Is Nadine Gordimer's "The Pickup" a work of existentialist philosophy? Or could it more aptly be described as a woman's rebellious quest to find a classless society? And what is the meaning of love to the protagonists: Is it a sexual force or an exotic attraction? Most importantly, what can new students at Cornell glean from these ostensibly abstruse themes?
These are some of the questions students grappled with at the New Student Reading Project small-group discussion session led by Daniel Schwarz, the Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English Literature, Aug. 20, in Uris Hall 260. Under Schwarz's guidance, students sought to discover how the novel was analogous to their own lives.
Using citations from the text to substantiate their reasoning, the students considered the novel's characters through a historical context: How did race and class affect Abdu's identity in post-apartheid South Africa? How did Julie's wealthy background influence her rebellion? Is Julie rebelling, or is she rejecting her father's wealth? The consensus was that she evolved, and this, according to Schwarz, has particular significance for new students.
"You are going to grow. You are going to evolve the set of values you came here with," said Schwarz.
Vincent Andrews, ILR '11, asserted that Gordimer expressed existentialist themes through Julie, who defined her own values and made her own way. He also saw Marxism in Julie's motivations, "She's found her own classless society."
Others reacted emotionally to the characters. "I was angry at her," said Brian Mittereder, Eng. '11, reacting to Julie's actions. "She was doing everything she could to stay, and put all this effort into becoming a part of the family, and in the end, she didn't stay with him [Abdu]."
Woonghee Lee, Hotel '11, described his own tour of Johannesburg, South Africa, to give a glimpse into the context of the novel's characters, reflecting on the incredible income gap between rich and poor and the cultural norms he witnessed there.
"You were told not to walk around alone at night," he said. "There were roaming gangs."
According to Schwarz, the bottom line is that every book has something to teach, and that it is important to question how we learn.
"Imaginative works increase moral and political awareness, and let us know countries we haven't visited," Schwarz said. "They deepen our experience of life."
Shriya Palekar '08 is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.