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Past Essay Topics

EN123: RECENT ESSAY TOPICS/EXAM QUESTIONS

 

LITERATURE IN THE MODERN WORLD (EN123), 2008-09

 

 

2nd assessed essay. Deadline Monday 11 May 2009 (summer term, beginning of week 4).

 

Length: 2,000 words (Year 1 students); 3,000 words (Honours level students)

 

The following topics are suggestions.  You are free to come up with a title of your own so long as it is discussed with, and specifically approved by, your seminar tutor by the end of Week 1 of the Summer Term.  Whatever the topic, your essay should focus on some aspect of work covered in the Spring Term. 

 

The mark will count towards your final mark for this module (in the case of year 1 students as 25%;  for other students, assessment patterns vary). Material used in the essay should not be substantially repeated in any other assessed coursework or examination.

 

  1. ‘What I have most wanted to do … is to make political writing into an art.’ (George Orwell, ‘Why I Write’.)  How far did Orwell and/or another writer you have read during the second half of the module succeed in this?

 

  1. ‘War worked as a thinning of the membrane between the this and the that.’  (Elizabeth Bowen, The Heat of the Day.)  Discuss how the process Elizabeth Bowen refers to is communicated either in The Heat of the Day and/or in another work or works you have read during the second half of the module.

 

  1. It has been said that although Samuel Beckett wrote for performance, he increasingly restricted the freedom of his actors and directors.  Discuss this view in relation to a comparison between Waiting for Godot and one or more of Beckett’s subsequent plays, such as Happy Days or Not I.

 

  1. write it!’   Is it true to say that problems of representation are the central theme of Elizabeth Bishop and/or any other author you studied in the spring term?

 

  1. Critics of Heart of Darkness have argued about how adequate it is as a critique of imperialism.  Either give your own verdict on this question or consider whether there are other ways of approaching the novel, or both.

 

  1. A Grain of Wheat was published in 1967.  Is it the same novel today?

 

 

 

 JT 24/11/08

 

 

2008-09

 1st assessed essay. Deadline 16 February 2009 (beginning of week 7).

 Length: 2,000 words (Year 1 students); 3,000 words (Honours level students)

 The following topics are suggestions.  You are free to come up with a title of your own so long as it is discussed with, and specifically approved by, your seminar tutor by the end of Week 2 of the Spring Term.  Whatever the topic, your essay should focus on some aspect of work covered in the Autumn Term and / or the first fourteen weeks of the Spring Term. 

 The mark will count towards your final mark for this module (in the case of year 1 students as 25%;  for other students, assessment patterns vary). Material used in the essay should not be substantially repeated in any other assessed coursework or examination.

 

  1. Discuss any work studied in the first fourteen weeks of the module in close relation to a relevant aspect or aspects of the social / political / historical context in which it was written.

2   ‘The whole of literature [is now] the problematics of language.’ Roland Barthes.  Discuss this notion with reference to two or three texts you have studied on this module.

3   ‘He is a great hater of democracy, of the modern world, science, machinery, the concept of progress – above all the idea of human equality.  Much of the imagery of his work is feudal…. He is best studied by someone … who can approach a poet primarily as a poet, but who knows that a writer’s political and religious beliefs are not excrescences to be laughed away, but something that will leave their mark on even the smallest detail of his work.’  (George Orwell, in Horizon, January 1943, reprinted in William H. Pritchard, ed., W.B.Yeats, Penguin Critical Anthologies, 1972, 187-93.)  Discuss this view of Yeats, or apply it to any other writer studied on the module to whom you think it relevant.

 

4  Consider the view that in the concern of Eliot’s poetry with ‘different voices’, the voices of otherwise silenced women are particularly significant.

 

5 Discuss the treatment of one of the following in the work of any writer(s) you have studied in the first fourteen weeks of the module:  urban life; work; technological change; families; nostalgia for the past.

 

  1. ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.’ Is modern literature complicit in the process of disintegration referred to by Yeats, or does it merely reflect this aspect of the society in which it exists?

 

  1. Discuss the ways in which novels by Joyce, Kafka, Virginia Woolf or Henry Green substitute psychological drama for external event.

 

  1. ‘If we ask what it is [Orwell] stands for, what he is the figure of, the answer is:  the virtue of not being a genius, of fronting the world with nothing more than one’s simple, direct, undeceived intelligence, and a respect for the powers one does have … what a relief! What an encouragement.  For he communicates to us the sense that what he has done, any one of us could do.’  (Lionel Trilling)  Discuss.

 

  1. Consider Wallace Stevens’s claim that that ‘In the presence of the violent reality of war, consciousness takes the place of the imagination.’

 

  1. Is Tom Stoppard’s Travesties more than a clever work of criticism?

 

 

 

 

 

LITERATURE IN THE MODERN WORLD (EN123), 2007-08

 

 

 1st assessed essay. Deadline 18 February 2008 (Spring Term, beginning of week 7).

 

 

  1. ‘blood shaking my heart / The awful daring of a moment’s surrender’ (T.S.Eliot, The Waste Land, ll 402-03).  Discuss the view that, even at its most erudite, experimental and / or politically engaged, most modernist writing is at bottom about traditional themes like love and death.

     

 

 

  1. Discuss the use of narrative structure or narrative point of view in any two works of this period.

     

 

 

  1. Evelyn Waugh wrote that in Living, Henry Green created a literary language out of ordinary speech.  Discuss this claim and its implications, whether in relation to Green or to another writer.

     

 

 

  1. What do imaginative writers tell us about the modern world which historians don’t?

     

 

 

  1. ‘Examine an ordinary mind on an ordinary day’ (Virginia Woolf, in ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’, 1924.)  Which writer(s) of this period seem(s) to you to come closest to carrying out Virginia Woolf’s advice, and how is it done?

     

 

 

  1. Make a case for comparing any work of this time with work in another form, medium or language (a novel with a play, a literary work with a musical or visual one, a text in translation with its original…). 

     

 

 

  1. Discuss any work of this period in the light of the ideas put into play by Tom Stoppard in Travesties.

     

 

 

 

 

2006-07

2nd assessed essay 

 

Topics:

1. Analyse the effects of either the Cold War or the Vietnam War on work of this period.

2. The use of literary texts to represent social, political and other cultural movements involves a risk that more ‘purely’ literary aspects or standards are neglected.  Discuss any work of the period in the light of this issue. 

3. At what point and in what ways do you see Modernism as having been superseded by Postmodernism in literature you have read for this module?

4. Michael Robinson has suggested that Beckett’s turn to theatre from prose fiction allowed him the ‘ability to provide visual evidence for language’s untrustworthiness’.  Discuss how the untrustworthiness of language is treated in any work of this period.

5. Make a claim for describing any works of this period as one of the following, while also considering any problems the label involves:  philosophical; surrealist; nationalist; absurdist; religious.

6. The module covers a wide range of literatures and genres.  With close reference to examples, argue the case for including some work written in this period in a form or from a national/linguistic culture not illustrated by the set texts.

7. Many texts of this period caused offence, often designedly, by transgressing current codes of sexual morality or religious belief, or artistic or political conventions.  Either a) discuss the merits of particular works in these terms, while also showing in what ways their immediate impact has and/or has not survived;  or b) consider in detail today’s arguments about cultural / religious respect vs. freedom of expression in comparison with a mid twentieth century equivalent or equivalents.

 

2005-06

1st assessed essay.

1. Write on the relationship between individuals and their physical context – for example, home, neighbourhood, workplace – in work you read for the first half of this module.

2. ‘When the soul of a man is born in this country, there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight.  You talk to me of nationality, language, religion.  I shall try to fly by those nets [ie, fly past them, escape them].’  James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916).   Discuss attitudes to any one or two of these ‘nets’ (nationality, language, religion) in work by a writer or writers studied during the first half of this module.

3. Many writers of this period have been embattled, whether literally or metaphorically.  Discuss how their work has used this condition.

4. From the reader’s point of view, what are the essential differences between poetry and prose or fiction and non-fiction?  Your answer should focus on specific examples.

5. Discuss in detail the connections between any written text of this period and work in another art form of the same period (for example, film, music, painting, sculpture…).

6. D.H.Lawrence said that ‘in 1915 the old world ended’.  Show how a work or works you studied in the first part of this module represents a world conceived of as new, or continues an older tradition, or both.

7. Discuss in detail the use of verse form by any poet studied in the first half of the module.

8. ‘My characters are conglomerations of past and present stages of civilization, bits from books and newspapers, scraps of humanity, rags and tatters … patched together as is the human soul.’  (August Strindberg.)  Discuss fragmentariness in work of this period.

9. ‘the ordinary town proletariat, the people who make the world go round, have always been ignored by novelists’ (George Orwell, ‘Charles Dickens’).  Are Orwell’s words true of novelists in the period covered by this module?

10. Discuss the narrative handling of time in any work of this period.

11. ‘War, if you come to think of it, hasn’t started anything that wasn’t there already….’ (Harrison, in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day.)  Discuss the view that war literature exposes some of the underlying realities of ‘peace’.

12. ‘Committed art in the proper sense is not intended to generate ameliorative measures, legislative acts or practical institutions … but to work at the level of fundamental attitudes.’ (Theodor Adorno, in Aesthetics and Politics.)  Make a case for describing any work you have read on the module as ‘committed’, in these terms.

 

 

2004/05

Preliminary essay (unassessed) 04/05roughly 2000 words

Deadline:  week 7 seminar

Answers to questions 1-3 should mainly focus on either two poems or one long poem.  

1. ‘…there’s more enterprise / In walking naked’ (Yeats, ‘A Coat’) Discuss the interplay between, on the one hand,  mythology, metaphor, allusion and other ‘poetic’ kinds of writing, and, on the other, a more ‘naked’ approach, with reference to work by Yeats, Eliot or William Carlos Williams. 

2. Which of the poets studied in the first half of this term seems to you to respond most interestingly to the challenges of innovation? 

3. Discuss the question whether the subject of The Waste Land is less the breakdown of Europe than a process of breakdown and reintegration as it occurs in the individual psyche.

4. Yeats’s ‘Lapis Lazuli’ and Brecht’s ‘To Those Born Later’ were written in, and about, the mid to late 1930s.  Explore the similarities and differences between the two poems, particularly in terms of what they have to say about literature’s relation to its political context.

5. Compare an English translation (or translations) of any poem of the 1920s or 30s with the original, both in detail and in such a way as to make a more general point about the processes involved.  

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1st assessed essay 04/05.

Length: 2,000 words (Year 1 students); 3,000 words (Honours level students)

The following topics are suggestions.  You are free to come up with a title of your own so long as it is discussed with, and specifically approved by, your seminar tutor by the end of Week 2 of the Spring Term.  Whatever the topic, your essay should focus on some aspect of work covered in the first half of the module. 

Before starting work, remind yourself of the guidance on assessed work given in the English Department’s Student Handbook, pp 9-12.

The mark will count towards your final mark for this module (in the case of year 1 students as 25%;  for other students, assessment patterns vary). Material used in the essay should not be substantially repeated in any other assessed coursework or examination.

1. Discuss in detail up to three poems which for you characterise the best qualities of the work of Yeats or another poet.

2. ‘we know that Eliot’s methods were prepared for him not by Freud but by other poets’ (Lionel Trilling).  Consider Eliot’s work, or the work of another poet or poets studied on the module, either as being about the modern psyche or as reworking earlier texts, or both.

3. ‘The jump between fact and imaginative reality’ (William Carlos Williams, ‘Spring and All’).  Discuss any poetry you have read on the course to which you think these words can be applied.

4. Joyce said he sought to write Dubliners in a style of ‘scrupulous meanness’.  What do you take this to mean, and how does it work?

5. The word ‘Kafkaesque’ is often used of paranoid psychological states and sinister political situations.  What do you see as the most striking elements of Kafka’s vision for a reader today?

6. Toni Morrison wrote as a young woman that what she found in the work of Virginia Woolf and another modernist fiction writer, William Faulkner, was ‘an effort to discover what pattern of existence is most conducive to honesty and self-knowledge, the prime requisites for living a significant life.’   Make a case for reading any work of the period in this light.

7. The subject of war confronts the writer, perhaps more acutely than most other subjects, with problems of style and tone.  Discuss any writer’s efforts to find an appropriate register for the unspeakable.

8. Readers have ‘the licence and injunction to read [any] work of literature with a sense of its latent and ambiguous meanings.’ Discuss how this idea works in practice in relation to any one work or group of works, considering any dangers in the approach, as well as its advantages.

9. Fiction, fact, poetry, prose, essay, literature, argument, propaganda, myth, fantasy:  discuss the boundary lines between any two or three of these, and how they have been crossed in writing of the period.

10. Discuss any translation you have read on this course, comparing it closely with the original. (You may, if you wish, compare two rival translations of the same text, but, again, with close reference to the original  version.)

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2nd assessed essay 04/05.

Length: 2,000 words (Year 1 students); 3,000 words (Honours level students)

The following topics are suggestions.  You are free to come up with a title of your own so long as it is discussed with, and specifically approved by, your seminar tutor by the end of the Spring Term.  Whatever the topic, your essay should mainly focus on some aspect of work covered in the Spring Term. 

Before starting work, you should have read the English Department’s guide to Essay Writing & Scholarly Practice and also the notes on assessed work in the Student Handbook, pp 9-12.

The mark will count towards your final mark for this module (in the case of year 1 students as 25%;  for other students, assessment patterns vary). Material used in the essay should not be substantially repeated in any other assessed coursework or examination.

 

1. ‘The relation of people to one another is subject to the relation of each to time’  (The Heat of the Day, ch. 10).  Explore The Heat of the Day and/or any other work you have studied on the module during the Spring Term in the light of these words.

2. What is the role of literature, storytelling and/or any other art form in If This is a Man and/or any other work you have studied on the module during the Spring Term?

3. ‘You see, my memory is defective’ (Pozzo in Waiting for Godot).  Discuss the theme of memory in Beckett's play and/or any other text studied in the second half of the module.

4. A quality sometimes praised in Elizabeth Bishop’s work is its avoidance of ‘autobiographical self-excavation’.   Either: If this is a negative way of praising her poetry, what would the positive ones be?  Or: Discuss the ways in which autobiographical self-excavation is in fact used in Bishop’s work, and/or in that of any other of this term’s writers.

5. Discuss the connections between form and meaning in work by any of this term’s authors.

6. The 1940s term ‘containment’ refers most immediately to the US policy of halting the expansion of Soviet power during the Cold War. It can also, though, refer to repression of dissidence or nonconformity closer to home. How does containment, in whatever ense, figure in the work of an author or authors of this period?

7. ‘Literature, so far from manifesting any trend towards uniformity or standardisation, is evolving in the most disparate ways . . . it is a pity that English Literature is maintaining a narrow ascendancy tradition instead of broadbasing itself on all the diverse cultural elements and the splendid variety of languages and dialects, in the British Isles and beyond’ (Hugh MacDiarmid, ‘English Ascendancy in British Literature’).  Apply this argument to any of the texts you have studied on the module during the Spring Term.

8. Write on the relationships - political and cultural, literary and formal - between Europe and Africa as presented by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o in A Grain of Wheat.

9. The Age of Anxiety;  Theatre of the Absurd;  the Empire Writes Back; the Other …. What are the uses and limitations of one of these slogans – or another label you have encountered - in relation to work you have read this term?

10. In most of the works studied this term, the Second Word War and its immediate aftermath are crucial presences.  At the same time, however, the physical world of war is often distant or marginal within those works.  Explore the impact of war in any two works. 

11. ‘Holy the groaning saxophone!  Holy the bop apocalypse!  Holy the jazz bands marijuana hipsters peace and junk and drums!’ (Ginsberg, Footnote to Howl).  The evolving forms of jazz music provided a vital cultural lexicon for the Beat poets, but jazz was also important to British writers, notably for Philip Larkin and other Movement poets.  Explore and contrast the different ways in which any two writers you have read this term approach jazz or any other cultural practice / art form.

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LMW exam 2005

2 hours

Seen paper.

Answer 2 questions.

You are encouraged to show the range of your reading, and may include relevant works which are not set texts.  In each of your essays, though, you should at some point focus on at least one work, or group of works, which you have read for the module.

Do not substantially repeat material from assessed essays.

 

1. ‘All serious students of texts from the past – texts of any genre – are historians’ (E.D.Hirsch, Validity and Interpretation.)  With close reference to work(s) studied on the module, consider how far they require historical contextualization and, by contrast, what it is about them that enables them to be read ‘for themselves’.

2. ‘How shall I be a mirror to this modernity?’ (William Carlos Williams, ‘The Wanderer.’) Discuss the ways in which the work of any writer or writer studied on the module responds to this question.

3. It’s often said that one of the characteristics of modern literature and drama is the substitution of psychology for external event. Show how any works of this period do, or don’t, bear out this idea.

4. Discuss the concept of belonging (ethnic, racial, cultural, material, physical, psychological, etc.) in some of the works you have read for this module.

5. ‘Woman must write herself: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies – for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal.’  (Hélène Cixous, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’.)   Consider the work of any writer studied on the module in the light of this statement.

6. ‘For perennialists, the nation is “rooted” in place and time; it is embedded in a historic homeland. For modernists, the nation is a creation. It is consciously and deliberately “built” by its members, or segments thereof.’ (Anthony D. Smith, Nationalism and Modernism.)  Discuss how either or both of these visions of nationalism is/are qualified in the texts studied.

7. Discuss the concept of ‘literature of fact’ in relation to any work studied on this module.

8. ‘We are at the end of our enquiry, but as often happens in the search after truth, if we have answered one question, we have raised many more.’ (J.G.Frazer, The Golden Bough.)  Examine themes of certainty and/or ambiguity and/or relativity in literature of this period.

9. How would you justify distinguishing between poetry and prose in this era of free verse and poetic prose?

10. Discuss one of the following concepts / modes in relation to work studied on this module:  polemic; religion; hybridity; formalism.

11. Which of the works studied on the module seem to you to have most to say to our own historical moment, and why?

12. Make a case for including an author or genre not at present studied on the module, but belonging to the same period (roughly the 1910s to the 1960s).  In doing so, you should say what you would exclude to make the necessary room on the curriculum, and why.