ENGL 341: Modern Fiction
Below is a list of potential essay questions and topics for the final essay, due November 27, 2014. Note that many of these questions are intentionally general, and that you are expected to use them to craft a more narrowly focused thesis. For example, in the question about gender in Joyce, you should avoid trying to write an essay called “Gender in A Portrait of the Artist…“; instead, use that broad category to address a more narrowly defined problem, for example “gender ambiguity in Stephen’s sexual hallucinations” or “homosociality in Stephen’s sexual education” etc.
There are several options (below) for comparative as well as creative-analytical essays.
You may, of course, also write on a topic of your own devising. If you choose this option, you must have the topic approved by me before November 1.
1. Stephen Dedalus has a complex and profound relationship with his own name, and with naming more generally. Discuss one aspect of names in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
2. Focusing on one female character in the novel, discuss the role of gender in Portrait. Alternatively, you could write about gender and masculinity as it applies to Stephen himself.
3. Write an essay focusing on Stephen diary entries for April 5 and April 6 (page 184), and how they inform and condense the novel’s concerns. You do not have to deal with every aspect of this short passage; select what to focus on carefully in order to write a thorough look at one or two of its concerns.
4. What is the significance of the wounding by apple in The Metamorphosis?
5. In a letter to his publisher, Kafka complains that he has heard that an artist has been commissioned “to draw the insect itself” for the title page of The Metamorphosis: “Not that, please, not that!” he begs the publisher. Discuss why it was so important for Kafka not to draw Gregor as an insect?
6. Translators of Kafka have struggled with and argued about how to render the first sentence of The Metamorphosis into English. Collecting at least three of these translations, discuss what each translator’s choices reveals about Kafka’s story or his use of language. Obviously, this essay will be easier to write well if you can read the original German, but it will be possible to write a good essay even if you don’t.
7. Write an essay examining Gide’s treatment of paternity, bastardy and/or father-son bonds in The Counterfeiters.
8. In his journal, Edouard writes that “a good novelist will never be made out of a good naturalist” (180). Bearing in mind that “naturalist” has at least two meanings to Gide (if not to Edouard), assess Edouard’s claim in relation to Gide’s The Counterfeiters as an experimental novel. (The two most likely meanings relate to [a] Naturalism as an aesthetic movement; and [b] the study of natural things from a scientific or amateur-scientific perspective).
9. In his Journal (pg 447), Gide writes: “On all sides life offers us many beginnings of drama, but only rarely do these continue and take shape as the novelist is accustomed to spin them out. And this is exactly the idea I want to give in this book.” How does Gide enact this idea in the novel, and why?
10.The playwright Alfred Jarry appears as a character in The Counterfeiters. Does the fact that he really existed, unlike every other character, give him special significance in the novel? How and why?
11. Discuss the function and effects of personification in Good Morning, Midnight.
12. Discuss the role of movie theatres and film techniques in Good Morning, Midnight.
13.Gabriel Garcia Marquez uses specific details in very striking ways—for example, the almost magical effect of the name Esteban in “The Handsomest Drowned Man” or the distinctive quality of “Wednesday” in “Leaf Storm.” Collecting several of these specifics, discuss what role they play in Marquez’s magical realism.
14. Discuss magical realist stories as political allegories, paying particular attention to the contemporary (i.e. 1940s) history of Columbia and South America more generally.
15. Do a close reading of any one or two paragraphs in Chapter 5, Part 1, of Lolita, taking care to relate your findings to the novel more generally.
16. How do Humbert’s reactions to anti-semitism and racism complicate his character and our response to his crimes?
17. In the “Afterword,” Nabokov discusses pornography. Given his definition, how might we interpret his use of (deeply problematic) eroticism in Lolita?
18. Explain the use and function of time-shift in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
19. Discuss the various kinds of authoritarianism in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
20. What is the relationship between the axolotl and the narrator of “Axolotl”? What can we learn from trying to disentangle this relation?
Comparative questions. If you choose one of the following topics, be sure that you do not simply write two parallel “mini-essays” on each text. Make sure that the texts work together to support your thesis.
21. Compare the use of the bestial in any two of the following works: Portrait of the Artist, The Metamorphosis, Lolita, and “Leaf Storm.”
22. Discuss the function of animals in any two of the following works: The Metamorphosis, The Counterfeiters, Lolita, and “Axolotl.”
23. Compare Portrait of the Artist and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, focussing on one of the following themes: religion, education, sexuality, gender, development. You could also compare the two novels in their capacity as Bildungsromane.
24. Compare the use of dreams, drunkenness and other altered mental states in two works, focusing on their function in the narrative.
Special topics. Though not quite creative writing assignments, the following will require a non-standard approach to essays. However, though you may not need a thesis or a traditional essay structure, you still need carefully constructed arguments, well-selected textual support, close reading and consideration of your argument’s larger implications. If you choose one of the following, you must have my approval.
25. What do contemporary reviews of one of the novels covered in this course tell us about the novel and its innovations and politics; about contemporary attitudes on literature; about contemporary culture more generally? For this option, you will need to base your discussion on at least four or five contemporary reviews (let’s say within 5 years of the novel’s publication). In some cases, reviews are collected in Critical Heritage anthologies; in others, you may need to dig around in newspapers, magazines, etc.
26. This course has focused a lot on narration and stylistic devices, which are the focus of this creative-critical assignment. It has two parts. I. “Translate” part of one of the course readings into the style of another (for example, translate the bird-girl passage from Joyce into the style of Kafka, or the murder scene in Lolita into the style of Rhys). The goal is not necessarily to produce a “good” or even functional piece of fiction; difficulties and incongruities will give you more to work with for Part II, which is a critical analysis of your translation. Explain why you chose the particular passage to translate; discuss, with examples, the difficulties and dilemmas involved in the translation; outline your strategies for overcoming them.
27. There have been film adaptations of several of the works we read in class, including A Portrait of the Artist (Strick 1977), Lolita (Kubrick 1960 and Lyne 1997), The Metamorphosis (Swanton 2012, among many others), The Counterfeiters (Jacquot 2010), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Neame 1969). Focusing on one scene or episode, discuss how the film adapts, captures, alters and/or re-emphasizes aspects of the original text. Be careful not to write a film review: this should be a critical essay. Also, try to avoid the common tendency of focusing on the adaptation’s fidelity to the original.
28. Other texts we’ve read have not (to my knowledge) been adapted: “Axolotl,” either Marquez story, and Good Morning, Midnight. Write an essay on producing a hypothetical adaptation of one of these texts, either for screen, stage or graphic-novelization. Discuss the difficulties this would involve (technical, dramatic, cultural, etc.) and propose strategies for overcoming them. (You might also choose this option and write about an alternative adaptation to one of the texts that has already been adapted.) This question also requires writing (and/or drawing) a short excerpt of this hypothetical adaptation.