21L.000J | Fall 2010 | Undergraduate

Writing About Literature


Notes on Close Reading (PDF)

Report Guidelines (PDF)

Guidelines for Revision (PDF)

Revision Workshop Worksheet (PDF)

The work will necessarily focus on certain core questions and issues, which will be important to class discussions, oral presentations, and written assignments:

  • Context: How do writers’ historical periods and biographies shape narrative?
  • Sources: What does an author’s use of sources tell us about the creative process?
  • Language: How can a close reading of the text provide understanding of the way different uses of language create and expand meaning?
  • Character: How does it develop throughout a text? What are the key turning points and actions?
  • Performance: How do characters perform their roles? How does the author make us aware of the social performance of identity and motivation?
  • Writing: How can writing define the self and by extension the world of the writer?
  • Research: How does investigating sources and contexts develop the meaning and significance of writing and performance?

Class work will consist of group discussion of the reading, student presentations based on research materials, and group collaboration on writing and peer review. Writing assignments will include:

  • One close reading of a passage or scene in Frankenstein (5 pp)
  • One research essay on Shelley’s use of sources, based on in-class presentations (5 pp)
  • One revision refining the research project (5 pp)
  • One study of a Melville character (5 pp)
  • One comparison of Wilde’s and Bechdel’s uses of a certain theme (5 pp)

Close Reading

(5 pp or 1250-1500 words - due LEC #6)

In order to speak knowledgeably about a text, you have to be able to read it carefully, to know at least parts of it intimately. For this essay, you will have a chance to reflect on a passage from Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Using the class handout as a guide, choose a brief passage from the novel (no more than a short paragraph or a few sentences) and analyze its technical features—such as diction, sentence patterns, tone, figurative language, and structure, as appropriate. Write a rough draft in which you investigate these elements of the passage in detail, quoting from the text and developing your point fully. Try to avoid the mechanical structure and narrow range of the five-paragraph essay model. This format, while helpful for certain kinds of writing, will restrict your options here, where you want to explore different possibilities for interpretation. Give yourself room to entertain problems in and even contradictions to your initial assumptions. These will prove useful in the end.

When you have a firm grasp of the specific elements of the passage, write a second draft in which you propose a thesis, your idea of what are the effects or implications of Shelley’s use of language in this passage. Use your new introduction to frame your close reading, introducing a thesis statement, topic sentences, and transitions that structure and develop your idea. Conclude with a thoughtful paragraph that opens up your analysis for further reflection. You do not want your conclusion to summarize material that you have already explained well in the paper, nor do you want to suggest that the subject is closed.

You do not need to advance an argument for the whole novel. Your reading will proceed from careful and sustained attention to one small piece of the larger work. Remember that you are writing for people who have read the book as you have and will not need a report on or summary of its content. Present your reading as part of a continuing dialogue among other interested readers.

Give your essay an evocative title.

Research Essay

(5 pp or 1250-1500 words - due 1 day after LEC #10)

This essay draws on your brief in-class presentation to consider more fully Shelley’s use of sources in her text. Unless you have had a complete change of heart, you would be wise to continue working on the topic on which you presented to the class. You will expand your preliminary information and research, ground your observations in a deeper knowledge of the texts, and advance a thesis about how Shelley drew from materials in her culture to build her story.

Using the in-class report as a foundation, address the following points by offering information from your research and by developing your own analysis:

  1. What is the literary or cultural source that interests you? Read enough of or about it so that you can write about it knowledgeably.
  2. How would Shelley have known about this source or context? What was its status in nineteenth-century European culture?
  3. Where does this source or context appear in Frankenstein? What makes it important to the narrative, development of character, or implementation of a particular theme or idea?
  4. Does Shelley treat this source or context reverently? Satirically? As significant or not?
  5. How does your understanding of the source or context affect your reading of a particular scene or example of its appearance in the text?

Use your opening to pose your research question and advance an argumentative thesis. Organize your paper around clear supporting points that develop the thesis logically, using specific details, information, and examples from your texts. Conclude with a firm statement of the implications of your argument—not just a summary of what you said but rather an indication of why it matters for our understanding of your theme.

Revised Essay

On Frankenstein(5 pages or 1250-1500 words - due 2 days after LEC #14)

This revision has two objectives: to improve the research essay and to refine it so that your research supports a more fully developed thesis. In your meetings with the writing advisor, you will have a chance to discuss which of these issues requires your greatest attention, but you will need to address both to get the most out of the assignment.

To improve the essay, you will need to go over the comment sheet and consider the ideas, organization, style, mechanics, and other matters that you want to focus on. Practice pruning wordiness and work on making the material more succinct and economical so that you can open up new ideas. You will also want to engage your reader, who now knows the material well, in new ways. Be sure to make the argument and language more lively, the analysis of examples more exciting, the presentation of facts more surprising. You can also be more selective about what research or supporting materials you offer; decide which details serve your argument best and jettison the others.

The second aspect of your revision would be to refine your original ideas in light of the new work done in class and new thinking of your own. Your argument should show that you have given the original thesis new attention, have developed it more fully, and have introduced fresh ideas or examples into the paper.

Revision, then, does not mean making the first paper perfect but giving it significant new thought, a re-vision of the original project. Seriously reconsidering your thesis allows you to be selective and to get rid of material that no longer fits. Enjoy the feeling of tearing your essay apart and rebuilding it. You will produce better results, even if they have a few ragged edges.

As before, supply a correct and responsible list of works cited and quote correctly. Please submit your original essay with its comments when you hand in the revision.

Character Study

(5 pp or 1250-1500 words - due 5 days after LEC #19)

Your examination of Melville’s Benito Cereno as a rewriting of a chapter in Amasa Delano’s travel narrative has highlighted, among other things, how much Melville emphasizes the mysteries of character. Individuals whom the historical Delano sees and identifies clearly as certain types become dubious, secretive, or equivocal in Melville’s narrative. In particular, Melville makes readers aware that character is being performed, that individuals play certain roles as if in a theater. What are we to make of this performance or fictionalization of identity? How does performance or fiction-making relate to or comment on what is “real” or “known”?

Choose one character in the story and a moment when Melville makes this character’s actions especially striking, puzzling, revealing, or meaningful. Drawing on your skills of close reading and analysis, examine the scene’s details for evidence of significant implications of the character’s behavior. Use these questions to get you started:

  1. What does Melville’s narrator tell us about the character at this moment? What does he leave out?
  2. What does the character say for him- or herself? Does the character use words, gestures, objects, silences, or other means to communicate?
  3. How does the character’s behavior at this moment reflect or distract from his or her true intentions? How does Melville make us aware of what those intentions are? In what ways and to what effect might the character seem to be playing a part?
  4. How do markers of dress, gender, race, profession, nation, or class communicate in place of words? What are the significance of these external markers?
  5. How does the character’s behavior in this scene reflect upon Melville’s themes or issues elsewhere in the text? (You don’t have to cover all possible themes or the whole text.)

You will not need to do outside research for this essay, but do include a Works Cited list and correct documentation for your text and quotations.

Comparison Essay

(5 pp or 1250-1500 words - due 2 days after LEC #25)

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest may be thought of as a source for Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, much as Milton’s Paradise Lost is a foundation for Shelley’s Frankenstein, but the points of intersection and contact between the two texts seem both less direct and more rich than what you would expect of a text and its source. Bechdel seems drawn to a number of themes, plot structures, and characters from Wilde’s play and to be interested in the analogies between his work and her own. These range from obvious references to Earnest to more subtle echoes and nuances. What does a close comparison between details in the two texts reveal?

A good comparison will select a focused topic and a limited range of scenes or details. Beyond that you will want to explore as many possible dimensions of your comparison as you can before coming to a decision about your thesis. Once you have assembled all the elements of your comparison, consider: which is more interesting, the similarities or the differences? Then try switching the relationship to see what happens. Often one’s first assumptions turn out to be unsatisfactory.

In structuring your essay, you will also want to think about whether to use a block structure (putting all the material from one text first before turning to the other) or a point-by-point comparison. Your decision will depend on your material, but in many cases the point-by-point comparison has the advantage of requiring clear topic sentences and, if it’s done well, emphasizes a logical structure rather than an assemblage of details from two texts.

Remember to think about and to inform your reader why the comparison is useful, beyond being an academic exercise. Is it enough that Bechdel refers explicitly to Wilde? What in her response to the play (as form and style as well as theme) reveals her intentions in the narrative? You may find your consideration of performance and identity in Benito Cereno useful for addressing similar issues here.

Remember too that we have been thinking this term about writers as writing about literature. One clear corollary of this point is that when writers write about literature, they are readers. What does Bechdel’s graphic novel say about reading? How does she model different ways to read and understand Wilde’s play or other texts?

As always, document your sources and give your paper a good title. Think of this essay as reflecting what you’ve achieved from your reading and writing this semester. Although your scope must remain narrow, you can draw on a wider range of materials than in previous essays to show what you’ve learned.

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2010
Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments