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.

  1. Beginnings.
  2. 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?
  3. Individual Responsibility.
  4. 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?
  5. Comedy and Tragedy.
  6. 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.
  7. Authority.
  8. 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 another.
  9. Free Choice.
  10. 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

  1. 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 of Woyzeck."
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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).