Literary Critic Essay

PROMPT: 

Write a critical analysis of another literary critic’s interpretation of the selected novel or film, agreeing and extended, disagreeing, or qualifying part or all of their argument. 

Length:  3-4 pages typed, MLA format

Recommended Reading: “Writing About Literature” in eBook

Due: 

Critic Chosen
 March 27
Thesis Workshop:
April 10
Rough Draft Workshop:
April 17
Final Draft Due:
April 27

 

 

2019 Option: 

This assignment may be completed by a group of students, as an option. 

It will also be written as a letter to the critic him/herself. The length depends upon the number of students:

Lengths: 

2 Writers
4-5 paragraphs
3 Writers
    6-7 paragraphs
4 Writers
8-9 paragraphs
5+ Writers
      consult

 

Process:

  1. Survey the essays
  2. Select and read, annotate thoroughly
  3. Consider essay argument from perspective of same literary theory
  4. Select a position and draft a thesis
    • Design a thesis which focuses attention on the accuracy of the critic’s interpretation, not on the message of Achebe.  In other words, set the focus of your paper on the critical interp you will evaluate.  Use Achebe to support your argument about the critic’s paper.
    • You may focus your paper on only one dimension (even one line!) of the critic’s interpretation, but be careful not to take that argument out of context.
  5. Outline key points, selecting text from critic essay and from original novel
    • Outline your paper/arguments before you draft.  This is a complicated task; don’t launch into it blindly!
    • Bring your ideas to class; share them with me and others!
  6. Draft
  7. Workshop and Revise
  8. Complete and upload to Google Drive in MLA format

Some Hints

  • Select the critic to discuss carefully. If you choose an interpretation which is too brief or simple-minded, you will find little of substance to discuss. Find an interpretation that is too complicated and you may misinterpret the literary school. You are not limited to the essays found on the links I provided. However, you may not use a student paper (either high school or college student). Also, do not attempt to use study guides or plot summations for your focus (like a Cliff’s or Barron’s Guide); these will not provide you with enough substance.
  • If you use an essay I haven’t placed here, provide a copy of the essay you critique when you turn in your paper.
  • Use full Modern Language Association (MLA) format, including a complete and accurate Works Cited list (Conrad, critical essay, and any other works you use) and in-text citations. The directions for most of this are in your course pack and on-line under “Submitting Papers.”
  • Design a thesis which focuses attention on the accuracy of the critic’s interpretation, not on the message of the novel’s author. In other words, set the focus of your paper on the critical interp you will evaluate. Use the original text to support your argument about the critic’s paper.
  • You may focus your paper on only one dimension (even one line!) of the critic’s interpretation, but be careful not to take that argument out of context.
  • Outline your paper/arguments before you draft. This is a complicated task; don’t launch into it blindly!
  • Bring your ideas to class; share them with me and others!
  • Fee free to collaborate on essays and thinking with others; however, the final work must be your own.
  • Use the course pack guide, “Writing About Lit” for ideas on narrowing topic, style, etc.

Candide Selections:

Things Fall Apart Selections:

Murakami Selections:

Ethan Frome Selections:

Hamlet Selections:

Albee Selections:

Some Tips

Thesis/Intro
  • Focuses on theorist
  • Makes point clear (theorist argument and your position on it)
  • Argument is based on interpretation, not on factual issue
  • Thesis may be long, but point should be clear. Write carefully!
Outline
  • Each section based on your arguments or reasons for thesis (not parts of the novel or parts of the theorist’s point)
  • Each point is supported by quotations and reasoning from theorist
  • Each point is supported by quotations and reasoning from the novel
Paragraphs/Sections
  • Each section is built upon argument
  • Assumes we’ve read the novel, but not necessarily theorist. (May need to explain theorist’s ideas a bit!)

· Conclusions elaborate/expand on argument, don’t merely keep repeating same point (“See? He’s right! He’s right!” or “He’s wrong! He’s wrong!”)

 

Essay Structure Workshop

Theorist Essay Workshop Issues to Discuss: Structure

Thesis/Intro

  • Wording –
    • Focuses on theorist
    • Makes point clear (theorist argument and your position on it)
    • Argument is based on interpretation, not on factual issue
    • Thesis may be long, but point should be clear. Write carefully!

Outline

  • Each section based on your arguments or reasons for thesis (not parts of the novel or parts of the theorist’s point)
  • Each point is supported by quotations and reasoning from theorist
  • Each point is supported by quotations and reasoning from work(s)

Paragraphs/Sections

  • Each section is built upon argument
  • Assumes we’ve read work, but not necessarily theorist. (May need to explain theorist’s ideas a bit! This is helpful to the theorist, too, to be sure you have not misunderstood her.)
  • Conclusions elaborate/expand on argument, don’t merely keep repeating same point (“See? He’s right! He’s right!” or “He’s wrong! He’s wrong!”)
Sample Email/Letter Format

Sending your essay to a living theorist?  Here is a format for a snail-mail letter or an email attachment. The “cover information” could appear in the text of the email, but the primary essay should always be sent as a separate attachment/document. Feel free to make changes–it’s the general format and tone which is most important!


Critical Theorist Letter Format

[Your address or school name]

[Date]

[Name of Theorist]

[University or other affiliation]

Dear Dr./Professor/Mr. [Last name of theorist] :

I/We recently had the opportunity in my Advanced Placement Literature course at Royal Oak High School, MI, to read your critical essay on Heart of Darkness / your review of Apocalypse Now after studying the novel / seeing the film. Since I am very interested in {name of theory] theory / film as literary text, your essay was interesting, especially around the idea of [name a point you found interesting]. Truly / However / Even so, [thesis which identifies your support of the idea, critique of the idea, or qualification of it]. I/We hope you have a moment to read my/our analysis. (Could be end of email text here if you mention the attachment.) 

[Here follow your middle paragraphs, each using the techniques of analysis we have studied, quoting appropriate text and reasoning from those quotations. Quotations should be both from the original source text (HofD or AN) and from the critical analysis you are discussing. 

Therefore, these are some of my/our thoughts on your work. I’ve truly appreciated the opportunity to read your work as part of my studies of Conrad’s/Coppola’s work. While I am certain you are quite busy and do not expect any response, I would welcome any thoughts you have. Again, thank you for your time to read my/our analysis.

Sincerely,

[Names]

Royal Oak High School

Class of 20–

[Address if snail-mailed]

Some Models

 

Approach

In this essay, I also qualified the approach (my favorite position) not by disagreeing with Thomas but by extending his own argument to his own essay, revealing that he is right AND that also creates a problematic position in his own critique. The approach is somewhat feminist, but it seems to work so far!

This is still in draft form, but the annotations can show my thinking on it.

1/2 Draft of Thomas Analysis

 

Approach

Working with Frederick Karl’s psychoanalysis of Marlow, I decided to agree with his premise that Marlow as a narrator can’t be trusted–he’s too caught up in truth and morality and therefore misreads Kurtz–but I wanted to qualify the argument. I didn’t think Karl’s comments about Conrad were convincing enough. Taking a cue from Achebe’s accusations, I found a way to critique Karl briefly, and Conrad, too.

It’s important, I think, to quote both from the literary critic’s work and from the novel itself to show how I link the two in my argument.

 

1/2 Draft of Karl Analysis

In his “Introduction to the Danse Macabre,” Frederick Karl reveals the long rationalizations of Marlow, the lengths his moral fiber will stretch to find—even in Kurtz—a sense of redemption at the very end. Kurtz’s “cry . . . fits in with what Marlow wants to know of human nature.” Marlow is unwilling to see Kurtz—or the Western penchant for genocide—for what it really is. All of us, Marlow included, lie to ourselves to maintain some sense of sanity, of defense against our own darkness. And while Karl is right to assert Heart of Darkness is a political and artistic work of Freudian displacement, his presumption that Conrad is himself innocent of this behavior is short-sighted.

Karl provocatively identifies the genuine horror of the novel, that Kurtz is not an exception to Western attitude, but the rule, as demonstrated by the deaths of millions of Africans. Citing Yeats, he shows that “’the best lack all conviction,’” and if this is so, then the best Europe has to offer are the likes of a brickmaker without tools, an accountant without conscience, or a Marlow without rivets. At their best, they care not a bit if their jobs are done well. When they do, as finally Marlow does with his desire for rivets, they are met with absurdity: “There was an old hippo that had the bad habit of getting out on the bank and roaming at night over the station grounds” (34). It’s when the European turns to Yeats’s “passionate intensity” that the true horror begins. Marlow may believe that Kurtz sees an ambiguous absolution (“craven terror”) but Kurtz at the same moment has “somber pride” and “ruthless power” (68). It is this assertion of power which unleashes itself against the Africans, and Kurtz is merely the latest incarnation of it: he arrives in Africa on a brick road well-paved. Better he had remained without his tools.

Karl’s presumption that Conrad himself is a master artist creating a novel of self-concealment and delusion, however, lacks the textual support he needs; in fact, he finds only a personal letter of the author’s which argues that “Our refuge is in stupidity.” It’s strange that Karl spends a portion of his essay decrying the rape of the continent but fails to see how Conrad blinds himself to the plight of Africans as humans. Though Marlow may well lie to the Intended to protect his own sense of morality, it is also Marlow who worries that Africans are “almost human; ugly” (13). This is hardly the “masterpiece of concealment” Karl claims, but one where Karl’s thesis is more accurate than he imagines. As much as Conrad may have seen the “individual devil in each man” as Karl insists, his own protagonist works to conceal the author’s prejudices and hatred of blacks.

Karl’s argument is accurate, and perhaps more than he realizes. Kurtz honestly commits acts of horror as the worst of humanity. Marlow misreads Kurtz’s death as one of redemption; and Marlow lies to the Intended to protect his own need for stability. But Conrad, too, deludes himself in believing a European novel will redeem himself and Europe of its colonial sins. His own language reveals the irony of his position, the repression of all European consciousness.

 

Approach

While you may or may not have read Things Fall Apart, the process of creating the thesis and outline is here, so it may be helpful for all writers..

Beginning Work on Sofield Analysis of TFA

So far . . .

I’ll be basing my essay on Heather Sofield’s work, “Postcolonial Identity, Postcolonial Literature,” from the Landow site.  The exact hyperlink is: https://www.scholars.nus.edu.sg/landow/post/zimbabwe/sofield/6.html

MLA format for the source:

Sofield, Heather.  “Postcolonial Identity, Postcolonial Literature.” Postcolonial Web, National University of Singapore.  George Landow, editor.  https://www.scholars.nus.edu.sg/landow/post/zimbabwe/sofield/6.html.  1999.

In the essay, Sofield discusses Achebe’s ideas about using the English language, addressing the issue of betrayal of culture.  Achebe’s response is that “there is no other choice.  I have been given the language and I intend to use it” (in Sofield 2).  She goes on to argue that African culture is strong enough to survive the translation into English and gives new life and form to the Ibo culture.  “The key,” she writes, “is to make the language one’s own, to incorporate rather than be incorporated.”

 

While I agree that the Ibo culture may in the end only be communicated to Western society through English, I’m suspicious that Sofield does not go far enough.  Based upon Achebe’s discussion with Moyers about the power of the storyteller and the need to upset the emperor, I will argue in my paper that Achebe’s achievement (perhaps even his intent) is to subvert Western ideology or thinking by actually re-colonizing the West in its cognitive soil.  In other words, what the West has done to Africa in physical domination, Africa might do to the West in ideology.

Anyway, that’s my thinking so far.  In order to prove it, I’ll have to show TFA text that reveals Achebe’s use of the English language to change the way we think.   Certainly the pro-forma tone of the Ibo people will be used as well as his allusions to Yeats and Greek tragedy, classical and contemporary pillars of Western thinking.  That gives me language (dialogue), idea or theme (Yeats), and structure (Greek pathos) to play with, a possible structure for my paper!

Thesis:  While Sofield finds optimism in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart because it will help forge a new African identity, Achebe’s appropriation of the English language may actually act to colonize Western thinking with Ibo ideology when it is exported to Western readers.

 Thesis:  While Sofield finds optimism in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart because it will help forge a new African identity, Achebe’s appropriation of the English language may actually act to colonize Western thinking with Ibo ideology when it is exported to Western readers.

Achebe’s language / Formal English in the mouths of the Ibo

 

 

Ritual speaking, aphorisms, and propriety amongst the Ibo
  TEXT: any number of sayings and rituals from the novel (TFA)
  TEXT: “I have been given the language and I intend to use it.” (Sofield)
 Effects on Western readers
   Idealizing the Ibo stemming from post-colonial remorse
    TEXT:  Contrast in Heart of Darkness
    TEXT:  Walcott’s revenge or remorse choices (Sofield)
   Filling the cultural void; absence of ritual and propriety in the West
  Things Fall Apart / Yeats’s re-centering of the old order
 West/Christianity as canon/center of civilization
  TEXT: Quotations from Christian missionaries (TFA)
  TEXT: Okonkwo’s despair (TFA)
 Second Coming fails to meet expectations, the new as synthesis of old forms
  TEXT: Yeats
  TEXT: Synthesis of new African literature from Walcott’s choices (Sofield)
Greek tragedy / The fates of Okonkwo and Oedipus
 Fate unavoidable; Okonkwo fails to accept the new order
  TEXT: Okonkwo’s end (TFA)
  TEXT: Christian judgment (TFA)
 Oedipus refuses fate; classical tragedy
  TEXT: Closing lines of Sophocles’ play
 Appropriation of Western mythological structure
  Effects on Western readers
   Familiarity of form = acceptance of idea
    Forewarning of Yeats/Christian form or order
     TEXT:  Christian idea of new order (TFA)
     TEXT:  Yeats, “What creature”
    Infusion of Ibo ideology into Western myth
     TEXT:  “Radiating outwards” (Sofield)
     TEXT:  “Brighter, stronger future” (Sofield)
Conclusion:  Western predisposition to remorse
 
  1. Dances With Wolves, other films
 
  1. The storyteller’s “falling out with the emperor” (Achebe)

Obviously, this has become huge, probably far too large for the size of the paper.  I’ll start working on sections 1 & 2 for now, while maybe adding a bit of section 3 into the conclusion.  I’m using several sources so far, including the interview with Achebe, Yeats, and probably Conrad.

 

Thesis:  While Sofield finds optimism in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart because it will help forge a new African identity, Achebe’s appropriation of the English language may actually act to colonize Western thinking with Ibo ideology when it is exported to Western readers.

Far from the incoherent monosyllables of traditional Hollywood, Achebe’s portrayal of the Ibo language is rich with mythology and propriety.  His characters are deeply placed into the traditional culture, and their dialogue, even when emotionally pressed, reflects an understanding of wisdom and history.  When Ekwefi stalks the priestess Chielo, for instance, the priestess yells, “’Whether you are spirit or man, may Agbala shave your head with a blunt razor!’” (TFA, 99)*  When Okonkwo’s uncle Uchendu chastises him, he reminds his nephew, “’A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet.  But when there is sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in his motherland’” (TFA, 124).   Okonkwo’s failure lies in his too-stalwart adherence to history; and the failure of Okonkwo parallels the failure of some Ibo to adapt to a life which is falling apart. In each case and throughout the novel, action is informed by history, and culture understood through action.

In this way, the Ibo dialogue underlies the tragedy of an English-language novel.  Achebe bypasses the accusations of his critics who claim that the Ibo culture is somehow undermined by the use of a foreign tongue to articulate it.  Quite the opposite, the failure of some Ibo to adapt is specifically not Achebe’s.  When asked about this in 1975, Achebe said, “For me there is no other choice.  I have been given the language and I intend to use it” (in Sofield 2).  While Sofield marks this as the emergence of a new African identity, Achebe’s use of a ritualized, Ibo-ized English in effect transforms the story for Western readers to one of sentiment for his people.

Certainly our Western desire to apologize for the sins of colonialism is also a psychology informed by the sins of history.  That Achebe’s dialogue aspires to depth through ritual only exacerbates this remorse.  “’There is no story that is not true,’ said Uchendu. ‘The world has no end, and what is good among one people is an abomination with others’” (TFA, 130).  The Ibo understand what the West could not, that more than one perspective is truth, and that all gods and truths can be respected.  And when this idea is placed in aphorisms of Ibo wisdom, packaged in formal, educated English, the truths become merged.  Okonkwo dies for his inability to connect to the white culture; Achebe’s culture thrives through insinuation into a Western form anxious to show contrition.  Derek Walcott is partly right to claim that post-colonial literature is a “literature of recrimination and revenge written by the descendents of slaves or a literature or remorse written by the descendents of the masters” (in Sofield 1).  However, Achebe’s authoring of Things Fall Apart is a literature of cultural pride read by descendents ready to feel that remorse.  In effect, Achebe’s formal dialogue is a synthesis of stories and truths, of cultures and histories.

* All page references to Things Fall Apart are to the 1969 Fawcett edition.