The goal of this paper is for you to work on your skills of close reading by writing an interpretive essay on two short stories. The paper needs to elaborate an insightful and thoughtful interpretation of the two works, focusing on the role of character and character change in each story, in particular how a character changes, or fails to change. In your paper, you must discuss three things: a) what the character is like before he or she changes, b) what outside or inner forces contribute to his or her change, and c) how the character is different at the close of the story. To write this paper, pick one of the topics listed below, and then choose stories to interpret and compare: in writing your paper, focus on character and character change and how this relates to or develops a theme or major idea explored in the two stories. For each broad topic, I have listed stories that are suitable for that topic; use stories listed under each topic (unless you get approval from me to do other stories). As in your previous paper, your interpretation should discuss both a what—what theme or major idea of the story is represented in the story, but also consider how the story works. Extraneous information not relevant to interpretation, such as the facts of the author’s life, should be left out. For each character I suggest, I mention below (see list) a particular aspect or moment in the story which you must discuss in your paper. You should end with an extended (one page) discussion of how character change or a change of perspective has affected your own life, making where possible connections to the stories.
The first step to writing a paper of this kind is to develop interpretive questions that you are going to answer. Make sure your interpretive questions examine issues that could concievably be disagreed over (so avoid a question such as “What happens in “Shiloh?” which will generate simply a summary, not an interpretation). The questions should involve a focus on interpreting the story’s central character and that character’s development, and should also encourage thought about how the story’s conflicts and the development of a central character explores or illustrates the story’s theme. Formulate interpretive questions on this topic before you write your paper, and discuss your questions with me if you are uncertain of whether you have good interpretive questions to answer. In actually writing your paper, you will need a general interpretive statement or statements for each story, which answers your question or questions, and will provide the central concepts of your paper. So, for instance, a question on the story “Boys and Girls” might be: “In “Boys and Girls,” how does the setting of a Canadian farm with strict gender roles and the pressure on the girl to conform to them affect the central character of the story and cause her to change over time in relationship to her own identity?”
As I have mentioned, organize your paper to examine how the stories work, focusing primarily on characterization and character change, and also to explore what theme or themes the story develops. Beginning with the opening paragraph, your paper should have an argument, using a thesis or interpretive statement for each story, that gives an answer to your interpretive questions. The paragraphs that follow in your paper, in the main body of the paper, should develop and support your argument. The end of the paper should include a comparison of similarities and differences of the two stories of at least a page in length, both in terms of thematic ideas and how each story develops of them.
You can support an argument in an essay of this kind in a number of ways. As a general rule, the best way to support an interpretive argument is to quote or summarize from the text. However, be careful to avoid excessive summary of the plot. Only summarize as much as is needed to support your point. Nor is it enough to “just refer readers to a specific passage, [E]xplain the meaning of the passage and its relevance to their thesis.” (from the St. Martin’s Guide to Writing). Having introduced a quotation, comment on its significance or show how it supports your view of the text. Please note: requirements for a strong paper include that there should be at least four quotations from each text you discuss; more than quotations than this is better.
Begin your work on this paper by taking careful notes on the story: in your notes cover at least the following key topics: “Setting, Character or Character Change, Conflict (internal or external), Key details or instances of figurative language, and the story’s theme:” Draw on your notes when writing your paper drafts. Attach these notes to your paper when you turn it in.
In the topics below I have provided you with a number of leads as to what to write on; however, remember you should pick your precise interpretive questions, guided by these listed topics. All of these topics assume you will oganize the paper around the the importance of character or character change and how such change relates to the way the story develops its themes. Ideally, the structure of the paper would be that you should have a double thesis statement (two to three sentences clarifying the main “how” and “what” of each story as you understand them); at the beginning of the main body of the paper, you should have a reading of one of the stories, then the next section should be a reading of the other, and then the final section should briefly compare the two works. If you have any questions about anything involving the texts or this assignment, ask me.
1. Some of the stories we have encountered develop themes related to the impact of the imagination, or of creative or expressive activities (such as music or drawing). Examples of fictions of this kind would be “Sonny’s Blues,”“Cathedral” and “The Awakening.” Focusing on creativity or a creative pursuit (such as jazz) and its role in two of these works, explain how a character is affected or changed by creativity or the imagination and what, if anything, they learn by their contact with creative experiences. Notice, focus on only two works, and if you choose “Sonny’s Blues” for one of your works, be sure to consider the narrator.
2. Some of the stories we have read involved the idea of struggling with relationships of friendship, love, or marriage, and often a character changes, or fails to change, in response to a relationship so as to affect the relationship and the self. Recommended stories with these themes would be “Shiloh,” “Story of an Hour” or “The Awakening.” Analyze two of these works. For each story, explore how the central character is affected or changed by the nature of the relationships they enter (or perhaps fails to change), in what ways the relationship might be said to change them, and what, if anything, they learn from these relationships, including about themselves.
3. Some stories specifically focus on how characters learn about their own identities, which can include a new understanding of how their identity connects them to others through important communities (such as family or ethnicity) or important inequalities, such as those of race and class. Stories of this kind include “Barn Burning,” “The Lesson,” “South of the Slot” and “Wildwood.” Discuss in two of these stories how central characters learn about his or her relationship to the world around him or her, and how this changes the character.
4. Some stories we have read involve a collapse of illusions: “The Things They Carried” and “Hills Like White Elephants” might be read this way. Discuss how characters are forced to change when they see some of their ideals as illusory.
General paper expectations: Five to six pages typed and with pages attached; pages must be attached by paper clip or staple; paginate the paper; standard margins (approximately one inch); correct citation format for quoted passages in the text—I recommend you use MLA format; you must have a title that is specific as to the content and that clarifies your topic; for example, “The Influence of Place and Gender “Boys and Girls” and “Shiloh.” Papers must be thoughtfully constructed with a thesis and supporting evidence. It is also very important to cite all secondary sources consulted, whether you are quote them or simply draw on their ideas. It is strongly recommended that you get feedback on an early draft of the paper, either from me or from a qualified writing tutor.
Due dates of interpretive questions and drafts. On the first date, bring to class a sheet with the interpretive questions you are trying to answer in the paper, and at least four quotations (at least a sentence in length but not over three sentences) per character you will use in your paper, so a total of eight quotations. Attach a copy of this sheet also to your final draft. The goal here is to show that you begun picking stories to work on and thought about key interpretive issues. If you need help with interpretive questions, make an appointment with me, or e-mail your initial thoughts; you can also write an entire draft and see me about it. Due dates:
Interpretive questions and quotations: Nov. 8 Final draft, Nov. 13
Key elements that must be discussed for various characters:
Narrator in Sonny’s Blues: the narrator’s response to “Am I blue.”
Narrator in “Cathedral”: the narrator’s view of Robert and Beulah’s marriage
Sarty in “Barn Burning”; Sarty’s thoughts about his father years after the story is over
Sylvia in The Lesson’s response to her friend Sugar at the end of the story.
In “Wildwood” Lola’s response to living in Wildwood with her boyfriend
In “South of the Slot” the central character’s response to the labor struggle
In “The Awakening” Edna’s contrasting responses of Arobin and Madameoiselle Reisz
In “Shiloh” Norma Jean’s response to the “datsun” story
In “Shiloh” Leroy’s relationship with Mabel.
In “The Story of an Hour” what Mrs. Mallard sees outside her window.
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