2012 Thesis Abstracts

Christopher Antonacci. “‘I See a Rhinoceros’: Painting our Life Stories in John Sayles’ Lone Star and Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.” Directed by William Krier.

John Sayles’ Lone Star (1996) and Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011) are films that establish alternative conceptions of time through the use of unconventional flashback techniques.  Though quite different from each other in both form and content, each film creates a world in which time exists with flexible linearity, like a string that can bend back on itself.  The main characters in each film – Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) in Lone Star and Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) in Midnight in Paris – are endowed with the ability to engage with, manipulate, create, and even delete the past in order to enhance their present.  Though initially both men harbor preconceived notions of the past as easily explained (for Sam) and transcendently romantic (for Gil), both come to terms with the subjective nature of history and subsequently relinquish the denial of their complex relationships to the past.  With the debilitating manifestations of denial gone they find that they possess the “antidote for the emptiness of existence” in their freedom to paint, write, and live their own lives.

Sayles and Allen thus explore the notion of life as art.  The poet, the writer, the painter, and the individual, in order to distinguish himself, his worlds, and his lives from inclusive and altogether typical versions of selves and worlds and lives that others create for him, must assume command over the past so that the narrative of his life accommodates and celebrates his uniqueness, his singular artistic outlook that colors rather than homogenizes.  The triumphant individual human life is not the one defined by attainment of pre-existent universal goals, but rather the one characterized by continual redefinitions of the past and, therefore, of the self. 

These artful lives offer a fresh way of looking at the human potential to live.  A paradigm for such a triumphant existence cannot by definition exist – and neither Lone Star nor Midnight in Paris tries to establish one – but integral to this life is an unrelinquished power to manipulate the past– to view its so-called realities as flexible subjective projections over which the individual has utter control.  The story of your life is not what happens to you, Sayles and Allen seem to say, but rather what you tell yourself happens to you.

Mary Buechler. “Identity Formation in the First Three Novels of James Baldwin.” Directed by José Limón.

Critics commonly consider the first three novels of James Baldwin to be separate works: the first dealing with race, the second dealing with sexuality, and the third dealing with the awkwardness of friendship. Each Baldwin critic that I consulted confined him or herself to a single novel, seldom drawing connections between Baldwin’s various books. My thesis seeks to standardize the critical vocabulary used to discuss Baldwin’s novels, therefore enabling a reading of all three as part of a single conversation. This more complete reading sees Baldwin’s first three novels as an unfolding and responsive project on identity formation. That is, the process by which a person discovers his own inborn identity. A healthy identity formation can be compromised by the influence of identity constructs, which are inflexibly defined categories that imply that if one fits a particular racial, sexual, or religious descriptor, he or she must also comply with the stereotypical connotations of that descriptor. For example, “the irreligious are heartless” might be one idea borne out of identity constructs. Baldwin believes that Americans have a particular problem with these pre-packaged identities. As a marginalized minority writer, Baldwin believes that escaping the idea of identity constructs is the only way to experience a healthy identity formation.

Though each book is usually described as a single-issue novel, I believe that Baldwin conflates racial, sexual, and religious imagery in all three books. If racial, sexual, and religious identity constructs stand in for one essential issue—that is, minority status—then all three books are continuing the same conversation. Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) shows a young boy caught beneath the pressures of American identity constructs. Ultimately, he succumbs to a false identity formation in order to be accepted by his Harlem community. Next, Giovanni’s Room (1956) displaces its protagonist to Paris in an attempt to escape American identity constructs and achieve a healthy identity formation. Despite his relocation, the character continues to conceptualize his identity in terms of constructs; and thus, mere physical distance from America fails to free him. It is not until Another Country (1962) that Baldwin discovers a solution: Rather than traveling to a distant country, the many characters of this third novel create “another country”—a new kind of social space where supportive dialectic and self-development are possible. In short, the characters create psychological distance from identity constructs by listening to each other, regardless of personal differences.

There is a catch to truly sympathetic friendships: one man cannot carry two people’s pain for long. Internalizing the truth and sometimes the pain of a friend’s identity can overwhelm a man. Love is the only way of surviving without identity constructs; but ironically, love is that which hurts the most.

“Liberation by love” or “liberation by listening,” may seem an awfully simple solution to an ingrained cultural problem like identity constructs. Yet, the silliness that modern readers find in that solution only tells us that we have not solved the problem. Our hesitation about diverse identities genuinely interacting may only indicate our unwillingness to let that happen in our modern day. As Baldwin shows us with Go Tell It on the Mountain, Giovanni’s Room, and especially Another Country: perhaps listening, love, and sympathy are not such simplistic solutions to the problem of identity formation. Indeed, we cannot mock what we have not earnestly tried.

Justin DeRosa. “Tolkien’s Holy Water: Wrath, Grace, Providence, Freedom.” Directed by John Staud.

The Lord of the Rings is a truly remarkable work that addresses myriad issues—ranging from industrialism to politics to storytelling. Among these issues, Tolkien’s attitudes regarding nature and religion in particular stood out to me—and during my readings of The Lord of the Rings, I noticed that Tolkien’s emphasis on water, a manifestation of the natural, blends the two issues together.

My study specifically focuses on forming a comprehensive analysis of water as it relates to religion in Lord of the Rings, connects the ideas that Tolkien raises through descriptions of water to the larger issues and occurrences in the text, and argues that water cohesively plays a significant role in advancing Tolkien’s religious narrative. To do so, over the course of my paper I perform a close reading of water’s appearances text, provide my own analysis, and employ outside scholarly articles to articulate that Tolkien connects water with four distinct attributes that resonate with qualities and values that the Bible and other Christian writings and philosophies have historically emphasized: wrath, grace, providence, and freedom.

Marissa Frobes. “Brick Lane and The Namesake: South Asian Family Narratives that Mark a Transformation of the ‘Middlebrow’ Novel.” Directed by Sara Maurer.

This paper argues that Monica Ali’s Brick Lane and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake carry on the “middlebrow” tradition in a contemporary setting, but also transform it through the conflation of middlebrow conventions with ethnic or foreign cultures. The paper focuses on two middlebrow customs: the use of the domestic space to signal character development, and the middlebrow goal of offering readers a mediated path to high culture. Both texts evolve the middlebrow genre by demonstrating how cultural heritage complicates the domestic space, and by proposing that their readers might achieve cosmopolitanism by learning not only about high culture, but also different, or foreign, culture. I explain these transformations of the middlebrow through close readings of the novels and a discussion of why the mediation of high culture through narratives of those who are “different” is complex, due to the murky nature of a given person’s relationship to their heritage.

When they were published, Brick Lane and The Namesake experienced mass popularity and garnered scholarly attention. For this reason and others, much criticism of the novels struggles to label the pieces or place them within a genre. Deeming these novels the contemporary “middlebrow” offers an opportunity for a nuanced analysis of the novels, one that appreciates their universality and values the particularities of immigration and postcolonial identity of characters. This paper performs such an analysis and in doing so hopes to both rehabilitate the term “middlebrow” and exhibit the academic and entertainment value of the novels.

Christopher Gleason. “Insides and Outsides: The Performance of Character in The Merchant of Venice.” Directed by Peter Holland.

“In sooth I know not why I am so sad,” Antonio says, “It wearies me; You say it wearies you. (1.1.1-2). The Merchant of Venice thus begins by foregrounding sadness, weariness, and the anxiety of an individual mystified by himself.  My project aims to explore Antonio’s—and the play’s—first words, especially in the light of Antonio’s comment later in this scene, “I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano, / A stage, where every man must play a part, / And mine a sad one” (1.1.77-79).  The Merchant of Venice is filled with performances of all kinds: Portia pretends to be a male lawyer, Nerissa an adolescent male clerk, Bassanio a rich nobleman, Jessica a boy, and even the servant Lancelet pretends to be “master Lancelet” when trying to fool his blind father.  No character, however, receives as much critical attention as Shylock, who as “the Jew” becomes the representative of the “alien” or “other” in the play. Shylock’s characterization and the hatred directed towards him constitute a substantial part of the play’s drama and are central to the problems of anti-Semitism that arise in almost any experience of this play.  My project does not seek to ignore or belittle the problem of anti-Semitism but rather to situate it within a broader exploration of the way the play deals with identity and interiority. I have chosen to focus on the performance of “character” because when used as a verb, the word “character” could mean, in the early modern period, “to write” (OED , v. 1.a), and often in Shakespeare it is also used as a noun to refer to an individual’s handwriting (OED, n. 4.c), as well as to the actual symbols that appear on the page.  This paper explores the unique way “character” is constructed, performed, and then, like a literary text, read and interpreted by the individuals in the play.

The Merchant of Venice, however, is not unique in its interest in character, for all plays, and especially Shakespeare’s, depend on the development of nuanced and complex individuals. This essay, therefore, focuses on the ways that The Merchant of Venice questions the stability of created identity.  With special attention to characters’ language when speaking about others and themselves—indeed to the way character is created and read—I explore the tension between interiority and public, socially “performed” identity, as well as the way that the play imagines interiority itself as performative.

Joel Graczyk. “Dreams of Glittering Things: The Ironic American Dream of The Great Gatsby and ‘The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.’” Directed by Kate Marshall.

The intervening decades since the publication of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby have allowed for the development of a comprehensive critical conversation surrounding the text, particularly regarding the topic of the American Dream. Although critics often refer to Fitzgerald’s contemporary short stories when discussing The Great Gatsby, stories such as “Absolution” and “Winter Dreams” receive the bulk of such references due to their concurrent composition with The Great Gatsby. This paper seeks to add to the critical conversation regarding The Great Gatsby with a thorough analysis of the juxtaposition The Great Gatsby with “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” another short story written during that period of Fitzgerald’s career. Taken together, “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” and The Great Gatsby depict a conflict between past and present that illuminates a deep irony at the heart of traditional representations of the American Dream. The texts begin by defining a traditional American identity that has successfully established itself in the United States over the course of multiple generations. A story of restlessness, movement, discovery, and creation sits at the heart of this established perspective, and it is this narrative arc – leading through exploration to eventual financial success characterized by a firm entrenchment of beliefs – that defines the American Dream. Within the texts, the story of success that is the American Dream only appears in its entirety in the past as an explanation for the social position occupied by wealthy families, particularly the Washington family in “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.” Characters and, in particular, families develop a robust story that ultimately intertwines their histories and their successes with those of the larger American nation. While the depictions of the established families – part of an older generation than characters like Jay Gatsby and John Unger – do to a larger extent develop this established American identity through such a narrative arc, the texts also demonstrate that, in the long run, the consequence of this success is a stagnation and complacency that will eventually lead to conflict with a new generation that seeks to follow the same narrative of the American Dream. In the end, though, the best efforts of Gatsby and Unger fall short, and only those characters who possess riches from birth seem capable of maintaining the wealth and social status that serve as the object of desire for so many others, leaving, at best, a hopeless future for the thwarted dreamers.

Erin Hallagan. “Bearing Witness: Exploring Trauma and Truth in Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and What is the What.” Directed by Barbara Green.

In “Bearing Witness: Exploring Trauma and Truth in Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and What is the What,” I explore the nature of autobiographical trauma literature in two very different textsOn the one hand, there is Eggers’ playful, self-conscious memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, an account of Eggers’ move to California following the deaths of his parents and the trials he faces raising his younger brother, attempting to publish a magazine, and coping with the tragic events that shape the lives of the young people he encounters in San Francisco. At the heart of the text is a traumatic experience; yet it is layered with self-conscious metanarratives that push the bounds of autobiography by reflecting on the nature of writing one’s trauma.

On the other hand, there is What is the What, a novel that documents the experience of Valentino Achak Deng as a Lost Boy and his life as a refugee in America. While there are some humorous moments in the text, it is essentially a work that aims at informing the Western audience of the plight of the Sudanese and encourages activism to combat the similar circumstances occurring in Darfur. This text likewise challenges the limits of autobiography by incorporating fictionality: Eggers calls this work an autobiographical novel.  Eggers blends the testimony of Deng with fictionalized historical evidence to shape a narrative that is complicated by the collaborative and dialogic.  My challenge is to link these two texts using literary and psychoanalytic criticism on trauma and testimony literature. . Using  Dori Laub’s work on Holocaust victims’ testimony to frame the essay, I examine the ways in which the act of “bearing witness” to one’s trauma can be transformative both for the trauma victim and his audience. The result is an analysis of the various forms of “bearing witness” to trauma and the effects of sharing this trauma with an audience. I conclude that in “bearing witness” to trauma through literature, Eggers searches for a sense of healing, either for his own suffering or for the suffering of people like Valentino through Western activism.

Matthew Hawk. “So Close and Yet So Far: Flexibility of Style and Narrative Shortcoming in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood.” Directed by Matthew Wilkens.

Finding a clean break between the modernism of the early 20th century and the postmodernism of the late 20th century presents a real challenge.  It is quite easy to explain what constitutes modernism and what constitutes postmodernism.  But it is terribly difficult to settle upon a specific instance in which the one ended and the other began.  While some say modernism ends with the Second World War, others say it is not until almost the 1960s that postmodernism picks up.  Late modernism, a sort of second-wave of modernism, has become an intermediary between the two periods.  Like their forebears, late modernists attempted to emulate Ezra Pound’s call to “make it new.”  Novelty for its own sake and a fixation on individual interiority worked for the modernists, but late modernists had yet to find a different, appropriate literary form.  Late modernist authors like Truman Capote struggled to succeed with the old forms of their literary predecessors.  Capote’s writings grapple with many of the challenges late modernist writers encountered.  Because they appear on the surface to be such different works, Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood are often treated as two significantly different works, not least because they were published 15 years apart.  Yet Capote began working on In Cold Blood shortly after publishing Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the two share several similar formal features.  Both fixate upon colorful, unusual protagonists with trouble childhoods and risqué lifestyles.  And both works purport to present exhaustive, full examinations of their main characters.  This is primarily done with written insertions by third parties: letters, biographies, newspaper articles and the like.  Yet the move these insertions make betrays an elementary component of narrative.    Capote includes written insertions in these works to elaborate upon incomplete stories.  Yet each insertion suffers from the same incompleteness that the main story does.  By arriving at the same dead end in both Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood, Capote demonstrates that no narrative, no matter the style, can truly be complete.  Capote’s creation of two purposefully incomplete texts nicely fits into the late modernist era in which he wrote.  Late modernists knew that modernists’ pursuit of novelty for its own sake would only be a dead end for them.  And because they had yet to find a fitting literary form of their own, late modernists like Capote resorted to exposing the shortcomings of modernist forms.

Sarah Hurtubise. “Rhetoric and Political Power: Literary Conceits in John Milton and Thomas Jefferson.” Directed by Joseph Teller.

John Milton, while known primarily for his unparalleled achievements in English poetry, was also a master of political rhetoric, establishing himself during the English Civil Wars as an ardent voice for the overthrow of the monarchy and rising to position of the Secretary for Foreign Tongues in the short-lived republican government which followed, acting as the very mouthpiece of the English government.  Milton’s clarity, vehemence, and dedication to his arguments to the end helped to drive the English movement for republicanism.  Like Milton, Thomas Jefferson was a vocal participant in his own revolution, penning the very document which affirmed the United States as a country, the Declaration of Independence.  Milton’s and Jefferson’s positions in their revolutionary countries were highly analogous; the political rhetoric each employed accordingly has several key similarities in function and style.  The style and images involved in political rhetoric undoubtedly have an effect on society’s support of a political movement; examination of how Milton and Jefferson use these techniques to further their political message helps us understand how political speech functions.  Both Milton and Jefferson employ the conceits of doubles and hypocrisy to shatter the public images of their respective kings, then pull out the inner character of the government and put it on display through images of gory disease and injury.  After tearing down the defenses of the unjust governments, both Milton and Jefferson discuss the methods of creating a stable, prosperous, and healthy government by discussing proper nourishment and digestion for the body of government and a transparent, stable architecture of a society.  By characterizing their governments as a body, Milton and Jefferson unite their audiences, pulling all members of society into one cohesive unit, and advocate for radical revolution, consolidating their supporters and ensuring the strongest political position possible.  The rhetoric of the body is the primary conceit which brings together Milton and Jefferson, the public leaders of two consecutive revolutions against the British monarchy.

Catherine Latell. “‘Virtuous From His Vanity’: The Paradox of the Cell in Matthew Gregory Lewis’ The Monk.” Directed by Yasmin Solomonescu.

The Monk, Matthew Gregory Lewis’ novel published in 1796, chronicles the downfall of Ambrosio, a Capuchin monk who was born and raised in the monastery only to fall victim to temptation by Matilda, a female devil-in-disguise who leads him to break his vow of chastity, unknowingly commit matricide and incest, lie, and eventually sell his soul to Satan all in an attempt to retain his reputation as the all-respected monk of Madrid. The novel’s lewd content elicited polarizing reviews from critics, which catapulted both the novel and its author to fame. Lewis’ scandalous work continues to provoke strong critical reviews, particularly in response to its representation of the male and female bodies, its portrayal of sexuality, its Gothic elements, and the psychology of the protagonist.

The most commented aspect of the novel, however, pertains to its setting within a Catholic monastery and neighboring abbey against the backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition. The novel’s publication in 1796 in the midst of British debate about the French Revolution and most importantly the renewed tension between Catholicism and Protestantism has fed into a lively critical debate about whether the novel is specifically attacking the Catholic Church and to what extent it does so.

My thesis challenges the common critical debates that tend to label Lewis’ novel as anti-Catholic or claim it to be a critique of monasticism as a whole since such an education shields its members away from the outside world and thus arguably leads to repression and sinful behavior. I, however, argue for a reading of the novel that pays close attention to the monastic cell as a space that does not fulfill its proper function as a space of prayer where a monk can achieve a closer connection to God. For Ambrosio, the space reveals a strong tension between his monastic vows and his desire for celebrity. Thus, by examining Ambrosio’s thoughts and actions within and outside the cell, we can see that all spaces for him transform into places where his reputation clashes with his vocation. Through such analysis, it becomes apparent that the novel’s target is not a specific religion or Order, but rather Ambrosio’s upbringing as the major source of his pride. This unique approach provides a new way of understanding the novel’s much-debated dramatic final scene of Ambrosio’s death as the harshest critique of his character and behavior. Ultimately, Ambrosio’s belief that he is impervious to sin and his obsession with the preservation of his fame take precedence over his morality and are responsible for his downfall.

Maria Lynch. “‘Things I know but am not knowen’: The Latent Feminism of Tillie Olsen’s Yonnondio.” Directed by Kate Marshall

Though Tillie Olsen is renowned as a feminist writer, her beginnings were much far from that label. In the 1930s, Olsen was heavily involved in notoriously gender-blind world of Marxism and its favored style, “proletarian realism,” as defined by Communist writer and critic, Mike Gold. One work that reflects that influence is her novel, Yonnondio, which was published in part in 1934 but not in full until 1974. It was then, after the success of 1961’s Tell Me a Riddle, that Olsen rediscovered that initial text and released it as an unfinished work rather than adding her intended ending. The initial text, which follows the Holbrook family through job changes, moves, poverty, and depression, was instantly hailed by the Popular Front as a proletarian classic and Olsen and her works do, in many ways, merit this description. She was certainly familiar with and arguably heavily influenced by Marxism’s push for the use of realism in literature in place of more showy and oblique inherited movements, and some critics maintain that this is her singular goal. The majority, however, treat Yonnondio as having been a feminist text from its inception. There are a few, however, who, like me, believe the text can contain both influences.

Through an examination of how Yonnondio eclipses “proletarian realism” and how Olsen uses diction and figurative language to explain the plights of women, this thesis finds a basis in Marxism and realism but especially a once latent, subsequently transformative focus on women, mothers, and their struggles. Her observations and opinions on these feminist issues were truths that, as Mazie Holbrook puts it, Olsen “kn[ew] but [was] not knowen” (6). To label Yonnondio solely as a feminist text ignores the strong influence that Olsen’s Marxist community exerted upon her, while labeling it purely Marxist dismisses the great skill and poignancy of her feminist commentary. If we acknowledge the changes and evolutions inherent in aging, period changes, legal rights, and societal perceptions of issues, we must also allow for changes in Olsen’s views and motivations. Just as De Beauvoir tells us that “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” so too was Olsen not born, but rather became, a feminist.

Katie Mayka. “‘Look at a man as at a picture’: The Problem of the Portrait in Camilla and Pride and Prejudice.” Directed by Margaret Doody.

Painting, and the portrait in particular, experienced great change over the course of the eighteenth century in England. This period saw a trend toward deeper character study in portraiture; artists like William Hogarth and Thomas Gainsborough strove to capture the psychology of the sitter despite the limitations of a frozen image. Despite this growth, the preferences of the time placed portraiture as a genre beneath other forms of painting. As the portrait merely aimed to represent an individual closely, it was not considered on the same level as paintings which presented moral lessons as well. Painters who recognized the potential of the portrait for depth and sophistication fought for a higher status for the portrait.

Against this background Jane Austen and Frances Burney wrote novels. Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Burney’s Camilla feature portraiture prominently. They seem to confront directly this question of the legitimacy of portraiture as art and as accurate representation of character, especially in comparison to the text which Austen and Burney, as novelists, used to define character. Both novels grapple with the problem of fitting the changing, active person into a static portrait, but they approach the problem differently.

Camilla demonstrates the ineffectiveness of a momentary portrait constantly recreated. The novel begins with static descriptions of the main characters which are almost immediately broken down. In another effort to resolve the person and the portrait, Burney creates moving portraits at several points in the novel, all of which demonstrate the errors that result from judging a person from only one moment, as a portrait might call the viewer to do. Camilla also engages what Diane Harris terms the “textual body,” presenting textual portraits in the forms of physical pieces of text. In instances of the textual portrait the text redefines the appearance of a character, acting as a portrait overriding the image.

Pride and Prejudice presents the possibility of likewise changing, active portraits. Austen’s style of exposition is more gradual, mimicking the shading of a portrait with detail rather than the erasing and recreating of the portrait. In Pride and Prejudice portraits are animated by changing opinions. The appearances of characters, along with their painted portraits, shift and change as conceptions of their inner lives change in the minds of others. Texts also work as portraits, in this case deepening the impressions of various characteristics already known. Scenes that evoke portraiture in the novel demonstrate the futility of judging a person only on the basis of one moment’s impression.

Both novels, then, view the portrait with a degree of skepticism, highlighting its innate tendency toward error and exploring ways in which it might indeed be legitimized.

Meghan McKinney. “‘Not Wholly True’: The Myth of American Exceptionalism in Nella Larsen’s Passing” Directed by Cyraina Johnson-Roullier.

Published in 1929, Nella Larsen’s novel, Passing, illustrates the development of an unlikely relationship between Irene Redfield, an African-American woman, and Clare Kendry, an enigmatic woman of mixed race who mysteriously dies after her white husband discovers her black heritage. The effort of critics to identify the specific quality that attracts Irene to Clare is complicated by Irene’s obsession with projecting herself as an exceptional American citizen. If Irene openly declares her desire not to be uprooted from her stable American identity, what motivates her to pursue a relationship with the exotic, inconstant Clare?

My thesis intends to answer this question by examining Irene’s behavior through the lens of Slavoj Žižek’s theory of national fantasy. According to Žižek, the national fantasy functions as an illusion that conceals the inherent impossibility of social unity caused by ongoing internal division. Citizens seek to belong within the idealized identity created by the national fantasy. However, when the citizen examines the fantasy closely enough to recognize its shortcomings, the fantasy dissolves and reproduces the original lack of unity.

In Passing, Irene attempts to uphold the American fantasy of social unity by continually obscuring evidence of racism. As a mixed-race woman who appears to disregard social barriers, Clare functions as the embodiment of the fantasy out of which Irene imagines her exceptional American identity. I contend, therefore, that Irene initially seeks a relationship with Clare in order to mask the difference between her idealized vision of the United States and the reality of the segregated nation in which she lives. By understanding how Irene transforms Clare into the national fantasy, the reader will understand why her proximity to Clare in the final scene leads not only to the Clare’s death but also to the destruction of the exceptional American identity that she represents.

Alissa Ott. “The American Dream: A study of Dreams, Realities and the Lies We Live in the Works of Dean Bakopoulos.” Directed by William Krier.

 

Contemporary author Dean Bakopoulos has published two novels thus far in his writing career. His first, Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon (2005), combines a bizarre mixture of realism and fantasy. Set in a Detroit suburb, the protagonist, Mike, as well as the other men in his generation struggle with the economic and familial problems of day-to-day life against the tempting pull to “go to the moon” the same way their fathers did. The solution to this struggle can be explained through the theories in Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death. Becker suggests that in order to cope with living, man uses stories derived from culture as well as from within. These stories, according to Becker, are to be judged according to usefulness rather than truthfulness. Mike ultimately uses the story of familial responsibility in order to resist the pull of the moon. Bakopoulos’ second novel, My American Unhappiness (2011), deals with similar struggles and the search for a sustaining lie or story. Collecting the stories of others through his research project, An Inventory of American Unhappiness, the protagonist, Zeke, searches for his particular useful story. For readers, Zeke’s search is complicated by the fact we slowly come to realize he is a decidedly unreliable narrator. At the end of Zeke’s tale, despite a series of disillusionments he manages to find a new vital life in the hope of a meaningful relationship, even if it might be with a stranger currently working as a Starbucks barista.

Casey Quinlan. “The Intersection of Sociology and Literature: Real-World Issues and Social Problems Brought to Light in Sandra Cisneros’ Caramelo.” Directed by José Limón.

Writers, even those of fiction, do not write independently of the worlds in which they live.  The “real world” impacts their writing, whether in obvious or subtle ways.  In the case of Sandra Cisneros, her stories tend to seem relatively realistic; there are no talking animals, alien spacecrafts, or robotic ruling classes.  On the surface, Cisneros tells the stories of people, mostly women, moving between Mexico and the United States and trying to find an identity in such a dichotomous life.  Once a reader moves past a simple summary, however, he or she finds that Cisneros’ works deal with the entire spectrum of social problems, particularly those impacting women.  It would be easy for a reader to accuse Cisneros of fabricating and/or exaggerating these problems, since the lives of her characters are often painfully bleak and full of traumatic experiences.  However, one cannot know whether Cisneros is accurately depicting social ills without looking into the sociology behind their presence—or lack thereof, as the skeptics would claim—in the real world. 

In fact, the research on which the sociological portion of this thesis is based demonstrates that the social problems about which Cisneros writes are not only real, but also disturbingly pervasive.  Cisneros brings these actual sociological issues to life on the page through a more artful, literary approach.  Without this transformation of sociological research into vibrant storytelling, the research would be far less palatable to wide audiences.  The average person is unlikely to sit down to read a sociological journal, but a novel that takes a literary approach to sociological findings is much more likely to spark one’s interest.  People love stories, and when those stories have an educational and social purpose to serve beyond mere enjoyment, a reader can experience the best of both the sociological and literary worlds.  Cisneros’ works are not nonfiction accounts, but they do approximate the ongoing lives of everyday people, allowing such people to be seen as more than mere statistics.  This thesis explores the ways in which Cisneros’ work involves an intersection between sociology and literature.  Though this thesis deals primarily with the novel Caramelo, Cisneros’ most recent and most extensive work, it also includes references to two of her other published works, The House on Mango Street and Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories.

The cliché goes that the first step is admitting you have a problem.  If Sandra Cisneros can help people realize that we do, in fact, have several problems, then perhaps we can move on to the next steps of problem solving and real change.  In “A House of My Own,” the introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of The House on Mango Street, Cisneros explains the reason for the hard work she and her friends put into writing, organizing community arts events, etc.  She writes, “We do this because the world we live in is a house on fire and the people we love are burning.”  Hopefully, Cisneros’ works are helping to expose the reality of the burning home that is our world so that we can try to put out the fire and save its potential victims.

Kevin Roberts. “Medbh McGuckian: Re-populating the Linguistic Landscape.” Directed by Bríona Nic Dhiarmada.

The poetry of Medbh McGuckian, one of Northern Ireland’s most promising and, simultaneously, mystifying contemporary poets, has received varying degrees of praise. On the one hand, critics like Alex Gonzalez have embraced McGuckian and her imagistic poetry, describing her as one of the “world’s finest, most intriguing, and most satisfying poets” (62). On the other hand, critics like Patrick Williams have characterized her work as whimsical solipsism, describing her poetic voice as “boring even before you realize the emptiness of what it is saying” (Beer 201). In light of the polarized and varied critical opinions and approaches, this study is an examination of both the poet, through her work and interviews, as well as the critical work surrounding the poet in order to better understand the necessity for such a complicated poetry and begin to articulate an artistic direction. Through a close examination of three of her poems, “Venus and the Sun,” “What Does ‘Early’ Mean?” and “The Dream-Language of Fergus,” as well as her own comments during interviews, I hope to demonstrate that McGuckian’s poetry addresses the inadequacy of language to translate the meaning of experience by “shoveling away” the accretions of commerce and academia and revivifying the relationship between signifier and signified. Ultimately, McGuckian’s attempt to “make language foreign to itself” is not only an attempt to re-populate the linguistic landscape by creating a language that continually purifies and renews itself but also an attempt to create a poetry that transcends dialects and circumstance in search of articulating a “universal human condition.”

Kevin Sarlo. “The Root of the Problem: Cultural Narratives and Constructions of Identity in White Teeth and Brick Lane.” Directed by Mary Burgess Smyth.

People employ society and culture as tools to organize life’s inevitabilities – birth, sex and death – into an agreed upon, ordered structure which links one generation to the next. Since people are born into a culture and that culture reinforces itself through its products like art and institutions such as religion and education, it is easy to mistake this artificial construction as eternal and unchangeable. While society and culture shape its adherents, man invented these concepts and retains the power to change them. Because of the limits one’s subjectivity and inductive reasoning, one does not recognize the constructed nature of society and people’s power over it until one encounters cultural difference.

White Teeth and Brick Lane recount the encounters of immigrants and their children with difference in contemporary Britain. Instead of asserting their control over such constructions, these immigrants and the so-called native culture they contact recoil into the cultural narratives of their birth, augmenting them only to include new villains. These characters confused their very being with the ways in which they identify facets of themselves, and their reactionary response creates a thorny landscape for their children to grow, denying them both physical and psychic connection to the cultural narratives of their parent’s generation. As a result, these alienated youth will jump into the first role they can – no matter how damaged, deranged or extremist.

These novels present and preform an educative solution to the conflict between cultural narratives and discourses. Using the unique ability of art, in this case literature, to express the subjectivity of others, to use shared forms to express individual experiences, the novels draw their audience out of their own narratives by humanizing the once vilified. By revealing society and culture as man-made, White Teeth and Brick Lane reveal humans have the power to change them and thereby propose the creation of new narratives determined by the needs of the present instead of the demands of the past.

Stephanie Spriet. “This is Not a Love Story: Repositioning the “Chick Flick” in the New Millennia.” Directed by William Krier.

For the past two decades, the film industry has worked to reposition the romantic comedy away from the stereotypical “chick flick.” To attract larger audiences to this film genre, studios have relied on brand related marketing tactics.  In this thesis, I offer a careful look at how these branding strategies work to reshape the romantic comedy for the modern consumer.  Additionally, I try to determine whether this repositioning has expanded the audience’s expectations for the romantic comedy.

The American Marketing Association defines brand as the “customer experience represented by a collection of images and ideas; often, it refers to a symbol such as a name, logo, slogan, and design scheme…created by the accumulation of experiences with the specific product or service, both directly relating to its use and through the influence of advertising.” Within the film industry, a post-production agency constructs a trailer based on the two pillars of branding identity: resonate with the target audience and differentiate the film’s unique brand package from competing films.  The success of a new film’s brand relies heavily on the trailer to connect with a potential consumer on the emotive level to present a unique and value laden experience.

For the romance comedy, consumer expectations consider the female perspective as the chief driver of  the ‘love’ plot  which, according to Terry McDonald follows a conventional pattern of the initial meeting, the courtship, the major misunderstanding, the apologetic gesture and the ending monogamous relationship.  In the past ten years, however, the trailers for movies like (500) Days of Summer and Forgetting Sarah Marshall have attempted to create value by retelling the generic basics of the rom-com from a male perspective, giving the audience a fresh way to ‘see’ romance.  Under this male perspective this new brand grouping , dubbed the homme-com, has found success with audiences through its appeal to sex and supporting lead male “buddy” figures.  Perhaps most importantly, this repositioning of the rom-com genre finds success in allowing the audience to experience “heartbreak, heartache, and all the other emotions that most men spend the majority of their energy trying to repress” (James Kendrick, Q Network Film Desk).

Colin Sullivan. “Gothic Elements and the Power of the Past in James Joyce’s ‘The Dead.’” Directed by Declan Kiberd.

Joyce’s fiery condemnation of groups like Sinn Fein and the Gaelic League, infamous for romanticizing the past of Ireland, led many early reviewers to think of Joyce as removed from Irish independence politics.  Joyce became the paragon of an international form of modernism, completely uninterested in the politics or history of the tiny island he was born on.  In order to reclaim Joyce for postcolonial analysis it is necessary to develop an understanding of Irish history that made it impossible for him to escape the effects of history and politics on his writings.

It becomes necessary to view Joyce from a post colonial perspective after the realization the unique history in Ireland led to a hazy border between the modern and the pre-modern eras and created a political and artistic atmosphere in Ireland that was unique unto itself.  The traditional institutions of power, namely religion, art, and sexuality, were directly fused with the modern political nature of the country.  The cultural memory of the abuse inflicted by their colonial overlords made it impossible for any artist to escape politics in their writings.

Joyce believed that the Irish history of failure to overthrow their dominators was destroying and paralyzing the Irish people, and it became one of the prevailing themes of Dubliners.  Joyce saw the romanticization of the past lead by organizations like Sinn Fein and the Gaelic league, instead of instead of offering a positive example for the future, in fact led Ireland into a period of decay and cultural stagnation.   The partygoers in “The Dead” act as the ultimate representation of this self indulgent and ultimately hazardous obsession with the past. The partygoers, although very much alive, speak only of the dead and that which has past.  They are surrounded by the vitality of friends and family and the warmth of a party, yet instead of focusing on the humanity of their fellow guests they come year after year to hold communion with the dead by commemorating the dead culture of Ireland, the dead family members they lost, and the dead future they bitterly come to expect. 

The problem with this devotion is that in doing so they neglect the present.  The city of Dublin itself is a monument to a bygone era, a place to inspire memories of the past, not a place that breeds creativity or innovation. In order to effectively point out this underlying obsession with the past and past worship, Joyce politicizes his story and suggests to the reader that these characters’ actions were unnatural by reappropriating the trope of the Gothic; an element of Irish writing long used as a way to criticize the unnaturalness of colonialism. 

If the partygoers offer Joyce’s condemnation of past glorification and worship, then Gabriel’s presence offers a relationship with the past that is just as toxic, but instead of being lost in the past he denies its existence and its hold over him. During his interaction with Lily, Ms. Ivors, and eventually his wife, he repeatedly denies his personal history and attempts to portray himself as something he is not, namely the masculine paterfamilias.  Gabriel’s performance eventually breaks down and his epiphany comes when he acknowledges that his wife’s personal past had a significant hold over their lives.  It controlled him in ways he never knew precisely because he was never aware of that history.  Gabriel’s epiphany is his ability to use the redemptive and revolutionary powers of the past to open up a new future for himself and his wife, one in which he is aware of and understanding of the emotional condition of others.  Gabriel becomes Joyce’s example of someone who has a healthy relationship with the past and can be seen as a model for how Ireland should attempt to remedy their destructive relationship with their cultural history.

Caitlin Wilson. “Creating Cultural Systems: Ethnography and Victorian Children’s Literature.” Directed by Sara Maurer.

While most prior research analyzes Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind psychologically, this project situates these four novels within the specific Victorian sociopolitical context. The paper argues that the emergence of ethnography, and specifically the ethnographic concept of cultural systems, in the early nineteenth century influenced these three authors’ depiction of their fantasy worlds. Through close-readings, the paper demonstrates that, in their fantasy worlds, Kingsley and Carroll create authentic cultural systems, defined by a logical and consistent underlying order – for Kingsley, this order manifests as an understanding of the soul as a physical entity linked to and with primacy over the body, and for Carroll, as a literal understanding of language. In contrast, MacDonald relies upon dream imagery to characterize his fantasy world. Using historical evidence and close-readings, the paper then examines the sociopolitical commentary of each text. This analysis reveals that Kingsley and Carroll take up specific social issues; Kingsley considers the proper relationship of science and religion, while Carroll explores the validity of the class system and the concept of culture as progress. Unlike Kingsley and Carroll, MacDonald grapples with defining an abstract, universal concept: morality. The paper draws two conclusions from these readings of the texts. First, it argues that incorporating the ethnographic concept of cultural systems allowed Kingsley and Carroll to emphasize the relevance of their sociopolitical commentary, expressed in the context of their fantasy worlds, to the larger context of Victorian England. Second, it claims that MacDonald, in his choice to use dream imagery rather than cultural systems, demonstrates the limitations of incorporating ethnography into fiction. As a new genre, based in the social science of anthropology, ethnography most naturally works to interrogate contemporary sociopolitical issues that carry societal repercussions; ethnography cannot accommodate an examination of abstract or universal concepts. This paper thus moves beyond a psychological interpretation of Kingsley’s and Carroll’s texts to expose each text’s significant sociopolitical involvement and corresponding reliance upon the extremely contemporary ethnographic concept of cultural systems. This paper ultimately suggests that the connection between literature and the ethnographic concept of cultural systems deserves further research, as the relationship may vary with time, especially as ethnography becomes standardized in the early twentieth century.

Carole Wurzelbacher. “‘The one who has turned me into a refugee has made a bomb of me’: Arab National Identity and the Political Importance of Literature in AlBassam’s The Al-Hamlet Summit.” Directed by Elliott Visconsi.

Debuting in 2002, Sulayman Al-Bassam’s play The Al-Hamlet Summit introduced itself into the literary scene at a politically tumultuous time: with 9/11 fresh in the imagination of the Western mind, the eyes of the world turned to a politically volatile Middle East drenched in the archaic and oppressive ideology of the past. Though much has been written, argued, and discussed about them, the people of the Middle East have had little voice in determining their own future and identity in the post-911 world. This is one of the many problems Al-Bassam sets out to address. Drawing together the drama of Shakespeare’s text with the unrest of post 9/11 relations between the East and the West, the result of Al-Bassam’s text is explosive, to say the least.

At the forefront of his play is Ophelia, a young woman torn between radical and moderate Islam, her love of her father and her love of Hamlet, and her loyalty to her country that actively denies her a voice and any kind of agency. Of the differences between the original Hamlet and Al-Bassam’s rewriting, Ophelia’s death as a suicide bomber is at once the most notable and the most heartbreaking. Setting up Ophelia as a microcosm of the Middle East, Al-Bassam asks how the Arab world can ever achieve a degree of stability if its voice and identity are so constantly silenced. As the government of Al-Bassam’s imagined country implodes, it becomes clear that his answer is quite bleak.

Yet embedded in this play are also questions about the function of art in modern society. In mimicking Shakespeare’s Hamlet, who endlessly questions and debates but never acts, Al-Bassam asks whether the artist can make any kind of tangible change in a political debate mired in violence and greed. Though Al-Bassam’s Hamlet rambles off endless lines of poetry, it is only when he takes to physical violence that his voice is heard, for better or worse. Yet Al-Bassam does not seem to suggest that artistry has no place in modern society: it is only though Hamlet’s endless philosophizing that he is able to make any kind of constructive conclusions. Though Hamlet stumbles through this play, trying to navigate political oppressiveness from both a terrifying American Arms Dealer and the absurd power structure in his own government, he eventually reaches a degree of self-understanding. Unlike Shakespeare’s version, the struggle for this Hamlet is to find a solution to the problems of his State that does not appeal to violence, the corrupt Arab government, or the American Arms dealer. Though Hamlet realizes the uselessness of violence too late, Al-Bassam leaves us with a chilling image of a Middle East caught in a never-ending cycle of oppression, fuelled on the one hand by Arab corruption and unwillingness to let go of the past, and on the other, a Western military that silences the will of the Arab people. In response to all these politically explosive problems, Al-Bassam offers up a literary answer.

Hanna Yang. “The ‘Conversation Poems’ of Samuel Coleridge: from Conversation to Monologue.” Directed by Yasmin Solomonescu.

“Conversation Poems,” is a term Coleridge used for a specific poem, “The Nightingale (1798).” G.M. Harper was the first to apply the term to a group of poems composed between 1795 to 1798: “The Eolian Harp,” “Reflections on Having Left a Place of Retirement,” “This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison,” “Frost at Midnight,” “Fears in Solitude,” and “The Nightingale.” Several critics argue that the group should also include “Lines Written at Shurton Bars,” “Dejection: an Ode,” and “To William Wordsworth”. Out of the nine listed “Conversation Poems” I have chosen four for the purpose of my thesis: “The Eolian Harp” (1795), “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” (1797), “Frost at Midnight” (1798), and finally “Dejection: an Ode” (1802). These poems, according to M.H. Abrams, all have the typical characteristics of the “Conversation Poems,” which he defined in his influential essay “Structure and Style in the Greater Romantic Lyric.” According to Abrams “Conversation Poems” generally address a silent auditor, and they have the “return,” where the poem ends where the poet began, but with a resolution of the crisis that inspired the poem. I agree with Abrams that there are similarities that connect these poems, but I believe that Abrams model for the “Conversation Poems” is too static and does not capture the key transformation that takes place in the span of these poems. I have picked these four poems in the chronological order they were written in order to highlight a two part transformation. First, there is a transformation in the relations between the poet and the interlocutor and/or to nature. Coleridge introduces the idea of the “One Life,” or the idea of the divine that permeates all living things including himself, in “The Eolian Harp,” but this idea transforms little by little in the other poems. It starts with doubt in “Lime Tree,” then there is a crisis of the idea in “Frost,” and finally in “Dejection” the idea is completely changed. Nature is no longer the force that inspires man, the way the wind inspires song in the harp; instead, it is the human soul that animates nature and gives it meaning. There is also a change in the relationship between Coleridge, the interlocutor, and nature. In the earlier poems like “Lime Tree” and “Frost” Coleridge relies on the interlocutor as a means of connection to nature. But in the last poem, the interlocutor is no longer needed as the medium, because of Coleridge’s desire to have a direct connection with nature. These changes in Coleridge’s relationship with and ideas about nature are reflected in another transformation: the transformation in the form of the poems. Although labeled “Conversation Poems” because of their characteristic address to another person, the poems I have selected demonstrate a shift from a dialogue between two people to the speaker’s monologue with himself, especially in the last poem, “Dejection,” which can be seen as a failure in the form. But I argue that this supposed failure has in fact led to Coleridge’s development of a new style of poetry.