M.A. Comprehensive Exams - Sample Questions
Questions on the first part of the exam cover the reading list to the end of the Eighteenth Century and those on the second part cover later material ( see reading list online). Questions on the history of English may appear in the first part; questions on rhetoric may appear in the second part; and questions on literary theory and questions requiring close analysis of verse or prose passages may appear in both parts. Each exam takes three hours. Students may take one or both parts of the exam in any term and in any order. To prepare for this exam, maintain the Worksheet available here. Look here for Past Sample Exams. Below is the most recent exam, Fall 2008.
M.A. ENGLISH EXAM PART 2
Directions: The exam has three parts. Please write one essay from each group. The time limit
is three hours. Divide your time accordingly. Please follow the instructions of the
proctor to ensure the proper processing of your exam. NB: for purposes of this exam,
English writers are those who write in that language but are other than American in
Analyze the contrasting strains of utopian/pastoral and dystopian/anti-technological imagery that appear in Anglo-American poetry after 1800. Write an essay in which you survey the nature and function of utopianism (and its opposite) in five or more poems by different English-speaking poets (at least one must be American and one English; at least one must be pre-1900; and at least one must be by a woman).
It has been argued that the traditional elegy is an endangered genre in post-modern poetry, because the elegy is grounded in a belief in the presence of something that withstands the apparent mutability of the natural world. A poetry of consolation is impossible in a post-modern age, so the argument goes, characterized by the incomprehensibility of the physical world. In an essay that begins with a discussion of a specific Romantic elegy, exam the validity of this argument as one moves through the Victorian period through the twentieth century. You must discuss three specific examples (one must be American) from each of the post-Romantic periods.
In Women Writers and Poetic Identity, Margaret Homans asserts that the identification
of women with nature has represented a profound obstacle to women's poetic self-expression.
Write an essay that
analyzes women's relation to nature in at least five poems written after 1800 by male or female poets (at least two must be American and two English). Your discussion should demonstrate the techniques, both stylistic and thematic, that these poets employ to accept or resist the identification of women with nature.
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Immigration to the United States and Great Britain continues to create a debate over the ethnic transformation of the countries. Discuss the kinds of cultural change engendered by immigration as represented in American and English literature by examining an important work of one author from each of the four lists below.
Discuss four writers since 1800 who are respected for both their poetry and their
fiction (include at least one American and at least one English writer). In each case,
assess whether the poetry or fiction is better (or whether the two are roughly equal
in accomplishment and significance). Then comment on how rare or common this dual
success is, and why.
Robert Alter says this about comically grotesque characters in fiction:
The comic grotesque figures like those in Dickens, those walking synecdoches, embodiments of a recurrent tic or metaphor, are not an abandonment of verisimilitude but bold stylizations that catch the terrible, absurd simplicity to which some people can reduce their lives.
Compose an essay that assesses Alter's statement. Begin by discussing two such grotesque characters from different novels by Dickens. Then, analyze one grotesque character from one other nineteenth-century novel or play not by Dickens and one grotesque character from a twentieth-century novel or play. One work that you choose must be American.
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Some critics have argued that "third world" or "minority" writers/characters function
allegorically as representatives of larger collectivities (for example, a black writer/character
represents an entire race of people) while "first world" or "majority" writers/characters
function in more psychological terms simply as individuals in their own right. Test
this argument on four different third-world or minority novels. Consider to what extent
any differences can be attributed to reader response.
The clash between tradition and modernity is frequently represented in third-world writing as a clash between indigenous and Western forms of culture. Show how this clash shapes plot and character in four different texts. Comment on whether and how each novel resolves the clash.
Compose an essay in which you first differentiate the aims and methods of post-colonial criticism and those of an earlier school. Then compare and contrast in detail how each critical approach would deal with three texts that lie outside the Anglo-American tradition. And last, address the issue of which critical approach is the better lens through which to examine the texts you have chosen.