English 168d: Response Papers
A response paper is meant to be a chance for you to demonstrate (and improve) your close reading skills. You can choose a short passage from a work and talk about what the writer’s specific word choice accomplishes and how (think back to the first day in lecture when Professor Wood talked about the importance of the phrase “Purple stains were buried in the flesh of his nose”—how, to reiterate just one point, “buried” and “flesh” make the reader aware of the character’s impending mortality). Or you can pick a specific image, theme, aspect of characterization, etc. (e.g., the descriptions of Pnin’s students, or ex-wife) from a text and write about what that accomplishes and how.
When I say “what the text accomplishes” I mean—what is the effect of the language on the reader? Is it moving and sincere; it is satirical; does it make us identify with the character or feel distant from them? Is anything interesting happening in terms of tone, rhetoric, allusion?
Because a response paper is short, it’s best to choose a relatively small, narrow topic. A response paper doesn’t need to have a thesis or large argument; instead, it can offer an observation or series of observations about one particular moment or theme/image in a work.
SAMPLE RESPONSE PAPER
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
In chapter 17 of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, George and Eliza, along with Phineas, their Quaker protector and guide, flee the Quaker town in a carriage as Tom Loker and Marks chase them on horseback. As their pursuers near, the group reaches a ledge of overhanging rock that “seems to promise shelter and concealment” (250). Phineas knows the spot well; he tells the group, “this is one of our old hunting-dens” (251). Here, we witness a role reversal from hunter to hunted: Phineas, accustomed to using the rock ledge for hunting, is now employing it as shelter from those hunting him. By mere association with George and Eliza, he himself has become prey. Yet, the role reversal of the rock ledge is just as interesting.
One must ask: how is it that one space can serve such opposing purposes? How can the pursued expect to find shelter in a hunting den? Interestingly, upon reaching the rock ledge, our group does not discover a hunter’s den but rather a rock citadel: “a pile of rocks…standing full thirty feet high, with its sides steep and perpendicular as those of a castle” (251). The simile here, comparing the rock walls to those of a castle, is perfectly clear: the rock ledge suits our group as well as any fortress. Not only has Phineas transformed from hunter to prey, but the rock ledge has also changed, at least in purpose, from a hunter’s den to a defensible stronghold. Phineas lauds the quality of their hideout: “Whoever comes here has to walk single file between those two rocks, in fair range of your pistols, boys” (252). The setup is perfect; it is as if nature has adapted herself in an attempt to aid our party. And if this was her goal, then nature surely succeeds: Tom Loker climbs up into the trap and is felled by George and Phineas.
There is an interesting parallel between this scene and the James McCune Smith piece on the Haitian Revolution. As we discussed in section, Smith considers the mountainous topography of Haiti to be one of the important factors in the success of the Haitian revolution. He writes, “The mountainous regions of the island were an elementary cause of the revolution, since amid their rugged passes slaves had learned that there was such a thing as successful resistance against their masters” (Coursepack 45). The Smith piece suggests that nature sides with the slaves in their rebellion, and thus that the rebellion was natural and inevitable. Stowe is less explicit, but the point is the same: slavery violates the laws of nature, and thus the rock ledge, and by extension nature herself, is on the side of the escaped slaves.