Second essay: topics

1400 words, worth 30% of your mark, and due in class on November 17, 2011. Late essays will lose 2% a day, including both days of the weekend. Although email was a convenient way to submit first essays during the October holidays, soft copies will not be accepted this time around. Please arrange to produce and deliver a hard copy of your essay.

Whereas the first essay provided you with a venue, now it is up to you to narrow the breadth of a book into manageable venues. Do not try to be comprehensive; there is not space to cover everything. Rather, choose a few rich scenes and close read them with an issue/problem in mind. How do the particular formal elements in each scene influence your understanding of the issue/problem you are investigating? Since each venue will have a unique formal composition, then what does venue b reveal that venue a cannot? Doing justice to the words themselves is once again of primary importance, only now your close reading skills will need to be sustained over the course of a longer paper. Those skills are using evidence, slowing down, spending time, and being specific.

All papers require MLA formatting and citation (7th ed).


1. Just who is Frederick Douglass? Make an argument about Douglass’s narrator and what we might call his plural forms of self-presentation. Pay particular attention to the ironies and even paradoxes of his personae. Avoid simply cataloguing ironies. Instead, question and put pressure on a select few of them.

2. What are the benefits and limitations of the fragment in Ruth Hall? While it is obvious that the vignettes in first half of the novel restrict Ruth’s self-expression, what does the fragment offer Fanny Fern in the second half? When does a vignette amplify ambiguity, and why? When does a vignette taunt you, and why? What if fragmentation simply means broken and isolated?

3. Spend time with a few examples of the entertaining and obfuscating qualities of the narrative voice in either Ruth Hall or Pudd’nhead Wilson. When do the methods of storytelling outweigh the contents of the story? In other words, why is the how greater than the what? Why are we forced to savor certain events, and conversely what are we being lured away from?

4. Make an argument about how nature or the natural is constructed in Douglass, Fern, or Twain: does natural overlap with proper, what does natural oppose, how is this opposition conveyed, what values are placed on each side, and by whom? Stick to the text’s own terms. You might want to consider how Douglass represents his masters and overseers, or how Fern talks about love and sorrow, or how Twain is concerned with legacies and reputations.

5. Using either “Song of Myself” or Whitman’s preface to Leaves of Grass (5-24), make an argument about how figurative language (metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche) interacts with non-figurative or “pointing” language (words like “now,” “here,” “there,” “I,” “you,” and “it”).


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