Introductory activities

Controversial and challenging, The Slap, has gathered as much criticism as it has awards. It is hailed as a modern Australian classic, an “unflinching interrogation of the life of the modern family.” Tsiolkas’ critical eye offers an insight into Australian suburbia as it is today, shattering the sentimental myths surrounding our suburban and multicultural Australian identity. In discussing the ABC television adaptation of his novel, Tsiolkas expresses his relief at a depiction of an “urban Australia that actually looks and sounds like the Australia we live in, and not some kind of fantasy,” (BBC Hard Talk, 2011). Debating this concept will be the theme for this unit.

Please note that this novel contains graphic depictions of sexual behaviour and frequent very coarse language.

Modern Australian cultural identity

What is “modern Australia”? Historically, we have romanticised an image of Australian cultural identity that was based on a white colonial heritage. More recently, that image has become blended with one of successful multiculturalism, a peaceful melange of cultures and traditions that make up modern Australia, and correlates with the shift in our archetypal identity from a rural to a suburban one. Have students create a mind-map of their impressions of modern Australian cultural identity and then collect images that represent these ideas. In groups, students should then create a joint collage using their images, negotiating their inclusion. Students will have to discuss and justify their impressions of contemporary Australian cultural identity. Presenting each group’s work to the rest of the class allows further opportunity to discuss and compare understandings of contemporary Australia.

View this interview with Tsiolkas, in which he offers his view of Australian cultural identity. As students watch, ask them to make notes on:

  • the qualities and values Australians like to believe embody contemporary Australian identity,
  • what Tsiolkas believes is the reality of contemporary Australian identity,
  • Tsiolkas’ view of his own relationship with contemporary Australian identity,
  • Tsiolkas’ experiences reconciling his Greek heritage and his identity as an Australian.

For homework, students could watch this additional interview, where Tsiolkas further discusses race politics in Australia, and add to their notes.

Compare Tsiolkas’ view their own views as represented by their collages. Do we romanticise suburban Australia as a multicultural, middle-class haven?

Generate a discussion of other texts, such as TV soap operas or dramas, that represent suburban Australian life. In particular, focus on the representation of the migrant experience. For homework, students may wish to view an episode of such a television show and make notes on the ethnicities represented and the roles ethnic characters play within the show. Use this to create a survey of multiculturalism in mainstream Australian television in class. Discuss the implications that arise from your class’ findings.

Understanding the migrant context

Survey the students in your class to ascertain those who have migrant backgrounds. Ask them to share their personal and/or family experiences with migrating to Australia, particularly in relation to discussing cultural differences. Pose questions that encourage students to reflect on their conceptions of family from a cultural perspective, as well as their place within multicultural Australia. Invite comparison and discussion between students of immigrant and non-immigrant backgrounds.

This discussion could be followed up with research using the resources listed in the ‘digital resources’ section. In particular, students should research:

  • the ethnic make up of contemporary Australian society;
  • the circumstances in which the majority of post-war migrants came to Australia;
  • the lives and experiences of migrants once in Australia;
  • social, class and ethnic differences between migrant and non-migrant Australians.

Students should make notes under these headings prior to reading the novel. They might write a personal reflection exploring what Australia may look like to a new migrant.

Meet the author

Building on their viewing of the above interviews, explore the life of Christos Tsiolkas using the biographical resources provided under the ‘additional resources’ tab. Students should prepare a short bio on Tsiolkas. If time permits, students may wish to consolidate their understanding of Tsiolkas and Australian cultural identity by scripting and role-playing a mock interview with the author.

A moral minefield

Present the students with the scenario from the exposition of the novel. An unruly child is slapped at a family barbecue by a man who is not the child’s father. The child was slapped – ostensibly – because he was going to hit the man’s son with a cricket bat as he did not want to be ‘out’ from the game of cricket they were playing. Ask for students’ reactions, prompting them with questions such as:

  • Is it acceptable to discipline a child by slapping or smacking them?
  • Is it acceptable to discipline another person’s child, by slapping or otherwise?
  • Who has the right to discipline children – only the parents? Other family members? Close family friends? Where do we draw the line?
  • Did the father have a right to defend his own child?
  • The father initially grabbed the child and did not hit him until the boy kicked him. Does this change your opinion?
  • Does the young age of the child matter?
  • Does the fact that the unruly child had already misbehaved prior to the cricket incident matter?
  • The father of the boy who was slapped calls the police. Do you think this is a police matter?
  • Is a situation like this, where a child slapped by an adult, a ‘black and white’ moral issue or is it a grey area?

After the discussion, have students align themselves along a continuum. Designate one side of the room as ‘Yes’ and one as ‘No’. Pose the question “Were the man’s actions in slapping the child justified?” and have students position themselves accordingly. Ask a selection of students along the continuum to justify their stance. Students should then compose a personal statement outlining their views on the smacking of children.

 

Personal response on reading the text

Maintain a journal

Students should keep a journal as they read the novel, organised into sections for each of the eight characters. As they read, students should note:

  • what they admire and/or are confronted by within each character, as well as explaining why;
  • aspects of each character and their relationships with which they can relate;
  • personal response to the characters’ actions and attitudes, explaining why their own values are challenged or endorsed;
  • what the character reveals about migrant and/or Australian cultural identity.

After reading, students should write an initial reflection on the novel, considering their response to the novel’s ideas, character and depiction of Australian suburbia. In particular, revisit their earlier reflections on contemporary Australian cultural identity and reflect on whether they have had their views challenged, reinforced or subverted. Does Tsiolkas’ novel look and sound like the Australia we live in?

Responding to the author

After reading, students could compose three questions they would like to ask Tsiolkas in an interview, questioning or challenging his depiction of Australia. Share these questions with classmates in small group discussions to generate Tsiolkas’ likely responses.

Reflect on your response

Using the continuum activity from earlier, have students position themselves according to their response to the novel. Many will dislike or be uncomfortable with the novel as a result of its critical depiction of families, individuals and Australia as a culture. Again ask a selection of students to justify their stance. Follow this up with focus questions such as:

  • are there any likeable characters?
  • who is the least unlikeable and why?
  • does this novel offer a bleak depiction of Australian culture or are there some redeeming elements?
  • the novel only offers a snapshot of each character’s life. Do any have hope for their future?
  • the novel ends with the youngest narrator and one who, arguably, ends on the most positive note. Is there significance in this?

Ranking the eight narrators will lead to an interesting a fruitful conversation on values. Use the ‘think-pair-share’ model to have students collaborate and rank the characters according to their flaws. Who is ‘the worst’ and why? Establish the values the characters seem to hold and those they seem to transgress against in the students’ eyes. From this, attempt to create a list of the values of modern Australia – according to Tsiolkas and according to the class. Is Tsiolkas’ depiction the reality of modern Australia?

 

Outline of key elements of the text

Plot, character and theme

Students should construct a character map; a web diagram where they show the names of the various characters and the nature of the relationships between them. See here (PDF, 344KB) for an example to get started. Teachers can find a completed example here.

A more complex task, perhaps as a group activity, would be to construct a chronological timeline of the entire narrative arc, beginning with the events revealed from the characters’ histories, such as Manolis and Koula’s meeting, and the early friendship of Aisha, Anouk and Rosie. From this, students could explore the commonalities in experiences across the characters, such as love, loss, friendship, making mistakes, compromises, uncertainty, taking risks, relationships with families, responsibility, sex, seeking connection or community and so on. Although the characters may seem vastly different, consider whether Tsiolkas identifies a common human condition that actually unites all of them.

As a class, brainstorm initial ideas of broad themes dealt with by the novel. From this initial brainstorm, condense to an agreed-upon definition of thematic ideas to explore further. These may include: morality, Australian identity, multiculturalism, gender, family relationships, friendships, suburban life. Create a table (see sample [PDF, 88KB]) that lists the novel’s eight sections and students can fill in the themes they believe are explored in each.

The link to the eNotes study guide in the ‘digital resources’ section contains a simple overview of characters and plot for teacher reference. NB: this requires purchase.

Structure

Discuss with students how this novel differs in structure to ‘typical’ novels. One of the most significant differences is that it is, of course, narrated by eight different characters, and although the narratives overlap and are connected via the titular incident, each character does have an individual narrative. Question students on their initial impressions of Tsiolkas’ decision to construct his novel this way.

 

Synthesising task/activity

Creative plot overviews

The novel revolves around the incident of Hugo being slapped and its repercussions. The story of each character, however, is developed independently of this event. Assign pairs of students a particular character. Have them prepare a summary of their section presented in a creative way; one that is appropriate to the nature of the character. For example, Anouk’s summary could be in the form of a letter she writes to Rhys explaining the events leading to her decision to terminate her pregnancy, Rosie’s could be in the form of a conversation she has with her lawyer recounting the recent events as well as her history with the other characters. These could be copied and shared with the remaining students, so that each has a summary of each character’s story.
(ACELR038)   (ACELR049)   (ACELR050)   (ACELR051)

Close study of the text 

Before you start 

  • Students should set up a series of pages in their journals to explore the various elements of the novel’s construction. Address the following elements through a combination of class and small group discussions, individual in-class reading/writing activities and homework tasks.
  • It is recommended that students make extensive annotations in their copy of the novel. This can be accomplished through the use of adhesive ‘post-it’ notes if marking the text is not desired. Post-it’s are available in a variety of colours and could be used to colour-code various types of annotations, such as use of conventions, ideas and themes, comments about class, gender or ethnicity etc.
  • As students study the text, it is also recommended that they set up a ‘quotes page’ in their journals where they record important quotes for use in written responses later on. A table format is recommended, with headings including: quote, source, context, narrative/literary elements, meaning.

Small group project – close chapter study

Divide the class into eight focus groups. Each group will have responsibility for undertaking a close analysis of one narrator’s section. These close analyses will then be presented back to the class, via a format such as jigsaw, tutorials, multimodal presentation or via a class wiki whereby such information can be easily shared. If needed, the class can be divided into seven groups, and the first section – Hector – can be analysed as a whole class under the direction of the teacher, before heading off into the group-work activity.

In the close analysis, students should make clear notes on the following. In addition, pithy quotes and their page references should be identified and recorded.

Structure: the time frame of this section and its relation to the incident of the slap. Additionally, chronology should be examined.

  • For example, Hector’s section takes place over 24 hours, the day of his party at which the slap incident occurs. It begins with Hector waking up and ends with he and Aisha cleaning up the kitchen at the end of the night. The events progress in chronological order – with a couple of recalled memories, such as the fight with Aisha over his smoking and the summary of his employment history.

Approach to characterisation: the ways in which character is established in this section, through point of view, focalisation, language style and register, as well as elements of characterisation such as speech, appearance, actions, interactions with others. Although the time span of each section tends to be relatively brief, it is important that students recognise that significant character development occurs. Consider the growth within each character and implications of the sequencing of details on reader positioning. Representations of gender are significant.

  • For example, Hector’s section utilises third person limited narration, focalised through Hector. The reader is exposed to a lot of Hector’s interior thoughts, as well as his dialogue with other characters. These thoughts are ‘warts and all’, such as when Hector momentarily fantasises about throwing the hot frypan at Aisha in his fury, or his embarrassment at his son’s chubbiness. This may seem shocking, but perhaps many people experience these momentary examples of ‘irrational’ behaviour.
  • Through this form of narration, the reader is also exposed to a form of dramatic irony. For example, we learn of Hector’s affair with Connie before Aisha does, which has an impact on our reading of Aisha’s section.
  • The section begins with Hector waking and the multitude of bodily functions he experiences first thing in the morning, as well as revealing his desire for Connie. This serves to render Hector immediately – and somewhat confrontingly – as human and flawed. His day is concerned with fairly ‘everyday’ activities, perhaps stereotypically suburban: parenting his children, visiting the market, calling in on family, preparing for a barbeque. However, details such as his taking speed at the barbecue, the viciousness of some of his thoughts and his sexual relationship with the very much younger Connie may disrupt reader’s expectations of suburban life.
  • Hector is driven by his sexual desires – for Connie (p9) as well as for Aisha (p56) and even random women in the market (p17). He works out to retain his youthful figure and values that women find him attractive (p1).
  • The recollection of a fight Hector and Aisha had over his smoking (p6) reveal a list of Hector’s flaws, as identified by Aisha and with which Hector uncomfortably agrees: lazy, vain, passive, selfish and lacking willpower. Consider the extent to which students agree with Aisha’s characterisation of Hector.
  • Hector drinks, smokes and takes drugs, which may suggest a degree of hedonism. Even his fitness regime is purely about maintaining his looks so that women find him attractive, rather than any desire to be healthy.

Setting: consider the character’s immediate setting as well as the contribution to the overall setting of suburban Melbourne. Although all the characters might be described as middle-class, it is important to notice the stratification that exists with the upper middle-class success represented by Harry to the more modest middle-class circumstances of Connie and her aunt.

  • For example, Hector represents a moderately wealthy middle-class family. His wife owns a successful veterinary practice and Hector, too, is employed (at the State Trustees Office). They plan an overseas holiday (to Bali) and have a well-appointed and apparently roomy house and yard. They have relatively significant disposable income, evident in their discussions of private school education, although interestingly Hector describes himself as “a reverse snob” (p27) and believes private schools have a deleterious effect on character. Hector and Aisha are comfortable, but Hector seems to value his working class immigrant background and resists what he sees as the “effete” (p27) trappings of money.

Use of parallels and contrasts: compare and contrast the lives of the studied character with the other narrators.

  • For example, all the characters, in their own way, value family. They also value friendships. The slap and its repercussions have so much effect in part because of this – characters’ relationships with families and friends become points of conflict as their various loyalties are tested. Interesting points of contrast are to compare Hector’s reasons for staying married with Aisha: Hector (despite his infidelity) genuinely loves Aisha and his family, whereas Aisha’s chapter reveals an arguably more superficial view of marriage as Aisha stays with Hector because they make a “beautiful couple” (of course, this reading itself is subjective.) Compare Hector and Harry: both have a close connection to their Greek heritage, recognise their working class roots whilst having attained a comfortable middle-class financial position, both seem to value their marriages and families as indicators of their success, yet both are engaged in affairs and use drugs to escape their lives.

Point of view: consider the effects of the third person limited point of view.

  • For example, the third person limited point of view invites intimacy whilst still retaining a clear distinction between characters that would become blurred if first person were used. This allows for distinctly unique voices to be constructed. The intimacy of the relationship with Hector allows readers to empathise with him, despite his flaws. We are invited to appreciate his personal morality through incidents such as his decision to end his affair with Connie as he realises, after the slap, how much his family means to him.

Language and style: examine the register and style of language used in constructing a unique voice for the character.

  • For example, a consistent feature is the use of Australian vernacular. In Hector’s case, especially in relation to his thoughts and speech, it veers towards being crude. There is a preoccupation with bodily functions and urges.
  • The style might be described, perhaps stereotypically, as masculine. It is often blunt and direct and there is a lack of figurative language. The opening passage is potentially confronting to readers, so considering the effect on reader positioning is important.
  • The occasional Greek word (mavraki p22, Australezi p24) is included to reinforce Hector’s Greek heritage.

Symbolism: identify examples of symbolism and explain their potential meanings.

  • For example, Hector’s inability to quit smoking highlights his flawed nature and perhaps foreshadows an inability to really change (for example, his infidelity). Significantly, at the end of the chapter, Aisha shares a cigarette, the first time Hector has seen her do so in years, which potentially foreshadows Aisha’s own inability to resist having an affair, as revealed in her chapter later on.
  • The barbeque itself is emblematic of egalitarian, suburban Australian culture, particularly when combined with the game of backyard cricket that goes with it. See ‘digital resources’ for links to information exploring the iconic nature of the Aussie barbeque. Considering the multicultural nature of the group at Hector’s birthday this can easily be seen as representative of Australian culture. Importantly, characters of white British colonial heritage are in the minority.
  • The argument over private versus public education symbolises the changing values of the middle class. The rise in affluence of the middle class is engendering a shift in values away from egalitarianism (public education) to elitism (private education). The differing opinions of the characters reveal the state of flux the middle class is still in: Harry has enrolled his children in private schools, Hector – despite his affluence – has insisted on public education, whilst Gary decries private education completely.
  • Names can be symbolic. Hector, in mythology, was a Prince of Troy, rather than a Greek. He commanded the Trojan armies against the Greek invasion. This could perhaps symbolise the conflict Hector experiences with his Greek heritage, having married Aisha, of whom his mother disapproves. According to Wikipedia, James Redfield writes of Hector as a “martyr to loyalties, a witness to the things of this world, a hero ready to die for the precious imperfections of ordinary life.” (Similarly, Aisha – although not uncommon in India – is an Arabic name, again suggesting cultural diffusion.)

Dramatic monologue – understanding character If time permits, students could draft a monologue to consolidate their understanding of the central character from their studied chapter. This could take the form of the character’s statement to police, not only revealing their ‘version’ of the events surrounding the slapping of Hugo, but also the values and attitudes behind their individual response. More able students should be able to weave in additional details from the character’s life, as they reflect on and justify their stance to the police. These could be presented to the class and then debated, allowing audience members to interrogate the speaker and in doing so, consolidate their understanding of the various characters through discussing each student’s portrayal.

Class discussion – introducing Bakhtin Extend the initial discussion on narrative structure (from the Introductory Activities) by considering possible implications of this episodic, multi-voiced narrative structure. Introduce the concepts of:

  • polyphony – multiple ‘voices’ within a narrative, suggesting the rejection of a single ‘authorial’ voice.
  • dialogism – voices in texts are vehicles for ideologies, or unique sets of values and beliefs. Dialogism arises from the interaction of the various ideologies represented by each ‘voice’ (or between the voice and the implied reader). Rather than promoting a single ideology, dialogism implies that the ideological position of the novel is mediated through the interaction of these various ideologies. In doing so, it suggests a greater level of ideological objectivity on behalf of the author.
  • heteroglossia – extending these concepts, heteroglossia considers the coexistence of different varieties of language. Not only are there multiple voices, using their own ‘dialect’ of English, but each voice uses variations of language also. Consider, for example, Harry’s ‘chapter’ and identify the different variations of language he uses when speaking to his wife, son, mistress, his business partner Alex, his prayers to Panagia, his friend Andrew, his cousin Hector, Rosie (particularly when he apologises). Compare with his interior voice also. In doing so, Tsiolkas reveals that not only is there no singular authoritative voice, there is not even a single immutable language. This further destabilises ideological authority, or perspective, within the text.

These are very simple definitions. See this YouTube video for an introduction to the Bakhtinian theory. Ceasefire Magazine also has an article that develops these ideas in a way which is quite accessible. Although complex, students should be able grasp the basic idea that Tsiolkas appears to be constructing a novel that resists offering a single perspective – not only regarding the slap itself, but of the bigger questions regarding morality, family, marriage and friendship. In their journals, and after much thought, pair and group discussion, students should try to articulate a response to the question of why Tsiolkas has used this polyphonic structure.

Alternatively, introduce the Bakhtinian theory using the ‘Flipped Classroom’ model. Provide students with the above resources – and others you may have from handbooks of narratology – prior to this discussion. Consolidate understanding of these terms through whole group discussion prior to applying them to The Slap.

Exploring meaning

Fishbowl discussions – overview of themes 

Return to the students’ initial brainstorm of themes from the ‘Introductory Activities’. Revise this list in a whole-class discussion if necessary.

  1. Divide students into small groups, assigning each group a different broad theme, such as morality, Australian identity, multiculturalism, family, responsibility etc. This group should form a small circle in the centre of the classroom. The remaining students form an outer circle to observe them.
  2. In discussion, and drawing on specific textual evidence, the inner group is to discuss the theme in detail, drawing on their close study of the text. Ultimately, they should devise a list of specific statements than can be considered to reflect the various perspectives or ideas offered by the novel. Students within the small group may take on specific roles, such as questioner, recorder, evidence-checker, time-keeper etc. During this discussion, the outside circle of observing students may not contribute. They should take notes and develop clarifying questions.
  3. After the inner circle has finished – either because their discussion naturally ends or a time-limit is imposed – the outer circle have their opportunity to ask clarifying questions, challenge the findings of the inner group or offer additional input. Revise the set of written statements as necessary.
  4. Substitute the inner group for the next and repeat the process.
  5. After this, conclude with a teacher-led discussion on whether each of the statements constructed by each group reveals a unified position from Tsiolkas, or whether the various perspectives are too different for us to consider that the novel offers a singular ‘truth’.

Journaling – the role of the slap 

In their journals, students should reflect on the slap as a catalyst for thematic and character development. What does the slap mean to each character? What realisations arise from it? In what ways is each character metaphorically ‘slapped’? Are they forced to face up to hidden or uncomfortable truths about themselves? For example, the slap makes Hector realise his genuine love for his family. He ends his affair with Connie, declaring his love for Aisha. He also sides with his cousin, in conflict with Aisha (p30) as a further indication of his value for family.

Venn Diagram – exploring Australian identity 

Have students construct a Venn diagram, on paper or using this online resource, that charts the positive and negative (and overlapping) aspects of Australian culture, as revealed within the novel. For example, the value of family might be considered positive. The culture of drinking might be considered negative. Other aspects that might be considered include: multicultural, egalitarian, sense of community, backyard lifestyle etc.

Agree/disagree chart – exploring Australian identity 

Create a chart that includes statements that various characters make about Australian culture, such as those below. Being polyphonic, the novel presents readers with various, often conflicting ideas regarding Australian culture. Students should decide whether they believe the novel reinforces or challenges each statement, using evidence from the text. They should then indicate whether they personally agree with each statement, drawing on their own experiences and understandings as justification. Finding statements to populate the chart could be a student activity in itself.

Statement (examples)  Reinforced, challenged or subverted within the novel   Textual evidence  Personal response  Contextual evidence 
Manolis: “Australezi… [drinking’s] in their blood!” (p. 24)
Hector: “Private education was no good for a child’s character.” (p. 27)
Gary: “But you’re perpetrating bullsh*t… Everyone thinks that Australian families are exactly like those on the [TV soap opera].” (p. 36)
Apostolou: “As for your neighbours: learn to live with them. If you wanted friendly neighbours, you shouldn’t have bought a big motherf*cking block of land across from Brighton beach.” (p. 128)
Harry: “[Hawthorn] would be close to the city, close to the action, a good, safe, rich suburb. No mortgage. His son’s first home.” (p. 119)

Revising initial position – exploring Australian identity

Return to the students’ collages and discussion of Australian cultural identity from the ‘Introductory Activities’. Have them reflect (individually) on their initial assumptions in light of their close study of the novel. In their journals, students should write a thoughtful response.You may wish to precede this with some provocative focus questions:

  • Is Tsiolkas’ suburban Australia truly egalitarian or is there a distinct class divide?
  • Is Tsiolkas’ Australia truly a multicultural haven? The initial cultural makeup of the barbeque may seem so, but look at the attitudes expressed by individual characters: Manolis and Harry, for example, are critical of white Australians. Harry and Hector both demonstrate criticism of other cultures, Harry in particular using derogatory terms such as ‘wog’, ‘skip’, ‘butt-ugly Hindu cum-rag’. Hector’s parents disapprove of Aisha being Indian. What does this imply about the state of multiculturalism in Australia?
  • Why does Tsiolkas centre his novel around what is arguably the most iconic symbol of Australian culture: the backyard barbeque and game of cricket?
  • Does Tsiolkas’s representation of suburbia match the representation we get from other popular texts, such as television shows?

Guess who – exploring morality

Students should write a description of a character based solely on the character’s values, omitting any immediately identifying features. In small groups, students should share their descriptions, with the other students in the group attempting to identify the character from their description. In doing so, students should be able to identify that the characters – despite demonstrating them in very different ways – frequently have the same or similar values. For example, Rosie and Harry are both fiercely protective of their children – despite the gulf that exists between them. Koula, Hector and Gary are all proud of their working class roots and support public education, despite living quite different lifestyles. This should be followed up with a discussion identifying and collating common values across characters. Look for patterns – is there a set of values that can be considered Australian? Middle class? Male? Female?

Relating to a character – exploring morality

Have students locate a defining statement for each character’s position on the slapping of Hugo. Write these on sheets of paper and locate them around the classroom. Have students stand by the character with whom they most identify, based on their moral stance. For example, Aisha: “I think that hitting a child is a reprehensible action. I also think that Hugo needed to be disciplined that day, that he was totally out of control. I think Harry has a dangerous temper which he should learn to control. But he apologised and I think Gary and Rosie should have accepted the apology and left it at that. No one has behaved very well in any of this.”

Developing a thesis statement – exploring morality

Consider this statement from the National Post review of The Slap: “No clear lines of morality are drawn, and that’s The Slap‘s greatest strength.”

  • Develop a thesis statement in response to this particular comment, focusing on morality in the novel.
  • Develop an alternate thesis statement, whereby students indicate what they feel is the novel’s “greatest strength”.

Panel discussion/debate – polyphony as metaphor

The polyphonic novel (with its implications of dialogism and heteroglossia) can be seen as a metaphor for suburbia and/or multicultural Australia itself. Propose an informal debate, or panel discussion, where students consider the appropriateness of the polyphonic novel as a metaphor for modern Australia.

Extension activity – the Carnivalesque

Stronger students may wish to explore Bakhtin’s theory of the carnivalesque. Hector’s birthday can easily be seen as a form of carnival: there is feasting, drinking and drug-taking, transgression and rule-breaking. Different groups or classes of people meet and mingle. In fact, it clearly meets Bakhtin’s description of the four categories of the carnivalesque (see this article). The purpose of the carnivalesque, according to Bakhtin, is to subvert dominant ways of thinking through humour and chaos. While not overtly humourous, The Slap is arguably an example of black humour and is certainly satirical. Chaos definitely ensues following the titular incident. Students could consider whether Tsiolkas is using the carnivalesque to subvert dominant ways of thinking about suburbia, families and Australian culture itself.

 

Synthesising task/activity

Character case notes

Taking on the role of a psychoanalyst, students are to prepare a set of case notes based on a particular character, using the SOAP format commonly employed by therapists. Each section should be around 250 words. Students should attempt to use concise language and write in a report style.

  • General details: identify the particular character’s name and other biographical details. Identify the main ‘issues’ with the character that need ‘resolving’.
  • S (Subjective) – in this section the therapist records what the subject personally states about his/her issues. By examining the character’s dialogue, students can ascertain how the character represents him/herself.
  • O (Objective) – this section outlines what the therapist observes about the character. In this case, the student should identify the character’s actions, reactions and behaviours.
  • A (Assessment) – here the therapist offers an assessment of the subject and his/her issues. The student should interpret what really drives the character: values, history and so on, and try to offer a thoughtful understanding of the character’s motivations.
  • P (Plan) – this section outlines the therapist’s recommendations for moving forward. The student can offer a considered personal response to the character.(ACELR038)  (ACELR040)   (ACELR047)   (ACELR048)   (ACELR049)   (ACELR051)

Ways of reading the text

Individual project – alternative reading(s) literature review

Students should undertake one of the following alternate readings. Each suggestion below takes a critical essay or review as its starting point. Students should produce their own report in response to the studied critical text, evaluating and then extending or refuting the writer’s arguments.

  • Class reading
    Will Skidelski, of The Guardian, suggests The Slap reveals the failings of middle class ideology. Use his review as the basis of a discussion about representations of class in the novel. In particular, interrogate Skiledlski’s assertion of three ideologies inherent within the middle classes: traditionalism, consumerism and liberalism. He suggests different characters are motivated by these ideologies to differing degrees. Students should define these ideologies. Using a table, list examples of each character demonstrating these ideologies and score each ideology out of 10 in terms of the extent to which it is upheld by the character. Using the Chart function in MS Word, convert this data to a chart to reveal trends. Discuss the implications of their charts. See here (PDF, 97KB) for examples of what such charts might look like. Explore how these ideologies are linked with capitalism. Skidelski suggests, for example, that those characters most caught up in capitalist idealism suffer from consumerism. Students should consider whether other characters are also motivated by capitalist ideology. Manolis, for example, might be considered a traditionalist but his decision to emigrate and work hard for a better life for his family might be seen as ultimately capitalistic in its motivation.

      • Do students agree with Skidelski’s conclusion, that The Slap “expos[es] the shallowness of contemporary liberalism” endemic within the Australian middle class?
      • Bearing in mind its polyphonic nature, can The Slap be read as supporting, challenging or subverting a capitalist agenda?
      • What implications does this have for how The Slap might be perceived as representing Australian culture?

See here for resources about class readings.

  • Feminist reading
    India Knight, a columnist with the UK newspaper the Sunday Times, has criticised the novel for being ‘unbelievably misogynist’ in her column. Students should read Sinead Gleeson’s response to Knight:

[The Slap] has been hugely divisive. Some think it brilliant and relevant, others (like India Knight) dismiss it as “unbelievably misogynist”. It’s a book populated by cheating husbands, dysfunctional relationships and casual racism. Even the women refer to themselves as sluts. There is a lot of sex, much of it unfeeling, aggressive and there is an underlying tone of menace directed at several of the female characters. But it’s a book. And Tsiolkas is not a misogynist. He’s a sincere, intelligent, gay man who has been with his partner for 25 years. Do people automatically blur the lines between authorial reality and fictional viewpoint? Does writing about misogynists make him a de facto misogynist? (I don’t think it does). And why do so many people have such disparate views on the novel?  

Students should examine the roles and construction of male and female characters in the novel. While many female characters can be considered strong, are they celebrated within the novel? For example, Koula holds considerable sway over her son but is arguable represented in a negative light. She is also denied a real voice in the text, developed mostly through her husband’s chapter. Anouk is strong and independent and resists traditional roles for women, but her soap-opera storyline about a female student seducing her teacher might be seen as anti-feminist and she experiences the patriarchy in her conflict with the studio bosses. Rosie calls herself a slut and wonders whether she should perform as women do in pornographic films, and arguably her obsessive parenting of Hugo is a somewhat misguided attempt to atone, as she sees it, for her promiscuous past. Aisha, too, represents a conflicted version of womanhood. She is a wife, mother and very successful career woman yet her view of her own adultery and her reasons for staying with Hector – largely because she likes how other women perceive them as an attractive couple – may seem at odds with a feminist agenda. Does this make her admirable or an object of criticism for a feminist reader? Construct a table that identifies the reasons for which a character might be read as reinforcing the patriarchy or challenging it. Students may wish to survey other readers of the novel to gain a wider range of responses to the representation of the feminine in the novel.

    • How do students respond to Gleeson’s question: “Does writing about misogynists make [Tsiolkas] a de facto misogynist?”
    • Bearing in mind its polyphonic nature, can The Slap be read as supporting, challenging or subverting a patriarchal agenda?
    • What implications does this have for how The Slap might be perceived as representing Australian culture?

See here for resources about feminist readings.

  • Masculinist and/or queer reading
    Penny Halliday explores the range of contemporary masculinities embodied in the novel in her paper. There has been some criticism of the overt and often crude masculinity portrayed by many of the male characters as being, ultimately, misogynistic. Halliday instead suggests that these male characters instead represent the anxiety of the modern male. In a post-feminist world, males care seen by some as conflicted in terms of society’s expectations of how to behave. Halliday suggests these men engage in ‘la perruque’: performing an alternative act to that which might be expected or accepted in a particular context. Because of a perceived powerlessness in contemporary times, male characters are perhaps asserting their masculinity by demonstrating power in alternate ways, such as Hector’s affair with his successful wife’s employee, or Harry’s abuse of his employees. Students should critically analyse Halliday’s readings of the male characters in light of their understanding of masculinism.*An accessible article on post-feminist masculinism can be found here.

    Mandy Treagus offers a further perspective on masculinity in the novel, suggesting that, while not perhaps as overtly queer as Tsiolkas’ other novels, it nevertheless destabilises heteronormativity by portraying the dysfunction embedded within the heterosexual relationships, from Manolis and Koula through to, particularly, Hector and Aisha’s sado-masochistic ‘reunion’ in Bali. As an alternative, students could debate the representation of heteronormativity in the novel. In addition, consider the role of Ritchie in advancing queer politics. His section – which, significantly, closes the novel – is perhaps the one that ends with the most positivity. His journey is not without tragedy – in particular his suicide attempt which highlights the high correlation of sexual identity issues in male suicide statistics. However his relationship is developed, argues Treagus, in a far more conventional manner than even Connie, despite it’s same-sex nature and offers more promise than others. In comparing Ritchie’s story with other characters, and considering its position as the final chapter, students should evaluate whether Tsiolkas does destabilise heternormativity and advance a queer dialectic.

      • How do students respond to the arguments presented by either of the above texts?
      • Bearing in mind its polyphonic nature, can The Slap be read as supporting, challenging or subverting contemporary ideologies surrounding masculinity?
      • What implications does this have for how The Slap might be perceived as representing Australian culture?

See here for resources about masculinist and queer readings.

  • New historicist/cultural studies reading
    In an interview with Professor Nikos Papastergiadis (School of Culture and Communication, The University of Melbourne, Tsiolkas suggests that the ‘real’ slap within the novel is when Bilal, the Aboriginal character, tells Rosie, who is white:”I don’t think you’re any good, Rosie. Sorry, it’s just your mob. You’ve got bad blood. We’ve escaped your lot, me and my Sammi” (p. 340). Significant conflict in the novel arises between cultures, and not just between Aboriginal and Anglo culture. Hector marrying a woman of Indian extraction, Bilal’s conversion to Islam and the migrant experiences of Manolis’ friends and family are all significant points of tension. Tsiolkas draws significantly on his own Greek heritage inThe Slap, and indeed much of his work. In the interview, Tsiolkas is quoted as saying “I had to put my Greekness into the book” because he saw the same flaws within his own migrant culture as he saw in other aspects of Australian culture. Students should engage in critical analysis of the intercultural relations within the novel and the politics of the Howard era in which it is set, which was seen to embody a “right-wing backlash against the multiculturalism of the previous Labor governments” (Treagus, 2012). Furthermore, the other criticisms Tsiolkas makes within his novel should be considered through a cultural lens: do the conflicts transcend cultural boundaries? Are only the flawed aspects of Australian culture truly multicultural?

Tsiolkas offers further insight into the politics of The Slap in this interview at Crikey.

    • How do students respond to Tsiolkas’s statement that he wanted to “deliver a slap to a culture that had made me sick”?
    • Bearing in mind its polyphonic nature, can The Slap be read as representative of the politics and culture of the Howard era?
    • What implications does this have for how The Slap might be perceived as representing Australian culture?

See here for resources on new historicist/cultural studies readings.

Interview – comparing the novel and its television adaptation

Students should view the episode from the television mini-series of The Slap relating to the chapter they studied closely. As they do so, make note of the changes they can detect between the two versions. Some are minor – for example in the television version, Hector invites Connie to the barbecue, rather than Aisha. Some, however, are quite significant: in the television version Anouk’s episode ends with Rhys finding out that she terminated her pregnancy and walking out on her, devastated. This, arguably, positions viewers quite differently to the novel version, where Anouk comes home and begins working on her novel, with Rhys none the wiser.

In pairs, students should script and role-play a conversation between Tsiolkas and Penny Chapman, the Executive Producer of the Australian television adaptation. In the conversation, students should discuss the reasons underpinning the variations between novel and mini-series, considering such factors as:

  • limitations and/or possibilities of each genre;
  • likely audience reactions;
  • censorship;
  • the ABC’s Mission Statement, specifically the points stating the ABC will:
      • inform, entertain and contribute to a sense of national identity,
      • reflect Australia’s regional and cultural diversity, and
      • contribute to public debate concerning issues and matters of importance to Australians.

*The ABC’s mission statement can be found here.

*In February 2015, the US adaptation of the ABC television mini-series will air. This could potentially provide rich fodder for understanding the representation of Australian cultural identity by comparing the original with its American translation.

If desired, this interview activity could be used as an assessment task to address the following aspects of the Literature Unit 3 syllabus:

  • Evaluate and reflect on how representations of culture and identity vary in different texts and forms of texts including:
      • the impact of the use of literary conventions and stylistic techniques (ACELR042)
      • the effectiveness of specific literary conventions in texts, for example, the use of iambic pentameter, stream-of-consciousness, flashbacks, chorus (ACELR043)
      • the ways in which language, structural and stylistic choices communicate values and attitudes and shed new light on familiar ideas. (ACELR044)

 

Rich assessment task

Creative production – the silenced voice

Ask students to imagine that Tsiolkas had written an eighth chapter, focusing on one of the other characters intimately involved with the situation, such as Gary (Hugo’s father and Rosie’s husband), Sandi (Harry’s wife) or Elisavet (Hector’s sister). Tsiolkas’ editor, however, felt that the novel would be more successful without this particular perspective and encouraged him to leave it out of the final manuscript.

Students should write a treatment for the excised chapter, providing a plot summary and statement of intent for its purpose, of about 300 words. The statement of intent should outline what they, as Tsiolkas, were trying to achieve in this chapter, by providing another voice through which to explore themes and cultural representations. There should be the intention of developing something unique within this character’s perspective.

They should then write a section of the chapter, focusing on a single scene of about 1200 words. In doing so, they should draw on their knowledge of the narrative genre – particularly Tsiolkas’ use of narrative techniques – and employ a range of literary devices for particular purposes and effects, particularly in terms of adapting Tsiolkas’ style and establishing an individual character voice. This should clearly align with their statement of intent and plot outline of the whole chapter.

As a form of reviewing their own work, students should then write a letter or email from the perspective of Tsiolkas’ editor, offering a reasoned explanation as to why this particular perspective is best omitted in the context of the novel as a whole. In doing so, students should reveal their understanding of the intents and likely effects on readers ofThe Slap, as well as considering the purpose and effects of the silencing of particular character’s voices within its polyphonic structure.
(ACELR037)   (ACELR039)   (ACELR049)   (ACELR050)   (ACELR051)   (ACELR052)

An example assessment task sheet and rubric can be found here (PDF, 246KB).

Informed reactions

Talk-back with Tsiolkas

Encourage students to reflect on earlier activities exploring morality within the text. Ask students to revise their initial position on morality in the novel in light of their close study of the text, particularly in considering the impact of polyphony.

  • Repeat the ‘moral minefield’ activity to examine whether any of the students have changed their opinion.
  • Revise the ‘developing a thesis statement’ activity on whether the blurred lines of morality are the novel’s strength. Would any student alter their position?

In this interview with Geraldine Doogue on Compass, Tsiolkas reveals his view regarding morality in The Slap.

GD: So, are most of the characters searching for a new moral compass?
CT: I think certainly most of the characters, with the exception of the old Greek man, possibly but even there, are rudderless.
GD: Rudderless?
CT: Yeah. They are morally at sea. And again with the exception I think, of the old man and the younger kids, they also have an incredible sense of entitlement, which I think is a generational change.
In writing
The Slap, it seems to me for the novel to work I had to be really honest with myself. The betrayals, the disloyalties, the lack of courage, the moral prevarication that has occurred in my life and that I think is part of negotiating the contemporary world. I’m part of that and I think I’m probably very hard on these characters because I know them so well. And I think we are, my generation is guilty of a failure to be humble. A failure to examine itself.
GD: Lack of humility?
CT: A complete lack of humility and an incredible self-righteousness. When people have said, “Oh, I don’t like your characters in
The Slap. They’re so selfish.” It’s like, “Have you read John Updike? Oh my God, have you read The Illiad?” Moral absolutes, moral certainties, moral, we live in moral confusion. That’s what I’m writing about.

Students should draft a script of how they would respond to this assertion were they to call in to the show. Their script should demonstrate:

  • a critical understanding of the representation of morality constructed in the novel,
  • their personal response to both this representation and Tsiolkas’ assertion that his characters are ‘rudderless’,
  • an informed opinion on whether contemporary Australian culture suffers from a lack of a moral compass.

Practice extended writing

In preparation for future assessments such as examinations, students may wish to practise responding in essay format to one or more of the following questions, adapted from resources provided in the ‘more digital resources’ tab.

  • How far do you think that the privet-fenced, ‘zombie suburbia’ as one character describes it, is an analogy for contemporary Australia? (Man Booker Reading Guide)
  • “Discomfort is sometimes what is most precious to me about great art,” Tsiolkas recently told an interviewer. To what extent did you find The Slap an uncomfortable read? (Man Booker Reading Guide)
  • An interesting element of [Tsiolkas’] narrative structure is that these very disparate and sometimes at–odds characters tend to view one another very similarly. For instance, there’s a widely held consensus that Hector is vain, Harry is violent, and Gary is a drunk. [Is he] suggesting that there are certain universal truths about people? (Penguin Discussion Guide)
  • Rosie, with her indulgent parenting, self–righteousness, and inability to confront reality, is perhaps the least likable of all of the characters here, yet [Tsiolkas] manages to evoke the reader’s sympathies once we can finally step into her point of view. How, as a writer, [does he] manage to make a difficult and flawed character sympathetic? (Penguin Discussion Guide)
  • Richie hovers outside much of the action of the book as an outsider character, yet the slap, we later find in the final chapter, probably affects him most dramatically. Why did [Tsiolkas] choose to end the book with him? (Penguin Discussion Guide)
  • When Aisha and Hector hit a bump in their marriage, Aisha has an epiphany: “Love, at its core, was negotiation, the surrender of two individuals to the messy, banal domestic realities of sharing a life together.” How does this theme play out among other relationships in the book? (Penguin Discussion Guide)
  • The anger in The Slap is quite confronting – so many of the characters are wracked by frustrations and ready to snap. Do you think this is an endemic problem of Australia’s middle class? (Chalk and Talk Discussion Questions)

Themes – revising the fishbowl discussions

Return to the statements produced during the fishbowl discussions on themes earlier in the novel study. Using different groups, repeat these discussions to revise the statements produced. As part of the discussion, students should examine why any revisions have occurred, such as the result of wider reading, critical analysis, participation in exercises where they adopted characters’ personae, exposure to others’ opinions and so forth. Students should write a final entry in their journal outlining their understanding of a major theme or themes in the novel and the factors that led to this final understanding.

 

Rich assessment task

Tsiolkas on Trial – group oral production

Imagine that Tsiolkas has been put on trial for defaming Australia on the international stage with his critical representation of Australian culture in The Slap.

Divide the class into two groups. Then divide each group into two teams: one will prepare the case for the defence and one will prepare the case for the prosecution. The four teams will operate independently of each other, although the rules of discovery will apply. If one person finds a resource to use, it must be shared with the opposing team.

Important cases often involve teams of barristers who each make arguments at different points in the trial. Several students may take on such a role within each team, while others may wish to take on different roles such as expert witnesses.
During the presentations, one group will act as the jury for the other, deciding the case based on the merits of each team’s argument.
In preparing their cases, students will need to draw together:

  • their critical understanding of the text, particularly in evaluating its representation of Australian cultural identity;
  • the arguments and responses surrounding the text in the public domain;
  • their understanding of the use of polyphony as a strategy to mediate narrative perspective;
  • their understanding of the ways in which language, structural and stylistic choices communicate values and attitudes, positioning both Australians and the wider world;
  • their understanding of Australian cultural identity and how a text may operate within that.

In addition, they will need to demonstrate their skills in:

  • articulating a critical and informed response to the text, using appropriate metalanguage;
  • evaluating their own and others’ ideas and points of view using logic and evidence;
  • experimenting with content, form, style, language within the medium of verbal argument;
  • adapting literary conventions for specific audiences, challenging conventions and reinterpreting ideas and perspectives.

In their roles as jury members, students will also evaluate the ways in which their peers used language and content to position an audience.
This is a complex and rich task that addresses many of the content descriptors for Unit 3 Literature. Teachers may not wish to assess all of the following:
(ACELR037)   (ACELR038)   (ACELR039)   (ACELR040)   (ACELR042)   (ACELR043)   (ACELR045)  (ACELR046)   (ACELR047)   (ACELR048)   (ACELR052)

An example assessment task sheet and rubric can be found here (PDF, 228KB).