ENG140Y: Literature for our Time

Thinking about Literature

There are a number of ways to approach a text. For instance, you can concentrate on the narratological features of a work (setting, character, plot, theme, mode of narration, point of view, prosody, form, tone, voice, mood, gaps, ambiguities, contradictions, closure, figurative imagery and language). In this kind of analysis, it is important to provide your reader NOT ONLY with the means of explaining the content of works BUT ALSO with insights for evaluating the effect, significance, point, quality. Alternatively, you can look for patterns (symbolic, archetypal, mythic, structural) that are replicated in other works to draw out and discuss the relevance of the pattern itself. Lastly, you can think about the text in its historical context and/or as a site of cultural criticism (the representation of women, class, race, justice, law, education, knowledge, science, art); in this case, you might think about the text as a sophisticated interrogation of an institution, principal, attitude, or idea.

Here are a list of questions which just might help you formulate more questions:

General Questions

  1. How does the mode of narration (first-person, third-person, omniscient, free indirect, unreliable, etc.) affect the
  2. What is the relationship between STORY (the "actual chronological sequences of events") and DISCOURSE (the sequences in which these events are revealed to the reader).
  3. In poetry, how is rhyme and meter used? Consider the imagery. Is there one primary image? are there several competing or accreting images? Do they work metaphorically or metonymically?
  4. From where does the author get the images? nature? technology? myth? history?
  5. How does one work differ from other versions of the same basic plot or theme?
  6. What motifs does the author use (e.g. journey, quest, courtship, weaving, eating)? To what effect? Take, for example, weaving as in the Philomela myth used by Eliot.
  7. If the work self-reflexive? If so, how so? In other words, how does a work conceptualize or illustrate or comment on its own Ļart-ness.Ó
  8. What conflicts, themes are being explored?
  9. Is the work struggling with a philosophical question? If so, what question? If so, how is the struggle manifest? What are the terms of the struggle?
  10. What tone is struck? Why? Is it a comic work? If so, how does the comic tone qualifies the argument?
  11. Think about the work in its historical context. In what debates is it participating?
  12. Setting refers to the physical backdrop or geographical location of the action in a story; the author creates the illusion of place by locating a scenario in space and time. Analyze how setting informs character and theme.
  13. Analyze the author's treatment of time, gender, family, race, convention, social mores.
  14. How does the author achieve unity?
  15. How does the work begin? and end? Discuss closure.
  16. Think about the effect and interplay of genre.
  17. When thinking about works and their political content, ask yourself how is the issue of national identity addressed? or racial identity? sexuality? gender?
  18. What does the text have to say about love, death, marriage, heroism, sacrifice, money, weakness, frailty, fealty, obligation, responsibility, social contract, children?

Specific Questions

Heart of Darkness

  1. Discuss the role or function of women and/or race in HD.
  2. Discuss Conrad's use of the double in HD.
  3. Discuss Conrad's treatment to time in HD.
  4. Discuss Conrad's use of a frame narrative in HD. Why is the framing narrator unnamed?
  5. Discuss Conrad's treatment of memory, evolution, phrenology in HD.
  6. Discuss Conrad's structural devices. The narrative is clearly organized.
  7. Is HD an existential parable?
  8. Discuss sympathy and judgment as they pertain to Marlow's ambivalent attitudes to Kurtz in HD.
  9. Discuss the function of all-male communities/enterprises, brotherhood as a trope in HD.
  10. Discuss Conrad's critique of imperialism in HD.
  11. Discuss Conrad's use of the discourse of the ĻOther.Ó
  12. Discuss Conrad's use of ekphrasis.
  13. Discuss Conrad's manipulation of dramatic tension.
  14. Discuss Conrad's use of religious iconography. Why does Marlow look like Buddha?
  15. Why doesn't Marlow kill Kurtz?
  16. Why does he lie to the Intended? What are the consequences of that decision?
  17. What does it mean to have "a choice of nightmares"?
  18. What is "the horror"?
  19. If you were, like Francis Ford Coppola (who shifted the setting to late 1960's Viet Nam in his 1979 film Apocalypse Now) to retell HD in another setting, where and when would you set it?
  20. Discuss HD's impact on other literary texts in the twentieth century. T. S. Eliot's poetry, "The Hollow Man" and The Waste Land immediately come to mind in this context.


  1. A basic characteristic of Joyce's stories is the technique of "epiphany"--that moment when the essence of an experience suddenly becomes clear to someone--either a character in the story or the reader--a moment of recognition. Discuss both the character's and the reader's epiphany in "Araby" or any other story. This question is asking, how does the epiphany work, how does the "discovery" put the story in context.
  2. Compare and contrast Joyce's, Woolf's, and Manfield's use of epiphany.
  3. Discuss the relationship between men and women in Joyce's stories. What larger thematic concern(s) is revealed by Joyce's insistence on a dissonance between men and women?
  4. Discuss Joyce's treatment of race, of imperialism, of civil war, of the Irish question.
  5. How does Joyce manage to convey a sense of futility, or if you prefer, the theme of an unlived life in his Dubliners stories.
  6. How does the motto of the City of Dublin provide a counterpoint to the thematic concerns of the collection? Why is it set in Dublin? What does Dublin offer?
  7. How does Joyce achieve unity in the collection?
  8. Starting with the proposition that there is an irresolvable tension between (a) worldliness or cosmopolitanism and tradition OR (b) wisdom and ignorance OR (c) guilt and responsibility OR (d) sight and blindness in each of Joyce's stories, what does this tension tell us, reveal, show, reflect and how does it work within the tectonics of the story? Alternatively, analyze how themes introduced, maintained and developed in other Dubliners stories culminate in "The Dead."
  9. What gaps or ambiguities does Joyce rely on?
  10. Discuss the ways in which Dubliners is a "political" text.

Mrs. Dalloway

  1. Discuss the ways in which the two primary plotlines (Septimus Smith's and Mrs. Dalloway's) inform each other in Woolf's novel, MD.
  2. Discuss Woolf's treatment of memory and of time in MD.
  3. Discuss recurrent imagery (like the bells of Big Ben) in MD.
  4. Discuss Woolf's use of free indirect discourse as the primary mode of narration.
  5. Discuss Woolf's treatment of love, sexuality, marriage.
  6. Discuss closure in MD.
  7. Discuss the relationship of women in MD.
  8. What is Miss Kilman's role?
  9. What is the function of Bournton? of Hugh Whitbred? of the party?
  10. Discuss the ways in which the biographical details of Woolf's life intrude/affect the narrative.
  11. Compare and contrast MD and "Miss Brill."
  12. Compare the text and the film versions of MD. Is the text cinematic? Does it translate well to other media?
  13. Discuss Woolf's attitude to suicide, death, war. Are they contingent and related?
  14. Discuss the trope of frailty (physical and mental) in MD.


  1. Critique the editor's introduction. (You can do this for any text!!!! Always a good place to start, especially since you don't have to agree with what other critics have to say about a work.)
  2. What is the nature of the relationship between Irene and Clare?
  3. How does Larsen conceptualize race?
  4. What is the nature or character of women's friendship?
  5. What is the significance of the title?
  6. What is the effect of locating Passingwithin the Harlem Renaissance?
  7. What is the effect or significance of the epigraph?
  8. Why is the novel set in Chicago and New York?
  9. What does Larsen think about charity or associations geared to fund- and consciousness raising?
  10. Does Irene push Clare? Is this a relevant question? Is the answer knowable?
  11. Discuss closure in Passing.
  12. The male characters are secondary but significant. Discuss their function.

William Butler Yeats

  1. How and why does Yeats use nature imagery and/or myth in "Leda and the Swan," for instance?
  2. Discuss Yeats' reliance on myth, religious imagery and iconography.
  3. As an Irish poet, one might expect Yeats to have a nationalist agenda. Does he? If so, how so?
  4. Discuss Yeats' understanding of time, aging, sexuality.

"The Lake Isle of Innisfree"

  1. Where is Innisfree?
  2. Discuss Yeats use of regularized verse, meter, rhyme.
  3. Deconstruct the images in the poem: the "bee-loud glade," the "Nine bean rows," etc.; the refrain "I will arise and go now" (1, 9); the verb tense or tenses.

"The Second Coming"

  1. Discuss Yeats use of the "widening-gyre." From where does this image come?
  2. Discuss the poem as political commentary or as prophecy.
  3. Discuss Yeats' contemplation of history, myth, futurity.
  4. Discuss Yeats' use of religious imagery, his reliance on prophecy, his exoticism/Orientalism.
  5. What is "the rough beast" (21)?
  6. Discuss the regular structure of the poem; the effect of the rhetorical question with which it end.

"Leda and the Swan"

  1. Discuss the ways in which form follows function. The ways in which the presentation of the words on the page mimics the events being described.
  2. Discuss Yeats' reliance on violence. How does he conceptualized violence?
  3. How is the actual rape evoked? What are the consequences? How are they revealed?

"Sailing to Byzantium" and "Byzantium"

  1. Though they were not written as a tandem, discuss their impact on or relation to one another.
  2. Where is Byzantium literally and more importantly metaphorically?
  3. Discuss Yeats' use of "mosaics," his implicit critique of Ireland, the gyre (19).
  4. How is the poem organized? On what principle or by what convention?
  5. What does Yeats think of the physical body? What is the relationship of Art to Nature?

Wallace Stevens

  1. Discuss Stevens' use of anecdote.
  2. Discuss Stevens' conception of art and of the relation of art and philosophy/religion. How does Stevens' understand the relationship between the intellectual and the emotional?
  3. Why are there 13 ways of looking at a blackbird? Why a blackbird?
  4. Discuss Stevens' fascination with winter.
  5. Discuss Stevens' reliance on nullity in "The Snow Man," for instance, illustrated in the line, "nothing himself, beholds/Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is" (14-15).
  6. Discuss Stevens' conception on time, the temporal, the fleeting.

T. S. Eliot

"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

  1. What is the effect of the epigraph in "J. Alfred"?
  2. What are the effects of the refrains in "J. Alfred"?
  3. What kinds of imagery does Eliot use in "J. Alfred"?
  4. What is the effect, significance of the sexual imagery, or sea creatures in "J. Alfred"?
  5. Discuss the psychological profile of "J. Alfred"?
  6. How is "J. Alfred" organized? on what principle?
  7. Discuss Eliot's conceptualization of time in "J. Alfred."
  8. How does "J. Alfred" typify the modernist aesthetic?
  9. Discuss Eliot's use of Christian iconography in "J. Alfred."
  10. Why does J. Alfred ask "Do I dare to eat a peach" (122)?
  11. Why do the mermaids not sing for "J. Alfred"?
  12. What is the mood of "J. Alfred"?
  13. How does Eliot achieve unity in "J. Alfred"?

The Waste Land

  1. What is the effect of the epigraph?
  2. How is the poem organized? What does how the poem is organized have to say about Eliot's conception of order, modernity, etc.?
  3. Discuss Eliot's use of paradox, of religious imagery, of surreal/French symboliste imagery.
  4. Discuss Eliot's use of different voices or persona throughout the poem and his use of different languages.
  5. Discuss the distinction Eliot draws between history and myth and the relevance of it.
  6. Discuss Eliot's use of (false) prophets, prophecy; of natural imagery, seasons, rain, desert, etc.; of game motifs; of nullity.
  7. What's innovate or "modernist" about the poem? How is The Waste Land an early twentieth-century rap?
  8. Discuss Eliot's use of versification, rhyme. How does/does Eliot effect closure?
  9. Discuss the expression of sexuality in the poem.
  10. Discuss the effect of the intermingling of the sacred and the profane, the meaningless and the profound ("DA").
  11. What does the poem reveal about Eliot's conception of Art? of Culture? the past?
  12. Discuss Eliot's reliance on images of death.