Having completed AP French last year, Anne-Marie Dion ’11 and Stéphanie Quintin ’11 are now engaged in an intense examination of French literature of the 19th century in their independent study. With a focus on depictions of women, the two girls are reading a selection of important novels of that era: Le Rouge et Le Noir (Stendhal), Madame Bovary (Flaubert), Le Colonel Chabert (Balzac), and Thérèse Raquin (Zola) under the supervision of foreign language chair Jean Erick Joassaint.
“Mr. Joassaint suggested that we study women in these novels, both so that we could see how women were depicted in 19th century France and so that Stéphanie and I would feel empowered as young women,” says Anne-Marie. “With Madame Bovary, I don’t feel that the French readers expected a story as controversial as hers but I think the author was writing what he was seeing. Instead of making the man almighty and the woman inferior, Flaubert flips it. Women were becoming more influential in French society, and the novel reveals their growing power.”
Stéphanie adds that Mr. Joassaint knows “not only the book but the history behind it. He gives us the historical background before we read it.” He also helps relate the novels to his students’ lives and adds a little humor to the serious parts. As Anne-Marie puts it, “he lets us see the brighter side of things.”
The threesome that meet for discussion each week come from different French-speaking backgrounds. Stéphanie is a Québécoise (from Saint-Bruno, QC) and speaks Canadian French at home. Mr. Joassaint, originally from Haiti, calls his language “southern French.” He says of Anne-Marie (who was born in Sweden to Swedish and French Canadian parents, moved to France at age five, and now lives in LaGrangeville, NY) that her French is “more like that spoken in a French family that travels a lot.” All three agree that their meetings are a lot of fun.
Usually Mr. Joassaint begins a discussion of the passage the girls have read for that week. About every third week, the students write a personal reflection essay about their reading.
The sessions together are productive. “They are working hard—they are beyond what I had expected,” says Mr. Joassaint. “These two girls can see through the many images of women in each novel to determine what kind of woman they would not like to be!” While he says that Anne-Marie and Stéphanie know that their teacher is traditional, they raise non-traditional questions about actions of characters like Madame Bovary. Did she cheat on her husband because she was unhappy overall or because of the novels she read in the convent—or was she unsatisfied as a married woman?
Both girls feel positive about their course of study. “French was my best subject in my previous school, Séminaire Ste-Trinité, and my dad was determined that I would continue to study French at Berkshire,” says Stéphanie. “I know the books we’ve chosen are classics, but I hadn’t read them in school. The independent study is allowing me to continue developing the skills I already had.” Anne-Marie, who says that her French speaking skills are her strength, is “still working on the grammar” but is close to “nailing the vocabulary” in the novels. She intends to major in business or international business in university, and she feels that deeper familiarity with French can be a benefit if she works or travels to France or Québec.
And both students are equally upbeat about their mentor, who helps them understand and relate to the women whose stories they study. “I love Mr. J!” says Stéphanie, and Anne-Marie agrees that “Mr. J. is awesome!”
-- Linda Bellizzi, Director of the Independent Study Program. To learn more about Independent Study at Berkshire, click here.