21L.422 | Fall 2002 | Undergraduate



Below are some notes, questions, cases and commentaries meant to guide the student’s reading and to inform classroom discussion. See the readings section for downloadable files of the texts assigned for many of the class sessions.


Introduction. Leviticus, 16.

St Matthew, 26, xxx-xxxv, xlviii-lxxv.

Two English Ballads: “Edward”, “Sir Patric Spens.”

  1. LEVITICUS: What is atonement? Is it a form of punishment? Can punishment be transferred from one agent to another? This text is the origin of the idea of “scapegoating”. Is scapegoating ever a good idea? Can blame be transferred from one agent to another? What is the purpose of making atonement into an annual ritual? Have you ever atoned for anything?
  2. ST MATTHEW: When Jesus says that Peter will deny him, Peter denies what Jesus says. Can Jesus possibly be mistaken in such a matter? How does he know what Peter will do? The prophecy is specific about time. Can Peter avoid the prophecy? There is a Biblical antecedent for some of the issues raised by this passage. God brought the plagues to Egypt because Pharoah would not accede to Moses request to let his people go, but the text tells us that God had hardened Pharoah’s heart so that he would not listen to Moses. Can Pharoah be blamed for this?
  3. ENGLISH BALLADS: We are unfamiliar with the stories to which these ballads allude, although their original audience must have known them quite well. Is there enough narrative material to make out the tale? Why does Edward begin by lying to his mother? Why does he end by cursing her? Why does Sir Patric Spens set sail to his death? Does he know that he will die? Is there any reason to think that one or both of these narratives is “tragic”?

2 Aeschylus, The Orestia.

  1. The first choral ode recounts much of the material antecedent to the story but not in a manner immediately accessible to anyone not already familiar with it. How does it compare in this respect with the ballads “Edward” and “Sir Patric Spens”? In some versions of the myth, Artemis interupts the voyage of the army because Agamemnon had insulted her in some fashion. What seems to be the reason here? What sense does the chorus communicate about their attitude towards the expedition against Troy?
  2. Pay careful attention to the stanza of the chorus in which Agamemnon is described as “slipping his neck into the bridle of Fate” (translations may vary). Explain the alternatives facing Agamemnon. Did he have a choice? Are there important moral occasions in which one can truly say, “I had no choice”?
  3. Before this stanza there are stanzas dealing with Zeus, the Father of the gods. What character does he seem to have?
  4. What hints do we get about Clytemnestra’s feelings for Agamemnon in her exchange with the chorus? The audience, of course, knows full well how this play will come out, enabling a play of ironies and secondary meanings latent in what is said (or sung), which the audience will catch but of which the characters in the play will be unaware. Are there any ironies of this sort in Clytemnestra’s description of the fall of Troy?
  5. How valid is the motive of revenge? “Whosoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.” Capital punishment is one form of revenge, which seeks adequacy for the offence, closure for those bonded to the victims. Do those who are bonded to the victims obliged to revenge? Can one inherit an obligation of this sort? Can one inherit the guilt that has gone unpunished when those who have committed the crime are not available for punishment? Is one complicit in a crime when one forestalls or impedes punishment (as in not revealing the whereabout of a malefactor to the police, for example)?
  6. Is it worse to sacrifice a daughter than, say, a bystander? Is it worse to kill one person (in particular) than another? Is it better to kill one person than another? Are these last two questions different questions?
  7. Clytemnestra persuades Agamemnon to expend public wealth by treading upon delicate, invaluable fabrics, thereby destroying them, as a token of his triumph. How does she persuade him? What is the significance of his action?
  8. Apollo is the god of healing and disease (he is called “the far-darter” in this capacity). He is also the god of prophecy - possibly because being possessed means ranting and raving, which is akin to being struck by a disease. Cassandra is his victim. Why is Apollo punishing her? We are not shown the slaughter of Agamemnon but we hear about it through the prophetic ravings of Cassandra, which are not understood by those who hear it on stage. The audience, however, understands it well. Cassandra goes to her slaughter in a way like Iphigenia before her - the chorus tells us that her mouth was stopped, to prevent her from cursing those who took part in her sacrifice. What can be said of Cassandra’s display of agony? Is it for herself? For Agamemnon? What can be said of her as a representative of something decisive about the human condition?
  9. Clytemnestra makes a speech near the end of the Agamemnon about standing in a shower of blood. What is the purport of the speech? How does she think of herself and her deed? The chorus regards her with a horror that did not color their regard for Agamemnon, whatever he had done. Is it worse for a wife to kill her husband than for a father to kill his daughter?
  10. Most of the Coephori (English: The Libation-Bearers) is occupied with the central act of libationBa ritual of drinking which is begun by pouring drink upon the ground. What is the point of the ritual here? How does the way in which Orestes carries out the obligation of revenge differ from the way in which Agamemnon killed Iphigenia? the way in which Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon?
  11. Most of the Eumenides (English: The Blessed Ones) consists of a trial in which the Erynes (English: the Furies) debate with Apollo about the guilt of Orestes. How does Athena persuade the Furies to submit their case to this newly-created tribunal of Justice? What will follow if the tribunal judges badly? Is Athens undertaking a risk in empowering such a tribunal? What is the character of the Furies? They refer to themselves as “the mind of the past” (at least in some translations). What do they mean by the phrase? How important is it to honor the mind of the past? How important is it to disavow obligation to it? What is the character of Apollo? How does his character here reflect the character of the god who inflicted prophetic agonies on Cassandra in the Agamemnon?
  12. The case is finally decided by an argument about paternity. Can we accept this argument today, while knowing its biological invalidity? In the play, it is offered as a religious principle, not a scientific one. How does it reflect the themes of the play? How are the Erynes persuaded to become Eumenides and the Blessed Ones? What will their function be in Athens?


Sophocles, Antigone.

Viewing to be arranged of Coppolla’s film*, The Godfather.*

I. Sophocles, Antigone
The subject of this play is represented in the text by the Greek word philia, whose root appears in such words as “philosophy” and “Philadelphia”. Most texts translate it as “love”, and so “love” figures prominently in your translation of the Antigone. (Thus “philosophy” is supposed to mean “love of wisdom”, since “sophia” means wisdom; and Philadelphia was named in honor of “brotherly love”.) But “philia” does not have a direct English equivalent; it means the deepest and most important bonds that tie you to another person or group of persons. The English word “loyal” derives from the Latin “ligare”, which meant “to bond, to tie down”, and Creon is talking about “philien” when he talks about loyalty (or allegiance). 

The background of the play is this: Some time after Oedipus was banished from Thebes, his two sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, quarreled over the rightful succession. The kingship went to Eteocles, rightfully; Polyneices fled to Argos, the traditional enemy of Thebes, and returned with seven armies, each of which attacked Thebes at one of its seven gates. The battle took place in darkness; the play begins with dawn, when it is discovered that at six gates, the enemy was defeated and the enemy general killed. At the seventh gate the enemy general, Polyneices, was also killed, but so was the Theban general, Eteocles. As the nearest male kin, their uncle, Creon, is now king of victorious Thebes.

  1. What is Creon’s position at the outset of the play? In answering, bear in mind (a) that it is the very next day after an unsuccessful attempt to conquer his city; (b) the usual attempts at conquests always tried to enlist the aid of any group within the city who were disaffected or at odds with the leadership and normally secured this aid before any campaign was launched (modern equivalents are called “fifth columnists” and “traitors within”), so that Creon’s fears about traitors within are not entirely unreasonable; (c) the person whose burial he forbids (Polynices) is his own nephew, who has turned against his family, and the duty to bury such a person would normally fall upon him.
  2. What is Antigone’s position at the outset of the play? Granted that the ritual burial of kin is a sacred obligation, but only a ritual (it need only be a token sprinkling, which is all that Antigone can supply), why is it so important to her? Is Ismene (caught-in-the-middle Ismene) an ethical weakling, a mere fence-sitter, or does she represent a reasonable position? Is it ever a good idea to say about someone that they are either a part of the solution or a part of the problem?
  3. Antigone represents “family values”  but at the same time something “deeper” (if not higher), connected with religion - the unwritten dateless laws.  Why unwritten? Why dateless? Explore the connection between family values and “greater”, other-than-general values, for example, the way in which Take a modern case of the quarrel between the duties of office and the imperatives of religion: a doctor is devoted to reducing pain and preserving life but Christian Science parents refuse permission to let the doctor give a necessary bone-marrow transplant; in their view, faith alone does the healing and what is more, permitting the treatment would endanger the child’s life because it would issue from lack of faith. (A case of this sort was in the papers about a three years ago. In this case, the child died and the parents were tried by the law for criminal neglect.) Is the doctor being stubborn, or betraying weakness, or is he just being a doctor? How about the other side? One wants to follow the precepts of “getting to yes” by giving each side their due, but to compromise here by giving half a transplant would defeat both sides and accomplish nothing.
  4. Consider three kinds of loyalty: (1) To an absolute or transcendent obligation. Abraham was instructed by God to sacrifice Isaac, his son, as a test of faith, and Abraham proceeded to do it. Did he do well? Compare his response to Antigone’s (2) To a group and (perhaps) to the values that it stands for. Would you die for America? Democracy? Your home town? Your dorm-group? (3) And finally: To one’s history. How important is it to defend the values of our ethnic origins?
  5. The play ends by seeming to validate Antigone. Is it possible to ignore the way in which any work of narrative distributes rewards and punishments at its conclusion and take a stand against the suggestion that this distribution represents poetic justice?

II.  Coppolla’s The Godfather

As we said in the Course Description, no particular time will be reserved for discussion of this film; we will be making continual reference to it throughout the term. 
The film expects its audience to understand that the Mafia is a loose affiliation of large groups of people each engaged not only in legitimate businesses but also in criminal enterprises, like prostitution, gambling, and (more latterly) drug-dealing. The groups do not engage in crimes of violence, like bank-robbing or burglary, but they may resort to violence from time to time, not only against each other but also against those members of the general public who patronize their illegitimate enterprises. Here are some topics to consider when viewing the movie:

  1. The Catholic church believes that the Pope in Rome is godfather for all humanity during his tenure. What is a godfather? Why did the Mafia appropriate the term to its leaders?
  2. These groups are called “families”. Why are they called families? Would it be a mockery to appropriate the term “family values” to the code by which they live? Among these values is a distinction between “soldiers” and “civilians”; the latter are part of the family, often close to the center of its operations, but do not exercise violence or arrange for it to happen. How valid is this distinction from an ethical point of view? Does it have a correlative in ordinary civic life?
  3. Is revenge (or vendetta) part of the code? What would the attitude of Don Corleone be towards revenge? What attitude is generally held by the public in modern democracies towards revenge when the issue concerns violence committed upon large numbers of people?
  4.  Authority is hereditary within the family. Sonny will succeed his father, and Michael will succeed Sonny to the position of Godfather. If authority can be hereditary, can blame or guilt be hereditary, too?
  5. When Michael uses his role of civilian to act as mediator between the Corleones and the Tattaglia brothers, he is not entirely free of suspicion (the other side frisks him for concealed weapons), but they extend him the trust due to a civilian during a parley. Michael betrays this trust. What view of Michael’s act of violence does the film ask us to take?
  6. Salazzo says to Tom: “I don’t like violence, Tom.  I’m a businessman. Blood is a big expense.” What does he mean to say? Is he speaking truly?
  7. Michael extorts a confession from his brother-in-law before having him killed. How valuable is a confession extorted under such circumstances? Why does Michael extort it?
  8. At the end of the film, when Michael consolidates his position by having a number of his opponents assassinated, he is seen “renouncing Satan” at a ceremony in which he assumes the role of godfather to his newborn nephew. Does Michael believe in Satan? Does he think that he has embraced Satan?
  9. Why does Michael lie to Kay at the end of the film? What is the point of the last shot of the movie, which shows a closing door?
  10. Is Michael a tragic figure?

4 Sophocles, Oedipus Rex.

  1. What has been happening at Thebes that requires an appeal to Oedipus? In what capacity is he supposed to act?
  2. Consider the way in which the mythic story is presented. It does not begin with Oedipus receiving the prophecy. All that is in the past. How would you characterize the general nature of the action as it unfolds during the course of the play?
  3. Why did Oedipus consult the oracle at Delphi? What was Oedipus’s response to the prophecy, as he relates it to Jocasta? Did he behave properly? What alternatives did he have? 
  4. What alternatives does Oedipus have during the course of the play? Is he resolute in pursuit of truth? “Know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” How important is the revelation of truth? Under what circumstances can truth be harmful, not just to oneself but to many affected by knowledge?
  5. When Oedipus at last comes in sight of the truth, he gains its admission by twisting the arm of an old man. “I am on the point of speaking horrors,” cries the old man. “And I of hearing them. But I must hear,” says Oedipus. Was he right to persist? Jocasta has urged him to let the matter drop, but he will not. What can be gained by following her advice?
  6. Consider the similarities and differences in the behavior of the recipient of a prophecy in the case of Peter (The Gospel according to St Matthew) and Oedipus. Could what had been prophesied been avoided in either case? If the prophecy fail, does it bring the religious force of prophecy into discredit in the case of Peter? in the case of Oedipus? Jocasta urges Oedipus not to worry about prophecies, for there is no truth in them. What are her motives for saying this? How does the chorus respond to the idea?
  7. Tiresias has been summoned and arrives, wishing that he has not done so. He is reluctant to speak; would his silence have made a difference. Compare his reluctance here with his announcement of a prophecy at the climax of the Antigone. Could what he prophesies there have been avoided?
  8. “Judge not, lest you be judged.” This is another of the injunctions of Jesus. Could it be the moral of the Oedipus play, if the play has a moral?
  9. The presence of Apollo is experienced in the central moment of the Agamemnon, namely, the agony of Cassandra. At the end of the trilogy, he appears in his person, and so does another god, Athena.  But in both plays of Sophocles, the gods do not put in an appearance. What difference does this make to the way in which the audience might understand the influence of the gods upon human affairs in this play?

5 Euripides, Hippolytus.

  1. Euripides plays are notable for the fact that the gods generally put in an appearance, both at the beginning and at the end of the play, although they do not generally appear during the course of the intervening action. At the outset, as in this play, a god appears to “set the stage” for the ensuing action, and at the end, a god appears to tidy things up or bring them to a sense of conclusion. The actors playing the gods made their appearance in Greek drama, evidently, hoisted and lowered by some sort of machinery whose details have not come down to us, but the use of the gods in this Euripidean way has been designated by a Latin phrase, “Deus ex machina” (English=God from the machine), which has become a term of contempt, designating the unartful way that a dramatist may wind up plot when unable to bring the story to a reasonable conclusion, as in some cheap films, where everything that has gone before turns out to be a dream. What difference do the gods make as determinants of action in this play as compared with the plays by Sophocles? It has been observed of the Hippolytus, in particular, that with some slight revision, you could have the same play and omit the gods entirely. Is this observation just? What difference would the removal of their actual presence make to the effect of the whole?
  2. What kind of a goddess do you suppose Artemis to be? Her worship seems to be hostile to sexual experience, that is, Hippolytus has privileged access to her, he can speak with her but cannot see her, and this access seems to be connected with the virtue of chastity. Is chastity a virtue? By whom should it be practiced and for what reason? The old man urges Hippolytus to worship Aphrodite as well, so as not to offend the goddess, but Hippolytus refuses. Why does he refuse? Can one worship both goddesses?
  3. The opposite of sacred speech, which is silence to the impure, is speech which should not be spoken. Phaedra desires Hippolytus, not her offspring but nonetheless her son (by marriage). This is a “love that dare not speak its name.” The nurse insists that nothing can be so bad that it cannot be spoken, but when she guesses the truth she is so horrified that she runs from the presence of her mistress. Are there things that are rightly never to be spoken? What danger is there, if any, in speaking of them?
  4. Is Phaedra to blame for this passion? (Of course, you might say that Aphrodite has inflicted her, but anyone who actually believed in the goddess would say that all sexual passions come from her, and the question would still stand: can one be blamed for one’s passions?) “My mind is impure but my hands are still pure,” she says before the nurse understands what is going on. Compare the blame that attaches to impurity of mind, to unacted but vile longings, with the blame, if any, that attaches to Oedipus, who acted without knowing what he was doing and who might have said, “My hands are impure but my mind is still pure.”
  5. Actually, Hippolytus says something close to this: “My tongue swore,” he says, when he promised to keep the nurse’s secret before he knew what it was, “but my mind did not.” Is this a reasonable sentiment? Despite this expression, he keeps his pledge, even in the face of Theseus’s accusation. Why does he do so? Is one bound to a promise when one is ignorant of its import?
  6. How admirable is Hippolytus as a character? He has odd fancies about women and their artful tongues and seems to regret deeply that the only way to reproduce humankind requires females as well as males; when accused he wishes he had another Hippolytus, who could hear his case and know that he was innocent of the charge leveled against him.
  7. Theseus, too, says that Hippolytus’s crime is unmentionable, but then he announces it anyway. He is accused at the end of intemperate speech, resulting in the death of his innocent son. What is the power of speech in life? Can one transform a life, one’s own or another’s, simply by speaking?
  8. The nurse argues that speech in private is harmless, what one says or does in private need not be the same as what one says or does in public. Does the play agree with her?
  9. What view of the gods seems to be expressed by the conclusion of the play? What view of humanity seems to be expressed by the reconciliation of Theseus and Hippolytus?


Plato, The Apology of Socrates, Crito.

Aristotle*, Poetics.*

Plato, The Apology of Socrates:

The title has been established by long custom, but the word “apology” here carries a meaning now lapsed, namely, the sense of a defense against an accusation. Socrates has been accused by three Athenian citizens of certain offenses. Under Athenian law, a large assembly is convened by lot to judge the case. If the verdict is in favor of the accused, this counts as a conviction of falsity on the part of the accusers, and they must pay a penalty. Either way, someone pays; either way, a penalty is proposed both by the accused and by the accusers and the assembly votes not only on the case but on the proposed penalties as well. Clearly, bringing a grave charge is not a matter to enter upon lightly.

  1. What are the charges brought against Socrates? Why would these charges arguably carry a penalty of death? How well does he cross-examine one of his accusers? Do you think that you could have mounted a better cross-examination?
  2. Socrates says that we do not know which is better, to live or to be dead. How sensible is this remark? What must you assume for it to be a sensible remark and not just a triviality from which nothing much follows, like, say, that we do not know whether it is better to be alive now and living in Tunisia or to be alive in two hundred years and living in Kentucky?
  3. Socrates says that he is wiser than others because, unlike them, he does not think that he knows anything. But do not his accusers and the members of the Assembly that will judge him know a great deal, what they had for breakfast, for instance? What is Socrates speaking of when he makes this remark?  Is it a wise thing to say to those who are about to determine whether you will live or die?
  4. Socrates says that the day will come when those who judge him will be forced to give an account of their lives. Is this a general truth? He also says, famously, “the unexamined life is not worth living”. What does he mean by this phrase? Is he correct? Is there room to find this view mistaken?

Plato, Crito:

Crito urges Socrates to escape from prison and not abide an unjust sentence of death leveled by the Athenian assembly. What are his specific arguments? Does Socrates answer them? Two of them are: “You are choosing the easy way out and not the way of a good and brave man” and “You are playing into the hands of your enemies, giving them exactly what they want”. How effective are these arguments? What is their general character? Socrates urges a discussion of fundamental points, arguing that it will be harder to cope with an anxiety that has no rational basis. What assumptions lie behind this point of view. He also insists that it is the gravest of errors to consider the opinions of those who are not experts in ethics.

How reliant should we be on expert opinion in making decisions about ethical conduct? Socrates also says that the important thing is not living but living well. His abiding the decision of the assembly might be viewed as a form of suicide; just as a life in a pain-wracked body is not worth living (and in the ancient world, it was considered noble to end one’s life under such a circumstance and rather ignoble to carry on), so it is still more true where the health of the soul is concerned.

What do you think of this view? Does the analogy hold up? Finally, there is the Socratic view, which serves as the turning-point in Socrates’s argument. “Never act unjustly–therefore, never repay injustice with injustice”. (Or “never repay harm with harm” The maxim is susceptible of alternative interpretations.) One might counter with the view that one is morally obliged not only to resist evil but also to extirpate it, the “sword of the righteous” argument. Consider the issues involved here. Is Socrates urging a Christian view here, the meek shall inherit the earth, turn the other cheek?

In the Apology, Socrates offers in evidence of his bravery two instances in which he defied unjust decisions by those in authority. Is there some contradiction in his refusing to defy an unjust verdict in this case?

Aristotle, Poetics:

There is some dispute about the adequacy of Aristotle’s title (which he did not supply) and of its usual translation. The ancient Greek poesis means, roughly, “the making of things”.  The subject-matter of Aristotle’s concern is obviously drama (the existing text deals largely with tragic drama and alludes to a supplement dealing with comedy, which has not survived); nonetheless, it is often suggested that the subject-matter is imaginative literature generally or fiction generally. English has no word whose meaning encompasses imaginative literature, and so poetics must do by default.

  1. What does Aristotle mean by mimesis. Is “imitation” a good translation? Mimesis is further contrasted at the outset of the text with something called diegesis, which might be translated as “narration”. What is the difference between the two.
  2. What, in the end, does Aristotle say that fiction, or imaginative literature, or tragedy is an imitation of? Does he offer one view or more than one, in answer to this question? If more than one, how can the views be reconciled? If the persons and events in the literary fiction are imaginary, how can they be imitated?
  3. Whatever else fiction is, Aristotle insists that it is not primarily an imitation of a person, a character. Shakespeare’s King Lear, then, does not portray King Lear primarily but portrays King Lear for the sake of portraying something else. Can you defend the opposite view? 
  4. What does Aristotle means when he says that the essence of literary making is the making of plots? Why is imaginative literature thereby more philosophical than history? Is it more historical than philosophy?
  5. What does Aristotle mean by a simple plot? What does he mean by reversal?  What does he mean by recognition? Can these notions be illustrated by any of the plays that we have read so far?
  6. In chapter thirteen, Aristotle outlines an ideal of the central character of tragedy, the so-called tragic hero, and identifies the source of the character’s downfall with something called hamartia. There is much dispute about the meaning of this term.  What do you think it means, judging by the context? Again, this whole chapter has sometimes been viewed as a kind of interruption of the presentation and not quite in harmony with the rest of the text. What justifies such a view?
  7. Aristotle wants the plotting of fiction to be the essential thing, and to this end advises writers of tragedy not to be beholden to the repository of accepted myths but to invent stories freely. What do you think of this advice?
  8. What does Aristotle mean when he says that in tragedy a probable impossibility is preferred to an improbable possibility? How does this view affect his sense of the nature of tragedy?


Excerpt from Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism.

Nietzsche*, Birth of Tragedy*, ch. 1-17.

Northrop Frye was a twentieth-century critic who tried to adapt chapter two of Aristotle’s Poetics to the study of modern literature. His book is a wide-ranging elaboration of imaginative literature as a system of representation, equal in authority, as he thinks, to science. His book, taken as a whole, is not much in favor nowadays, but his refurbishing of some of Aristotle’s ideas is useful for its own sake in the study of fiction and also for the light that it throws on Aristotle’s views by way of contrast.

  1. The emphasis in Aristotle fell upon plot, to which character is secondary. We might paraphrase this as follows: “Character is conceived in ways that serve the plot. The people in fiction are what they do.” Frye deals with plot elsewhere in his book. Here the emphasis is upon character. The underlying notion is that characters can be sorted into types according to their differing capacities to do things that make for important change in the world. Sorting characters out in this way is meant to lead to a sorting of the plots to which the actions of the characters will be suited. What are Frye’s five types and how well do they help sort the different kinds of fiction with which you are familiar?
  2. Frye’s types are conceived as if sorted on a table with three axes, not just the two employed by tables that can be represented easily on a sheet of paper. The axes concern three oppositions, thus: (a) superiority vs. inferiority, (b) in kind vs. in degree, and (c) to the natural environment vs to the social environment. How do these oppositions develop the Aristotelian opposition between probability and possibility?
  3. Three axis each with two elements ought to yield eight kinds but Frye provides only five. What are the missing three? Does their absence pose a difficulty for Frye’s system?
  4. How does Frye deal with the question of the meaning of harmartia?

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy:

  1. “Apollonian” and “Dionysian” are adjectives. What nouns can they be used to modify?
  2. How does Nietzsche’s understanding of the nature of tragedy differ from Aristotle’s? How important to the understanding of each is the way in which each reconstructs the prehistory of tragic drama?
  3. What would Nietzsche think of Aristotle’s suggestion that the tragic poet would do well to neglect established religious mythology and develop original plots?
  4. Which of the plays that we have read so far would seem the most Dionysian? The most Apollonian? Of course, no theatrical performance can be entirely either. Can anything be entirely either?
  5. How would Nietzsche rank the plays that we have read so far in order of achievement?
  6. What is Nietzsche’s view of Socrates? What is his opinion of Socrates’s regard for his daimon, the spirit that attended him (as Socrates believed) in his life and told him what not to do?

8 William Shakespeare, King Lear.

King Lear:

  1. Describe the situation at the outset of the play. What are Lear’s motives in dividing the kingdom? Are they reasonable? What view is taken of his proposed action by those at court? Why does Cordelia respond as she does to Lear’s request for a protestation of love?
  2. Edmund, the bastard son of Gloucester, has an argument in favor of his conduct given in soliloquy at the outset of the second scene. How would you paraphrase it? What view do you think the play takes of the right relation between ruler and subject? between parent and offspring?
  3. Which of the characters speak “for the play”, conveying a view of things that would find an echo in the though of the play’s original audience? Does the play have anything like a moral?
  4. Shakespeare’s version of the Lear-story was a re-working of an earlier play in which Cordelia comes back from France, wins the final battle, and restores her father to his throne. The next generation of theater-goers after Shakespeare’s seems to have preferred this version. How would you defend one or the other version of the story?
  5. Examine the focus in Lear upon the distinction between getting down to essentials and concern with the trappings of life. This starts early, with France’s declaration that Cordelia is herself a dowry, runs through Lear’s exchange with the disguised Edgar during the storm, and reaches a kind of climax with Lear’s vision of anarchy in the “mad scene” on the heath. Of course, it is involved in Lear’s remark about giving away the power of the king and yet keeping “the additions”, and also in the great speech beginning “O reason not the need”, which talks about giving nature (that is, human nature) more than nature needs.
  6. Often, certain words in poetic texts are “key words”, they relate particularly, although not always directly, to the central concerns of the text.  In Lear, one of these words is “nature”, taken together with its relatives, “natural” and “unnatural”.  What idea of “nature” lies behind the play? Another such word is “patience”, the characters are tested in patience at enduring distress, and there are several moments when they link the notion of patience to a certain view of the nature of fortune (i.e., chance or luck) and of fortune’s wheel, which rotates vertically and on which human beings are strapped, so that, as we might say, “what goes around, comes around”. Explain the linkage in the case of the major characters and their responses to the events of the play.
  7. If fortune rules the world, where is justice to be found? The characters have much to say about this as well, most famously in Lear’s “mad” speech upon the heath. What view do the various characters take of this subject?

9 King Lear (continued).  
10 William Shakespeare, Macbeth.

  1. Macbeth receives a prophecy on the heath. Compare it with Peter’s prophecy. He himself reflects that if the prophecy is valid then he need do nothing but await its coming to pass. And yet he (ultimately) acts upon the prophecy. Why does he do so? Was he wrong when he said that prophecy requires no action on one’s part for its fulfilment?
  2. Macbeth has been regarded by some critics as the perfect exemplification of Aristotle’s notion of the tragic hero as Aristotle elaborated it in chapter thirteen of the Poetics. How well does the play suit Aristotle’s prescription?
  3. Macbeth is the shortest of Shakespeare’s plays and the language, more than is usual, seems concentrated upon Macbeth’s various states of mind, no matter who speaks or whom is being spoken of. Thus, the description of the death of the treacherous Thane of Cawdor: “Nothing became him in his life as the leaving of it. He died as one practiced in his death, to throw away the dearest thing he owned, as if it were a trifle.” To what extent might these words apply to Macbeth? Find other instances of the same kind in the play.
  4. Compare Macbeth in his play with Oedipus in his. When we meet Oedipus, the deed that undoes him is well behind him but Macbeth’s lies in the future and he must knowingly embrace it. How is this difference reflected in the various ways in which each character speaks about himself?
  5. A key word in Macbeth is “success”, which in Shakespeare’s day referred not only to a realization of one’s ambitions but also to succession in titles and authority (succeeding to the throne, for instance) and even to the mere replacement of one thing by another, as with the passage of time (one moment succeeds another). Importantly, it carried a further possibility of meaning which has lapsed today, a development of the neutral passage of time, namely, the notion of putting the past behind you, turning a corner, starting afresh. This is one of the dominant meanings of the term in the play, especially as Macbeth contemplates the deed he is tempted to commit and wonders about his state of mind after its commission. Examine the play of meanings in the use of this word in various speeches in the play.
  6. Macbeth is also concerned with the notion of “equivocation”, using words with a double sense in order to deceive. He regards the witches as beings “that palter to us with a double sense”, apparently quite aware that they are “servile ministers”, in thrall to the force of evil and can mean no good. And yet he yields to what their words suggest, anyway. Why does he do this?
  7. Macbeth and his Lady talk about ambition. What is Macbeth’s ambition? Why is being king so important to him? (We might recall here Creon’s speech to Oedipus, when he argues that it is better to be second in importance than to be king himself.) Why is the prize of kingship worthless without establishing a line of descent, that is, without being the founder of a dynasty?
  8. A presumption of the play is that one must knowingly embrace evil to embrace evil at all. What is your view of this presumption?
  9. Does Macbeth die heroically? Is he overwhelmed by his fate or does he continue to embrace it to the last?

11 Macbeth (continued).  
12 Balzac, Père Goriot.

  1. Balzac begins his novel by calling the reader insensitive to human misery and insisting that his book is not a novel but a record of the truth. How does this introduction function rhetorically?
  2. The central character in Père Goriot is Eugène de Rastignac. Why is the book named after someone else? How sympathetic a character is Eugène? His ambition, we are told near the outset, is to succeed, “success, success at any cost”. What is the meaning of success in this novel?
  3. At one point in The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche speaks of something that he calls one’s “civic identity”, which he thinks of as threatened by the Dionysian experience. We might adapt this term and think of our “social identity”, meaning by the phrase both our way of thinking about who we are and what we ought to do in terms of our birth, our ancestry, our social position, and also the kinds of manners, body-language, and habits of speech that we acquire unknowingly or knowingly, because it goes with membership in a particular class of society. How do the characters in Père Goriot think about the importance of social identity? How conscious is there attention to manners, body-language, and other forms of expressing it.
  4. How would you describe the social identity of Père Goriot? Why is his name unmentionable in his daughter’s household? Balzac evidently thought that in his novel he was supplying a modern equivalent to King Lear, but Lear gave away his kingdom in a moment while Goriot continues to give away his substance to his daughters to the very end.  Comment on the difference that this makes to the meaning of story.
  5. “Success! Success at any cost!” This is a key-word in Macbeth. What does it mean here? Eugène gets advice on how to succeed from two people, his cousin, Mme de Beauséant and the mysterious Vautrin. Is the advice the same?
  6. Money is very important to the characters in  Père Goriot and seems constantly to invade their lives. “Mixing money with love,” says Delphine; “It’s awful!” Is it awful? Why do the various characters need so much money? And why are the sums involved left so unspecific?
  7. Vautrin proposes a scheme to Eugène. What is it and why does Eugène hesitate to denounce it? 
  8. The book identifies at one point three alternative that confront Eugène: The Family, Society, and Revolt. What are these three alternatives and why does Eugène find it impossible to choose among them?
  9. Eugène explains to his friend Bianchon that he has been struggling with Rousseau’s “problem of the mandarin”. What is the problem of the mandarin? Is it representative, as Bianchon says, of the problem confronting everyone at the outset of one’s career? Is there any sense in which one might say of you that you have killed one or two mandarins already?
  10. At the very end of the book, Eugène chooses among the alternatives confronting him. What choice does he make? And what enables him at last to make it?

13 Balzac, Père Goriot.  
14 Balzac, Père Goriot.  
15 Herman Melville, Benito Cerino.

  1. Melville wrote Benito Cereno in 1855, before the inception of the American Civil War. After the war, Melville wrote in a prose supplement to a book of poems called Battle-Pieces: “Those of us who always abhorred slavery as an atheistical antiquity, gladly we join the exulting chorus of humanity over its downfall.” Does the text read as though it were written by an enemy of slavery?
  2. The text is based upon fact, an account of the event by the real Captain Delano (an ancestor of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt) and the transcript of the trial proceedings at the end of the text are a genuine transcription. Melville is faithful to Delano’s overall account of what met his eyes as he was aboard Cereno’s ship, but the details of the moment-to-moment events and Delano’s thoughts in response to them during the episode are his invention. Melville also changed the date of the episode so that it would correspond with the date of a well-know massive (and successful) slave-revolt on the island of Santo Domingo in the Caribbean. In addition, he changed the name of Cereno’s ship to the San Dominick, he compares the blacks aboard ship when Delano first sights them to “Black Friars” (Dominican friars were referred to by this phrase), and he alters the real Babo’s physical appearance so that he resembles the Hatian patriot, Toussaint L"Ouverture, who led the Santo Domingo uprising. What implications do these changes have for the telling of the story?
  3. The narrative is not told by Captain Delano but it is told from his point of view, so much so that it expresses sentiments which lead the reader to accept them as the voice of the narrative itself, an endorsement of Delano’s judgments. Consider, for example, the first description of the oakum-pickers, who work “with the peculiar love in Negroes of uniting industry with pastime.” Find some of the many similar examples throughout the text. What is the point of telling the story this way, if not to express endorsement of Delano’s view of things by the narration itself?
  4. Delano throughout misses the point of what he is seeing. Did Melville expect the reader to miss the point as well?
  5. Particularly dramatic are two episodes, one in which the black king Atufal presents himself at the stroke of the ship’s bell (a cracked bell, like the American Liberty Bell at Philadelphia) to Cereno in order to beg release from his chains and Cereno refuses. We later learn that Atufal is not really chained; he can shake off his chains at any moment. What is the point of enacting this charade? The other is the shaving of Cereno by Babo, who wipes his razor with the Spanish flag. What is the point of this activity?
  6. The phrase “Follow your leader” echoes in the story; it is shouted by one of the Americans who board Cerano’s ship at the end of the story. What does it mean in this context? At the stern of the ship is a depiction of a dark satyr (one of the mythological beings that attend the god Dionysus) with his foot upon the neck of a prostrate figure, exactly the attitude of Delano, when he subdues Babo in the longboat. What is the point of this symbolism?
  7. Describe the character of Amasa Delano. Is he a bad man? A good man? A stupid man? Is he good natured? Does he tend to think well of others? He vacillates in his view of the reality of the situation confronting him but never perceives the truth. What in your view is the source of his blindness?
  8. Babo does not speak at the end, an echo of Iago, the villain in another tragedy about a black man, Shakespeare’s Othello. What is the point of his silence? 
  9. Melville breaks the continuity of his narrative to introduce at the end of the story a conversation that took place between Delano and Cereno on the voyage to Lima. “You are saved,” cries Captain Delano. “What has cast such a shadow upon you.” Cereno replies simply: “The Nego.” To whom or what is he referring? What in your view is the cause of his melancholy and eventual death?
  10. What would the narrative look like if it were told as exclusively from the standpoint of Babo as it is told from the standpoint of Delano? Is Babo a devil, an imp of satan? A cruel schemer? Is his portrait insulting to blacks in any respects?
  11. Here are three epithets to attach to the three main characters, Delano, Babo, Cereno: (1) innocent, (2) guilty, (3) compromised. To whom would you attach each and why? (You may attach more than one epithet to each character.)

16 Herman Melville, Benito Cerino.  
17 Henrik Ibsen, A Doll’s House.

  1. Nora does not want the children to see the Christmas tree until it has been “dressed” or “trimmed”. Why not? Is her relation to the children a good one?
  2. Torvald does not want to borrow money, despite Nora’s urging. Nora dismisses his reasons. Are they good ones? Torvald has general views about borrowing money: debt interferes with one’s independence. What do you think of his views on this point? (In an age of credit card debt, it may be difficult to understand). We are told that he failed as a lawyer in part because he would not take on a client who was not innocent as charged. Does this make him moral or just foolish?
  3. Torvald chastizes Nora for lying to him. Is lying ever a good policy? Nora lies often for Torvald’s benefit. Is she wrong to do so? Mrs Lind (Kristin), in contrast, is a great truth-teller; at the outset, she feels compelled to tell Nora that when she heard that Torvald was about to become manager of the local bank, her first thought was not to congratulate her but to wonder whether this might work to her advantage. How odd is this of Mrs Lind? Should one go through the usual formalities of expressing pleasure at another’s good luck or should one come straight out with the self-regarding truth? Of course, it is Mrs. Lind who forces the issue between Nora and Torvald, when she persuades Krogstad not to ask for his letter back unopened. What right had she to interfer in the deceptions that sustain another’s marriage?
  4. Nora teases Dr. Ranke by giving him a glimpse of her legsBa daring thing to do at the time. In short, she flirts with him, as a preliminary to asking him, in his role as family friend, to lend her some money. When he responds abruptly with a declaration of love, she can no longer ask him for the loan. Why not? He accuses her of knowing that she was flirting; she replies: “How do I know what I knew?” Is this a sensible reply?
  5. What has Krogstad done that Torvald finds so disreputable? Torvald regard Krogstad as a source of moral contamination. Is he right? Was his deed a base one? Torvald regards moral laxity as something that children can inherit from their parents, much as Dr Ranke inherited the physical sickness that resulted from his father’s transgressions. Is his view a valid one?
  6. Is the marriage between Torvald and Nora worth preserving? Which of the two is the stronger character? Some have seen Torvald as an honest man, an uncorrupt lawyer, whose response to Krogstad’s letter, as Torvald himself tries to explain, was the expression of a momentary weakness, the effect of shock, while Nora is a liar, a child, and a self-regarding flirt. Others have seen Nora as adopting a childish character only because her husband seems to require it; she has done her best for her husband and worked tirelessly without his knowledge to pay off the debt that she incurred in order to save his life. Which party is right and why? What benefit does Torvald derive from thinking of his wife as childish? as incapable of dealing with money?
  7. In his outburst, Torvald has said that she is unfit to raise his children. She takes him at his word and throws over her maternal responsibilities. Is she right to do so? 
  8. In their final confrontation, Torvald says that he would do anything for Nora but sacrifice his honor. What is the honor that a man cannot sacrifice? Nora replies that this is something a woman does every day. What does she mean by this remark?
  9. Whatever it is that Nora says that she must go out into the world to learn, why isn’t raising a family one way to learn it?
  10. Some years after A Doll’s House became an international success, when Ibsen was honored at a banquet given by the Norwegian League for Women’s Rights, he made a surprising and provocative response in a speech declining the honor that they had convened to award him. He said that A Doll’s House was unconcerned with the subordination of women, that it dealt with “a problem of mankind in general”. Did he understand his own play?

18 Henrik Ibsen, A Doll’s House.  
19 Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness.

  1. The form of this narrative is odd, the narrative narrates another’s narrationBit tells the story of a story-telling. What is the point of this curious device? (Conrad is not the only author to have adopted it.) Is there always a (perhaps suppressed) story about the telling of the story waiting to be told? Of course, the device allows the narrator to issue a judgment on Marlow’s story. He calls it “inconclusive”. Is the story inconclusive? What effect does it have on its audience?
  2. Only two characters in the story have names, Marlow and Kurtz. The narrator has no name and all the others have titles, the Lawyer, the Manager of Companies, the Accountant, the Chief of the Inner Station, the Intended, and the rest of it. What is the point of these designations?
  3. Like Hippolytus, this tale deals with things “unspeakable”. Why are they not spoken? What is Kurtz doing in the jungle and why do we not see him doing it?
  4. Marlow, near the outset of his narrative, tells of a young Roman coming to Britain when it was still a savage landBat least, in the eyes of the Romans, and he speaks of the temptations, the shame, “the fascination of the abominable”. What is the meaning of this last phrase? What is Marlow talking about?
  5. Uneasy about employment with the company, Marlow talks with his aunt and at one point she says, “The laborer is worthy of his hire”. What is the force of this remark? How does Marlow respond to it? What attitude about women does Marlow communicate to his listeners in the story?
  6. With regard to the cannibals on board his ship, Marlow speaks of restraint, as if it were a mysterious but all-important factor in life. Who has restraint in this text and who does not? What is its value?
  7. Marlow says he admires the Accountant, whom he meets at the outer station. Does he really admire him? How would you compare him with the brickmaker of the inner station, of whom Marlow says, “He had nothing inside him. A little loose dirt, maybe”?
  8. Later, when confronted with the El Dorado expedition at the Inner Station of the company, Marlow says that he felt that he had to take sides, either with these fellows or with Kurtz, whom he had not yet met, and that he chose Kurtz and remained faithful to him to the last. Did he make the right choice? How did he remain faithful and why?
  9. Whatever it was that attracted Kurtz to the African wilderness, it has no allure for the Chief of the Inner Station. Is he a better man on that account? How does Kurtz’s yielding to temptation differ from Macbeth’s?
  10. In discuss the idea of Empire at the outset of the story, Marlow says that what redeems it is an idea, an idea that you can bow down to and make sacrifices to. Does the rest of the story bear out this view?
  11. Marlow says that he hates a lie worse than anything, that a lie is like death, and yet at the end of the story he lies to the Intended. Why does he lie?
  12. Like Melville, Conrad has been charged with presenting an image of blacks which demeans them. Does he deserve this charge? If the charge holds, does it impair the value of the text?

20 Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness.  
21 F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.

  1. Like Père Goriot, Gatsby is a novel about someone trying to find a place in a society that may not be willing to accept him as one of its own. How does the ambition embodied in Eugène de Rastignac differ from the ambition embodied in Jay Gatsby?
  2. It has been said that Gatsby’s dream and what the narrator, Nick Carraway calls his “heightened sensitivity to the promises of life” are those of America itself and that his tremendous and misled hope becomes that of mankind. Yet Gatsby may be also described as a crook and a swindler who fixed his dream on a rather weak-willed, spoiled young woman from an upper-class family in Wisconsin. What is there about Gatsby and his dream that justifies the first remark?
  3. The first pages of the book are about what it means to reserve judgments and the thought is offered that “reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope”. On the next page, we are told that what distinguished Gatsby was “an extraordinary gift for hope”. How is hope valued in the final paragraphs of the book?
  4. An American term of praise, often uttered in self-praise, was the phrase “a self-made man”, theimplication being that one had realized an enviable measure of success without the assistance of inherited wealth or position. How well does Gatsby exemplify this ideal? Is the ideal sensible? Is it praiseworthy to be self-made?
  5. The story is told by Nick Caraway, who has his own story, and the events that he narrates have had their effect upon him. How would you describe their effect? Why does he throw over Jordan Baker? What does he mean when he says that he was too old to lie to himself and call it honor?
  6. What is the difference between the people in West Egg and the people in East Egg? (The two locations are modeled on West and East Hampton, on Long Island, communities of the wealthy who lived near New York City during the ’twenties and ’thirties.) Gatsby’s mansion is in West Egg, and he looks East across a piece of Long Island sound to stare at the green light winking on Daisy’s dock. What does the winking light symbolize at the end of the novel? What sort of people come to Gatsby’s parties and why does Tom Buchanan despise them?
  7. Nick describes Gatsby at the outset of the book as someone “who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn”. The word unaffected may be regarded as endorsing the judgement, what Gatsby reperesents deserves scorn. What does he represent? Why does Nick admire him, nonetheless, and why is he so delighted every time something that Gatsby says turns out to have a bit of truth in it?
  8. Tom and Daisy are first described as drifting restlessly about “wherever people played polo and were rich together.” How would you analyze the implications of this phrase? Again, Nick describes Daisy’s voice as immensely exciting,  and when the subject of Daisy’s voice arises again, later in the novel, Gatsby says, Her voice is full of money. What does he mean by the phrase? Whether he is right or wrong about Daisy and Daisy’s voice, is he right in his thoughts about money?
  9. Fitzgerald was said to have once remarked (to Ernest Hemingway), “The rich are very different from you and me.” Are they, in the light of this book, very different? Or do they just have much more money?
  10. Does Gatsby qualify as a tragic character? What would be Aristotle’s opinion? What would be Nietzsche’s?

22 F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.  
23 Isaak Dinesen, “Sorrow-Acre.”

“Sorrow-Acre” takes place in a world different from that of its intended audience, but it is supposed to have lessons for them. The scene of action is in a backwater of Europe-Denmark, in the late eighteenth-century, just before the American and French revolutions were to initiate changes in the nature of authority in the Western world and make some of the values by which the characters in the story live things of the past. 

The story is written from the modern standpoint, however, and our values, which are just making their way into the world of the story, are represented by the young man, Adam, who has lived in England (unlike Denmark, a major power) and is thinking of going off to America. The outcome of the story seems to endorse the values represented by Adam’s uncle, the “Old Lord”, but the text allows Adam to be troubled by misgivings as he surrenders to the rightness of the older man’s position.

You should understand at least three of the text=s references. (1) The allusion to the Book of Genesis (the lord’s estate looks like the Garden of Eden “from every tree of which, thou, my Adam, may freely eat”) has reference to the fall of mankind;  the old lord omits the rest of God’s speech, which forbids the first Adam to eat of one fruit - the original “forbidden fruit”, the fruit of the tree of knowledge. 

The forbidden fruit here is the old lord’s young wife and the story carries a decided hint that Adam’s duty to his heritage will be fulfilled, paradoxically, by becoming the father of the child who will be recognized as the old lord’s legitimate heir. (2) The Biblical text cited by the phrase “in the beginning was the word” refers to the belief that God created the world by speaking that is, by issuing edicts; the old lord implies that for executive authority to take back an edict or a decision would be equivalent to God’s taking back the word that created the world, that is, to disavow the world and thereby destroy it. (3) Finally, the image of a single figure reaping in a field is a conventional image in the Western tradition for death.

  1. The long opening passage describing the land speaks of the value of “continuance, a worldly immortality” and describes how the lives of the lords of manors were focused on their being “the incarnation” or embodiment of that value. Yet we are expected to know that the world spoken of and the value embodied have passed away, were not immortal, after all. Does this make a difference to the way in which we think of the old lord’s action?
  2. Adam, at the outset of the story, feels that as long as someone “of his blood and name” should be lord of the manor, he himself “would still have a home and would carry weight in the world.” How would you paraphrase this feeling? Does it still make sense in the modern world?
  3. The old lord has a problem. How would you describe it? What is at stake for him in the problem, which leads him not to render a decision but to pass responsibility along to a subordinate who must take a fearful  risk to resolve it? Why is Adam’s uncle unwilling to act upon his beliefs or his sympathies?
  4. What are the stakes for the subordinate figure, the woman, Anne-Marie Piil? How do you resolve the contradiction between her allegedly bad character (“they tell as a girl she had a child and did away with it”) and her willingness to sacrifice her life for her sons liberty?
  5. One way of looking at the old lord’s action is to see it as passing the buck - a failure of decisiveness and accountability. At least part of this view is founded on a sense that the risk imposed on Anne-Marie is somehow disproportionate to the risk (if any) that would be incurred by the old lord if he simply instructed the judge to free the boy on grounds of insufficient evidence. Does the old lord incur any risk in transferring responsibility to Anne-Marie? What answer can be made to a proponent of this view? Adam, of course, takes the view that the old lord is failing himself and his responsibilities by making the wager with Anne-Marie. In part, Adam’s view is determined by his opinion of the folk for whom the old lord is responsible. What is this view? Does it suit executive authority?
  6. Does power stand in the way of virtue? asks Adam. No, says his uncle, power is in itself the supreme virtue. What does he mean? Is he right?
  7. In dealing with the importance of not taking back his word, the old Lord alludes to the opening verse of The Gospel according to John, and says that we do not know anything about the meaning of God’s word. “It may,” he says, “have been uttered as a whim, in jest.” What is the relevance of this remark to the old lord’s situation?
  8. Unusually, this short story contains a (briefly exposited) notion of what counts as tragedy. Can you paraphrase it? How does it compare/contrast with the theories that we have met with so far in this course?
  9. Do the answers of any of the foregoing questions help to explain why Isaak Dinesen wrote this story (in English) for her countrymen during the period of its Nazi occupation?

24 Albert Camus, The Stranger.

  1. Like Benito Cereno and Heart of Darkness, the narrative features of Camus’s The Stranger call for some attention. Two features in particular deserve study: 

         (a)  Most texts narrated in the first person (by someone identified as “I”) establish a constant relation between the time of the events narrated and the time of the narration; that is to say, for example, that a text may begin by saying, “It all started four months ago . . .”, and then, after a suitable break, like the beginning of another chapter, it might say, “Several days later . . .” No such regular pattern of indicated distance between the moment what is told and the moment of telling can be discerned in The Stranger. The first sentence, “Mother died today” indicates close proximity between the two moments, but this is immediate undone by the next sentence, and thereafter we seem to be close to the events, but not the next day. The shifting of distance is particularly noticeable in Part Two, which tells of Meursault’s time in prison. Find instances of this shifting and comment upon them. What is their overall effect? 

        (b)  The narration lacks qualifying markers that might indicate the narrator’s attitude to what is narrated. Consider two consecutive sentences from the second page. “The home is two kilometers from the village. I walked them.” Suppose the sentence were connected by “and” or by “but”. Choice of either would indicate a difference in attitude to the length of the walk. The frequent absence of such markers throughout communicates a sense of the narrator’s regard for the events confronting him and the motive of his response. Find other examples and characterize the sense of the narrator that they communicate.

  2. Meursault himself is an oddity, a stranger in his homeland. How would you characterize him? How do his boss and his girl-friend regard him? One offers him a handsome promotion, the other a proposal of marriage. How would you characterize his response in each case?

  3. How do the other (minor) characters regard Meursault? How does their regard for Meursault differ from the way he is seen by others in Part II? What accounts for the difference?

  4. The only person whom Meursault himself finds odd is a woman in a restaurant. What is the nature of her oddity in Meursault’s eyes? How does her oddity compare with that of Meursault himself?

  5. One of his neighbors, a pimp named Raymond, befriends Meursault because he wants Meursault to perform a service for him. Is this a false beginning to friendship? “We are now copin [real buddies],” says Raymond. Are they? (After all, Meursault has just lied to the police on Raymond’s behalf. Does the book admit any deeper sense of friendship? Does life?

  6. At one point, Raymond has an encounter with a policeman, which he comments upon to Meursault, who was witness to it. Does Raymond speak truthfully about the encounter? What elements of this episode connect it to the central themes of the book?

  7. Camus chose to make Meursault’s victim an Arab, a member of an oppressed minority in colonial Algers, thought to be racially inferior. Why did Camus make this choice? (To get a sense of an appropriate answer, suppose that the story took place in the American South before segregation and that the protagonist’s victim was a black man.) In your view, was Meursault finally condemned to death for killing an Arab?

  8. Describe the events leading up to the killing carefully. How guilty was Meursault of the crime of murder (as distinct from homicide, the killing of a human being)? Meursault describes his firing four more times into the body of the Arab as “like knocking four quick times on the door of méchance”. The word can be translated as “bad luck” or “unhappiness”. Which way would you translate it here?

  9. How would you characterize Meusault’s view of capital punishment? Is it a valid view? How would you characterize the view of life that he finally expresses at the end of the book. How does its expression compare with the final words of Kurz, in Heart of Darkness

  10. What is the meaning of the last sentence of the book?

25 Albert Camus, The Stranger.  
26 Primo Levi, “The Gray Zone”, from The Drowned and the Saved.

  1. We all know, or should know, that the Third Reich in Germany attempt to exterminate all the Jews and Gypsies of Europe and also people suffering various forms of mental deficiency, on the grounds that they were “unfit to live”, not because they had deliberately harmed their fellow citizens but because they were genetically inferior to the human norm; they posed a threat to humanity biologically if they were permitted to breed with normal human beings and they posed a threat spiritually because their habits and ways of life contaminated the social and political health of all nations. (In addition, the Jews were alleged to be both clever and maliciously disposed to non-Jews and non-Jewish institutions.) Others destined for death were also in the camps, but their presence did not betoken a program of genocide. 
    Are there any analogues to this attitude today? Is “unfit to live” ever used as a reason to kill someone? Has the phrase any standing in ethical argument?
  2. What do we mean by “a gray area” in ethics? Vautrin (in Père Goriot) denies its existence; so do many politicians on the world stage today. Is there a hard-and-fast line between good and evil?
  3. Levi is impatient with the claim, sometimes advanced, that everyone is guilty, one way or another, of complicity in atrocities. He declares himself completely a victim, with no trace of complicity in himself that he can discover. How does this claim sit with his argument for “a gray area”?
  4. As Levi describes the Lagers, merely to survive meant to become part of the mechanism of the camps. Levi survived by working for the camps in his capacity as a chemist; he became a “privileged” prisoner. How does this make him different from the “Special Squads”, who ran the crematoria? Levi says that delegating the worst part of the work to the victims themselves was meant to ease the consciences of those in the SS who did not “gladly accept massacre as a daily task”. Why did it ease their conscience?
  5. The members of the Special Squads were “bearers of a horrendous secret”. What was the secret? Can you conceive of their lives? Would you call them “tragic” figures?
  6. Although Levi insists that he does not carry the heart of a murderer buried within himself (and finds the notion that he does ethically outrageous), he nonetheless claims that those in “the gray zone” carry the heart of an ordinary person. Muhsfeld has a sixteen-year-girl killed in order to protect “the secret”; Levi writes of him: “Had he lived in a different environment and epoch, he probably would have behaved like any other common man.” Does this invalidate the distinction between good and evil?
  7. Compare the figure of Rumkowski with that of Don Corleone or with anyone who exercises the power of life and death and does so with a sense of its necessity. Why would Rumkowski think of himself as a messianic figure, the savior of his people? Consider the two stories of his death: if you were to write Rumkowski’s story as a work of fiction, which ending would you choose to conclude the book? Does he conform in any way to the literary model of the tragic protagonist?
  8. Explain what Levi is saying in the last sentence of the “The Gray Zone”.

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2002