Tuesday, November 20, 2012

How to Write a Good Research Paper     

In  The Art of Literary Research  Richard Daniel Altick states that “All literary students are dedicated to the same task, the discovery of truth.”. (3) This essay aims to present useful information for tackling such an ambitious undertaking. It is not possible to deal comprehensively with all involved topics within the scope of this essay; therefore it only presents a quick overview and small selection of useful hints.  Among the topics discussed are finding a research topic, style and plagiarism. Below follows a short introduction to several concepts important for writing research papers.
The first step in the production of a research paper is to find a suitable topic. The decision making process should be guided primarily by the personal interests of the researcher. Other factors, such as the availability of information on the topic and its complexity cannot be ignored.  During writing, as the scope of the topic gets clearer, it can be refined.  When deciding on a topic one’s own interests as well as external factors have to be considered.
Once a topic, a question, has been found the search for an answer must begin.  By the means of a hypothesis, a carefully formulated working assumption, one starts his journey from the question to the answer. It is important to keep in mind though, that the hypothesis is nothing but a tool. The literary researcher must not get emotionally attached to it for he has to seek only the truth, and therefore evidence both supporting and contradicting the hypothesis. The hypothesis is as useful tool but must not become self-purpose.
Reading frequently poses problems especially for beginning students. Often these problems are caused by the idea of reading as the passive act of absorbing information.  Viewing it instead as entering a dialogue with the material the problems tend to disappear. With this idea in mind one is much more likely to actively engage in reading, to ask questions and to develop own ideas. Reading should be viewed and practiced as an active act of communication rather than passive information consumption.
When looking for evidence it is important to analyze the quality of the sources. It should be obvious and yet it often is ignored that there are reliable and less reliable sources. The trustworthiness of different sources is especially important when contradictions occur. For beginning students it can be hard to determine wheter a source is reliable or not therefore they should be especially conscious of the quality of their sources and ask their professors when in doubt.  That sources differ in quality is a fact often overlooked by beginning students therefore they should be particularly critical.
Quality is not the only distinctive attribute of sources.  They divide into primary, secondary and tertiary sources. Primary texts are the main objects of study. For a literary student this could be “The Taming of the Shrew” by Shakespeare or any other piece of literature.  Secondary texts deal with primary texts, analyzing them and presenting conclusions.  Most academic writings belong to this category. Tertiary sources are mostly based on secondary sources. They omit controversies and tend to present well established authoritative opinions.  Course-books or handbooks are typical examples of tertiary texts. The distinction is not as clear cut as described here and might depend on what a researcher is interested in studying. There are primary sources, secondary sources which deal with primary texts, and tertiary sources which are mostly based on secondary texts.
The distinction between primary, secondary and tertiary sources is essential because it determines how the information needs to be treated.  Interpretations from secondary or tertiary sources should always be viewed more critical than primary evidence. Also it should be made visible when talking about an author’s interpretation using constructions like “Kant claims that …”. Information has to be treated and presented differently depending on the type of source it comes from.
Plagiarism is a problem for which recent events involving a certain German minister of defense have raised awareness.  The emergence of new technologies has made plagiarizing even easier and thus more tempting and more easily to be done unintentionally. To avoid such unfortunate accidents everything that is directly copied should always be put in quotations.  Also paraphrases should be checked not to be too similar to the original and not to contain any identical sentences.  In order not to forget to mention any sources it is recommendable to write the bibliography at the beginning of one’s work.  Plagiarism is a serious offence and effort should be me made to avoid it.
The most enlightened ideas when presented in an unfit manner will neither be recognized as such nor reward a student with high marks. Thus a pleasant and understandable style is crucial for the positive reception of academic writings. Although style is a subjective matter and allows for different tastes there is a set of widely accepted rules to which one should generally adhere. Most rules may sometimes be broken profitably but only advanced writers should take that option into account.  Since style is an important element in academic writing a small selection of guidelines is presented below.

A paragraph should directly correspond to one idea. It should start with a sentence stating the topic and end with a recap or important consequences. In most cases the active voice is more concise and easier to understand than its passive counterpart; therefore it should be preferred. Similarly positive statements are usually better comprehensible than negative ones.  Honoring the rule “Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.“ .(White 22)  will improve the quality of one's writing.Every sentence should be as such that it is not possible to remove a word without losing meaning.  A similarity of ideas should be reflected in form to make it easy to recognize for the reader. The stronger the relationship between words the closer they should appear together. To emphasize a word it should be put at the end of a sentence.                                                                                                               
The process of producing a research paper is not trivial and involves a variety of different activities and topics. This essay can barely scratch on the surface of those topics.  Introducing several important concepts and giving a few useful hints was what it aimed and hopefully succeeded to accomplish.  Those who want to know more can find excellent resources mentioned in the bibliography.

Altick, Richard Daniel. The Art of Literary Research. New York: Norton, 1957.
Cook, Claire Kehrwald. Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1985.
Taylor, Gordon.  A Student’s Writing Guide:  How to Plan and Write Successful Essays.  Cambridge: University Press, 2009.
White, E.B. and Strunk Jr., William. The Elements of Style.4th ed.  New Jersey: Pearson Education Company,2000.
Young, Tory. Studying English Literature: A Practical Guide. Cambridge: University Press, 2008.

Feminist Criticism
Women – sources of inspiration. They could succeed in writing only when they were economically and financially independent.
ü  History of women’s writing:
-          Feminine phase (1840-80): women writers imitated dominant male artistic norms and aesthetic standards.
-          Feminist phase (1880-1920): radical and often separatist positions are maintained
-          Female phase (1920 onwards): focus on female writing and female experience
-          1960s: ‘women’s movement’
-          1970s: exposing the ‘mechanisms of patriarchy’
-          1980s: influence of Marxism, structuralism, linguistics etc.
ü  Feminist critics:
-          describing the history of women in terms of suppression by a patriarchal system;
-          distinguishing between natural (sex) and cultural/social (gender) attributes of womanhood;
-          gender is not biologically determined but depends on social agreements, codes, conventions, tacit assumptions and acknowledged expectations.
ü  Feminist criticism and language: a ‘man’s sentence’ - completely different from a ‘woman’s sentence’.
-          Hélène Cixous
·         écriture feminine ~ ‘female spelling’
·         associated with the feminine, and facilitating the free play of meanings within the framework of loosened grammatical structures
-          Julia Kristeva
·         2 different aspects of language, both of which are always present in any       
given sample
·         symbolic: authority, order, repression, control
·         symbiotic: displacement, slippage, condensation
·         bled off by Jacques Lacan´s distinction between the two realms of the Imaginary and the Symbolic
ü  Feminist criticism and psychoanalysis
-          Sandra Gilbert & Susan Gubar
·          idea of the ‘social castration’
·         signifies women´s lack of social power
ü  Feminist criticism and the role of theory:
-          ‘Anglo-American’ feminism:
·         Traditional critical concepts (theme, motif, and characterisation)
·         Use of historical data and non-literary material: diaries, memoirs, social and medical history etc.
·         Elaine Showalter, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Patricia Stubbs, and Rachel Brownstein
-          ‘French’ feminism:
·         More overtly theoretical -- often deals with language, representation, and psychology
·         Literary text is never primarily a representation of reality
·         Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, and Luce Irigaray
ü  Feminist literary studies à revising the canon:
-          discovery and reprisal of writings by women that had been lost and forgotten;
·         Oxford Anthology of English Literature of 1973 – one female author (!)
·         Norton Anthology of 2006 – 26 women writers
-          analysis of the conditions of production, distribution, reception and transmission of female writing and exploration of the horizons of possibility and constrains that women authors were subject to
-          reading and re-evaluating literature (of male writes) from the point of view of women as readers.

ü  Poststructuralist feminism à concepts of gender-specific feminine language that escapes from the dominant, socially accepted, male-centered ways of expression.
ü  Gynocriticism à only women can speak for women (Elaine Showalter).
ü  Gender studies:
-          gender vs. sex à sex is biologically determined and generally associated with a certain gender. Gender is a set of cultural concepts about the role and behaviour of a sex.  Sex and gender need not to coincide
-          shift from essentialism to performativity: critics refused to view gender/sex as an essential factor of personal identity but instead look at it as subordination to social rules
-          Judith Butler – the person most connected to the reformation of feminism.  She developed a highly innovative concept of sex and gender.
ü  Queer theory:
-          Reflection on the role of sexuality in society and culture
-          Uncovering of how concepts of homosexuality / heterosexuality influence the production and reception of literature.
-          “queering” -> critical reading of “normal” social practices with intention to subvert established norms and prevent repression of deviant sexual practices 

Elizabeth Bowen's "The Demon Lover"
In this analysis we will take a look at the creation of suspense, the possibility of different interpretations, and how an unusual understanding of the word demon might help to access a deeper meaning.                                                                                                                  Suspense is achieved with the help of at least five different devices, namely word choice, setting, the order of the plot and a mysterious event. The authoress utilizes vocabulary with connotations of fear and terror.  Instances of such words are “dead air”(661)  or “claw marks”(661)  and “no human eye”(661). Terror might be caused by the latter one when the reader realizes the possible implication of her being watched by some kind of non-human creature.  The setting itself seems gloomy and uneasy. Such a mood is achieved by descriptions of destruction as in “broken chimneys and parapets stood out”(661)  or “There were some cracks in the structure, left by the last bombing”(661). The plot starts in the middle of the story and then continues chronologically after a flashback. With this perplexing flashback suspension is created in two ways. First, all the new and completely unexpected information makes the reader wonder what else might happen. Second, because the reader wants to know how the mysterious event develops further. This mysterious event is, of course, the appearance of the letter. “She stopped dead and stared at the hall table – on this lay a letter addressed to her”(662) The (possibly) supernatural nature of the letter appearing becomes explicit  in “On the supernatural side of the letter’s entrance she was not permitting her mind to dwell”(664.  Word choice, plot, setting and the mysterious event are used together to create suspension.                               The text allows a variety of different interpretations. An interesting metaphorical interpretation of the text is to see Mrs. Drover’s demon lover as an image for her suppressed desires. If one wants to follow this interpretation several passages of the text can be interpreted in a way supporting it.  “The young girl talking to the soldier in the garden had not ever completely seen his face”(663) for example. It is possible to argue that the lack of her being able to see is face is due to “his” lack of a face. Further support for this claim can be drawn from the statement later in the text “under no conditions could she remember his face” (665). It seems unlikely that Mrs. Drover could forget the face of a person she was going to marry. Metaphorical interpretations of the text are possible and clues for them can be found.    The term “Demon” occurring in the short stories title deserves thorough investigation for possible meanings. The most obvious meaning is some kind of monster with diabolical characteristics. While this is a perfectly reasonable way it is interesting and gives us new ways of the understanding when we look at the etymology of the word and the concept of demons. Demon from Latin daemon meaning “spirit” could also describe an abstract concept as opposed to concrete evil creature. In Tibetan Buddhism for example demons play an important role, originally in a highly abstracted way. The concept of demons was used to visualize the hindrances to enlightenment. Demons of greed for example have been pictured as beings with a small mouth and big stomach which would always be hungry. This is a very vivid explanation of greed but not one of an actual creature. In the same manner it is possible to think of the demon lover as visualization of a concept. Namely sensual desire, sensual with which Mrs. Drover did never truly deal (she did not face it) and which is therefore now coming back. Seeing the demon lover as a concept enables us to interpret the text as the story of a returning neglected sensual desire.
We have now seen that word choice, setting, the order of the plot and the mysterious event in combination create the suspension. We have examined that the text, as is every piece of literature, is open to a variety of different interpretations. Last we looked about how treating the demon lover as a concept rather than a being alters and possibly enhances the meaning of the text. 
Elizabeth, Bowen. “The Demon Lover”. The Collected Stories. New York: Vintage                     Books,1982. 661-666
An Experiment in the Stream of Consciousness Technique

I am sitting here. Just sitting here. Sitting used to be easier.  Chairs used to be more comfortable. How does one find the right sitting posture?  It always feels uneasy. Contributing to a sore feeling in my neck and my lower back.  I change the posture but it does not help.  I just want to sit without feeling my weight pressing against my joints. Why did I stop exercising? Now I get the paycheck. Running always feels so good. When you start you can slowly leave your problems behind. Just focusing on the sensation of running. The beating of the heart, the always faster getting heartbeat. I love it! Then why don’t I do it more often? It is dark outside. It rained for several hours. The air must be great outside. I should go for run. I should definitely go for a run.  But not yet. Not Now. First I have to finish my work for today.

He was sitting on his chair in his dorm room. Sitting used to be easier for him, and chairs more comfortable. How could he find the correct posture?  He always felt uneasy.  The way he sat contributed to the sore feeling in his neck and lower back. Changing the position did not help.  He just wanted to sit without feeling his weight pressing against his joints.  Why did he stop exercising?  Now he got the paycheck. Running always felt so good.  When he ran, he could slowly leave his problems behind. He would just focus on the sensation of running; his heartbeat, his always faster getting heartbeat. He loved it. But then why didn’t he do it more often?  It was dark outside. It had rained for several hours. The air outside had to be great. He had to go for a run. He definitely had to go for a run. But not yet. Not then. First he had to finish his work for the day.
I am sitting here. Just sitting here. Sitting used to be easier.  Chairs used to be more comfortable. How does one find the right sitting posture?  It always feels uneasy. Contributing to a sore feeling in my neck and my lower back.  I change the posture but it does not help.  I just want to sit without feeling my weight pressing against my joints. Why did I stop exercising? Now I get the paycheck. Running always feels so good. When you start you can slowly leave your problems behind. Just focusing on the sensation of running. The beating of the heart, the always faster getting heartbeat. I love it! Then why don’t I do it more often? It is dark outside. It rained for several hours. The air must be great outside. I should go for run. I should definitely go for a run.  But not yet. Not Now. First I have to finish my work for today.
He was sitting in his dorm room feeling uneasy and trying to achieve a comfortable posture. Across the room spread marks of his presence. The bed sheet still lay there how he left it after getting up in the morning.  The desk was covered with a variety of university related documents and the remains of some snacks he had hastily consumed to regain the energy lost through intense learning and work. The naïve reader might think that he was a messy individual, but nothing could be farther detached from the truth. For it was not his lack of orderliness or motivation responsible for the state of his dorm rom. No, only fools would believe that.  The true reason for the mess was that the sheer amount of work he had to do urged him to delay everything not absolutely essential.  About two weeks earlier at the beginning of the Easter holiday  he know that he had t

The Theme of Death and the Headache as Symbol for Death and Suppression of Mortality in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours

This paper covers several aspects of Cunningham’s The Hours. First we will analyze the employed narrative technique and discuss its effects on the reader. Thereafter follows a characterization of the novels main characters. The last and central part of this paper will concentrate on the hypothesis that Virginia’s headache is symbol for death and the extreme difficulty to accept mortality for humans.
Narrative Technique
The novel utilizes homodiegetic narration. The main characters are also narrators in their respective chapters. Thus the focalization is internal and variable. Internal focalization enables the reader to empathize with characters much better than external focalization would.
Thoughts and feelings are represented in an interesting and lucid manner. Cunningham uses the stream of consciousness technique, which enables him to present first-person points of view through third-person subjects. This technique is heavily used throughout the whole book. For example in the prologue: “The headache is approaching and it seems (is she or is she not conjuring herself?) that the bombers have appeared again in the sky. She reaches the embankment, climbs over and down again to the river. There’s a fisherman upriver, far away, he won’t notice her, will he?”(4) This style establishes deep immersion into the characters mind without disrupting the natural flow of the narration.
The Main Characters
The novel starts with the suicide of Virginia Woolf. Not only the suicide but the complete character is based on the actual Virginia Woolf. The actual Virginia Woolf was a widely recognized writer who perfected the stream of consciousness technique. Before her suicide Virginia experienced severe mental health problems to which she eventually succumbed. We learn that her mental problems manifest trough voices in her head and through terrifying headaches.  
The headache is always there, waiting, and her periods of freedom, however long, always feel provisional. Sometimes the headache simply takes partial possession for an evening or a day or two, then withdraws. Sometimes it remains and increases until she herself subsides. […] Eventually when enough hours have passed, she emerges bloodied, trembling, but full of vision and ready, once she’s rested, to work again.(70-71)
We may notice that Virginia talks in unusual way about her headache. This will be discussed thoroughly in the last chapter.
Laura Brown (maiden name  Zielski) has always been a reserved bookworm and thus she was a social outcast in high school. At the time of the novel she is married to Dan Brown who was, unlike her, popular in high school. After school he went to war. As he returned he proposed to Laura. Even though she did neither love him nor really want to marry him, she thought that she was extremely lucky and that it was practically impossible for her to decline. So she didn’t. They married and had a child, Richard. Although she thinks that she should be happy she is not. She has a fantastic life, a benevolent husband, a healthy child and another one on the way, but it is not the life she desires. She lives just to fulfill the expectations of others.
She pauses several treads from the bottom, listening, waiting; she is again possessed (it seems to be getting worse) by a dream-like feeling, as if she is standing in the wings, about to go onstage and perform in a play for which she is not appropriately dressed, and for which she has not adequately rehearsed. What, she wonders, is wrong with her. This is her husband in the kitchen; this is her little boy. All the man and boy require of her is her presence and, of course, her love. (43)
Clarissa Vaughn is a character similar to Mrs. Dalloway in the same-named novel by Virginia Woolf. The similarity of Clarissa to Mrs. Dalloway is openly discussed in The Hours itself. Richard, a friend and former lover of Clarissa even insists on calling her Mrs. D.
 “Who is it?”
“Just me.”
 “Who?” “Clarissa.”
 “Oh, Mrs. D., come in.”
 Isn’t it time, she thinks, to dispense with the old nickname?(55)
 A central aspect of her personality is the sense of lost opportunities. Even though she is not only contempt but most of the time really happy with her simple domestic life, she sometimes wonders what she could have become and whether she made the right decisions. Her unimportance, her lack of great and lasting achievements occasionally troubles her. But her doubts are not strong enough to be harmful to her mental state. Thus she is the sole main character who is mentally stable. The following passage characterizes Clarissa quite accurately:
She could, she thinks,  have entered another world. She could have had a life as potent and dangerous as literature itself. Or then again maybe not, Clarissa tells herself. That’s who I was. That’s who I am – a decent woman with a good apartment, with a stable and affectionate marriage, giving a party.(97)
The theme of death and the headache as symbol for death and suppression of mortality in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours
Death is a concept that has always fascinated humans.  Hence it is only logical that death is a theme commonly occurring in literature. One of the few things that might be stronger, than the human fascination with death is the reluctance of individuals to truly accept their own mortality. While everyone knows that we have to die only a few people do believe it. Thus it seems logical that this conflict also found its way into literature. In The Hours it is even one of the predominant themes. Each of the main characters is reminded of mortality, the inevitability of death during the day portrayed in the novel. Those reminders cause the characters to contemplate on death and their lives.
Mrs. Woolf is clearly the character with the strongest connection to death since the novel starts with her suicide. But before her suicide there was an incident with a dead bird which already caused her to consider the possibility of ending her own life.
Before following them, Virginia lingers another moment beside the dead bird in its circle of roses. It could be a kind of hat. It could be the missing link between millinery and death. She would like to lie down in its place. No denying it, she would like that. Vanessa and Julian can go on about their business, their tea and travels, while she, Virginia, a bird-sized Virginia, lets herself metamorphose from an angular, difficult woman into an ornament on a hat; a foolish, uncaring thing.(121)
 This passages last sentence is very interesting. Virginia rejects the idea that Clarissa (the main Character of the book she is currently writing) will commit suicide, even though she had been certain that Clarissa would take her own life. Such is stated not once but several times as the following passages show:
Clarissa Dalloway will die, of that she feels certain, though this early it’s impossible to say how or even precisely why. She will, Virginia believes, take her own life. Yes, she will do that.(69)
She will die in middle age. She will kill herself, probably, over some trifle (how can it be made convincing, tragic instead of comic?).(82)
Clarissa Dalloway, she thinks, will kill herself over something that seems, on the surface, like very little. Her party will fail, or her husband will once again refuse to notice some she’s made about her person or their home. (84)
Because we know from the novel’s prologue that Virginia will eventually take her own life we are tempted to interpret her thoughts about Clarissa suicide as disguised thoughts about her own suicide. We might view Clarissa as Virginia’s alter ego. But Virginia’s idea of Clarissa develops into another direction. At some point, Clarissa undergoes a metamorphosis from a fictional version of Virginia herself to all that Virginia could never be. This metamorphosis begins when Virginia once again realizes that she is not able to manage servants effectively.
Why is it so difficult dealing with servants? Virginia’s mother managed beautifully. Vanessa manages beautifully. Why is it so difficult to be firm and kind with Nelly; to command her respect and her love? […] She will give Clarissa Dalloway great skill with servants, a manner that is intricately kind and commanding. Her servants will love her. They will do more than she asks.(87)
Thus it is only logical that Virginia later decides that Clarissa will not commit suicide. “Clarissa, she thinks, is not the bride of death after all.  Clarissa is the bed in which the bride is laid.” (121)
As already mentioned the sight of the dead bird caused Virginia not only to think about death, but to desire it. Such a reaction is slightly unusual and obviously linked to her mental health issues. Although it is clear that she does have mental problems, little is said directly about the nature of those problems. We can gain a lot of insight, when we take a thorough look at the way she talks about her headache. It will be shown that the headache represents death and her struggle with accepting mortality.
The devil is a headache; the devil is a voice inside a wall; the devil is a find breaking through dark waves. The devil is the brief, twittering nothing that was a thrush’s life. The devil sucks all the beauty from the world, all the hope, and what remains when the devil has finished is a realm of the living dead – joyless, suffocating. Virginia feels, right now, a certain tragic grandeur, for the devil is many things but he is not petty, not sentimental; he seethes with a lethal, intolerable truth. Right now, walking, free of her headache, free of the voices, she can face the devil, but she must keep walking, she must not turn back. (167)
The first thing we may notice is the usage of the word devil. While it is strange to associate a headache with the devil, the devil clearly has a strong connection to death. Then Virginia connects the dead thrush with the devil. Yet there is no reasonable link between a dead bird and a headache. Her choice of words remains interesting and insightful. The term “living dead” communicates inevitability of death. Death is the “intolerable truth”, which she states that she can face, but which she cannot truly face. She has to keep ignoring it, keep walking away from those things ( like a dead thrush ) that remind her of the devil, of death.
At the same time, she hates spending any of her cogent hours doing anything but writing. She works, always, against the fear of relapse. First come the headaches, which are not in any way ordinary pain (“headache” has always seemed an inadequate term for them, but to call them by any other would be too melodramatic). They infiltrate her. They inhabit rather than merely afflict her, the way viruses inhabit their hosts. Strands of pain announce themselves, throw shivers of brightness into her eyes so insistently she must remind herself that others can’t see them. Pain colonizes her, quickly replaces what was Virginia with more and more of itself, and its advance is so forceful, its jagged contours so distinct, that she can’t help imagining it as an entity with life of its own. (70)
 The headache is always there, waiting, and her periods of freedom however long, always feel provisional. […] Everything is infected with brightness, throbbing with it, and she prays for dark the way a wanderer lost in the desert prays for water. (71)
Here it gets very clear that the headache is a symbol for death. Because death is always is present and waiting for us. Life, however long we live, is just temporary and doomed to end. Furthermore the brightness she talks about seems to be an unusual quality for a headache. Light is often associated with death, as many people with near death experiences talk about a bright light which they have seen. The word “pray” is already the second word with religious connotations that she used to describe the headache. It does get even more obvious that the headache she talks about is no simple headache but truly the phenomenon of death when as continue reading.
When she’s crossed over to this realm of relentless brilliance, the voices start. […] They are indistinct but full of meaning, undeniably masculine, obscenely old. They are angry, accusatory, disillusioned. […] A flock of sparrows outside her window once sang, unmistakably, in Greek. This state makes her hellishly miserable;[…] Eventually, when enough hours have passed, she emerges bloodied, trembling, but full of vision and ready, once she’s rested, to work again. (71)
How she describes the voices has a strong resemblance with the idea of god in Christianity. Nearly all images of god in Christianity portray him as undeniably masculine and obscenely old. Being angry and making accusations also fits the Christian god. She claims to hear these voices when the headache has taken full control over her, just as one might hear the voice of god when death took him. The Greek language is not only old and mysterious but again connected with Christianity because old versions of the bible were written in Greek.  Next there is the word hellishly. The occurrence of which might be considered arbitrary if it were the only word with connotations of religion and death. At last Virginia says that the headache, while terrible is indispensable for her to work. Similarly, death is terrible but necessary for new live to be created.

It is possible to draw enough evidence from the novel to adequately support the hypothesis that the headache in The Hours is a symbol for death and for the struggle against accepting mortality. The evidence includes the word choices that all include religious connotations. Examples are prays, hellishly, devil. Further support comes from the way Virginia describes the effects of the headache. The bright radiating light that illuminates everything is a common experience of people who nearly died.

Cunningham, Michael. The Hours: A Novel. New York: Picador, 1998.


It depends on which definition of the word canon you consider if there are or have been canons of English and American literature. Therefore it is necessary to shed light unto the different meanings in order to find a sensible answer to the canon question.

The Inappropriateness of the Biblical Parallel

The meaning of the Greek word kanon is “rule” or “measure”. As there has been a need for a term referring to selection of authors more precise than selection, the adaption of canon progressed rapidly, even though the notion entangles connotations of authority and exclusivity not necessarily applicable to the literary canon. While the normative aspect is important for the biblical canon it is a futile undertaking to draw parallels between the biblical and the literary canon. Literary canons are not composed according to the view of an authority, but to fulfill certain functions. Neither has there ever been an author canonical in the biblical sense, as inclusion in the literary canon does not demand faith in the included works. Nor is the aim of the literary canon to be conclusive, for it, at least implicitly, always allowed expansion.  Kermode suggests that certain texts somehow get licensed for exegesis and will therefore be continually explicated, though this would mean that that the process of canonization is not the inclusion of texts into an authoritative list but the acceptance into the ongoing critical colloquy. Crucial for this acceptance is not only the content of the texts but also the aptness with which it is introduced into the colloquy.

A Multiplicity of Canons and the Pressures on Them

Alastair Fowler differentiation between six different kinds of canons is widely accepted. The potential canon compromises the complete oral and written literature. The accessible canon restricts it by availability at a given time. Selective canon consists of lists of texts and authors found for instance in anthologies, while the personal canon is selected in accordance with the taste of an individual reader. Even though these classifications are handy, it is very important to be aware of their underlying principles, looseness and the need for further classification.  The term canon used referring to the biblical texts does not match any before mentioned categories. So we would need a seventh category for an authoritative closed body of text. There is still room for a pedagogical canon containing texts commonly taught in school and undergraduate classes. It is further possible to differentiate between a slowly changing diachronic canon and nonce canon of which only a tiny fragment is ever to enter the diachronic canon.  One might confuse the diachronic canon with monolithic body of text due the smoothness of the inclusion and exclusion processes.  Authors suffering exclusion from diachronic canon rarely drift into complete insignificance and usually retain importance in a niche at least.  It ought to be noted that until eighteenth century there virtually were no selective canons of European vernacular literature. The only authoritative lists of texts were those of required readings at universities, though those lists remained completely classical in England and the U.S. until the second half of the nineteenth century. Thus both the canons of American and English literature developed about the same time and went through the same twentieth-century revisions.

Selective Canons: Criteria and Functions

Extracting the criteria applied to selective canons is a non-trivial task, for they are often implicitly understood and have a tendency to overlap.  The New Critics claim that poetry has not propositional meaning and discussing it is therefore vain endeavor.  It is possibly to simplify the problem of differentiating criteria by analyzing how useful a text is to certain individuals or societies. According to Arnold two major factors used in the selection of texts are the “personal” and the “historical” estimate. The first is the correspondence to an individuals need while the latter seeks to improve understanding of historical developments.  These are but two functions of selective canons, a comprehensive list is unlikely to be possible or useful. Providing role models is one of the oldest functions of selections, nevertheless what is considered to be an example of virtue is under constant change. Nowadays it is usually not viewed as a compliment to call literature moralizing, but Marxist or feminist literature fulfills the function just as well as Wordsworth’s, Holme’s etc.
Transmitting the Heritage of Thought. It can be said that “cultural literacy” is one of the goals of the canon. Thus imparting the knowledge required to see texts and events in a historical context, and to be able to understand texts written by writers assuming such literacy. With the fulfillment of this function the canon becomes our collective memory, which when tried to be overthrown usually expands.
Creating Common Frames of Reference.  Without some sort of canon it would not be possible for a literary community to establish itself. Institutional discussion of literature requires common points of reference.
Logrolling.  Which writers enter the nonce canon does not only depend on the appeal of their writing to society but also on their espousal of criteria benefitting their own aims.
Legitimating Theory.  Though it was the stated aim of the New Critics explications to reveal as much meaning as possible, the works they had chosen implicitly fulfilled the function of underlining the power of their approach.
Historicing. When looking at older texts, the focus has shifted from asking questions about how well past times are represented in the texts to questions about the motivation of the writer and the reasons for its (un)popularity.
The end of the 19th century was strongly pluralizing time. Women and other minorities were much more represented in the important anthologies than today. This is true for both American and British literature. Reasons for this are the eastern white elitism in the teaching of literature and organization of literature into periods and themes.


The Selection of Texts as the Selection of

Any selection actually does not consist of texts but of reading of texts. The Catcher in der Rye,  for  example can be read as portrait of adolescence but also as a neo-Marxist text pointing out the omnipresence of capitalist ideology.  Annette Kolodny is in favour of pluralizing and the official canon and expanding it with texts that defamiliarize older texts in the canon.

The Ultimate Function of Canons Is to Compete

It is not possible to determine a single power being responsible for all selection processes, because in societies many powers are closely intertwined at work. It is important to strive for an expansion of the pedagogical and critical canon with texts selected by new criteria, so that there is no risk of intellectual stagnation. However, this does not mean to read as an ideological censor and condemn older texts containing elitist or capitalist ideas. It can be argued that there are no ways to proof truths absolute, so no text may be preferred for its truth value. The liberal tradition of education refuses to use standard selections of authors because of this argument. Still there will always be canons as it is not possible to avoid selection. Recent textbook anthologies increased in volume due to containing a bigger cultural diversity. The time available for teaching literature though, remained unchanged so it is now even more the task of the literature teachers to select. Critics agree with bacon in that two main functions of criticism are to help people decide what and in what order to read. None of the functions of the canon is either nefarious or trivial. It is useful to have an idea about the major influences on texts and to be familiar with the texts the educated reader is expected to know. It is most important though, to be honest, and to accept that no selection of texts can fit into an undergraduate literary course or even a bachelor degree.