ENGL 352 Student Research Questions

In class last week, students brain-stormed potential final essay topics. Students in ENGL 352 are required to develop their own research essay topics, so we took a few minutes at the beginning of class to generate some topics. I stipulated that these questions must all be collaborative in nature and open-access, so to speak, in that any student in the course is welcome to borrow from or adapt any of the following list of questions.

These are the questions students developed (with some editorial massaging to ensure coherency):

  1. Elizabeth Gaskell’s serialized novel Cranford details life in a small town when an outsider arrives and disrupts the monotonous day-to-day lives of the residents. This happens throughout many adaptations of different works of literature as well. Using both Gaskell’s work and a film of your choice, look at what this arrival and disruption does to not only the new resident but the town itself and how it changes everyone present.


  1. What does Bronte suggest about gender disparity in Victorian society? Is it resolvable? If not, why does Bronte develop her narrative around what we might call a kind of negative politics?


  1. What does Tennyson’s In Memoriam claim about individuals and their significance to society as a whole? Within the context of the poem’s themes and motifs, how might Tennyson’s claims about the inter-connectedness of all people and things (past, present, and future) challenge Victorian notions of the Liberal subject?


  1. How does Tennyson balance faith and science in his time of mourning. How does the idea that, if science is correct, he may never see Hallam again affect Tennyson? His desire to reconcile faith and science is a powerful feeling in the poem. To what extent are the poem’s expressions of such powerful feelings support for Tennyson’s intellectual claims?


  1. How does Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” illustrate a Victorian white saviour complex? Discuss within the context of Carlyle and J.S. Mill on the “negro question.” In particular, Carlyle’s essay criticizes Victorian charity work related to abolition. Is it possible to criticize EBB’s poem as an example of a work of poetry that promotes poetry as a means to and end? To what extent does the didactic nature of the poem reinforce a politics of the white savior?


  1. Earlier in the term, we were asked to write a short developed paragraph on the course blog about the “little systems” that Tennyson criticizes throughout In Memoriam. What then are some of the different “little systems” that Tennyson perceives and critiques in the poem? What is it about these particular systems that Tennyson finds specifically problematic? Following the death of Arthur, Tennyson, in some instances, appears to see the concept of life in general, even, as one of these systems—do you see evidence of this assertion by Tennyson, or are you in disagreement, instead perceiving Tennyson’s poem to have a more positive, uplifting connotation overall, why? Fundamentally, how does the poem distinguish between the “little systems” that have their day and cease to be and the grander system of the poem’s conclusion?


  1. EBB’s “Runaway Slave” contains elements of the dramatic monologue genre. To what extent does EBB’s sentimentalism in the poem serve as an aide for the American abolitionist movement? How does the dramatic monologue genre impact her expression of sentimentalism?


  1. Throughout the Victorian period, a shared belief system emerges that emphasizes a shared humanity through emancipatory endeavors. And yet, this development of an ideology of cosmopolitanism also coincided with increasingly entrenched beliefs about British nationalism. To what extent does a cosmopolitan world view emerge in EBB’s political poetry? And, how does her poetry navigate the political differences between the cosmopolitan and the nationalist?


  1. Fundamentally, is it possible to assess political differences of opinion in the contradictory poetic styles and genres of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning? In particular, what are the expressive differences between Robert’s dramatic monologues and EBB’s sonnets? Are there similarities or influences between them? Discuss the differences between these two genres in terms of “authenticity.”


  1. Cranford, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and In Memoriam each in their own way both perpetuate and challenge Victorian ideological notions of gender and sexual difference. How do we assess Victorian notions of gender norms through analysis of these major works of literature?


  1. To what extent are Carlyle’s and Mill’s respective essays on the “Negro Question” both works of Victorian racism? How do we assess different variations of racism in Victorian prose non-fiction?


  1. Discuss the interrelated concepts of Death and Love in EBB’s Sonnets from the Portuguese. While they both appear as references in the sequence’s first sonnet, they are also major themes running throughout the entire sequence. How does EBB reconcile them? Are they opposing forces or are they intimately related to each other?


  1. To what extent do both Cranford and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall espouse feminist political and social arguments? How are their claims similar and different? Do they differ in their claims about the value of social spaces (both private and public) reserved exclusively for women?


  1. Discuss the gothic elements present in Victorian literary examinations of domesticity and gendered relationships. Why do the texts in our course frequently trouble or problematize social and cultural “norms” through the language of the sinister, the depraved, the excessive, and the ghostly?


  1. Why are the Victorians so preoccupied with death? Discuss using two texts from our course reading list.


  1. What is the relationship between passion and reason in Victorian narratives or expressions of identity? How do generic forms in fiction and poetry relate to the tensions between passion and reason (desire and form)?


  1. Discuss Sonnets from the Portuguese and In Memoriam as romantic poetry. How do both work express love and sensuality through images of inter-relatedness and interconnectivity?


  1. “A Song for the Workers” is a popular work of poetry. Its didactic argument removes it from consideration of a work of “high” literature, but to what extent does it reliance on the ballad genre contribute to its themes and motifs? Is it possible for a work of poetry like this to reconcile art and politics?


  1. Discuss economic language and references in Cranford as Gaskell’s critique of the hypocritical ways in which communities judge the financial value of other people. For example, what does the reference to “Poor Peter” imply about Gaskell’s subtle critique of Victorian economic thought? To what extent is the novel also a critique of Victorian aristocracy? How do servants in the novel function as a kind of absent presence?


  1. Referring to one or two texts from our course reading, address the question, why are the Victorians so seemingly anxious about emerging capitalist forms of life, democracy, and perceived threats to an ordered society? Why are many of the writers discussed in class so anxious about modernization, and what connections do their anxieties bear on our own times in the twenty-first century? What Victorian critiques of capitalism and industrialization still prescient today?


  1. Discuss the literary treatment of male characters in both Cranford and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. To what extent do these works come together or diverge in their representations of masculinity and male behavior? Discuss in relation to the difference between Gaskell’s satirical style and Bronte’s stern realism.


  1. Some critics of EBB see the way in which she prostrates herself to the object of her affection in Sonnets from the Portuguese, that is, to Robert Browning, as endemic to Victorian notions of the “angel of the house.” Yet, is prostration to love really a quality of Victorian social conditioning? To what extent does the submissive language of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguesetranscend the Victorian era? How much of the sequence decidedly does not? Explain.

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