M.A. Comprehensive Exam: Samples


Sample Essay Questions:

1. Hemingway and Faulkner stand out today as the greatest American novelists of their age, yet they are dramatically different in their "world views," their narrative techniques, their styles, and their views of human character.  Discuss the most crucial differences between these two novelists and suggest which novelist you think is greater--and why. 
2. It has been said that the period from 1590 to 1620 would be the greatest in English drama even if Shakespeare had never lived.  Defend this statement, making specific references to specific authors and works. 
3. In the nineteenth century, it was possible for a critic like Matthew Arnold to dismiss Alexander Pope as no poet at all, but rather a "classic of our prose."  Since the Victorian period, Pope's reputation as a major poet has regained much if not all of its eighteenth-century credibility.  With concrete reference to at least three major works, discuss what you see as the essential nature of Pope's achievement as a major poet. 
4. The poetry of Victorian England was dominated by two great figures: Tennyson and Browning.  In a well-developed essay discuss (1) what seems to you to be the central achievement of these two great poets, (2 ) how they might be compared and contrasted, and (3) how their work is distinctively "Victorian" (as opposed, say, to Romantic or Modern). 
5. Shakespeare has been called "our contemporary" by one of this century's critics.  If you agree that his works are relevant to our own times, cite specific plays, characters, themes, dramatic situations to support the assertion that he is "our contemporary." 
6. Choose one major work from Old English literature and one major work from Middle English literature and discuss the content, form, style, and language of the two works.  Where possible, compare and contrast the characteristics of the two works. 
7. Henry James was born, of course, in America, but he spent much of his life abroad.  Still James remained in profound ways an American writer.  Discuss James' use of "American" themes and characters in at least three major works. 
8. Shelley says that Satan is the hero of Paradise Lost.  Justify or refute this notion. 

Essay Response Sample:

W. E. B. Dubois supported the development of the "Talented Tenth,: composed of the top 10% of African American intellectuals at the time who would be the thinkers of their race and teach others, whereas Booker T. Washington supported vocational training for all African Americans as a means of establishing themselves as American citizens.  Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of these writers' positions as seen through their eyes and vision.


Sample Identification:

The "Harrowing of Hell"


"Before the Birth of One of Her Children"

"The world is too much with us, late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers."


"Call me Ishmael."

Isabel Archer

"The world is charged with the grandeur of God.�
It will shine out, like shining from shook foil."

The "Waverley" novels

In Memoriam A. H. H.

Miss Watson and the Widow Douglas

John Skelton

"The Lamb" and "The Tyger"


Negative capability

"Much madness is divinest Sense-
To a descerning Eye-"

"Ther was also a Nonne, a Prioresse,
That of hir smiling was ful simple and coy."

Gertrude and Claudius

"Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"


Identification Response Samples:

"Radix Malorum est cupiditas" -
This is the Biblical "text:" (from one of Paul's Epistles to Timothy) upon which Chaucer's Pardoner says he always bases his sermons.  The pardoner's "Prologue" is in part a sample sermon based on this text.  The text means "Cupidity (or love of money) is the root of all evils," and coming from the Pardoner it is notably ironic.

Jim Conklin -
A character in Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage.  Conklin, a friend and fellow soldier of the story's protagonist, Henry Fleming, is a model soldier--intelligent, disciplined, and brave.  His death in combat is traumatic for Henry.  Some critics argue that this death redeems Henry, helping him to overcome his own fears and illusions about war; others argue that Henry never overcomes these illusions and that Conklin's death thus helps show the meaninglessness of war, thereby making The Red Badge of Courage one of the first modern war novels.