English 121: Humanities Literature (Dr. Pagnucci) Midterm Examination Review Guide

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English 121: Humanities Literature (Dr. Pagnucci)

Midterm Examination Review Guide

This guide should help recap the material we've covered in class as well as some of the most important concepts we've looked at so far. You are responsible for having read the material noted below and for having viewed the films. You do not have to memorize these materials, but you should be able to recall important characters, settings, and important main ideas from these readings. You may want to look back over this material to help you recall what you've read.

Course Readings


  • Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Part I and Part II)

Online Readings

  • What is a fairy tale?

  • "Why I Read" by Sherri Winans (English Teacher)

  • "A Classic" by Esther Lombardi

  • "Literature" by Esther Lombardi

  • The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution


We viewed these films in class. If you missed class, you are responsible for viewing these films on your own:

  • Dead Poets Society (up to the scene where Keating asks the boys to write a poem)

  • Field of Dreams (entire film)

  • Shrek (scene in the Dragon's Keep)


  • Literature
    • Literature: While the term "literature" might be used to refer to the general accumulation of written works by a culture, the term "literature" within the discipline of English usually means works of the creative imagination (primarily fictional works) which introduce us to new ideas and experiences beyond our own; Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is thus a work of literature

      • See "Literature" by Esther Lombardi

      • See "Why I Read" by Sherri Winans (English Teacher)

      • The definition of literature is often debated

        • See "What is literature? A Refusal to Define or Limit" by Professor Barry Laga

      • "Great" works of literature are usually writings thought to have great significance to them and to hold great artistic value; William Shakespeare's Hamlet is considered great literature; this is similar to classical literature (sometimes used interchangeably with classical literature), though classical literature is often distinguished as being much older

    • Classical Literature: literature both old and acknowledged as having great value; this literature is often from the ancient world (for instance from the Roman or Greek Empires); an example would be The Odyssey by Homer

      • See "A Classic" by Esther Lombardi

    • Fiction Story: any story that has been created at least partially from an author's imagination; fictional stories can be based on real people and events, but there is always at least part of the story which was made up and was never true; fictional stories can be completely fantastic (a story about Superman) or mostly real but still invented (Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress)

    • Non-fiction Story: any story that is entirely based on real events; nothing in a non-fiction story can be invented/imagined; journalism reports in newspapers are non-fiction stories
    • Memoir: a memoir is a personal story of someone's life; memoirs are based on real life and primarily non-fiction; however, since the stories are often written many years after they occurred, memoirs are based on memories (notice how similar the two word are) and memories are often unreliable; memoirs are essentially non-fiction but some books, such as A Million Little Pieces by James Frey are on the boarder between fiction and non-fiction because some part of the person's life have been embellished or altered

  • Literary Canon

    • This is a body of works identified by experts as holding great artistic merit

    • These works are viewed as "high culture," meaning they represent writing that is challenging, thought provoking, and well respected (a film like Wedding Crashers, even though it was highly popular and quite entertaining, would be viewed as low culture because its love story is predictable and it contains simple jokes and slapstick humor); high-brow culture and low-brow culture are also ways of referring to this contrast with the idea being that Neanderthal man had a low, thick, bushy eyebrow and was not too intelligent vs. modern man's higher eyebrows and greater intelligence

    • Being familiar with canonized literary works is usually viewed as a sign of intelligence (of course it's better to have actually read the books, not just their titles!)

    • Shakespeare's works are the most easily identifiable works of the literary canon

    • The literary canon has often been criticized for favoring the works of dead white males too much and not containing works by many women or writers of minority groups

    • Most of the books required in traditional English classes, such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain and The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, would be considered part of the Literary Canon

      • See The Modern Library's 100 Best Novels (English language novels)

      • See "The Literary Canon" by Prof. George P. Landow

  • Literary Allusion

    • A literary allusion is a reference in one text (a book, film, story, etc.) which refers to some other story
    • Example 1: The Bodeans song "Paradise" includes the line "one for all and then all for one"--this is an allusion to The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas

    • Example 2: Shrek pulls a sword out of a stone--this is an allusion to the legend of King Arthur

    • Example 3: One of the baseball player ghosts in Field of Dreams says "I'm melting"--this is an allusion to The Wizard of Oz

    • Allusions add meaning to a story by making us think of the story's characters and situations in terms of some other story most readers will know

    • Allusions also force us to think about ourselves as readers; when the ghost says, "I'm melting," he's showing that he knows The Wizard of Oz scene of the wicked witch melting after Dorothy splashes her with water; the ghost is joking about that movie scene's magic, but of course the ghost is himself a character in a movie scene involving magic; this scene in Field of Dreams makes us at once have to believe in magic but also remember its a movie

  • Carpe Diem

    • Latin for "seize the day"

    • In Dead Poets Society, Keating urges his students to make the most of their learning opportunities

    • Keating says professional work is noble, but literary pursuits (reading poetry, pursuing art) are the only way to live a full life

    • Keating is saying a life lived without literature is a life not worth living

    • The term "carpe diem" is important because it represent a philosophy of life

  • Realism

    • Realism is a literary attempt to portray everyday life as accurately as possible

    • Realism rejects imaginative ideals
    • Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is an example of realism because the story attempts to give an accurate portrayal of life in communist China; the problems the boys face in the story while being re-educated are very stark in their depiction of the harsh conditions in which the boys worked (for example, the discussion of the boys having to carry human waste on their backs in baskets which often spilled over)

    • In Dead Poets Society, the Latin teacher (Professor McAllister) who talks with Keating over dinner says he is a "realist" who doesn't want to fill the students with unattainable dreams; he says, "Show me the heart unfettered by foolish dreams and I'll show you a happy man"

    • Professor Nolan, another realist, says that, based on the students' young age (a fact), the boys are not ready to think for themselves--Realism operates from a basis in observable fact; Keating takes the opposite, or romantic view, saying the purpose of education is to learn to think for yourself and implying that the boys are capable of doing that despite the fact of their young age

  • Romanticism

    • Romanticism can be viewed as an opposite perspective to realism

    • Romanticism emphasizes the individual or subjective, the emotional, the visionary or transcendental

    • Romanticism relates to the term "romance" (as well as chivalry) in terms of the heroic stories and poems from medieval literature (such as King Arthur)

    • In Dead Poets Society, Professor Keating is a romantic who says, "But only in their dreams can men be truly free. 'Twas always thus, and always thus will be."
    • In the film, Keating offers this romantic view of poetry: "We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, 'O me! O life!... of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless... of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?' Answer. That you are here - that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play *goes on* and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?"

  • Fairy Tale Rules

    • Fairy tales and other childhood stories (picture books, cartoons, comic books) teach children basic lessons about how to understand the world (good vs. evil, right vs. wrong)

    • The term "fairy tale" comes from the French term "contes de fees," stories fantastical stories written by French women authors

      • See What is a fairy tale?

    • Traditionally these stories focused on magic and were written for children

    • Children also learn a lot from religious stories, fables, and other basic story forms; these sorts of stories also teach important life lessons to children

    • As people grow, both the world and the stories we encounter grow increasing complex

      • See Shrek

  • Magic

    • Tolkien's view that the writer of a fairy tale must not be make fun of the idea of "magic" in the story

      • See What is a fairy tale?

    • Magic as a way to rethink decisions we've made in life

      • See the modern fairy tale Field of Dreams

      • In the modern world we are disinclined to believe in magic

      • Magic represents both innocence, memory, and motivation

      • Magic is beyond those who don't act for good

    • Literature is a kind of magic

      • Literature moves you beyond your own life

      • Helps you to see and value different things, forgotten things

  • Magical Realism
    • Magical realism puts adds an element of the fantastic to real life situations; people in these stories are bound up by the laws of physics except that some degree of magic (usually divine magic) is possible

    • Magical realism is partly a way to understand the intersection between physical life and divine/spiritual life

    • Spiritual life is, of course, linked to literature because people's "faith" is heavily based on literary works like the Bible and the Koran, stories of prophets like Jesus and Mohammed who were said to be able to communicate with some sort of divine being; spiritual stories also often include elements of magic, such as the story of Jesus walking on water

    • Spiritual/religious stories and fairy tales are only different in how they are viewed, the extent to which the magic (also called divine power) in the story is believed to be real

    • Example of Magical Realism: Field of Dreams

      • Field of Dreams ends with the ghost of Ray's father asking if the baseball field is heaven; this reminds viewers that heaven is something many people believe in without physical proof of existence; so the film is asking if a person can believe in an unseen God, what else is possible?

      • This final scene is magical realism because it says the explanation for the ghosts, the voice, and the messages is that these things are the work of some divine power, most likely the Christian view of God since the characters talk about "heaven," a Christian concept

  • Willing Suspension of Disbelief

    • For literature to work, we must sometimes ignore some of the things we know about the world

    • In Field of Dreams, we have to grant the story teller that it would be possible for ghosts to exist even though they don't; if we refuse to let allow that possibility, the story becomes meaningless
    • The story plays off this very idea; Ray hears voices which ought to mean he is crazy; but we hear the voice too, so we have to allow for some other possibility, that there are magical voices in the world

  • Symbolism

    • Using an object to represent a larger idea

      • The clock in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress represents technology/modern civilization vs. the life of the peasants

      • Baseball in Field of Dreams represents a means of reconnecting with childhood innocence

  • Re-education

    • In Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, the two boys are sent to Phoenix Mountain to be re-educated

    • Re-education was a real practice of the Chinese government

    • The idea was to teach young people to value not just school/book-based education but real world experience

    • This was also a way to help wealthy people learn to value the hard work poor people must perform to survive

    • The story also emphasizes another kind of re-education; in communist China, western literature was banned; when the boys steal some books, they are able to give themselves another kind of re-education by teaching themselves about western culture through classical literature

  • Censorship

    • Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress represents a society in which Western literature (like Shakespeare) is censored; on Phoenix Mountain there are almost no books at all, evidencing even further censorship

    • In contrast to China, U. S. society is built around the concept of freedom of speech

      • See The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
    • Unfortunately, freedom of speech is often under attack; various groups and people regular try to limit public access to certain kinds of literature, especially literature which challenges certain people's religious views; ironically, much of the literature which gets attacked falls within the literary canon

      • These challenges to books (and also to video games, music, movies, etc.) are often based on religious viewpoints which are in conflict with a book's contents

    • Ultimately, though, if people don't read, there's little need to censor anything

    • So reading literature is a way to resist being controlled by others

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