Ode on a Grecian URL

Monday, January 15, 2007

God's Undertaker...

...How Thomas Hardy became everyone's favorite misanthrope: a thoughtful biographical commentary on Hardy's religious awakening in this month's New Yorker, worth reading if you miss our conversations about nineteenth-century novelists.

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:: posted by Mike, 2:32 PM | link |

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Keep in touch!

The list of persuasive answers to the ID questions is now complete! This is pretty much the end of my updating this blog, unless I find some dreadfully fun Henry James things to link to.

Please, please keep in touch! I'd love to hear what you are up to in future semesters, or to chat about books or classes over coffee. I'm always happy to write letters of recommendation, or to read over drafts of papers for other classes. I should be at the University for at least two more years (hopefully not much longer than that), and even after that my email address won't be changing. I hope to hear from you!

If by the middle of next semester you've become desperate to write a hebdomadal or two, you're welcome to read my blog for English 216 (again with Prof. Ortiz-Robles).
:: posted by Mike, 2:24 PM | link |

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Next steps and last comments

Here are a few links to the resources I point to on the Further Reading (etc.) handout I passed around last week.



A couple magazines

A few books

On the handout I listed probably dozens of books, somewhat indiscriminately. If you want a somewhat shorter list, try this one:
Helen (312) emailed me a couple days ago to say that this list looked all well and good, but that she was going to be reading The Golden Compass, which I have to say is an excellent recommendation -- it's a little Hardy-ish, a little Collins-y, a little Dickensian.

I've linked to the Oxford World's Classics editions of most of those books not because the OWC editions are inherently superior to others, but because they tend to be accurate and cheap editions. If you're toying with the idea of majoring in English and you want to get a sense of the editions majors read, look for Norton Critical Editions instead -- here's a link to the Norton edition of Middlemarch.

If, on the other hand, you are a sane person, go to your local Barnes & Noble and grab one of their Barnes & Noble Classic Editions -- you can almost always get super-cheap hardcovers of classic books if you're not interested in footnotes and lengthy introductions.

As a culture, we Americans have invested maybe a little too much cultural capital in reading. We've built it up to such an extent that it's considered pretentious or intellectual or silly or scary to be seen reading fat nineteenth-century novels in public -- you are more than likely to get strange looks if you're publicly reading a book that isn't obviously some bestseller with a shiny cover and a massive head shot of the author on the back. This in itself is sort of irrelevant -- all of you have braved public opinion a thousand times by now -- except that it sort of feeds back into our self-opinion, so that we start thinking of ourselves "Am I being too pretentious? Should I be reading The Ambassadors in secret, or at least swap the dust jacket with the cover of some Grisham novel?"

It doesn't help me to think of these novels as bestsellers themselves -- Dickens and Collins together sold hundreds of thousands of books during their lifetimes -- although you can try that. What you need, maybe, is to find a reason you are reading. Perhaps you're looking for a way to annoy the next dipshit who starts hitting on you at a party -- start dropping casual literary references and he can't help but feel his own dipshittiness; or perhaps you are looking for a way to avoid your family (this was always my reasoning) -- after all, they'll feel a little more shamed about making you hang out and do dreadful family things if you're clearly being literary in the corner of the room.

There's a lot to be said for the generic goal of "increasing your vocabulary" -- the only permanent way to do so is to read voraciously, and in particular to read outside your comfort zone. Books can also do a great deal to increase your understanding of character: although they can't increase your people skills (trust me), they can help you better understand the Isabel Archers of your life. Books play a genuine role in teaching us about sympathy, in teaching us how to better understand each other. (This might seem at odds with their ancillary function of removing us from those around us; however, books remove us from our contemporaries only to introduce us to new kinds and classes of people. At least, good books do this. Spend enough time with Henry James novels and you can't help but like people a little bit more, and understand them a little bit better.)

This is all a bit pedantic and rambly, I know, but for years I have struggled with finding a vocabulary to explain the basic life-changing power of reading. Why do you read? How do you read?

I was up until 4 am this morning reading Special Topics in Calamity Physics -- it's always rare and wonderful to find these books that just pull you through, these books that refuse to let you turn out the light. Maybe, at heart, all good books are like this: we don't need to have some complicated excuse system to explain why we read them -- they just leap at our eyes and hold them open until we've turned the last page.

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:: posted by Mike, 11:27 AM | link |

Grades are in!

If I'm reading my Faculty Center correctly, it looks like your grades are officially submitted and available for your to read. Congratulations on a successful semester, everyone! You are one of the most talented and hardest-working groups of students I have had the opportunity to teach -- you made this semester a real pleasure for me.

Please don't hesitate to contact me in the future! I'm always delighted to write letters of recommendation, to serve as a reference, or to help you work through essays you write in other classes. Or just email me if you have a question about literature or essay-writing! I'm always delighted to hear from former students.


:: posted by Mike, 11:21 AM | link |

Friday, December 22, 2006

Some remarks on the exam essays

Essay grades on the final were slightly stronger than those on the midterm -- averaging 29.2/35 on the final compared to 24.5/30 on the midterm -- which suggests that your improvement in textual analysis exceeds my expectations. Rather than post strong examples of essays written in answer to these topics, I'll offer some general remarks about success and failure on these prompts.
  1. Masculinity. (16 answers; average score: 30.0/35.) Although I was fairly bored with hearing echoed back to me the sorts of answers we began developing in discussion last week, for many of you our conversation about this prompt served as a kind of foundation for much more interesting observations. One particularly strong essay suggested that the sorts of domination we see play out inside the narratives of these texts is replicated by the texts themselves -- for example, Jane Austen's use of epigrams suggests a sort of verbal or textual violence at the heart of masculine authority.
  2. Narrative gaps. (18; 27.4/35.) These answers were on average weaker than answers to other prompts because so many writers neglected the prompt's italicized injunction to "examine the thematic importance of narrative gaps." So many blue book pages were dedicated to discussions of how gaps keep the reader coming back for more that I was inclined to wonder whether there was some gap in the middle of the essay question to account for this astonishing commonality. This is not to suggest that all the answers to this prompt missed the point -- one particularly strong response began with the idea that in some texts these narrative gaps serve two thematic purposes: to excise conventional events (engagement, marriage, rape, murder) from readers' considerations of unconventional characters, and to suggest the comparative unimportance of events when we could instead look at the effect of events on characters.
  3. Liminality. (14; 29.8/35.) This was my favorite prompt, and it inspired some of the most interesting essays. One favorite of mine used houses as exemplars of liminality -- Longbourn, for example, was in a state of suspens as it would not remain in the Bennet family; logically, then, this liminal space is inhabited by women who are themselves between houses. Satis House -- itself suspended between life and death -- functions similarly as a liminal space that transforms Pip from a comparatively happy future blacksmith to a miserable wannabe-gentleman, and which later transforms him from an emotionally satisfied lover of the inaccessible Estella into an emotionally satisfied friend to the same.
  4. Reading reading. (14; 29.5/35.) We addressed this topic so frequently in class that answers were likelier to be boring than bad. One of the more interesting treatments of this question paralleled Franklin Blake's self-discovery in The Moonstone to Elizabeth Bennet's self-discovery in Pride and Prejudice -- different kinds of rereadings, but with several procedural similarities that suggest, the author suggests, the larger emotional and intellectual relevance of texts as portals of self-discovery.


:: posted by Mike, 2:31 PM | link |

Strong answers to the ID prompts (Updated 12/26)

The average ID score was fairly low -- 4.3/6 or about a low C -- mainly because I was fairly stringent in my evaluation of what constituted a theme and in my expectation that after our near-weekly practice of writing IDs that it would be easy to craft strong answers.

I will use this entry to post some particularly successful answers to these prompts. This entry will be expanding as I get permission back from more students to share their work.

By the way, I apologize for any glaring misspellings you see below -- they're my fault, not the student writers'.

Passage 1 (13 answers; average grade: 4.0/6)
'I should like awfully to be so!' Isabel secretly exclaimed, more than once, as one after another of her friend's fine aspects caught the light, before long she knew that she had learned a lesson from a high authority. It took no great time indeed for her to feel herself, as the phrase is, under an influence. 'What's the harm,' she wondered, 'so long as it's a good one? The more one's under a good influence the better. The only thing is to see our steps as we take them -- to understand them as we go. That, no doubt, I shall always do. I needn't be afraid of becoming too pliable; isn't it my fault that I'm not pliable enough?'

To be honest, I had to look up from where in Portrait this passage came -- England or Italy? -- and because of this passage's (relative) obscurity I was a little kinder in grading what you wrote for its context.

Another quick note: James here uses the word "aspect" in about the only way you ever should; c'est à dire literally: "the positioning of a building or thing in a specified direction" (Oxford American Dictionary) -- in this case, the positioning of Madame Merle in a (figurative) direction that catches the light. Increasingly I see the word "aspect" turning up in essays in its more pedestrian sense, "a particular feature or part of something" (OAD): in other words, "a thing." Please don't use the word in this sense, as doing so renders your writing vague and unpleasant.

Kat (313) doesn't dwell on this particular word, but she gets at the themes and problems of this passage quite well:
  1. The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
  2. This occurs just after Isabel has met and spent lots of time with Madame Merle at Gardencourt. Isabel feels, not negatively, that she is becoming very influenced by Madame Merle, and wishes to be like her.
  3. This passage reflects the theme of pictorialism and portraiture. The narrator describes Merle's traits as 'catching the light' as you would speak of a work of art. We are also, in this passage, introduced to the confusion of choice and manipulation. Isabel is choosing to be under an influence, but one that will make her "pliable."

Passage 2 (29; 4.5/6)
At this time, no unpracticed eyes would have detected any change in him. But, as the minutes of the new morning wore away, the swifts/subtle progress of the influence began to show itself more plainly. The sublime intoxication of opium gleamed in his eyes; the dew of stealthy perspiration began to glisten on his face. In five minutes more, the talk which he still kept up with me, failed in coherence. He held steadly to the subject of the Diamond; but he ceased to complete his sentences.

Tim (312) offers this answer:
Moonstone, Wilkie Collins
This is Ezra Jenning describing Franklin Blake after opium was administered to him, ~3/4 through the book
Jennings' reference to "unpracticed eyes" alludes both to his status as a doctor with practiced eyes and foreshadows the role of observation and surveillance in the novel. Here Jennings's eyes observe Franklin under opium and can establish the necessary authority in the community to exonerate Blake whose character is under question since honorable Rachel saw him steal the diamond. This raises the question: is character enough to free one from blame?

Passage 3 (19; 4.3/6)
'And remember this,' he continued, 'that if you've been hated you've also been loved. Ah but, Isabel -- adored!' he just audibly and lingeringly breathed.
'Oh my brother!' she cried with a movement of still deeper prostration.

Jon-Erik (312) offers this strong answer:
  1. The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James
  2. The first speaker is a dying Ralph, and the second is Isabel's response. This is at the end of the novel when Isabel is [married] to Osmond and Ralph is dying
  3. This passage is important because it shows Ralph's confession to Isabel. When he says "if you've been hated you've also been loved," he is referring to the wickedness of Osmond. Even though Osmond may see her as just another work of art in his gallery, Ralph loved her for her independence. The fact that Ralph is "lingeringly" holding on to life can be paralleled to Isabel's struggle to stay independent, instead of succumbing to social responsibility. When she cries "Oh my brother!" she may realize what she has done, but has already committed to Osmond and is already under the influence of societal assimilation.

Passage 4 (29; 4.4/6)
"Poor darlings -- to suppose myself the most miserable being on earth in the sight o' such misery as yours!" she exclaimed, her tears running down as she killed the birds tenderly. "And not a twinge of bodily pain about me! I be not mangled, and I be not bleeding, and I have two hands to feed and clothe me." She was ashamed of herself for her gloom of the night, based on nothing more tangible than a sense of condemnation under an arbitrary law of society which had no foundation in Nature.

Typing this passage out, I wonder whether there is a reason Tess speaks in the strange mix of dialects we see here. She talks about being "in the sight o' such misery" -- a sort of pseudo-cockneyism -- but then goes on to use a sophisticated subjunctive with "I be not mangled," etc. Hmm.

Esther (313) offers this strong response:
This takes place in Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. Tess encounters several pheasants that have been hunted down after she escapes to the forest from a man who had recognized her associations with Alec.

The significance of this passage lies in Tess's realization that her sense of misery has no basis in Nature and is merely the result of an "arbitrary law of society" while the pheasants suffered physically as a result of the cruelness of man, and were nearing their deaths, Tess comes to realize that her sufferings were temporary and that she was capable of recovery unlike the birds in front of her. This is when she comes into realization that though renewal and purification may not be found in society, Nature offers her an opportunity.

Passage 5 (12; 4.2/6)
'I made a private inquiry last week, Mr Superintendent,' he said. 'At one end of the inquiry there was a murder, and at the other end there was a spot of ink on the tablecloth that nobody could account for. In all my experience along the dirtiest ways of this dirty little world, I have never met with such a thing as a trifle yet.'

It's interesting to me that this is the passage that attracted the least attention. Was it too obscure? Was its connection to the thematic ideas of The Moonstone a little too difficult to articulate? While there were several sturdy answers to this passage, there were no especially strong ones. I will attempt to sketch one out now.
  1. The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins
  2. Sgt. Cuff's response to Superintendent Seagrave upon the latter's remark that the smudge on the frame of Rachel's door was a "trifle," recorded in Gabriel Betteredge's first narrative.
  3. The reading practice of deduction, of which Cuff is here the exemplar, forces the suspenseful overreading of textual details. This textual practice is encoded in the formalization of suspense: to wit, Betteredge begins paying an excess of attention to trifling details and thereby fails to pay attention to the sorts of analytical or evaluative reading practices that might allow readers to dismiss or ignore the trifles to which Cuff cleaves. We see, then, a thematic problem underscored by Cuff's interest in deduction: attention to trifles (facts / acts) comes at the expense of attention to character; it is only through attention to character -- Rachel's, Franklin's, Gregory's -- that the mystery is ultimately understood.

Passage 6 (13; 4.8/6)
Mrs. Osmond, at present, might well have gratified such tastes. The years had touched her only to enrich her; the flower of her youth had not faded, it only hung more quietly on its stem. She had lost something of that quick eagerness to which her husband had privately taken exception -- she had more the air of being able to wait. now, at all events, framed in the gilded doorway, she struck our young man as the picture of a gracious lady. 'You see I'm very regular,' he said. 'But who should be if I'm not?'
'Yes, I've known you longer than any one here. But we mustn't indulge in tender reminiscences. I want to introduce you to a young lady.'

Helen (312) offers this answer:
The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James
Isabel and [Ned Rosier] converse at one of the Osmonds' Thursday night parties after Isabel and Gilbert have been married many years. The phrase "framed in the gilded doorway" poses an ironic statement to use to describe Isabel. Earlier in the novel, Isabel rejected Lord Warburton's proposal in fear of being trapped in a "gilded cage" and losing her independence. The reuse of the word "gilded" reveals that despite her efforts, Isabel lost her independence to conventional society. Through the irony of the repetition of "gilded," James suggests that conventional society can overpower one's individual identity despite one's conscious attempts to retain independence.

Passage 7 (20; 4.4/6)
A little way forward she turned her head. The old grey wall began to advertise a similar fiery lettering to the first, with a strange and unwonted mien, as if distressed at duties it had never before been called upon to perform. It was with a sudden flush that she read and realized what was to be the inscription he was now half-way through--

Ellen (313) offers this strong answer:
  1. Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
  2. Tess was just raped by Alec, and she sees this painter putting these words across the countryside
  3. This passage reveals the relationship between religion and nature. The "fiery letters" create an image of hell, and these painter's words strike fear into the heart of Tess. These words seem to destroy the beautiful landscape, revealing how Hardy feels religion tries to overpower nature.

Passage 8 (20; 4.0/6)
If there is such a thing known at the doctor's shop as a detective-fever, that disease had by now got fast hold of your humble servant. Seargeant Cuff went on between the hillocks of sand, down to the beach. I followed him (with my heart in my mouth); and waited at a little distance for what was to happen next.

While this passage (and, to a lesser extent, passage 5) inspired several comments about suspense, it was generally left unclear how suspense functioned thematically -- its emotional effect on the reader is somewhat less interesting than its connection to the thematic problems of the text. Kelsey B. (313) connects the appearance of suspense to the thematic questions of resolution in this strong answer:
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins.
This is after the disappearance of the Diamond when Sergeant Cuff and Betteredge go to the schore area to look for evidence about Rosanna Spearman.
The passage clearly illustrates the intense effect of suspense portrayed throughout the novel. This suspense, in being described as a "disease," represents the underlying theme of anticipation of death. When the suspense is over and the Diamond is found the book ends. Similarly, in life the anticipation of death is only fulfilled in the finality of death.

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:: posted by Mike, 2:02 PM | link |

Grades are ready!

Hi, all!

I've managed to grade the finals and calculate your final scores in this class. However, because of some weirdness beyond my control it might still be a day or two before your grades get submitted. If you would like to know your score in the interim, feel free to send me an email and I'll be happy to get back to you with your grade breakdown.

Check back here later this week for some comments about the finals and for links to podcasts, blogs and books. I hope your winter vacations are off to a wonderful start!
:: posted by Mike, 11:51 AM | link |