English 222 American Literature Questions on Whitman through Chopin, CSU Fullerton Fall 2013



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Note: see the Journal Schedule and Instructions Page for the details on how to keep your journal. You can either work up your own material altogether, or use your choice from among the questions below to help generate your responses; you can also move back and forth between these two ways of keeping the journal.


"When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" (Norton Vol. C 79-85).

"When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd"

1. In the first four sections of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," we are introduced to the poem's three main symbols: the lilac bush, the planet Venus, and the Hermit Thrush songbird. What does the speaker tell us about each in these initial sections, and what do these three objects appear to mean to him at this early point in the poem?

2. In sections 5-7 of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," we encounter a traditional elegiac "funeral procession," which also opens onto a very Whitman-like panorama of people and places. What does the poet mention in this light -- what people and what places? How would you describe the balance here between nature and humanity, and why might it matter to the poem's larger movement what that balance is?

3. In sections 5-7 of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," how do you interpret the poet's gift of a "lilac sprig" to adorn the coffin of President Lincoln? How does the speaker transform the significance of that act when he arrives at section 7?

4. Although Venus, the lilac bush, and the Hermit Thrush are often said to constitute the symbolic Holy Trinity of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," to them we might add not only the "harsh surrounding cloud" first mentioned in Section 2 but also the coffin and funeral train of President Lincoln, which are mentioned in section 5 and elsewhere. (The train took about two weeks to travel from Washington, D.C. to the president's burial site in Springfield, Illinois, and thousands paid their respects as it slowly made its 1,600 mile way to Springfield.) How does the poet introduce the coffin in this section of the poem, and to what effect? In responding, it would be best to consider not only the section's content but also its structure.

5. In section 8 of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," the poet addresses the planet Venus as a portent, and then from sections 9-13 he listens to the Hermit Thrush singing, but is detained by both Venus and the strong scent of the lilac bush in spring. How do you interpret the significance of this delay? Why, that is, can't he just go to the swamp and join up with the songbird, which we can tell he longs to do?

6. In sections 10-11 of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," the poet raises a key issue about finding the appropriate form to express his emotions about the death of Lincoln. Why is this question of how to fit one's poetic forms to one's expressive passion an important one to raise? What response does he give to his own question in these sections, and how do you interpret that response? (Consider in part the catalogs of people and places that he now mentions – this is a regular feature of Whitman's poetry, which embraces panoramic visions and large perspectives or "vistas.")

7. Section 14 of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" is vital because there the poet attains a kind of ultimate insight, an epiphany or moment of intense realization. What has he come to understand, and what seems to be the immediate catalyst for that insight?

8. Again in Section 14 of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," where does the poet go as soon as the understanding he needs comes to him? What happens when he gets there – what becomes possible now?

9. Still in Section 14 of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," the poet finally has the right words to utter for his "song," and now he freely chants them (the italics in our text mark the song itself). The addressee is obviously Death. What relationship does the poet's song establish with Death? What is the poet's present attitude towards that usually grim entity?

10. In Section 15 of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," the poet envisions the torn battle flags, wreckage, and broken bodies of the Civil War (the latest estimates by historian J. David Hacker run to about 750,000! The population at the time would have been about 31.4 million people). Why does this vision follow the utterance of the poet's song back in Section 14? What transformation has taken place in the poet's perspective on loss?

11. In Section 16 of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," the poet is finally able to cease from singing and join the Hermit Thrush in its swampy home. By now, in what relationship do the poem's major symbols stand to one another and to the poet himself? Moreover, in what sense does the poem both return to the thought of President Lincoln and transcend or transmute that thought into a broader vision of loss and recompense?


"320" (Norton Vol. C 97); "340" (Vol. C 99); "448" (Vol. C 102); "479" (Vol. C 102-03); "591" (Vol. C 103-04); "598" (Vol. C 104); "620" (Vol. C 104); "764" (Vol. C 107); "1263" (Vol. C 108); "1668" (Vol. C 108).

320/258. ("There's a certain Slant of light")

1. In "There's a certain Slant of light," what exactly is the "certain Slant of light" referenced? Does it merely reflect the perception of someone in a depressed state of mind, or does it create that feeling in the first place -- what does the poem suggest in this regard? Moreover, what do you understand by the words "internal difference -- / Where the meanings are" in lines 7-8?

340/280. ("I felt a Funeral, in my Brain")

2. What is the role of "reason" in "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain"? What is Dickinson perhaps suggesting about the limits of our ability to know anything about death? Moreover, in what manner does Dickinson represent the inner life or thoughts of her isolated speaker, and what might strike us as odd about that way of representing interiority?

448/449. ("I died for Beauty --")

3. In "I died for Beauty --," the speaker died for beauty, her interlocutor in the next tomb died for Truth, yet the latter says both things are "One." How might we interpret that claim? Are truth and beauty really the same thing, or should the point be interpreted differently? Explain. Moreover, how do the poem's final two lines change the value of the ten lines before them

479/712. ("Because I could not stop for Death --")

4. In "Because I could not stop for Death --," what assumptions and attitudes about the speaker's past as a living being are solicited and perhaps transformed as the carriage and its civil coachman (Death) proceed, passing by various scenes and making their way towards the grave? Why, at the poem's end, does the speaker still feel surprised by the first day of her passing even though it occurred centuries ago?

5. In "Because I could not stop for Death --," what seems to be the point of treating death in such a strangely civil, slow-paced manner, and of employing such an odd figure as a coachman to embody death? How does that differ from treating death as, say, a reaper with a sickle?

591/465. ("I heard a Fly buzz -- when I died --")

6. In "I heard a Fly buzz -- when I died --," why do you think Dickinson she has chosen a buzzing fly to convey the instant of death? How might this poem be a meditation on the thinness of the line between life and death, and on the significance that the living give to death?

598/632. ("The Brain -- is wider than the Sky --")

7. What relationship between human beings and nature, and between human beings and God, does "The Brain -- is wider than the Sky --" posit?

620/435. ("Much Madness is divinest Sense")

8. "Much Madness is divinest Sense" belongs to a tradition of thought about the way we determine who is sane and insane. What is Dickinson's speaker suggesting about the validity of this powerful opposition?

764/754. ("My Life had stood -- a Loaded gun --")

9. In "My Life had stood -- a Loaded gun --," the speaker takes on the perspective of a "loaded gun." It has sometimes been said that the poem deals with an indefinite feeling of rage on the part of a female speaker. Do you read it that way, or some other way? Give your own brief interpretation of this enigmatic poem.

1263/1129. ("Tell all the Truth but tell it slant --")

10. "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant " might well be read as a gloss on Emily Dickinson's poetic style and philosophy. How so? How and why -- does she "tell it slant" rather than simply and directly? What might she be implying about the subjects upon which her poetry dwells?

1668/1624. ("Apparently with no surprise")

11. What vision of nature are we offered in "Apparently with no surprise"? How does this treatment of nature compare to the representations of nature you have come across in other poems by Emily Dickinson or, for that matter, in other poets, such as one of the English romantics?


From Letters from the Earth (Norton Vol. C 336-51).

From Letters from the Earth

1. On page 336, in the initial section of our selections from Letters from the Earth, how does the narrator describe God's creation of the universe? How does it stack up with the account given at the beginning of Genesis? In what way is Twain's account here a reflection on that biblical account of creation?

2. On pages 337-38 of Letters from the Earth, what is the "Law of Nature," and why does it so confuse Satan, who discusses it with his fellow angels? When Satan asks God about this Law, which makes the universe and earth within it operate as they do, how does God explain what he is up to in establishing the supremacy of such a law? How does he explain its corollaries predation and suffering on the part of the hunted?

3. On page 338 of Letters from the Earth, God adds mankind to the creation, and tells Satan to behold this new "experiment." How does God explain the nature of this experiment to Satan? In what way does this explanation relate to the old idea (so popular during the C15-17 European Renaissance) that man is a microcosm of all other beings? On the whole, what seems to be God's attitude towards both mankind and the animals he has created?

4. On page 339 of Letters from the Earth, what does the temporarily banished Satan identify in his first letter to Michael and Gabriel as the most striking thing about human beings? What is it about their attitude towards their place in the creation that really seems to get under Satan's skin, and why?

5. On pages 339-42 of Letters from the Earth, in his second letter Satan chattily relates the strangeness of the heaven he says humans have invented. How does he develop his critique of this so-called invention -- what does he identify as the most ridiculous things about it, and what reasons does he give for thinking that way? On the whole, how would you sum up Satan's beef with the popular Christian concept of heaven as a place where nice people go to praise God forever?

6. On pages 343-44 of Letters from the Earth, in his fourth letter Satan serves up his cynical opinion of Adam and Eve's fall from grace. How does Satan view the famous Fall? What did Adam and Eve gain and lose by chomping that apple in the Garden of Eden? Moreover, why, according to Satan, didn't God just eliminate mankind altogether after things went bad later on -- why did he bother commanding Noah to build an Ark?

7. On pages 344-47 of Letters from the Earth, in his sixth letter Satan dwells with particular emphasis on the fly that he says was left behind when Noah launched his Ark; the fly had to be retrieved. To what supposed insight about the nature of God himself does Satan's discussion of this forgotten fly lead -- what divine trait, according to Satan, is the key to understanding God's ways? Ultimately, what criticism does Twain's Satan seem to be making here regarding the source of Christianity's conception of the Divine Nature?

8. On pages 346-47 of Letters from the Earth, in his sixth letter Satan transitions from his comments about Noah, the Ark and the fly that got left behind to a concluding discussion on God's key trait and his responsibility for everything that happens. How does Satan explain his rationale for this latter point – namely God's supposed culpability for the evils that human beings suffer? What traditional Christian notion about who or what is responsible for "bad things happening in the world" is Satan implicitly arguing against here?

9. On pages 347-51 of Letters from the Earth, a bureaucratic "Recording Angel" writes to one Abner Scofield, evidently a wealthy coal dealer living in New York, regarding the status of the fellow's prayers. Which of Abner's prayers are granted, and which are not? Why so? Finally, how would you sum up the Recording Angel's remarks as a critique of prayer generally on the part of Mark Twain, as it seems fair to suggest?

10. General question: as we can see from the Norton editorial notes about the original posthumous publication of Mark Twain's Letters from the Earth, which volume only came out in 1961 (over half a century after the author composed his notes), the effort has always been controversial, for the obvious reason that in it the author serves up an unsparingly satirical analysis of Christian theology and everyday practice. What do you think of the selections you have read, or the entire volume if you happen to have read it? Is Twain just being mean-spirited and derisive about a belief system many others hold dear, or do you think his criticisms, if such they be (after all, this is fiction), are worthy of respect for their bluntness and overall quality of thought?

11. General question about Mark Twain's Letters from the Earth: the current intellectual landscape here in America and in Great Britain and parts of Europe contains a fairly robust number of strong advocates of atheism or agnosticism, the scientific method, etc. over against basically any kind of religious belief or practice. Some names we could mention in this regard are the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and comedian/talk show host Bill Maher. And then there are the so-called Pastafarians, who insist on replacing every mention of a traditional, metaphysical God with a reference to what they find an equally bogus metaphysical entity, "the Flying Spaghetti Monster" (FSM). If you are familiar with some of these critics, how does Mark Twain's wry satire compare to the sorts of arguments they make against the truth-status and moral uprightness of the world's religions?

12. General question about Mark Twain's Letters from the Earth: let's say that for the sake of argument, we granted the compelling force of the author's apparent objections to Christianity or indeed any religion whatsoever. (I am not suggesting that you should actually agree or disagree with Twain -- that is hardly my place!) Would that mean we ought to accord "reason" or "science" or "the scientific method" our absolute or near-absolute trust as a way of coming at our existence and reality? Why or why not?


Daisy Miller (Norton Vol. C 421-59).

Daisy Miller

Part I (Norton 421-29)

1. Two Swiss locations – Vevey, including the hotel named Trois Couronnes (image), and Geneva -- play a significant role in establishing the atmosphere of Henry James' Daisy Miller. What do we learn about these places in Part I, and how do they help to give us our first impression of Frederick Winterbourne? How, for example, has his character been shaped by living in Geneva for much of his youth? And what effect does visiting Vevey have on him?

2. On pages 422-25 of Daisy Miller, we are introduced to little Randolph Miller, younger brother of the woman he will soon introduce to Winterbourne as Daisy. How does Randolph provide us with a fresh look at the major Henry James theme regarding what it means to be an American living in Europe? What are the boy's views about America and Europe, respectively, and how do they seem to strike Frederick Winterbourne, himself an American?

3. On pages 424-29 of Daisy Miller, Winterbourne gets acquainted with young Daisy Miller. What are his main observations about her at this point in the text? Why does he attach such importance to the term "flirt" in trying to determine Daisy's personality and quality? Why does he apparently feel such a strong need to categorize Daisy in the first place?

4. On pages 424-29 of Daisy Miller, leave Winterbourne aside for the moment and consider Daisy in her own right, i.e. by means of her own words, gestures, and so forth. How do you interpret the words and conduct of this young American woman visiting Europe?

5. On pages 427-29 of Daisy Miller, Daisy says that she wants to visit the Château de Chillon (pronounced similar to "She-ówn" with a French nasalized final "n"), a Swiss landmark where sixteenth-century patriot François de Bonivard was held prisoner for seven years. From a decorous Victorian point of view (the story is apparently set in the 1870s), what is odd about the way Daisy conducts herself in the presence of Winterbourne?

Part II (Norton 429-39)

6. On pages 429-31 of Daisy Miller, Winterbourne's aunt, Mrs. Costello, offers her nephew a very strong opinion of Daisy and family. What is the basis of Mrs. Costello's judgment about these fellow Americans, and how does that judgment affect Winterbourne? What does the conversation with his aunt determine him to do vis à vis Daisy?

7. On pages 432-36 of Daisy Miller, what reassessment does Winterbourne make upon once again meeting Daisy (now with her mother)? How has his opinion changed since his initial acquaintance?

8. On pages 436-39 of Daisy Miller, Winterbourne and Daisy undertake their trip to the famous Château de Chillon. How does Winterbourne at first see the trip shaping up? How does Daisy behave at this place so prominent in European lore -- what traits and interests manifest themselves as she and Winterbourne go through the Château?

9. On pages 438-39 of Daisy Miller, what are Winterbourne's concluding thoughts about the trip to Chillon, and how does the subsequent conversation with his aunt go? In what sense does this conversation with Mrs. Costello encapsulate Winterbourne's dilemma regarding how to "interpret" and act towards Daisy?

Part III (Norton 439-48)

10. On pages 439-43 of Daisy Miller, Winterbourne visits Mrs. Walker at a reception in the fashionable Roman Via Gregoriana (image), where Daisy soon makes her entrance. How does this encounter go for all concerned?

11. On pages 443-45 of Daisy Miller, what does Daisy decide to do as she departs from Mrs. Walker's reception? How does Winterbourne judge Daisy's new companion, signor Giovanelli, and what new assessment does he make of Daisy herself? To what extent is this view of her different from what Winterbourne had expressed previously?

12. On pages 445-48 of Daisy Miller, Mrs. Walker confers with Winterbourne and then gives Daisy some rather heavy-handed advice about her present conduct. How does Daisy react to that advice? Does her response to it surprise you? Why or why not? Subsequently, how does Winterbourne handle the strong disapproval that Mrs. Walker has voiced regarding Daisy? How do his and Mrs. Walker's opinions of Daisy differ?

Part IV (Norton 448-59)

13. On pages 448-51 of Daisy Miller, Daisy again calls upon Mrs. Walker at a reception, and parries wits with Winterbourne before Mrs. Walker cruelly "cuts" her (i.e. turns her back on the young woman). Consider how Daisy and Winterbourne dispute the significance of the term "flirt" -- who gets the better of this argument, and why? Does Daisy's poise and her general line of self-defense here surprise you? Why or why not? Finally, how does Daisy react when Mrs. Walker insults her?

14. On pages 451-54 of Daisy Miller, Winterbourne begins visiting Daisy at her hotel, where signor Giovanelli dotes on her. What seems to be Winterbourne's present state of mind with respect to Daisy and her moral standing? What terms does he adopt in talking about her with his aunt Mrs. Costello and with a tourist friend?

15. On pages 454-55 of Daisy Miller, Winterbourne has his last "almost alone" meeting with Daisy since Giovanelli isn't much of a hindrance even though he is as usual by her side. How does this encounter go for Daisy and Winterbourne? What seems to be Daisy's aim in alleging that she is engaged to the Italian walking beside her?

16. On pages 456-58 of Daisy Miller, a week after his most recent conversation with Daisy, Winterbourne encounters her and Giovanelli unexpectedly while walking at night in the ruins of th eColosseum. What seemingly final judgment does this chance meeting lead Winterbourne to make regarding Daisy's character? What seems to be Daisy's state of mind in reacting as she does to Winterbourne's rather alarmed, heavy remarks to her and Giovanelli?

17. On pages 458-59 of Daisy Miller, Daisy falls ill of malaria ("Roman fever") and dies after a week of suffering. What does Winterbourne do after the funeral? What do the text's last six short paragraphs, and especially the last two of them, suggest about the ultimate impact of Daisy on the feelings and consciousness of Frederick Winterbourne?

General Questions on Daisy Miller

18. Daisy Miller belongs to the first phases of Henry James' long career, a phrase in which, as biographer Leon Edel points out, he writer was much concerned with the theme of what it was like, and what it meant, to be an American living in Europe during the mid-to-late nineteenth century. So what do we learn from this text in that regard – what does it mean to be an American living in or visiting Europe for an extended period? What similarities and differences between America and Europe does the text explore?

19. Daisy Miller may be broadly about "Americanness" in relation to Europe, but it's also a story about a potential love match between a young man and a young woman. Why, ultimately, do you think Daisy proves to be such an enigma to Frederick Winterbourne? Is it because she really is full of simultaneously mysterious and contradictory qualities, or are the mystery and contradictoriness qualities that Winterbourne needs to project into her being for reasons of his own? Is the young man simply pulling the usual male-centered scam identified by authors such as Simone de Beauvoir when it comes to women -- i.e. is he defining her a priori as an "inessential other" and then judging her on that false, pre-fabricated basis, or is there some other way of understanding Winterbourne's difficulties with Daisy? Explain.


The Awakening (Norton Vol. C 561-652).

The Awakening

1. Focus on the domestic situation constituted by the marriage of Léonce and Edna Pontellier. What kind of marriage do they have? How does Léonce Pontellier seem to regard his wife, and what were the circumstances that led to their marriage? In what sense is it at least initially typical of the era in which the novella is set, namely the late nineteenth century?

2. Places such as New Orleans, Grand Isle, and Chênière Caminada are by no means neutral settings in Chopin's novella. What do at least two of these places (and perhaps others you may think of) have to do with the process whereby Edna "awakens" to herself and her desires?

3. Describe at least a few of the stages of the transformation through which Edna goes as we move from the beginning of Chopin's novella to the end. At what points do you find the key indications of this transformation, and why do you find them the most important?

4. Edna's "awakening" is of course in part erotic in nature, and very frankly so, but at the same time, there's more to it than that. First of all, how important is sexual awakening in Edna's transformation, and where do you find at least one indication of that importance? Secondly, how would you describe or explain the other dimension of Edna's awakening, the one that has to do with her sense of "who she really is"? Again, where do you find at least one indication of this dimension of her awakening?

5. How much help or hindrance does Edna get from other characters aside from her husband Léonce? For example, Madame Aline Ratignolle and/or Mademoiselle Reisz? What role does one or more of these characters play in Edna's progress as an independent woman?

6. There is a rather strong concentration on the value of the arts to Edna in particular in Chopin's novella, and the author seems to be working from a basically romantic or "expressive" conception of art's genesis and value for individuals -- namely, art is a vehicle for self-expression, a product of (and encourager of) passion rather than a product of reason. But what more can you find to say about the arts in this story? What role do they play at key points in Edna's awakening?

7. Consider the concluding chapters of Chopin's The Awakening: why does Edna choose the final path that she does, the one that leads to her death? What is it about the nature of her last insights that conducts her towards such an ending? Could things realistically have been otherwise? What would have had to be the case for things to turn out differently?

8. On the whole, what feeling does Kate Chopin's The Awakening leave you with as a reader? Was reading the book a positive experience, or an unsettling one? Either way, why so? (Saying the book is "unsettling" wouldn't necessarily mean one dislikes the book since the primary purpose of art need not be construed as bringing us comfort, reassuring us of the rightness of prior views, and so forth. Oscar Wilde once wrote that art is a "disturbing and disintegrating force," and he meant it as a compliment.)

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