English Literature Assignment - Prompts for Writing about Prose
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English Literature Assignment - Prompts for Writing about Prose


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The following prompts can be use for journal entries or expanded upon and used as essay topics. Whatever you write about, be sure to use relevant evidence—include excerpts from the works themselves and key concepts (character, narration, etc.) to support your analysis.

1. In Jhumpa Lahiri's short story 'Sexy' we can draw parallels between Laxmi's cousin and Miranda's stories, and Miranda follows the course of action that she does despite hearing from Laxmi how devastating her cousin's husband's affair has been to his family. What do you think of the action of the story and how the events unfold in parallel ways throughout the narrative? Miranda is almost certainly the protagonist, but is she someone that you identify with (the heroine, more or less)? Do you find yourself sympathizing with her? Rooting for her? Rooting against her? Have you ever done something that you knew was wrong or that you should have known would end badly but you did it anyway? Also, if we do sympathize with Miranda, do we sympathize too with Dev, or is he something like the antagonist by the end of the story?

2. In 'Sexy,' when Rohin convinces Miranda to put on the dress and model it for him, she does so to pacify a child that she is babysitting. His reaction, however—calling her 'sexy'—is a shock to the system. What do you think of Miranda's reaction? Were you satisfied with the resolution of the story and what Miranda decides to do and how she is when we last see her?

3. Lahiri is the daughter of Bengali (Indian) parents and she was born in London, but she moved with her family to the United States when she was two years old and grew up in Rhode Island. She attended graduate school in Boston, the setting of 'Sexy.' Think about the rich details and place names that go into making up the story's setting. Some critics have argued that Boston and its landmarks are like another character in the story. Do you agree? How does the setting affect your reading of the story? Has there ever been a setting in which you've found yourself—a certain shop, a certain museum, a certain city, etc.—that has had a profound effect on you?

4. There is a kind of story within a story to be found in 'Two Kinds' the might veer very closely to cliché in the hands of a lesser writer than Amy Tan: the agonies of piano lessons, the anxieties and humiliations of recitals, and the expectations of demanding parents. How familiar is this kind of tale to you—either from other stories or from your own personal experience? How does Tan breathe new life into this class (or some might say trite) sequence from childhood?

5. How do you read the final paragraph of 'Two Kinds,' the account of the narrator's discovery that 'Pleading Child' and 'Perfectly Contented' are 'two halves of the same song'? Does a line like that seem to whisper that the great crises are all resolved? That some deeper wisdom had been gained? How might these lines give us a final glimpse into the mind of the narrator?

6. In Sandra Cisneros's short story 'Woman Hollering Creek' how does the Cleófilas belief that 'to suffer for love is good. The pain all sweet somehow. In the end' help shape her behavior? How does her life reflect the role that the telenovelas she watches play in the story? That is, how do they function to construct and perpetuate Cleófilas's dreams and aspirations? At the story's end does her understanding of and attitude toward telenovelas change? Does she ultimately reject this view? How can you tell? Have you or someone that you've known had similar fantasies that were ultimately disrupted? Do we sympathize Cleófilas?

7. Why is Junot Díaz's short story called 'Drown'? Much of the action in the story takes place at the local swimming pool, and there is even a moment early in the story when Beto pushes the narrator under the water: 'He put his hands on my shoulders and pushed me under… He was stronger than me and held me down until water flooded my nose and throat.' In many stories, this scene—along with the title of the story—would serve to foreshadow that someone will literally drown. Why does Díaz set us up for this narrative climax and not deliver it? Is there another event—or events—in the story that the place of this literal drowning? What are those events, and why imply that they are like drowning?

8. What is left unsaid in 'Drown'? Think, for example, about the narrator's relationship to Beto. What is the nature of their relationship? Are we prepared at all for the moment when Beto initiates a sexual encounter with the narrator? When it happens, does the story become one of sexual assault or sexual awakening? Why doesn't the narrator comment on his feelings about the encounter? Why doesn't he interpret or contextualize the experience for us? Do the details that the narrator provides point us to a solid understanding of who these characters are and what has happened to them, or do these details ultimately lead to dead ends?

9. Like Junot Díaz's short story 'Drown,' Toni Morrison's short story 'Recitatif' is told from the point-of-view of one of the characters of the story. This first-person narrator thus can give us external details, as well as insights into her own thoughts and feelings, but she can't necessarily tell us the thoughts and feelings of others, whereas a third-person omniscient point-of-view could. This is especially interesting given that there are only two major characters, Twyla and Roberta. Why do you think Toni Morrison chose to use first-person narration? What effect did it have on you as you read?

10. The title of 'Recitatif' refers to the French term for a 'recitative,' which is a musical term for when a singer's words occupy a space between singing and ordinary speech, like with the dialogues and narrative elements between or within musical compositions within an opera. Some critics have pointed out how the title reflects the episodic structure of the story. What do you think of the story structure?

11. In Toni Morrison's “Recitatif” we're told that Twyla and Roberta are different races—one black, one what—but while their class affiliations are made clear, which one is which race is debatable. Morrison herself has said that 'Recitatif' is “an experiment in the removal of all racial codes from a narrative about two characters of different races for whom racial identity is crucial.' What do you think of this conspicuous absence of detail? How does it affect the theme of race throughout the story overall?

12. At the end of “Recitatif,” how do both Twyla’s and Roberta’s exploration of the “truth” of what they had seen at St. Bonny’s many years earlier affect your sense of the “truth” of later episodes in the story? Along the same lines, what is Maggie’s purpose in the story, “Recitatif”?

13. George Sanders's 'CivilWar-Land in Bad Decline' takes an absurd or satirical look at the commodification of violence that comes with the American Civil War repackaged as a theme park. In doing so, Sanders examines the history of racism and war in American history in a way similar to what we see in Sherman Alexie's Flight. You can even make the case that the human weakness and compassion exhibited at times by the narrator mirrors the increasingly compassionate attitude exhibited by Zits. Examine these themes in one or both stories.

14. The excerpt that we read from The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a good example of the use of non-conventional literary form, in that it is an epistolary novel. How does the use of the epistolary form facilitate or complicate the goals of the novel as you see them? For example, does its use help heighten a sense of mimesis in your eyes, or do you think a more traditional form would be just as effective—or even more so? Or alternately, does the epistolary form's novelty facilitate the reader's interest (you're the reader here)?

15. Is it possible—or useful—to talk about a Native American voice in contemporary poetry and fiction? What would you say are the thematic and stylistic characteristics of that voice? Consider Alexie, Harjo, and Erdrich in this context.

16. Is true heroism possible in contemporary society, as it is portrayed in our examples of contemporary prose? Think of all of the protagonists—heroes, anti-heroes, and everything in between—that we have encountered. Pick at least three examples of one, the other, or both, and respond.

Prompts about Flight

17. Zits is arguably a round character from the first moment that we meet him. How does Zits define himself at the beginning of the novel? How does this change by the end? For example, Zits describes himself as a 'time traveling mass murderer.' However, his personality grows with each transformation. How does his perception of 'self' change with each transformation?

18. Discuss the differences between Zits's emotional state at the bank during his first visit there versus his emotional state at Red River versus his emotional state at the end of the novel.

19. Zits spends much of the novel is search of father figures and family. Discuss Zits's need for a father, and how it helps define his character throughout, from his relationships with his foster parents, Officer Dave, and Justice to his feelings about the Indian boy's father in chapter 9 to his acceptance of his new foster family at the novel's end.

20. Zits often names characters in the novel according to either their appearance or their actions. Discuss his method of naming characters. How might this add to a more allegorical interpretation of the novel?

21. Make a case for either a magical realist interpretation of the novel—Zits's time travel/body jumping really happen—or a case that it's all in Zits's head and/or that the events are meant to be interpreted allegorically.

22. Examine one of the major themes of the novel. I count several: the quest for a sense of identity, the importance of family, the ramifications of feelings of abandonment, loneliness, and betrayal (together or separately), the importance of shame to Zit's point-of-view, the history of and impact of violence both personal and writ large, and Zits's initial sense of hate and desire for revenge early on versus his ultimate forgiveness in the end. Choose one (or several related) theme and discuss it.


Prompt 1

Zits is arguably a round character from the first moment that we meet him. How does Zits define himself at the beginning of the novel? How does this change by the end? For example, Zits describes himself as a “time-travelling mass murderer.” However, his personality grows with each transformation. How does his perception of “self” change with each transformation?


Zits: The Scarred Half-Breed

Is Zits’ heart really as scarred as his face? Does he deserve to become a drunken killer just because his forefathers led a criminal life? This novel explores the psyche of a half-breed Indian boy who travels through his own mind and finally reaches his destination. “Flight” by Alexie Sherman prognosticates the future by reminiscing the past. Zits, a “time travelling mass murderer” gets converted into “Michael, a decent boy” who has been “given a second chance”. Unlike the immature Zits, who picks up a gun and starts shooting incessantly without thinking, the final Michael is wiser and determined to make the best out of this second chance. The scars will heal with time, as well as his acne, but he needs to work on them both.

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