Valentine's Day is a polarizing holiday-- people either love it or hate it. But no matter how you feel about the holiday, Valentine's Day provides an opportunity for students to focus on the most powerful emotion behind literature and art: LOVE. At the high school level, it is important that we maintain the rigor of close reading and analysis while also keeping students engaged. I had this in mind when I created this Valentine's Day lesson to assess how rhetorical and literary devices can be used to convey various points of view about love through the context of famous love letters.
Not long ago, I came across a famous love letter written by Napoleon Bonaparte to his wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais. Their relationship was passionate, often plagued with jealousy-- some would even argue obsessive. I think Napoleon's love letters to Josephine reveal the paradoxical nature of love. Sometimes he would write to tell her how much he loved her; other times, he would write to tell her how much he hated her. In similar fashion to Henry VIII, Napoleon ultimately divorced Josephine because she could not produce an heir; however, Josephine's name was his last word while he lay dying.
As I read these letters, I was captivated by the passion of their love but also by the language that so vividly captured the essence of their relationship. Some of these captivating lines include:
“I hope before long to crush you in my arms and cover you with a million kisses burning as though beneath the equator."
“Your tears rob me of reason, and inflame my blood. Believe me it is not in my power to have a single thought which is not of thee, or a wish I could not reveal to thee.”
“I write you, me beloved one, very often, and you write very little. You are wicked and naughty, very naughty, as much as you are fickle. It is unfaithful so to deceive a poor husband, a tender lover!”
“You don’t write to me at all; you don’t love your husband; you know how happy your letters make him, and you don’t write him six lines of nonsense…”
"The veil is torn…It is sad when one and the same heart is torn by such conflicting feelings for one person… I need to be alone. I am tired of grandeur; all my feelings have dried up. I no longer care about my glory. At twenty-nine I have exhausted everything."
Such letters as these inspired me to create the Famous Love Letters Rhetorical Analysis Lesson in which students analyze TEN famous love letters and make observations about how the writers use language, literary + rhetorical devices, and imagery to convey messages about love. In this lesson, students are to:
1. Research the relationship of the famous person who wrote the letter, read each love letter, and then answer the three close reading questions for each one.
2. Synthesize their findings by debating which love letter is the most effective in communicating its message about love. Students will fill out the "Famous Love Letters" Debate Guide for their selected love letter and discuss their selections with the class.
3. Use the "Love Letter Task Cards" to write their own original love letters and write an explication paragraph in which they explain how they use devices to communicate a thematic message about love.
After writing their own original love letters, students can give them to a friend, or you may opt to have students do a "blind swap" in class. As an extension activity, students can analyze the language, literary devices, and imagery of their classmates' love letters.
You can also consider providing craft supplies for your students to decorate their love letters, and they can hang them around the room or display them on a bulletin board to celebrate Valentine's Day during the month of February.
The Famous Love Letters Rhetorical Analysis Activity is one that can be used throughout the school year and not just around Valentine's Day. It's a high interest way to assess close reading skills, rhetorical analysis, and application to writing. You can find the Famous Love Letters Rhetorical Analysis Activity by clicking here.
About the Author
Meredith is the founder and creator of TeachWriting.org and Bespoke ELA. She has taught high school English for 10+ years in Dallas, Chicago, and New York City and holds a M.A. in Literature from Northwestern University. She has always had a connection to the written word-- through songwriting, screenplay writing, and essay writing-- and she enjoys the process of teaching students how to express their ideas. Meredith enjoys life with her husband, daughter, and sweet pups.