When learning about point of view, students sometimes get lost in the vocabulary. Though many students can identify if a point of view is first person or third person omniscient, all too often their analysis stops there. I like my students to understand more about the author or speaker than simply how many of them there are; I prefer them to truly dig deep into a discussion of point of view.
I like to use “The Death of Benny Paret” to teach point of view because Mailer weaves his point of view through a complicated and beautiful web of metaphors and imagery. Though his writing is nonfiction, it reads like poetry at times, and the story he tells is just enough to leave students wanting to know more, which is always a good thing.
Begin this lesson by asking your students what they already know about point of view. You will probably get answers using that good ole’ POV vocabulary again, and that’s okay (for a start). Lead them to explore more by explaining that point of view is more than just an identification of how many people are speaking or how much that speaker knows. I like to explain point of view this way:
Point of view means the way a situation is viewed. When you identify point of view, consider the following –
1. Through whose eyes are you viewing this situation/scene/story?
2. What can you tell me about that person’s opinions, values, and beliefs?
3. How do you know that this speaker feels that way?
Tell students that they are going to read a newspaper article about a boxing match, and ask them to identify how the author feels about that match and the boxers involved. Remind them that they will need to back up their answers with textual evidence.
As you read the text with students, they should be able to identify Mailer’s feelings and biases. His pro-Paret stance should be obvious to them by the end of the activity. Have students create a two-column chart to fill in as they read. Column one should have the heading "Mailer thinks/feels …" and column two should read, "I know this because he says …". Have students identify Mailer’s opinions and feelings from the text, and give proper citations to back up their theories.
For example, a student might write:
Mailer thinks that Paret was a great boxer and seems to have a lot of respect for Paret. I know this because he said, "He went down more slowly than any fighter had ever gone down, he went down like a large ship which turns on end and slides second by second into its grave" in the last paragraph.
Later on, you can have them expand on this thought; for now, it’s enough to come up with a statement and an accompanying quotation.
There are so many things you can do with this piece. You can start by asking students to use their chart to compose a short writing assignment about Mailer’s point of view. They should now be able to expand on their earlier observations. For example, the student writing in my sample from the last section might conclude by adding, "Mailer’s comparison of Paret to a large ship shows that he thought Paret was strong and larger than life; his description of how long it took Paret to go down shows that Paret stood above and beyond other fighters. He writes about Paret with a reverent tone that displays the respect he had for the boxer."
This piece is full of imagery and metaphor, so you can always delve into a lesson on that. You can also ask students to research this fight online. There’s a lot of great background information on these fighters; also, Griffith’s string of murderous punches can be seen on YouTube, and students will feel as captivated by the visual as Mailer was at the original event.
There is also a documentary, "Ring of Fire," which was made about this fight.