each of the literary works below, you should write a response between
250 and 300 words in length. Quote from the text for support,
but do not include the quotations in your word count. Again,
the questions I provide are meant to get you thinking about the work
in question. You should consider them, but feel free to focus
on any aspect of the story or poem that intrigues you.
responses are not meant to be fully fleshed-out interpretations
of the works in question. Even so, we are moving beyond the
issue of your immediate aesthetic response. How the story
or poem affects you is still important, so you may still use the
first person in the first two exercises, but a close reading requires
more analysis. You should be quoting particular lines that
you think are revealing as evidence for your points.
Do not summarize plot. We are all reading these works, so
there is no point to telling us what happens. Presume your
reader has read the work.
Read the poems aloud. You cannot get the full impact of poetry
without speaking and hearing it.
The format of the quotations must be correct. Consult Chapter
14 in Trimble for help.
Because I have put the stories online for you, cite them by paragraph
number (instead of page number) only, that is (21) not (Wharton
21). Cite poems by line number only.
Fiction (due 16 February)
Edith Wharton’s story “Roman
cially, not much seems to happen
in this story. Indeed, hardly any action occurs. The story
consists of two main characters, a setting, and a conversation.
Yet gradually readers become aware of tensions, passions, and secrets
that an real-world observer of the scene would never imagine.
Wharton is a master of dramatic irony, and rarely has a story achieved
a more dramatic or ironic denouement. But irony must be earned,
meaning that although it usually depends upon an element of surprise,
it must make perfect sense in retrospect, and often will change our
understanding of everything we have seen up to that point. How
does this story earn its irony? How is our opinion of the characters
changed by the story’s conclusion? Note also the use of
narrative perspective in this story. Wharton uses third-person
omniscient narration, meaning that the narrator can report the characters’
thoughts and personal histories, that nothing is excluded from what
the narrator can know. However, in fact Wharton is
quite selective in this story, and reports one of the characters’
perspectives and judgments much more often and more thoroughly than
the other. Which character, and why? Finally, what role
does the setting play in the story?
Poetry (due 21 February)
Read the following two Emily Dickinson poems and respond to one
of them. Read them aloud! Poems are both an oral and
an aural medium — you cannot understand them fully if you
read them silently.
#175 (in R.W. Franklin’s edition
of her poems) beginning “I cautious, scanned my little life
—”: Clearly, Dickinson is describing some
kind of traumatic experience in this poem. How can we tell?
What is the central metaphor she carries through the poem?
To what do the “Thief,” the “wind,” and
“Deity” refer? What are the characteristics of
hay that make it a meaningful symbol in this poem; do not worry
that you cannot figure out exactly what the hay refers to —
I don’t know, and no one else does either. But that’s
okay, because one of the things that makes Dickinson’s poems
so striking is how perfectly their logic works internally, even
when we cannot be sure what actual events or experiences in her
life inspired them. Now consider some of the poem’s
formal qualities: Why does Dickinson use so many dashes? Why
does she put commas in unexpected (and even ungrammatical) places?
Why does she capitalize unexpected words? Note how at one
point she stretches a single thought across two stanzas —
what effect does that have?
#340 (in R.W. Franklin’s edition
of her poems) beginning “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,”:
This is a good poem to consider the difference between the subject
and the object of a metaphor. The poem begins as if it is
about a funeral, but pretty quickly it becomes clear that the funeral
is metaphorical, not literal. What makes that clear?
Consider how she represents the “Brain,” the “Soul,”
and “Reason.” What is she saying about these different
parts of the self? Why is it significant that “Being”
becomes “an Ear”? What happens to the speaker
in the poem, both during it and at the end? Now consider some
of the poem’s formal qualities: Why does Dickinson use so
many dashes, including — maybe especially — one at the
end of the poem? Why does she put commas in unexpected (and
even ungrammatical) places? Why does she capitalize unexpected
words? Note how at one point she stretches a single thought
across two stanzas — what effect does that have?
#3: Fiction or Poetry (due 23 February)
Belated” by Edith Wharton and two more poems, #355
beginning “It was not Death, for I stood up” and
#423 beginning “The first Day’s Night had come —”,
by Emily Dickinson. Choose
one of them as the subject for your second major essay and consider
the following questions:
“Souls Belated”: What kind of character
is Lydia? What is the source of her unhappiness? Why doesn’t
she want to marry Gannett? Does Gannett understand her reasons?
What does she actually want? What does Mrs. Cope understand
about Lydia that Lydia does not? Does “Souls Belated”
end happily? (To answer this question, you should also explain what
you think does happen at the end.)
#355 beginning “It was not Death, for I stood up”:
As we have discussed, Dickinson used poetry as a means of intellectual
inquiry. This poem is an example of how her poems could at times
resemble logical proofs. She is not sure what the thing is she
is describing, but over the course of the poem she attempts to define
it by explaining what it is similar but not identical to. Consider
how she accomplishes this goal through imagery, word choice, and the
poem’s formal qualities. Note: Dickinson does not come
to a definitive answer in this poem, though she comes close, so that
is not your goal either. In other words, I do not want you to
assert something like “She is really talking about ________.”
Dickinson had a superb vocabulary, so if a word or phrase existed
for what she is describing, she would have used it. Describing
the process of this poem is far more important than determining an
#423 beginning “The first Day’s Night had come —”:
This is another poem in which Dickinson questions her own sanity.
That she does so is not surprising, but as always the way she engages
in the process of exploring the question is what makes the poem memorable.
Discuss her use of imagery and the formal qualities of the poem.
Also, while other poets have created poetic speakers that may be mad
— think of Edgar Allan Poe, for example — those poems
typically sound quite different from this. What is the tone of this
poem, and what gives you that impression?
this exercise, you should adopt a more formal tone: no first-person,
no slang, no contractions. You should also support your assertions
with evidence you have quoted (not paraphrased, not just referenced)
from the text. If you do this assignment well, you should be
able to use a significant portion of it in your Close
#4: Thesis and quotations for Close Reading Essay (due 28 February)
Come to class with three copies of a page offering a prospective thesis
statement for your Close Reading Essay and two properly formatted
quotations you plan to use to support it.
will receive the usual two scores for each of the first three exercises.
See Exercise and Rubric Grading System
for an explanation of what the scores mean. For the fourth exercise,
merely coming to class with the assignment done completely will earn
you a 3/3. Note: because we will be discussing exercise
#4 in class, you will not earn any credit if you are absent, even
if you send it to me ahead of time.