of British Literature: Beginnings to 1789
Joy (Fall 2007)
For your critical essay--a CLOSE READING/LITERARY ANALYSIS exercise--choose one
of the following options (covering Gawain and the Green Knight through Paradise Lost), and write a paper of approximately 4-5 typed (double-spaced)
- Explore why
Gawain is ultimately being tested by Bercilak and his household--what lesson
(or lessons) does he learn that deepens his understanding of himself and his
society (the Arthurian court/the world of knights)? This will also entail
demonstrating to your reader exactly how he is tested (and you might
contemplate the ways in which the methods of testing him "fit,"
or do not "fit," the supposed "lesson").
- Explore Gawain's
supposed "failure" as a knight, and perhaps, also, as a "man"
(whatever you might think "being a man" might mean)--how does he
"fail," exactly, and why does it matter in relation to the world
that he lives in? Or, conversely, argue that Gawain doesn't actually fail
- Using the text
of Gawain and the Green Knight as your "evidence," what
do you think the most important chivalrous value is according to the author
of this story? We know that chivalry, in general, incorporates a lot of different
(and sometimes, conflicting) values and principles, but based on what you
understand of this story, what seems to be the one principle that appears
to sit at the top of the list?
- If heroic quest
stories usually follow a pattern whereby 1) the hero leaves his society
to "get lost" in the wilderness, 2) perhaps even descends
into hell or the underworld, 3) encounters the supernatural, 4)
is tested and tempted, 5) plays the hunter and the hunted, and 6)
finally returns home utterly transformed and changed by his experience, then
what kind of transformation has Gawain ultimately undergone in Book I, and
how did his experiences contribute to his re-shaping?
- With reference
to Gawain and the Green Knight, but also your more modern understanding
and experience, what do you think it means to be a "good person"?
- Who, or what,
do you think is ultimately to blame for the tragic chain of events that leads
to the downfall of Titus and his family in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus?
[Please remember to not go for the overly simplistic argument: Titus should have never sacrificed Tamora's son, and then leave it at that, nor resort to simply recounting the plot details of who did what to whom. This question is asking you to probe deeper than that to the underlying motives and causes of the play's events.]
- Explore the
subject of "evil" in Titus Andronicus--there are many characters
in this play who are often depicted as being "evil": Tamora and
her sons, the emperor Saturnius, and especially Aaron the Moor. Does evil
exist, and if so, how would you define it, and how would you describe the
way it works through particular characters and events in the play? Conversely,
perhaps you don't believe there is such a thing as evil, or people who are
100% evil--if so, make that argument with reference to particular characters
and events in the play.
- Make an argument
that it is possible to sympathize with a character in Titus Andronicus
who is typically viewed as a "bad" character--Tamora, let's say,
or Aaron the Moor.
- With reference
to Titus Andronicus, make the argument that revenge either IS justifed
in certain circumstances, or is NEVER justifed. [Another way of framing this
question might be: is violence ever justified?]
- At the end
of Titus Andronicus, only one of Titus's sons is still alive--Lucius--as
well as his grandson (let's call him Lucius, Jr.). Is there anything these
two can learn from the tragic story of their family and country? Is there
anything that we, in the present, can also learn from this story about our
- In his book
Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud wrote that "men
are not gentle creatures, who want to be loved, who at the most can defend
themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among
whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness.
As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual
object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on
him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually
without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause
him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus [man is wolf
to man]." Argue that Freud's sentiments here are either true or not true
with regard to Shakespeare's play King Lear.
- Is it possible
to sympathize with the character of Edmund in King Lear, and why
or why not?
- Is it possible
to sympathize with Goneril and Regan in King Lear, and why or why
- If we forget for a moment that the supposed "real" tragic hero of King Lear is Lear himself, and if we follow the definition of heroism that says a hero is "a person who exhibits extraordinary bravery, firmness, fortitude, or greatness of soul, in any course of action," then who is the hero of King Lear?
- At one point
in King Lear, Lear tells Cordelia, "Nothing will come of nothing,"
and the word "nothing" shows up a lot throughout the text. Argue,
with reference to specific actions and events throughout the play, that this
statement of Lear's defines the meaning of the entire play. [You will, of
course, have to decide for yourself what you think Lear means when he says
this initially, and also consider how the statement might possess different
levels of meaning at different points in the play. Finally, what it means
to Lear may be different than what it means to the Fool or to you, the reader-interpreter
of the play.]
- At the end
of the play Edgar laments, "The weight of this sad time we must obey;
/ Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say." Write an essay in which
you explain Edgar's statements here, with specific reference to the events of
the play itself. Do you agree with him, and why or why not?
- If King
Lear is a play that teaches a political lesson, what is that political
lesson, exactly, and does it have any relevance to our own times?
- How does the relationship between Adam and Eve, in Milton's Paradise Lost (Books IV and IX) change after they have eaten the apple? Who were they to each other before that incident? And after? And related to this change, what do you think Milton was trying to tell us about innocence and sin in relation to sex and marriage?
- Based on the depiction of Eve in Books IV and IX of Paradise Lost, what do you think of Milton's attitude toward women within the poem?
- Why do you think Satan is ultimately successful in convincing Eve to eat the forbidden fruit in Milton's Paradise Lost?
- Examine how Adam reasons with himself why he should also eat the fruit [lines 896-959 of Paradise Lost, Book IX]--what are his reasons for and against it, why does he ultimately give in, and how do you judge his final action in relation to his words?
- YOUR OWN
TOPIC--if there is a topic that intrigues you that doesn't really fit
with any of the above, and you really want to strike out in a direction completely
of your own making, you may do so, BUT ONLY IF you run the topic by
me first (mainly so I can make sure that it is not too broad, and that it
will work well in a close reading).
(I would like
to note here that the following comprises some of own thinking, tips culled
from The Holt Handbook (6th ed.; pp. 723-26), and from Professors DeLombard's
and White's "Papers: Expectations, Guidelines, Advice and Grading,"
available online here.)
First, Please keep in mind that when I ask you to do a close reading
of a literary text in order to analyze its possible effects upon us as readers
and/or to interpret its possible messages, that you do not read to magically
discover the ONE correct meaning the author has supposedly hidden between the
lines. The "meaning" of a literary work is created by the interaction
between a text and its readers, and therefore, most works of literature can
convey many different meanings to different readers. Do not assume, however
that a work can mean whatever you want it to mean; ultimately, your interpretation
must be consistent with the stylistic signals, thematic suggestions, and patterns
of imagery in the text. Therefore, in a close reading, whatever observation
you want to to make about what you think the author/text is doing/saying, be
sure to ALWAYS support your interpretation with direct reference to the text
itself (both by providing brief summaries of key content and also by the use
of direct quotation).
some TIPS on how to go about doing a close, interpretive reading:
In order to become
a good interpreter of literature, you will have to make the important distinction
between summary and translation, on the one hand, and interpretation or analysis,
on the other. When you summarize, you repeat what the text actually says; when
you translate, you explain to your audience in some detail many of the points
an astute reader would reach on his or her own -- think of translating
something from French into English for a person who speaks both languages. Neither
summary nor translation is really a worthwhile endeavor in that neither tells
the reader anything he or she did not already know. By contrast, when you interpret
or analyze literature, you produce your own ideas about how the text
creates meaning. In order to produce these ideas, you will need to perform close
reading, to look closely at the language of the text in order to demonstrate
not just what you think the text means, but more importantly how
it means what you think it does. See the difference? It's an important one.
How, then, do
you go about interpreting and analyzing rather than merely summarizing or translating
the text and perform close readings of every passage you quote:
discuss in concrete and specific terms the words, metaphors, images, and/or
tone of the passage you are analyzing. What work does the passage you've
just quoted perform, and how does it perform that work? And remember,
the purpose of your close reading in each paragraph is to support the point
of that paragraph, which should be clearly articulated in the topic sentence.
out your close readings, then, your goal is always to do two things:
- to demonstrate
to your audience how you read the passage that you have quoted;
in other words, by paying close attention to the language of the text,
to explain how the passage means what you say it means
- to show
how your reading supports the larger point of the paragraph.
As you reread
your paper during revision, when you come to each quotation, ask
yourself: "Do I interpret the language of my quotations in detailed
and specific terms?" "Is it clear how my close readings support
the topic sentence of the paragraph, and thus the thesis of the paper?"
- The next rule
is as simple as it is helpful: always analyze literature in the present
tense. Because you are interpreting a given piece of literature in the
present rather than summarizing what "happened" in it, you should
always stick to the present tense when interpreting. Literature, indeed,
although written in the past, is still happening as you read and discuss
it, right? Historical background and biographical information should be discussed
in the past tense, but when writing about the literary text itself, stick
to the present, which will almost force you to interpret rather than summarize.
Summary and translation
reproduce what the text says. Persuasive interpretation says what the text means
by showing, through close reading, how the text means what you say it means.
Second, I expect to see a thesis near the beginning of your paper. In
other words, I want you to have some kind of argumentative
point you would like to make in relation to the topic you have chosen, and this
should not be a point that is SO OBVIOUS that it is not worth arguing because
no one would disagree with it. You want to strive to be a creative and original
as possible in your thinking. And this is also why, no matter which of the topics
above you choose, you will also need to narrow that topic down somewhat and
really sharpen it. So . . .
some TIPS on how to develop a good thesis:
paragraph should do two things: introduce your reader to your topic and
present your thesis. It is important to distinguish in your mind between
your topic -- what you will write about -- and your thesis -- what you
will argue or attempt to prove. A thesis may be defined as an
interpretation that you set forth in specific terms and propose to defend
or demonstrate by reasoned argumentation and literary analysis. Your thesis,
then, is the position that you are attempting to persuade your reader
Your thesis may
be more than one sentence long. If you have a good thesis, however, in most
cases you will be able to articulate it in one sentence. If you require two,
that's fine, so long as you make sure that the argument is coherent and that
the transition from the first to the second sentence is clear and effective.
consider this important hint: You do not need a refined thesis in order
to start writing. If you begin with a provisional thesis and then do
good and careful close readings, you will often find a version of your final
thesis in the last paragraph of a first draft. Integrate that version
into your first paragraph and revise from there. Do not worry too much about
your thesis, therefore, until after you've written out your close readings!
A good final thesis should emerge from, not precede, your analyses.
Below are five
steps that will help you work through the process of developing a strong thesis.
First, though, please think about these three guidelines:
- A good thesis
is specific, not general. Avoid all sweeping generalities, about human
beings, about poetry, about life, about anything "through the ages,"
etc. If you follow the five steps below, this should not be a problem.
- Your thesis
should matter to you, and you should be able to imagine that your thesis would
matter to any other member of our class. Does your thesis address important
issues that the course has raised? Does it pass the "Who cares?"
- Finally, your
thesis statement should give the reader some sense of what the structure
of your paper will be. If your thesis contains two or three parts, then your
reader will expect you to discuss those two or three parts in the order in
which you've given them in your thesis statement.
Now that you've
attentively read and considered these guidelines, here are five concrete steps
that you can take to develop a thesis and start writing the paper. Note that
we do not say "five easy steps." All of these steps require
work, especially the fourth.
- Reread the
text(s) you intend to discuss and take good, clear notes on passages that
seem particularly relevant to the assignment.
- Keeping the
topic in mind, look over these notes and then select the one specific thing
that grabs you the most, the one particular image or metaphor, or limited
set of images or metaphors, about which you feel in your gut that you have
the most to say.
- Next, using
your notes make a list of every instance of that image or metaphor, and then
from that list choose the two or three passages that call out most loudly
- Following my
suggestions on close reading above, write out your interpretations of the
instances that you've chosen, dedicating one rough paragraph to each. Remember,
your goal here is to say not just what you think your passages mean,
but rather to show how they mean what you think they mean. What work
do they perform, and how do they perform it?
- Finally, look
at what you've written and let your thesis emerge out of your interpretations,
out of your ideas concerning the work that your image or metaphor, or set
of images or metaphors, performs in your text(s).
- Give your paper
a creative, interesting title.
- Combine paraphrase,
summary, and quotation with your own interpretation, weaving quotations smoothly
into your paper.
- When citing
poetry, you always provide the line numbers (versus providing page
numbers from the book in question). For plays, you also provide acts and scenes
along with the line numbers (i.e., I.iv.29-31--you would do this with Titus
Andronicus or King Lear , for example.
- Avoid unnecessary
plot summary. Your goal is to draw a conclusion in relation to one of the
questions posed above (or to a question you develop yourself) and to support
that conclusion with pertinent details. When plot development supports a point
you want to make, then a very brief summary is acceptable. But plot
summary is NO substitute for analysis.
- A paper that
merely re-hashes ideas we have discussed in class, without adding anything
new to the conversation, will not be looked upon favorably. Here's another
way of stating this: I don't want to read papers in which students merely
mirror my interpretations. That bores me, and I'm not the kind of teacher
who needs to hear herself repeated in students' writing. On the other hand,
good class discussions are often productive of interesting insights into the
texts we read--the key is: go further than we went in class.
- Underline (or
italicize) titles of novels, plays, and long poems. Enclose titles of short
stories and poems with quotation marks.