What’s in a Question? Literary Inquiries and Interrogations, 1900-1964

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Winter 2015, English 162W

Instructor: Mary Kim

What’s in a Question? Literary Inquiries and Interrogations, 1900-1964

Winter 2015

TTH 9:00AM-10:50AM, 160-B37

Office Hours: Thursday 2:00-4:00PM and by appointment

Course Description: This course explores whether the question—seemingly a transhistorical rhetorical construction that appears evenly from the Middle Ages to the present—might have a special franchise in literary works of the period 1900-1964. From T. S. Eliot’s “Do I dare to eat a peach?” to Faulkner’s “Why do you hate the south?” to the tremendous popularity of Agatha Christie’s sleuths, modernism’s fascination with questioning seems to indicate an increased sense of epistemological doubt and existential anxiety. On the other hand, the period also sees writers, like Gertrude Stein or Ernest Hemingway, who conspicuously shy away from posing questions, even to the extent of refusing the question mark. How are we to interpret such marked lack of interrogation? We will focus on four writers, but relate the concerns of the course to other nodes in literary, intellectual, and socioeconomic history. Some suggestive contexts to consider in relation to the question will be the rise of show trials, the consolidation of psychoanalysis, and the decline of religious catechism. Not only will we reflect on our contemporary relationship to forms and practices of questioning (routine google searching, pervasive “uptalk,” asking Siri for information, etc.), we will also examine the questions that we ask of texts as readers and literary critics—what do we ask, and how?


Readings will be capped at 170 pages per week, and will taper off during writing-intensive weeks. All primary texts are fairly canonical, but some are works less regularly read in the English core (Ford, Forster). Others, like Eliot’s The Waste Land or Joyce’s “Ithaca,” may be familiar to students from Literary History III or other survey courses; in such cases, this class will draw upon and consolidate students’ prior knowledge while spurring them to parse more carefully and speculate more boldly. Students are also encouraged to browse through listed optional readings—all students will briefly present on one optional reading throughout the quarter (see “Minor Assignments,” below).

Primary Texts (Available at Stanford Bookstore, except Joyce’s “Ithaca,” which will be posted on Coursework):

1) Ford Maddox Ford, The Good Solider (1914)

2) T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1917); “Portrait of a Lady” (1917); “Conversation Galante” (1917); “Gerontion” (1920); “Sweeney Erect” (1920); “Sweeney among the Nightingales” (1920); The Waste Land (1922)

3) James Joyce, “Ithaca,” from Ulysses (1922)

4) E. M. Forster, A Passage to India (1924)

5) Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (1953)

Secondary Texts (will be posted on Coursework):

1) Ranier Lang, “Questions as Epistemic Requests” from Questions (D. Reidel, 1978) (selections)

2) E. M. Forster, “Plot,” from Aspects of the Novel (Harcourt Brace, 1927), 83-104

3) Ansgar F. Nunning, “Reconceptualizing Unreliable Narration: Synthesizing Cognitive and Rhetorical Approaches,” from A Companion to Narrative Theory (Blackwell, 2005) (selections)

4) Michael Levenson, “Character in The Good Soldier,” Twentieth Century Literature (1984 winter), 373-87.

4) Virginia Woolf, “Character in Fiction,” (1924) from The Essays of Virginia Woolf, vol.3 (Hogarth Press, 1988), 420-38.

5) Roland Greene, “Poem,” from The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (Princeton, 2012), 1046-48.

6) Vincent Sherry, “Mr. Eliot’s Wartime Services,” from The Great War and the Language of Modernism (Oxford UP, 2003) (selections)

7) Linda Hutcheon and Michael Woodland, “Parody,” from The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 1001-03.

8) Selected Letters of E. M. Forster, Eds. Mary Lago and P. N. Furbank (Harvard UP, 1983-85) (selections)

9) Rex Ferguson, “Mysteries and Muddles in A Passage to India,” from Criminal Law and the Modernist Novel (Cambridge UP, 2013)

Optional Readings (will be posted on Coursework):

1) Gertrude Stein, “Poetry and Grammar,” from Writings, 1932-1946 (Library of America, 1998), 313-36.

2) Maria DiBattista, “Ulysses’s Unanswered Questions,” Modernism / Modernity (2008 Apr), 265-75.

3) Maud Ellmann, “A Sphinx without a Secret,” from the Norton Critical Ed. of The Waste Land (Norton, 2001), 258-75.

4) Patricia Stubbs, “Mr. Forster’s Telegrams and Anger,” from Women and Fiction: Feminism and the Novel 1880-1920 (Harvester Press, 1979), 208-22.

5) Sianne Ngai, “Tone,” from Ugly Feelings (Harvard UP, 2005) (selections)

Major Assignments:

1) Short, speculative close reading assignment (3-4 pages) on one aspect of questioning in The Good Soldier (minimum 2 drafts). The initial draft will focus on practicing sustained formal analysis and engaging in one or two careful speculations on the bigger historical or theoretical implications of such analysis without reference to secondary material. After in-class workshopping, the second draft will focus on adjusting, corroborating, and historicizing the first draft’s speculative dimensions through a limited incorporation of secondary sources (no more than two).

2) Final paper proposal (no more than 1 page): students will draft a research proposal of no more than 1 page outlining the research problem that they intend to explore in their final research paper.

3) Annotated bibliography and “methods” paper (2-3 pages): students will draft an annotated bibliography of at least 5 sources related to their final project; they will also write a short “methods” paper where they choose 1 or 2 sources from their annotated bibliography and identify, analyze, and evaluate rhetorical, argumentative, and methodological strategies that they find particularly compelling and effective. These may range from the very small (beginning an essay by gesturing towards the etymology of a word; limiting contextual digression with timely phrases like “… for reasons that need not detain us here”) to the very big (e.g. “how reading Dreiser through the lens of compulsion as opposed to determinism fundamentally shifts the way we think about American naturalism”).

4) Final research paper (12-15 pages) (minimum 2 drafts):

The final research paper must give extensive treatment to at least one literary text, although it need not be a work covered in class (subject to instructor’s approval). The paper must engage in some way with the topic of the question, broadly defined. Drafts will be workshopped in class, with the student producing at least two drafts total.

Minor Assignment

Each student will give a brief presentation (5-7 minutes) on one of the listed optional readings throughout the quarter. He or she will succinctly summarize the argument of the secondary reading, draw the class’s attention to one or two moments that illuminate (or fail to illuminate) the theme of the question and / or the week’s primary readings, and start off the discussion in creative and interesting directions.

Learning Goals

1. Development of close reading skills, or the cultivation of careful, persistent attention to literary form; development of sensitivity to interpretatively rich moments instead of perpetuating irresponsible notion that every moment in the text is equally close-readable

2. Circumspect development of distant-reading heuristics that are derived from particular works but may be tested against a broader archive to illuminate our knowledge of genres or periodization. (e.g. the placement of a question in a structurally prominent position, such as the beginning or end of a lyric, etc.)

3. How to construct an interesting and imaginative research project: learning how to catalyze a general topic of interest (“the question”) through specific tropes, affects, and processes (tone, syntax, punctuation and revision culture, voice, plot, etc.); learning how to relate the topic to historical contexts (the modernist period as one of show trials, the rise of existentialism and the ironization of theological catechism, the consolidation of psychoanalysis, etc.)

4. Demystification of rhetorical and argumentative strategies used by literary critics; how to adapt them for one’s own argument

5. Consolidation of planning and writing skills for a long research paper, especially in the following areas: how to research and archive effectively, how to read secondary sources “opportunistically,” how to join the critical conversation, how to outline, time management, and careful awareness / development of personal style


I will hold regular office hours and encourage you to come talk as often as needed. All students will be expected to conference with me at least twice throughout the quarter.

Weekly Schedule (subject to minor changes)


In Class


Week 1 Questioning Modernity

Jan 6 (T)

>Introduction: Why question?

>Listen to Seth Lerer’s podcast, “uptalk”

>Discussion of readings

>What is close reading?


The Good Soldier, 13-64

Lang, “Questions as Epistemic Requests” (excerpts)


Gertrude Stein, “Poetry and Grammar”

Jan 8 (TH)

>Discussion of The Good Soldier and secondary texts

>What is “opportunistic reading”?, or How to read criticism effectively


The Good Solider, 67-144

Forster, “The Plot,” from Aspects of the Novel

Nunning, “Reconceptualizing Unreliable Narration” (excerpts)

Week 2 “Why”? vs. “And Then?”: Ascribe vs. Describe

Jan 13 (T)

>Discussion of The Good Soldier and secondary texts

> Writing exercise: reflect on close reading in Watt’s “The First Paragraph of The Ambassadors”; practice emulating or rejecting for own analysis

>Putting multiple secondary sources in conversation


The Good Soldier, 147-end

Levenson, “Character in The Good Soldier

Woolf, “Character in Fiction”


Choose scene to close-read for 1st assignment

Jan 15 (TH)

>Wrap up The Good Soldier

>Peer review workshop

Due: 1st draft of close reading assignment

Sign up for conferences

Week 3 “Shall I at Least Set My Lands in Order?”: Quests, Queries, Quietisms

Jan 20 (T)

>Discussion of Eliot

>Review strategies for writing effective topic sentences

>Address elements of style (esp. transitioning from old to new information, deploying verbs over noun phrases, ending sentences with emphasis, etc )


Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”; “Portrait of a Lady”; “Conversation Galante”; “Gerontion”; “Sweeney Erect”; “Sweeney among the Nightingales”

Greene, “Poem,” from PEPP

Jan 22 (TH)

>Discussion of The Waste Land and secondary reading

>What is symptomatic reading?, or reading as ideological unmasking (handout from Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best)


Eliot, The Waste Land

Sherry, “Mr. Eliot’s Wartime Services,” from The Great War and the Language of Modernism (excerpts)

Week 4 Catechisms, or What We Believe in, c. 1922

Jan 27 (T)

>Discussion of The Waste Land, continued. Relate to “Ithaca”

>2-3 students will give 5-7 minute presentations on optional readings (Dibattista and Ellmann)

>Questions in historical context:

the reign of psychoanalysis (handout from Introduction to Psychoanalysis, p.127-28)


Re-read The Waste Land

Joyce, “Ithaca”

Hutcheon and Woodland, “Parody,” from PEPP


DiBattista, “Ulysses’s Unanswered Questions”

Ellmann, “A Sphinx without a Secret”

Jan 29 (TH)

>Wrap up Eliot

>Questions in literary history:

handout of famous catechisms

in literature (The Scarlet Letter, “The Lamb,”1984)

>Write short memo reflecting on

one’s writing processes so far

Due: 2nd expanded draft of close reading assignment

Week 5 Popping the Question: Marriage Deferred in the New Century

Feb 3 (T)

>Discussion of Passage to India

>Questions in and of authorial voice: handout on free indirect discourse from Moretti’s “Serious Century”; compare with an excerpt from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises


Passage to India, chaps. 1-11

Forster’s bio in Project Muse

Feb 5 (TH)

>Discussion of Forster, continued

>1-2 students will present on optional reading (Stubbs)

> How to historicize responsibly: handout excerpted from Levinson’s “Reflections on the New Historicism”


Passage to India, chaps. 12-19

Selections from Forster’s letters


Stubbs, “Mr. Forster’s Telegrams and Anger”

Week 6 “Mysteries and Muddles”: Empire in Doubt

Feb 10 (T)

>Discussion of Forster, continued

>How to research effectively; introduction of good starting points

>What is the annotated bibliography?


Passage to India, chaps. 20-28

Start reading own sources

Sign up for conferences

Feb 12 (TH)

>Discussion of Forster, continued

>Roundtable discussion of research proposals


Passage to India, chaps. 29-36

Due: research proposal

Week 7 Writing the Research Question

Feb 17 (T)

>Wrap up Passage to India

>How to turn your “topic” into a “research question”

>Review and revise research proposals in small groups


Ferguson, “Mysteries and Muddles in A Passage to India

Feb 19 (TH)

>Peer review workshop

>How to outline #1: portioning out your ideas; what to place in the introduction


annotated bibliography & methods paper

Week 8 Tragicomic Interrogations / Towards a Thesis

Feb 24 (T)

>Discussion of Waiting for Godot

>How to outline #2: dealing with counter-arguments; ways to conclude an essay


Waiting for Godot, Act I

Feb 26 (TH)

>Discussion of Beckett, continued

>1-2 students will present briefly on optional reading (Ngai)


Waiting for Godot, Act II


Ngai, “Tone” (excerpts)

Week 9 What Do We Know? Trivia in Jeopardy!

Mar 3 (T)

>Watch a clip from Jeopardy!

>Peer review workshop

>Writing strategies and reflections:

Articulating the purpose of your own writing; recognizing hidden or inadvertent implications of your own rhetoric; avoiding semi-circular statements


Berthold, “Jeopardy!, Cultural Literacy, and the Discourse of Trivia”

Due: first 5 pages of final paper

Sign up for conferences

Mar 5 (TH)

>Peer review workshop

>Further research tips: citation managers vs. citing directly; using authoritative editions; saving papers

Due: (by Sunday of week 9) 1st full draft of final paper

Bring work-in-progress to class

Week 10 Artificial Intelligence, or Questions in Our Time

Mar 10 (T)

>Wrap up re: questions

>Titling your paper and other elements of style

>Write second reflective memo on own writing


“Smarter than You Think; Computers That Listen to You Make Strides in Talking Back” (NYT article)

“We Talked to Siri about Her, and Whether She'll Ever Fall in Love” (Esquire article)

Mar 12 (TH)

Presentations of final paper

Due: final draft of final paper

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