How to Succeed as an English Major Without Really Trying: Some Vastly Oversimplified Pointers

By the time I roll off this hill in May with an eminently practical essentially useless literature degree in hand, I will have taken exactly one dozen collegiate English courses. Now, dear professors, you know I did try to soak up most of the knowledge you imparted and to write essays that you hadn’t read a hundred times before—and yet I think that much of what I have learned over these years about examining prose and poetry can be boiled down to Ten Simple Rules of Analysis.

Maybe I’ll be jinxing myself by publishing this, given that I have yet to take my comps test (I see you, March 24, I see you), but like some guy in some novel must have said at some point, “Whatever.”

So herewith, a cheat sheet to help you analyze the crap out of that book that just couldn’t compete with your Words with Friends winning streak.

  1. Dreams, weather patterns, physical ailments and crumbling buildings are always psychologically significant.
  2. If an animal, vegetable or mineral appears more than twice in the text, it’s a symbol.
    1. If it can’t do what it’s supposed to do, it’s a sign of impotence/sterility/ennui.
    2. If it’s longer than it is wide, it’s phallic.
  3. Every plotline can be traced back to the Bible, The Odyssey, or Elizabethan drama.
    1. This includes Elizabethan drama.
  4. If it’s funny, it’s the carnivalesque. If it’s sad, it’s Lear-like. If it’s both, it’s tragicomic or joco-serious.
  5. Ellipses, especially in dialogue, always mean something.
    1. So do epigraphs.
    2. So do section titles.
    3. So do stanza breaks.
  6. If it’s uncanny and weird, it’s Gothic. If it’s uncanny and weird below the Mason-Dixon Line, it’s Southern Gothic. If it’s emotional and eco-friendly, it’s Romantic. If the title consists of the main character’s name, it’s eighteenth-century fiction or a Dickens novel. If it features limited and sovereign imagined political communities* trying to come to terms with the birth pangs of nationhood, it’s postcolonial. If it follows the maturation of an awkward kid into a slightly less awkward young adult, it’s a Bildungsroman. If it describes the adolescence of an outwardly pretentious but secretly insecure hipster kid trying to become a writer, it’s a Künstlerroman. If it involves telepathy, human flight and/or time travel but no aliens, it’s magical realism. If it does involve aliens and you’re reading it for class, it’s by your biology professor.
  7. If the protagonist is male, an Oedipus complex is not far off. If the protagonist is female, there are probably lesbian undertones. If the protagonist goes through puberty, there will be frustrated or explosive sexual desires.
  8. In regard to poetry: If it’s long, it’s epic and is indebted to Homer/Beowulf/Milton; if it’s short, it’s lyric and is indebted to Ovid/Donne/Keats.
    1. If it has precisely fourteen lines, it’s a sonnet and is indebted to Petrarch/Shakespeare/Wordsworth.
    2. If it doesn’t make any sense, it’s probably by Gertrude Stein.
  9. Writing about describing things in words is meta-narration; writing about the hopelessness of describing things in words is the inexpressibility topos.**
  10. If it’s modernist, it involves a crisis of conscience. If it’s postmodern, it was influenced by Woolf and/or Joyce. If it’s post-postmodern, it probably wasn’t actually on your Kenyon syllabus.

And of course, when in doubt, the text is a pseudo-hegemonic discourse critiquing the gendered dialectic that speaks to the tribulations inherent in the human condition as metaphorically represented by eroticized bodies, fissured parent-child relationships, the color white, thwarted acts of redemption and socio-political realms of intensely fraught interaction between the authorial presence and the protagonist-as-reader-surrogate.***

*The term is Benedict Anderson’s, from his 1983 book Imagined Communities. (How To Succeed Tip #11: Cite your sources.)

**No guarantee as to the efficacy of this as an excuse for why you didn’t finish your paper.

***I don’t actually know what this means.

13 responses

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