1. Does Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter have a moral? That so many high schoolers are forced to read it would suggest that it does, that it is well-designed to provide some kind of instruction. But, then, what is its message? What is this book attempting to teach us? And if it doesn’t in fact have a moral or a message, then what is Hawthorne trying to do with this book? What effect does this book produce?
2. According to Henry James:
[The Scarlet Letter] is full of the moral presence of the race that invented Hester’s penance—diluted and complicated with other things, but still perfectly recognizable. Puritanism, in a word, is there, not only objectively, as Hawthorne tried to place it there, but subjectively as well. Not, I mean in his judgment of his characters in any harshness or prejudice, or in the obtrusion of a moral lesson; but in the very quality of his own vision, in the tone of the picture, in a certain coldness and exclusiveness of treatment.
What do you think James means? How does Puritanism shape Hawthorne’s own language and his approach to his subject? What position does the book take, ultimately, on the Puritan values that it depicts?
3. A central concern of Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter is language: what it can and cannot do, what it can and cannot express. This becomes clear in the “The Custom-House,” when the narrator encounters piles of documents, whose meaning he tries to decipher. And it is no surprise, then, that the central, most memorable image of the book is the scarlet letter itself, a piece of language. What, then is Hawthorne revealing about the power, or the limitations of language?
4. Numerous critics have noted the presence of implausible, marvelous, or unrealistic elements within Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. These of course are characteristic of the romance, a genre generally regarded as less important, less serious than the realistic novel. Why do you think Hawthorne employs these elements? What do they allow him to accomplish? What purpose do they serve?
5. Given that Henry James championed realism over romance, what about Daily Miller makes it a realistic novel? How is this book different from a typical romance, such as Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter? And what do the realistic elements of James’s novella allow him to accomplish? In other words, what makes Daisy Miller realistic, and what is the virtue or value of James’s technique? (If you choose to answer this prompt, please focus most of your essay on James, not Hawthorne).
6. Winterbourne obviously finds something fascinating, perhaps even admirable in Daisy Miller. What is it exactly? Why does he devote so much energy to thinking about her? At times, he seems to underline her innocence, but at other times he underlines her vulgarity. Might these go hand-in-hand? How so? And does the narrator or author of Daisy Miller seem to share Winterbourne’s attitude? Is James trying to reveal something about American values as opposed to European values? What exactly?
7. Focusing on one author from the course, explain the position of the narrator in relationship to the story. Who is the narrator? How close is he/she to the action? What kind of voice or tone does the narrator employ? Why do you think the author uses this kind of narrator? How does it influence the novel’s presentation and our understanding of the themes explored or the issues dramatized by the text?
8. “What was any art,” the protagonist of The Song of the Lark, Thea Kronborg asks herself, “but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself,–life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose?” (286). Does Willa Cather’s novel manage to imprison the “shining, elusive element which is life itself”? How so? How do her narrative techniques allows her to accomplish this task?
9. In The Song of the Lark, Thea frequently draw for inspiration on the culture of the Mexican settlers in Moonstone, and on the remains of the Native American cliff-dwellers. Focusing on one or both of these, why do you think she turns to these non-European influences in cultivating her powers as an opera singer? At times she seems even to identify herself with these people. Why? Might there be anything wrong with the way Thea views the Mexicans or the Native Americans? Why do you think Cather celebrates these cultures? Does she offer a fair and realistic representation of them? Why or why not?
10. In The Song of the Lark, Cather endlessly explores the relationship between the artist and her social and cultural context. What do you think the novel is saying about this relationship? How does Thea’s connection to Moonstone influence her development as an opera singer? Is her background a limitation or is it the very basis for her artistic power?
11. In Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark, the protagonist, Thea Kronborg, is surrounded by older men, all of whom are deeply devoted to her. But some of these relationships seem somewhat disturbing. Why? Why are these men so passionate about Thea? What does she represent? And why is Thea so dependent upon their attention and their assistance? What might Cather be revealing about the conditions under which a female artist can achieve success in the late 19th century?
12. At the end of Passing, Nella Larsen leaves the reader with a number of unanswered questions. We do not know whether Brian has been having an affair with Clare. We do not know whether Irene pushes Clare out the window, whether Irene jumps intentionally, or whether it is an accident. Why do you think Larsen ends the text so mysteriously? Why does she leave the narrative unresolved? What relationship might there be between the text’s refusal to offer the knowledge that the reader seeks and its central themes?
13. When Irene asks her husband Brian why so many African Americans who pass for white eventually “come back,” he replies, “If I knew that, I’d know what race is” (55). What, then, is race? Why is Brian unable to understand it? How does Passing challenge or complicate conventional or straightforward conceptions of race?
14. One might read Nella Larsen’s novel Passing as an exploration of desire. What is Larsen suggesting about desire? What according to Larsen arouses desire? How does the encounter with racial otherness influence desire in the book?
15. So many of the feelings, motives, desires, and anxieties of the characters in Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus remain unspoken. The narrator studiously abstains from commenting on most of the scenarios that he describes. Why? What might be the purpose of these silences and evasions? Is this an effective strategy? Does it make the book more powerful? Please focus on specific examples.
16. What is Goodbye, Columbus suggesting about the experience of being Jewish-American in the post-World War II period? What particular dilemmas, ambitions, and challenges does the book serve to illuminate? Is there any truth to the accusation that Roth’s work is anti-semitic?
17. One of the central subjects of Goodbye, Columbus is class difference. How does class difference influence the relationship between Neil and Brenda? How does it influence their feelings for each other? Would you say that their class positions ultimately make their relationship impossible? How so? What might Roth be suggesting about the relationship between class and love, or between class and desire?
18. Is Ellison offering, in Invisible Man,a program for advancing the cause of African Americans? Is he making a political statement? If not, then what is he doing? And if he is resisting political statements or political programs, why would he do that? What does he offer as an alternative?
19. Ralph Ellison begins his famous novel by declaring that he is an “invisible man”? What does he mean? Consider some of the forms that invisibility assumes throughout the book. Does the narrator regard his own invisibility as a categorically negative or undesirable quality? What are the risks and what are the virtues of being invisible? What strategies does Ellison employ to communicate the experience of invisibility to the reader?
20. Early in Invisible Man, the narrator recalls the advice his grandfather gave him as a boy: “I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy’s country ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction. Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction, let ‘em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open” (16). Does the narrator follow this advice in his own life? In what ways? And does the novel as a whole affirm or reject the grandfather’s position?
21. Many of the episodes in Invisible Man seem implausible, dreamlike, surreal, or grotesque. Why? Focusing on one or two of these episodes, consider what purpose or purposes this hallucinatory quality might serve.
22. In Invisible Man, The Brotherhood seems to function as a representation of certain early twentieth century left or Marxist political organizations, which sought to use scientific methods to defend workers (purportedly of all races) against economic oppression. What is Ellison suggesting about these organizations? What, in his view, are their virtues and what are their limitations?
23. When the narrator in Invisible Man is assigned by the Brotherhood to focus on the “Woman Question” (406), he views it as a demotion. Why? Would Ellison agree? What is his position on “The Woman Question”? How does the “Woman Question” relate to the narrator’s own struggle for recognition as a black man? Does Invisible Man serve to trivialize the condition of women or the problems they face? If the book tries to make readers see, or in some way perceive,those who generally remain invisible, why might women persist as a blind spot within the book?
24. Louise Erdrich’s The Plague of Doves centers around a horrific crime, the bloody murder of an entire family and its equally horrific after-effects. Generally speaking, the text presents history as a series of violent crimes, of traumatic injuries. But what drives this history? What is the source of all this violence and cruelty? Does Erdrich offer a clear answer, a straightforward culprit? Does her text offer any explanation, any way of making sense of the terrible acts that it depicts? Does it offer any kind of moral judgment? If not, why not? Why might Erdrich be reluctant to assign blame or responsibility for the traumatic history that she depicts?
“I only want impossible things. The others don’t interest me… It’s silly to live at all for little things. Living’s too much trouble unless one can get something really big out of it.”
So speaks Thea Kronborg, heroine of Willa Cather’s 1915 novel The Song of the Lark. These words, shared with a close friend, give us an immediate glimpse into the strong character of this fictional American diva.
Of the few opera singers to appear in classic literature, Thea is arguably the most humanly memorable (not that I’ve anything against Trilby, the title character of George Du Maurier’s Victorian serial: a tone-deaf street waif elevated to operatic greatness by the hypnotist Svengali). But Cather’s heroine has what are perhaps the passionate qualities we might associate with a real-life opera singer.
Thea Kronborg’s story is, when viewed two-dimensionally, the typical rags-to-riches tale of fulfilling the American dream. But far from dwelling exclusively on Thea’s journey from small-town Colorado to the world’s major opera houses, The Song of the Larkfollows its heroine’s evolution as an artist.
Born in the fictional town of Moonstone, Thea is the daughter of a Methodist minister. Although part of a large family, her most satisfying moments are spent on her own, wandering in the sand dunes outside town. She is an outwardly cold, reclusive child, with a nature not even her mother can understand.
Her vocal gift is first detected and encouraged by her piano teacher, Wunsch. Thea, however, is sceptical of learning anything in a place like Moonstone. Wunsch is quick to condemn her doubts. “Nothing is far and nothing is near,” he says, “if one desires. The world is little, people are little, human life is little. There is only one big thing – desire.”
Following a windfall, Thea goes to Chicago to seriously pursue music. Her new surroundings make her only too conscious of her rural origins and lack of cultivation, and she is plunged into an intense period of self-loathing. Worse, when she returns to Moonstone for a visit, she finds a new and pronounced hostility towards her.
Another year of study sees Thea no happier. She is exhausted, depressed, and bitter from what she considers her “fight.” It takes an extended holiday, arranged by her wealthy friend and love interest Fred Ottenburg, to enliven her spirits. For weeks she stays on a ranch in Arizona, exploring the nearby canyon holding the ruins of an ancient city once populated by a people known as the Cliff-Dwellers.
The awe she discovers in exploring this ruinous city will have a pivotal impact on Thea’s artistic direction: “The stream and the broken pottery: what was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mold in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element that is life itself – life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose? The Indian women had held it in their jars. In the sculpture [Thea] had seen at the Art Institute, it had been caught in a flash of arrested motion. In singing, one made a vessel of one’s throat and nostrils and held it in one’s breath, caught the stream in a scale of natural intervals.”
Ten years later, Thea is thirty years old and approaching the height of her career. She has developed into a wonderful soprano but is very much who she ever was. She is still embittered by the shallow artistry of many of her fellow singers. As she tells Dr. Archie, an old friend from Moonstone: “You can’t try to do things right and not despise the people who do them wrong. How can I be indifferent? If that doesn’t matter, then nothing matters.”
Cather created a character whose enduring bitterness and disdain make her all the more realistic. Thea’s obsessive, relentless drive, her intolerance for anything less than perfection both in herself and other singers, make her an opera singer we all feel we might know. We can identify equally with her internal warmth and sensitivity.
Thea was, in fact, loosely based on the real-life Wagnerian soprano Olive Fremstad, whom Cather interviewed for an article in McClure’s. But Fremstad, unlike her fictional counterpart, was an outright eccentric. To rehearse for her role in Strauss’s Salome, Fremstad insisted on visiting a morgue so she could decide precisely how much she ought to struggle under the weight of John the Baptist’s head. She also kept half of a pickled human head on her piano at home, for the purposes of better understanding vocal anatomy – or for teaching it. Suffice it to say, her students didn’t stay long.
The Song of the Lark’s heroine, like its setting and dialogue, may be romanticized (one must consider when it was written). But even in the flourishes there’s a poignant sense of truth, a believable journey for an artist. Here, in Thea Kronborg, is a reigning diva of literary opera singers.
[image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Song_of_the_Lark_%28Jules_Breton,_1884%29.jpg]
[More Ellen MacDonald-Kramer]