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Essay Topics

For each essay, I will suggest topics for writing. You are always free, however, to develop a topic of your own, as long as it meets the objectives of the assignment. You may speak with me about topics at any time. Note: Each essay should be accompanied by a brief (one-page) summary of what you did and intended to do with the essay or revision. This writing narrative is important and required.

Essay 1

3 Pages - Due in Session #6

William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

Close Reading - Choose one speech (long enough to give you something to work with but brief enough to cover in three pages) and analyze its language and details in a careful study. You may use the handout on close reading as a guide, but do let your own interests and responses determine the course of your paper. Write the close reading first. Then, when you've made your discoveries about the passage, give your essay a thesis and argument. Think of the close reading as supporting your point about the passage and telling your reader more about Shakespeare's method or meaning at this moment in the play.

Essay 2

5 Pages - Due in Session #11

Grading Guidelines for Essay 2 (PDF)

Herman Melville, "Bartleby, the Scrivener," "Benito Cereno," Poems

Study of an Allusion - Melville employs a number of historical, nautical, religious, mythical, and literary allusions in his stories and poems. Choose one to give a close reading. You will need to be able to identify the allusion, its source, and its meaning; for that you need to draw on research in sources outside the text. You will also have to look at its context in the narrative or poem, speculating on how Melville uses the allusion and to what effect, as shown in a close reading of the passage. And finally, you will make a point about how this particular allusion connects with other similar ones in the text, and with Melville's larger themes.

Essay 3

5 Pages - Due in Session #16

Herman Melville, Billy Budd

Building an Argument from Literary Criticism - Billy Budd has inspired controversy over everything from its status as text to its legal and ethical conflicts, its treatments of characters and their identity (including gender, sexuality, and class), its religious themes, and its relationship with Melville's earlier works. For this paper, select an essay from the handout packet (or one of your own choosing, though you should check with me), read it, and respond to its argument with one of your own. Collect evidence from the text to support your points. You do not have to rebut the critic violently; you may agree, but do mark out your own territory by examining new evidence or opening up a new line of inquiry. You should aim to use your dialogue with another critic to deepen the reader's understanding of an important element in Billy Budd.

Essay 4

8 Pages - Due in Session #23

Henry James, Michael Frayn, Jhumpa Lahiri

Comparison - For this longer essay, select two of the three authors above to compare along a literary angle of your choosing. Keep in mind that your focus should be on the literary issues in the authors' works, no matter how central the political, social, sexual, or other themes. Hence the bulk of the paper will develop a comparison through an examination of the ways the two authors use language, narrative structure, dialogue, point of view, imagery, or other technical aspects of the writing. Starting with two passages, then, will help to focus the essay and give you a textual basis for your argument. You will have a chance, during the week of session 21, to discuss your topic with me in conference.


8 Pages - Due in Session #26

Developing Your Point - Your revision should attend to any problems or issues in the first essay by improving the argument, organization, and style. But you also need to engage a reader who is now familiar with your original argument. Try to expand and develop your first essay by including new material of some kind: more examples to analyze, new critical or scholarly research, or further ideas about and evidence from the texts that broaden the range and implications of your argument. Try to bring your own distinctive style and voice into the essay and to use language in flexible and creative ways.