English 2111 critical response topics
Turn in critical responses either in hard copy or D2L, and be sure to exceed the 200 word minimum (in the body of the response, excluding name, date, header, etc.): responses shorter than 200 words will not pass. Avoid plot summary or straightforward retelling of "what happens" in the worksee nugget 1.
Format your response according to MLA guidelines for margins, spacing, name, date, headers, etc. as outlined on my "simple stuff" page. Works cited pages are unnecessary for critical responses. Even without works cited pages, though, do still follow the MLA conventions for documenting quotations as explained in Q1-4 on my quotations page.
Definition of theme: In the simplest, broadest terms, one quality that differentiates works of “literature” from other written texts (especially those intended primarily to entertain) is that literary works often present a theme, or “message” that applies beyond the level of plot with continuing relevance for an audience beyond the world presented in the text. A literary work’s theme makes some commentary upon or offers insight into the human condition. Think of a fable, for instance, where the universal theme is stated directly as the “moral of the story.” In the famous fable about the tortoise and the hare, the message is that “slow and steady wins the race,” or more precisely, focused, extended perseverance leads to a better outcome than dashing around in erratic bursts of frenzied high-speed activity. The theme isn't a matter limited to the two characters in the story, or even turtles and rabbits generally: the fable's theme pertains to you and me and all of humanity.
Some works’ themes are relatively limited in scope: among other themes, for instance, Charles Dickens’s novel Bleak House points out the destructive nature of a legal system more intent on perpetuating itself as a system than providing justice. On the other hand, the commentary on the destructive nature of guilt in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment clearly applies to all human beings—we all experience powerful feelings of guilt at times. To an extent, literary works exploring the most universal themes have the longest staying power.
A theme is more than one word! While in some other contexts “themes” might be stated as a single word, as we have defined the term in this class and as is most common in literary studies at the college level, a theme is a work’s “message,” and a message goes beyond just a single word. So it would not be good to say that a work’s theme is “revenge” or “mortality,” for instance. Instead you should say what the work says or shows about revenge or mortality: as in “The Odyssey shows that the gods will get vengeance when they are wronged by mortals,” or “Gilgamesh presents the theme that we all must accept our mortality.”
3.2 Due Monday, December 4: Review the schedule of readings we've done this semester, and in two or more paragraphs offer your opinion on why any four of these works are still valuable reading today, lo these hundreds or even thousands of years later (choose two from before the midterm and two after). Say why you think these works contain relevance for modern readers beyond the simple fact of their presentation of different times and cultures in world history.
Previous critical response topicsno longer valid for submission:
Due Monday, August 14: Choose one—do not address both:
a) Epics typically convey a variety of core ideals from the nation, culture, or people depicted in the work. Quoting Gilgamesh at least twice to illustrate your claims, explain what traits, qualities, or ideals this epic reveals as important to the ancient Babylonian society depicted in the poem. For the mechanics of citing poetry, see Q4.
b) If you had to pin down one theme as the central overriding "message" of Gilgamesh, what would this message be? Identify the most important plot elements or events that help the author deliver this message, and back up your assertions with at least two quotations from the poem itself. For the mechanics of citing poetry, see Q4.
Due Wednesday, August 16: Address one, not both:
a) Compare the relationship between gods and humans, or the involvement of the gods in the lives of mortals, in Gilgamesh and the first few books of the Odyssey. Include at least three quotations from two or more of the Odyssey's "books" to illustrate your claims. For the mechanics of citing verse in a multi-part (or -"book") poem, see Q4, and especially Q4mp.
b) Discuss the cultural or personal qualities or ideals The Odyssey suggests were important to the Greeks in the time of Homer, including at least three quotations from different "books" to illustrate your claims. For the mechanics of citing verse in a multi-part (or "book") poem, see Q4, and especially Q4mp.
1.3 Due Monday, August 21: Explore the continuing development of Odysseus's character or personality in Books VII-XII, including at least one quotation from two separate "books" to support your observations. Basically, discuss leading traits or qualities in Odysseus demonstrated through his adventures in Books 7-12. For the mechanics of citing verse in a multi-part (or multi-"book") poem, see Q4, especially Q4mp.
Due Wednesday, August 23: Address either a or b, not both:
a) Being careful to avoid plot summary (nugget 1), discuss the use of deception in Books XIII-XVIII (by Odysseus and others). Identify different types of deception and analyze the motives behind each instance of deception you discuss. Include quotations from at least three different "books" to illustrate your claims. For the mechanics of citing verse in a multi-part (or multi-"book") poem, see Q4, especially Q4mp.
b) Open assignment: respond analytically to anything that strikes you as interesting or significant in any two or more different "books" in Books XIII-XVIII, including at least three quotations, at least two coming from different books. Be careful to avoid plot summary (see nugget 1). For the mechanics of citing verse in a multi-part (or multi-"book") poem, see Q4, especially Q4mp.
Due Monday, August 28: Address one, not both:
a) What are we to make of the ancient Greeks' attitudes about women, at least as far as they are conveyed in the Odyssey? You may discuss events from anywhere in the entire epic, but do quote from Books XIX-XXIV at least twice in your response (see Q4, especially Q4mp).
b) The traditional epic, by definition, focuses on a central character of great significance to his people or nationa king, or a mighty warrior, or a champion of his people in different important respects. And most of the central characters in epics tend to be of high social standing (royalty, nobility, "upper class" in whatever social system the epic portrays). Discuss the thematic importance of common characters in the conclusion of the Odyssey ("common" meaning essentially "working class"). Note that you must speak on matters of theme here: it would be a matter of plot to say that certain common characters "help Odysseus," e.g. Concentrate on how the common characters help convey one or more of the work's overriding "messages." Quote from Books XIX-XXIV at least three times to illustrate your claims (see Q4, especially Q4mp).
Due Wednesday, September 6: Address one, not both:
a) Discuss the play's opposing philosophical or religious views involving fate or destiny vs. humanity's responsibility for our own lives. While the play expresses views on both sides of the debate, which side does Sophocles seem ultimately to endorse? Discuss, offering at least two quotations supporting each viewpoint on the issue (four quotes total, see Q4).
b) Frequently one of the most difficult and widely debated elements in the Aristotelian conception of tragedy is the catharsis. According to his Poetics, Aristotle believed that a tragedy should arouse pity and fear in the audience for the purpose of purging these emotions in the members of the audience themselves. How do you think readers of Oedipus are supposed to feel "better" after reading this play? Focusing specifically on how the experience pity and also fear, explain how viewing or reading a tragedy a positive experience for the audience.
1.7 Due Monday, September 11: Identify and explore two or three different ways the ancient Medea still holds great relevance for readers today. Address different avenues of relevance in separate paragraphs, and include at least two quotations in support of each main point (four total, minimum).
Due Wednesday, September 13: Address one, not both:
a) Citing at least four passages from Lysistrata, explain how the male and female choruses support and illuminate the play's central theme(s).
b) It has been said that comedy often presents a scenario that the author could easily have made tragic, if he or she were so inclined. In no more than 350 words (and no fewer than 200), re-plot and retell the story of Lysistrata's rebellion as it might unfold in a serious tragedybe sure to indicate her tragic flaw directly. Note: This is a rare opportunity for purely creative writing in a non-creative-writing course. If you are creative and enjoy the challenge, this is all to the good. But do keep your word count in tight reinregardless of how much you write, I'm going to read only your first 350 words!
1.9 Due Monday, September 18: Discuss Catullus's portrayal of powerful emotions in any three or four of the lyric poems we're reading (pp. 904-21): what makes his portrayal of particular emotions so powerful? Explain, quoting each poem you discuss at least once.
Due Wednesday, September 20: one, not both:
a) Compare Aeneas with Odysseus as an epic hero: what qualities in Books I-IV does Aeneas share with Odysseus, and even more, how is Virgil's Aeneas a radically different character from Odysseus? Include at least three quotations, and don't forget the mechanics of citing verse in a multi-part (or multi-"book") poem: see QD4, and especially QD4mp.
b) Discuss Virgil's portrayal of the relationship between Aeneas and Dido in Book IV, citing the text at least three times to illustrate your claims; here, too, don't forget the mechanics of citing verse in a multi-part (or multi-"book") poem: see Q4, especially Q4mp.
1.11 Due Monday, September 25: Discuss the Roman cultural values and ideals suggested in our second day's readings from The Aeneid. Include at least three quotations to illustrate your claims, following the guidelines for citing verse in a multi-part (or multi-"book") poem outlined in Q4, especially Q4mp.
2.1 Due Monday, October 2: Discuss the code of chivalric (knightly) honor presented in our first installment of The Song of Roland (pp. 220-51 in Volume B), being careful to avoid plot summary and including three or more quotations to support your observations (following the MLA guidelines for quotations of verse outlined in Q4).
2.2 Due Wednesday, October 4: Address onenot both:
a) Discuss Roland's refusal to blow the horn for help when the French rearguard are first attacked and then his decision to blow the horn after all at the end of the battle: explore different possible motivations in both cases, including at least two quotations from each episode to illustrate your claims (see Q4).
b) Discuss the French values and cultural ideals revealed in the latter half of The Song of Roland, including at least three quotations to support your observations (see Q4).
2.3 Due Monday, October 9: Discuss contemporary relevance in any of the excerpts we're reading from The Thousand and One Nights (pp. 597-628), including at least three quotations to illustrate your claims.
2.4 Due Wednesday, October 11: Consider how Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a medieval romance, suggests different ideals of noble (or chivalrous or knightly) behavior from those presented in the chanson de geste Song of Roland. What specific knightly behaviors does the first half of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight recommend as admirable? Quote the poem at least three times in your response. For the mechanics of citing poetry, see Q4.
2.5 Due Monday, October 16: Open assignment: respond to the second half of Gawain in whatever analytical fashion you like, so long as you avoid plot summary (nugget 1). What strikes you as interesting or noteworthy in the last two parts of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? Quote the poem at least twice in your response, following the mechanics of citing poetry outlined in Q4.
2.6 Due Wednesday, October 18: Consider how any of the punishments of specific sins are especially appropriate in our first reading from Dante's Inferno, including at least three quotations to illustrate your observations (follow Q4 and Q4mp).
2.7 Due Monday, October 23: Address one, not both:
a) Continue discussing how specific punishments are appropriate for particular sins in Cantos XII-XXIII, including at least four quotations to illustrate your claims (follow Q4 and Q4mp).
b) Evaluate Dante's ranking of particular sins as we descend further into hell in Cantos XII-XXIII: more specifically, explain why you agree with his ranking of sins in increasing order of seriousness in some cases but disagree in others. Include at least three quotations in your discussion (follow Q4 and Q4mp).
2.8 Due Monday, October 30: Address either one, or if you submitted one last week, you can submit the other option on the 30th:
a) Quoting from Cantos 24-34 at least three times to illustrate your claims, argue both for and against Dante's ranking of treachery as the gravest of all sins. That is, in separate paragraphs, explain how Dante's ranking of treachery as the worst of all sins may be seen as accurate and also how some might see any other particular sin(s) as worse than treachery. Indicate which side of the argument you believe yourself, and explain why. (See Q4 and Q4mp.)
b) Open assignment: respond analytically to anything that strikes you as significant or noteworthy in Cantos 24-34 of the Inferno. Avoid plot summary (nugget 1) and quote the text at least twice in support of your analysis (see Q4 and Q4mp).
2.9 Due Wednesday, November 1: Address one, not both:
a) Discuss Don Quixote's notions of what it means to be chivalrous or "knightly." From Cervantes's mockery of it in the novel, identify key elements of the "chivalric code" presented in the types of romances that have driven Don Quixote "mad," including at least three quotations to support your claims.
b) Discuss the importance of Sancho Panza in Don Quixote. How is he essential to the book's comedy? How is he essential to Cervantes's criticism or mockery of chivalric romance? Include at least three quotations.
2.10 Due Monday, November 6: Address one:
a) Open assignment: respond analytically to anything that strikes you as significant or interesting in our second reading from Don Quixote (pp. 422-34; 464-77). Avoid plot summary (nugget 1) and quote the novel at least three times in support of your analysis.
b) Write a brief parody of some common genre of book or film in today's world following Don Quixote as a pattern—that is, in 400 words or less, tell a brief story of someone whose "madness" consists of believing life to be like it is portrayed in some specific genre from our own time.
2.11 Due Wednesday, November 8: Examine Hamlet's character as it's established in Act 1. What kind of person is he? What are his strengths and weaknesses? In addition to what we learn of him through his own speeches and actions, what do we learn about him from other characters? Explain, including at least three quotations to illustrate your observations. See Q4vd.
Due Monday, November 13: Address one:
a) Quoting from the text five times or more, give a close analytical interpretation of Hamlet's famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy (3.1.57-89). Going line-by-line, or nearly so, translate what Hamlet is saying here into modern English.
b) Quoting from Acts 2-3 at least three times to illustrate your claims, explain the significance of irony in Shakespeare's development of any particular theme. Note that "theme" means, loosely, "general statement or message about humanity or about life," and avoid explaining the importance of irony to the play's plot. That is, discuss the analytical significance of irony, not how irony is important to "what happens" in the play. Follow instructions for citing poetry and drama in verse in Q4vd carefully.
c) Open assignment: respond analytically to anything that strikes you as significant or interesting in Acts 2-3. Avoid plot summary (nugget 1) and quote the play at least three times in support of your analysis. Follow instructions for citing poetry and drama in verse in Q4vd carefully.
Due Wednesday, November 15: Address one:
a) Quoting from the text three times or more to illustrate your claims, explain how Hamlet can be seen as a traditional tragic hero, complete with his ultimate fate being determined by hamartia (the "tragic flaw" or failing of character that leads to his undoing) and possibly by hubris as well—hubris meaning the arrogant overstepping of the bounds of one's destiny in defiance of typical moral principles. Follow instructions for citing poetry and drama in verse in Q4vd carefully.
b) Open assignment on Acts 4-5: respond analytically to anything that strikes you as significant or interesting in either act or both. Follow instructions for citing poetry and drama in verse in Q4vd carefully.
Due Monday, November 27: Choose one:
a) Discuss Adam's responsibility for his own fall from Paradise. The bible and two thousand years of tradition blame woman for the fall, but in what different ways is Adam just as much to blame as Eve? Quote Book 9 at least three times in your discussion (see Q4, especially Q4mp).
b) Open assignment on Book 9: respond analytically to anything that strikes you as interesting or noteworthy in Book 9 of Paradise Lost. Avoid plot summary, and quote from Book 9 at least three times in your discussion (see Q4, especially Q4mp).