Character Complexity

In an ever-continuing effort to guide my students in reading deeply and finding meaning in a text, I wanted to do something different near the beginning of Brave New World to help students see the complexity of the characters. When I read chapter four of Brave New World (for the 100th time), I knew this was the perfect place to try a new idea because Benard Marx and Helmholtz Watson are sized up (no pun intended) in Section 2. I love teaching foils because comparing characters (or settings, symbols, themes, or any comparison for that matter) is one of the easiest ways for students to notice differences and find an entry point to draw conclusions about the meaning of the work as a whole. 

The first task was rereading  Brave New World – Chapter Four Section 2 noting observations about Marx and Watson. Students had read the chapters 4-6 before class, so this reading allowed them to focus on characters already knowing the plot and context. Students were encouraged to not only note the obvious but go below the surface and consider factors which contribute to the development of a character. I love that students went deep and drew conclusions about Helmholtz’s superiority citing “But at the same time he felt rather ashamed for his friend. He wished Bernard would show a little more pride” as evidence. The visual below is one I often use with students to get them thinking below the surface in relation to characters. 


Next students worked in partners to created a visual. The act of drawing or doodling slows students and forces them to focus on details. In order to highlight the foil relationship, I asked students to divide their paper in half and literally draw half of Marx next to half of Helmholtz and label characteristics of each. (This idea was inspired by a student’s drawing of the mother and father from “Popular Mechanics” by Caver, and I have been waiting for just the right lesson to use it.)

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Comparing the characters was just the starting point, however, because I wanted my students to make claims about the function of the foil relationship in the novel. Even though this scene takes place early in the novel, students noted the role of individuals in a society that dos not value individuals. One group claimed that “Bernard feels isolated because of his deficiencies while Helmholtz feels isolated due to his superior qualities.” With the differences of the two characters side by side, students have a fuller understanding of the sentences: “What the two men shared was the knowledge that they were individuals. But whereas the physically defective Bernard had suffered all his life from the consciousness of being separate, it was only quite recently that, grown aware of his mental excess, Helmholtz Watson had also become aware of his difference from the people who surrounded him.” These observations will be useful not only for continued theme development but also for the continued character development of Marx especially when he will be contrasted with John the Savage.

I like this activity because students are actively engaged with the text, actively engaged with a learning partner, and also because it can be used with essentially any text.

Susan Barber is a high school English teacher and department chair at Northgate High School in Georgia. In addition to reading, writing, and investing in the next generation, she loves watching college football especially when Alabama is playing.