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Introduction to Literature 1: The Paper and Suggested Topics

The following are some guidelines for your papers, with some suggested subjects. These are only suggestions, and you should feel free to choose your own topic to write on (however, you must choose a work on the syllabus). Your paper should be a critical analysis that reflects your own point of view, argued by a specific thesis that is demonstrated in a focused, narrowly defined approach. A subject is only a beginning; you must then concentrate on finding a topic (your idea considerably narrowed down: Hamlet's treatment of Ophelia, for example, is a subject, whereas a topic might be ["I intend to argue that"] Hamlet is responsible for Ophelia's death because he unfairly judges her and fails to understand her frail nature, even though he has evidence of her duplicity").

To help narrow down your idea, concentrate on one scene or one event within a scene, or compare two scenes, two characters, or several events within one act--don't write on the entire play or everything a character does. Or write about one incident in a story or play, or perhaps one poem, or a comparison of two poems. In the above illustration from Hamlet, for example, there are only two scenes that involve Hamlet and Ophelia -- pick one, or compare the two.

Pick something that interests you and keep secondary sources to a minimum; remember, secondary sources are only a springboard to your own ideas. Avoid generalities and the obvious. A good paper should tell you, and the reader, we'll hope, something you didn't know before. Your paper should not summarize or retell the plot, nor should it merely reflect class notes or discussion.

You may want to check with me on your topic idea: write down your thesis -- if it helps, phrase your sentence, "I intend to argue that ______, because _____." That way I have something specific to help you with. (Note that the "because" of the above sentence adds the specific to your argument and keeps you from being too general or vague in your thesis.)

A word on citing quotations: poetry or prose that is more than four lines long should be set off from the text (indent 10 spaces from the left margin), as in this passage from Hamlet:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep --

No more. (III.i.56-61)

But keep large passages at a minimum and don't cite more than is germane to your discussion. Quotations should follow a developed argument as an illustration--they illustrate (argue) something that you have already established. Quotations that are set off from the text are by definition quotes, so they are not placed in quotation marks. Note too that the Act, scene, and line numbers come after the period (skip two spaces). If you use anything other than the Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, cite in a note the edition of the play, short story, or novel from which you take the quotation--use only one edition throughout the paper. The above quotation from Hamlet is an example: as an endnote I might write, "This and all subsequent quotations are taken from the New Arden Shakespeare, gen. ed. Richard Proudfoot." Or, I could merely add it parenthetically after my first quote: (III.i.56-61; New Arden Shakespeare, ed. Richard Proudfoot).

If you cite three lines or less, make the citation part of the sentence, as in the following example: Hamlet asks the preeminent question of the play when he contemplates his own mortality and the incorruptibility of the soul: "To be, or not to be, that is the question. / Whether 'tis nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles..." (3.1.56-58).

Note here that the / mark indicates where the poetry line ends in your text. The ellipsis at the end of the quote is only because the quotation did not have a period at this point. The quotation should fit your sentence: that means that while you quote the words exactly, the punctuation at the end of your sentence depends on whether the idea is a complete sentence. In other words, don't use an ellipsis before a quote; nor should you use it at the end of your sentence if you have a completed thought--use a period. Also note that when you give a quote within a sentence, the parenthetical citation is part of your sentence; thus the period (or semicolon or colon) comes after the parenthesis while all other punctuation comes before.

Prose is cited differently; you merely write to the right-hand margin:

Hamlet apparently finds the answers to his questions on mortality asked in Act III when, handling the skull of the former court jester Yorick, he says, " Where be your jibes now? Your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar?" (5.1.191-93).

Be faithful to the edition of the text you are using when citing, break poetry according to the editors' decisions. When quoting from Shakespeare or any secondary source, your guide should be the MLA Manual of Style, 1985 edition (or later), located in the reference section of the library, PR 3521.

A last reminder: type your paper, 3 to 5 pages--no more than 5--for two papers, 5-8 pages for one. Please do not put your paper in a folder or add a cover sheet. Put your name, class section, and date in the upper right hand corner of the first page; put your last name and page number on all subsequent pages; give your paper a specific title, centered on your first page (titles are not underlined), which reflects your thesis idea; use a paper clip or staple your pages. Handwritten or late papers will not be accepted.

Be Specific. Proofread your paper carefully, but do more than merely reread it: revise your work. Revision is a major part of writing--one of the easiest problems to spot in reading student papers is the lack of revision, which usually indicates haste, laziness, or indifference. Writing is a skill that takes effort, patience, and the willingness to improve it, so start early.

Please don't ask me what to write on; that decision is part of the assignment. You are not limited to any of these ideas, but you must restrict yourself to the works that we have--or will--study this semester. If you do two papers, please pick two different works. I will be happy to look at a draft, but please don't submit a topic idea or draft a few days before the assignment is due. And please, when in doubt, ASK.

(Note: there are more works listed below than on your syllabus. Please select from the works only on your syllabus for the current semester.)

Some suggested subjects:

The Epic of Gilgamesh:

the importance of dreams

compare narrative episodes with Genesis: the creation of Enkidu; acquiring "wisdom"; the flood

the theme of friendship, of the search for immortality, or the idea of humanity

arrogance and humility

society vs. nature: organization , society vs. passion

loss and remembrance

eternal youth as dream and awareness of mortality

death and sex (as with the second Genesis Creation narrative)


The Odyssey 

the purposes of the "fore grounded information" on Odysseus's past

recognitions and the purposes of them

the importance of the homecoming in comparison to his past, his youth

The Metamorphosis ("The Creation and the Four Ages")

compare to the creation account in Genesis

compare the idea of the "Golden Age" to Eden

the ornamentation of The Metamorphosis compared to Genesis

the importance of "chaos" and creation in the two accounts

the importance of "transformation"

how do we see the women as opposed to the men in Homer's epic?

contrast an episode in the Odyssey with one in the Bible as Erich Auerbach did (other than Abraham and the scar of Odysseus)

compare the relationship between Athena and Odysseus with that of Job and God

discuss the relationship between Telemachus and Penelope

Book of Genesis:

significances in the differences between the two creation stories

compare the "distance" and "friendliness" of the two stories of creation

head-heel imagery

free will and the tree of knowledge

the importance of "knowledge"

God's ever-increasing distance in Genesis

the significance of Abraham's test by God

the importance of clothing imagery in the story of Joseph

the importance of dreams

can the story be viewed as a drama?

contrast the effects of the J and P writers

how does the J writer "humanize" the characters?

the parallel days in the first narrative of Genesis (compare the duality of 3 events--the 6 days--with The Metamorphosis or other
     Creation narratives)

**Warning! Don't be tempted to preach or express your faith if you write on something from Genesis: treat the topic as you would any other**

Book of Job:

the importance and differences of the three comforters

how are we to view the seeming paradox of God's praise of Job but condemnation of his comforters?

how can the book be seen as tragedy? as Greek tragedy?

new Testament (Matthew):

narrative technique: suspense or lack of it

how does the narrative include the reader in the events?

double meanings and misunderstandings between figures

the importance of prophecy and fulfillment

conflict and animosity between groups or individuals

The Metamorphosis:

compare to the creation account in Genesis

compare the idea of the "Golden Age" to Eden

the ornamentation of The Metamorphosis compared to Genesis

the importance of "chaos" and creation in the two accounts

the importance of "transformation"

The Oresteian Cycle:

the importance of Clytemnestra's "manly" behavior and its tension in the play

the question of possession and free-will

how are we to see the contradictions between Agamemnon's acts and those of Clytemnestra? Who's right? Is there a "right" or  

what are the responsibilities of Orestes?

how are the actions of Orestes more of his own choosing than those of Clytemnestra's or Agamemnon's?


the role of fate as the most important element in the play

the significance of Clytemnestra's "manliness"

justice vs. vengeance

sins of the fathers in the house

the significance of the chorus

Oedipus the King:

his pride and arrogance

the importance of prophecies

irony (known/unknown; Tiresias; help from Apollo; the "turn" of the play; his blindness; etc.)

the reasons for Oedipus's self-punishment

the Oedipus-Tiresius conflict

the Oedipus-Creon conflict

Oedipus's "guilt"

Jocasta's "knowing" and refusal to accept

the Chorus as status quo; their importance to the play

Oedipus's blindness: a "creative" act?

Apollo's function in the play


the tension between the sexes

passion and its consequences

the necessity for killing the children

the purpose for the Aegeus scene

the fallacies in Jason's speech

the deus ex machina as satisfying end to the play

Medea's nature and her possession

Doctor Faustus:

what is Marlowe's view of Faustus? Renaissance man or Godless sinner?

the place of hell

how is or is not the play tragedy?

the purposes of comedy in the play

Faustus's quest for knowledge

is anything about Faustus noble?


Hamlet's relationship to his mother

evidence that the Ghost is real the second visit -- what difference does it make?

appearance vs. reality

the role of Horatio

the importance of the play-within-the-play

compare Hamlet and Laertes

the importance of fathers and sons

the theme of corruption

Hamlet's relationship to Ophelia

Hamlet's conflict with philosophy/Church and his need for vengeance

in what way does the physical action and "look" of the physical stage indicate the problems that Hamlet faces?

what self-knowledge does Hamlet come to?

what impact does the frame plot have?  That is, Fortinbras appearing at the first of the play and then at the end?

what affect do the puns (choose a continuing theme of one of them) have on the play, a character, a scene?


the distinctions between a "domestic" tragedy and Oedipus

a particular distinction between Shakespearean tragedy with that of Greek and its relevance

Othello's jealousy as character trait

an argument that Othello is not by nature jealous

the relationship between martial skill and language

the paradoxes of hero/villain; the significance of Othello's blackness

instinct vs. reason

animal imagery and its significance

Iago's monologues and soliloquy's: what importance does one or two have on a play in which the protagonist doesn't present the
     majority of the speeches?

the role of Emilia: she stands between husband and Desdemona

the "fall" of Othello: what does his instinct, passion, knowledge, or command have to do with his failure?



the doctrine of courtly love and relationships: Guilliandun/Eliduc and Guildeluec/Eliduc

the sacrifice of Guildeluec

the reader's sympathy with Guilliadun

the "rights" of love vs. the duties of matrimony

the theme of resurrection and burial

compare the creature that would steal "life" with Gilgamesh or Genesis


unreality/reality and its affect upon the reader

the theme of justice

courtly love and divine service to the adored

images of wealth and beauty


courtly love vs. the purposes of marriage

compare the secrecy of the relationships in both "Laü stic" and "Lanval"

the symbolism of the nightingale

the contradiction between the spiritual and the physical

love: Courtly vs. service to God—is there a contradiction?

the attitude toward women by the writer/narrator: compare two poems

explicate a poem by focusing on a particular image, technique, or narrative voice

The Inferno:

the relationship between punishment and sufferer

Dante's perception of evil as compared to our own

differences between upper and lower Hell

Dante's view of Hell and ours: differences in time and culture

dramatic (especially tragic) scenes and people

contrast individuals or pairs of persons

the ironic pain of couples kept apart but close for eternity

passion as a force that defies/destroys reason

limbo and its symbolic importance as an "in-between" state prior to punishment

The Decameron:

the importance of exaggeration or fantasy

satire and its effectiveness -- is humor instructive?

the double personality of Alberto-Gabriel (4th day)

"poetic justice" in the Alberto and Lisetta story

how admirable are Federigo and the lady to whom he is devoted? (9th tale, 5th day)

faithful though unrewarded service

the theme of justice in the Guillaume de Roussillon and Guillaume de Cabestanh story (9th tale, 4th day)

symbolism (9th tale, 4th day)

is this a "cautionary tale" or does it have a moral purpose? (9th tale, 4th day)

is the story about Nastagio and the dead knight sexist?

compare the symbolism of the hearts in the story of Roussillon with that of Nastagio’s.

Courtly Love vs. cruelty and ugliness

is the story about Griselda like a biblical parable? Why? (10th story, 10th day)

is justice truly served in the story of Griselda?

The Canterbury Tales:

the "goodness" of the people of the church

Chaucer's view of his characters: sympathetic or critical?

Chaucer's attitude toward the Church

is the Miller's Tale pornography?

portraits of individuals who are neither sinners nor saints

"Of Cannibals":

what does "savage" mean?

what does "natural" mean, especially if compared to "artifice"?

the ways that Montaigne make use of comparison in his essay and its effectiveness

the relativity of morals and social standards


Is Petrarch's love, Laura, real? Is there any indication in his poetry?

the poem's speaker: attitudes between elation and despair

Compare the expressions of live in Petrarch with those of John Donne: what is the principal difference?

the conflict of spirit vs. the physical


the theme of youth and age

a conceit (extended metaphor)--such as the fire, winter, a spring chorus, etc.

compare the love expressions to that of Petrarch or Donne

the personal "voice" of the poet to express himself

John Donne:

the images of Donne

the subjectivity of his poetry

the theatricality of his poetry

the power of love to transcend mortality

Donne as "love martyr"

explicate any poem we have read, focusing on a particular image, technique, narrative voice, etc. 
          [Need to see a sample poetry explication?  Need a "refresher" on the elements of poetry?]




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