Sample Essays and Exercises for Terry Heller Classes
You can use this list to click to samples of essays and exercises of the kind Terry is asking you to write for your current assignment.
Example Constructed by Terry for the use of his classes
Combination paraphrase & thesis essay on a poem, "Big Bessie Throws Her Son into the Street" by Gwendolyn Brooks
Paraphrase of the poem
Thesis Essay based on the paraphrase
Other Sample Essays: These are all parts or wholes of A papers in their finished forms.
|Short thesis essay on a poem (750 words)||Deconstruction of Merwin's "Separation"|
|The first parts of a medium-length thesis essay on a play (1500-2500 words)||A Course of Love in Much Ado About Nothing|
|A medium-length thesis essay on a poem (2300 words)||Deconstructing the Western Wind|
Other Sample Exercises: These show the kinds of things Terry likes to see in various kinds of exercises.
|1000-word Analysis Exercise on a poem (1300 words)||Poem 1551 by Emily Dickinson|
|1000-word Analysis Exercise on a short story (1500 words)||"Désirée's Baby" by Kate Chopin|
|Paraphrase of a poem||"We Real Cool" by Gwendolyn Brooks|
Paraphrase & Thesis essay on a Poem
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Terry Heller wrote this paraphrase and the following essay as examples of helpful ways to develop one's knowledge of a poem and then to develop a thesis essay out of that knowledge.
A Mother Sends Her Child into the World : A Paraphrase of "Big Bessie Throws her Son into the Street" by Gwendolyn Brooks.
In Gwendolyn Brooks's poem, "Big Bessie throws her son into the street," Bessie is the speaker. She talks to her son, telling him it is time to strike out on his own.
Bessie opens her speech with "A day of sunny face and temper." She describes the day as like a person. The sunny face of the day suggests that it looks pleasant, with lots of sunshine, as would a smiling person. The sunny temper of the day suggests that it is cheerful and optimistic, as would be a person of sunny disposition.
Bessie says "The winter trees / Are musical." When she speaks of winter trees, she shows that even though it is a sunny day, it is not necessarily warm. Winter trees might be musical if they made pleasant sounds, perhaps as the wind passes through them or perhaps if birds were singing in them.
In the next sentence, Bessie addresses her son more directly, calling him the "Bright lameness of my beautiful disease" and telling him he has his "destiny to chip and eat."
It is difficult to be sure what she would mean by calling her son a bright lameness of her beautiful disease. She calls the boy a bright lameness, putting together positive and negative qualities. If he is a lameness, he can be seen as crippled or inadequate or incomplete, perhaps not yet grown up. That he is bright might mean that he is intelligent and capable of becoming whole or adult. Also, this brightness might parallel the sunny day, suggesting that he is cheerful and hopeful, though imperfect, like the winter day and the bare but musical trees. When she says the boy is of her beautiful disease, she may mean that in some way she is like her son, beautiful but also imperfect in some way. One more specific meaning this suggests is that her love for him is a kind of disease, beautiful because love is good, a disease because it makes her unwilling to let him go into the world on his own.
When she tells him he has his destiny to chip and eat, she seems to be comparing the process of becoming an adult with earning or gaining one's food, perhaps with getting the things one needs to survive. A person's destiny is the whole pattern and meaning of his or her life. For a young person starting out in the world, this usually consists largely of getting a job and beginning to earn what one needs through work. That he has to chip at something to create his destiny and get his food suggests that his work will be especially difficult. One chips at very hard things: stone, the ice of a winter day, getting small quantities for lots of work.
Bessie tells her son to be precise. She says he needs more than candles in the eyes, because candles are not enough. What he needs is a "wild inflammable stuff" at the root of his will. At this point in the poem, she begins to give him advice.
To be precise, is to be exact, to see things as they are and to avoid letting dreams and wishful thinking get in the way of really understanding. One way of being precise is to recognize the difference between candles in the eyes and wild inflammable stuff at the root of the will. Candles burn dimly and are consumed. Perhaps Bessie also suggests that candles are associated with illusion, with romantic, wishful thinking. Wild inflammable stuff is mysterious, because we don't know what stuff is, but if it is wild and bursts easily into flame, it suggests a bright and beautiful energy that can prevail against the coldness of life as the sun can on a winter day. To create his destiny, such energy must be a cause of his activity, at the root of his reason for doing what he does. He must have this almost uncontrollable "fire in the belly," or he will be consumed by life instead of chipping his destiny from it, and he will fail. She wants her son not to brighten a small corner for a brief time, but to flame out, like a sun, and illumine the world. She wants this fire not to be just in his eyes, but throughout his being.
After giving her advice, Bessie sends her son into the world. She says he is a new pioneer of days and ways. By this she means that he has to make a place for himself in a world where there is as yet no place for him; pioneers create homes for themselves in new territory or invent what is needed in a new time. She says he has to hunt out his own, find his own days and ways, or if he cannot find them, then he must make them for himself. To do this, he has to go alone, without his loving and protective mother by his side. He has to go down the street and leave her behind.
In this poem, Bessie speaks to her son, telling him that it is time to leave home. Though it is winter, it is sunny, so it seems like a good enough day to go. Though she loves him, he is unfinished, he isn't yet grown up. To grow up, he has to make his own life, and this will not be easy. She advises him that he can succeed at this only by facing the world realistically and calling upon his deepest and most personal desires. He has to go out on his own to find or make what he needs to realize his destiny. This message seems to contradict the title, which describes Big Bessie as throwing her son out into the street. This may be ironic. Bessie is already big; she is grown and has made her life. She knows that her son has to make his life and that she cannot do this for him. To her it may feel as if she is throwing him out, because she knows life is hard and that he will have a difficult time changing from lameness to wholeness. Also, she loves him and seems reluctant to see him suffer. This makes her ill at ease. From the reader's more distant point of view, she may be seen as simply sending her son on his way to make his life, but to her it may feel as if she is throwing him out, like a mother bird pushing its fledgling from the nest, to fly on its own or fall.
I have marked certain parts of the paper to help you see where they are and how they've been worked in. Normally, of course, the parts of essays are NOT marked and labeled this way.
Throwing Sonny Out
[Opening: establishes a reason for the essay that will have some interest for other readers. This essay is showing that Brooks's poem communicates a truth worth repeating.]
I remember when I hugged my only son and left him at the door of Dayton Hall. He turned away into what seemed to me a dark and cramped yellow brick building that would be his home for a year, and I turned to my wife and walked back to our now empty, red minivan. I was feeling a little foolish, because I had not thought of anything to say that was profound enough to capture the mixed feelings with which I parted from him. "Take good care of yourself, and send us lots of e-mail," I said, "We're really proud of you." Not long afterwards, I read Gwendolyn Brooks's short poem, "Big Bessie throws her son into the street," in which Bessie says farewell to her son as she sends him into the world to create himself. Though the poem did not tell me exactly what I had really wanted to say to my son, it captured well what I was feeling when I left him at college for his first year. [Thesis statement: explains what the paper will say about the text you are discussing] I see Bessie as divided in her feelings when she sends her son away, much as I was divided in mine. Though she seems to "talk tough," she really loves her son deeply. She has reached a point in her relationship with him when out of love she must send him away.
[Reminding the reader of what your text is about. Even when all readers already have read the text, you need to orient your readers to your text near the beginning of the essay, to help them remember the features that you plan to discuss. This often takes the form of a very brief summary.] The poem is divided into six stanzas that have four main purposes. In the first stanza, Bessie talks about the weather, pointing out that it is a nice day for winter, as if she were reluctant to talk about the more serious topic she has in mind. But in the second, she moves directly, telling the young man that he has his own life to make, his destiny "to chip and eat." In the third and four stanzas, she gives him advice. She says he needs to be precise and to find out what he really wants from life. In the fifth and sixth stanzas, she sends him away down the street.
[The body of the essay follows. Here you take up the main points stated in the thesis and discuss each one fully.]
In this speech, though she seems reluctant at first, she finally seems hard and almost cold. She calls him a "bright lameness" from her "beautiful disease," which at first does not sound attractive. She tells him that making his own life will be hard, describing him as having to chip away as if at something hard in order to create his destiny, to give a complete shape to his life. Her advice to him is demanding and uncompromising. He cannot be sloppy if he is going to make a future; he has to be exact, careful, attentive to detail - precise. And he cannot depend on romantic idealism, the dreamy belief that everything will turn out fine if he just has faith. This is how I read her assertion that candles in the eyes are not enough. Instead, she says, he has to find and live by his deep desires, "a wild inflammable stuff" that is at his center, at "the root of the will." He has to burn from his soul, not just in his eyes. She sounds cold as well when she tells him he has to hunt out his future on his own and alone.
If she sounds cold and hard, what leads me to believe that she loves him deeply? I see several details in the speech that make me believe she is acting out of love and that her feelings are more complicated than they may sound to her son.
She does open the speech gently, commenting on the weather. The second stanza implies that she is pointing out the good weather in order to make the point that there is nothing to keep him from getting started right away. But, she could have begun her speech with the fourth line: "You have your destiny to chip and eat." Her indirect approach suggests the gentleness that I hear in her description of the weather. She is imaginative and playful. The day, she says, is like a person, and it is smiling on them. It is not merely a pleasant day, but a friendly day, an auspicious day. And the winter trees are musical. Precisely what she means by this is unclear, but somehow the trees are making pleasant, friendly, humanly meaningful sounds. This also suggests that this is a good day to start something.
When she addresses him, she calls him "bright lameness" from her "beautiful disease." Though these phrases are difficult to paraphrase, I believe they show most clearly how she feels about him. Their difficulty may obscure from him as they tend to hide from us readers what her true feelings are, but I think those feelings finally are clear. In both phrases, she puts together positive and negative qualities. If he is a lameness, he can be seen as crippled or inadequate or incomplete, perhaps not yet grown up. That he is bright might mean that he is intelligent and capable of becoming whole or adult. Also, this brightness might parallel the sunny day, suggesting that he is cheerful and hopeful, though imperfect, like the winter day and the bare but musical trees. The imperfection suggested in this image is like "candles in the eyes," suggesting a lack of personal force that can be remedied by exercise, by getting out on his own and chipping away at something difficult that he has chosen for himself.
When she says the boy is from her beautiful disease, she may be speaking of love, the treasured emotions that brought about his birth, her caring for him, and her wish not to let him go. Her love for him is a kind of disease, beautiful because she treasures it, a disease because it makes her unwilling to let him go into the world on his own. Disease might also be discomfort, feeling ill at ease. Her love tells her it is right to send her son into the world to make himself. But love also wants to protect him in his lameness and to keep him close to her. Her feelings and desires conflict with each other much as the two pairs of words seem to conflict.
Bessie sounds proud of her son and confident when she calls him a new pioneer and tells him to hunt out or make his own days and ways. This sounds less bleak than telling him that creating his destiny will involve chipping away at something hard and, apparently, eating or taking in the chips he gains; it sounds less demanding than the commands to be precise and find his spiritual center. Hunting and pioneering are just as difficult as chipping, but they have romantic associations with American heroes like Davy Crockett and may speak more directly to a young man's "lame" dreams. They may make it easier for her to say and for him to accept her final command: "Go down the street."
This poem hides Bessie's gentleness and unease behind a tough exterior. This makes the title seem a little strange, for really she is reluctantly sending him away; she only feels as if she is throwing him into the street. When one looks closely at how she approaches the task and at the more obscure aspects of her language, it seems clear that she is doing what a loving parent must do for her child when the child is ready. She must bring herself to part with him, and he needs to feel he really is on his own, even if for the moment, he feels he is being abandoned.
[Conclusion: pulls together and sometimes summarizes the main points, usually returns to the material of the opening.] This poem captures the complexity of my feelings upon leaving my son at college. I wanted him to come into his own there, to find what was deepest in his heart and follow it into adulthood, but I had to turn him loose first. I wanted to watch over and protect him while he grew, as I had all of his life until that moment. I was confident he would do well, and I wanted to be there to see him succeed, but I knew what I wanted could not happen unless I left. He was my bright lameness, not yet fully himself, but on the way. I had the beautiful disease, the wish to intervene mixed with the knowledge that he needed to take these steps on his own. Since I did not know Brooks's poem then, I had to send it to him later. Maybe if I were a real poet, I would be able to say exactly the right thing when it was needed.
Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.
W. S. Merwin (1960)
In this paper I will examine the cultural norms which guide the reader's interpretation of the poem "Separation" and then reverse these norms by the process of deconstruction. By doing this, I hope to force the reader to question the inherent nature of Western culture in order to create an alternative rendering of this piece.
The main binary opposition of this poem which directs us towards a Western translation is found in the title itself. In our culture, separation is viewed as a negative situation. Couples have a period of separation before they divorce, classmates may be separated when they socialize too much, and death separates us from loved ones. So, it is not surprising that we would value presence over absence and interpret this poem in that way.
When the reader examines this poem using the binary opposition of presence/absence they may believe that the first line of this work describes how the absence of the person the speaker is referring to has drained them, "gone through them", emotionally and physically. Thus making life extremely difficult, "Like (pulling) thread through a needle". They may see the speaker as a person longing for the return of their loved one. The final line, "Everything I do is stitched with its color.", may depict the lingering effect of the person's absence on the speaker. Therefore the Western translation of this poem would most likely resemble that of "Western Wind" in which the speaker seems to desire what or who is missing from their present state.
It is our cultural norms at work that give us this reading and many times the reader is unaware that they have displaced their own ethnocentric values upon the poem in order to bring meaning to it. So, what would happen if the reader inverted this cultural hierarchy and created a new understanding of the poem? We would have to concede to the fact that there could be multiple readings of the piece besides the interpretation valued by our society.
In reversing this binary opposition to absence / presence we are saying that the more valuable state is absence. When the reader takes this approach, they find a very different interpretation of the poem "Separation". From this view point one may find this is not a poem in which the speaker is left with a lack in their life, but one of celebration in that the effect of the missing person has forever colored their life in a positive manner.
One such rendering would be that the person in question was an undesirable addition to the speakers life and their absence is seen as a more positive situation. "Your absence has gone through me" then represents the weight or burden that has been lifted, no longer the responsibility of the narrator. The second line may refer to the ease at which they found in the absence of the individual. The final and most persuasive line to this view is "Everything I do is stitched with its color." Here, the reader may find that the dismal situation which included the missing person has now taught the speaker to appreciate and enjoy life on their own.
This is a singular example of an interpretation found when reversing the binary opposition of this poem. It would be possible to find many others as in society we sometimes deviate from the cultural norms presented us. Such examples are found is situations where a person leaves their present situation in order to "find themselves" or a child grows up and separates themselves from their family to create a life of their own. In the analysis of poetry it is beneficial to question where your understanding of a poem comes from and consider the different perspectives that may be brought to the situation.
Even in our Western culture where it is evident that we value presence over absence, the ambiguity of this poem may force the reader to question the perspective of the speaker. Even during my first experience with it I wondered if the negative value we give to the title was misleading. For this reason, reversing the binary opposition to make sense was not that difficult. However, I am still left pondering the state in which it was written as this method seems to evoke more questions than answers.
First parts of a medium-length thesis essay (1500-2000 words)
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A Course of Love in Much Ado About Nothing
"The course of true love never did run smooth," says Lysander in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (7). And for the two pairs of lovers in that play, this statement proves true, for they must spend a rough night in the woods where their love is tested and corrected by the fairies before they can marry at last. I am interested in the course of love experienced by Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, another of Shakespeare's comedies. There are no fairies in this play, but rather a somewhat giddy group of ladies and gentlemen who think it great sport to bring together these two people who seem to hate rather than love each other. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, somehow the fairies seem to know who should be matched with whom, but the ladies and gentlemen who trick Beatrice and Benedick into declaring love for each other do not have supernatural powers. How, then, can they know that these two are really in love with each other? I believe their love for each other shows almost all the time, so that their friends can intuit it beneath the appearances of teasing animosity. Since their friends know them better than we do, it is clearer to them than to us viewers of the play. But the clues are there, so that when they do admit their love for each other, it seems right to us as it did to those who brought them together. In this paper, I will show evidence in the script that should show us they are in love from the beginning, evidence we can see if we look closely, even though it may not be very explicit. Their love is visible in the attention they pay to each other, in how they talk to each other, and in how they react when they receive evidence of the other's love.
Beatrice and Benedick, when they are stage, seem to pay attention to almost nothing else but each other, and so their attention seems focused on each other. Beatrice's first speech in Act I, Scene 1 is to ask about whether Benedick has returned from the wars. She asks the messenger, "is Signior Mountanto returned from the wars or no" (9). Though she asks this in a jesting way, it is the first question she asks. By giving him the name "Mountanto," associating him with mountains and with a fencing term that names "an upright blow or thrust" (8), Beatrice ridicules and praises him at the same time, though it is not clear that she means to praise him. If she does not care about him, you would expect the conversation to end with the messenger's answer, but instead Beatrice draws out the conversation, getting the messenger to praise Benedick by defending him. The messenger ends up showing Benedick to have all the manly virtues that people of Beatrice's class admire. He has done good service, been a good soldier, shown himself always to be a noble gentleman, full of honorable virtues. By wittily denying that Benedick has these virtues, she gets the messenger to express them all. She ends her first discussion of Benedick by charging him with fickleness and disloyalty. The messenger cannot understand this, for he has seen no evidence of it, but when we notice that Leonato, Beatrice's uncle, describes the Beatrice and Benedick relationship as "a merry war" (11), perhaps we can understand that Beatrice is expressing anger at Benedick's leaving aside their war to go away and fight another war with "the boys."
When Benedick joins the group a little later, Beatrice is quick to pounce on him, and their merry war resumes, seemingly taking up where it left off. Though their conversation seems sharp with insults, they convey to each other information that both seem to want. She accuses him of jabbering away when no one is listening to him, which may be true, but clearly she is listening. She accuses him of being discourteous, but he counters that all ladies love him but one, yet still, he loves none (13). In this way, he shows that he is available. Beatrice assures him in the same way, saying she wants to be courted by no man at all (15).
In the first scene of the play, it seems clear that Beatrice and Benedick are greatly interested in each other. And even as she complains about him and they have their first skirmish in the renewed war of wit, they are exchanging information that reveals their concern for the other's well-being, their interest in each other's affairs, and their continued availability on the marriage market, which they affirm at the same time that they deny they are interested in marrying. In the second scene of Act I, Benedick believes, foolishly, that Beatrice does not recognize him in his mask, and so pretending to be someone else, receives what he takes to be Beatrice's true opinion of him, that he is "disdainful" and has borrowed his wit from an old joke book (45). When he is alone, he reflects, "But that my Lady Beatrice should know me, and not know me" (49). He thinks of her as his Lady Beatrice, which if spoken to others would be simple politeness, but shows respect for her when spoken to himself. He seems genuinely hurt that she would speak of him to a stranger in so ungenerous a way. This suggests that Benedick really does think of their jesting as a game with a more serious intent behind it. Perhaps this is why he is first to give up in their first encounter, because he does not want to move from defending himself from insults to actually insulting her.
There are other examples of their exchanges that I could examine, but I believe these show adequately that Beatrice and Benedick have each other on their minds, that they are interested in each other for more than witty banter. I believe their friends see through the banter to the affection that hides behind it. Because they see through this, they are willing to play games of trickery with what should be a serious issue, choosing a person to marry. When we see how each reacts to the false news that the other is pining away for love, I think we should be as sure as their friends are that they have been in love all along.
The Rest is Omitted.
Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night's Dream. New York: Bantam, 1988.
_______. Much Ado About Nothing. New York: Pocket Books, New Folger Library Shakespeare, 1995.
Deconstructing the Western Wind
In Chaucer's general prologue to The Canterbury Tales, he invokes the western wind as one of the awakeners of spring:
Whan Zephyrus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes. . . .
Zephyrus, the western wind, inspires with life the tender roots in grove and field with his sweet breath. Chaucer provides some context for the anonymous contemporary lyric, "Western Wind," a poem expressing longing for the arrival of spring and the return home to a beloved.
Western wind, when will thou blow,
The small rain down can rain?
Christ, if my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again!
The purpose of this paper is to explore and then deconstruct some of the cultural norms within which this poem makes sense. This experiment will show how deeply embedded this poem is within basic assumptions of Western culture, an embeddedness that allows it to speak to us profoundly even though it seems to say so little.
In addition to the shared knowledge of the meaning of the western wind in the culture from which the poem comes, what are some of the cultural norms that make this poem understandable? At first glance, the poem may appear so transparent that the question seems absurd. But it requires only a slight effort at pretending not to understand to reveal how much the poem depends upon conventions of reading and of imagining culture. I will ask the poem two questions to begin pretending.
First, how does the question about when the wind will blow connect with the exclamation about being in bed with one's beloved? The relationship between the renewal of the landscape with the coming of the spring winds and rains and some sort of renewal of the self resulting from reunion with the absent beloved is so familiar to us that we see it without questioning it. The poet need do no more than place the ideas next to each other for us to read it as figurative language and make sense of it.
For a second question, are the lovers heterosexual? How could we ask such a thing? The poem tells us almost nothing about the lovers, but every reader I've ever talked with about the poem "knew" that these were heterosexual lovers - not any other possible combination such as parent/child, homosexual lovers, or intimate friends. Reading the figurative connection between the two sentences seems to confirm the heterosexual fertility of the love implied in the second sentence.
To gain more insight into the cultural norms the poem evokes, we can explore the binary oppositions it presents. The main binary opposition in the poem probably is presence/absence. The poem seems mainly to be about longing. The speaker's situation is pervaded by absence, an absence that is deficient, uncomfortable, a violation of a good and desired order. Absent are: the western wind, the small rain, the beloved, home (my bed), and so, the speaker. The speaker is absent from home, which is the probable location of the bed and beloved. The wind is absent from the speaker's location also, and this prevents for the time being what is ultimately inevitable, but is now also absent, the sweet showers (showres soote) of April that in Chaucer's prologue pierce the drought of March to the root, bathing every vein in liquor that has the power to engender flowers. Absence is winter and barrenness; presence is spring and fertility.
In the binary of presence/absence, presence is the primary term, the desired state of direct contact, which is associated with life, fertility and sexual/emotional fulfillment; absence is a deficiency, lack of contact, which is associated with death, barrenness, and loneliness. The poem works in part because we readers accept this hierarchy and, therefore, accept that the dynamics of the presence/absence binary provide adequate grounds for the longing that is the main emotion expressed in the poem.
Another main binary is male/female, in which male is the primary term, dominant in the hierarchy. This heterosexual and patriarchal binary is responsible for most readers assuming the speaker is male and the beloved female. In Chaucer, the west wind is Zephyrus, characterized as male. The coming of the masculine western wind to cause small rain to fall upon mother earth and quicken the dormant life within is clearly presented in gendered terms by Chaucer. The fertility of the earth in spring is paralleled to the mammalian and human acts of fertilization, even though there is nothing biologically gendered in the falling of rain upon the earth. Heterosexual reproduction is figuratively imposed upon a process of weather that has nothing to do with sexual reproduction except for providing the conditions under which it occurs among non-mammalian life in our climate. The arbitrary convention of reading spring rain as connected with sexual reproduction helps to cast the absent speaker in the male role. He is absent from home as the wind is absent. The female beloved is at home, as the earth is always beneath the sky. His presence will bring the quickening fluid to the woman, as the presence of the wind will bring the small rain to the earth. The female is fixed, the male mobile; the female is passive, the male active; the female is silent and waits; the male speaks and desires. All of these conventions for reading the meaning of the male/female binary push readers toward the idea that the speaker of the poem is male and the beloved female.
What happens to our reading of the poem if we deconstruct these main binaries by reversing them? What if we think about absence being preferable to presence, of female being central and male marginal? It seems more interesting to try this experiment while keeping the same associations for the terms and changing the values attached to the associations.
What are the consequences of switching the main binary to absence/presence? Then the current state of longing becomes more valuable than the state for which the speaker longs. Winter is better than spring. Separation from the beloved is better than union. It is often a question whether reading against a poem this way is legitimate, but we should keep in mind that the poem itself doesn't prevent this sort of reading. Indeed, the poem is about longing, not fulfillment. If fulfillment were unequivocally the more desirable state, the poem might be expected to present it. Indeed, this poem exists and is valued precisely because there is some perceived value in expressing longing and therefore in feeling it. What are the values of experiencing longing? The poem suggests that longing is potential, the power to move, to engender life, to bring about a miraculous transformation of the landscape. To experience longing might be seen as to enjoy contemplating one's power to transform oneself, one's beloved, and the landscape. Self transformation comes in the moments of reunion and sexual union, one's beloved is transformed in pregnancy, and the landscape by one's imaginative association with and participation in climatic change. The second exclamation contains, then, not only an expression of desire, but also an expression of power -- which may help explain why Christ's name is invoked: If he had his beloved in his arms in bed, then there would be such creative power released! Perhaps power as great as that revealed in the resurrection of Christ. So, it is the absence of the beloved that makes possible the experience of longing which, in turn, makes possible the pleasurable contemplation of his procreative power. Furthermore, this procreative power issues in further powers, the power of speech that creates poetry, and the power of figurative language to connect procreative power with the cosmic power of the climate to transform winter into spring, and perhaps to the divine power that ultimately overcomes death.
This is only one of many ways in which we might explore the consequences of reversing the presence/absence binary. In this reading, presence becomes subordinated to absence in such a way as to highlight the power of absence to unleash human creativity. Given such a reading, we might speculate that in the full reality of human experience, absence often is valued above presence, for there are some states for which people routinely long with no realistic hope of achievement. For example, modern history is filled with the longing for utopia, for a just society. The willingness to devote our energies to an unreachable presence continues to engage our creativity and, it would seem, to bring about incremental improvements in societies fortunate enough to have adequate resources. Of course, we do not usually look at the problem this way, because presence dominates absence in our thinking, so we tend to believe it is the vision of an unachieved presence that is the actual source of the energy that we might just as well see as deriving from the continued state of absence of utopia.
What consequences result from reversing the male/female binary? In this hierarchy, the conventional meanings our society reads into maleness are seen as primary, while those we read into femaleness are seen as subordinate. One result of this sort of thinking in this poem is that while we read the male figure as absent from home, the speaker talks of the things he lacks as absent. This produces a curious ambiguity about absence. When he speaks of the wind and rain, they are absent from the central location where they are needed, which is the speaker's location. The speaker thinks of himself as at the center. And when he thinks of the beloved, she is absent from that center as well. The solution he longs for is that she be in his arms. However, in the last phrase, his mobility becomes a problem. He doesn't wish for his bed to be where he is, but for his own location to change to where the bed is. This is where we learn that he is the one who is absent, and that the center is elsewhere, where the bed and presumably the beloved are. While the wind and rain must come to him as if he were at the center, he must go to his bed and beloved, seemingly placing them at the center. This ambiguity suggests the arbitrariness with which he has defined centeredness. On one hand, the center is where he is, wherever that might be. On the other hand, the center is where his longing will be answered, which is at home, the fixed point that he, as mobile male, has left.
The ambiguity of the center and the arbitrariness of its definition can undermine the hierarchy of the male/female binary. One result is that the female associations with stability, stillness, the realization of fertility, and the actual coming of spring may be valued over the activity and mobility of the male. And one interesting result of this shift may be the undoing of this reading of the female as fixed, silent, passive, unchanging. This comes in part from extending reflection about the figurative connection the poem makes between sexual union and the coming of spring. From the male point of view of the speaker, the solution to his longing is for spring to come and for him to return to sexual union with his beloved.
However, what we know about the west wind and the small rain -- from Chaucer's brief portrait of what they meant to 14th-century Britons -- reminds us that male sexual satisfaction is not an end state, but one step in a process, just as spring is not the final season, but a stage in a seasonal cycle. Time does not stop during any individual's life; there are no end states, and so there is no permanent fulfillment. Longing sometimes arrives at an end, but then is renewed, in a cycle analogous to the rotation of the seasons. The real female person will not correspond with the passive earth, because she will become actively fertile. The woman will not provide ultimate fulfillment, for sexual union is always temporary. And sexual union, though we can see it as an end, always remains a stage; a child may follow and with it many female activities that belie the notion of the female awaiting the male as passively as mother earth awaiting rain in spring.
One result of reversing the male/female binary of the poem is to point to the power and potential in the woman and the earth, to bring forth life and participate in the movement of time. From this perspective, the man is like the rain, a temporary if regular visitor that enables again the female's procreative power and activity. From the point of view of this female center, longing is never completely fulfilled, but always extended into the future.
There are many more directions such a deconstructive exploration might follow. Another interesting one might be to re-see the poem as spoken by a woman absent from home. Nothing in the text forbids such a reading, and some elements to support it might be found with careful thought. The point of this very brief exploration is to see what happens to our understanding of the poem and of ourselves as readers when we actively resist the expectations our culture tells us to bring to this poem. This activity of deconstruction can provide interesting insights into the poem and into us readers.
The main purpose of this exercise is to explore issues and ideas in a poem and to develop ideas that might be used in a thesis essay. When I give such assignments, 1000 words is the minimum length. Once students get into this, they usually go well over 1000.
Poem 1551 by Emily Dickinson
Those - dying then,
Knew where they went -
They went to God's Right Hand -
That Hand is amputated now
And God cannot be found -
The abdication of Belief
Makes the Behavior small -
Better an ignis fatuus
Than no illume at all -
Here's what the poem says. In the past, when people died, they were sure they would join God. But now, God is somehow taken away. Faith has left us and so what we do seems unimportant. It's better to live by a fool's fire (I looked up ignis fatuus!) than to have no light at all.
I notice that E.D. seems to have written it (1882) only four years before she died. I have to say it really knocked me over. She's getting along in years; her health isn't good, according to the biography, and she's expressing doubts about God in the middle of the Victorian period. The idea wasn't so strange after the class lecture. We learned these writers were concerned about how to live without certainty about God. What knocked me over, though, is how really "passionate" she seems about it. I mean, I guess I'm used to the idea that not everyone has the same beliefs I do. I've not really worried very much, at least lately, about whether God exists or not. I think he does and if others don't think so, that doesn't bother me.
Back to E.D. though. Her passion surprised me because I don't think I feel so passionately about it. I can hear Terry asking, because he often does, how I know she's passionate. Well, I noticed the violence of that idea that God's hand has been amputated, as in cut off surgically. Gosh! Who or what could amputate God's hand? And do it methodically, too, as in surgery. What is the Hand of God? How would we know if it was amputated or not? I mean does God have a hand? The poem seems to imply that some power that is neither God nor Dickinson just cut off the place people used to be sure they go, or maybe cut off whatever made people feel sure they were going there.
I noticed another big word I had to look up in the second stanza, abdication. Rulers do that when they quit. But it doesn't say God quit ruling. It says Belief abdicated, as if Faith could just get up and walk out of the room all by itself. I'm assuming this is connected with the amputation. For me it really points the question of who did all this. Who amputated God's hand? Who made it impossible to find God?
I haven't got far with that question, but I notice that God's right hand is specified, and I remember some things about that hand. At the right hand of God is where Jesus sits, according to my creed, to judge the living and the dead. That's where Jesus ascended to after his resurrection. Does the amputation have something to do, then, with people losing their beliefs in such basic things as the miracles of the resurrection and the power of God to judge us after death?
The poem says that once upon a time, people were sure of these things. They KNEW where they went when they died, and it was to the right hand of God, where Jesus would judge them. Now, it is the belief itself that has gone off somewhere, so it is just like the right hand were amputated. Now no one KNOWS where they go when they die.
I don't have an answer to who cut off the hand. I don't think answers are in the poem, but just a passionate statement of the situation E. D. sees.
That Latin ignis fatuus really floored me. Where does she get off springing that on me? I thought as I wondered if I'd find it in my dictionary. It was there.
But I think I see that like amputate, and abdicate, the Latin is supposed to be mysterious, to make me wonder how E.D. (and the whole 19th Century according to my class notes) got into this mess. E. D. seems to me to be wondering, sort of in shock you know, how this could have happened, and what can be done about it. She almost seems desperate to me when she says it's better to have a fool's flame, a false belief, than no belief at all.
I looked up illume, too, though I was pretty sure what it meant. And I got a surprise. It is IN the dictionary, but not the way Dickinson uses it. For her it's a noun, but the dictionary only lists it as a verb. It means "to light or to light up a place." To show how crazy an English major can get, I spent a lot of time thinking about that. Did Dickinson somehow mean it as a verb? "Better a fool's flame than no to light at all." That sort of makes sense, making the action of lighting into the name for what is missing since the amputation - the power to make light. I remember that God's first words - in my belief system - were "Let there be light." Maybe if his hand is amputated, that power disappears.
Then I went after "makes the behavior small," because that seems to be the key to her last sentence. When belief abdicates that makes behavior small. What could that mean? What is small behavior? I put it to myself just like that, and an answer popped up. We say behavior is small when we mean it is small-minded, mean, petty. So, if we no longer are sure about God's being there, we become small-minded and petty? I can see that in two ways. First, without God to pay attention and judge us, it may not make any difference what we do. I don't believe that, but still, I can see how some people believe that without God and absolute values, you are stuck with complete relativism - that you can do whatever you want and it doesn't make any difference. Dickinson could mean what they mean, that our behavior in our lives doesn't mean anything if God isn't going to grade it in the end. Second, without the idea of God, our minds might be seen to shrink - no big ideas in them any more, just little ideas about getting and spending and daily affairs. So, small behavior could be unimportant behavior, or it could be small-minded behavior. Or, maybe it could mean immoral behavior. Without God's judgment to enforce good behavior, people might all behave badly. I don't know if that is really covered by small behavior, but the idea seems to go along with the others I've thought of.
Finally, I notice the first stanza has 5 lines that don't rhyme while the last has four that do. How come? Here's one idea. The first stanza is about trouble, a problem without a solution - things used to be OK and now they aren't. Now lines don't rhyme and don't come in even numbers. The second stanza is about a solution, not a very good one in my opinion. The solution I guess - since I haven't really said it - is to believe in some sort of religion or God even if you don't know it is true. The solution comes in a stanza that does rhyme and with an even number of lines, so it seems more orderly. I guess that makes some sense.
I know I wrote finally in the previous paragraph, but fortunately, I don't have to revise this exploratory writing. Just one more thing. Those dashes! I can see that most of them just substitute for periods, ends of sentences. But the first one! What's it doing after Those? For now that's just a question, but I didn't want to forget that I'd thought of it.
If I were going to write an essay on this poem, I'd consider doing a straight interpretation, because I think I understand the poem pretty well now. A thesis statement might be: In 1551, E.D. presents a problem and a solution. The problem is that people of her time have experienced a loss of certainty about their religious faith. Her solution is that it is better to believe in something even if you aren't sure it is true.
It would be interesting to compare this to one of her other religious poems or a poem about death, like "I heard a fly buzz," but I'm not sure yet how I'd go about that. I'd need to study another poem the way I've worked on this one. I wonder if Dickinson wrote any poems where she expressed more certainty about life after death or belief in God.
The main purpose of this exercise is to explore issues and ideas in a short story and to develop ideas that might be used in a thesis essay. When I give such assignments, 1000 words is the minimum length. Once students get into this, they usually go well over 1000.
Notes on Kate Chopin, "Désirée's Baby"
189 The foundling baby who grows up to be delightful daughter to a barren woman.
Armand falls in love with her; he is the son of a wealthy planter whose wife died in Paris before he moved here. Up to here, this looks like a romantic love story in a novel.
190 Armand treats his Negro slaves very strictly, unlike his indulgent father.
191 Grandmother Valmonde comes to visit the baby and notices that it is changing in ways that disturb her, but Désirée does not yet.
Désirée is convinced that despite what he says, Armand is especially delighted because his child is a son.
Armand has treated his slaves better since his marriage and the birth of his son.
His dark handsome face.
Things change and Désirée becomes disturbed.
Blacks behave differently and Armand becomes cruel to his slaves.
192 She notices the difference in the child after noticing Armand's increasing indifference to her.
He tells her that her child is not white, and this is because she is not white.
193 Her hand is whiter than her husband's but no whiter than that of one of their mixed slaves.
Her mother invites her to return, but she wanders with the baby into the swamp and is not seen again. Notice that her adoptive mother still loves her, but Armand does not.
As she leaves, Armand makes it clear that he holds her responsible for HIS loss, though it is at God that he is angry.
194 The discovery, as he burns all memories of her, that in fact, he is known to have Negro ancestry, because his father married a Negro in Paris.
Things I Wonder about
How is a Negro defined in this story? Why is the definition so important?
There is a "color line." White people in power have drawn this line. Those on the white side of the line can own slaves. Only those on the "colored" or non-white side of the line can be slaves. In fact, everyone on the non-white side apparently can be sold as a slave. The trouble in this story is that it is hard to know which people are on which side of the line.
A Negro seems to be anyone who has any Negro ancestry. In this story, how one looks makes no difference. Anyone who has all the visible characteristics of Whiteness, can be transformed into Negro & Slave if evidence appears of any Negro background. This is apparent in the multiple colors of the slaves who are mentioned in the story. I made a list of most of the characters by "race."
Madame Valmondé looks white & is white.
Monsieur Valmondé looks white & is white.
Armand's father looked white, and he was.
Désirée looks whiter than Armand, but maybe she is not.
Her baby looks sort of black, and he is.
Armand looks darker than Désirée, believes he is white, but he is not.
Armand's mother looked ?, and she was black.
La Blanche (the white) looks whiter than Armand & just as white as Désirée, but she is not.
La Blanche's little quadroon boys look sort of black, and they are.
Zandrine (yellow nurse woman) looks sort of black, and she is.
Négrillon (the black) presumably looks black, and he is.
Race is really mixed up in this story. It is very important to be white, because whiteness means the power to own black people as slaves. It is terrible to be black, because if you are black, you can be owned as a slave. So the color line means everything. But because whites and blacks have interbred, they can look so much alike that no one is sure who is who.
This leads to another question.
Why is it assumed that Désirée is the person of mixed blood, the Negro?
I think it is because she is a woman and a foundling. These facts give Armand the power to declare her responsible for the way their child looks, when clearly he is equally responsible. It's interesting he doesn't accuse her of adultery. Is it because this is unthinkable? I wonder what it means?
The main thing though, is that their power in their marriage is unequal. And she is at a disadvantage. She doesn't know who her parents are, while he is sure he knows who his are. If he really "loved" her, he could do what his father did. But for him, racial identity is much more important than his love for her. He cannot doubt that he is white. So, she must be "black."
Why does she destroy herself and her child?
It seems she just gives up when she is accused. He doesn't threaten her, though. Her mother invites her home. Her mother still loves her and will take care of and protect her & the child. I think that her suicide is hard to understand. One thing I see in it is that she has to be hurt that his love for her disappears when he thinks he discovers what could be an irrelevant fact about her background. He fell in love with her as a person, but then fell out of love with her instantly when an unfortunate fact appeared. Why should this make a difference?
I wonder if that's a main point of the story? Maybe there's a thesis here. In a world without slavery - and maybe without so much racial prejudice - the discovery that one of them had Negro ancestry would be no big deal. They might not even care which one or be concerned to prove that it was only one of them. But in a world where your future depends so completely on what other people believe about your race, a powerful masculine landowner who wants to pass his property to his sons just has to be really concerned about proving that he himself is white, that his "colored" child is not from his line, and that his wife be pure white. These things are essential to his freedom and to maintaining his power. Driving off his wife is essential. He could probably even claim her and the child as property and sell them. That he doesn't may show that he is not as ruthless or unloving as he could be. In a sense, it's him or them, and he isn't a big enough man to put them first.
Does this make him worse than his father who went away with his "Negro" wife? While the father was faithful to the wife, he didn't put the son in a very good position, thinking he could leave him in charge of the property and not worrying about his having children. His father didn't teach him much about treating slaves well, either, which seems less than moral, given that Armand's mother was of the slave race.
I got off here looking for a thesis idea. Here's a try at it. A main theme of this story is that the system of racial slavery is stronger than the bonds of love and family. We can see this in the way Armand gives up the wife he seems to love so much when he believes she is on the wrong side of the color line.
It is ironic and interesting that the story ends with Armand discovering that his mother was "a Negro." What would be the consequences of Armand's discovery? What would happen next?
I know there's no way to answer this question in reality. The story tells nothing about what he does after his discovery. Some people in class even thought he knew all along. I may want to write about that, because as we said in our discussion, we understand what Armand does very differently if we think he knew his mother was "black." I think he didn't know until he found the letter, but I don't suppose I could prove that. People who tried in class had a hard time.
But I think it is maybe more interesting to consider what his alternatives are. He can't reveal this information, because then he'd be a member of the slave race. Once he was on the wrong side of the color line, he could lose everything. He couldn't remain a landowner and slave-holder in the South. It's possible he could be sold as a slave himself, at least in some states.
Another question that interests me came up in class, but we didn't talk about it. Why did Chopin write this story in the 1890s?
Slavery had been over for a long time, but it looks like an anti-slavery story. Who would care about slavery then? Maybe some people who still thought slavery was a good thing & wanted to go back to the good old days. Living in the South, Chopin could have known a lot of such people.
But maybe she was really more concerned about racism. I'd have to do some research on this. It would be interesting to know how much prejudice there was then, to know about segregation and Jim Crow laws and laws against intermarriage. I wonder whether Chopin was concerned about the law and society continuing to make fine and important distinctions over who was black and who wasn't long after the war and the end of slavery.
This is an exercise in drawing out and explaining fully what is being communicated on the surface of a literary work. It is the kind of work one does before going after those deep hidden meanings. It focuses on restating the basic meanings of words, sentences, and phrases in order to give an overall impression of what the work says.
Gwendolyn Brooks, "We Real Cool"
Gwendolyn Brooks begins this poem by announcing that it is about seven pool players at what is probably a pool hall called The Golden Shovel. The Golden Shovel is an unusual sounding name for a pool hall. A shovel is a tool for doing manual labor, usually moving dirt. The idea of a golden shovel is strange, suggesting a tool not meant to be used or a tool too valuable for the work it is doing.
When this location is established, Brooks turns the poem over to the voices of the pool players, not their real voices, but what they seem to say by the attitude their appearance reveals.
They say they are real cool. This probably means that they believe they know exactly what they are doing, that they are perfectly at home where they are, that they are above criticism, in control, self-possessed, sure of themselves, doing what everyone in his or her right might could do if s/he could.
They say they left school. Either they are skipping school, or they have quit without graduating. This greatly limits their first statement. The number of people who will think they are "cool" for shorting themselves on education is smaller than the number that might enjoy skipping out early for a nice game of pool. Most of the rest of the poem explains what their appeal might be to those who are sucked in by their attitude of being cool.
They lurk late. Lurk is a dangerous word. Staying out late is just an immature person's idea of being free and adult. Lurking, however, suggests mischief and crime, sneaking around in dangerous places.
They strike straight. This sounds dangerous too. Striking seems most likely to have to do with fighting. If it does, then the whole sentence suggests that they think of themselves as "real men" because they are able to assert themselves effectively through violence. They are quick and direct in with violent responses to those who oppose them.
They sing sin. I'm not very sure what this means, but singing is vocalizing and sin is bad behavior. It might mean that they use a lot of impolite language, or it could mean that they "sing the praises" of doing evil, recommend it by their attitude of coolness. These two meanings fit together well enough that the sentence may mean both.
They thin gin. At least they don't drink it straight. A slang-wise friend tells me that street kids in the old days mixed gin with soda pop so they could drink without being too obvious to the law. This is a way to be cool, to play at being adult.
They jazz June. The same friend reminds me that jazzing is slang for sex, and since June is a woman's name, this line seems to tell about another of their assertions of adult manhood, finding someone willing to have sex with them.
They will die soon. This is not something the boys are conscious of saying. Rather, it is what their attitude says to people whose point of view is wider than that of the boys in the pool hall. They may think they have taken control of their lives and have chosen a way superior to all those uncool people who aren't as manly and self-possessed looking as they are, but in fact, they have chosen a short cut to growing up which is also a short cut to dying. They have chosen trouble, which is a fast road to death with brief and perhaps not all that rewarding pleasures along the way.
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