Major Essay Prompt

For your major paper, you may answer one of the following questions, or you may choose to focus on another topic that is of interest to you.  Keep in mind that you must reference three critical sources in your paper.  This means you will be either paraphrasing or quoting the language of each critic you have read at some point in your essay.  You may choose to disagree with the critics’ arguments or you may use their arguments as support for your position.  But you will not simply be reiterating their views in this paper; your aim should be to use the outside sources as a springboard for your own interpretation.

1. The literary critic Lionel Trilling said the following about E.M. Forster:

Forster’s plots are always sharp and definite for he expresses difference by means of struggle and struggle by means of open conflict so intense as to flare into melodrama and even physical violence.  Across each of his novels runs a barricade: the opposed forces on    each side are Good and Evil in the forms of Life and Death, Light and Darkness, Fertility and Sterility, Courage and Respectability, Intelligence and Stupidity—all the great absolutes that are so dull when discussed in themselves.  The comic manner, however, will not tolerate absolutes; it stands on the barricades and casts doubt on both sides.  The fierce plots move forward to grand simplicities but the comic manner confuses the issue, forcing upon us the difficulties and complications of the moral fact (“E.M. Forster”  Kenyon Review 164).

Do you agree with this assessment?  Does Forster’s “comic manner” challenge moral absolutes?  What “difficulties and complications” does A Room with a View force upon us?  In what ways does Forster qualify or call into question the seemingly simple message of the text?

2.. A Room with a View seems to offer a challenge to many traditions and attitudes leftover from the Victorian era: church doctrine, class hierarchies, social conventions. But does it offer a possible vision to replace the world that it rejects? How would you characterize the politics of the book?  What kind of society does it imagine?

3.Time is obviously a central preoccupation for Virginia Woolf. What is she trying to suggest about the way we experience the passage of time, and how do her stylistic or narrative strategies allow her to capture that experience?

4. According to the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, the central problem of Woolf’s fiction is how we can ever have knowledge of another person’s inner thoughts—how can escape the isolation of our own minds. Speaking about the novel To the Lighthouse, she writes: “The mysterious grand problem of other minds thus has, here a mundane humble tentative answer or rather answers, whose meaning can only be grasped in the context of a narrative as complex as this novel; by working patiently to defeat shame, selfish anxiety, and the desire for power, it is sometimes possible for some people to get knowledge of one thing or another thing about some other people; and they can sometimes allow one thing or another thing about themselves to be known.” Does Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, in your view, teach us how we might better know each other?  Does she demonstrate this kind of knowledge, knowledge of the individual’s private mind?  How so?  If Woolf offers a more complete picture of inner subjective experience than other novels, what is unique about her techniques? Please give some concrete examples from the book.

5. About Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, fellow African American novelist Richard Wright, commented:

Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theatre, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the “white folks” laugh. Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears.

Would you agree with this evaluation?  Why or why not?  Wright also stated that Hurston’s novel lacks a basic idea or theme.  Does this strike you as a fair response?  If you disagree with Wright and believe that Their Eyes Were Watching God is a serious novel, what makes it serious?

6. According to Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, “What most people don’t understand is that the adjective ‘Great’ in the title was meant laconically.  There’s nothing genuinely great about Gatsby. He’s a poignant phony. Owing to the money-addled society we live in, people have lost the irony of Fitzgerald’s title. So the movies [of The Great Gatsby] become complicit in the excessively materialistic culture that the novel set out to criticize.”  Do you agree with Wieseltier’s assessment?  Does Fitzgerald mean “great” to be taken ironically? If so, what exactly in modern American society is he satirizing? Or does Fitzgerald suggest that there is something great about Gatsby?  If so, what is it?  If so, is Gatsby a reflection of certain tendencies in 20th-century America?  What are those tendencies?  And what is great about them?

7. Focusing on any one of the four authors we are examining, explain whether you think his/her work espouses a feminist or an anti-feminist stance. Does the text appear to celebrate those actions which further independence and empowerment for women? What kind of depiction does it offer of its female characters?

8. Again, focusing on any one of the four authors we are examining, what makes that author’s text modern? How does the text demonstrate an awareness of the newness, the novelty, of its historical moment? Does the text break with tradition?  How so?  In answering this question, please consider both the themes explored and the styles employed by the author in question.

6-8 pages double-spaced (not including Works Cited). Due August 17.