Category Archives: Essay writing

Second essay: form & content

Always write about form & content:
what is their relationship
how do they interact
when are they complementary
when are they opposed
how are they dynamic

What happens when Whitman writes a short line?
How does the haunted house influence the mood or genre of Pudd’nhead?
What is the role of the parody at the end of Douglass’ Narrative?
Why do so many letters get reproduced in Ruth Hall?

and of course:

How would the word “regal” affect my talking about a doughnut?
If I addressed the doughnut, “O noble doughnut!”?


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Second essay: quotations

What not to do:

The narrator introduces himself, “I am a rather elderly man” (641), and then sets up his tale of Bartleby. “I believe that no materials exist for a full and satisfactory biography of this man” (641). The narrator is prone to speaking around his subject, as “But this is by the way” (642). It is difficult to bring Bartleby into focus.

–> These sentences move on too quickly and assume that a quotation speaks for itself. The second quotation is neither set up by nor integrated into your own sentence; it has been left hanging in space.

–> Below is a more effective way to set up, integrate, and comment on quotations. Notice that right after the long first quotation, I return to the actual words of that quotation, and interpret what I see there.

What to do:

The narrator begins by declaring that his age goes hand in hand with his wisdom and special knowledge: “I am a rather elderly man. The nature of my avocations for the last thirty years has brought me into more than ordinary contact with what would seem an interesting and somewhat singular set of men, of whom as yet nothing that I know of has ever been written:—I mean the law-copyists or scriveners” (641). His “more than ordinary contact” with this “singular set of men” doubles the exceptional nature of his tale because both he and his subjects are beyond the ordinary and the common. Bartleby, then, triples the exceptionalism, but also introduces uncertainty into the narrator’s set up: “I believe that no materials exist for a full and satisfactory biography of this man” (641). The lawyer, then, goes on to trade an empty biography for a “satisfactory” one—his own.

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Second essay: remember

Essay prompts are not short answer questions. Your thesis needs to be more than a restatement of the essay question. You’re not arguing that Douglass wears a variety of masks in his Narrative; I’ve already supplied you with that in the essay question.

With a prompt in mind, locate a few scenes in the book that fit well with that prompt.

Scene = a character’s meditation, dialogue between characters, the unfolding of an event, realistic description, a narrative unit of some sort. Douglass’ apostrophe to the sail counts as a scene. The odd six-page phrenological examination of Ruth Hall also counts.

Unpack the language of these scenes and determine how one is different from the other. (They are written with different words so they ought to be different.) What do the particular arrangements of literary elements in scene x produce? What about scene y? Always focus on form: metaphor, irony, ambiguity, diction, tone, point of view, narrative context.

You did this so well on the quiz. People talked about ominous moods, spectatorship, Rip’s struggle for control, Rip’s exclusion from the group. These are interpretative statements based on close reading. You could say these things only because you could back them up with textual evidence!

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Second essay: lines of attack

Question 1) The trajectory of Douglass’ Narrative goes from slavery to emancipation, from unthinking to thinking, from lack of self to self-assertion. At different points along this trajectory, how does Douglass choose to represent himself? As masculine? Unexceptional? Prophet? Husband? Overcome with anger? Mischievous? What does he emphasize? What does he minimize? What are the effects of these shifting self-presentations, and how do they complicate the narrative trajectory? Be counterintuitive, but rely on the details.

Question 2) To talk about the fragment is to talk about the novel’s structure (the book is written in vignettes). So, how does structure affect content? What does the novel’s loyalty to the vignette prevent or restrict Fern from representing? Or, how flexible is the fragment? What sorts of things is it good at revealing? Be clear about how you are using the term “fragment,” what forms it takes, and then what are the consequences of the fragment on an issue like self-assertion, the conditions for sympathy, etc.

Question 3) First thing you’ll want to do is understand the difference between the author and the narrator, and then the difference between the narrator and the characters. Sometimes the narrative voice aligns with a character’s voice, but there are also highly stylized passages where a particular character’s perspective or consciousness is overwhelmed by the narrator. Why? What does style have to do with this story about identity and technology?

Question 4) Admit that natural does not equal natural. What is agreed upon culturally as natural pits itself against unnatural, transgressive, or deviant actions and ideas. Locate the mouthpieces of these ideas. What is presumed to be elemental and untouchable? What beliefs act as anchors against so much turmoil? Where is there room for challenging definitions? Are there ever agreements?

Question 5) According to Abrams, deictics are “words and phrases . . . whose reference depends on the particular speaker and his or her position in place and time.” They “constantly shift and merge” (180). Whitman is trying to sync up his writing with your reading, so that the both of you meet and merge on the same temporal plane. That’s the intention, anyway. How successful is this strategy when we take into consideration metaphor, simile, and synecdoche? Does figurative language get in the way?

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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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Using evidence: “pick” and “choose” the relevant bits from Poe’s sentences and incorporate those bits into your own sentence.

Example: The “intimate” relationship Pym has with Augustus is contrasted with the more formal, legal, and posthumous relationship Pym will have with his grandfather: “I expected to inherit the most of his property at his death” (7).

Do not simply quote full two sentences and assume that they speak for themselves. Poe needs you to set up his words, yield to his words, and then comment on his words. These words are silent without you, critics.


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Question four

With a revamped first sentence in the service of clarity:

On the island of Tsalal, Poe foregrounds the ironic gap between signifier/signified, action/intention, and appearance/reality. Sometimes Pym registers an irony and sometimes he patches up an irony. Examine the anthropological observations in chapter 19 and compose an argument about why Pym is given to do both. What does he allow himself to see? What does he dismiss or not fully see? What adds up and what does not?

Signifier = word (ie. “tree”)

Signified = concept behind the word (ie. organic thing with branches and leaves)

Patches up = smooths over a discrepancy so that an irony is squelched or not registered.


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