Overview: The theme of a story is its deepest framework of important, recurring, braided ideas. It is like the central rhythm of a song, or the characteristic hues which tie together all the diverse t

Overview: The theme of a story is its deepest framework of important, recurring, braided ideas. It is like the central rhythm of a song, or the characteristic hues which tie together all the diverse threads of a rich Isfahani tapestry. Anyone who has struggled to shape a wedding or major birthday party and give it not only amenable coherence and clear logic, but also a cluster of overarching harmonies and deeply lingering meanings has had a practical run-in with themes. Anyone who has traced the reluctant hero Neo (is he The One?) in the Wachowski Brothers’ magical Matrix series knows the emergence of a cluster of themes…fantasy vs. reality, human vs. machine, dystopia vs. utopia, hero vs. anti-hero, struggle with self vs. struggle with others, and so on. 

    Discerning a story’s themes (yes, any given tale could have several braided together like fine cord) is the way a reader learns to connect the cultured game of literary language to the intertwined, abrasive, thistly realities of the world. It is the way a careful reader learns to see what a story reveals of the often deep and obscured values and associations people make in the wild and wide flows and forms of life. Learning to see how a story shapes its narrative point-of-view is the way we gain entry into the thematic and symbolic levels of meaning which it holds and reveals. It is important for a critical thinker to think in this fashion, seeing past the surface of things to the rich connections at their depths. And, again, just as we saw in our first critical essay project, such literary analysis is a way to freeze the fast and blurred dynamics of living in order to study the DNA or unfolding logic of life. This is an essential skill for the thinker attempting to understand and tune the world, for its most serious problems and greatest opportunities are not always easily discerned.

        To accomplish such x-ray analysis with focus and detail, it’s important that you learn how to discuss the ways that any given fiction builds the tapestry of themes and symbols, the deep and resonant associations we readers make about characters, objects, settings. It’s important to understand how theme is a ‘flavor,’ a ‘taste’ that rises in a reader’s thoughts, a flavor which specifies a story just the way a tea’s particular flavor is unmistakable from another tea. Our second critical essay project asks you to read Mark Helprin’s “Monday” (provided in the PDF called The Dreamstation), then discuss how the story structures its characters’ points-of-view, how its themes are revealed in the specific ways that the reader comes to perceive and understand the nature of the characters and the value of the objects and broader philosophical and moral associations which can be made among people, places, times, and the things of there lives. 

The goal of this essay project is to help you begin a structured discussion of deep concepts within a given object of analysis—in this case, revelation of theme through characterization in a short story by Helprin. These deep concepts (of valuation, association, symbolic meaning, and argument) can only be known by the ‘mark’ they leave on the surface of the story—the actual language which one reads and to which a re-reader can carefully point as evidence. In this sense, the act of critical re-reading is like watching the glistening, reflective face of a pond or river for subtle signs of the features which lie below the surface: hidden stones, subtle grooves and pathways in the river-bed, the gliding forms of fish at play in their liquid ecology. When you open or ‘unfold’ the actual language of characterization, setting, conflict, and narrative arc which the page displays, what you reveal is the beating heart of framing and shaping ideas, the concepts of society and psychology which make up the characters, the ideas of society and culture, relationships and value-systems which make up the time and place of the story-world. In effect, what you reveal is the ornate flower of themes which a story has to offer an attentive reader.

Topic: In the dedication to Peter Jovonovich which precedes his 2004 short story collection, The Pacific and Other Stories, master narrator Mark Helprin lists four terms as important virtues: “Intelligence, Compassion, Integrity, Courage.” In addition to honoring his friend, Helprin is alerting his readers to those key, anchoring, encompassing ideas which shape and guide each of his stories in the collection. These four broad, important ideas play out, in differing combinations and intensities, in different weights and textures and flavors and hues, in all sixteen works of the collection.

    Take Helprin’s short story “Monday,” originally found in The Pacific and Other Stories, as the analytical focus of your essay. Discuss how Helprin’s four virtues function as thematic ‘lenses’ in this very modern tale. Read the story through the ‘lens’ of each virtue to see what themes, what framing and shaping and driving ideas are revealed. What can we learn about the characters through the lens of each virtue? What argument about our world—the world around the story and the reader—is waged in light of these thematic notions?

Use the following questions as initial guides toward draft material. If you answer each question in writing, in other words, you’ll probably be a) coming to comprehend how the virtues work in the story, and b) generating sentences and quotations which you can re-arrange into a formal essay. 

Which one of the four virtues is the center of the tale, the most important hub from which the others radiate? How does one virtue lead to another—what is the logical sequence of their unfolding in the tale? How does the main character embody one or more of these virtues? What other characters embody one or more of these virtues? What forces, patterns, structures, processes must the main character battle (in himself, between self and other, between self and social environment) to give expression, to give life to these virtues? What is the reaction of the surrounding, “local” world of the story to the character’s embodiment of these virtues? What transformation of self, other, and/or society is made in the story by the character as he expresses one or more of these virtues?

It will be important to define each of these virtues formally before you apply the concept in your analysis. This means that you must begin with a solid dictionary definition (and cite the source). It’s good strategy also to consult a specialty reference text (like J.A, Cudon’s Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, published by Penguin, or some other comparable special encyclopedia of literary terms and theories to be found through library research) in order to get another angle on how Helprin’s four terms might have a deeper cultural history of use and meaning in literature. It’s advisable—to keep your discussion coherent and clear—to discuss only one virtue per development paragraph of analysis. This strategy will make for long body paragraphs, but that’s allowable in formal critical work, within the university ecology of ideas, knowledge, and critical thinking. To render this discussion specific and accurate, you must quote specific passages directly from the text of the story, and discuss how that passage reveals the narrative function, the storytelling uses of the virtue under consideration. You might have occasion to quote specific passages of definition, explanation, or example from the lecture materials which we have been pondering over these last weeks. Much of what I’ve been discussing in those lectures could be of use to you as you seek to explain how intelligence functions in Fitch’s life, say, or how compassion is revealed in the depiction of the Fitch’s stunning crew of craftsmen devoted to an artful task, or how integrity can be discerned in the Fitch’s attempt to keep to his delicate and unusual plan, or how courage can be read from the words and deeds of the crew as each member bends the pathways of life and experience to create a most wonderful and deep-hearted gift.

    And, finally, though you focus on one story as the central object of your analysis, don’t forget that discussing targeted aspects of Helprin’s other tale, “Charlotte of the Utrechtesweg”—in your general introduction or your essentializing conclusion or even in the ‘back-room-discussion-zone of end-notes—is an important, wonderful way to show a wider command of the story, its thoughtful author, and the characters, events, and themes which are central and resonant in his works.   

Process: This essay can be accomplished in six paragraphs, plus end-notes and formal reference lists. You’ll recall from the ending weeks of your English 1 class the basic theory of the essay: it is a formal language structure composed of four distinct sequential regions: 

1) the introduction and thesis statement [INT/ThS], 

2) the sequence of discussion development paragraphs which present evidence in support of the thesis [DEV], 

3) the summation which returns to the thesis idea and offers the most condensed sampling of the key-points of the discussion section [SUM/RThS], 

4) the supplemental section of end-notes [EN], works cited [WC1, works consulted [WC2], and even—when appropriate—appendices {APP] of facsimiles, field data, images, charts, graphs, and so on. 

English 1 was where you learned that an essay wasn’t just a stack of pages haphazardly stapled together, but rather a coherent system of sequential concepts and formal sets of supporting details.

The essay is conceptually framed by the introductory and summational paragraphs.  Your essay’s first paragraph must present the driving idea of your entire analysis in a thesis sentence which should be placed at the bottom of that first paragraph. One leads-in with a generalization (e.g., Modern fiction wrangles with the moral dilemmas of every-day globalized life or The moral intensity and density of a life, its intricate philosophical texture and worth, is only truly visible when that life is caught up in overlapping crises). Such a generalization is followed up with a series of explanatory sentences which offer defined samples of that generalization as illustration, even as they narrow down to the work of a specific thinker and a particular literary work by that thinker. The other end of the essay, where one sums up the analytical main point and offers essential samples of key, supporting passages, as well as a cluster of important insights into the meaning of the tale and the nature of the writer’s are, has an inverted pattern. The re-phrasing or re-statement of the thesis comes first, then a series of the four our five key detailed points which your discussion revealed, and finally a closing return to the general concept with which you started but with the precise insights which you think your reader should walk away from your essay holding in mind and memory.

The body of developed analysis and discussion should be a series of four paragraphs, each of which takes on one of the virtues which Helprin lists. Each of these four paragraphs must present, define, and explore the term, the features of that virtue; then, the paragraph must move on to find, present, and discuss two specific passages of the story where the virtue under focus can be discerned. These passages must be accurately quoted and cited, then commented on in detail, explaining why and how they lead the reader to an experience and appreciation of Helprin’s use of the given virtue as a thematic thread in the deep levels of his moral tale.


Format: Please format your essay in MLA-2016 guidelines (see the SPB “Document Presentation Guidelines” document and the “Student Sample Essay” for direct models). The essay should be accomplished in 5 to 8 full pages, plus end-notes and works cited/consulted listings. That is, the primary analysis is 5 to 8 pages long (figure about 300 words per page, for a word range of 1500 to 2400 words). If you find this parameter restrictive, I might allow you to go beyond the limit if you offer a detailed outline of how you’ll proceed as well as a brief argument of why your analysis needs the extra space.

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