Thursday, June 24, 2010

Required Work: Moby Dick or The Whale

Alright, let’s get this over with…

I have read Moby Dick twice. The first time I read it was six years ago and I did not understand it at all and I absolutely hated it. I read it for the second time this past semester and I continue to dislike it, although now I can at least say I understand it and even respect it as a literary work. And so, with the help of last semester’s notes and some research articles, here are my study notes on Moby Dick for the M.A. Exam. And just as an FYI, I am using the 150th Anniversary Edition of Moby Dick published in 2001 by the Northwestern University Press.

Once again, I am going to reiterate my problems with placing certain books within a genre. And the fact that Moby Dick is so incredibly dense and complex does not help matters. It could probably be most easily classified as an adventure novel. The crew of the Pequod sets sail on a fairly typical 19th century whaling voyage, except their captain is not so much concerned with making a profit from the oil found in sperm whales as he is with finding the one albino whale that recently took his leg. And concerned is not really the word I should be using. Obsessed could work, as could fanatical, fixated, or probably best of all, possessed. Finding and killing Moby Dick is Ahab’s single focus, and if accomplishing this goal means sacrificing the lives of his crew, then that is what he is willing to do.

Adventures involve risk as well as dangerous and exciting experiences. Ahab’s desire turns this simple whaling expedition into an adventure that takes everyone’s life but one. Of course that one is Ishmael, the novel’s narrator. And because Ishmael is the sole survivor, his word is the only one the reader can go on, which leads to unreliable narrator issues, which is…but I need to move on to theme.

The questions of theme for Moby Dick is again a complex one because it is incredibly difficult (and somewhat short-sighted) for anyone to say that Moby Dick is about any one certain thing. This is what makes Lisa’s quote in my blog profile so interesting (at least to me), and Homer’s part is what makes it funny (again, at least to me). When I first heard the quote after reading Moby Dick the first time, I felt like I was finally told in plain language what the book was about. And although the book does make the point that taking revenge on an animal is fairly nonsensical, especially when said animal was only acting out of self-defense, it still is not all of what Moby Dick is about.

It can be argued that Moby Dick is simply about whaling, or even just whales. It could be about the dangers of having such a single-focus such as Ahab’s as it led to his death and the death of others. Moby Dick also involves race relations in 19th century America as the Pequod is a sort of floating Babel of racial stereotypes. Some have argued that it is about slavery as to violence done to the whales reflects the violence done to runaway slaves at the time (large black creatures with scarred backs being chased on their run northward until they are captured for a profit). There is also religion, revenge, politics, and even economics. And once again, there is the issue of the unreliable narrator, whose name we do not even know (“Call me Ishmael”), but again, I’ll spare you my rant on that one…

I could go on and on when it comes to theme on this book. There is plenty to choose from, as long as you can explain it well and with plenty of supportive evidence.

Moby Dick was published in 1851. This was a period of time that also saw the publication of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
It is said that Melville poured over documents that told the story of the Essex, a whaling ship that was rammed by a whale and consequently sunk, much like the Pequod in Melville’s novel, for about 20 (I think) years before finishing Moby Dick. The difference between the Pequod and the Essex is that for the crew of the Essex, the sinking of the ship was only the beginning of the horror. The entire crew would endure illness, starvation, and even cannibalism before being rescued.

Melville also used information he was able to gather about a real-life albino whale called Mocha Dick that was known to terrorize ships off of the coast of Chile. With these two real life events as his main sources of information, combined with his own experiences in whaling, Melville wrote Moby Dick.

At this time, this is really all I have to say about this particular monster novel, at least when it comes to the M.A. Exam. Well, not really, there is so much more that could be said and I probably will have to come back to this particular novel only because it is so dense, and although I am not a big fan, it does indeed deserve the extra attention.

Next week, I will attempt to come up with sample questions that might work on the exam for this particular book. I really could (but again, I won’t), talk at great length about Ishmael’s unreliability as a narrator, and if anyone wants me to, I could do an entire post just about that. Also worth mentioning would be the fact that the first time people read this book, the “Cetology” chapter seems to go on forever when in reality it is only about 11 pages long (in my edition). I may also in future go deeper into race relations within the book, as well as the issue of the whiteness of the whale. And of course, if there is something you want me to touch on or feel that I am ignoring, please let me know.

And so, I will end with one of the few passages in the book that I did particularly enjoy:

“But by her still halting course and winding, woful way, you plainly saw that this ship that so wept with spray, still remained without comfort. She was Rachel, weeping for her children, because they were not. (533)”

Friday, June 18, 2010

Genre, Themes, History

From what I understand (which isn't much), the written part of the exam, and maybe parts of the oral, will focus on genre, theme, and history. Now, while I am okay with identifying a novel's place in history and can explain the importance of when it was written as well as the importance of when the action actually takes place, I am a little fuzzy when it comes to genre and theme. So to begin, I will turn to my good friend Webster's online dictionary.

Genre: a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content.
Examples: Romantic, gothic, panoramic, comedy, etc.

Theme: a subject or topic of discourse or of artistic representation or a specific and distinctive quality, characteristic, or concern .
Example: Slavery is one of many themes in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Something else to take into consideration is picking and choosing items from the M.A. list that you feel comfortable comparing. Although I will be honest, I was not so much concerned with picking works that I could compare, so much as I was attempting to pick works that I either a) already read and understood, b) weren't collections of poetry, or c) did not include multiple items under one listing. I wanted to keep my list as simple and possible...and avoid poetry as much as I could...and I am kinda lazy.

Next post, I will actually write about a book that is a required read. I decided to tackle Moby Dick now instead of later, mostly since I read it recently for the second time for the my 19th century American literature class. I also did both my presentation and term paper on the monster novel. I need to use this information while it is still fresh, but more importantly, while the book still sort of makes sense to me. And hopefully, my post about it will make some sort of sense to you.

Friday, June 11, 2010

These Are the Greatest Stories Ever Written?

Like the obsessive compulsive that I am, I have already put together my reading list for the M.A. exam, despite the fact that I won’t actually be taking it for a good year and a half. Once the new reading list was released, I set to work highlighting the books I already owned, putting an asterisk by the optional books I will choose for myself, and also rolling my eyes over the classic required selections that are generally agreed upon to be the greatest works in history, but that no one seems to actually enjoy reading.

The following will be a least of all of those required texts, as well as the ones I have chosen from the optional list. I am working off of the latest version of the English M.A. Reading List which is effective January 2011 through December 2012. There are nine sections (A-I) that have works that are required. From those nine sections plus another one (J), students are to pick at least one optional item from each section, plus another five freely selected items from anywhere on the list. There are 26 required works, and 15 that students are to choose from themselves.

Confused? Yeah, me too. And I have been reading over these instructions from various reading list for the last five years. Even so, I have managed to pull together my reading list and it is as follows (required works are marked by an asterisk):

*1. The Beowulf Poet, Beowulf
*2. Geoffrey Chaucer, from The Canterbury Tales: “General Prologue,” “Knight’s Tale,” “Miller’s Prologue and Tale,” “Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale,” “Clerk’s Prologue and Tale,” “Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale,” “Nun’s Priest’s Prologue and Tale,” “Parson’s Prologue”
*3. The Gawain Poet, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl
4. Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde

B. 1500-1600
*1. Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene: “A Letter of the Authors,” Book I (all), Book III(Cantos 1, 5-6, 9-12)
*2. a) Sir Philip Sidney, The Defense of Poesy; Astrophil and Stella 1, 7, 9, 20, 29, 45, 106, Second Song, Fourth Song
b) Queen Elizabeth I, “Speech to the Troops at Tilbury” and the “Golden Speech”
*3. William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part I, The Tempest, Hamlet
4. Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus and The Jew of Malta
5. William Shakespeare, One history play, one tragedy, and one comedy (including romance) of student’s selection

C. 1600-1700
*1. John Donne, “The Flea,” “Song” (Go and catch a falling star”), “The Canonization,” “A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day,” “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” “A Lecture upon the Shadow,” “Twickenham Garden,” Elegy 19 (“To His Mistress Going to Bed”), Holy Sonnets 10(“Death Be Not Proud”), 14 (“Batter my heart”), and 17 (“Since she whom I loved”), “Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward,” “Meditation 17” (from Devotions upon Emergent Occasions)
*2. John Milton, Paradise Lost
*3. a) Aphra Behn, Oroonoko, The Rover
b) Margaret Cavendish, Blazing World
4. John Milton, “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” “L’Allegro” & “Il Penseroso,” A Masque[Comus], “Lycidas,” “How Soon Hath Time,” “When I Consider How My Light is Spent,” “Methought I Saw My Late Espoused Saint,” Samson Agonistes, Areopagitica

D. 1700-1800
*1. Henry Fielding, Tom Jones
*2. Alexander Pop, “The Rape of the Lock,” “An Essay on Criticism,” “An Essay on Man,” “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot”
*3. Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself
Phillis Wheatley, “On the Death of…George Whitefield,” “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” “To the University of Cambridge, in New England,” “To S.M., a Young African Painter,” Letter to Rev. Samson Occom (Feb. 11, 1774) Jupiter Hammon, “An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatley”
4. Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels

E. 1800-c1850
*1. Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or The Whale
*2. a) Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
b) Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
c) Sojourner Truth, “Ar’n’t I a Woman? Speech to the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, 1851”
d) Frances E. W. Harper, “Ethiopia,” “An Appeal to my Country Women,” “Woman’s Political Future
*3. William Wordsworth, The Prelude, Books I & XI, 1805, “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey,” “Michael,” “Resolution and Independence,” “The Ruined Cottage,” Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1802)
4. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus
5. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

F. c1850-1915
*1. Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” “O Captain! My Captain!” “In Paths Untrodden,” “When I Heard at the Close of the Day” Emily Dickinson, “Why—do they shut Me out of Heaven?” (Poem 248), “Over the fence—“ (251), “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain”(280), “Some keep the Sabbath going to church—“ (324), “After great pain a formal feeling comes—“ (341), “Much Madness is divinest Sense” (435), “I was the slightest in the House—“ (486), “They shut me up in Prose—“ (613), “I dwell in Possibility—“ (657)
*2. Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
*3. George Eliot, Middlemarch
4. Charles Dickens, Bleak House

G. 1915-1945
*1. T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Tradition and the Individual Talent,” The Waste Land
*2. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
*3. Americo Paredes, George Washington Gomez
4. Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence
5. William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

H. 1945-1968
*1. Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot
*2. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
*3. a) Sylvia Plath, “Morning Son,” “Lady Lazarus,” “Daddy,” “Blackberrying,” “The Colossus,” “The Applicant,” “Cut,” and “The Arrival of the Bee Box”
b) Theodore Rothke, “The Waking,” “I Knew a Woman,” “In a Dark Time,” “Root Cellar,” “My Papa’s Waltz”
4. Truman Capote, In Cold Blood
5. Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” “Good Country People,” “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” “The Artificial Nigger”

I. 1969-present
*1. Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon
*2. a) Gloria Anzaldua, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, 2nd ed., Introduction and Chapters 1-7
b) Lorna Dee Cervantes, from Emplumada, “Uncle’s First Rabbit,” “Cannery Town in August,” “Beneath the Shadow of the Freeway,” “For Virginia Chavez,” “Poem for the Young Man…”
c) Cherrie Moraga, From The Last Generation “Queer Aztlan: the Re-formation of Chicano Tribe”; From: Loving in the War Years, Expanded 2nd ed., “Loving in the Way Years,” “La Guera,” “A Long Line of Vendidas,” “Looking for the Insatiable Woman,” and “Out of our Revolutionary Minds Toward a Pedagogy of Revolt”
3. V. Nabokov, Pale Fire
4. Edwidge Danticat, Breath, Eyes, Memory

J. Additional Lists
1. Lanehart, Sonja L. African American Women’s Language: Discourse, Education, and Identity. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009.

Even with this monster list before me, I take comfort in the fact that I have already read many of the larger novels and have had the advantage of having some of the more complicated and cryptic texts explained to me by my professors and other literature experts. Even so, I have a long, hard, and sometimes boring road ahead of me.

These are the works that this blog will be about. Again, if there is a work on the M.A. Reading List that I have not chosen but you would like to discuss, please feel free to let me know. I may have read it before and just haven’t chosen it. And if I have not read it, I am open to having guest bloggers. Maybe I’ll be convinced to change my selections…I’ve got a good year to change my mind before I have to finalize this thing.

Friday, June 4, 2010

For this I have read Moby Dick twice...

In the Fall of 2011 I will take a four hour written exam which will cover such works as The Canterbury Tales, Paradise Lost, To the Lighthouse, and Song of Solomon, just to name a few. Two days after that, I will be sitting in front of a panel of three of UTSA’s English professors. The first one will be an expert in literature before the 1700s, the next, literature from 1700-1900, and the last, literature from 1900 and after. They will continue asking me questions about the required texts, but they will also ask about the works I chose to be tested over-works such as Doctor Faustus, Gulliver’s Travels, Pride and Prejudice, and The Sound and the Fury. One of the three professors will also be my chair: the professor I asked to be the one to help me through the entire M.A. exam process.

This second oral part of the exam will last an hour, and after that hour it will be decided whether or not I pass or fail. In order to pass I’ll need a majority vote in my favor. If I don’t get that, I fail and have to take the exam again another semester if I want to receive my Master of Arts degree in English from The University of Texas at San Antonio.

I have watched a few of my peers go through this process, and it seems that they more worried and anxious they were, the more they studied, and the better they did. It will probably be one of those things I will be overly stressed about, but because of that, I will be so much more prepared and feel better while taking the exam, as well as do better.

So, all of that was just the extremely long-winded way of me saying that I have created this blog as a study guide. I needed a way to keep myself focused and motivated to not only read books that are on the M.A. list, but also study them and take notes on them that will help me on the exam. I chose a blog because I realize the value in studying with others, but at the same time, I don’t like studying with others. So I figure I could put my thoughts out there, and anyone who wishes to get involved and comment, or offer so of their own insight would be welcome to do. Plus, if there are other students who are currently going through this same process and they can at all benefit from this, even better. Also, a blog is a great place to store my notes for easy referencing. And this will be one area in which my current pace of one class a semester will prove helpful. Because I have about a year and a half before I will take my exam, I have plenty of time (which includes two full summers) to thoroughly go over all of my reading and do as much research as possible.

In the next few weeks, I will be posting the books I chose, and a very preliminary schedule of what books I will be posting notes on during the summer. Most of my posts will be on books on the M.A. list, but I will also include reviews on books I will be reading for fun (so as to not lose my mind); good M.A. exam questions that either I myself came up with, or that other students and possibly some professors have proposed; charts or graphs that maybe map out family/relationship trees for those books with a lot of characters; and sometimes (probably a lot of times actually) I will need to revisit books I have already noted because I am either taking a class that has required me to read them again, or there has been something new pointed out about a work that is worth mentioning for the exam.

But wait, there is more!

If there is a book that is on the list but I have not chosen, or a book I have chosen but I have not covered yet, and you would like for me to go ahead and cover it for whatever reason (got a big paper on it, test on it, or you are taking the exam before me), feel free to let me know and I will do my best to accommodate you. Also, I not only welcome requests, but I also welcome guest bloggers, especially anyone who has been through the process before, or who knows particular works really well and can shed some light. The more ideas and insight we can get on some of these monster novels (Moby Dick, I am looking in your direction), the better prepared we can be.

Hopefully, this blog will be as helpful to someone out there as it will be to me. And I wish I could say that none of my future posts will be as long as this one, but as I glance at the copy of Bleak House that sits on my desk, I know I would just be lying.