Comparative Literature 30C: Topics for the First Essay
Due Date: August 14, in class.
General Instructions: Write a five-page (1400-1600 word) essay
on a topic related to The Social Contract, "What is Enlightenment,"
Woyzeck, or Emma. 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, 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. Following are some suggestions for topics. If you
choose a suggested topic, make sure you narrow your focus considerably.
Examine how Rousseau uses fictions of origin—stories about how things
were when society began--in The Social Contract. Why does he believe
his story will be convincing? Why evidence does he provide for its veracity?
Why do his speculations mean about his view of eighteenth-century France?
- Individual Responsibility.
The Social Contract, "What is Enlightenment," and Woyzeck
address the problem of individual responsibility in relation to society
in different terms and ways. Choose one of the first two of these works,
and use its terms to examine the issue in Woyzeck. Is Woyzeck a common
murderer, or someone stymied by his inability to participate in the construction
of his society? Why and how does Woyzeck’s obedience to the various authority
figures around him prevent him from fully realizing his humanity?
Comedy and Tragedy.
Emma shows us a comic view of the maturing process of a well-to-do
English woman at the turn of the nineteenth century. To what extent are the
problems that she overcomes on her way to adulthood relevant to the harsher
realities of early nineteenth-century life? Is the comic view of Emma
compatible with the tragic view of Woyzeck in any way, or the self-empowering
views of Rousseau and Kant? Feel free to examine the issue of the novel’s
seriousness and/or relevance on its own, or in comparison to another work
we have read.
Examine the concept of the legitimacy of authority in any of the works
we have read. What gives someone the right to control others? What does an
ethical citizen owe to those in authority in exchange for maintaining the
benefits of society? Keep in mind that this topic can be applied to any of
the works we have read so far, either individually or in comparison with
- Free Choice.
Your own topic involving a work or works from the two weeks of the
course, based on an important theme or concept.
Some Important Notes on Short Literary Essays
- All essays should have a descriptive title, usually consisting of a
noun phrase that includes the name of the work (or works) you intend to examine
and something about your approach to the subject. "Freedom and Authority
in Büchner’s Woyzeck" is good; "Freedom" is too vague, as is "An Analysis
- All essays should have a clear, specific thesis that takes an arguable
position on the work’s interpretation. By "arguable," I mean that a reasonable
person could take a different view. "Shakepeare’s Sonnet 3 uses imagery to
convey its message" is inarguable—who would say that it doesn’t contain images,
and that these are not involved in some sort of communication? "Shakespeare’s
Sonnet 3 connects the theme of unfulfilled destiny to its metrical scheme
through strategic reversals of expectation in image and meter" is better.
Someone could easily argue that the theme is something different, and that
the reversals aren’t really reversals, and that they aren’t strategic in
any case. You would at least be involved in an interesting discussion.
- The thesis statement is generally located at the end of the first paragraph,
especially in short essays. Don’t put it anywhere else unless you are very
sure of what you are doing.
- Effective essays require specific references to the work under discussion.
Plot summary tends to weaken your argument—pick out specific passages and
cite them properly. Always introduce a quotation by explaining its relation
to your argument and its place in the work. If you do need to summarize large
parts of the work, make specific reference to chapters and the incidents
or arguments they contain.
- Assume an intelligent reader familiar with the work in question. You
don’t need to tell us what the overall plot or argument is—we already know.
What we don’t know is what you’ve noticed in your long, careful, and attentive
reading of the work in light of a particular idea.
- Don’t begin from too far away. The worst way to begin an essay is with
the phrase, "Ever since the beginning of time..." or some other truism about
books, genius, the world, society, or whatever. Mention your subject—the
work and your overall theme—immediately.
- Watch out for references to yourself or the essay—focus on the work
and the ideas instead. Authors of books will occasionally say, "I will argue"
or "In this chapter, I claim," but these references (known as "metadiscourse")
are usually only necessary for clarifying the structure of long articles
or books. Instead, indicate your direction through paragraph transitions:
"However,..." "On the other hand..." "Moreover..." etc. Try to avoid "Another
example of..." (dull and unhelpful) and "Plus..." (substandard).