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Learn resilience from your favourite books

March 11, 2020 by Nora Nagy

“At first people refuse to believe that a strange new thing can be done, then they begin to hope it can be done, then they see it can be done—then it is done and all the world wonders why it was not done centuries ago.” - The Secret Garden

What is resilience? And how can fictive characters help us understand this powerbank of human nature? 

Being resilient means that we can recover quickly from difficult situations, whether they are personal or global challenges. In times of distress, anxiety and threats to our health, relationships or economy, or in natural disasters, we have tended to find a way of adapting to new life situations. This adaptability makes us strong, and we do not simply survive difficulties, we usually come out of them stronger. Humans are a bit like really magical springs: they bounce back and grow stronger.

As our world faces yet another challenge, now in the form of a previously unknown virus, we turn to our favourite literary heroes for guidance. What can we learn from Jane Eyre, Jo March, Mary Lennox and Colin Craven?

Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, illustrated by Caterina Baldi
Level 4 reader: CEFR A2/B1

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”

Jane’s character

Jane lives through the loss of her family, abuse, poverty and hopelessness with her passion and principles. She also possesses a strong will to be a free and independent woman who is capable of making her own decisions.

How she responds to challenges

Jane finds herself in difficult situations from her early childhood. Not only does she lose her parents to typhus, she is left in the care of her maternal uncle’s widow and her children, who bully her both emotionally and physically. She escapes into a world of books and finds comfort in the very few people who mean her well. She faces the harsh world of the boarding school with hope, and needs to carry on when she loses her closest friend to tuberculosis. She never gives up her desire to be free and experience life, so she moves to Thornfield Hall to become a governess. Here, after falling in love and losing Mr Rochester, she deals with other challenges. She stands on her own and finds relatives whom she helps. Her resilience and trust in herself lead her back to the man she loves, and she finds a place where she can be herself. 

Read more about the novel and project ideas here.

Jo March

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, illustrated by Cecilia Tamburini
Level 2 reader: CEFR A1/A2

“I want to do something splendid before I go into my castle, something heroic or wonderful that won't be forgotten after I'm dead. I don't know what, but I'm on the watch for it, and mean to astonish you all some day. I think I shall write books, and get rich and famous, that would suit me, so that is my favorite dream."

Jo’s character

Jo, short for Josephine, is a brave, independent and passionate character, who refuses to live up to her society’s expectations about how a woman should live her life. She is reckless and believes in pursuing her own dreams.

How she responds to challenges

The March sisters live through the American Civil War and face all its hardship as their father is away at war. When their mother wants to travel to visit their father, Jo decides to cut and sell her beautiful hair to contribute to the train ticket. When her close friend, Laurie, confesses his love for her, she decides to leave for New York and do something bold by living and working there. She knows that she cannot love Laurie romantically. She never gives up her dream to become a writer, and she does not marry just because that is what people expect her to do. When she does marry, it is her own choice. When her sister dies, she knows that she needs to be with her family. In the end, she turns her heritage, a large house into a school. What can be more wonderful than that?

Read more about the novel and our project ideas here.

Mary Lennox and Colin Craven

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, illustrated by Caterina Baldi
Level 2 reader: CEFR A1/A2

"One of the new things people began to find out in the last century was that thoughts—just mere thoughts—are as powerful as electric batteries—as good for one as sunlight is, or as bad for one as poison." - The Secret Garden

Their characters

Mary learns to change her ways from being self-centred to gentle and caring for others. Colin lives in complete isolation and is considered to be in poor health. He is brave and open enough to make friends with his cousin and change his life for the better.

How they respond to challenges

Both Mary and Colin have faced great losses. Mary’s parents died in a cholera epidemic, and Colin lost his mother. They spend their early childhood years either brought up by servants or in complete isolation. With the help of supportive friends, they choose to build something new from its ruins, showing others that once we start caring for the things we love and sharing them with others, these places, and even personalities can be reborn and flourish with new life, and new places and relationships can be created. 

All of these children and families (just like the authors of these novels) lived through immense challenges such as war, disease, epidemics, loss, bullying, isolation and rejection. Still, they find the inspiration and faith in themselves and their loved ones to continue and fight any challenge that might come their way. Even if they are not always be happy and content with their situation, and they do feel sorrow, fear and frustration, they never give up their dreams, freedom, passion and faith in love.

Who are your favourite role models who have taught you about resilience? How can they inspire you in times of difficulty? How can they become role models for your students? And where do our students turn for support?

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