The pitfall for Catherine in Hulu’s recent original miniseries The Great has less to do with sexism or racism, as other historical dramas argue.
It is a critique of literacy and culture.
This is a stunning move for a show to perform, as many shows would not dare touch culture, even if it is one that is based on historical premises.
But Tony McNamara, who also wrote The Favourite, seems particularly skilled at asking questions of culture and ideology that we have been unwilling to address in media.
Catherine is excited to be married to Peter, as she is well-read and knows much about the fairy tales told of living happily ever after. But strange enough, she seems more like a Belle than an Aurora, heady and strong-willed, if a little stubborn, to go to a place and build up the wealth of a country with her recently learned new ideas of humanism and independent thought.
When she arrives, she is beaten, her pet bear is slain, her school for women burned, and her sexual adventures are more like rape.
Her husband is not a wide reader, which stuns Catherine first and foremost. He is brutish and childlike, completely slave to the whims of his imagination.
Her supposed comfort in the company of women is also suspect, as many of them are completely illiterate, and as such are privy to the desires of the flesh and appearance. They are sight heavy, remarking on dress and fashion, as well as knee-deep in sex. The well-adjusted aunt is also thought of by the other women as crazy, as she sometimes appears to be. In one such scene, she is trying to compose butterflies to obey orders and fly in formation…
Until uniting with Orlo, many of the problems Catherine has with Russia are deeply rooted, and although they start with literacy, they critique history and their lot in it. Why are women forebidden from intellectual endeavors? Why is the well-stocked library frequently empty? Why is the sex so one-sided?
It is only through heavy and wide reading that Catherine is able to uncover the many disparities between rich and poor, is able to critique divine right (as Peter certainly isn’t “The Great” that his father was), and is so keen on changing the paradigm for Russia.
The irony of writing illiterate characters is that these ones happen to be so witty and funny. Peter is laughably terrible, and the loquacious servant underneath Catherine is often just as wry and unsubtle, yet with wit and verve, that only an entirely literate and astute writer like Tony McNamara can provide. It is one more jibe at culture that actually achieves a sort of parallel to our modern era, which is that literacy maintains its profound place as a skill, regardless of the Wikipedias and databases storing information that give us access.
It goes without question that I think about literacy a lot. As an English teacher, and a teacher of the humanities in general, I find reading, and reading widely and with depth, to be the only magic bullet in education. It is what enabled Frederick Douglass to bring himself out of slavery. It gives us the chance to critique our surroundings. Words are excellent tools for remarking on injustice and oppression, as well as to convey complex scientific topics to our interlocutors. It is the foundation for good governance, and the hope of democracy only has hope if it is similar to what Ford had in mind with Model T cars. The car will only be sold if it has a buyer, so it is in the industrialist’s interest to raise wages to fertilize the ground for consumer demand.
So it is with reading. Literate peoples must exist to make heady demands of their political leaders.
So I would like to start a series on literacy. Because for the past couple of months, (especially with last school year) I have had a difficult time with the concept of literacy, and I believe it may be a problem for civil society at the moment. More than ever in my previous year of teaching, I had students who took a militant stance against reading books. They walked up to me and told me point blank, even though I had over 1,800 books in my classroom, that they do not read. More students than ever hid their cell phone in front of their books and pretended to read. More students than ever fell asleep and drooled on my books. Many simply stared at the same words on repeat. Even when they could choose whatever book they wanted to, they chose the exact wrong option, which was not to read at all. It seems obvious to everyone at this point that reading is the thing that can overcome poverty in providing a sound education to all, and more than ever my students avoided it. I feel like Catherine, and around me is the brutish realm of history.
In this series, I will not leave myself unchallenged. First of all, is literacy a problem? My evidence is simply anecdotal. Certainly as a whole, more people are readers now than ever, in the sense that although we critique education as having problems over the course of American history, still it’s amazing that we are able to provide public education at all. In the past one hundred years, from 1920 to 2020, education has grown substantially. Not only that, but the manner in which books and textual information has disseminated has reached all time highs. Books, audiobooks, kindles and e-readers, are all cheaper and more accessible. Even in the past ten years, this is news.
Michael Silverblatt among others has discussed the problem of second-order illiteracy. The basic premise is that we now have another terrace to come to terms with, which is that many people can read at a technical level, but all they read are the nutrition facts on cereal boxes, as well as the subtitles on television shows. For many, this would not seem like a bad thing. What is the difference between learning to read and reading too much? In fact, in the 19th century, reading too much among young people was a very real problem, as people worried that it kept them from focusing on work instead.
And we seem to be in a podcast and spoken word golden age. What if our time period with text is at a close? After all, the point of text was to convey meaning at a distance. What if we have closed together all prevailing distances? What if reading will simply be viewed as a temporary solution to a more permanent problem, and that the future of mankind will return to the way it has before, which is to use the voice?
Unfortunately, there is some truth to the idea of second order illiteracy. Above is a chart for the complexity of vocabulary words based on types of printed texts, types of television, and finally adult speech. This table comes from Anne E. Cunningham’s “What Reading Does for the Mind” and throughout the series, I will use this concise but breathtaking document as a guide for future questions. The above chart reveals that much of our printed material is so substantially higher than speech patterns in terms of complexity that it shocks us into sobriety. Even preschool books have a higher rank of median words than conversation among highly literate representatives of our society.
Despite Tony McNamara’s flourishes, stupid people in the past were likely stupid in a boring way.
But books. Books! I worry about the future of reading because of those materials at the top of our table. Scientific articles and newspapers even, despite what they tell you about how they must cater to the ordinary reader, are still at such a higher level, that to lose the ability to sustainably read those and understand them reflects a very real loss of human knowledge.
It is similar in my mind to the Orwellian trick in 1984, or in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which is to say that the real antagonist to society isn’t humanity itself but rather the reduction in language. Language is a tool, and the more words you are able to understand and transmit, the greater your toolbox to solve a number of problems. Not only that, but the regular words that are already commonly in our possession can be used in a wider variety of ways, compared to someone who only has a rudimentary understanding of the words given through speech.
Suffice it to say, there are theoretical reasons to be worried about reading and literacy. But the question remains: is there an actual reason to be worried?
Literacy stands as higher than ever before. There are even reports of what is called the “Flynn Effect,” meaning that we are more intelligent based on IQ than that of our grandparents.
And yet, by checking the chart above of average SAT scores across time, we can see a noticeable decline since the data was rigorously kept in 1972 of critical reading scores.
Are these scores to be trusted? Is a drop in literacy, in order to make way for other skills, such a bad thing? What does someone really gain from being able to thoroughly understand the work of someone like Jacques Derrida?
Does it matter just as much how a young person reads as what, exactly, they choose to read? Does reading Guns, Germs, and Steel have a hugely more beneficial effect than, say, reading the same amount of words in text message form?
I cannot wait to dig into this problem more. The key goal here is to prove myself wrong. I want to believe that the kids are doing alright. I want to feel confident that the ideals that deeper reading provide rest easy in the next generation. But I can also see a very real problem in literacy, one that I have been unable to reconcile with my growing age. Is this simply another example of Steven Pinker’s popularized term “The Curse of Knowledge?” Am I simply a man entering the curmudgeonly years of my life?
Time to get to work and find out.