December 14, 2009

Critical Lens Discussion Paragraph Samples

You should work on your discussion paragraphs tonight and tomorrow. Final essays are on Wednesday. Dancers who will not be in class on Wednesday must submit the essay on Tuesday, December 15.

Here are the discussion paragraphs we produced in class today, with the relevant thesis statement in [brackets] above each one.

[The novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and A Night to Remember, a non-fiction novel by Walter Lord, both reveal that the character of an individual is only meaningful when compared to that of others.]

A Night to Remember is a detailed, minute-by-minute narrative account of the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic on April 14-15, 1912. Author Walter Lord undertook meticulous, painstaking research, which included interviews with over 60 survivors, to create the definitive account of the early 20th century’s defining moment. The result is a story with no main character, other than the Titanic herself. Lord instead provides the reader with a series of brief character vignettes, showing us a few moments of one person’s experience in one part of the ship, then moving to someone else, somewhere else, at the same time. For example, in the first chapter, Lord describes the ship’s collision with the iceberg from the perspective of the lookouts who saw the ice, passengers who barely felt the impact, and crew members below who saw the sea pouring into the cargo holds and boiler rooms. The purpose is to differentiate the reactions, thoughts and behaviors of many different people; passengers, officers and crew, men and women, rich and poor, who experienced this grave and unprecedented crisis on board the doomed ocean liner. As the sinking progresses, the tension in the novel increases as passengers and crew are faced with increasingly difficult, indeed impossible, choices. Wives had to decide whether to take to the lifeboats or stay with their husbands. Crew members had to decide whether to do their duty or save themselves. Notably, White Star Line chairman J. Bruce Ismay had to decide how to take responsibility for the disaster, by going down with the ship or saving himself so he could explain to the world; he chose the latter. By revealing the experiences of so many people, all of whom were caught up in this dramatic, life-and-death situation, Lord gives the reader the broadest possible spectrum of human behavior and potential by showing widely disparate reactions to the crisis. From the cowardice and arrogance of Ismay, to the workaday devotion of the crew members, to the bravery and service of the officers and the ship’s band, and the enduring love of Mr. and Mrs. Isidor Straus and other couples, we see anything and everything that people may be capable of. Many of their actions are heroic, others are deplorable, others merely intriguing. They are all laced with irony, however, as Lord clearly expects his reader to know that the Titanic will eventually sink. Yet Lord’s matter-of-fact journalistic tone calls upon the reader to draw his own conclusions. It also entices us to wonder what we would have done if we were on the Titanic that fateful night. By showing how so many people reacted and behaved in the face of history’s worst maritime disaster, Walter Lord clearly shows us that we can only understand people, and ourselves, by revealing how they, and we, respond to a crisis.


[The novel The Natural by Bernard Malamud and the classic epic poem The Odyssey by Homer both reveal that true heroism lies in a person’s willingness to confront the forces allayed against him, where those forces are more powerful than he.]

The Natural is a story about a star baseball player, Roy Hobbs, who comes out of nowhere as a “middle-aged rookie” and attempts to lead his team, the New York Knights, from last place to the National League pennant. The story is based on the tale of Sir Perceval the Grail Knight, from medieval mythology, as well as primitive nature myths. Malamud attempts to place these myths into a modern context, using a sports star as his “hero.” However, Roy Hobbs is no hero. He is shallow, vain, selfish, and interested only in the wealth, women and fame that come with being a professional athlete. He feels entitled to these things, and never shows any awareness of or appreciation for his responsibilities as a hero. This characterization reveals Malamud’s cynicism about post-World War II America and its worship of celebrity. The author’s tone shows contempt for all of his characters, including his “hero,” as there are very few “good” people in the story. Hobbs is surrounded by bad actors: the slimy sportswriter Max Mercy, the greedy team owner Judge Banner, the crooked gambler Gus Sands, and the psychotic, gold-digging vixen Memo Paris. All of these people appear to offer Hobbs the things he desires most; fame, fortune, and sex. However, Hobbs fails to realize that these temptations are evil, and are preventing him from realizing his full potential. His actions often frustrate the reader, as Hobbs continually makes the wrong choices even though the right ones, such as separating himself from people like these, seem obvious to everyone but him. He pursues the dangerous and unstable Memo Paris despite meeting a much more suitable mate, the kindly, wise, but somewhat homely Iris Lemon. By the time Hobbs realizes his true destiny, and thinks unselfishly for the first time in his life, it is too late. He strikes out in his final at bat, and loses everything. He failed in his quest to become a true hero, because he was both unwilling and unable to confront, or even recognize, the forces allayed against him. Malamud seems to suggest that there are no true heroes anymore; that unlike the Knights of the Round Table and the great mythic heroes of yore, modern men cannot overcome their own selfishness and vanity, nor the external forces that drive them.


[The novels Lord of the Flies by William Golding and 1984 by George Orwell both reveal that mankind’s worst tendencies will often triumph over its best.]

William Golding’s allegorical novel Lord of the Flies is about a group of British schoolboys stranded on an uninhabited island who attempt, and fail, to build a civilization for themselves. Despite their initial good intentions, the boys eventually succumb to the forces of fear, aggression, and savage brutality, destroying the island and losing their humanity in the process. Golding’s tale is an attempt to understand man’s inhumanity to man by placing his characters in a situation where they have no initial conflicts among them, and must rely only on human nature to survive. Each of his main characters represents a different element of the human psyche. Ralph, the leader, represents the ego, or conscience. He is practical, fair-minded, decent, and courageous. His friend and confidant Piggy, an asthmatic fat boy with glasses, represents the “superego,” or intellect. His profound smarts and inner strength are belied by his physical limitations. Jack, a choirboy who fancies himself a “hunter,” represents the “id,” man’s more base, animalistic instincts. He finds himself in conflict with Ralph over leadership and priorities. While Ralph’s focus is on survival and rescue, Jack seems to want nothing other than to hunt and “have fun.” That, and the boys’ irrational but ever-growing fear of an unseen and undefined “beastie,” leads to a split of the group into two factions. Jack manages to seduce most of the boys into joining him, with promises of food, fun, no shared responsibility, and protection from the “beastie.” The story grows darker as one boy is accidentally killed, and then Piggy is murdered by one of Jack’s minions, leaving Ralph alone to face the evil that Jack and the other boys have come to represent. In the end, they decide to hunt Ralph down and kill him, and are stopped only by the sudden intervention of the “rescue” by the adult world. All of the boys except Ralph lost either their humanity or their lives, as a result not of any outside forces, but their own essential nature. The “beastie,” or “Lord of the Flies” (a loose translation of a Hebrew word for the devil) becomes the central symbol in Golding’s allegory. It represents all of mankind’s worst tendencies; fear, hatred, aggression, violence, savagery. By having these innocent boys turn savage despite starting off with no conflicts and no shared history, Golding suggests that there is, in the end, very little hope for mankind.


[The novels 1984 by George Orwell and A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens both take place during dark periods in history, which provide enlightenment for their main characters.]

Written in the late 1940s, George Orwell’s 1984 is a dystopian vision of the future. In this grim, bleak and frightening future world, there are only three giant nation-states; the one where the story takes place, Oceania, is perpetually at war with either one of the other two. Its population is kept under constant surveillance by the government, which is ostensibly ruled by an unseen and god-like figurehead called “Big Brother.” The oppressive totalitarian regime, and “the Party” that controls it, keeps its citizens in a constant state of poverty, deprivation, and fear, but simultaneously nationalistic and loyal. It does this, in part, by engaging in massive disinformation, telling the public how well things are going even if they are not, and actually changing history by altering the historical record. Citizens are expected to believe the misinformation even when their own senses, memory and experience tell them it is a lie. Orwell calls this “doublethink;” the ability to hold two contradictory notions in the mind and believe both. Orwell also introduces the concept of “thoughtcrime,” i.e., the failure of doublethink. The main character in 1984, Winston Smith, works for the Party’s “Ministry of Truth,” whose function is actually the precise opposite of its name. One day he realizes that he is, in fact, falsifying history, and decides that he does not much like the time and place in which he lives. This realization leads Winston to question everything he has ever known, and find out as much as he can about how the Party really works, who or what “Big Brother” really is, and what has really happened in the last 40 years of history. In the process, he enjoys feeling and thinking freely for the first time in his life, and has a passionate love affair with a like-minded young woman named Julia. Unfortunately, Winston also realizes that this enlightenment is in and of itself a thoughtcrime. Just when he believes he has learned all that he needs to learn, he is captured by the dreaded Thought Police, and tortured until he can accept that 2+2=5, and learns to “love Big Brother.” In the end, there is nothing of Winston, or his enlightenment, left. The ending of the novel leaves the reader with very little hope, which is clearly Orwell’s intent. It is somewhat ironic that the darkness of his time both enabled Winston to see, and yet ultimately blinded and destroyed him.