Student-Generated Final Essay Topics

I’ve edited and revised the final essay questions that we all generated in class last week, so please consult the following list of questions if you are stuck in the development of your final research papers. Remember, we all agreed that these questions are free for all students to use, expand upon, or shape to your particular research interests. Overall, I’m very pleased with the questions.


  1. In Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervillles, Tess becomes an object of desire and an idol for both Alec d’Urberville and Angel Clare. How does this notion of Tess as object to be consumed relate to Hardy’s tragic vision of world? To what extent does this objectification of Tess relate to Hardy’s distinction between natural and social laws?


  1. Tess of the d’Urbervilles is an expression of Hardy’s view of naturalism as a literary genre of protestation. To what extent does Hardy both borrow from and critique the conventions of literary realism in his representations of the natural world? How does Hardy’s narrative voice express sympathy for Tess through the conventions of literary naturalism?


  1. In Richard Marsh’s The Beetle, most of the characters are penetrated, influenced, or possessed by the Beetle. The novel’s representations of such acts represent broader Victorian anxieties about imperialism and reverse colonization. How does Marsh explore the Beetle’s possession of various characters as a reflection of Victorian obsessions with Orientalism and Egyptology?


  1. Although female characters do appear frequently in The Picture of Dorian Gray, they are primarily secondary characters that do little to advance Wilde’s thematic interests or narrative. What role do women play in the novel and what do female characters reveal about the novel’s understanding of the relationship between beauty and gender? To what extent can we refer to the novel’s fascination with male friendship as an example of what Eve Kosofsky-Sedgwick calls “homosociality”?


  1. The Picture of Dorian Gray is rampant with references to beauty as a personal and social value. To what extent does Wilde’s discussion of beauty in the novel express a broader social vision of corruption and the psychology of inter-personal relationships?


  1. Compare Rossetti’s “In an Artist’s Studio” and The Picture of Dorian Gray. How do both works examine the relationship between artist and subject? How do both works evaluate this relationship? Discuss this relationship within the context of ekphrasis – the appearance of a work of art within a literary text. Is it possible to suggest that both works contain elements of ekphrastic aesthetics and/or politics?


  1. The artifice of industry (or the “ache of modernism”) belies the natural realism in Hardy’sTess of the d’Urbervilles. Yet, this is not so much an unintentional paradox as it is a deliberate strategy for broaching questions about the uncanny. To what extent does Hardy’s fascination with the artifice of modern life relate to his broader tragic vision of the natural world? How might Freud’s concept of the uncanny work as a theory for analyzing the relationship between artifice and nature in Tess?


  1. Alice in Wonderland, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and The Picture of Dorian Gray each explore thematic questions relating to youth and/or childhood. How do two of these novels examine traditional relationships between youth and innocence? To what extent do these novels challenge or contravene such traditional concepts?


  1. In Hardy’s novel, Tess exerts an element of social control and agency over her social circumstances and immediate needs. Yet, she ultimately fails in this assertion. What is Hardy saying about this failure and its correspondence to the novel’s critique of social laws? What does Hardy’s ultimate valorization of natural laws suggest about his politics of gender?


  1. Tess and Dorian are both significantly influenced by the actions of others. How does the consumption of the “muse” or “ideal” in both novels relate to character development in both novels? Why do both novels develop their titular characters as receptacles for the actions of others?


  1. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde uses what anthropologist Clifford Geertz refers to as “thick description” to highlight Dorian’s relationship to material objects. This is especially the case in chapter 11, in which Wilde introduces a lengthy description of Dorian’s personal wealth and obsession with beautiful things. How does Dorian’s collection of material objects mirror his obsession with other people? To what extent does Wilde associate bodies and things within the novel’s overall theory of aesthetics?


  1. Both Tess and The Picture of Dorian Gray make links between character development and the passage of time. How does the passing of time function in both novels as a corrosive or all-consuming force?


  1. Victorian aestheticism and aesthetic theories appear frequently in Dorian Gray. In what way, though, might the novel work as a satire or parody of the Victorian aestheticism movement? Discuss in relation to the novel’s concluding moral about the consequences of letting aesthetic experiences consume one’s identity.


  1. In Hardy’s novel, Tess and other female characters undergo tremendous hardships at the hands of both the natural world and the social world of men. How does Hardy’s treatment of the natural and social violence enacted upon women relate to broader representations of women in the 1890s?


  1. Blood appears frequently in Tess of the d’Urbervilles as a reference to sin and Tess’s “crimes.” What thematic connections exist between Alec’s rape of Tess and her murder of Alec? How does blood function as a symbol that unites these and other central narrative moments in the novel’s seven phrases?


  1. Both Alice in Wonderland and The Picture of Dorian Gray represent the tired vulgarity of realism. In what ways do these two novels play with language as a way of criticizing or resisting the tradition of Victorian literary realism?


  1. In Richard Marsh’s novel, the supernatural figure of the Beetle is linked to Egypt and ancient Egyptians religious cults. What does the novel’s representation of the supernatural tell us about Victorian culture’s fascinations and anxieties with foreign or “Oriental” lands? What connections exist between the novel’s representation of the supernatural and cultural anxieties about the racialized other?


  1. The idealization of the title characters in Tess and The Picture of Dorian Gray frequently functions in both works through mythological and religious imagery. How do both works rely on such imagery in their respective literary explorations of unrealistic or violent social laws and pressures?


  1. Dorian undergoes a series of profound personal and psychological changes throughout the novel. Why does Wilde develop Dorian’s character through the concept of “influence”? How does the idea of “influence” in the novel relate to Victorian cultural interests in the relationship between self and other, the self and works of art, and/or the literary/political conventions of the aphorism or epigram?


  1. Throughout The Picture of Dorian Gray, there exists a theme or subtext of Machiavellian character traits. What connections exist between Dorian’s immorality, his theory of the New Hedonism, and the political thought of Machiavelli?


  1. Typically, we tend to think of the Victorian period as an age of transition. The fin de siècle (the 1890s) is one of the period’s most provocative decades of transition. To what extent does Wilde’s novel embody or reflect the decade’s anxieties about historical, cultural, or aesthetic transitions?


  1. The colour red appears frequently in Tess as either symbols related to blood or body parts such as Tess’s lips. What connections can be drawn between blood or body parts and the novel’s representation of women?


  1. Wilde’s novel was infamously entered into evidence during the Wilde Trials. To what extent do the novel’s themes, characters, and references to sin/immorality illuminate a cultural-historical analysis of the Wilde Trials? Can we actually read the novel as evidence of possible homosexuality?


  1. The concept of the “new woman” plays a minor, but important, role in both Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. To what extent do both novels attempt a reconsideration of the representation of the traditional Victorian woman? To what extent might both novels actually perpetuate misconceptions about women’s experiences?


  1. Nonsensical and uncanny characters frequently inhabit Wonderland in Carroll’s novel. How might we consider Carroll’s cast of minor characters as representations or foils for conventional Victorian notions of a child’s place in society?


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