Essay #1

Please write a 5-6 page essay on one of the following topics; or, if you prefer, devise your own topic in consultation with me. If you have questions, problems, or simply want to talk through your proposed thesis, feel free to schedule a meeting.

  1. We have observed how Locke’s Essay and many literary texts in its wake insist upon the necessity of self-observation for deriving valuable lessons about humankind. At the most basic level, the autobiographical (both fictional and non-fictional) narratives we will read suppose an individual capable of recalling and giving order to the events of his/her life through self-reflection. Compare two or (at most) three writers on their treatment of the activity of self-observation. What is entailed by this activity? What are the effects or consequences of self-examination? Above all, what do we or should we learn when we consult our own lives?
  2. Eighteenth-century writers frequently describe or define the faculty of reason in relation to some other human faculty or condition (emotion/passion, superstition, madness, etc.). Write an essay reflecting on the relationship between reason and its others in Locke, Pope, Swift, or Thomson; or, if you like, you may consider how two writers define and evaluate individuals based on their possession or lack of reason. While clearly reason is a desirable quality in all cases, how do writers describe this faculty and its ideal exercise? What are the attributes of the reasonable person, and what are the principal obstacles to reasonable behavior? Finally, how do writers conceive the status of reason relative to human faculties and experiences such as emotion, faith, etc.? Are these faculties necessary to each other, mutually reinforcing, or dangerously opposed?

Essay #2

Please write an 8-page essay on one of the following topics; or, if you prefer, devise your own topic in consultation with me. As always, feel free to schedule a meeting if you want to talk through your argument.

  1. Wordsworth’s two-part Prelude is often regarded as the first modern autobiographical narrative, anticipating later accounts of the self from Proust to Freud. From another perspective, however, Wordsworth’s poem - written in the closing days of the eighteenth century - can be seen as responding to earlier philosophical and literary conventions for thinking about and representing the self throughout this period. Write an essay reflecting upon The Prelude as a poem that revisits, responds to, argues with, or extends the insights of one or more eighteenth-century writers whose work we have read this semester. Some general themes and authors you might consider in relation to Wordsworth’s poem: self-reflection (Locke, Swift, Gray), imagination and memory (Addison, Akenside), sensibility and sentiment (Sterne, Smith, Wollstonecraft), etc. What do we learn about Wordsworth’s poem or about the craft of literary autobiography when considered in relation to one or two particular examples of a vast body of eighteenth-century writing on the self?
  2. The texts we will read in the last few weeks display an acute awareness of the role of external factors in shaping and defining individual lives. In essays by Astell and Wollstonecraft and in novels by Hays and Shelley, a character’s capacity for self-determination is often closely entwined with or defined by forces beyond that individual’s control. As a result, individuals in these texts are described as strongly shaped by the various contexts in which they find themselves. Write an essay examining the relationship between character and context in two or (at most) three of these texts. How do various factors (of education, social class, etc.) act on or define the individual? In what areas of one’s life does one seek to exercise powers of self-determination; conversely, in what areas are individuals more willing to accept their own fate? Above all, what do these writers seem to suggest about the capacity of the individual to become the author of his or her own life?
Course Info
As Taught In
Spring 2003