Comprehending the Comprehensives

This page was last updated 6/4/2013

Follow the links below to skip to s specific section.

I. Introduction

II. Student Preface 1

III. Student Preface 2

IV. About the Exam

V. Advice from Readers

VI. Advice from Students

VII. Sample Essays


I. Introduction

As you all know, I hope, the Program is always concerned to be responsive to student perception and need. Indeed, much of the Program’s strength comes from the active involvement of students in all its aspects. In this spirit. Mark McBeth, attentive as he is to the importance of attending to process and to the varieties of learning experience, came up with the idea of having a guide of some kind for the Comprehensives. He began preparing last fall, first by informally canvassing those who had taken the Comprehensives in August, and then by designing a questionnaire which he distributed to them. The exam takers responded voluntarily, and this guide is a representative collection of those responses with accompanying sample essays from the exam. One of the things I hope that this sampling makes clear to all of you getting ready to take the Comps is that while study groups can be immensely useful and supportive, finally, each person shapes, in addition, his/her own method of study. It is very important to realize this. The strongest exams are those in which individual, not group, perception and interpretation are evident. In other words, certain kinds of things are profitably learned and discussed together. Other things, the selection of novels to be read, for example, or critical approaches to take should not be products of group activity. It is impossible for your essay to be thought original or particularly insightful when it is one of a number using the same novel or novels you have chosen to illustrate your variation on themes covered in your study group. I trust that this guide will work towards demystifying how to live, what to do in preparing for the Comps. That is a tremendous good, and I am very grateful to Mark and all the contributors. Joan Richardson Executive Officer (2003) Ph.D Program in English A quick note about this expanded version of Comprehending the Comprehensives: Thanks to the efforts of Charles Carroll and Julie Pranikoff, the traditional guide has now been supplemented by three additional sections: A few words of advice from professors who have served on the grading committee, narratives by students describing how they studied, and a few anonymous examples of actual comps essays. Enjoy!

Back to Top


II. Student Preface 1

I decided to prepare this document because it would fulfill something that I, at least, had wished for when studying for the comprehensive exams. Of course when I began preparing for the comps, I visited the library and read the old exams on reserve in the library; I asked some friends who had taken the test if I could read their essays; I even took gingko balboa (the “smart” herbal supplement) to increase any mental dexterity … but still something was missing. There was still something I didn’t know: How did these people study for the exams? What did they do before the test to prepare themselves for such a project? What does one need to do to get ready? Feeling like these were all important questions, I decided to ask my graduate colleagues who had already taken the exam if they would describe how they had readied themselves. I stopped people whose names I didn’t know, but whom I saw sitting in the testing room with me. I accosted friends at Jimmy’s reminding them of their collegial duties to their compatriots in the program. I cajoled and coerced everyone I could to respond to my questionnaire and to volunteer an essay. In the end, none of this external pressure on my part was necessary; people wanted to contribute. The content of this manual typifies the giving spirit of those people who had the kind-heartedness to share their work (and, yes, maybe the resolve to stop my textual harassment). My fellow grad students proved to have more than enough knowledge and know-how to successfully advise about taking the comprehensives. The manual is arranged with each contributor’s explanation of how he or she prepared for the exam preceded by the essay that he or she actually wrote for the exam. (The test question for each essay accompanies the author’s answer.) An effort was made to include at least one essay from each section of the Comprehensives. Having the opportunity to read the before, during and, often, after process of the comps will give test-takers a better sense of what is required. In Composition Theory, we talk a lot about student-based teaching practice and how this applies to our freshman composition classrooms. I hope that this manual demonstrates that these types of process-centered practices are useful at all levels of learning – from the elementary to the Ph.D level. Everyone needs assistance learning sometimes. As I read the process essays that people wrote, I imagined them to be very patient and careful instructors; their students are lucky. Moreover, I enjoyed putting this guide together because it was once again confirmed for me the quality of people in this program. It is risky sharing work that you don’t have an opportunity to rewrite or reconceive, but taking that risk offers those who will take the test in the future a helpful resource. Reading these unretouched exam essays and the reflective prefaces, one notices the intelligence and thoughtfulness these people invest into their work. Furthermore, and more importantly, they are generous and collegial with their ways of knowing. Not only are they fine scholars, but considerate colleagues as well. I feel privileged to be among them. Their efforts of cooperative learning and sharing are true signs of an intellectual community.

I want to thank all the contributors for their donations to this guide, and to wish good luck and productive studying to those who will take the exam in the future. Mark McBeth

Back to Top


III. Student Preface 2
When I was studying for my comprehensive exam, I found this booklet incredibly useful. The advice from students was interesting and reassuring, the advice from a reader was highly informative, and the sample exam answers showed me different approaches to the questions and facilitated many stimulating discussions in my study group. I certainly felt more prepared for the exam thanks to this booklet, and I am deeply grateful to those who created and worked on it before me. I thought, though, that the booklet might be easier to use if it were reorganized, so I scanned and formatted the pages, combined all student advice into one section, all exam answers into one section, and so on. I hope you find it helpful, and I welcome any suggestions for further revisions. Good luck! Alison Klein IV. About the Exam The First (“Comprehensive”) Examination – often referred to as “the Comps” – tests student reading skills, as well as the extent and particularity of students’ knowledge about the range of literature and criticism in English. All students, regardless of educational background, are required to take this exam at the end of their first year of study. This all-day exam is usually scheduled for the Friday of the third week in August; the APO will announce the exact exam date at least 4 months in advance. The examination consists of four sections (divided into two parts). Students arrive with the first section already prepared, they take the second and third sections in the morning (from 9:00 to noon), and section four in the afternoon (from 1:0 to 5:0), on a single day. Students will not be permitted to sit for the written examination if they do not bring Essay I-A (the “passport essay”) to the testing room. Results are available within three weeks and before each semester’s deadline for filing for a change in registration level. Information about examination dates is available in the office and is distributed via e-mail. Each examination is read by three members of the doctoral faculty, who award grades of pass or fail to each section of each part. When their judgment is not unanimous, the section(s) in question will

be read by an arbitration committee and the EO; the same is true of any section that all three readers grade a failure. Students must retake any section of the test they fail, but they need not repeat sections they have passed. The retake day is usually scheduled for the Friday of the third week in January; the notification letter will contain an exact date. Students who fail the Comprehensive Examination twice will usually be asked to withdraw from the Program. Readers may pass particularly distinguished examinations “with distinction,” a notation, reserved for work that is uniformly excellent, that appears on the student’s official transcript. Students may best prepare for the Comprehensive Examination by taking a wide variety of courses; many also form study groups, meeting during the months before the August test date. Most student groups make up practice exams and discuss the readings; they also offer helpful moral support during the months before the exam. In 2000, a truly invaluable guide to the exam was created English Program students. “Comprehending the Comprehensives” contains study suggestions, and sample questions and answers. Copies are available in the office and at the Reserve Desk in the Mina Rees Library.

Back to Top


IV. Comprehensive Exam

The First/Comprehensive Examination is designed to test reading skills as well as the extent and particularity of students’ knowledge of British, American, and other Anglophone literatures. You are advised to draw on examples that will display the range, depth, and detail of your knowledge to best advantage. Answers that refer to a number and variety of different texts will better demonstrate this knowledge than answers that repeatedly rely on the same texts and/or authors.

  • Part Essay I-A, Passport Essay: To be submitted before students take the rest of the examination.Theory has been described by Paul de Man as “controlled reflection . . . on method.”  For the “passport essay” to be submitted before taking the First Examination, write an essay of 1500 to 2000 words in which you 1) develop a reading of a single work of literature in English, distinguishing sharply your chosen approach from two other theoretical approaches, and 2) reflect on the theoretical and methodological assumptions informing your reading.  3) Supplement your reading with an annotated bibliography identifying and commenting on three relevant critical texts that you have referred to in your discussion.  Also include in the annotated bibliography an annotation of the primary text you have chosen to discuss.  Each entry in the bibliography should be no more than 100 words.
  • Essay I-B (90 minutes): Choose one passage of poetry from the attached possibilities and subject it to what might be called a “close reading.” You are encouraged to attend to such formal elements as rhythm, meter, tone, diction, metaphor, and other aspects of prosody. At the same time, you are also encouraged to display your historical knowledge and to incorporate your understanding of literary criticism and your ability to apply exegetical techniques, traditional and/or contemporary.
  • Essay I-C (90 minutes): This essay is to focus on a single author, period, movement, or problem, and enable you to demonstrate your historical perspective through your capacity for making intelligent generalizations about authors, periods, literary movements, and, where appropriate, interconnections among them. Use as examples at least three literary works in framing your response. Choose and discuss one of the following five topics.
  • Part II (3.5 hours), Transhistorical Essay: This essay is to focus on an idea, theme, problem, and/or genre organized around one of the five statements or topics below (questions 1-5).  The essay must address works that fall into at least three of the following chronological or topical areas, of which at least one is pre-1800 and at least one post-1800.  Additionally, none of the three areas you discuss in this essay should overlap with the period that you discussed in your essay in Part IC.

    Chronological Areas: 1) Old English Literature (to 1066); 2) Middle English Literature (to 1450); 3) Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century Literature (to 1603); 4) Seventeenth-Century Literature (to 1660, including all of Milton); 5) Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Literature (to 1798); 6) American Colonial and Federalist Literature (to 1800); 7) Romantic Literature (to 1830); 8) Victorian Literature (to 1900); 9) Nineteenth-Century American Literature; 10) Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century British Literature; 11) Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century American Literature; 12) Other Anglophone Literatures.

Back to Top


V. Advice from Readers

April 19, 2002 As a reader and as a writer of questions, the thing 1 would say is that students should avoid having canned responses. They should read the questions carefully and actually respond to the specific thing the question is asking. It is not enough to get the facts right; a passing response for me must address the issues raised by the question. From my point of view, this is the single biggest weakness 1 see in student responses. It is a product I think of the study groups, which are a good thing, but they can result in a kind of corporate response that gets laid over whatever the question is. I was once chair of the comps committee, however, and I have read dozens of exams, so I think I can say with some accuracy that the most common grounds for failure was that the writer of the exam did not do one of two things: 1) answer the question (I have read exams that have been so unfocused that I could not tell which of five questions-on wildly different topics-the student was answering 2) follow the directions (they usually call on the student to write about three works, and these may need to be from different periods or different writers—1 have read exams that treat only one work or focus on three works by the SAME author, in direct contradiction to the question). I really think one of the most helpful things you can say to students is this: You are likely to be very anxious and nervous, even scared and fearful, about the exam, both beforehand and during it. Don’t let this unnerve you so that you don’t read the question carefully and make sure you comprehend it. Then follow the directions and make sure you clearly address the terms of the question you are answering. I know this may seem basic advice, but in my experience with the exam, most failures were, unhappily, articulate, intelligent exams that didn’t meet the stated requirements. AND I should add that there are not many failed exams. Students in the Program are smart. They leap this hurdle almost in unison and with the same skill they bring to other matters, like their course work and their teaching. Whatever the question, the kind of essay answer I find especially impressive is one that doesn’t just take the generalization within the question for granted but rather qualifies (and sometimes even quarrels with?) that generalization and then answers the qualification. For me, this suggests a pretty original and sophisticated critical sensibility-but I’d emphasize “for me.” I’m not sure such a procedure would be to every reader’s taste? Last exam I graded, on the “pick a poem and explicate it” section, I thought there was a knee-jerk tendency for students to go after a poem that looked like it was going to be easy because it used simple words, but was actually fiendishly difficult unless you had a pretty clear sense of the poet’s system of beliefs. About half the students in the stack of exams I was grading had chosen that poem and only one student had the foggiest idea of what was going on—the rest either floundered around or strode confidently into a wildly erroneous reading. (It was one of Emily Dickinson’s excruciatingly arcane theological meditations on the vicarious atonement but I can imagine the same thing happening with poems by Blake or Yeats.) Since the point is to pass, not necessarily to shine, I recommend that students spend more time than they seem to in selecting which of the poems to explicate, that they seek a poem they have read before, or one at least by a poet whose ideas and persona] loyalties they understand. One of the best essays I read was by a student who understood that the poem was by Seamus Heaney and used Heaney’s origins in Ulster and his attitude toward the tribal warfare there to elucidate his symbolism.

Back to Top


VI. Advice from Students

Lise Esdaile
I’m going to keep this very short because it’s much easier for me to write about how I studied or what to do since I’ve already taken the exam. I’m studying for orals now, and quite a few people, whom I watched freak out studying for them, are now telling me not to worry and that it’s not that big of a deal. Luckily, students before me had put together a handbook for preparing for the written comprehensive exam. I used that, along with my notes from college and a few papers. I had taken a few classes to prepare me for them, too (Shakespeare; Victorian Poetry and Poetics), and I used my notes and papers from those classes as well. As far as texts, I used the following: Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory. 2/e, Hans Beriens’ very portable Literary Theory: The Basics, photocopies of the historical introductions to each section in the Norton Anthology of Women’s Literature, and a couple of books on literary terms. That summer, because I was traveling and carrying my own luggage (Jeeves had the summer off), I was thinking light-weighted texts (paperback vs. hardcover) and avoiding tomes. Look, I stink at studying, and I realize that to write more about how I studied isn’t as truthful as to why I studied. Of course I just wanted to pass the darn thing and move on, but that doesn’t fully explain my process. I was alone for part of the trip in a little seaside town in Sicily, not able to speak any Italian or figure out the currency (lira, then). The few people I knew were quite sweet; too much so because they insisted on speaking to me, or rather, gesticulating, poking, and feeding me, thinking that if they did it enough, I would suddenly understand Italian. Therefore, I hid in the apartment where I was staying, which had no television. After painting my nails (again and again), cleaning, listening to inventively bad European pop music, and reading books having nothing to do with the periods I was covering for the comps, I had no alternative but to read and take notes, reviewing and re-reviewing what I wrote to deafen the creepy silence at night (it didn’t help that 1 was reading Dracula). That’s my studying technique. The comps are really not that bad because people here really want us to succeed. There are no trick questions. Be straightforward. Oh, for the poetry section (for those of you who, like me, read poetry the way folks on the Lawrence Welk show might dance to disco—badly), don’t just

dwell on the historical, biographical, or any one approach. So, if you’re writing about Phyllis Wheatley, dazzle them with your knowledge of prosodic terms, the historical climate in which she was writing, her life, and what scholars have to say about the poem. Just don’t forget to mention what the poem is about. Don’t worry; it’s not that big of a deal.


Lindsey Freer
Studying for the comps was something I wanted to approach in as straightforward a manner as possible, so I made a real effort not to get too worried about it. I’m not completely sure I succeeded, but I got a lot out of all of the work I did put in. I started out with a group of first-years in January, and we met a few times, going over things like meter and scansion and practicing close reading. These meetings were enough to make me feel confident about the poetry explication. That group fizzled out by the end of term, but we started another in mid-June. Each of us picked somewhere between six and ten texts that we wanted to focus on for the test (taking care to pick a cross-section of works that could be used in multiple ways), and we brought them to our meetings and talked about them. Having the books on the table opened up a lot of ground for discussion, as we helped each other remember things about each book. Our group also got copies of past exam questions off of reserve, and while we chose not to write practice exams, we would read a question aloud, then go around the table and explain what works we would use to answer the questions and why. This was effective practice for both I-C and Part II. On my own, I started re-reading my personal list of books, but I got too bogged down in details that I didn’t think would be helpful. I do best when I work with my hands, so in the last few weeks before the exam, I put together a handmade collage book. Each page was devoted to one text, and included a synopsis I had written, some handy key words, important facts, and related authors, as well as a picture of some kind. Putting this together allowed me to synthesize my thoughts in a three-dimensional way that proved incredibly useful on the exam. Nearly all of the works I wrote about were in my book. The night before the exam, I had to give my summer composition students their final, so I didn’t have too much time to be worried about myself. I did, however, re-read The Waste Land, which turned out to be a very good idea -1 wrote about it in Part II. You are going to write about what you know best, no question. If there’s a particular author or movement you know well, capitalize on that. Get a fair amount of sleep the night before, and

bring felt-tip pens to the exam, or anything that’s easy on your hands. The comps are certainly important, but sitting for them taught me just how much I already knew. Works I found helpful in studying for the exam were Lentricchia and McLaughlin’s Critical Terms for Literary Study, and the critical editions of various major works I wanted to discuss.


Lauren Elkin
Believe it or not, studying for this exam was a useful critical exercise and a surprisingly creative experience. I found myself collating all the disjointed information I’d accumulated in graduate school into something resembling a coherent critical approach, and I really felt like I was claiming my space as a critic and as a writer. I approached the test organically, with a minimal amount of angst, and passed with distinction. I have absolutely no idea what I wrote that was so distinctive, but there it is. That said, here’s a rundown of what I did to prepare. Three to four weeks in advance: read the comps booklet, realized the test was nothing to stress about, and compiled some lists: one of books I felt I could write intelligently about without reopening them and one of books I felt I could write intelligently about if I were to reopen them. The first list was too short for comfort; the second slightly more comforting but the idea of consulting all of them thoroughly was daunting. Sort of casting about for inspiration, I read and reread some texts (ranging from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Melville, to Dickinson, to Stein) but those I eventually chose for my short list were all novels I had already read, some at least several times. 1 reread Pride and Prejudice with the intention of using it to write my passport essay, and decided to do Marxist, feminist, and deconstructionist readings of Austen’s novel. The decision to write about this novel rather than one in my own period (that is, the twentieth-century) was made out of what I’m afraid is pure laziness: Austen is, for me at least, the literary equivalent of comfort food. It feels much more like “work” to take apart a Modernist novel that I love equally well like To the Lighthouse, where I have to deal with the additional challenges of constructing three distinct readings of a novel that makes its meaning in a non-traditional manner. Two weeks in advance: I met with a study group a couple of times. The first time we met, we schlepped a bunch of books we planned to use down to BMCC, stacked them all on the table, and oohed and aahed over each other’s choices. We looked at questions from copies of old tests and threw around ideas as to what books and ideas we would use to answer each kind of question. This was useful (and fun) in that it forced us to practice manipulating our texts to fit different kinds of questions, and to account for the reasons why. I knew not a whole lot about poetry so I had two close friends in the program tutor me on technical stuff—scansion, meter, etc.—and writing about poetry. I figured there was bound to be a sonnet on the test so I learned everything I could about that form, including its origins and development, and used that

background to get Part IB off the ground. One week to go: I watched the Derrida documentary and the Trevor Nunn/BBC adaptation of “Merchant of Venice,” surfed around in my Norton Anthology of Criticism, reread Shakespeare, and lugged David Richter’s The Critical Tradition to the Hungarian Pastry Shop, where I spent an intense afternoon consuming it along with several litres of coffee. I wrote my passport essay during this week, then had a couple of friends take a look at it to make sure it read alright. I took the night before the test off; that morning, on the subway ride down to 34th Street, I reviewed “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” “Modern Fiction,” and “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” This was key, because all three essays were fresh in my mind and I used them a great deal on Part 1C. In summation, my comps philosophy: don’t drive yourself crazy; have a good idea of the level of depth that’s expected of you in each essay, be able to talk about a variety of texts from a number of different critical vantage points, and the day of the test, walk to the Grad Center listening to music that gets your adrenaline going. Best of luck! Critical sources: Leitch, Vincent, ed. Norton Anthology of Criticism. New York: Norton, 2001. Richter, David H., ed. The Critical Tradition. Boston: Bedford Books, 1998. Warhol Robyn R., and Diane Price Herndl, eds. Feminisms. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1997. The Marx-Engels Reader. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 1978. Levin, Phillis, ed. The Penguin Book of the Sonnet. New York: Penguin, 2001.


Carrie Shanafelt
My study plans for the comprehensive exams were not incredibly ambitious. Several of my friends were in study groups for months leading up to the exam, taking old tests and making lists of books. Watching them do so and hearing them talk about it was all the stress I could handle. (I’m low-key unless my inner John-Brown-type Kansan is incensed.) I did, however, do three things that helped me: (1) I went on an interview in which the chair of the department asked me to bring a “fantasy

syllabus.” 1 got so obsessed with the question that I brought six or seven. This is not a bad question to ask yourself now and again: “In what areas do I know enough texts that I could teach a class?” It forced me to reach back into the recesses of all my abandoned interests, and I considered, briefly, whether I could, in a pinch, teach, say, Ben Okri. In case I got grilled at the interview, I gave each of the books a three-minute flip-through. This was two months before the exam, but I kept those fantasy syllabi as my lists of books I like and know, grouped by period, genre, and subject, with a decent idea of what angle I’d take in teaching and what secondary texts I’d provide. Voila job, voila exam study. (2) Similarly accidentally, my exam responses were greatly assisted by the fact that I moved. Moving forced me to box up my library, drive it, unpack it, and realphabetize it. I looked at every book I have individually, thumbed through a few, and put them in order. My advice? Rearrange your books in some new way. Look at (not in) every one of them. (3) The only study I did specifically for the exam was to take mental note of a few books that I though would be uncommon choices for the exam after reading through the book of sample essays and prep comments. I looked at some of my old papers and thought about texts I had read so closely that I remembered passages verbatim, like Our Mutual Friend, which came in quite handy. On the night before the exam, I was treated to a lovely dinner out and relaxing evening by my s.o., who, having taken the exam himself in years previous, refused to allow me to study or freak out that night. The morning of the exam, he made eggs, potatoes, toast, and coffee. I read Gravity’s Rainbow on the train, as it was the book I thought would be the most fun to work in, and it ended up saving my rear end. On the exam itself: I wrote my passport essay on Wuthering Heights, which I love (and is rich with interpretive possibilities) but wasn’t sure I could write about off the top of my head. It was the worst part of my exam, so we’ll leave that one there. (I hate doing little critical crank-turnings.) For the poetry section, I chose Sonnet I from Sydney’s “Astrophel and Stella,” not because it was my favorite but because I had taught Sonnet XXXI and knew, if nothing else, I could talk about the poet, the period, the theme, the cycle, the form, and scansion. Go with what you know. For the next question, I tried to find one that reflected a paper I had written or a class I had taken. One of the questions was about establishing authorship (or at least that was what it hinted to me), and my first grad-level paper had been about postcolonial Yoruban Nigerian novelists and the different ways their texts establish authorial identity both to an African and a worldwide audience. (It seemed best to write about authors as alike as possible – in period, genre, purpose,

nationality, etc. – whose works are as different as possible.) Finally, I was a little stymied by the last set, but paused, breathed, and wangled the question about “lyric poetry appearing in novels” into something more specific and more extreme: the ironic (and simultaneously unironic) use of sentimental songs and song- lyrics in long, un-sentimental novels. It was perhaps insane, and, if I recall, referenced Michiko Kakutani’s NYT review of Bill Clinton’s My Life (which tome I read that summer instead of studying) in the introduction, and I’m sure wandered off-topic a thousand times, and yet I am perhaps more proud of getting Tristam Shandy, Our Mutual Friend, and Gravity’s Rainbow into a thesis-driven essay that I am of most of my other grad-school hijinks.


Katharine Jager
Five fellow students and I formed a writing group in order to prepare for the comps. Everyone in our group passed the exam; I passed with distinction. We met weekly over the summer of 2003; I think we had seven sessions that each concluded with valuable socializing. Because for of the six of us were poets with MFA’s—and teachers of composition—we used our sessions primarily as if they were writing workshops. That means that we wrote a mini-essay each week, usually in the first 30 minutes of our meetings. Then we would read these aloud to one another and discuss different approaches or texts to the essay-writer. This was an extraordinarily helpful way to prepare for the writing-under-pressure aspect of the exam, and it also gave us familiarity with the kinds of questions we would be asked. Because we knew that we would be asked to discuss a variety of critical methods, we farmed out five topics to the members of the group. Each week one person would present on the background and uses of a particular critical methodology. They were presentations, then, on feminist criticism, new criticism, psychoanalytic criticism, postcolonial theory, and narrative theory. We used Lentricchia’s text on critical terms for literary study towards this end, and we also encouraged presenters to locate other seminal texts in each critical field to which we might turn. That said, reading Said’s Orientalism elicited some public encouragement from strangers on the subway, which reading Chaucer never does. Some weeks we would try to use the critical methodology presented as a focus for our on-the-spot essays. Thus, we would try to apply these theories towards an analysis of the primary texts we had individually been reading.

By the time we sat the exam, we were frightened but confident. We knew the format of the questions, we had practiced answering similar questions, and we had written under pressure. I felt as if I had an objective handle on my writing because I had shared so many mini-essays with our group—I knew where my weaknesses lay, and how to work through them. The poets in the group knew through practice about prosody; the hardcore critics knew about theory. Reading our essays aloud gave us models for how to use strengths other than our own. In addition to working with our group, I went back to old essays on literature I had written. This helped me remember canonical literature I had once closely read, and gave me some templates for how I could tackle the exam questions. I was lucky that I had been an English major as an undergrad, and that I had consequently been required to take several “traditions of English lit.” courses. I’d read the Norton anthology, and I’d taken the GRE subject test in English literature, too, so I didn’t read many new texts in my preparation for the comps. I stuck with what I knew, and made sure I could write maniacally about those texts. I also went over my notes from my prior graduate literature classes, and I reread the presentations I had given in those classes. I had taken a class in The Canterbury Tales that spring, so I had a handle on a big canonical text, too. All told, I think I received my ‘distinction’ because I had prepared like mad, and because I had taught so many writing classes that I knew how to aim for structure and clarity in an essay exam. As a poet, I was confident I could explicate the hell out of a poem. And my curse is that I turn logorrheic when I am under pressure—in this situation that was a blessing. The formation of the writing group was the big lifesaver, however. It forced me to read, to write, and to make my writing public. It also made sure that we weren’t studying in a hermetic vacuum, and gave us a good excuse to drink beer on summer nights. And, indispensably, it created an audience for whom I could write.


I took the comps in 2002. I’d like to recommend Jonathan Culler’s Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction for the secondary sources list. It’s part of Oxford’s “Very Short Introduction” series and gives a lucid recap of major trends in literary theory in 130 very readable pages. There are other volumes in the Very Short Introduction series that could be helpful for those wanting a more detailed review of particular things like structuralism, Freud etc. I belonged to a study group, which I believed helped a great deal in my preparation for the comps. Two out of the five of us were doing the comp-rhet concentration – therefore, we wrote a

lot (they insisted!). I think that was one of the most useful aspects of our group. Beginning in the spring semester, we got together and wrote answers to questions we made up or borrowed from old exams. Early on (April and May), we met every few weeks, writing for about an hour and then reading our papers aloud to each other. This helped us to discover where our interests overlapped, find out what we thought we knew well but couldn’t quite remember, etc. Also, hearing other people’s essays reminded us of works we’d forgotten , we knew. All of this was kind of a getting ready to study. Later, we mapped out which subjects we would cover together, and met just about every week during the summer. Each session was planned around a certain period, which we would study for before the meeting. We suggested texts to each other, with people stronger in certain areas providing guidance on secondary readings and sources. When we arrived, we would put all of our essay questions together in a pile, each of us would choose one, and we’d go off and do a timed writing in answer to the question (at first, we wrote only an hour or so, but near the end of the summer we used the actual amounts of time we’d have during the exam). Our discussions of the period then grew out of our answers to those questions, which we read aloud. We also did plenty of exchanging of materials, reading lists, etc. One of the ways this writing proved most useful was that I found certain works kept coming up for me, again and again, even if I hadn’t planned on studying them for the test. This told me that I should review them, since they seemed to lend themselves to essays I chose to write — this turned out to be a good decision, since I did in fact end up using them on the exam. About halfway through the summer, we started writing in answer to the 3-period questions, and including poetry explications in our writing sessions (no one in our group had written about poetry in some time, and we felt rusty). This was also extremely helpful. These poetry sessions sometimes included a mini “lesson” from someone who was familiar with that period, or who took on a particular type of poetry in order to explain it to us. One of the poems we wrote about together came up on the test, so I was glad we’d practiced. Part of getting ready for the test is just getting in the habit of answering test questions – in the Spring, I used to look at the old questions, and wonder how I could possibly answer them. By the day of the exam, the test was a challenge, but something I’d been doing on a regular basis.


Mark McBeth
I was particularly nervous about the comprehensive exams because I did not enter the program with a lot of literary knowledge or know-how. I earned a Bachelor’s in Fine Arts and a Masters specializing in Language and Literacy. Neither of those courses of study offered me a whole lot of literature experience, although they had prepared me in language and linguistic theories, and the processes of interpretations (of visual artwork) that were applicable to this test. Knowing my

literary deficiencies when I entered the program and the impending comps exam, I took courses to prepare me: Sedgwick’s course in Victorian literature, Koestenbaum’s course in contemporary poetry. These seminars gave me a range of texts from particular periods and some exegetical techniques by which to read them. However, it still didn’t feel like enough. The summer before the exam, I spent nearly all three months reading, studying, and writing about books. I returned to books that I had read in courses, and I found books that I had always loved but hadn’t read in ages. My biggest fear was the pre-1800’s requirement, since I had little to no experience with any periods previous to the Victorian. I picked Joe Wittreich’s brain about what text would be a good one for me to read to get an understanding of the 17th century. Joe knowing my interest in issues revolving around education gave me a book which described education at that period and how education reflected literary tastes of the time. This made a lot of sense to me because it entered into the period through a vantage point at which I had some expertise. (Furthermore, it complements my orals reading list presently. Thanks Joe!) After reading this historical text, I turned to various literary texts, such as John Aubrey (who wrote on education at the time), Milton (who also wrote on education at the time), and Ben Jonson (whose short masques really interested me (in content and manageable reading length). As I accumulated texts, I began a reading list on which I noted all my texts and their dates. This helped me keep my reading list in chronological memory. I returned to some Shakespeare plays (which covered two different early periods) and, after reading them, went to see productions of them at various Shakespeare festivals around the city. (Prospect Park has a great one.) In August I took my privileged self to Fire Island where I spent a week baking on the beach with a book constantly in my hand. I coaxed my fellow vacationers to read some of the same books so that I would have somebody to talk to them about. I saw people from the Grad Center at the beach whose ears I would chew off about what I had read, and why, and how I thought it would be to my advantage during the exam. They patiently listened and gave me good advice about strategies of taking the comps. Also during this period I read through different glossaries of literary terms (Abrams, Bedford, Princeton). I refreshed myself on terms and’1 knew and learned some new ones too. I hate to admit this but I made myself flash cards that I carried around with me all summer and practiced on the subway and buses. I read different books and journals on explication. (The Explicator is a good journal to browse for how explications are structured and approached.) I sat down and wrote some explications and had a friend (Krysia), who is a poet and teacher, read and critique them for me. Throughout I gained more and more confidence about the whole endeavor. Writing was an important part of this studying process. The last two weeks I didn’t read anything new, but I did write about all the texts I had perused. I wrote really quick essays (with pen and paper like one does during the test) about themes and characters in the novels and poems I had read. This helped me remember names, places and dates of the narrative, and forced me to

practice grappling with literary ideas. I did this likewise with old materials I had studied in my Masters in Language and Literacy because I would need to do the Composition/Rhetoric essay also. I jotted brief outlines for myself and sketched out possible essays. I know this helped me a lot and was crucial to my comfort level that I felt when I finally took the test. I spent a lot of time writing and revising my passport essay. I figured if I wasn’t successful with the exam, I could at least write and rewrite a decent passport essay. I fell in love with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein again. After all the queer theory and composition theory I had studied over the past two years, this book had whole new meaning. It dawned upon me that Victor really had the right idea. Imagine making the man of your dreams! Too bad he had such closeted guilt about it. And the monster became a new hero of literacy for me because it was through his striving to read and express himself through language that he gained a sense of himself as a person. Although I don’t wish his bad fortune on anybody, I do wish my students (and all learners) the kind of passionate desires that he had to gain a sense of place in the world through literacy. I felt like the monster sometimes racing about the wilds of libraries and bookstores foraging for sustenance (knowledge) and trying to figure out what it all meant to me. Maybe it doesn’t need to mean all that much … it’s just a test. However, it’s a step that one needs to complete on this educational endeavor. The one thing that I would suggest is that you try to give yourself pleasure in this seemingly arduous and tedious task. Read books that you have wanted to read for a while, explore texts that you know will inform your future work, practice writing on ideas that you would have entertained anyway. If you induce some pleasure into this project (for example, I love to read anything on the beach so that’s where I went to study), you will assuredly gain more from it than merely passing the comprehensive exams. Happy studying and Bon Courage!


Ann Wallace
The Comprehensive Exam Ordeal I feel like somewhat of a comps expert – having taken it not once, but twice, and having gone through entirely different preparation processes and stresses each time. I initially took the exam last August, but did not pass the Literary Period and Genre question (second short essay in the morning). So, I took that one portion again in January, this time successfully. Because so many of the English department’s students come from other disciplines, I think it is important to mention that my background is not at all in literature (my B.A. is in art history and fine arts, and my masters is in women’s studies). So, I felt quite unprepared to take an exam that assumed I had a wide range of literary knowledge and familiarity, which I don’t (I’ll forever be working on that). However, I wanted to take the comps as early as possible for a few reasons: I wanted to get them out of the way; I thought it would be a lot easier to prepare for them over the summer than over January break; and I considered that if I failed a portion I would be able to retake it by the time I reached 45 credits (a semester later), so I would change levels and my tuition would go

down. Now, I know this decision is no longer in the hands of first-year students, but I mention all of this merely to say that taking the comps after your first year is not so bad. And neither is failing them. In preparation for my first effort, I participated in a study group that met one evening a week throughout the summer. I found this to be very useful – not because we discussed a lot of specific texts (we didn’t) – but because we familiarized ourselves with the test format and with the types of questions we could expect. At the beginning we shared copies of old passing and failing essays and old exam questions. The questions were extremely useful; the essays themselves were less so. As I recall, I skimmed through a couple of essays, mainly in order to find the degree of sophistication, detail, etc. that is expected. However, I spent more time looking at two poetry explication essays because I was most nervous about this essay, as I hadn’t talked about rhyme or meter or anything to do with poetic form since high school. Also, these essays were more useful than the others because the poems were included in the exams, so I could refer to them while reading the explications. Aside from the test-taking strategies gained from being in a study group, our regular meetings forced me to keep the upcoming exam on my mind (constantly!). Throughout the summer, in addition to feeling low-level, continual guilt about not reading enough, I was always putting texts together in my head, formulating questions and thinking about three or more works that would complement each other in my imaginary response. For instance, I would imagine a question on the theme of, say, economics or money, and would then try to take an angle on it that I could use, like women in tough financial situations. Then I would think about possible texts – like Moll Flanders, The House of Mirth, and…well, I’ve already taken the test, I’m not going through this again. Because of this constant puzzle-working, I learned to read very selectively and strategically. I chose to read (or reread) books with multiple themes that would work in relation to a variety of questions. In fact, I read very few new books, focusing instead on refreshing my memory of ones I’d already worked on in my mind in the past. It seems to me that it is important not to inundate yourself with too many new texts – it’s just too much to retain and make sense of – and why bother? Every one of us has already read more than enough books to answer the essay questions effectively (even though it might not feel like it at the time). Even for the long, multi-period afternoon question, I did not really read much that was new to me. My pre-1800 knowledge is very limited, so I reviewed some Shakespeare I’d read in the past (and, yes, rented the movies), reread a novel or two, looked at some poetry, and maybe did a little more work that I don’t recall. After all, I only needed to write about one pre-1800 text in the whole exam (though I actually used two). I know this is already rather long, but I need to talk about failing the one essay. I know that my

failure was not the result of too little test preparation or knowledge. So, I did not fail because I took the exam earlier than necessary, but rather because my essay did not adequately develop the idea in my head. I think I went off track with my essay and never got around to making my point (I remember that I really wanted to write about something other than the essay question and kept fighting with myself to answer the question). In fact, I remember that after I finished the essay I reread the essay question, then reread my conclusion. I knew I hadn’t really gotten at the question, so I added one sentence. But what was one sentence going to do? I should have added more but I hate making revisions and changes, so I left it, with the nagging feeling that it was not going to be enough. I would just want to remind everyone to read the essay question after you have finished writing your essay and make sure that you’ve answered it – and don’t let your laziness get the best of you, as it did me. One other thing that occurred to me later was that I could have much more easily used the same texts to answer one of the other questions, one on the color line. But I skipped right over it because it referred to DuBois, whom I had not read in a while. Now I realize that I did not have to write about DuBois specifically, and that I probably would have passed if I had chosen that question (it was closer to what I really wanted to talk about anyway in my botched essay). Finally, I want to say that failing did not destroy me. I certainly was embarrassed and angry at myself, but I was not thinking that I shouldn’t be in grad school or that I was just stupid (although, to be honest, I am terrified of rereading my mess of an essay -1 do not want to know how bad it is – and please don’t tell me). When I retook the exam in January I felt relaxed and well-prepared, even though I had not officially “studied” at all. I knew what to expect and felt well prepared to answer the one question without cramming. In fact, I was able to find a question that could be answered using some of my favorite books and poems, all of which, quite coincidentally, I had just read in the fall semester.


Wendy Ryden
I was a member of a study group that consisted of five women. We found it beneficial to use our group as a writing workshop. We would meet, write a practice essay from questions that we would make up for one another, then read and discuss our answers as a group. This worked particularly well for poetry explications. I found that doing this focused my energy in a constructive way that helped reduce anxiety. This also helped prepare me for the physical ordeal of writing long-hand under time constraints. Talking is one thing—actually writing an essay is another. Here’s how I think taking the comp/rhet section of the exam should affect your strategy: since comp/rhet replaces the question on periodicity, you no longer need to know a particular literary

period in depth (although you probably do anyhow). Therefore, rather than limit your study to three areas (the number of areas you are required to write about in the “cross-period” question), I would widen my base to include fewer works from more areas to give you the most flexibility. Make a list of all the works you feel comfortable writing about from early to present. For this last question you will only have to write about one work from any period (just be sure that one of them is before 1800.) Also, despite all the studying, I ended up discussing works I had written papers about or taught to undergrads.


Chris Iannini
My strategy for the three-period essay was very simple. First, I figures our the four historical periods I knew the most about: 19th-century American, 18th-century American, 19th-century British, and 17th -century British (I think the category was “British Lit to 1660, including all of Milton). Second, I selected one text from each of those four periods. I looked for texts I thought I could use to answer any question. I didn’t care how long they were. My goal was to only have to review four books. I wanted to avoid the whole “let’s read the Norton cover to cover” strategy. The texts I chose were: Paradise Lost, Crevecouer’s Letters From an American Farmer (this was my fourth-string text — I was only planning to discuss it if I couldn’t use Paradise Lost to fulfill the pre-1800 requirement), Moby Dick, and Frankenstein. To review, I read Frankenstein and Letters From an American Farmer cover to cover. I read about a dozen key chapters from Moby Dick. I read the arguments and the major prologues of Paradise Lost, and what I remembered as crucial speeches by Satan, God, Eve, etc. For obvious reasons, I didn’t want to reread Paradise Lost, so I was pleasantly surprised to find out I didn’t need to. In the process of going over old classnotes and reading selective criticism most of the details of the poem came back to me. I tried to read about four articles on each of the four texts I was preparing. I looked for accessible (read: easily paraphrasable) articles from a variety of critical perspectives. The Dover editions are really useful for this. I used their edition of Frankenstein. To make sure that my texts were going to work together well, and would work for just about my question, I dug up as many old exams as I could find. There are old exams in Linda’s files, and in a folder on reserve in Mina Rees. I didn’t worry that the format of the exam had changed. I figured the exam would ask roughly the same sorts of questions. I picked out about 20 or 25 questions, and outlined answers using my three texts. These outlines were fairly detailed. I wasn’t trying to script answers in advance. I just wanted to get in the habit of making plausible connections between the texts, in a variety of contexts. Maybe not the smartest ways to prepare, but it passed.

Best of luck, Chris


Michelle Pacht
This was my study game plan (I passed, so I guess it worked)… First, identify the literary periods to be covered, and refresh your memory on the history, culture, major figures, big events, literary themes, social trends, etc. of each. (Anthology introductions are actually useful for this.) Then, choose 4 or 5 texts from each period to focus on. For each text, review everything – including characters, characterization, style, plot twists, major themes, the work’s place within the period, the author’s other works, etc. Re-read passages if it’s been a while since your last reading of the text, and review until you feel completely comfortable with each one. It helps to choose texts you like and are already familiar with. Remember, they don’t have to be long texts, just ones that are rich in essay-writing possibilities. Also review major literary genres – what defines them, major examples of each, the period in which each was prominent, which authors gravitated toward which genres, etc. Think about how genre relates to the texts you’ve chosen to focus on – the kind of text it is, what the text has to say, how it was received, and whatever else you can think of. As you do all this, pay attention to ideas/themes/trends that overlap between texts of the same period, as well as those of different periods. Write down connections you notice, keeping the historical, cultural background of each period in mind. Remember that there are two kinds of question – one which asks you to connect texts of one period, and one that asks for connections between texts of different periods. Imagine what possible questions could be asked about your texts and think about how you’d answer them. For the at-home essay (part 1), it might help to choose a text from the literary period you feel least comfortable writing about off the top of your head. That way you’ve already covered a period that you’re not likely to repeat during the actual exam. Since it’s a comprehensive exam, the more literary periods you write about, the better. I’ll finish with the best piece of advice given to me: Don’t think of it as a test. Think of it as an opportunity to review, re-read, and re-think the stuff you read and loved ages ago.


Matthew Gold
I began studying for the comps about a week before the exam. Part of the reason I began studying so late was that I had gone through an M. A. orals experience a year before at another school. I would suggest that when students prepare for the comps, they keep two things in mind: (1) For the literary period or genre essay, review or reread at least five texts; for the literary periods questions prepare about three texts in each period that you can discuss at length. Try to remember key scenes and issues—and be flexible as you think about them. I made index cards for all of the texts I used. (2) Try to choose “rich” texts – i.e., texts that can be easily analyzed along a number of different threads. I found, for example, that books such as Moby Dick, The Sound and the Fury, The Wasteland, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin were good for the comps because one could easily trace issues of race, class, gender, and genre in them. If students have trouble with theory, I would recommend a look at M. H. Abram’s A Glossary of Literary Terms. (I’m not sure if that’s the exact title.) If students need to review poetic form, I heartily recommend Mary Oliver’s most recent book on the subject – Rules for the Dance, I think. It’s highly readable. Finally, I would just say that students should try not to freak out over the comps. Remember that you’re not expected to write publishable prose during the exam; you don’t need to do research; you just need to demonstrate that you can do reasonable analyses of a few texts from a number of different periods. Two final notes: (1) Look over your old papers for ideas. (2) As I mentioned, I began my prep late. On the morning of the exam, I freaked out a bit because I didn’t have time to review two of the texts I wanted to review — Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Damnation of Theron Ware. On my way to the Grad Center, I stopped at Starbucks, where I feverishly flipped through both books and some index cards I had made about them a year before. (That was 15 minutes before the exam.) I ended up using both books in my exam. Granted, I had read each book at least twice before, but if I hadn’t looked them over, I don’t know whether I would have felt comfortable using them. I don’t know whether I can extract a moral from that story, but I would say that every little bit counts.

Back to Top


VII. Sample Essays

Part I-A (Passport) Michael Shelichach (Passed with Distinction)

The Symbolic, the Subject, the Body and Richard II: Richard II Read Through Feminist Criticism, Lacanian Psychoanalysis, and Affect Theory

Shakespeare’s King Richard II boldly asserts his divine right to the crown, then hands that crown to the invading Bolingbroke before Bolingbroke can even ask for it.  As friends one after another betray him, he delivers elaborate speeches in which he compares himself to Phaeton and Christ, only to conclude in his final scene that he and all men are “nothing” (5.5 41).  How do we approach a character who is at the same time so self-conscious and so self-contradictory?  Can we make sense of his seemingly ceaseless metamorphoses?  Jennifer C. Vaught, in a feminist reading of Richard II, suggests that Richard is an androgynous figure who confuses and subverts traditional late sixteenth century gender roles – but she does not engage with Richard’s ontological provocation that he is “nothing.”  Slavoj Zizek, in a Lacanian analysis of the play, argues that Richard’s downfall reveals the “pure void” of a subject cut off from the symbolic order – but it is difficult to situate Richard in relation to a symbolic order, as the play dramatizes a cataclysmic social shift, the usurpation by Bolingbroke.  However, if we read Richard II through the lens of affect theory, with reference to John Protevi’s Political Affect, and do not strictly distinguish between a subject and its surroundings, then we can account for the striking changes that Richard undergoes as his kingdom collapses, as well as understand his strange claim that he is “nothing.”

In her book Masculinity and Emotion in Early Modern English Literature – an avowedly “feminist project” aimed at “resisting… rigid classifications of male and female” (6) – Jennifer C. Vaught contends that Richard II reflects “the gradual crumbling of violent, militaristic versions of masculinity during the reign of Elizabeth I” and the rise of “the man of feeling,” a conception of the male that would include many conventionally feminine traits, such as emotional expressiveness and a rich interior, private life (111).  If Richard seems such an unusual king – so unlike his bellicose male political associates and his stoic opponent Bolingbroke – it is partly because his frequent tears and effusions align him with the play’s female characters, such as the Duchess of Gloucester, who bewails the murder of her husband, and the Duchess of York, who, sobbing, begs Bolingbroke to spare her son’s life.  Indeed, at the play’s end, imprisoned by Bolingbroke, Richard retreats into an explicitly androgynous inner life, invoking his “female” brain and his “soul the father” to beget “a generation of still-breeding thoughts” (5.5 6-8).

According to Vaught, what makes Richard a subversive theatrical invention, as well as a surprising one, is that these “feminine” aspects of his personality empower him.  Though Richard is finally assassinated by Bolingbroke, he has, through his melodramatic speeches, turned his downfall into the myth of a “lamentable” king deposed by a brutal usurper (5.5 44).  Not only do the Duke of York and a groom pity him; Bolingbroke voices concern that the assassination will “slander” his own reputation (5.6 35).  Additionally, Richard’s introspection leads to increased understanding and strength.  As Vaught notes, his final speech, delivered during his imprisonment, is not only a subtle self-analysis, but also an “imaginative” “means of escape” (103).

Vaught’s reading illuminates how Richard II echoed and perhaps contributed to changing conceptions of gender in its era.  It also, in accentuating Richard’s androgyny, elucidates one reason he remains a character so difficult to define.  Yet her analysis does not take us as far as Richard’s self-analysis takes him.  Vaught’s feminist study critiques a culture: exposing inconsistencies and contradictions in sixteenth-century notions of male and female traits, she reveals Elizabethan misperceptions and manipulations of human subjectivity.  However, Richard, who comes to the conclusion that he is “nothing,” questions the reality of traits – the stability, the essence, of the human subject itself.

In his essay on the subject in Lacanian psychoanalysis, “No Man Is an Island,” Slavoj Zizek provides a brief but penetrating reading of Richard II.  According to Zizek, subjects in Lacan are “literally holes, gaps, in the positive order of being.”  A subject is a consequence of consciousness reflecting on its own existence, the experience of a kind of ontological vertigo.  In a search for self-definition, a subject asks, “What am I for the Other?” – or, what am I for a (seemingly) more stable social, or symbolic, order?  Yet if a subject feels uneasy in the symbolic identity it assumes, the result is hysteria: a state of “radical doubt and questioning…as to what [a subject] is for the Other” that can lead to psychotic breakdown.

For Zizek, Richard II is “Shakespeare’s ultimate play about hystericization.”  Deposed by Bolingbroke, Richard can no longer define himself as a powerful king.  His self-pity, his self-glorification, his wild shifts in temper, and his repeated requests for others to tell the story of his downfall are frenzied efforts to fashion an identity in the new symbolic order of which Bolingbroke is the center.  In his cell at the play’s end, cut off from all society, Richard suffers what Zizek calls “subjective destitution.”  His attempt to “people” his cell with his own thoughts leads him to the realization that he plays “in one person many people” – that his subjectivity has no consistency of its own, but changes with the social structure that contains it (5.5 9-31).  Having recognized that he is “nothing,” Richard reaches a state of near madness (5.5 41).  As Zizek notes, only “sweet music” suddenly playing in another room saves Richard’s sense of self, as Richard can interpret it as “a sign of love and love to Richard” (5.5 42-65).  Given a sign of the outside world – of some symbolic order, however vague – he is able, in these moments before his death, to again assume the identity of a pitiable, but rightful, king.

Zizek’s analysis seems to account for much of Richard’s erratic behavior.  However, if the symbolic order in which the subject tries to define itself is, as Zizek posits, “a specific ideological constellation,” then it becomes difficult to read the fluctuations of Richard’s character as the struggle of a subject to define itself in a symbolic order.  Ostensibly motivated by a desire to reclaim an inheritance that Richard illegally denied him, Bolingbroke’s invasion is justified if one believes rule to be based on common law, but treasonous if one believes in the divine right of kings.  Bolingbroke’s overthrow of Richard leads not to a new specific ideological constellation, but to an ambiguous and tenuous state of affairs that is interpreted and reinterpreted by many characters, especially Richard.  These political complications tempt us to move away from a critical mode that relies on a symbolic order.

Affect theory assumes neither a symbolic order nor a subject.  As John Protevi notes in Political Affect: Connecting the Social and the Somatic, affect theory focuses on “bodies”: not discrete organisms or objects, but rather any – even momentarily – cohesive ontological individuations.  At the human level, a body would be a physical human body plus all of its thoughts, passions, and physical encounters at a specific instant in a specific location.  A body does not have stable boundaries.  A body is always being changed by other bodies – which would include other people, but also the clothes it wears, the heat it feels, the vehicle it might currently ride – and always changing those other bodies. A body can be defined only by its various potentials to affect or be affected by other bodies – its “affects.”

Subjects, Protevi writes, arise when bodies with cognitive capabilities identify with certain affects.  However, he points out that a subject has a necessarily contingent and limited comprehension of affects.  Since human subjects develop in specific social contexts – contexts in which bodies are arrayed in certain ways – human subjects perceive only “political affects”: not all that bodies can do, but only what bodies appear to be able, or allowed, to do.

Though Protevi does not write on literature, Richard II’s downfall seems to illustrate the tension between subjects and bodies.  When Richard first learns of Bolingbroke’s invasion, he declares, “[T]his earth shall have a feeling and these stones / Prove armed soldiers ere her native king / Shall falter under foul rebellion’s arms” (3.2 24-26).  Richard, assured of his divine right, believes that the earth itself will not allow Bolingbroke to take the crown from him.  In other words, to the subject King Richard II, some bodily potentials, or affects – such as the people of England supporting someone else as king – seem impossible.

Later, after he learns that he has suffered an astonishing number of military and political losses, Richard finds that he can no longer think of himself as king, even telling those friends who still support him, “How can you say to me I am king?” (3.2 177).  It is not that a new political, or symbolic, order has replaced the previous.  Rather, now that the country and its military follow Bolingbroke instead of Richard, Richard’s body no longer has the affects it once did, rendering the subject called King Richard II unsustainable.  Thus, after Richard hands Bolingbroke the crown, he remarks, “I have no name, no title…And know not now what name to call myself” (4.1 255-259).  When, a few lines later, Richard appears to recover a sense of self, he explicitly, though sarcastically, refers to his diminished affects.  Bolingbroke, newly crowned, asks Richard to name a request, and Richard snaps, “I am greater than a king…Being now a subject, / I have a king here to my flatterer” (4.1 305-308).  A new, nearly powerless subject has arisen in this England under Bolingbroke’s control: Richard “being now a subject” of Bolingbroke.

Alone in his cell at the play’s end, Richard once more struggles to define himself.  Though the political situation has not again changed, Richard’s affects have.  Now a body in a bare space, he is physically enclosed but free to let his thoughts wander.  His disconcerting epiphany – that he plays “in one person many people” – is the realization that he is “nothing” but potential, potential that can give rise to an infinite variety of subjects, all of them dependent on mere circumstance (5.5 8-41).  The intrusion of the music, midway through Richard’s soliloquy, quickly and clearly shows us, and Richard, how a subject takes shape through encounters between bodies and modifications of bodies’ potentials, independently of a pre-existent symbolic order or any stable human traits.  As he keeps time with the music, Richard remarks:

For now hath time made me his numb’ring clock:

My thoughts are minutes and with sighs they jar

Their watches on unto mine eyes, the outward watch,

Whereto my finger like a dial’s point

Is pointing still in cleansing them from tears.

Now sir, the sound that tells what hour it is

Are clamorous groans which strike upon my heart,

Which is the bell.  (5.5 50-57)

Another subject forms in this scene, but not another political subject – not a king, not a former king, not a prisoner of a new king.  The physical human body and the body of the music meet and become something new, a subject that is not what we would typically call human.  Richard, in these moments, no longer expresses thoughts or emotions: his “sighs and tears and groans,” as he notes, only “show minutes, hours and times” (5.5 278).  Richard has the affects of a “numb’ring clock,” a machine that does no more than mark the passage of time (5.5 50).  (The experience might not be so rare.  Something similar might happen whenever we “lose ourselves” in music.)

This new subject does not exist for long.  “This music mads me,” Richard says, “let it sound no more” (5.5 61-62).  A groom then enters and greets Richard as “royal prince,” and Richard assumes the subjectivity of a legitimate king until the assassins arrive (5.5 67).  However, through the lens of affect theory, we can see how a body so long called a king can become many other things.

Works Cited

Protevi, John.  Political Affect: Connecting the Social and the Somatic.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

Applying Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of affect to politics, Protevi argues that a subject’s sense of what its body can do is shaped by political or social contexts.  Actions appear possible or impossible based on a shared cultural syntax, and a subject’s sense of potential tends to become increasingly restricted as it becomes more deeply immersed in its culture.  However, Protevi also suggests that unexpected or traumatic events can disrupt a subject’s limited understanding and lead to possibilities for creative development.  As Richard II’s sudden deposition drastically changes his character, Protevi’s book provides a useful schematic for reading the play.

Shakespeare, William.  Richard II.  Ed. Anthony B. Dawson and Paul Yachnin.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Written in 1595, Shakespeare’s history play traces the downfall of King Richard II.  Though he can be almost maudlin when he expresses his love for his country, Richard is an arrogant king who exploits the English people.  When Richard denies Henry Bolingbroke a land inheritance, Bolingbroke raises an army, most of Richard’s allies join Bolingbroke’s side, and Richard gives Bolingbroke the crown.  Bolingbroke imprisons Richard and eventually has him assassinated, but whether Shakespeare is also condemning an irresponsible king critics have long debated.  Richard’s elaborate, self-aware speeches have led several interpreters to see him as a precursor to Hamlet.

Vaught, Jennifer C.  Masculinity and Emotion in Early Modern English Literature.  Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2008.

Vaught’s study considers how emotional effusiveness becomes a powerful force for male characters in several works of Early Modern English literature, including Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Marlowe’s Edward II, Sidney’s New Arcadia, and Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale and Richard II.  Though “weeping and wailing” are often associated with female characters in the period, men who also demonstrate such supposedly “feminine” behaviors frequently do so to their advantage.  Vaught links this literary theme to changing conceptions of the male in the late sixteenth century – particularly, to the rise of to prominence, and esteem, of the “man of feeling.”

Zizek, Slavoj.  “Ideology 1: No Man Is an Island.”  5 Jan. 2008.  28 July 2012.  <>

With references to Hegel, the Jennifer Aniston comedy The Break-Up, Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller Vertigo, and Shakespeare’s Richard II, Zizek’s essay elucidates Jacques Lacan’s understanding of the subject.  Zizek argues that the unconscious in Lacan is “not some kind of prereflexive, pre-thetic, primitive substrate later elaborated by conscious reflexivity,” but rather a subject’s very relation to his consciously-held desires.  The subject is precisely the very gap between a feeling and the feeling about that feeling.  As Richard II cannot identify with any feelings, but rather plays “in one person many people,” he seems an excellent candidate for Lacanian psychoanalysis.


Joseph Bowling (Passed with Distinction)

In “On Sublimity,” Alfred Lord Tennyson explores the relationship between the poet and the influence of her material context upon her poetry. Engaging the tradition of the sublime that began with Longinus up through Wordsworth, Tennyson works out a definition of the category of sublimity and its influences on poetic production. In this paper, I will offer an ecocritical reading of the poem that demonstrates the ways in which “On Sublimity” suggests a model of sublimity in contrast to his Romantic predecessors and values the external and material over the interior and subjective, questioning the centrality of human subjectivity. However, the poem ultimately reinforces a Western anthropocentric aesthetic through the poem’s deployment of sublimity as a category that orders a disorderly material world and allows the poet to conquer that disorder through writing. Furthermore, I will distinguish the ecocritical approach from the Marxist and deconstructive by demonstrating how an ecocritical reading not only best reveals the ecological consciousness—and its limits—of the poem but also offers the most currently exigent reading.

Ecocritics hold as a fundamental tenet that, because of the current ecological crisis, literary criticism must reorient its approach to texts. The ecocritic must consider the textual, cultural, and political exchanges that occur between reader, text, and environment. Thus ecocritics read in two directions, so to speak: first, one must determine how the text does or does not participate in a cultural logic that legitimizes ecological exploitation; second, one must identify how a text resists such cultural logics. Given the potential severity of an impending ecological crisis, ecocritics hold this approach as more currently imperative than other critical approaches, although ecocritics might borrow from other critical strategies.

In this paper, I will draw upon Lawrence Buell’s The Environmental Imagination, a foundational text to ecocriticism, to read “On Sublimity” in both ways. I will draw from two of Buell’s concepts: dual accountability and the aesthetics of relinquishment. Dual accountability refers to “the capacity of the stylized image to put the reader or viewer in touch with the environment . . . as a counter to the assumptions that stylization must somehow work against outer mimesis” (98). While Buell’s concept assumes that discourse can “put the reader . . . in touch with the environment,” an assumption that both Marxism and deconstruction would question, he argues that doing so is imperative for two reasons: readers must be made aware of how environmental space and place constitute subjectivity and, as a result, perform “a deliberate dislocation of ordinary [anthropocentric] perception” (104). In “On Sublimity,” the speaker approaches this ideal when he asserts that the greatest poets are those who write from experiences of the external sublime. Furthermore, Buell’s aesthetics of relinquishment arise from just such a dislocation of perception: the ecocentric — as opposed to anthropocentric — text “abandons, or at least questions, what would seem to be literature’s most basic foci: character, persona, narrative consciousness” (145) because those foci always privilege the perceiving subject over her environment.  Yet here “On Sublimity” falls short:  after acknowledging that sublimity lies beyond the subject, the poem works to make it fit within conventional, anthropocentric poetics.

Marxist and deconstructive approaches inform and overlap with ecocriticism, but they differ in key assumptions and interpretive strategies. Marxism shares with ecocriticism the view that literature, in both form and content, is ideologically determined and determining. Raymond Williams explains in Marxism and Literature that society “is always . . . a constitutive process with very powerful pressures which are both expressed in political, economic, and cultural formations and, to take the full weight of ‘constitutive,’ are internalized and become ‘individual wills’” (87). Therefore, a Marxist approach would analyze literature to unveil structures that “powerful pressures” left upon texts, pressures that appear “natural” or nonpolitical because of internalization. The critical shortcoming of Marxism to ecocriticism, then, is the lack of either the influence of the environment upon texts or texts’ influence upon the environment. Buell’s concept of “dual accountability” assumes just the opposite: authors can use experimental styles to create texts that undermine traditional anthropocentric mimesis, depict the way environments constitute perception, and thus allow “the reader to see as a seal might see” (Buell 102).

Ecocriticism overlaps with deconstruction where it departs from Marxism. Derrida explains in Of Grammatology that the “fundamental condition [of deconstructionism] is . . . the undoing of logocentrism” (46), with “logocentrism” referring to the “belief in some ultimate ‘word,’ presence, essence, truth or reality which will act as the foundation of all our thought, language and experience” (Eagleton 113). Ecocritics share a similar goal, for logocentrism is symptomatic of anthropocentrism. Applied to texts, then, deconstructionists counter logocentrism by “[showing] how texts come to embarrass their own ruling systems of logic . . . [and show] this by fastening on . . . the aporia or impasses of meaning, where texts get into trouble, come unstuck, offer to contradict themselves” (Eagleton 116). Similarly, an aesthetics of relinquishment “calls into question the authority of the superintending consciousness” of the author or characters within a text and “suggests the possibility of a more ecocentric state of being” (Buell 144-45). Reading for relinquishment corresponds to reading to deconstruct: both seek to demonstrate how texts undermine traditional forms of meaning. However, the difference between the two is severe: paraphrasing Eagleton, deconstruction is blind to what texts do outside of themselves (127). For the ecocritic, it is fundamental that texts exist within an ecology of exchange between reader, culture, and material environment; the text expresses meaning — even stable meanings — because of its function in this ecology.

Having called attention to ecocriticism’s tenets, assumptions, and methods and delineated it from Marxism and deconstructionism, I will offer a reading of Tennyson’s “On Sublimity” that both draws from Buell to demonstrate how the poem works within the Western tradition of the sublime, approaches a subversion of it, but ultimately reaffirms anthropocentrism. While I do so, I will also offer present Marxist and deconstructionist readings to demonstrate how those readings fail to reveal what ecocriticism does reveal about the poem.

“On Sublimity” possesses a chiastic structure that enacts the meaning of the poem through a process of inversion. The poem opens with a self-reflective speaker who voices Buell’s ideals for the ecocentric text by privileging the material environment over the perceiving subject. Yet, by the end of the chiastic structure, which moves from the self-reflexive speaker to sublimity back to the speaker, poetry’s dominance over nature is re-established. In other words, the poem enacts the subordination of the transcendent sublime through its structure and poetic voice.

In the first stanza of the poem, itself a chiasmus, the speaker defines sublimity as a material world that he cannot comprehend. Thus, in contrast to Kant and Wordsworth, sublimity is not merely a psychological experience but a state of being in the material world. The speaker begins in the first couplet, “O tell me not of vales in tenderest green / The poplar’s shade, the plantane’s graceful tree” and in the second couplet contrasts both to “the wild cascade, the rugged scene; / The loud surge bursting o’er the purple sea” (lines 1-4). The adjectives in the first couplet, “tenderest” and “graceful,” connote a nature that has been cultivated, tamed, fitted to cultural norms. The adjectives in the subsequent lines, “wild,” “rugged,” “loud,” and “bursting,” all describe the opposite: sublimity as nature unbound, indifferent to humanity. In the center of the chiasmus, the third couplet, the speaker asserts the superiority of the latter over the former, stating that “On such sad views [sublimity] my soul delights to pore” (line 5) because, the speaker continues, “When by that twilight beam I scarce descry / The mingled shades of earth and sea and sky” (lines 9-10). The final couple thus defines and privileges sublimity as the transgression of epistemological boundaries or limits. The opening stanza identifies the problem of dual accountability: the speaker recognizes the borders between perception, language, and environment.

In contrast, a deconstructionist might analyze how the poem establishes a binary between the tame and untame, the “tender” and “rugged,” in this stanza, concluding that it is an unstable distinction even though the speaker privileges the latter. If the category of the sublime depends upon on such a binary, then the deconstructionist would conclude that the content of “sublimity” is itself impossible to “descry.” What such a reading might miss, however, is twofold: first, how Tennyson’s definition of sublimity reworks the traditional definitions and thus suggests a model of poetic production that shows the material environment to be an origin of poetry.

The movement from the opening stanza to the sixth mirrors the movement of the first stanza but accomplishes the opposite. The speaker shifts the focus from himself (“O tell me not”) to sublimity (“All hail, Sublimity!”). But rather than relinquishing culture and subjectivity to the sublime, he represents the latter through personification and blazon: “thy throne / Is on the whirlwind,” “the voice is heard / In thunders and in shakings,” “thy delight is in the secret wood” (53-56). Through the central stanzas of the poem, the speaker effectively reverses the movement of the first stanza, making the sublime intelligible by representing it through conventional poetic tropes. Whereas the first stanza approaches, as Buell puts it, “putting literature under the sign of the natural environment” (144), the stanzas at the center of the poem define sublimity instead by placing the natural environment under the sign of the human through the category of sublimity.

The final stanza of the poem returns to but inverts the first. Having written sublimity into the poetic and anthropocentric tradition, the speaker states in the final stanza that

Blest’ be the bard, whose willing feet rejoice

To tread the emerald green of Fancy’s vales

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

but how blest is he

Who feels the genuine force of high Sublimity! (lines 101-10)

The contrast between “emerald green” and “genuine force of high Sublimity” echo the similar distinctions between “vales of tenderest green” and “sad views” in stanza one. However, rather than sublimity being that which is beyond cultural articulation, the speaker has transformed it into an aesthetic category and placed it within a hierarchy of such categories. Poetry of the sublime—which the language of “On Sublimity” connotes is heroic, epic, and classical—outranks the poetry of “fancy”—the pastoral, lyric, and Romantic. To use Buell’s language, the poem not only makes sublimity writeable within the anthropocentric tradition but also makes such achievements of poetic domination more aesthetically valuable.  The poem fails to develop an aesthetics of relinquishment suggested in stanza one.

A Marxist reading might interpret this final stanza differently. A Marxist reading would interpret sublimity as an ideologically constituted aesthetic category that distracts readers from the economic exploitation occurring in England’s urban centers during the industrial revolution. Sublimity would even go beyond pastoral, which naturalizes an upper-class utopic vision, by representing uncultivated nature through a blazon of royal and classical qualities. The shortcoming of such a reading is that, because of its assumptions about language, it cannot permit the representation of a sublimity that would decenter the human subject. For the Marxist, culture begins and ends with ideology, which means it also begins and ends with the human.

In contrast, the ecocritic wishes to discover and recover an aesthetics that assumes that the nonhuman is “just as real as we are, has just as much right as you and I do to be taken as the center of the universe around which everything else shall revolve” (Buell 107). Therefore, ecocriticism uncovers not only how Tennyson’s poem forwards the anthropocentric tradition that has led to our current crisis, but it also reveals moments in the text that potentially subvert that tradition, glimmers of what Buell calls an ecocentric environmental consciousness.


Buell, Lawrence. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation  of American Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1995. Print
Published four years after Jonathan Bates’ important Romantic Ecology, Buell’s Environmental Imagination represents the first American book-length self-proclaimed ecocritical study. Buell, however, not only differs from Bates in the subject of his study but also in his politics. Compared to Buell, Bates has a naive approach to nature writing, for, unlike Bates, Buell argues that Thoreau not only pays attention to nature but elevates the nonhuman to be of equal importance as the human. For Buell, the environmental imagination de-centers the human subject from writing and demonstrates the nonhuman’s ineluctable presence and centrality to human affairs.

Derrida, Jacques. “From Of Grammatology.” A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds. Ed. Peggy Kamuf. New York: Columbia UP, 1991. 31-59. Print.
Of Grammatology was published in 1967 along with Speech and Phenomena and Writing and Difference and served as a foundational text for deconstructive criticism. The book develops a practice of reading Derrida names “grammatology,” a word he borrowed but adapted from Ignace Gelb. Analyzing Saussure, Levi-Strauss, and Rousseau “grammatologically,” Derrida demonstrates how Western culture has constructed a binary between speech and writing, privileging the former on the basis of a “metaphysics of presence.” Grammatology is thus a way of reading that not only undermines this binary but also reveals the contradictory logic that grounds all such binaries.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2008. Print.

Tennyson, Alfred Lord. “On Sublimity.” The Compete Poetical Works of Tennyson:Cambridge Edition. Ed. W. J. Rolfe. Cambridge, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1898. 766. Print.
First published in Poems by Two Brothers in 1827, “On Sublimity” contains eleven stanzas of ten iambic pentameter lines, each ending with a couplet that serves a similar function to the final couplet in the Shakespearean sonnet. The poem was published with an epigraph from Edmund Burke’s On the Sublime and the Beautiful, which places the poem within the Romantic tradition of odes to sublimity. Tennyson’s poem, however, departs from the Romantic and displays its Victorianism both in its redefinition of the sublimity as something not entirely interior as well as its detailed survey of exotic landscapes.

Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. New York: Oxford UP, 1977. Print.
Williams attempts a synthesis of Marxist concepts and categories of cultural theory as well as the application of both to literary theory. Williams, however, deviates from former Marxist literary critics in his emphasis of Althusser’s theory of mediation and determination, leading him to develop a model of culture more complicated than the traditional base-superstructure dialectic. In contrast, Williams proposes a dynamic, process model of society in which hegemony is lived individually and continually adapts to residual and emerging social and economic practices. Literature thus expresses the structure of hegemony indirectly through aesthetic form.


Becky Fullan

The Material Soul: a (mostly) Marxist reading of The Sorrows of Satan

Geoffrey Tempest, the narrator of Marie Corelli’s 1895 novel, The Sorrows of Satan, opens the book by asking, “Do you know what it is to be poor?” He calls poverty “the moral cancer that eats into the heart of an otherwise well-intentioned human creature and makes him […] inclined to the use of dynamite”(1), demonstrating the violence courted by pronounced economic disparity.  He promises an explanation for economic inequity in his narrative of temptation, spiritual self-destruction, and finally redemption through his encounters with Lucio, the literal Satan of the title. Geoffrey’s claim that his story of near-damnation can answer economic questions invites Marxist analysis.  The Marxist perspective, however, does not illuminate all aspects of the book, and a materialist reading, which is the centerpiece of any Marxist reading, can be enhanced by including other kinds of cultural criticism, such as feminism and queer theory.

Marxism is committed to a materialist view of history, which argues that material conditions are the ground of experience, and that ideas are derived from these conditions, rather than the other way around.  Within materialism, economic structures form what Marx calls the “base” of society, influencing everything else, including ideologies and seemingly immaterial self-understandings the society harbors, which form what Marx’s “superstructure” (Haslett). In Marxist Literary and Cultural Theories, Moyra Haslett emphasizes that economics and ideology can only be understood in relationship to one another. In seeing this relationship, one can also see that neither particular economic structures nor their accompanying ideologies are natural or essential.  In Marxism and Literary Criticism, Terry Eagleton argues that literature makes tacit ideologies perceptible, therefore also rendering them and their corresponding economic structures open to challenge, whatever the political alliances of the writer (19).  Corelli’s book is suffused with a spiritual worldview, but these spiritual realities are constantly mediated by economic interactions: souls are formed and deformed through relationships to money, which provides a useful conceptualization of an interaction of base and superstructure.

The Sorrows of Satan operates within a Christian cosmological framework whose boundaries are shaped by economic injustice of late Victorian capitalism.  Geoffrey begins in extreme financial trouble, and so opens himself to vice in a passage that swings between spiritual and economic terms:

It was a moment when if ever good and evil angels play a game of chance for a man’s soul, they were surely throwing the dice on the last wager for mine… I had worked honestly and patiently;–all to no purpose.  I knew of rogues who had gained plenty of money… Their prosperity appeared to prove that honesty after all was not the best policy… How should I begin the jesuitical business of committing evil that good, personal good, might come of it? (11)

Geoffrey invites evil to take hold of him in a marriage of religious and  financial language, from the gambling angels to “jesuitical business,” and his temptations to evil are economic injustice and disparity.  Instead of the societal violence threatened in the first paragraphs’ reference to a poor man ready to blow things up, Geoffrey is ready to do spiritual violence to himself.

In response, Geoffrey receives both an introduction to Lucio, clearly (to the reader) the devil, and a huge inheritance from an unknown relative.  Geoffrey remains passive in matters financial, while Lucio shows him how to use money to get social influence, a published book, a beautiful house, and a beautiful wife.

Lucio’s understanding of how to use money proceeds from his understanding of the structure containing Geoffrey and himself.  Despite Lucio’s supernatural provenence, he is functioning as a materialist should within the book’s context—he is looking at the things in this world that have real effects (God exists, souls will be judged) while society attempts to naturalize its own constructed nature by obscuring these truths.  His titular “sorrows” come from the fact that he can see but not change the situation.  Having promised to attempt humanity’s ruin, Lucio is forced (by God’s world-system) to do so, although he only experiences pleasure when he fails.  This resonates and troubles in a Marxist register, because Marxist thought, having recognized and analyzed the material, economically grounded truths of social existence, generally demands a political commitment to changing those systems to make life more livable and economics more equitable (Eagleton, Haslett).  Lucio understands the system but suffers because he cannot change it.   Ambiguously, though, Lucio asserts his submission to God (as forced-tempter) while giving Geoffrey a vision that prompts Geoffrey to reject Lucio and pursue his own salvation (458).  Lucio does not seem to be acting here as the enemy of humankind—is this obedience or disobedience to God?  Lucio claims to have chosen Geoffrey for this vision because Geoffrey’s evils are so ordinary in social terms (449).  Likewise, Marxism works to reveal ordinary, structurally invisible evil, and Lucio’s apparent manipulation of his world’s system questions the very order Lucio claims as absolute (449). A Marxist awareness shows that Lucio’s sorrows and his responses to them are applicable to material history, if we now ask what it means to see a structure, what it means to be obedient or disobedient to it, etc.

Once Geoffrey has chosen obedience to God, his riches disappear because his lawyers have stolen them (464).  Geoffrey is only called upon to make direct spiritual decisions, never economic ones. This coupling of spiritual choice and economic consequence detaches Geoffrey from his economic choices, allowing him to sidestep more violent responses to economic inequities that are evoked in the beginning of the book.  At the same time, Geoffrey’s detachment from his economic choices engages with the Marxist concept of alienation, in which the separation of the worker from the work which “does not belong to his essential being” is part of the overall system of divorcing the products of labor from laborers, so as to concentrate wealth among those not actually doing the work to produce it (Marx and Engels 764).  Geoffrey is careless and cruel with the money while he has it because it does not deeply relate to him, and through that distorted relationship, he becomes unable to do the work he has tried to support himself with earlier: writing.

As a poor man, Geoffrey is able to write a book, but cannot sell it because the publishing industry is corrupt.  As a rich man, he bribes a publisher, but loses his ability to write.  He has become so alienated that he can no longer produce.  When his inappropriate inheritance is lost, his book becomes popular enough to support him financially; finally, he is supporting himself with a product that does “belong to his essential being” (Marx and Engels 764).  Poverty drives one to violence, wealth to damnable self-indulgence, so Geoffrey can only safely exist with a middling income, through a grounded relationship to his own labor and its product.  This only works for Geoffrey as an individual, however, and highlights how the religious concerns of the novel, because they are individualistic, sever the economic awareness of the novel from any explicit call for political change.  At the same time, Geoffrey’s relationship to writing allows a glimpse into the impact of Marxist alienation on both lower and upper classes, since Geoffrey moves through both.

Writing and reading in this novel also relate to the major female characters: Sibyl, Geoffrey’s ultimately suicidal society wife, and Mavis Clare, a spiritually and economically righteous writer.  Sibyl cannot find religious faith or appropriate sexual expression because of sexually inappropriate books she has read, while Mavis Clare is pure in life and writing—leading to critical opprobrium and popular success.  The place of these women in the novel cannot be fully understood through analysis that ignores gender.  Moyra Haslett argues that Marxism and feminism should not be separate because they are both rooted in materialism (35) and are explicitly politicized(7), and indeed, arguing over whether gender or economics should be the starting point of analysis is not useful.  It is significant, however, that in the Marxist reading of this novel so far, it has been convenient to ignore both the female characters and the impact of gender on any character.  Feminist analysis, unlike Marxism, forces a reader to consider these issues as central.

Sibyl considers herself a commodity, enjoining Geoffrey to propose in economic terms: “ ‘… these eyes, these lips, these arms are all yours for the buying!  Why do you expose me to the shame of dallying over your bargain?’ (195).  It would seem, then, that we can understand Sibyl and Geoffrey’s relationship through Marxist concepts of alienation and commodification.  In her essay “Manifesto for Cyborgs,” however, Donna Haraway warns that simple equivalence between Marxism and feminism is insufficient: “…a woman is not simply alienated from her product, but in a deep sense does not exist as a subject [… ]To be constituted by another’s desire is not the same thing as to be alienated in the violent separation of a laborer from his product” (2280).  According to this premise, to understand Sibyl’s presentation of herself as a sexual product, a Marxist-seeming project indeed, we would need to consider sexual objectification with the insights of feminist thinking.

Just as feminist reading can illuminate aspects of The Sorrows of Satan that Marxism alone misses, queer theory can open the text further by revealing relationships that would otherwise be hidden, thus fitting into a comprehensive materialist project.  While Marxism strives to de-naturalize our understanding of the economic structures of society, queer theory seeks to de-naturalize the structures of power that give erotic relationships their legibility within society “by theorizing heteronormativity as a power relation that conditions all subjects and social life” (Morgensen 2).  Queer theory makes visible pieces of Sibyl’s relationship to reading that both Marxism and feminism might miss. Sibyl blames the books she has read for spoiling her sexually and making her unable to love—which is a potential example of Marx’s idea of commodity fetishism, in which objects are imbued with the displaced energy of hidden labor that went into them (Marx 776).  Queer theory, though, would also attend to the relationship between Sibyl and Mavis Clare that is begun when Sybil reads Mavis Clare’s writing.  Sibyl explains: “ ‘… when I read a book by Mavis Clare, I believe love may exist, but when I close the book my belief is shut up with it’ ” (202).  Later, when Sibyl has decided to kill herself, she thinks of Mavis Clare as a potential savior: “She would cling to me woman-like and kiss me, […] and say, ‘[…]–you must come to me and rest!’[…] I will open my window and call her…”(400).  Mavis Clare isn’t there, nor is there any reasonable expectation that she would be, but a queer reading offers a lens capacious (and capricious) enough to recognize many relational possibilities.  These include more conventional homoeroticism in the vision of Mavis Clare’s potential physical tenderness toward Sibyl, and commodity fetishism in the idea of Mavis Clare’s books as the only things that make Sibyl believe in love, as well as an imagined relation so compelling that Sibyl calls out the window for someone likely to be absent.  Queer theory invites attention to each of these destabilizing possibilities of intimacy (woman and woman, woman and book, woman and absent person) in order to expose the constructedness of the one socially sanctioned form of erotic intimacy (wife and husband).  Thus, a queer eye can participate in the materialist project of Marxism and feminism with an attention to erotic relationship that strives against assumptions sometimes perpetuated by the other two frameworks.

Marxism, feminism, and queer theory are joined by their materialist roots and often by their political intentions.  Nonetheless, each pays attention to different social structures, and these differences in attention are crucial, because their insights cannot be fully contained in one another.  The Marxist reading of The Sorrows of Satan performed above reveals the relationship of economics and ideology within the text, but misses aspects of gender and erotic relationship that feminist and queer theory, respectively, can illuminate.

Works Cited

Corelli, Marie.  The Sorrows of Satan.  Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1896.

This novel, originally published in 1895, follows Geoffrey Tempest, an aspiring writer who receives a sudden inheritance and meets Lucio Rimanez, the devil disguised as a man.  Under Lucio’s guidance, Geoffrey acquires an estate, a beautiful wife, and publishes his book.  His book is unsuccessful, however, and his wife, Sybil, does not love him. After trying to initiate an affair with Lucio, Sybil commits suicide and Geoffrey, spiritually bereft, travels with Lucio. Lucio reveals himself to Geoffrey in a vision, and Geoffrey chooses to obey God, after which he loses his fortune and returns to the writing life.

Eagleton, Terry.  Marxism and Literary Criticism.  Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976.

In this book, Eagleton presents a history of Marxist literary criticism in four thematic chapters.  In “Literature and History,” he examines the place of literature in the overall Marxist project of material history. In “Form and Content,” he defines the relationship between how a literary work is made and what it says.  In “The Writer and Commitment” he address political commitments of writers, and contends that a writer need not be a Marxist to be useful to Marxist thinkers. In “The Author as Producer” he addresses books themselves as products of labor within a capitalist business of literary production.

Haslett, Moyra.  Marxist Literary and Cultural Theories.  Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire and London: Macmillan Press, 2000.

This book is an overview of how Marxism can interact with literary and cultural theorizing.  Haslett gives a comprehensive, clear summary of major Marxist concepts and the ways these have been applied by various Marxist thinkers.  She is particularly concerned with the relationship of the concept of ideology to various aspects of cultural production, and also with integrating Marxist and feminist perspectives in active political work.  Haslett also offers Marxist readings of several works of literature, including Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey, which is of interest here because Wilde and Corelli were contemporaries, and Wilde enjoyed Corelli’s work.

Leitch, Vincent B., et. al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism.   New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001.

Haraway, Donna.  “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s.” Leitch 2269-2299.

Marx, Karl.  From Capital, Vol. 1.  Leitch 776-788.

The first section excerpted in this anthology is from Chapter 1, Section 4.  It introduces and explains the concept of commodity fetishism by describing the distorted relationship to commodities produced by the social separation of the worker and the work from the product of that labor.  Essentially, Marx argues that the social importance of workers and the relationship of the workers to the work they do is displaced onto the thing itself, investing commodities with power and meaning far beyond their literal usefulness.  The anthology also includes part of Chapter 10, about the development and definition of the working day.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels.  From  “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.” Leitch 764-767.

Morgensen, Scott Lauria.  Spaces Between Us: Queer Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Decolonization.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.


Kaitlin Mondello

The Figure of Nature in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko: An Ecocritical Approach

Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (1688) has been heralded as a groundbreaking text throughout its critical history: from one of the earliest prototypes for the English novel to the first literary portrayal of African slaves as sympathetic. It also has served as a foundational text for later developments in theories of race, empire, gender and narrative. The novella, purportedly an eye-witness account, details the tragedy of the book’s eponymous character as he is displaced as prince of his native country (present-day Ghana) and enslaved in the British “New World” colony of Surinam.  Notably, Behn portrays both Oroonoko and his wife Imoinda as paragons of humanity and gender roles. Yet arguably, even as Behn exposes the atrocities that befall the virtuous pair, she remains complicit in their exoticization and commodification.

Given its political subject matter, the novella has generated significant debate in both postcolonial and feminist studies. Postcolonial studies elucidates the role of “race” in identity. Behn idealizes Oroonoko as a westernized noble savage who is acculturated, but uncorrupted. His strength of character and leadership are directly juxtaposed to the cowardice and cruelty of his English captors. While Behn’s portrayal of Oroonoko as “the Restoration’s heroic ideal […] a truly civilized man against a decadent society” (Spencer 215) was revolutionary during the colonial period, postcolonial scholars point to multiple ways in which the text reinforces the status quo. In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon argues that the adoption of the colonizer’s culture produces a profound alienation in the black subject. Such alienation is literally and symbolically manifest in the brutal dismemberment of Oroonoko’s body, the pieces of which are sent to various plantations as warnings against slave rebellions. Likewise, Trefy’s renaming of Oroonoko to Caesar (and Imoinda to Clemene) parallels Behn’s own references to them as Adam and Eve, and Mars and Venus. In both cases, African identity is occluded by a Western mask.

Postcolonial criticism also examines the brutal history and effects of the slave trade during colonization. For many postcolonial critics, the novella is not an explicit critique of slavery or English colonialism. Rather, as Albert Rivero argues, Behn provides a detailed exposure of the atrocities of a few within a larger, accepted economic model of development in the vein of Heart of Darkness (443). There is no categorical acknowledgement in the text that the reduction of humanity to commodity ideologically implies and perpetuates violence. At the same time, the text provided its readers with an important, moving and prescient account of the violence to come in the “Middle Passage.” The cyclical violence of empire is realized in the text when rather than murder his captors, Oroonoko executes his pregnant wife and begins to dismember himself before being dismembered by his captors. On the one hand, this violence frees him and his family from continued exploitation, but on the other, it disrupts their own genetic/cultural lineage rather than the socio-political system that perpetuates exploitation.

As Robert L. Chibka points out, “Race and gender, ‘truths’ written on the body, reflect on one another throughout the novel” (229). Just as Behn both challenges and reinforces cultural stereotypes of African and European, she likewise positions herself and Imoinda both in and against traditional gender roles. Feminist criticism heralds Behn as a female writer of equal talent to her male contemporaries. Among the “firsts” attributed to Behn is “England’s first professional woman writer” (Todd 1). As Virginia Woolf famously claimed, “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them a right to speak their minds” (qtd. in Todd 1). Behn, who was criticized as “bawdy in her work, unchaste in her life” (Spencer 211), claimed her right as a woman to sexual and economic liberty through her writing.  Jane Spencer argues in her feminist study of Behn as the author/narrator that Behn’s gender enhances her capacity for social critique through her strategic employment of traditional female roles: relationship and sympathy. Spencer, however, points out that Behn also uses her gender as an “alibi” allowing the men who control the plantation to brutalize Oroonoko while the women flee for safety during the slave revolt (216-8). In this way, Behn’s gender leaves her powerless; her chosen recourse is to write Oroonoko.

Feminist criticism also engages the role of Behn’s female heroine, Imoinda. While Behn is protected from violence by her ethnic and social status in the text, Imoinda is the only woman to fight alongside her husband in the slave revolt. Yet, as Charlotte Sussman posits, “Imoinda is a possession even before she is a slave,” (247) a valuable sexual/reproductive commodity traded between a series of powerful men. Rather than allow this pattern to continue, Oroonoko and Imoinda agree that it is preferable for her and their unborn child to die at his hand. The novella concentrates heavily on Imoinda’s body, from her beauty and tattooing, to her sexuality, pregnancy and corporeal decay into nature after death; her female body is thus read in various feminist studies as a sacrifice to patriarchy and/or a resistance to empire.

In her influential article on Oroonoko, Margaret W. Ferguson sagely suggests critical intersections on “The Categories Of Race, Class And Gender.” While postcolonial criticism focuses on political history and issues of identity, it can likewise engage the ideologies of capitalism and patriarchy that are as rampant and powerful as racism in empire. Similarly, feminist studies that focus solely on the author’s gender benefit from analysis of her privileged positions as a white European of the literary class. Such intersections between critical theories highlight important differences that may otherwise be elided.

Going further than Ferguson in attempting to galvanize political literary theory (postcolonial, Marxist, feminist, etc.), many ecocritics argue for a more extensive understanding of the “interconnections of forms of oppression” (Gaard and Murphy 3) that includes the exploitation of nature. Ecocriticism, which solidified in the 1990s, radically redefined “nature” from a human/cultural construct to an ontological entity subject to cultural (including literary/linguistic) inscription. The ecological impetus in literary criticism coincided with widespread development in environmentalist movements that called attention to the tactile reality of interconnected life on our planet. Though ecocriticism began primarily as a framework to analyze nature writing, it has since developed as an extensive critical methodology with political implications akin to other forms of literary theory that interrogate exploitation. In this way, nature is a related “Other,” subject to economic, cultural and gendered ideological constructions and their resulting forms of oppression and violence.

The politicizing of nature within ecocriticism is necessitated both by theoretical kinship and shared physicality. What is deemed “natural” is often used as a basis for the types of subjugation studied by postcolonial, Marxist and feminist critics. Likewise, the oppression of various groups often directly corresponds to the exploitation of natural resources. Such interconnections are evident from a study of the role of nature in Oroonoko. An ecocritical reading of nature–as concept, symbol and material reality–significantly deepens a political reading of the text beyond the anthropocentric approaches of postcolonialism or feminism alone.

Behn’s concept of nature anticipates Rousseau’s and corresponds to the Biblical/Miltonic prelapsarian paradise that is uncorrupted. Comparisons between Oroonoko and Imoinda in Africa with Adam and Eve in paradise and in Greek mythology are not only forms of European whitewashing, but also are part of a larger mythology of the “New World” as harkening back to a lost Golden Age of harmony between humans and nature:

these people represented to me an absolute idea of the first state of innocence, before man knew how to sin. And ’tis most evident and plain that simple Nature is the most harmless, inoffensive, and virtuous mistress. ‘Tis she alone, if she were permitted, that better instructs the world than all the inventions of man. (Behn 11)

The same conceptions were applied to both indigenous people and their native lands: the mythology of “natural” innocence was thus used in colonialism to render indigenous people harmless and the land they inhabit ready for economic cultivation.

Such mutually reinforcing stereotypes enact the concerns raised by Sherry Ortner in her influential ecocritical article “Is female to male as nature is to culture?” in which nature is associated with the feminine, while culture is linked to the masculine, leaving both male and female, and culture and nature, rigidly divided from each other. Enacting the female/nature paradigm, Behn frequently refers to Imoinda in terms associated with nature: when her “virgin honour” is in question, she becomes a “polluted thing” that must be sent away and she repeatedly is likened to sexual “prey” (Behn 29, 31). Further, Behn’s characterization of nature as feminine, innocent and fecund leads her to romanticize Surinam’s natural bounty in a catalogue of everything that can be commodified and traded:

 ‘Tis a continent whose vast extent was never yet known, and may contain more noble earth than all the universe beside; for, they say, it reaches from east to west one way as far as China, and another to Peru: it affords all things both for beauty and use; ’tis there eternal spring, always the very months of April, May, and June; the shades are perpetual, the trees bearing at once all degrees of leaves and fruit (51)

This mythology of nature’s endless bounty, highlighted in imagined geographic vastness and the hyperbole of “eternal” and “perpetual,” is used to justify continued exploitation without concern for sustainability or ethics. The extensive commodification of nature (plants, animals, minerals, etc.) that Behn describes not only parallels, but also enacts, the cycle of human enslavement. The economic cultivation of a once “virgin” land that is fruitful and multiplies likewise requires a seemingly endless stream of human bodies to cultivate those natural resources for others’ economic profit, as in the Surinam plantation in Oroonoko. This myth of abundance, when applied to the commodification of humans, underlies the most brutal atrocities in the “Middle Passage” where humans became expendable objects that could be replenished.

A famous maxim in animal studies, an emerging field in literary criticism often allied with ecocriticism, is that whatever we do to animals, we will do to each other. Though Behn is not directly critical of the English trade in goods, animals or slaves, she creates stylistic parallels between her hero and heroine with the natural objects and creatures which are traded.  She likewise foreshadows their deaths through two episodes in which Oroonoko slays female tigers. Behn describes the animal as taking an “abundance of sheep and oxen and other things that were the support of those to whom they belonged” (53). Here, the peaceful vegetarian animals that are part of a domestic economic system which is threatened by the greed of a carnivore from afar can be read as a symbolic microcosm of colonialism in nature. This parallel is reinforced when Oroonoko asks “What trophies and garlands, ladies, will you make me, if I bring you home the heart of this ravenous beast that eats up all your lambs and pigs?” (54). In both worlds, there is an exchange of resources and bodies. Behn complicates this symbolism in the end of the novella when it is Oroonoko, not his English captors/colonizers, who dies like the tiger and his body, like the tiger’s heart, is divided in the spoils of colonization.  Behn thereby uses nature subtly to both illustrate and critique cycles of violence and commodification. As these examples indicate, ecocriticism allows us to attend to the significant role that nature plays in a text to explore the shared ideological and material oppression of both humans and nature.

Works Cited

Behn, Aphra. Oroonoko. Ed. Joanna Lipking. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997. Print.

Chibka, Robert L. “Truth, Falsehood, and Fiction in Oroonoko.” Lipking 220-231.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press, 2008. Print.

Ferguson, Margaret W. “Juggling The Categories Of Race, Class And Gender: Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko.” Women’s Studies 19.2 (1991): 159. Academic Search Complete. Web. 11 Aug. 2012.

Gaard, Greta, and Patrick D. Murphy. Ecofeminist Literary Criticism: Theory, Interpretation, Pedagogy. Urbana: U of Illinois Press, 1998. Print.

Ortner, Sherry B. “Is female to male as nature is to culture?” Woman, culture, and society. Eds. M. Z. Rosaldo and L. Lamphere. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1974: 68-87. Print.

Rivero, Albert J. “Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko and the ‘Blank Spaces’ of Colonial Fictions.” SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 39.3 (Summer 1999): 443-62. Academic Search         Complete. Web. 1 July 2012.

Sussman, Charlotte. “The Other Problem with Women: Reproduction and Slave Culture in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko.”  Lipking 246-255.

Annotated Bibliography

Behn, Aphra. Oroonoko. Ed. Joanna Lipking. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997. Print.

Published a year before the author’s death, this novella follows the tragic downfall of its   eponymous hero. The text follows the conventions of tragic romance when both Oroonoko and his wife are enslaved in Surinam. After a failed attempt at a slave rebellion, Oroonoko kills his pregnant wife rather than leave her “prey” to their English colonizers. Devastated by this loss, he is unable to fight his captors and is ultimately quartered by them. The novella raises important questions of genre, narrative, gender and race.

Ortner, Sherry B. “Is female to male as nature is to culture?” Woman, culture, and society. Eds. M. Z. Rosaldo and L. Lamphere. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1974: 68-87. Print.

 In this groundbreaking essay, Ortner argues that women across all cultures traditionally are associated with nature due to their biology and hence denied access to the realm of culture. Ortner argues against the sexism, essentialism and false dualism of such a  premise, as well as against the cultural institutions that enact and perpetuate this mythology.

Rivero, Albert J. “Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko and the ‘Blank Spaces’ of Colonial Fictions.” SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 39.3 (Summer 1999): 443-62. Academic Search Complete. Web. 1 July 2012.

This essay draws multiple parallels between Oroonoko and Heart of Darknesss, from the marginalized status of the authors to their use of narration and form. River engages various postcolonial theories of hierarchy (JanMohamed), space (Pratt) and identity (Bhabha) to analyze the “blank spaces” in which cultures meet and conflict.   He concludes that both texts, though they expose atrocities in colonization, ultimately  reinscribe the dominant ideologies behind colonialism itself. 

Sussman, Charlotte. “The Other Problem with Women: Reproduction and Slave Culture in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko.”  Lipking 246-255.

This essay studies the characterization of Imoinda and her pivotal role in the tragedy. Sussman analyzes Imoinda’s objectification and eroticism, arguing that the form of heroic romance is complicated by the association between the corporeal power of her beauty and the simultaneous constraint of her body through both patriarchal and colonial means. Synthesizing these points, Sussman concludes that Imoinda’s status as an erotic object drives the deaths in the text, thereby precluding the real and symbolic possibility of freedom embodied in Imoinda’s unborn child. 


Melina Moore (Passed with Distinction)

“My joly body schal a tale telle”: Feminist, Queer, and Disability Theory and The Wife of Bath’s Prologue of The Canterbury Tales

From her excess of head scarves and scarlet red stockings, to her lively engagement with medieval antifeminist and clerical texts, to her vigorous assertion of herself as a vividly present desiring female body (gap-tooth, deafness, red cheeks and all), Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath remains one of the most enduring female voices in English literature. Many schools of critical thought have engaged with the Wife of Bath in order to explain the fascination she continues to ignite in modern readers. Such a vibrant figure provides rich material for feminist theorists, who focus on Alisoun’s bold assertion of her sexuality and critique of patriarchal ideals of female chastity. Queer theory offers an alternative vision; the Wife’s aggressive public presence and sexual candor can be understood as a disruption of the link between biological sex and “natural” masculine and feminine behavior, thus exposing the construction of gender categories in general. However, I argue that disability studies, with its attention to the cultural constructs of impairment and the material body, reveals vital aspects of the Wife’s character and the narrative devices that construct her that feminist and queer theory fail to illuminate. Ultimately, the Wife of Bath challenges norms not only through her exceptional delineation of the situation of women within medieval marriage or her radical play with conventional gender categories, but also as a non-normative female body whose physical presence actively interrogates the intersections between femininity, sexuality, and disability.

Since its inception, feminist criticism has pursued the goal of recovering literary representations of women by both male and female authors within a cultural framework that assumes male superiority and authority. As Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar ask in their landmark feminist text, The Madwoman in the Attic: “What does it mean to be a woman writer in a culture whose…definitions of literary authority are…both overtly and covertly patriarchal?” (45). While some feminist critics see the Wife as Chaucer’s composite of negative female stereotypes, she can also be read as a proto-feminist figure, who counters the “auctoritee” of medieval society’s cultural texts on women with her own “experience,” and exposes and critiques the misogyny of her culture.

A female storyteller within a company of predominantly male pilgrims, the Wife articulates her frustration with the restrictions of medieval patriarchal culture, particularly in terms of the emphasis placed on female chastity in religious and anti-feminist texts. Scoffing at men who “glosen up and doun,” imposing multiple interpretations of biblical texts in order to restrict female sexuality, she advocates a return to the main text and its positive portrayal of physical desire.  Feminist critic Carolyn Dinshaw argues that

the Wife speaks as the literal text, insisting on the positive, significant value of the carnal letter as opposed to the spiritual gloss; moreover, in doing so she appropriates the methods of the masculine, clerkly glossators themselves, thus exposing the techniques that they would rather keep invisible (Dinshaw 120).

Rejecting the interpretations men use to condemn female licentiousness, the Wife provides her own analysis of restrictive cultural dogma—one that allows her to rationalize and celebrate both her deviation from the codes of behavior and her use of distinctly feminine power. Advertising the sexual experience acquired from five marriages, Alisoun asks her listeners why she should be condemned for her multiple marriages when “God bad us for to wexe and multiply,” effectively forging space for female desire within male authored religious discourse (l. 44f, 28). Significantly, she counters her society’s obvious gender bias in terms of the acceptance of bigamy with her own examples from scripture, pointing out that “Abraham was an hooly man, and Jacob eek…And eech of hem hadde wyves mo than two” (l. 55-7).

Further, the Wife’s descriptions of five marriages identify the obstacles women face when husbands control access to material wealth and security. Here she seemingly replicates antifeminist discourse about female trickery in order to illuminate the situation of women disempowered through marriage. While the Wife appears to glorify the gifts of “deceite, wepyng, [and] spynnyng” that God kindly gives to women in order to help them manipulate their husbands, her account of various methods of contriving freedom also underscores the “wo” of marriages that contribute to the systematic oppression of women by attempting to render them financially and socially dependent on men (l. 401-2).

While a feminist reading engages with the Wife of Bath’s femininity as a fixed category of historical analysis, a queer reading de-stabilizes the notion of femininity by considering the ways she challenges the binary oppositions of masculine and feminine. Queer theory, developing from the “post-structuralist figuring of identity as a constellation of multiple and unstable positions,” might here be described as engaged with “gestures or analytical models which dramatize incoherencies in the allegedly stable relations between chromosomal sex, gender, and sexual desire” (Jagose 3). Here, the term queer refers to a queering of gender norms that aligns with queer theory’s commitment to disrupt, question, and de-naturalize binary categories accepted as absolute by dominant culture.

As a biological woman who performs a bold, sexually explicit public persona typically associated with men, the Wife ruptures hegemonic gender categories and draws attention to the way gender is inscribed into the body through various social mechanisms. In Chaucer’s Queer Nation (2003), Glenn Burger draws on Judith Halberstam’s argument that “far from being an imitation of maleness, female masculinity actually affords a glimpse of how masculinity is constructed as masculinity” (Halberstam 1). Burger argues that the Wife is

an example of performative ‘female masculinity’ that interrupts the kind of straight journey between male and female, masculine and feminine that would allow us comfortably to ‘end’ in a dominant and heteronormative masculinity and its productive circulations of male power (Burger 89).

Alisoun attempts to speak to the universal experience of being a wife, elucidating qualities and habits that “we women han” (l. 515). She also continually draws attention to her female body, especially in connection with her physical lust. Yet, in spite of the Wife’s assertion of herself a universal female body, her sexual experiences and the frankness with which she speaks about them prove far from typical. As Burger suggests, while unmarried women and women with church titles enjoyed some degree of participation in medieval public life, wives were generally restricted from activities like pilgrimages or, presumably, storytelling competitions.

Further, the Wife’s unabashed acknowledgement of sexual experience and desire, complete with objectification of the clerk Jankyn’s “legges and feet so clene and faire” (l. 598) forms a portrait of a woman boldly acting out behaviors considered an inherent part of hegemonic masculinity. Queer theory’s critical lens makes it possible to understand Alisoun as a character who challenges the strictures of patriarchy, but also poses a profound challenge to all stable categories of identity—de-centering medieval masculinity by disrupting assumptions about its cultural mapping and demonstrating its ability to transcend male bodies.

However, while both feminist and queer theoretical lenses yield rich readings, neither proves entirely satisfying because their focus on social constructionist models precludes a reading of the Wife’s material body and her experiences as a disabled woman.  Though disability studies  “exposes with great force the constraints imposed on bodies by social codes and norms,” Tobin Siebers suggests that disability scholars have also begun to “insist that strong social constructionism either fails to account for the difficult physical realities faced by people with disabilities or presents their body in ways that are conventional, conformist, and unrecognizable to them” (Siebers 57). Disability theorists continue to look for ways to deconstruct ableist assumptions imposed on all bodies without forgetting to attend to the specific lived experiences of suffering bodies.

The application of disability studies to medieval literature presents a challenge because of the period’s distinct historical differences from modern culture. Perhaps the biggest obstacle has been the “belief of modern authors that ancient or medieval societies invariably saw a link between sin and illness” (Metzler 13). Yet, as Irina Metzler and others argue, this was not the only possible way in which medieval people understood and experienced disability, since not every medieval person had the same unquestioning relationship to the Church’s doctrine. As new cultural models of medieval impairment emerge, disability theory illuminates the Wife as both a woman living with a physical impairment within a culture that frequently values normative bodies as spiritually pure, and a woman whose deafness confronts the tension between texts and embodied experience, raising salient questions about representation and communication.

Most critics dismiss the Wife’s hearing impairment as insignificant, but it is actually the first detail Chaucer notes when he introduces the Wife in the General Prologue: “A good Wif was ther of biside Bathe,/ But she was somdel deef, and that was scathe” (l. 445-6). Additionally, the Wife’s deafness plays a central role in her Prologue, since she provides a vivid explanation of its origin in her depiction of the eruption of domestic violence that resulted in the injury. Tory Vandeventer Pearman finds the Wife of Bath’s link between physical impairment and violence against women especially significant. As she argues:

…Able-bodied wives face violent castigation that results in physical impairment for their sinfulness, thus demonstrating a direct link between inward corruption and outward physical appearance…These texts, consequently, place women in an uncomfortable predicament by marking unruly women as deviant, yet aligning ideal femininity with disability (Pearman 45).

The Wife rebels against her fifth husband Jankyn’s predilection for antifeminist texts that expound on the wickedness of women, angrily tearing leaves from his favorite volume. In retaliation, Jankyn strikes her with such force that he causes permanent hearing loss. As Pearman suggests, this explicit connection between misogynist scripts and bodily punishment illustrates the way in which the able-bodied, unruly female body is always already perceived as disabled within medieval culture because a woman’s misconduct brings about serious corporeal consequences. Further, this attention to a medieval construction of willful, able-bodied femininity as threatening suggests the degree to which socially sanctioned femininity proves enmeshed within the discourse of impairment; women tamed through the limitations imposed by disability may emerge as the ideal, compliant bodies of male fantasy.

Yet the Wife is never tamed; the injury caused by Jankyn actually enables her to finally gain mastery over her husband. She strikes him back in return, and the guilt he feels for deafening her persuades him to relinquish the “bridel” to his wife, giving her “governance of hous and land, and of his tonge, and of his hond also” (l. 819-821). This unexpected victory suggests that the significance of the Wife’s deafness lies in its challenge to dominant cultural scripts yoking moral deviance to physical defects. As Edith Edna Sayers argues, the Wife provides a narrative of disability of great value to modern readers because she avoids clichés, emerging as neither “villain” nor “testament of human spirit” (Sayers 88).

Chaucer’s exploration of deafness as a real-life condition also raises salient questions about the Wife’s unique way of seeing the world and mediating her experiences and relationships with others. Sayers suggests that deafness can function as “the quintessential individualizer,” because it removes subjects from the “leveling effects of social institutions”:

…the Wife deploys experience and orality to accommodate her deafness to the fullest, creating a satisfying world for herself where abusive husbands are rendered meek and sarcastic clerics must perforce let her have her say (Sayers 91-2).

Rather than working as a metaphorical inability to listen to patriarchal discourse, here the embodied experience of deafness actually enables the Wife of Bath to challenge male authority by providing her with the unique ability to inhabit a world formed by her own design and free from the oppressive rhetoric she once heard Jankyn read aloud. As the Wife tells us, after that fateful argument, the two never again had another “debaat” (l. 828). Ultimately, the Wife’s singular experience as a disabled woman not only allows her to challenge medieval cultural scripts about sin and impairment, but also to live unapologetically according to her own impulses, without feeling the pressure to adjust her opinions to conform with social norms.

The history of critical inquiry surrounding the Wife of Bath mirrors the very questions Chaucer’s memorable character raises in her Prologue. Critics have “glosen” up and down, but we would do well to follow Alisoun’s advice and return our focus to the main text, to that “joly body” that promises to tell us a tale of embodied experience. Exploring the Wife’s deafness not only complicates cultural associations between femininity, disability, and morality, but also provides valuable insight into her extraordinary ability to create space for her desires, to re-imagine herself into a world that grants her agency—and to describe this compelling world to generations of captivated readers.

Annotated Bibliography

Burger, Glenn. Chaucer’s Queer Nation. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

Burger engages with both queer and postcolonial theory in order to re-imagine Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in terms of the medieval relations between body and community and to consider questions of gender and sexuality within both medieval and modern contexts. His analysis of the Wife of Bath illuminates the way her apparent masculinity disrupts assumptions about the link between biological sex and gendered behaviors.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales Complete, ed. Larry D. Benson. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories written largely in verse by Geoffrey Chaucer near the end of the 14th century. The stories are told through the various perspectives of pilgrims competing in a storytelling competition as they travel to Canterbury Cathedral. The Wife of Bath, one of the most fully developed pilgrims, boasts a prologue twice as long as her tale, and her discussion of marriage and female desire provides valuable insight into the role of women in the medieval period. Benson’s glossary and editorial notes make the volume accessible to first time readers and specialists alike.

Dinshaw, Carolyn. Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

Dinshaw’s text, the first full-length feminist treatment of Chaucer, argues that the gender dynamics at play in The Canterbury Tales are not incidental, but in fact central to achieving an understanding of Chaucer’s poetics. Dinshaw suggests that the Wife of Bath’s emphasis on her body as text challenges the authority of male authorship by appropriating and exposing the methods it attempts to keep invisible.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. 2nd ed. Yale University Press, 1979.

Gilbert and Gubar’s pioneering volume of feminist literary criticism examines the vexed position of 19th century women writers struggling to move beyond the dichotomy of woman as either “angel of the house” or monstrous madwoman. While the text largely focuses on the 19th century, the authors engage with prominent figures of female authorship throughout literary history, such as the Wife of Bath, in order to illustrate the pervasiveness of assumed male authority and authorship.

Halberstam, Judith. Female Masculinity. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1998.

Halberstam’s interdisciplinary exploration of diverse gender expression among masculine women from the 19th century to the contemporary performances of drag kings both provides a history of female masculinity and advocates for a more nuanced understanding of masculine identities and hybrid or minority genders within queer scholarship.

Jagose, Annamarie. Queer Theory: An Introduction. New York University Press, 1997.

Combining insights from a number of prominent queer theorists, in this introductory text Jagose identifies the various goals of queer theory as a methodology, while also tracing its roots to gay liberation, lesbian feminism, and the project of uncovering a history of same-sex love.

Metzler, Irina. Disability in Medieval Europe: Thinking about Physical Impairment During the

High Middle Ages, c. 1100-1400. London and New York: Routledge, 2006.

This text, which has become foundational in developing a disability studies approach to the medieval period, examines medieval medical treatises for discussions of the relationship between impairment and healing miracles from the 12th to 14th centuries. As a historian, Metzler makes an important intervention in modern assumptions about medieval culture by complicating the notion that all medieval people believed that disability automatically signaled moral deficiency.

Pearman, Tory Vandeventer. Women and Disability in Medieval Literature. New York: Palgrave, 2010.

Through readings of everything from medieval conduct manuals to spiritual autobiography, Pearman analyzes the formal and thematic significance of disability in medieval texts, with emphasis on the way in which various medieval discourses associate femininity with impairment. Contextualizing the Wife of Bath within the didacticism of medieval conduct manuals, Pearman argues that rebellious women are linked with bodily punishment, which reveals ideal femininity’s inherent association with physical disability.  

Sayers, Edna Edith. “Experience, Authority, and the Mediation of Deafness: Chaucer’s Wife of Bath,” in Disability in the Middle Ages: Reconsiderations and Reverberations, ed. Joshua Eyler. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010 (81-92).

Elyer’s volume of essays not only brings together critical examinations of disability in a wide range of medieval texts and topics but also provides an important examination of the ongoing project of adapting the methodologies of disability studies to the historical particulars of the medieval period. Edna Edith Sayers’ essay traces the critical history surrounding the Wife of Bath, critiquing the failure to consider deafness as an actual state of being rather than a metaphorical rebellion against patriarchal values and suggesting that the Wife’s physical impairment enables her to exercise her independence and powerfully re-imagine her world.

Siebers, Tobin. Disability Theory. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008.

This important and comprehensive text both introduces and transforms disability studies by assessing the state of critical inquiry around impairment and also pushing the field forward by placing it in conversation with current insights in queer theory and other relevant fields. Siebers outlines the way in which ableist assumptions construct disability by imposing the same expectations on all bodies and refusing to acknowledge the reality of a world composed of varied bodies. Significantly, Siebers also moves beyond constructionist models, considering the pain of suffering bodies often erased in analyses of disability as embodied rebellion against cultural norms.


Rose O’Malley

“A Disordered Mind”: The Body and the Brain in The Coquette

Hannah Webster Foster’s 1797 novel, The Coquette focuses on the complex issue of middle-class women’s place in eighteenth-century America, thereby encouraging its analysis by a variety of critical approaches addressing gender and class. A traditional feminist reading, for example, might focus on the strict policing of female sexuality throughout the novel, while a Marxist reading would view Eliza’s romantic failures as attempts to traverse strict class boundaries. In contrast to these approaches, my reading, which is based in neo-materialism, concentrates on the novel’s treatment of Eliza’s body and brain to suggest a combined physical, neurological, and psychological foundation for her moral fall.

The Coquette is a sentimental epistolary novel, based on a true story, that details the seduction and death of Eliza Wharton, an educated middle-class woman seduced by a married man who dies giving birth to their stillborn baby. The novel begins soon after the death of Eliza’s fiancé, a solemn, sickly man who was chosen for her by her dead clergyman father, and who she only accepted because she, correctly, assumed that he would not live to see their wedding day. After her fiance’s death, Eliza is keen to enter larger society, and feels “pleasure…on leaving my paternal roof!” (5). She soon meets two eligible men: one, Mr. Boyer is another serious clergyman who pursues her and seeks to marry her; the other, Major Sanford, is an apparently wealthy man, who appeals to Eliza’s sense of fun and flirtation. She refuses to engage herself to Mr. Boyer, and loses his trust. Her flirtation with Major Sanford, a rake, who, though in love with Eliza, refuses to marry any but a wealthy woman, also results in nothing. Eliza is thrown by these rejections, and becomes a recluse in her mother’s home. Eventually, she begins an affair with the now-married Major Sanford. When she becomes pregnant, she leaves her home in shame, and dies giving birth in a town where she is unknown.

The novel repeatedly considers the question of why a woman with so many worldly advantages – such as education, a stable upbringing, and a comfortable home –would end up in such dire circumstances. Julia Gransby, Eliza’s steadfast companion, at one point directly writes, “I was surprised at her becoming the prey of an insidious libertine, with whose character she was well acquainted, and whose principles she was fully appraised would prompt him to deceive and betray her” (145). Ignorance, in other words, is never Eliza’s problem; even as she moves toward her fate, her many friends warn her of the potential dangers of the path ahead, but still she persists in pursuing her downfall. Eliza herself claims that, “the cause may be found in that unrestrained levity of disposition, that fondness for dissipation and coquetry which alienated the affections of Mr. Boyer from me” (145). The fact of her coquetry is not, however, a satisfying explanation, and several critics have employed more complicated methods and explanations in addressing Eliza’s character.

One such critic is Gareth Evans, who owes much to Marxist criticism in his analysis of American sentimental novels. Marxist criticism concentrates on the “writer’s social class and it’s prevailing ideology” as a way of analyzing a text (Barry 152). A Marxist reading of The Coquette, therefore, would consider it within the context of the establishment of the American middle class. Evans’ reading in particular contends that The Coquette encourages the development of the middle class by “opposing the virtues of middle-class social models and norms to the vices of aristocratic codes of conduct” (41). In refusing to accept the more modest, middle class clergyman Boyer while enjoying the attentions of the apparently wealthier (and more European) Major Sanford, Eliza makes the mistake of aspiring to rise above her class in wealth, but below her class in morality. Through this lens, her downfall is not simply the result of flirtation, but rather a fall into aristocratic debauchery, and could have only been avoided by her following the middle-class moral codes set up by her deceased father, and continued by Mr. Boyer.

A traditional feminist reading of The Coquette, on the other hand, would emphasize the novel’s negotiation of social constructions of eighteenth-century femininity in assigning a cause to Eliza’s downfall. Traditional feminist criticism is concerned with “exposing what might be called the mechanisms of patriarchy, that is, the cultural ‘mind-set’ in men and women which perpetuated sexual inequality” (117). Cathy Davidson’s introduction to The Coquette, in which she reads the novel as feminist in itself, offers a reading in the vein: she sees Foster as using the real-life tragedy of Elizabeth Whitman (the women on whom Eliza is based) to question the social structures that limit women’s freedom, concluding that “if the facts give us the choice that the protagonist did make, the fiction gives us all the right reasons for that choice” (x). In Davidson’s estimation, Eliza’s indecision is not based in love of pleasure or flirtation, but a real aversion to both of her suitors coupled with the unwillingness to commit to potential spinsterhood. In this reading, her initial unwillingness to marry, and even her flirtation, is something to be celebrated by modern feminists, even though it leads her to a tragic end, because it represents her rebellion against the narrow expectations of middle-class femininity.

There is, however, another aspect to Eliza’s plight that emerges throughout the text that complicates the Marxist and feminist readings: Both Eliza and her mother express the belief that Eliza’s downfall comes as a result of a combination of physical and psychic maladies that first manifest themselves when she is rejected by Mr. Boyer. In fact, Eliza continues her above-quoted explanation of her behavior by arguing that Boyer’s rejection “fatally depressed and enfeebled my mind. I embraced with avidity the consoling power of friendship, ensaringly offered by my seducer…” (145). When she gave in to Major Sanford’s attentions, Eliza believes, she no longer had the mental capacity to resist him because of her earlier disappointment. Her “enfeebled mind” is also paired with a weakened physical state, which further makes her susceptible to Major Sanford’s demands; as Eliza states, her “health has fallen a sacrifice to a disordered mind” (146). This weak health is witnessed by her worried mother who, “observed, that Eliza’s brain was evidently disordered. Nothing else, continued she, could impel her to act in the extraordinary manner” (149). A disordered brain and an enfeebled body leading to the moral and emotional collapse of the heroine is not something that fits comfortably as the focus of either a Marxist or feminist reading; to understand these moments in the text, I therefore had to look to another critical method.

The novel’s allusions to the intricate connections between emotion, morality, brain, and body tie it to the relatively recent movement of feminist neo-materialism. The fundamental assumption of this critical movement is that earlier forms of criticism, especially feminist criticism, overly de-emphasized matter and the body through theories of social construction. Critics following this method seek to re-emphasize the importance of matter in theoretical concerns, not to reassert the Newtonian-Cartesian duality between mind and matter, but rather to probe the complex relationships between what is thought of as matter and what is thought of as mind, especially in light of recent advances in neuroscience. This method assumes a fundamentally active vision of matter:

In sum, new materialists are rediscovering a materiality that materializes, evincing immanent modes of self-transformation that compel us to think of causation in far more complex terms; to recognize that phenomena are caught in a multitude of interlocking systems and forces and to consider anew the location and nature of capacities for agency. (Coole and Frost 9)

Insofar as women have been aligned with “matter” and “nature” in much of the traditional philosophical tradition, any reassessment of the agency or volatility of matter (or nature) must have far-reaching consequences for feminist thought.

With these assumptions and concerns in mind, Elizabeth Wilson takes a neo-materialist approach to Freud in her 2004 book, Feminism and the Neurological Body. In the chapter “Freud, Prozac, and Melancholic Neuralgia,” she explores the “neuro-psychology of depression” using Peter Kramer’s Listening to Prozac and Freud’s early conceptions of neurasthenia (16). Within this chapter, she figures depression in a way that is particularly resonant to readers of The Coquette: she sees as potentially the result of “neurological kindling.” “Maybe the brains of traumatized people have been stressed in such a way that it leaves them vulnerable…to attacks of depression. A substantial trauma early in life…may be sufficient to weaken the neurological system so that this person become susceptible to depression at a later date following a relatively minor trauma” (25). Instead of accepting a clear figuration of depression (in which depression results either from a neurochemical imbalance or trauma), Wilson argues for an explanation that denies clear causality and refigures brain- and body-matter as active; biological, neurological and psychic forces interact with each other over time to reinforce depressive tendencies.

In applying Wilson’s deployment of neo-materialist strategies to The Coquette, while keeping in mind the broader assumptions of those strategies, I arrive at the conclusion that Eliza’s weakness is more multi-layered and complex than a typical reading might suggest; if there is no clear causality between neurological, psychic and bodily interactions, Eliza’s downfall cannot be blamed only on her moral weakness, nor can it be merely a matter of class envy or sexual rebellion against marriage. Instead, all factors become a mutually implicated system in which the psyche and the soma are constantly interacting to produce her susceptibility. Her physical weakness becomes not only a symptom of her depression, but a factor in its perpetuation.

The “negative” impulse, or kindling, comes from what Wilson would term the “stress” of Eliza’s circumstances, which set off her spiral into depression, seduction and death. Though, as mentioned above, Eliza blames her rejection by Boyer, it could be argued that that is only the “relatively minor trauma” that is heightened by her previous exposure to some unknown “substantial trauma.” Perhaps the deaths of her father and her fiance left her brain “disordered” and vulnerable to depression, especially when she is abandoned by yet another serious clergyman. Or perhaps the pressure of the marriage dance as a whole shaped her psyche (and therefore her body) to be vulnerable to Boyer’s rejection and Major Sanford’s seduction. The very fact of being a middle-class woman of marrying age in the eighteenth century may qualify as the “substantial trauma,” since Eliza is continually surrounded by well-meaning friends pushing her toward a safe and steady match, while issuing dire warnings of what may happen if she fails to choose wisely. Whatever the initial kindling, Eliza is primed for depression before she is rejected by her suitor, and her brain, body, and psyche are all ready to play a part in furthering her tragedy.

This inclusion of social factors into my neo-materialist reading demonstrates the connection between feminist neo-materialism and traditional feminist critique. Similarly, both Marxist theory and neo-materialism utilize material conditions, economic and neurological, respectively. Despite these connections, however, choosing to utilize one critical method over another leads to different readings of the same novel, and different views on who or what is to blame for Eliza’s death. In assuming that the body and the brain are important factors in Eliza’s susceptibility, my reading opens the question of her culpability and leads to a richer consideration of her physical and psychic connection to her environment and experiences.

Annotated Bibliography

Davidson, Cathy N. “Introduction.” The Coquette. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. Print.

Davidson examines the novel’s treatment of gender, and is representative of a feminist reading. She argues that Foster altered the historical events on which her novel was based to give greater complexity to the issue of the sexual double standard; Foster made her protagonist’s romantic prospects both unappealing to demonstrate Eliza’s lack of choice, and rational desire for an egalitarian marriage, or no marriage at all. Davidson states “the fiction gives us all the right reasons for [Eliza’s] wrong choice” (x). She also sees the multiple deaths of children as a deliberate “tempering of the joys of domesticity …” (xi).

Evans, Gareth. “Rakes, Coquettes, and Republican Patriarchs: Class, Gender, and Nation in Early American Sentimental Fiction.” Canadian Review of American Studies. 25:3 (1995). 41-64. EBSCOHost. Web. August 2012.

Evans considers three American sentimental novels, including The Coquette, and concludes that each of them reinforce the ideals of the middle class against those of the wealthy pseudo-aristocratic classes. Those ideals especially focus on following the dictates of a benign patriarch, even, as in Eliza’s situation, after he is dead. He concludes that American fiction in particular was invested in creation of the middle class because it saw itself as a nation as the virtuous middle class to Europe’s decadent aristocracy.

Foster, Hannah Webster. The Coquette. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. Print.

This epistolary novel tells the story of Eliza Wharton, an educated, witty, lively young woman presented with two suitors: Reverend Boyer, a boring clergyman who proposes marriage, and Major Sanford, a rake who wants to seduce her. She is unable to decide, and so both Boyer and Sanford marry other women. She allows herself to be seduced by Sanford after his marriage, becomes pregnant, and flees her home for an out-of-town inn where she dies giving birth.

Wilson, Elizabeth. “Freud, Prozac, and Melancholic Neurology.” Psychosomatic: Feminism an the Neurological Body. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004. Print.

Wilson uses Freud’s consideration of neurasthenia as a lens through which to consider modern conceptions of depression. Freud’s model relied upon a complex interaction between the libido and the sex organs, the psyche and the soma, that denied any clear-cut causality, and refused to classify the brain as inert matter that is only reactive to psychic trauma. Instead, he, and Wilson, advocate for a more complex set of mutual interactions and obligations between the physical brain and emotion.

Other Works Cited
Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2009. Print.

Coole, Diana and Samantha Frost. “Introducing the New Materialisms.” New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. ed. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010. Print.


VII B. Part I-B Anonymous (Passed with distinction)

G.M. Hopkins: “I Wake”

Like his oft-anthologized poem, “Can-ion Comfort,” G. M. Hopkins’ “I wake…” is an untitled sonnet addressed in anguish and despair to God. In form and content, Hopkins’ “1 wake…” harks back to Donne’s Holy Sonnets in their personalized spiritual concern for how a clergyman can reconcile his sin and fallibility – his very humanness -with his lore for, and anger towards, a distant God. “I wake…” was written, along with most of Hopkins’ work, in an intense period of creativity that lasted from 1885-1887, in the final years of the poet’s life. Hopkins wrote poems as a young man, but after completing his university education, her burned his work and ceased to write for many years. This act of destruction, and the ensuing silence that followed, was concomitant to Hopkins’ conversion to Catholicism and his entry in the Jesuit priesthood. It was the loss at sea of a ship, carrying several catholic nuns, that inspired Hopkins to take up writing again; in this case, the occasional poem elegizing those nuns and the lost ship, entitle “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” Hopkins’ work was not publicly received during his lifetime, but was “rediscovered,” in a sense, after the First World War. His poems were published in 1918 to a nascent Modernist audience receptive to his oddly muscular, alliterative “sprung rhythm” as well as his social and spiritual disillusionment. Although Hopkins was very much a late-Romantic, Victorian poet, he also

seemed to look forward toward the industrialized destruction and suffering of the early 20th century. Like Wordsworth, Hopkins was a poet of nature and of the seemingly “simple,” rustic souls who live in and embody nature’s purity, as his poems “Felix Randall,” Binsey Poplars,” “Pied Beauty,” “Margaret why are you Grieving,” and “The Wind Lover” make clear. These poems are concerned with the usual Romantic tropes of unseen symbolic birds whose cries are heard from afar and the lush perfection of the natural world. Like Wordsworth’s “We are Seven,” and “The Luck Gatherer,” Hopkins’ “Margaret Why Are You…” and “Felix Randall” consider the passage of time seen through the eyes of a child, and the role of solitary rural work in the lives of agrarian people (and presumably, Romantic poems!), respectively. And, like Shelley’s “Skylark,” and Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” Hopkins’ “The Wind Lover” concerns skylarks, nightingales and wind lovers, and their haunting, invisible cries, in the context of the poet’s imagination and his role in a rapidly industrializing society. This late-Romantic work, in it lyric generosity, its lush description, and its literary conventions is conversely related to Hopkins’ later sonnets in which, “I wake…” is included. Throughout, Hopkins utilizes his particular sprung rhythm, “an invention meant to combine the metrical traditions of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse with the rhymes and musicality of iambic pentameter. In sprung rhythm, Hopkins often introduces a lurching, thumping, alliterative quality using trochees and triple rhythms at moments of rhetorical tension, only to ultimately resolve that tension with the metrical evenness of iambic pentameter. “I wake…” is a modified Petrarchan sonnet; it follows a 4-stanza rhyme scheme of ABBA, ABBA, CCD, CCD. In his seminal. Poetic Meter and Poetic Form. Paul Fussell has argued that the sonnet is a form particularly suited to argument and balance. In its halves and splittings, the sonnet requires of the poet an ability to negotiate description, rhetoric and resolution. Introduced into English, from Petrach, by the 16th C. poets Wyatt and Surrey, the sonnet is the premiere English literary form of love and argument. In its most classic definition, perfected in Italian by Petrarch and in English by Shakespeare, the poet-lover directs his argument about love towards an idealized beloved. If the sonnet’s rhetoric is successful, presumably, the lover will convince the beloved to enter into a tryst with him. This all works quite well if one sticks to traditional gender binaries in which the lover/poet, are masculine and the beloved/poet are feminine. As long as Petrarch’s Laura remains silent, idealized, and thoroughly passive, the sonnet’s love rhetoric reigns hermetically supreme. But Donne’s introduction of God into the sonnet’s equation thoroughly unsettled – arguably to its, and to the reader’s, benefit – the usual conventions. In Donne’s Holy Sonnets, as in Hopkins’ “I wake…,” the poet-lover is speaking to, wrestling with, arguing against, not a female lover but God himself. Clearly, the rhetorical position in these spiritual sonnets. John Hollander, in Rhyme’s Reason, has argued that as the sonnet was altered by – and itself actively altered – the 19th and 20’11 centuries, it became of form less of love than of reflection and meditation. In the case of Hopkins’ “I wake…,” meditation takes the form of inconclusive,

perhaps unconsummated prayer. Hopkins’ begins the poem as he wakes at dawn, after a torturous night spent in self-reflection and disillusioned prayer. There is an invested, ironic aubade. Instead of stirring, as Donne himself does, in his aubode “Busy Old Fool…,” with the beloved at dawn after a night of passionate love making, Hopkins awakes to barely staved-off madness. He wakes to feel “the fell of dark, not day/” The sun’s rise brings no respite from the mind’s ceaseless machinations; dark’s “fell” qualities pervade the speaker’s consciousness and set the poem’s overall tone of despair. The initial 2 lines of the poem confirm to the qualifications of iambic pentameter – they sound like formal English metrics are supposed to sound – but Hopkins turns to sprung rhythm in the third line, and prosodially, literally, all hell brakes loose. “This night,” establishes a lurching, incantatory trochaic rhythm. Anna Deanene Smith has asserted that where the iamb holds a sense of mere statement the trochee shifts that statement more towards threat. In her example, this is accomplished by comparing the profane imperative “Fuck You” – iambic stress on the second word – with “Fuck You” -trochaic stress on the first word. Although this 3rd line is roughly pentametric, its torque into trochaic meter embodies the speaker’s insomniac torture of inward scrutiny and no reprieve. “What sights you, hear, saw; ways you went,” immediately following that initial declarative “this night” establishes an emphatic series of spondees. Hopkins points his finger at the previous night, and at his own heart. In the second stanza, Hopkins resolves the meter back into a smooth iambic pentameter. He discusses, declares, bemoans the ways in which his house of abortive prayer are like his misguided life. It is in this stanza that Hopkins upends the love-rhetoric of the sonnet, as well. He’s been sending cries, “like dead letters sent” to a dearest beloved who lives painfully far away. This stanza establishes the parameters for the sonnet’s turn in the third stanza, at the culmination of the eighth line of the poem. Where the first 4 line stanzas followed the Petrarchan envelope rhyming pattern ABBA ABBA, Hopkins shifts his structure towards a looser, though no less restrictive double tercet CCD CCD. In a Shakespearean sonnet, the concluding GG couplet allows for a kind of “ta-da!” moment, an often false-sounding resolution that can feel a bit too-neat. But Hopkins’ use of the Petrarchan style allows him considerably more rhetorical wiggle room. He turns the poem’s conceit from a description of abortive prayer to an unceasingly, depressively analytic of his own sins and flaws. In a series of analytic declarations, he states “I am gall. 1 am heartburn.” It is only after the turn has occurred that Hopkins can introduce God, but even then, only God’s deep decree – original, bodily sin – is apparent. Throughout this bleak poem, God is thoroughly, postmodern-ly absent. Hopkins uses his sprung rhythm trochees again in this third stanza, describing his body’s bitterness, its gall and purgency, the way his “blood brimmed the curse,” placing spondaic emphasis on both “blood” and “brimmed” a viscerally alliterative pairing.Hopkins wrote the final tercet with a trochaic invention, “self yeast,” a pairing of noun and adjective similar to the “fresh firecoal” description in his much happier and more positive God-poem, “Pied Beauty.” This “self yeast of spirit” establishes in its quirky syntax that the

reader has reentered the realm of sprung rhythm. That “self yeast” is the subject of the sentence, but its corollary verb “sours” is found at the distant end of the sentence. The speaker is merely a body, “dull dough” that’s been soured not just by original sin but by his own bad self. It is this which allows the speaker to introduce the sonnet’s final, concluding, turn: he is like all “the lost.” But, more painfully that this, he is not merely “like” the lost, he is “worse.” As in the poem “God’s Grandeur,” which resolves in a similarly depressive, unrelenting focus on the human body and the destruction it can unleash not just upon itself but upon the natural world, Hopkins here turns the poem’s focus towards a “sweating” self, a human who – taken out of the throng – still succeeds in sinful perfidy against God and against himself. Throughout the poem, Hopkins has used primarily masculine end rhymes, and in this last tercet he boils down his rhymes to single, terse syllables. The effect is one of utter grief and self-loathing. “Curse” is rhymed with “worse” in a sonic and rhetorical pairing. Hopkins use of seamless iambic pentameter in the sonnet’s final line provides no respite for the reader, or for the speaker, from the unrelenting self-scrutiny that he’s used throughout the poem. Where “Pied Beauty” can end with the grateful, graceful imperative “praise him,” “I wake…” merely ends as bleakly and blackly as it opened. Hopkins’ aubade ironically shouts out to an absent lover, a misbegotten invisible God. The preceding night of meditative passion has had neither resolution nor consummation. Hopkins’ speaker remains as he began, alone.


Anonymous (Passed with distinction) – Shakespeare Sonnet 29
Since this sonnet falls within the first part of Shakespeare’s cycle, it is presumably addressed to the young gentleman. This sets the context of the sonnet, then, within the public realm, within the realm of masculine power play and rivalry. The public realm was precarious for both part and courtier alike who jockeyed for the fickle fervor of prince and/or patron. The first line points to this fickleness = “When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes.” The “when” indicates that this disgrace is a recurring experience for “will,” the speaker (regardless of whether we link him to Shakespeare himself). In ascendance with being out of favor, this line’s meter as well as most of the sonnet’s meter. While all but two lines are pentameter, few lines are regular, or unforced links pentameter is quite irregular, with only two iambic feet. The speaker (over) emphasizes his “outcast state” not only with its triple stresses, but with the redundancy of “I all alone.” “I” is itself singular, of course, and the repetitive of the “I” sound reinforces this singularity with its hollow ring. When he “trouble[s] deaf heaven with [lives] boot was cries,” he continues to emphasize his isolation, sealing himself off – his cries do not escape his “outcast state” because heaven wither cannot or will not hear him. And yet, not only is the speaker isolated from favor, from the other men’s company, he is

isolated from himself: “And [I] look upon myself and curse my fate.” At this point the speaker has so far internalized the gaze of other “men’s eyes” that he looks upon himself and becomes, in effect, a divided self. As a result, he sees himself as he imagines they see him. He becomes envious, rivalrous. He wishes he were “like to one more rich in hope/Featured like him, like him with friends possessed/Desiring this man’s art and this man’s scope.” Within these lines, he establishes the standards of worth in the public realm he’s been ousted from. While he wishes he had more hope, the use of “sick” implies such hope is of future (monetary) prospects. And “possessed” indicates that he not only wants friends for comradory, but for material gains, for networking or patronage. From line five to seven, the speaker becomes increasingly less himself as his desire to become like other men becomes stronger. Indeed, we move from “wishing” to “desiring.” The structure of line six mimics its content quite effectively. He wants to be featured like another man, so the line becomes a mirror as it repeats “like him, like him.” In line seven, his desire becomes more greedy as his object of desire shifts from being singular (“me,” “him”) to plural: he “desire[s] this man’s art, and that man’s scope.” In one sense, he longs for their intellectual and personal talents here. But at the same, this longing includes a desire for wealth and material possessions. On the one hand “art” could refer to artistic ability, or on the other, actual paintings or perhaps artifise (a skill like to win possessions.) “Scope,” likewise, could refer to the breadth of a man’s knowledge and talents, or to the scope of his influence or favor. Line eight culminates his self-rejection and envy of other men in favor, suggested by the opposition of “most” and “least” and the semi-colon which separates this first section from the last which signals a shift in perspective. At this point, he cannot truly enjoy what he enjoys because his internalization of public values, those of other men, prevents him from being content with his own personal values. “Yet” in line nine signals the shift. He has come to almost despise himself, but thinking upon “thee,” the young gentleman, allows him to reverse the process of internalization. This reversal in fact is portrayed as an ascension (sp?) as “arising” suggests. Moreover, its parallel relation to “despising” in the rhyme scheme further emphasizes this reversal from descension to ascension. Whereas he wished to be like other men, here he achieves transcendence as he becomes “like to the lark at break of day.” In other words, he has transcended the internalate of public values by transcending out of the public altogether, using natural imagery. By having lines ten and twelve rhyme with two and four, the speaker further emphasizes the reversal. Whereas he weeped in line two, he sings in line twelve. Whereas his situation was fixed, determined (his “fate”) in line four, he now sings at “heaven’s gate” which before was closed to him, “Deaf to his cries. Remembering his “sweet love” brings him “wrath,” but this wrath is now spatial rather than momentary. Line fourteen culminates the reversal by completely reversing his position. He began as an isolated, pervuless, hopeless outcast who envied all men and all things public. Now is the one to scorn, not only the public, but the men enjoying the supreme power of the public – kings.


Ann K. Hoff
When Ann Bradstreet first came to the New World, she struggled to come to terms with a new faith and a rough new civilization. She writes about how she first rebelled against her new circumstances, but soon found youth and “bent ” to the will of God. Many of her poems, the first to be published by any author of the New World, speak of the comfort and happiness she derives from faith. The poem “Contemplations” is more than a celebration of New England fall foliage, it is a declaration of faith written by a woman who struggled continuously with her health. The poem contemplates autumn, the end of the summer season. This metaphoric choice indicates an awareness of decline into winter – a symbol of death. Still, the poem is not moribund, but laudatory. It speaks of a greater life to follow this are of claims that if this “under world” can be so delightful, that heaven must be quite splendid indeed. The scenery gives her an unmistakable sense of eternity. To see how Bradstreet weaves this extended metaphors, we must examine these first four stanzas carefully considering form, and content, meter, rhyme, diction, and metaphor. Bradstreet skillfully chooses the form that best corresponds to her “Contemplation.” The rhyme scheme is simple but interesting. Each stanza follows the pattern ABABCCC. Each group of seven lines follows this strictly, using only a few near rhymes such as “eye”/ “infancy.” Her rhyme scheme does not often intrude on the readability of the poem, but it does somewhat alter her diction. The best example of this is the somewhat awkward choice of the word “dight” in line 13 which might have been more clearly written as “clad,” “decked,” “decorated” or “formed” (the list goes on but for the necessity of rhyming with “light” and “night” in the CCC Lines of stanza 2. For the most part, though, her rhyme pattern, while strict, does not slow the poem or make its diction awkward, merely marks it as colonial… or at least familiar to a 17th century ear Bradstreet’s meter in “Contemplations” is also deceptively simple. The first six lines of these four stanzas flow in rather rigid iambic pentameter: (if so much excellence abide the law …). However, the last line of each stanza bursts forth out of iambic and even out of pentameter. The sixth lines do not follow the same rhythmic patterns between verses either. They are all six feet instead of five, but combine trochees, and dactyls with its regular iambs. This does two things, it changes the reader’s rhythm, slowing them down somewhat to force a pause between stanzas. This prevents the poem from hurtling forward ruining the contemplative mood and pace. It also mimics the content of the poem. The iambic pentameter grows, straight, rigid like the stark trunk of an oak while the 7th line explodes with variety like a burst of yellows and reds and greens.

Anne Bradstreet words too are chosen to carefully construct an extended metaphor and to convey her strong sense of the eternity represented by the autumnal scene. She opens by speaking of Phoebus being “but one hair to be” meaning that we are at the pinnacle of fall and there is little time left to enjoy this splendor. This gives the “contemplation” a sense of breathless urgency. Her description of the foliage too is careful. She writes that while they are “richly clad yet void of pride” and marvels that though they seem gilded and painted, they are real indeed. This display of wonderment at the trees’ naturalness bespeaks an increasing appreciation for what Bradstreet once saw as a rough wilderness. Working for the alliterative XXX in line seven, stanza two begins “I wist not what to wish, yet sure thought I…” that if so much “excellence abide below/ How excellent is He that duels on High.” While strained sounding do a modem reader, Bradstreet’s invocation of God (instead of Pheobus now) marks her as an inspired poet. The lines have a simpler resonance, though, that if earth can be this grand, surely heaven’s glory must be unimaginable. Still, Bradstreet’s question ends by pointing out that we know God’s power and beauty by his “works” and this suggests that she has caught a glimpse at the eternal. This sentiment (that the peak before the decline to writer provides a momentary glimpse at eternal delights) develops further in the third stanza when Bradstreet’s contemplation turns its focus to the “stately oak.” Here, Bradstreet ponders how old the oak might be and suggests that it grows so tall that the clouds “seemed to aspire” to be its height. The sixth line of this stanza is somewhat perplexing due to her use of the word “scorn.” The most logical reading of this line is that if it has indeed been 1,000 years since this tree burst from its acorn (“shell of horn”), then the tree seems to scorn eternity – for it will last longer just as it seems higher than the clouds. This use of hyperbole prepares us for the fourth stanza in which Bradstreet turns her “gaze” toward the “glistening sun.” As she gazes at the sun’s beams through the shade of the “leavie” (leafy) tree, she “grew amazed.” Bradstreet contemplates the glory of God compared to this sun — again assuming it to be greater, wondering how it could be. She calls the sun the “soul of this world” and exclaims that it is “no wonder some made thee a deity” and says that if she had not known better, she too would have deified the sun. The most stunning word in this fourth stanza is the word “alas” wedged into the last line. The syntax is constructed so that the reader must interpret whether she feels “alas” as in “I wish I had not known better” or “alas” as in “alas, I too would have thought this.” A reader who knows how Anne Bradstreet struggled with her faith would probably favor the latter, since her poems express a sense of gratitude to God at having “saved” her. Still, the ambiguous syntax leaves a haunting sense of melancholy that she is not able to fully surrender

herself to the glory of the scene, but must mitigate it through her knowledge of still greater things to come. Throughout, this poem flirts with the idea that nature is grand beyond God, that the oak scorns eternity and alas she cannot worship the sun. Still Bradstreet is careful to recall herself and her reader to the “glory” of “He that dwells in High” and qualifies her wonderment as a glimpse of future heavenly glory. This celebration of New England nature in a moment of decline seems to have embedded in it an extended metaphor. While Bradstreet contemplates Fall, she contemplates life’s end and the beyond. This poem contemplates her faith, her new world, and new worlds still to come. Jody Rosen Shakespeare’s sonnet 73 portrays the narrator’s movement toward death through the use of graphic and symbolic images. The sonnet provides a good form for this, as the use of the quatrain followed by a final couplet provides a sense of completion and closure, which echoes the poem’s content. The poem begins with the speaker comparing his life to a year, and he has reached the point at which the leaves have all but died, leaving the near-bare branches to shake in the cold wind of winter. It has reached a point in this year-life that birds no longer perch and sing there because of such inclemency. This quatrain, following the abab rhyme pattern with lines in iambic pentameter, focuses on comparing the speaker’s life to phenomena in nature. This is a traditional comparison, using visuals such as bare trees ravished by autumn. Addressing our sense of sound, we learn that the pleasant sounds of birds have vanished, leaving near silence, perhaps discord even, where these “sure ruined choirs” stand in for birdsong. The second quatrain, also in iambic pentameter and continuing the rhyme scheme cdcd, moves from nature to self. It begins by comparing the speaker not with a year but with a day, suggesting a closer end, a quicker end. He employs a frequently used metaphor of the sun setting, twilight beginning, and the gradual “by and by” entrance of night. Night, it appears, is the double of death personified. Acting in accord with Death black night seals the fate of that which Death himself does not. In the third and final quatrain, which follows the same meter and efef rhyming pattern, the speaker speaks almost exclusively of himself, rather than nature, although he makes another

comparison of dying to a conventional death image. He suggests that he is the “glowing of such fire,” the embers that remain, since embers, not fire, glow. “His youth” is gone, represented by ash that these embers will soon be as well. It is unclear, though, whether he switches to speak in third person about himself, if he refers to a male outside of the poem, or if the referent of “his” is “fire,” and that the ashes are from the fire when it was first set. This is an interesting ambiguity, since the final explanation would mean the speaker is personifying fire. This would add evidence to the fact that the poem moves gradually away from nature and into a more social grounding. The poem, much like the speaker’s life, nears an end by the end of the third quatrain, leading into the final couplet, also in iambic pentameter but following the rhyme scheme gg. The speaker praises the other in the poem by commenting on how strong their live must be for this other to stay, realizing the end is near and that soon death will separate them forever. The progression of the images from the natural world into the realm of mankind or society (Fire is often associated with civilization rather than nature.) is a necessary progression for the couplet to effectively portray the love between the two characters of the poem. It is interesting that the poem gains closure without the speaker dying, thus creating a slight rift between the well-matching form and content of the poem. The poem has closure in its form and in the speaker’s life, clarifying the relationship between the speaker and the other as important, loving and “strong,” the omission of the death could leave on with the sense of lingering, rather than closure. However, such closure is impending, and then the actual death need not be included. Furthermore, the final couplet traditionally represents a shift in the poem. Were it to focus on the death of the speaker (Shakespeare had had characters in plays, e.g. Hamlet, proclaim their own death) there would be no turn in the poem. Switching the focus from the images of death to the relationship between the two characters provides this shift and elevates the sense of closure since it brings out the sense of both the speaker’s life, through his relations, as well as his death.


VII C. Part I-C Anonymous (Passed with distinction) Wordsworth: Prelude
In his epic Prelude, Wordsworth set forth the lofty imperative project of not merely discovering but charting in verse the development of his own poetic mind. He sought to uncover and then poetically reify a “true self in a rambling blank verse poem that he was never able to completely finish. Contemporary theory has worked to deconstruct that notion. Steadily chipping away at the idea that a “true self could ever be discovered. Postmodern theorists have focused specifically on

the social and historical construction of that self, as a way of parsing how both identity and literature are created. Foucault and Barthes, in their dialogue of essays on the author and authority, have concluded that the author – and presumably that author’s “self – are dead. The author, and her quest through writing for a clearly bounded sense of self, are elaborate fictions. Although we have only began to utilize this theory, since its introduction, in the past 25 years, the concept of the author-self as shiftly, unlocatable, multiple and fictive, has a long literary history. In medieval literature in particular, the author-self and the “identity quest” concomitant to that self are questions that are never conclusively resolved. As a means of analyzing the strange and pervasive concept of the author-self, I’d like to examine three medieval texts: The Letters of John Ball, William Langland’s Pier’s Plowman, and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Steven Justice has persuasively argued that the “Letters of JB” although long attributed to the literate priest John Ball, were likely authored by several people. Although the traditional notion of self was long used to understand these texts, a post modern analysis allows for a deeper sense of what and how the “Letters” mean. Written during the Peasant’s Rebellion of 1381, the Letters are a series of poetic exhortations and incantations roughly welded to an initial, brief prose exposition. They declare the speaker’s identities, and then list a catalogue of social types. In each letter there are millers, carters, “true men,” robbers, priests, and also the emblematic literary character Piers Plowman. Because the 1381 Rebellion sought to destroy archival records, and because those who witnessed and recorded the events were highly literate (and likely fearful for their livelihoods and lives) much of what has long been posited about the “Letters” have attributed them exclusively to one person, the only “educated” member of the Rebellion,John Ball. Froissart and Bower each recorded incidents from the Rebellion, and each describe the seemingly illiterate peasants as an animalistic mob. Clearly, to those members who policed the archival canon, the peasants were no better than squawking birds and screaming dogs – clearly they were not selves, much less authors. Medieval literacy, at the end of the 14th c. was only beginning to include a notion of the vernacular. Justice has argued that the Rebel Letters, in their “broken” vernacular poetics, are indeed proof of literacy; moreover he argues as well that dialect subtleties point to the fact that the texts perhaps had multiple authors. Medieval witnesses, literate in Latin, could not conceive of anyone other than Ball as being able to write. Foucault’s notion of authorial multiplicity – that a text has no author, has many authors – can be used to more closely analyze the “Rebel Letters” emphatic insistence that it takes justice welded to righteousness, right to might, skill to will, to make the community function smoothly. It takes many people to foment revolution, and multiple people to create texts representative of themselves and their political aims. John Ball was the author of some of these texts, and he also clearly wasn’t the singular self behind each and every

one. The Rebel Letters make iconic reference to Langland’s massive and complicated allegory Piers Plowman, in their inclusive catalogues of who and what is part of their authorial grouping. In this, they highlight the contemporary idea that the author – and the characters she creates – are discursive fictions. While Langland wrote PP. and in three separate versions, no less, it is his humble warn character Piers who is psychically powerful enough to enter into the Rebels’ consciousness and their texts. Langland introduces himself, and provides an apologia pro vita sua, and several points in the text. In Passus V of the C-text, he calls himself by name, “Long Will,” states his occupation as a writer, and engages in an allegorical dialogue with the figures of Reason and ?. at this point in the text, he’s woken from his dream vision to find himself “yelothed as a lollere,” in bed with his wife in a seedy section of London. Throughout the texts – A, B, and C – Langland has agonized over the role of poetry, of making and editing, of “jangling” versus telling the truth. His discursive back and forth begs the question of whether poets, and their productions, socially and religiously matter. More than this, his immense tinkering and reworking of the text points to a material anxiety over meaning itself. Can poetry matter if the poet can’t ever definitively finish his project? Middleton has argued that Langland’s fumblings, his inability to directly identify himself as anything – clerk? poet? lollard? laborer? – could in fact be linked to the Acts of Vagrancy, statutes declared after the social upsets of the Black Death and the Peasant’s Rebellion which required people to document their identities, occupations and places of residence. In Langland’s double speak, then, perhaps is a critique of a political power that would force people to identify themselves as just one, static thing. Langland’s Piers Plowman introduces the question of who, how, and what the author’s self is. As an allegorical journey towards truth itself, the text(s) – in their multiplicity – speak to the fact that truth may be personal and mutable. Ant that authority and selfhood need not be discrete, severely bounded entities. While we know next to nothing, historically, about Langland, the record is full of concise workers pointing the way towards the bounded self of Geoffrey Chaucer. Langland seen as the (grand) father of English literature, Chaucer can be identified as self, citizen and author, although his Canterbury Tales are even less of an identity quest, ostensibly, than Langland’s allegory. The pilgrims never reach their destination in the CT, and it’s often unclear as to when and where the characters are, given the interlocking conceits of Chaucer’s narrative frame. In the General Prologue, Chaucer does introduce himself as an “I,” and the reader can presume that the Canterbury project itself is proof of a discrete “I.” Chaucer made this we can say as we lug the Riverside with us, and Chaucer was real he was a self. Within the narrative conceit of the text however, the bounds of self are constantly – even unpleasantly – eroded. Chaucer is asked, by the Host, for some brevity. He is described by Harry as “a puppet,” a tiny doll-like man. There is Chaucer the author, then, and Chaucer the fiction, just another pilgrim telling a tale. And the tale he produces – Sir Thopas – is decidedly goofy. In the form of a romance ballad, Chaucer-the-

pilgrim tells the weirdly diminutive tale of little Sir Thopas and his encounter with the giant Oliphant. The description focuses on pretty inconsequential details – Thopas’ clothes, his accessories, and the rhymes and rhythm of the form feel too-easy, if not trite. Harry interprets, declares Chaucer’s skills are not worth a turd and demands a different, better tale, something both moral and virtuous. Chaucer then provides the didactic prose deadweight of Melibee, the allegory of Prudence and her student Melibee. Lee Patterson has asserted that Chaucer-the-author’s motive here is to prove himself as morally and pedagogically skilled. He can produce light verse, popular children’s ballads as well as rhetorical literature for students, then he clearly has the earmarks of a “skilled” poet, in the most conventional sense. This concept is in keeping with Chaucer’s own retraction, at the end of the CT. Following The Parson’s Tale, also a lengthy, didactic tale, this time in the form of a confession manual, Chaucer provides a curt apologia for what he’s done. He takes back the CT, and many a bawdy lay, as well as the majority of his oeuvre, but those works of moral virtue he leaves as proof of good Christian teaching. By the late 14th c., the sense of “truth” in writing had been powerfully eroded. Michael Camiller has argued that the hands of 11th c. scribes might become sanctified and placed in reliquaries because they wrote down the direct words of God. But with the spread of vernacular literacy and the Wydifite translation of the Bible into the English vernacular, the questions of “truth” and “authority” had fewer clear answers. Translation meant difference, instability, interpretation, and ultimately, subjectivity. In a post lapsorian world of social, religious and economic chaos, what mattered more than anything was the salvation of a Christian self. And necessarily, the Christian self was universal, nameless. The temporal class identity of the self mattered little before the gates of heaven. Authorial invention is closely connected – for writers – to the parameters of the self. This was no less true for medieval writers that it is for early 21st century ones. For poets like the 1381 Rebels, Langland, and Chaucer one’s poetic work was tied morally, aesthetically and quite literally to the individual. John Ball and his cohorts were publicly chastised as examples and then summarily executed for their murderous destruction of the archive as well as for their presumption that their vernacular writing might actually change society. For Langland and Chaucer, themselves established members of the literary intelligentsia, the stakes were somewhat less perilous. They weren’t risking their lives by writing. Nonetheless, their respective poetic projects establish – and embody -the author’s quest for a true self. Langland looks for truth, and Chaucer retracts his most enjoyable, aesthetically pleasurable work. Yet neither ends up actually getting anywhere, and in Chaucer’s case, the narrative joy of the CT far outweighs his didactic, reader protestations that he only meant his work to morally instruct. WJT Mitchell, in his essay, “Representation,” has argued that literature is inherently problematic and complicated because it seeks to represent the human world. The space between representor, and represented is itself contested, and blurry. Things get complicated when words must stand in for ideas, people, objects, beliefs. They grow more complicated, however, when political and

religious power is introduced, given the anxieties over how and when literature should mean and what it should expressly avoid meaning. Poetry is a made thing; necessarily it has a maker. But who that maker is, and how her work emobodies – or does not embody – her sense of self is inherently problematic. Wordsworth’s quest, though ostensibly towards an agreed upon truth, a dearly demarcated self, never found its conclusion any more successfully than the Rebels’, Langland’s, or Chaucer’s did. The socially, literarily, and constructed self exists only in literature and even there, uneasily, ambivalently, ambiguously.


Anonymous (Passed with distinction)
To examine the relations between sex and power, I would like to focus on three of Shakespeare’s plays: The Two Gentleman of Verona, The Winter’s Tale, and Twelfth Night. With these plays, 1 would like to explore the way early modern conceptions of male friendship and marriage in turn construct or disrupt conceptions of gender and sexuality. In The Two Gentleman of Verona, one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, the relationship between sex and power is rather violently delineated in terms of male friendship and the exchange of women as commodities. In this play, marriage is subordinated to male friendships which results in an extreme objectification of women, one that posits women as interchangeable. According to Montaigne’s tract “of Friendship,” ideal friendship should involve a dissolving of identity boundaries, in absolute ? which results in one’s friend becoming a second self. Such a fluidity then would imply a fluidity of possessions, which would imply for our purposes the fluid exchange of women who are perceived as property “(as a dowry, in effect.) the two gentleman of Verona follow in this tradition. Both grew up together and developed a deep love for one another. However, at first it would seem that their separation (Valentine leaves for Milan and Proteus stays home with Julia, his love) would imply that they valued marriage over friendship. Bruce Smith’s “myth of combatants and comrades” provides the framework for such a relationship. Once Proteus unwittingly contracts himself to go to Milan, he meets up with Valentine again, thereby also meeting Valentine’s new love, Sylvia. But it is not Sylvia’s intrinsic with a beauty that inspires Proteus’ love and consequent dismissal of Julia; instead it is a rivalry with his friend. At first, Proteus argues for Julia’s equal merit, but in the end steps up to the challenge and positions himself to challenge Valentine’s claim to Sylvia. In this demonstration of the myth of combatants and comrades, women (specifically Sylvia here) are denied subjectivity by being relegated to prizes awarded to whoever “wins” her. Although Sylvia attempts to exercize [sic] control, to assert her ability to chose, in the end, she is rendered

powerless; indeed she is rendered speechless. Proteus attempts to rape her, to “conquer” her, but Valentine appears in the nick of time to “save” her. We would expect at this point at least some prolonged resentment on Valentine’s part, but instead he immediately forgive Proteus once he apologizes and reinstates their friendship as supreme to his intended marriage with Sylvia. Sylvia fairs equally in Valentine’s “Saving” hands: she becomes ? a spoil of war as Valentine offers her to Proteus, reimplemented the “what’s mine is yours, what’s yours is mine” principle.


Greg Erickson Question 1 Innovations in a literary work’s narrative structure may reflect shifting perceptions of the self as such or at the same time as reflecting a changing world view. Analyze this statement with regard to at least three works of one author, one period, or movement. The years from around 1890 to 1925 saw perhaps more changes in the social, scientific, artistic, and epistemological fabric of Western society than perhaps any other time in modern history. Although it is impossible to point to specific forces (and while Foucault’s “episteme” with its unconscious forces makes this problematic) it is useful to look at some of the parts of this epistemological revolution and then see how the influences are reflected by several modernist authors.

Innovation in technology changed how people saw the world. For the first time in history people viewed things from above (The Eiffel Tower, airplanes) and from a moving perspective (the world looks different from a moving train than from a horse). More people were living in cities, and the look of cities changed. Crowded streets, factories, and billboards offered a whole new landscape. The role of science is also important. As early as 1870 mathematics theories offered an infinite amount of numbers between 1 and 2, and dissolved the possibility of any pure number. Of course the major shift here was the theory of relativity, which, although not generally understood, contributed to the feelings of flux and subjectivity that came to dominate the era. Freud was another influence on the general mindset of the time. “Things may not be what you think, ” he seemed to say, “what you can’t remember may be more important to who you are than what you can.” What this over all atmosphere contributed to art and literature was a feeling of subjectivity and doubt. No longer could an artist feel he was representing any depiction of the self or anything else with certainty or objectivity. As art historian Barbara Rose says, ‘”This is what I see’ was replaced by “This is what I think I see.'”

Philosophically this can be categorized as a collapse of dualism. The separation of subject and object now seemed naive. It became clear that, for example, the Renaissance’s one-point perspective required an unmoving one-eyed observer capturing an unmoving subject at a single instant in time. Narrative was questioned. Causality was questioned. For Arnold Schoenberg one not no longer had to influence or lead to the next. In literature, the long drawn out syntax of Henry James finally snapped. In painting, the post-impressionism of Cezanne gave way to the Cubism of Picasso and Braque and the Futurism of Boccioni. Each in their own way questioned the role of the self in the suddenly more complicated world. What I intend to do (if I have time) is look at four works of literature from this period that reflect these changing views in different ways. Because of WWI and such events as the 1913 Armory show the European/American boundary is blurred so I will look at two European works (Proust’s Search for Lost Time and Joyce’s Ulysses) and two works by Americans heavily influenced by Europe (Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer). Marcel Proust’s Search for Lost Time is perhaps the most introspective work ever written. The 3000 page narrative follows a narrator (Marcel) through most of his life trying to make sense out of his experience and his memory. Proust’s novel reflects the themes of his time most clearly through the instability of the novels, the narrator, and the reader’s sense of reality. Although apparently Proust never read Freud many of his theories are clearly reflected in the novel. The opening scene is an effective microcosm of the entire work. Marcel lays in bed, half awake, and tries to make sense of his surroundings. His vision of the room becomes blurred with bedrooms he has had in the past and with memories connected to those bedrooms. His sense of where he is, when he is, and who he is becomes hopelessly intertwined and function as the starting point for the whole work. For Proust, the self is truly a narrative told to yourself through time and memory. The characterization in the novel also reflects this theme. Told through the shifting mind of the narrator their personalities are constantly changing. Often, to enforce this, we are given different names for major characters early in the novel. The composer Vinteuil, the painter Elster, the violinist Morel and others appear early in the novel under different names and with different personalities. It is perhaps in the perception of art that Proust most clearly shows the subjective thinking of his time. Marcel’s experience with works of painting, music, and literature all follow a similar pattern. He will go from non-comprehension to following false paths (often a 19th century identification with a person) to finally realizing the “essence” of a work through his memory. All perception is a process, it is never stable he finally realizes. It is this realization that allows him

to see himself this way and will lead to his epiphany and salvation through art at the novel’s end. For James Joyce, it is also