes.

Nevertheless, it is not a novel to teach to all groups. To use a metaphor from art, I think of The Picture of Dorian Gray as a charcoal sketch with varying shades of grey, interesting but dark. Life of Pi, on the other hand, is a bright, colourful canvas, the kind you place at a focal point on your wall to bring colour and warmth into your home.

Life of Pi ticked all the boxes for me for the following reasons:

  • The language was easy to read.
  • I learnt about things I knew nothing about.
  • The imagery (particularly of natural elements, the ocean and its creatures) was astonishingly beautiful.
  • I fell in love with the character, Pi.
  • I’m a sucker for a twist in the tale!
  • It made me think and question more than I have in a long time.
  • It inspired me. TOTALLY!

From a learner’s point of view, Life of Pi might take longer to read but the language is certainly more accessible to a modern reader. There is, surprisingly, plenty of action and suspense to keep learners reading to the end. It is also a timeless coming-of-age story which most learners will be able to relate to. More importantly, Life of Pi is an uplifting story, and one with the potential to guide its readers to choosing a better story for their own lives.

Whichever novel you choose, we have a study manual or teacher’s resource pack to support you in the classroom and to provide your learners with a better understanding of the text.

Categories: Macrat Musings

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