Posted to ACW-L, WCenter, NCTE-Talk,
and TEACH on 3/11/99.
This week, I've taken on Paulette Wachter's
request for help with essay topics that will fit the novels that her
students are reading. On NCTE-Talk this week, she wrote:
>This is my first year teaching senior college prep English,
>so I don't have a back log of essay questions nor much
>practice writing them. Four to six students in each class
>are reading one of the following in a literature circle
>format: Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Of Human Bondage,
>Darkness at Noon, The Power and the Glory, and All Quiet
>on the Western Front.
cut some info here
>I'd like to use one essay question that would apply to
>all six of the novels but am having trouble coming up with
>something. Does anyone out there have any ideas? It would
>be really helpful to have something very specific rather
>than the general things I've already pondered like
>"change in characters", "conflict", etc.
I agree with Fran Claggett (also on NCTE-Talk)
that it's best to give students time to work on the essays for
several days, possibly coming up with their own topics; but I was up
for the challenge of creating a list.
I've written the questions generally, with no
reference to any particular work. It would be easy to revise the
questions slightly so that they refer to a specific work, if you
wanted to use one with a particular novel that your students are
studying. In addition, I've written the questions so that they refer
to a single novel; but you could easily revise the questions so that
they applied to two or more novels, asking students to compare the
techniques that the authors use.
Originally Posted April 1, 1999 on the Daedalus Website.
- [Gender Issues] Consider the
gender of the characters in your novel. How are male and female
characters portrayed? How does the work portray their roles in
society? How does gender influence the choices that are available
to the characters and the decisions that they make? Write a paper
that explores how gender affects the plot and character
development in the novel.
Alternate Topics: Discuss how the novel would be different if the
genders of the main characters were reversed. OR, Discuss how the
novel would change if the events were to take place today
Compare the influence of gender on the choices and decisions that
the characters make in the world of the novel to the influence
that gender would have if these characters were here today.
Characters] In the novel that you've read, some of the
characters are given positive, sympathetic portrayals. Others have
negative, perhaps even villainous portrayals. Still others may
begin with negative qualities and gradually become more and more
positive. Rarely does an author rely on the reader's personal
sense of morality to determine which characters are positive and
which are negative. Instead, there are details, actions, and
characteristics that help define who is "good" and who is "bad."
It's easy to know the difference in old westerns good guys wear
white hats; bad guys wear black hats. But even then, there are
other details that help you know what it going on, details that
even help you construct hierarchies (e.g., slightly bad to fully
evil). Think about your novel. How does the author indicate which
characters are positive and which are negative? In your essay,
explain how you can tell the difference.
- [Dreams & Reality] Take
a look at the characters in the novel that you've read. Each of
the main characters in the novel is introduced to you with certain
dreams, plans, and expectations. In the course of the novel, these
main characters must come to terms with the difference between
their dreams and the reality of the world around them. Write a
paper on your novel that examines how the main characters navigate
the journey from dreams to reality What kind of course do they
follow, and how are they changed for their journey?
- [Realism and the Setting] Do
a close examination of the setting in your novel. What are the
primary locations? How are these places made realistic how does
the author use extended description, background information, and
specific detail to make the setting come alive for readers? How do
the main characters fit in the settings do they seem at home?
out of place? How do their reactions and interactions with the
setting affect the realism of the locations? In your paper,
discuss the way that the techniques that the novelist uses to make
the setting vivid and real to readers, and the extent to which
these techniques are effective.
- [Literary I-Search] Find a
single significant detail in your novel. Look for a specific
passage, a pivotal event, or an important symbol. Find something
that grabs your interest and that you want to examine carefully.
For your paper, investigate your detail completely Make it your
own. Learn everything you can about it. Why is it there in the
story? How does it relate to the particular scene in the novel?
How is it important to the overall theme or plot? Write a paper
that explains your personal search to understand the detail,
beginning from the moment that the detail grabbed you and working
toward your analysis of details and its relationship to the
[For this assignment, I'm assuming that the teacher will help
students understand what an I-Search paper is. If you're not sure,
take a look at Ken Macrorie's The I-Search Paper (a Revised
Edition of his Searching Writing), Heinneman, 1988. Note
too that you could ask students to do a version of this assignment
as simple explication, rather than making it an I-Search.]
- [Shaped by Period] Writers
can't help but be influenced by the events and people that they
see around them. The question is to what extent does that
influence become part of the works that they write and how do they
communicate their feelings and beliefs about the world around
them. For your essay, think about how the characters, setting, and
themes in your novel relate to the period in which it was written.
How is the novel an analysis of the period? How is it a
reflection, and how is it a criticism? And how does the writer
make opinions about that world clear to the reader?
- [Setting & Characters]
Consider the relationship between the characters and the setting
for your novel. Think about the way that the characters are
described, their characteristics, the conflicts that they face,
the actions they take, and their emotional reactions. Compare
these qualities to the setting to the way that it is described,
to the particular things that are described, and to the words that
are used to describe the place(s) where the novel takes place. In
your paper, explain how the setting of the novel is representative
(or not) of the characters.
- [Title] How does the title
of the novel that you've read relate to the novel itself? Is the
title descriptive? somewhat of a moral for the novel? a statement
of the theme? something else altogether? Why has the writer chosen
this title over other possibilities? In your paper, analyze the
relationship between title and novel, paying attention to the
reasons that the title highlights something that the author wants
readers to know or come to understand about the novel.
[Admittedly, this seems like a silly assignment for a novel
like Jane Eyre. Sure you could write a paper on it, but
it's less demanding than a paper on any of the other titles
Paulette's students are working with. It's possible for it to be a
good assignment for Jane Eyre, but I suspect that you'd get
a paper on characterization rather than one that really thought
about the issue of titling a novel. And it's not really fair to
give students a writing assignment that you know they're not able
- [Class Issues] Think about
the role that social class plays in the novel that you've read.
What social classes are represented in the novel? To what extent
is each class depicted? Are all the classes given equal
representation? How do the classes shown in the novel relate to
the classes that realistically existed in the time and place where
the novel takes place? As you go through your novel, consider two
important questions: how does the author feel about the different
social classes, and how can you tell the author's opinion? Write a
paper that explores the way that social class and class issues
affect the characters and plot of your novel.
- [Passion to Write] In The
Tale of the Genji, Murasaki Shikibu said that the novel
"happens because the storyteller's own experience of men and
things, whether for good or illnot only what he has passed
through himself, but even events which he has only witnessed or
been told ofhas moved him to an emotion so passionate that he
can no longer keep it shut up in his heart." What is the
passionate emotion that is communicated in your novel? Why was the
author of your novel moved to write? What is the thing that the
novelist had to communicate? In your paper, explain the author's
motivating emotion and how it is explored in the novel.
[You might address the fact that Shikibu, a woman writer
herself, uses masculine nouns and pronouns to describe the writer
in this quotation explicitly in your class especially if you're
reading works written by women. The Tale of the Genji was
written about the year 1000 and not in English. The quotation
is from a 1956 English translation. You and your students can use
the occasion to talk about gender in addition to the topic of the