Sample Senior Essay Proposals

Model Proposal #1
This Island’s Mine: Shakespeare’s Romances and the Power of Language in Ulysses
            Much has been made of the role of Shakespeare’s tragedies in James Joyce’s Ulysses, particularly the allusive, even allegorical role of Hamlet in shaping the trajectory and consciousness of Stephen Dedalus. Yet surprisingly little has been said on Joyce’s relationship with Shakespeare’s romances (namely, Pericles; Prince of Tyre, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest)[1]. Very little scholarly work has discussed either the direct or implicit references to these later plays, and even less has addressed their structural relevance to Joyce’s work. Though Hamlet may be the primary Shakespearean reference point for Ulysses, seemingly surface allusions to the romances are in fact essential to the novel’s interests in redemption, art and most importantly language. More specifically, I propose to explore the ways in which Joyce uses Shakespeare’s romances to articulate the dynamic between mastery over language and mastery over artistic self-expression of the interior.
I plan to begin at the beginning—that is, with “Telemachus,” and a seemingly offhand quip by Buck Mulligan: “The rage of Caliban at not seeing his face in a mirror, he said. If Wilde were only alive to see you!” (Joyce 1.143). I contend that this early reference to Caliban frames Stephen’s struggle for independence as an artist as one also for control over the presentation of his own image through language. Joyce introduces Shakespeare’s monster through the gregarious Mulligan, a man whose flashy linguistic and textual fluency overwhelms Stephen’s more cautious persona. The remark is characteristically intertextual, a rephrasing of Oscar Wilde’s epigraph to The Picture of Dorian Gray, a piece of brief yet incisive commentary on the tension between Realist and avant-garde art: “The nineteenth century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass. / The nineteenth century dislike of Romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass” (Wilde 3). Two potential readings surface. Most scholars contend that Joyce is engaged primarily with Wilde as a fellow, near contemporary Irish writer. In this case the question is semi-historical and largely abstract. Realist art has the possibility for honesty, yet the portrait it produces is often unlikable; it depicts an accurate exterior at odds with the interior and the desired self-perception. Romantic art demonstrates the artist’s ability, creating an image too beautiful to be representative of either the subject’s exterior or interior. Yet an interpretation that prioritizes Joyce’s engagement with Shakespeare provokes prioritizing Caliban as a key touchstone for Stephen throughout the novel; if Caliban is the focal point, rather than Wilde, the concern shifts to the—far more comprehensive—question of Stephen’s desire for mastery of self-expression.
            Both Stephen and Caliban are highly aware of their relative lack of control over language, and a consequent lack of control over self-presentation. Two passages seem particularly relevant to this method of analysis: Prospero’s introduction of Caliban,
[I] took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour
One thing or other: when thou didst not, savage,
Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like
A thing most brutish, I endow’d thy purposes
With words that made them known. (Shakespeare, 1.2.354-358)
and Caliban’s reply, almost a second introduction, this time by himself:
You taught me language; and my profit on’t
Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language! (Shakespeare, 1.2.363-365)
Language is power, not only as a marker of self-expression, but as one of the civilization and, perhaps more importantly, artistry. It is Prospero’s command of language, much like Mulligan’s, that enables him to continue this twisted master-slave, master-student relationship.
            I propose that this brief, yet deeply intertextual moment is a critical lens through which to examine the rest of Ulysses. I plan to trace this paradigm first through the Telemachiad, honing in on Joyce’s combined incorporation of Ariel’s song into Stephen’s extended meditation on a corpse on the beach at the close of “Proteus.” “Aeolus” is likewise a point of interest as it most directly addresses Joyce’s preoccupation with rhetoric and style, and Stephen’s linguistic reticence, self-consciousness, and susceptibility to persuasion. I also plan to examine the various mentions of Tempest in “Scylla and Charybdis,” particularly those focusing on Prospero and his powers of artistry.
            This helps to open up a conversation about Shakespeare’s other romances. Of the already minimal scholarly discussion of these plays, there is still less on Pericles, Cymbeline, and Winter’s Tale than Tempest. I contend that the relevance of Winter’s Tale has been particularly overlooked, and that Stephen and Bloom’s frequent corrupted references to this text have important implications for Ulysses’ linguistic and artistic schematics. Firstly, the Bloom family unit is uncannily similar to Shakespeare’s Sicilian royalty, most notably in the unspoken grief of both protagonist’s lost sons, and the ways in which the authors address the modes of atonement and recovery. Indeed, it is not unreasonable to draw connections between Stephen’s cynical discourse on wives in “Scylla and Charybdis” and Bloom’s museum musings in “Lestrygonians” as the King’s competing theories of female sexuality. Both men think and verbalize permutations of Leontes’ angry ramblings in Act I Scene II, and both scenes are contextualized by discussions of linguistic and artistic control—here, one and the same—and perhaps more importantly, explicit discussions of attaining freedom through those mediums. While I have less experience with Pericles and Cymbeline and their particular employment in Joyce’s work, I think there is a lot of potential supplemental material on the gender politics and the place of women in Ulysses’ larger schematics on the role of mastery of language in self-presentation.
As yet, I am uncertain of the role of scholarly research in my thesis plans. The only substantive body of work on this topic as yet is largely concerned with Caliban’s potential Irishness, and the difficult dynamics of artistic self-definition for a colonized island. My planned methodology is, admittedly, largely internal to Joyce and Shakespeare’s work, even closed-off from much current scholarship. I hope to counteract this potential danger with a firm grounding in the precise intellectual history surrounding Shakespeare’s romances in early twentieth century Ireland.
Model Proposal #2
Pranks, Winks, and Knowing Artifice: J.D. Salinger as a Master Trickster
“I’m quite illiterate, but I read a lot.”
—J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
            While enduringly popular with the American reading public, particularly young people and aspiring writers, the works of J.D. Salinger have, somewhat perplexingly, failed to generate much in the way of serious scholarship. Shortly following the near-universal acclaim of The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger’s “Franny” and “Zooey” and subsequent installments meditating on the Glass family were met with increasingly critical resentment and weariness of Salinger’s devotion to a set of precocious, misunderstood geniuses, so much so that by the time “Hapworth 16, 1924” appeared in The New Yorker in 1965, it was “greeted with unhappy, even embarrassed silence” (Malcolm). Since then, many authors and fans have sought to redeem Salinger from a writerly perspective (Samuels; Kotzen and Beller), while his status in the world of literary criticism remains uncertain. What qualities do readers (especially writer-readers) admire in Salinger’s stories? And what about these qualities and others make Salinger’s body of work difficult or unappealing from a critical standpoint? Devotees often speak of Salinger’s writing in terms of its mysterious, heightened quality—Janet Malcolm notes “its fundamental fantastic character,” and Adam Gopnick refers to the recurrence of “childlike enchantment” in the work.
            I plan to explore the mysterious, heightened quality of Salinger’s writing by putting language to the techniques and devices that contribute to a sense of the fantastical. And I propose to talk about these techniques and devices in the context of writerly tricks, games, and pranks. Perhaps much of what lends Salinger’s work its magical character is, in fact, magic, in the sense of sleight of hand and intentional artifice and trickery. Salinger’s writing is full of feints and winks and a willingness to play. For example, Salinger’s signature snappy vernacular dialogue often takes on properties of theatrical improvisation through which characters play off one another with the aim of keeping the conversation going to reach a point of emotional payoff. This is particularly evident in the exchange between Seymour and Sybil in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” in which the collaborative back-and-forth between the two players leads to the creation of the myth of the bananafish. A kind of prank Salinger plays on the reader is the couching of his narratives in the authorship of the fictional Buddy Glass and the creation of a Glass superstructure of linked stories. In the opening section of “Zooey,” Buddy says, “what I’m about to offer isn’t really a short story at all but a sort of prose home movie” (Franny and Zooey 47). Buddy’s proclamation of documentary is complicated by the fact that we know this is fictional story by Salinger and, even within the logic of the Glass family chronicling, it’s clear that Buddy was not there for the events of the story. Buddy, like his trickster creator, seems to be almost daring the reader to accuse him of invention. Salinger also incorporates visual tricks in his narratives in what Martin Bidney calls “aesthetic epiphanies” (117). Bidney talks about how the turning point in a Salinger story is often accompanied by a game of fort-da with a coded aesthetic object, such as the blue-coated Phoebe disappearing and reappearing as she goes round and round the carousel in Catcher, or the little girl turning her doll’s head to face Seymour in the poem in “Zooey.” Other forms of games and tricks in Salinger include the use of framing devices, the employment of a play-set New York that is at once familiar and fake, and the winking italicization of words and syllables to inflect layers of meaning.
            By using literary tricks and games and playfully drawing attention to his fiction’s constructedness, Salinger leaves his secrets hiding in plain sight. In this way, Salinger is not giving us the typical things to interpret—characters don’t stand for things; plots are abandoned ambiguously—which may point to the frustrating quality that has made Salinger difficult from a critical standpoint and has contributed to many critics’ dismissals of Salinger as cute or gimmicky. There’s a quality of beating readers to the punch and explicitly showing them how his effects are achieved. Moreover, by working in framed miniature, Salinger does not take on the big social issues that often invite literary analysis—George Steiner once complained that Salinger “demands of his readers nothing in the way of literacy or political interest.” When thinking about Salinger as troublesome to critics, it is important to note that, conversely, critics and analysts were difficult for Salinger. His works contain a number of scathing portraits of academia and psychoanalysis, including the pompous Lane Coutell bragging about his A-grade English paper in “Franny,” the hopeless teachers at Holden Caulfield’s lousy prep school, and the amateur-analyst figure of Muriel’s mother, who tries to diagnose Seymour in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters.” Salinger’s work seems to favor a phenomenological approach, emphasizing the experience of reading over interpretation, one that might win the embrace of Holden, who reflects, “I’m quite illiterate, but I read a lot” (24).
            In analyzing Salinger as a purveyor of tricks, who in some ways defies critical study, I will look at his earlier, uncollected stories to track the development of mastery. How does Salinger’s playful technique change over time? Are the tricks in the earlier stories more transparent, less well pulled-off? Are they more gimmicky? Many of the early stories, including “The Varioni Brothers,” “I’m Crazy,” and “Slight Rebellion Off Madison,” contain precursors and initial sketches of characters and situations that feature prominently in The Catcher in the Rye and the Glass family stories, allowing for the tracking of specific approaches and tropes. As part of my investigation of Salinger’s early work, I plan to visit and perform research at Princeton’s Firestone Library, which houses a sizeable archive of letters and stories, including several unpublished manuscripts.
            To contextualize Salinger in the tradition of the American short story, I will examine him against two of his contemporaries—Ring Lardner and William Saroyan. Both Lardner (whom Salinger refers to with admiration in Catcher and “Zooey”) and Saroyan once enjoyed popular success as short story smiths while retaining a kind of hack status in the literary world. Lardner was known first as a sportswriter, and Saroyan was also a playwright and pop songwriter. They each employed tricks and gimmicks similar to Salinger’s, but neither has endured to the degree Salinger has. I am interested in the ways in which Salinger imitates and explodes these tropes, and what role his aligning himself with these perceived hacks plays in his critical reception. The overall goal is to examine J.D. Salinger as a popular success and a critical difficulty, putting language to the literary trickery that renders his work at once enigmatic and completely captivating.
Works Cited
Bidney, Martin. “The Aestheticist Epiphanies of J.D. Salinger: Bright-Hued Circles, Spheres, and Patches; ‘Elemental’ Joy and Pain.” Style. 34.1 (2000): 117-131. Print.
Gopnick, Adam. “Postscript: J.D. Salinger.” The New Yorker. 8 Feb. 2010. Web.
Malcolm, Janet. “Justice to J.D. Salinger.” The New York Review of Books 21 Jun. 2001. Web.
Salinger, J.D. Franny and Zooey. New York: Little, Brown, 1961. Print.
Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Little, Brown, 1951. Print.
Samuels, David. “Marginal Notes on the Inner Lives of People with Cluttered Apartments in the East Seventies.” Rereadings: Seventeen writers revisit books they love. ed. Anne Fadiman. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. 3-17 Print.
Steiner, George. “The Salinger Industry.” The Nation. 14 Nov. 1959. Print. 360-363.
With love and squalor: 14 writers respond to the work of J.D. Salinger. ed. Kip Kotzen and Thomas Beller. New York: Broadway Books, 2001. Print.
Additional Resources
Chabon, Michael. Introduction. The Wes Anderson Collection. By Matt Zoller Seitz. New York: Abrams, 2013. 21-23. Print.
Geismar, Maxwell. “The Wise Child and the New Yorker School of Fiction.” American Moderns: From Rebellion to Conformity. New York: Hill and Wang, 1958. 195-209. Print.
Kazin, Alfred. “J.D. Salinger: ‘Everybody’s Favorite.’” Contemporaries. Boston: Little, Brown, 1962. 230-240. Print.
Lardner, Ring. Selected Stories. New York: Penguin Group, 1997. Print.
Salinger, J.D. Nine Stories. New York: Little, Brown, 1953. Print.
Salinger, J.D. Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. New York: Little, Brown, 1963. Print.
Saroyan, William. The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze. New York: New Directions, 1934. Print.
Smith, Dominic. “Salinger’s Nine Stories: Fifty Years Later.” The Antioch Review. 61.4 (2003): 639-649. Print.
Model Proposal #3
A Portrait of the Artist as a Murderer:
Distant Star, Hegel, and the Aesthetics of Human Rights
            Roberto Bolaño’s novella Distant Star tells the story of Carlos Wieder, a Chilean avant-garde poet who commits a series of brutal murders during the Pinochet regime. The novella is narrated from the perspective of Arturo B., another poet whose simultaneous attraction and aversion to Wieder motivate both the novella’s plot and its thematic concern with the relationship between art and violence. This concern permeates the entire structure of the novella and informs its internal logic: the poet-murderer Wieder unites the creative and violent impulse in the psyche of a single character; the strange affinity between the murderous Wieder and artistic Arturo combines them in the interpersonal relationship between two characters; and the portrayal of Santiago’s art world during the brutal Pinochet regime merges them in both setting and plot. Combined, these relationships suggest that one can only understand violence and art in relation to one another.
            Furthermore, if one admits—as Bolaño certainly does—that all violence is in some sense political, Distant Star’s insistence on the intimacy between art and violence calls attention to a broader relationship between art and politics. It links the artistic activity of Wieder, who in addition to being a murderer is an air-force pilot in the Chilean army and a self-proclaimed fascist, with the brutality and human rights violations of the Pinochet regime, urging the reader to seek a language common to both aesthetic and political experience. This in turn raises a host of critical questions regarding both areas. How, for instance, does a creative act commonly associated with the individual affect a political act commonly associated with the social? Can the application of aesthetic theory to politics yield novel insights in political theory, or, conversely, can the application of political theory to aesthetics yield novel insights in aesthetic theory? Is it even possible to theorize either as an autonomous domain, or do they both flow from a common source?
            For my senior thesis, I would like to draw upon my background as double-major in English and political science to address these questions through a specifically Hegelian reading of Distant Star. I believe Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit—both in itself and through the critical discourse it has inspired among later theorists such as Lacan, Kojeve, and Butler—provides a particularly fruitful theoretical framework with which to study the intersection between art and politics, as it describes the development of self-consciousness in a manner that lays the foundations for both artistic activity and political organization. It underlies the former in positing that the world is socially constructed—that it is, in other words, malleable and open to the kind of existential reinterpretation that is the domain of art—and it underlies the latter in describing the emergence of individual, historical, and desiring entities; in other words, the preconditions that both enable and require politics. Hegelian philosophy thus provide a single vocabulary with which to analyze both aesthetic and political impulses, both of which shape the formal, thematic, and narrative logic of Distant Star and the aforementioned theoretical questions that it raises.
Within this framework, I would like to focus more narrowly on the novella’s treatment of human rights. Hegel’s dialectic may prove particularly illuminating in this regard due to two important traits it shares in common with both popular human rights discourse and Bolaño’s specific political and aesthetic vision. First, the endpoint of Hegel’s historical teleology is a state of “mutual recognition of equals,” an ideal that sounds strikingly similar to the utopic society imagined in legal human rights documents, which are also premised on the concept of recognition, and to Distant Star’s formal structure that makes incessant narrative detours into the lives of seemingly peripheral characters and which democratically allocates to these characters through its stylistic consistency a voice of high literary quality. Second, both Hegel’s dialectic and human rights discourse encounter the same semantic challenge of attempting to affirm in the present tense a phenomenon—self-consciousness for Hegel and universality for human rights—that has yet to come into being at the moment of its theorizing, a paradox that the schema of Bolano’s novella brings to the fore.
            A Hegelian reading of Distant Star may thus untangle the linkages between art and politics within the specific context of human rights. Indeed, one can understand the novella in one sense as a literary enactment of the abstract relations posited in Phenomenology: the duality of Wieder’s creative and violent nature; the ambiguous relationship between the murderous Wieder and artistic Arturo; and the implied kinship between Santiago’s art world and Pinochet’s rights-violating regime appear as concrete manifestations of Hegel’s simultaneously creative and destructive self-consciousnesses. The final aim of my project is to leverage this interdisciplinary framework and the reading of Distant Star that it engenders to lay the foundations for an argument that equivocates the political notion of the universality of human rights with the aesthetic notion of the intentional fallacy, and which applies the latter’s insights—as explicated by theorists such as Wimsatt, Focault, and Barthes—to the former.  Ultimately, I hope that this argument may illuminate both the aesthetic and political shape of the “mutual recognition of equals” that Bolaño, Hegelians, and human rights advocates all envisage as their ideal.

[1] I have decided to exclude the occasionally included The Two Noble Kinsmen, on the grounds of both its contested authorship, and of Joyce’s own apparent disinterest in the play.