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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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 the work?
  8. Your own topic involving a work or works from the first half of the course, based on an important theme or concept.