Plan II: Sample Literature Exam

What follows is, first, a sample question of the sort that might appear on one of the Literature Area exams and, second, an annotated sample essay written in response to the question. Please study both question and response to get some understanding of the kinds of thinking and writing that will be expected on any of the Literature Area exams. If you have questions or comments, please direct them to the Chair of your Graduate Studies Committee (GSC) or to the Director of Graduate Studies.

Sample QuestionSample EssayNotes on the Essay

Sample Question

British Literature, 1790–1900

Choose one of the following passages and write an essay that (1) establishes—based on the chosen passage—some significant literary, intellectual, and/or cultural context and presents a thesis having to do with that context; (2) explains, by a close reading of the text, why the chosen passage is important both to the work from which it is taken and to the thesis of the present essay; and (3) discusses the context and thesis in relation to at least two other works from the area reading list.

Passage 1:

Commerce has set the mark of selfishness,
The signet of its all-enslaving power
Upon a shining ore, and called it gold:
Before whose image bow the vulgar great,
The mob of peasants, nobles, priests, and kings
And with blind feelings reverence the power
That grinds them to the dust of misery.
But in the temple of the hireling hearts
Gold is a living god, and rules in scorn
All earthly things but virtue.

Queen Mab, V. 53-63

Passage 2:

                  By the way,
The works of women are symbolical.
We sew, sew, prick our fingers, dull our sight
Producing what? A pair of slippers, sire,
To stumble over and vex you . . . "curse that stool!"
Or else at best, a cushion, where you lean
and sleep, and dream of something we are not
But would be fore your sake. Alas, alas!
This hurst most, this—that, after all, we are paid
The worth of our work, perhaps.

Aurora Leigh, I.455-64

Sample Essay, focusing on the Shelley passage


If there is one issue that is utterly pervasive in nineteenth-century British literature, it would have to be the social, cultural, and economic tensions brought about by the emergence of broad-scale industrial capitalism.[1] The rise of capitalism shook the traditional hierarchies of the British social order to their very roots. In the face of money—and the power that goes with it—older notions of a society held together by an established state church or by aristocratic bonds of fealty and rank seemed quaint if not hopelessly anachronistic. Capitalism wrought a revolutionary change in every sense of the word, and, of course, this capitalistic transformation of British society is never far from the surface in the literature of the period—the same period that saw the rise of the great industrial towns, devastating urban poverty, and Marx and Engels' utopian theorizing about class relations.

Perhaps one of the most vehement anti-capitalist voices was that of P. B. Shelley, especially the young, idealistic P. B. Shelley who wrote Queen Mab. [2]  In the passage above, Mab leaves no question at all about the effects of capitalism ("Commerce" in Mab's terms) on human consciousness: "Commerce" leaves an inescapable "mark of selfishness"; it is an "all-enslaving power." What is more, "Commerce" proves to be an even more sinister controller of human minds than the monarchy or organized religion (Shelley's twin demons in Queen Mab), for the allure of capitalism is apparently independent of social class or aristocratic status: "The mob of peasants, nobles, priests, and kings" all fall under the spell of money, and all are in consequence ground into "the dust of misery." Gold has come to replace god in the "hireling hearts" of the people. Gold is very nearly all-powerful, dominating every fiber of the human soul except "virtue."

This concluding emphasis on an indomitable "virtue" highlights the place Shelley's analysis of Commerce holds the poem as a whole. [3]  Interestingly, the destructive force of capitalism follows the same pattern for Shelley as religion itself—it illustrates the dangerous psychology of a kind of idol worship. For instance, elsewhere in Queen Mab Shelley explains the origin of religion: in a nutshell—(1) people are frightened by and do not understand the complex workings of the universe around them, (2) they attribute all mysteries of nature to some unseen force that they then label "God," (3) following patterns of familiar political structures, they personify this "God," imagining him as a kind of cosmic King figure, and finally (4) they bow down and prostrate themselves before the image of this "God," forgetting that the figure is—quite literally in Shelley's view—the image of human ignorance. The key problem here lies in the personification or reification of the divine. Shelley—as a quick glance through, say, "Ode to the West Wind" amply demonstrates—is perfectly happy to believe in and orient himself toward some abstract concept like "goodness" or "beauty" or "virtue." But if that abstraction is then given concrete form as, for instance, a personified God or (in the passage above) a "shining ore" called "gold," then it turns people into "slaves" or "hirelings." People willingly sacrifice their own powers of self-determination and individual thought to the "blind" worship of an image of earthly power—that they do so willingly simply demonstrates the imperialistic potential of capitalist economics. The unalloyed good of "virtue" still exists, but people who are blinded by the glare of the "living god" of gold can neither see it nor recognize its value.

Other writers from nineteenth-century Britain also expressed deep suspicions of the emerging capitalist economy, though rarely with the vehemence of Shelley. [4] One thinks, for instance, of how Browning's Aurora Leigh casts the influence of capitalism in distinctly gendered terms: it is "women's work" around the house—cleaning, sewing, and the like—that is specifically devalued by the money economy of capitalism. (When Aurora Leigh says bitterly, in the second quotation above, that "we are paid / The worth of our work," she is pointing to precisely this capitalist devaluation of women's labor.) Aurora Leigh must fight against a rigorously gendered and economically motivated ideology in order to pursue her poetic aspirations.  [5]  And John Ruskin, in his Stones of Venice, pursues a line of thinking quite similar to Shelley's. Using the quirky asymmetry of gothic architecture as his overarching metaphor, Ruskin focuses (arguably) on the dehumanizing tendencies of a capitalist drive toward efficient mass production. Gothic architecture, Ruskin contends, is more beautiful than more modern, classical architecture precisely because former allows for and even celebrates the idiosyncratic contributions of individual artisans. Classical architecture, by contrast, enforces a drive toward symmetry and "perfection" that, in effect, devalues the contributions of individual artisans. (In Marx and Engels' terms, the laborers are thus alienated from the products of their labor—they are converted from creative individuals into automatons.) This has everything to do with the emergence of capitalism; indeed, Ruskin's analysis suggests a kind of prescient critique of Fordism, assembly lines, mass production, interchangeable parts, and so on. Like Shelley, Ruskin saw the will toward perfection in art as a misguided idolatry that turns people into robots, citizens into mere functionaries.

One of the most fascinating of these anxious treatments of capitalism and "Commerce" comes late in the century with George Bernard Shaw's play Mrs. Warren's Profession. [6] The whole drama turns on the collision between an assumed moral behavior and the imperatives of economic necessity. In a familiar Shavian pattern, readers of the play are initially set against the flamboyant Mrs. Warren precisely because her wealth and status derive from her trade in prostitution and bordello management. But Mrs. Warren comes to a very able defense of her position: the contemporary world offered no legitimate economic opportunities for women that were not utterly usury or even dangerous. It only makes sense, if one hopes to keep body and soul together and maintain some individual freedom, to go into "business" for oneself—and the most profitable business for a woman is prostitution. Thus, with Mrs. Warren we have what appears to be the polar opposite of Shelley and Ruskin. Here is a person who is not ground into the "dust of misery" by the money economy—quite the opposite. Thanks to her courageous manipulation of that economy Mrs. Warren is able to throw off the subjection and degradation to which she would have been subject according to her (and Shaw's) analysis of late-Victorian culture. For Mrs. Warren, capitalism is the path to freedom and self reliance rather than the onerous superstructure of economic oppression.

But this is too simple a reading. However admirable Mrs. Warren's rise to riches may be—and Vivie for a while finds it so—her character crumbles again by play's end, when it is suddenly revealed that Mrs. Warren is still active in her profession even though the motives of economic necessity are no longer in play. Naturally, the coldly moral Vivie must turn her back on her own mother and throw herself into her own drab independence as an actuarial accountant. Readers are left with a puzzle that certainly complicates the clear dualism of Shelley's anti-capitalist stance. For Shelley, "Commerce" is an unequivocal evil which grinds its unwitting victims into dust. For Shaw, however, such an easy polarity misses the crucial point that "Commerce"—capitalism—is itself the product of human endeavor. One cannot see it as a kind of external evil foisted upon a heretofore innocent and benevolent people. Rather, Shaw's audience is to recognize that the very simplicity of their economic and moral behaviors generate the contradictions upon which Mrs. Warren thrives. "Commerce" may well be a dehumanizing evil in itself and it may drive people to cruel, immoral, and degrading behaviors, but we need also recognize that "commerce is us," so to speak. If, with Vivie, we condemn such behavior, we are condemning what we ourselves have caused. [7]

Notes on the Essay

1. The opening paragraph, though brief, establishes one key context for the understanding and interpretation of 19th-century British literature. The exam format will give you plenty of leeway to formulate your own historical/interpretive context; just make sure that the context you choose to write about is fully appropriate to both the literary area and to the specific passage that will be the basis for the essay. In the present case, the Shelley passage focuses quite explicitly on capitalism; the Browning passage on feminism and the status of women. Either context could be the basis for a fine essay. (It is difficult to see, however, how one might write about, say, "natural beauty" or "city vs. country" or "the rise of Science and Darwinism" even though these are other crucial contexts for the period. They simply are not supported by the topic passages.) [return]

2. The topic sentence of this paragraph turns the focus specifically to the topic passage from Queen Mab. Note that the paragraph itself concentrates on a close, analytical reading of the topic passage itself, and this reading is developed with ample quotations directly from the passage. The result is a concrete, detailed, well-supported explication of Shelley's writing. Such evidence of an ability to write closely analytical prose should appear somewhere in your essay—probably (but not necessarily) in the second or third paragraph where the context is first being explained and developed. [return]

3. This paragraph expands the scope of the argument somewhat, concentrating not so much on the micro-analysis of the topic passage as on the macro-analysis of the passage's place in the work as a whole. In the present case, this is accomplished by following the Shelleyan parallel of commerce and religion. With other writers and other works, of course, the specific technique will differ. The important point is to present a sense of how the topic passage fits into the work as a whole. [return]

4. At this point, the essay moves beyond Shelley to begin to bring in other writing from the relevant literary period. Here it seems useful to bring in material from the Browning passage presented in the original question. One need not work both topic/passages into the essay, but if they both fit, then quoting from the second topic/passage can lend a concreteness to the general argument. [return]

5. Here, by way of a mid-paragraph transition, the essay moves on to discuss (albeit briefly) another writer's critical views on the rise of a capitalist economy. [return]

6. And here, the essay shifts to an extended (two paragraph) analysis of a kind of critical counter-example: Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession. Note that the analysis of such works does not go into the same kind of detail—quotation, for example—as the close reading of the topic/passage, but that it nonetheless demonstrates both a complete familiarity with the literary work and an ability to see thematic connections between literary works from the same period. [return]

7. The essay does not require a separate conclusion paragraph. After all, at just six or seven paragraphs it isn't really necessary to recapitulate the steps of the argument. Still, a few gestures back to the essay's opening concerns—in this case, Shelley and "commerce"—lends a kind of finality to the piece. [return]

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