Comparative Literature 30A: Topics
for the First Essay
Due Date: In section, July 3.
General Instructions: Write a five-page (1400-1600 word) essay on a
topic related to Gilgamesh, "The Hymn to Innanna," The Iliad, the Hebrew Bible, or The
Odyssey. This essay should have a clear, unified topic and an identifiable,
arguable thesis statement backed by solid evidence. Your personal response to
the material can guide your thoughts, but you must establish your claims using evidence
and argumentation considered valid within the discipline of literary
criticism or literary history. If you use secondary sources, make sure they
are of reasonable quality (no personal web sites, Wikipedia, Cliff Notes, or Encarta)
and cite them properly. If you decide to use one of the suggested topics,
make sure you narrow its focus and make a strong thesis. Some of the topics below deal with works not yet assigned in the course; students who have a particular interest in those works may read ahead and write about them if they wish.
- Choose one or two of the works and examine how it
represents the responsibilities of a ruler toward his subjects and his
city. Why do the Argives maintain their
allegiance to Agamemnon? What justifies the continued kingship of Odysseus
despite his absence? What is the difference between rule and misrule in
any of these works, and what can be done about it? If you feel ambitious, you can even check out the full version of Gilgamesh and examine the question in relation to that character. Be sure to narrow your focus
sufficiently and support your claims with careful readings of the text.
- Compare the story of the flood in Gilgamesh with
Noah’s story in Genesis. What do the similarities and differences
tell you about the societies from which they came? What does a comparison
reveal about the way each society views morality, or the relationship
between the human and divine worlds?
- What role does marriage or family play in any of the
societies represented by these works? Why does the institution matter to
society as a whole, and not just to the two people who get married?
- What roles do the women characters play in these works?
Are they partners, objects of desire and envy, or comic relief? What does
their role reveal about the societies in which these works were composed?
- What are the responsibilities of hosts and guests, and why
does this make such a difference in The Odyssey or The
Iliad? Why is more than courtesy at stake? What are the
characteristics of a good host or a good guest, and what are those of a
bad one? Make sure your essay has a central thesis—let us know what the
concept of hospitality really means.
- Both Gilgamesh and the Odyssey contain
journeys to the underworld, in which the hero encounters characters from other
literary or mythological works. Examine one or compare both, and determine
what this kind of journey means about the relationship between a work and
its competitors or predecessors. Consider what these journeys have to do
with literature and representations of the past.
- All of the works we have studied so far contain portraits
of storytellers: bards, sirens, poets, priestesses, and even heroes like
Odysseus and Utnapishtim. What do these figures tell us about the author and
- Your own topic involving a work or works from the first
half of the course, based on an important theme or concept.