English 320 (Fall 2001)

Essay #1

Guidelines for the Assignment

Be sure to acquaint yourself with the criteria for evaluating essays.  These are important guides as you work your essay through successive drafts.  There is a succinct version and a detailed version of these criteria for your perusal.

For this assignment you will not be writing narration  So both plot summary and explication are out.  Instead you will be writing an analysis, which is a form of exposition/argument.  (Notice that here we have just used the term "exposition" not to refer to an element of plot, but to point to a mode of discourse.)  Your ultimate draft should therefore exhibit an organizational strategy that is governed by some logical scheme of classification.  

Important:  What is known as "explication" is a different kind of discussion of a literary work.  Unlike analysis, explication will be organized chronologically (instead of logically), and, moreover, this chronological scheme will be dictated by the chronology of the plot or of the individual passage of the work under discussion.  Hence writing an explication generally poses little problem, for the writer, in devising the essay's overall scheme of organization, since this is in effect given in advance, from the outside, as it were, by the organization already embodied in the story or particular passage that is the essay's subject.  But devising an appropriate organizational strategy for an analysis is a real challenge -- one that you have to face up to directly in doing the present assignment.

For contrasting examples of explication and analysis focusing on Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," see the sample student papers in our text (pp. 764-773).

The essay you write for this assignment here should be longer than the answers you write under the time pressure of the examinations.  (You should aim for around 400 words, which is roughly equivalent to three-quarters of a single-spaced page with 1-inch margins in 12-point font.  More is OK, of course, provided that it is non-repetitive and on-point.)   This greater length is supposed to be in the service of greater detail and depth of analysis.  Thus if you find that you are falling short of the minimum length, you probably need to go into the issues more deeply.  For this reason you will have several days to reflect on the issues involved and to compose your analysis.

You may submit your essay either electronically or in hard-copy (i.e., printed out on a sheet of paper).

Topic for the Assignment

Review what our editor's have said about point of view (pp. 22-27 and on p. 75.  (You should be thoroughly on top of this discussion by the time you settle upon your final draft!)  Then work through our online glossary articles on 

Focus on one of the following stories:
  1. Updike's "A & P"
  2. Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily"
  3. Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart"
  4. Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues"
  5. Welty's "Why I Live at the P.O."
Discuss how the author's choice of a particular point of view helps communicate a central theme of the tale.  Develop a clear argument to show how the narrator's point of view is essential to the audience's recognizing and understanding the theme.  Support your argument with specific observations and analysis.  Quote and document according to the guidelines in the chapter "Writing About Literature" at the back of our textbook.

Regarding what sort of thing "theme" is, it may be useful to review carefully what John Updike says ("Why Write?") on pp. 19-20 of our anthology.  Writers in the modern short story tradition are frequently frustrated by readers who look in this genre for the particular kinds of satisfactions they've become used to in fables -- a clearly statable moral.  The sort of wisdom with which short stories are typically concerned invites us to favor the term theme over the term moral.  "Theme" admits of a range of more complicated implications, indefinite in their outreaching extent.  It invites us to think beyond maxims, towards insights that we would take some novel effort for us to formulate, and which in the end might best be expressible in the concrete narrative itself, rethought in ideally full awareness (never actually achieved in any particular re-reading) of the exact sequence of explicit details of which the text settled upon by the author consists.  Updike speaks of a widening of our imaginative sympathies, indeed, of our capacity to imagine the seriously possible in the first place.  "Wow," we may say, after a process of reflective absorption in the exact facts of the piece, "such a situation could actually happen, such a person could actually be -- and I could end up feeling this way about it (instead of what I would earlier have thought about it, if anyone had described such a case to me summary form), for these reasons, which it has led me to bring into play." 

This might seem merely to restate the primary obsession of the modern short story with the dimension of individual character.  It may also seem to leave us in dumb wonder, as if it were impossible or pointless to try to make explicit to ourselves and each other what such a work invites us to think.  That would be a mistake.  If stories get us to look as our standing assumptions in a new light, it is almost always worthwhile to try to get clear about what is new, for us, about that light, and whether our assumptions are worth being tinkered with, or deserve, on reflection, our committed but open-minded defense.  It is certainly worthwhile to sharpen our sense of what the story does not show, because of the particularities of the facts with which it has constructed the particular case it submits for our imaginative, emotional, thoughtful consideration.

For this essay, you might want also to have a look at what our editors have to say in their general remarks about "Theme" (pp. 195-197, 241).   (We take these pages up later on in the Course Schedule.  But nothing prevents you from peeking ahead.)


You can take a look at an example of a student essay in critical analysis that was in fact produced in response to the assignment for Essay #1 in a previous semester of the course, but was written on a story (Mansfield's "Miss Brill" [pp. 665-668 in our text) that you are not invited to write upon for Essay #1 in this semester's course. You should be able to learn a lot be studying the detailed discussion I've provided of the various moves the writer makes, and why they are effective.  My own commentary on this essay, incidentally, is an example of explication (though in this case not of narrative, but of exposition/argument, since the object under examination is an essay, not a story)

A possibly useful strategy

There is much that is suggestive in the various questions the editors have formulated after each of the stories.  Of course you can't just answer them in sequence.  But if you answer them in detail, certain ways will start to occur to you about how you might integrate the insights you are developing under the perspective of the topic you are adopting for Essay #1.  The Course Schedule, too, will suggest angles that might lend themselves to appropriate adaptation to this end.

A useful strategy is to imagine some alternative points of view that the author implicitly rejected for the purpose of telling the particular story he or she eventually settled upon telling, and to rationalize their rejection by showing what they would require to be sacrificed, and explaining why those elements are essential for implying the theme of the story that we actually have.  For this to work, you would not want to put your main emphasis on alternatives that impose the most obvious disadvantages.  

For example, Homer Baron can't have anything to say beyond some point earlier in the day on the evening of which he was poisoned!  There are important contrasts between Homer's outlook on the world and the narrator's, so a better alternative to discuss might be a marginal participant narrator who is characterized by Homer's sort of mentality rather than by the assumptions and values characteristic of the narrator Faulkner has constructed for his story.  Another useful thought experiment to carry out would be to imagine how things would look if they were seen through the eyes of someone who identifies himself with the social class of folks like the Griersons and Colonel Sartoris.  What important facts might not be taken stock of if this were to be our window onto the history here?  How would the tone be different?  (I.e., what differences in attitude towards the facts would find expression?)  So what?  That is:  what difference would this difference make?  Finally, it would make sense to imagine the reasons Faulkner might have had for choosing a marginal participant narrator (of the sort he has chosen) instead of electing to tell the story through a selective-omniscient narrator focusing on (i.e., limiting itself to) the townspeople's perspective.

For Updike's "A&P," it might be worthwhile to have something brief to say about why the story could not have the theme it does if it were narrated by, say, Lengel.  But your essay will reach a deeper level of insight into the contributions of point of view to the story's theme if you explore what would have to happen if the events of the story were narrated by a selectively omniscient narrator focused on Sammy's experience.

For Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart,"  you could explore what would happen to the theme of this story if the case were presented by the murderer's "alienist" (as the precursors of psychiatrists were known in the mid-19th Century), on the basis of repeated interviews with the patient, including at least one in which the patient told the narrator precisely the story he does here.  But you'll get more directly to the heart of the matter of what is at stake in Poe's choice of point of view if you were to explain why Poe did well to proceed as he did rather than to have the story of the planning, execution, and confession of the murder conveyed by a selectively omniscient narrator focused on the experience of the murderer during the whole process.

For Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues," though, you will be able to go a long way if you explore systematically what would happen to the theme of Baldwin's story if the story were recast by making making Sonny the narrator.

And for Welty's "Why I Live at the P.O.," you could try to spell out what would happen to the theme of the story as it is if the story were changed by having it narrated by Stella-Rhondo or by the mother.

Collaboration and individual work

On our exams and in our essays, students are acting under Kansas State University's provisions regarding Academic Honesty and Plagiarism.  An important point in these provisions is that instructors may spell out what degree of collaboration is permitted among students on specific assignments.