Ph.D Field Exam Reading

I’m a graduate student in an English lit program.

I know, that probably wasn’t the wisest career decision. But I’m this far in and apparently dedicated to committing the fallacy of sunk costs. So I guess I’ll be sticking it out.

Which means that during the second week of August, I took my field exams. For anyone who made wiser career decisions than I did, and therefore doesn’t know what that means, one of the steps in completing my degree is to take two examinations, one in each of two “literary fields” of my choice. The exams consist of essay questions devised by a committee and based on prescribed (and very extensive) reading lists.

I have some thoughts about this requirement as an institutional process, but those are probably better left for a different post.

The “fields” I chose were (1) Nineteenth-Century British Literature and (2) American Literature from 1865 to the Present. As disconnected as these two fields seem, my focus is essentially on adaptation across time, space, and media, so this was the closest I could get without generating my own “special field” (an option, but one that adds exponentially to the work required to jump through this particular hoop and, in my opinion, not worth it).

Each of the two reading lists include dozens of books, plays, prose pieces, short stories, and poems, as well as the scholarship about those works, but fortunately, throughout my coursework I had already encountered many of them, such as:

19th-Century British:

  • Jane Eyre
  • Emma
  • Sartor Resartus
  • Tess of the D’Urbervilles
  • Cassandra
  • “Of Queen’s Gardens”
  • “Traffic”
  • News from Nowhere
  • Culture and Anarchy
  • On Liberty
  • some Tennyson and some Browning

Later American:

  • The Great Gatsby
  • The Sun Also Rises
  • The Sound and the Fury
  • The House of Mirth
  • “The Waste Land”
  • Leaves of Grass
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God
  • Passing
  • My Antonia
  • Beloved
  • some Hughes, Dickinson, WCW, and Frost

But my main project for this summer (strangely assisted by the fact that I’ve been “social distancing,” which for me has been almost complete lockdown, for the past five months) has been to get through as many of the works on both lists that I hadn’t read before as humanly possible. Here are some quick thoughts on those works.

(Quick disclaimer: in academic discourse, we don’t–or at least we shouldn’t–make claims or engage in discussions about personal taste…but this isn’t academic discourse. So comments about personal taste is exactly what will follow)

Middlemarch

George Eliot, 1874.

I loved this one. Most of the characters are pretty unlikeable, but Eliot weaves this web of social relationships among them all that turns out to center on a murder conspiracy (kind of). Plus, who doesn’t love a nice “fuck you” to a tyrannical late husband?

Favorite quote (which really sums up the pangs of graduate work): “There might still be twenty years of achievement before him, which would justify the thirty years of preparation”

The Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck, 1939.

Weirdly, I liked this one too. I mean, yes, it’s one of the more depressing novels I’ve ever read. And yes, it was hard to like most of the characters here, as well. Aaaaand yes, frontier-era America does not hold much interest for me personally. But there’s a lot in it that I found incredibly relevant and even prophetic (if only because so little has changed in terms of labor conditions).

That said, this isn’t one that I can see myself reaching for again, or ever writing about professionally. So maybe I didn’t like it all that much.

North and South

Elizabeth Gaskell, 1854.

I had seen the BBC miniseries that stars Richard Armitage as Mr. Thornton back in high school, and it had always sort of stuck with me. Not enough that I remembered much in terms of the plot, but certainly enough to make me excited to read this. I wasn’t disappointed. I really appreciate Gaskell’s style, but I liked the story a lot too.

The enemies-to-lovers trope is a cliche for a reason, and it truly is hard to be unhappy reading the slow-burn romance that develops between Margaret and Thornton. Plus, the fantasy of a selfish and self-important factory owner befriending a worker and changing his practices dramatically to create vastly superior conditions for his employees and their families is pretty irresistible.

Favorite quote: “Loyalty and obedience to wisdom and justice are fine; but it is still finer to defy arbitrary power, unjustly and cruelly used–not on behalf of ourselves, but on behalf of others more helpless”

The Awakening

Kate Chopin, 1899.

Not for me. I get it, I really do, and a lot of it is definitely very compelling and I can totally understand why it was so groundbreaking in its time (and why it remains so relevant). But it just is not for me.

Wuthering Heights

Emily Brontë, 1847.

Okay, I read the Twilight saga as a teenager, like every young girl my age, and I’ve even read it a few times since then. At the time of my first couple readings of Eclipse, I had not read Wuthering Heights yet, so I was more or less on board with Stephenie Meyer trying to tell me that it’s this epic love story between two admittedly very badly behaved people.

I don’t know why I was surprised. Given the kind of relationship idealized in the Twilight books, I do not know why I expected any one character in Wuthering Heights to be the least bit redeemable. Gross.

Death of a Salesman

Arthur Miller, 1949.

I barely finished this one. 0/10 from me.

Bleak House

Charles Dickens, 1853.

This is a long book. Like, really long. And yet (while I will freely admit to using Spark Notes to help me gloss over a few of the more skippable chapters), I really liked it. There’s something bitterly funny about Dickens’s portrayal of the lower classes that really speaks to an American living through about 10 different social crises in one summer.

The Turn of the Screw

Henry James, 1898.

In theory, I loved this. It reminded me a lot of The Others (movie with Nicole Kidman about a house that turns out to be definitely haunted…just not in the way you expect), but…boring? I love unreliable narrators, but I found James’s prose to be needlessly florid, even for the time, and without the benefit of being tongue-in-cheek funny like a Dickens or an Austen.

Mrs Warren’s Profession

Bernard Shaw, 1898.

All the men are the worst, but the mystery is fun and Mrs Warren’s commentary on social and sexual economics is *chef’s kiss*

Favorite phrase: “agreeably disrespectful manners”

The Virgin Suicides

Jeffrey Eugenides, 1993.

For a book titled The Virgin Suicides, there’s a lot of sex in this.

At first, I was really put off by the voyeuristic narration, and I couldn’t decide if the novel was, like, okay with that voyeurism…but I think I decided that it’s not. Maybe I need to read more from Eugenides to form a real opinion. But in the end, while this book is super sad, it’s also strangely beautiful and even potentially hopeful.

I think I watched–or at least started watching–the 1999 movie adaptation starring Kirsten Dunst, but I don’t think I finished it because I can’t remember anything about it. Probably, I’ll give it another watch soon.

Frankenstein

Mary Shelley, 1818.

It’s baffling to me that everyone talks about the Frankenstein/Frankenstein’s monster error…when nowhere in the novel is he called a “monster.” Victor’s narration only refers to him as “the creature,” so really, shouldn’t we be arguing about whether we’re talking about Frankenstein himself or Frankenstein’s creature?

But I absolutely adore this novel. I can’t believe I had never read it before now, but it’s great. 25/10.

Favorite quote: “There is something at work in my soul which I do not understand. I am practically industrious . . . but besides this there is a love for the marvellous, a belief in the marvellous, intertwined in all my projects, which hurries me out of the common pathways of men, even to the wild sea and unvisited regions I am about to explore”

The House on Mango Street

Sandra Cisneros, 1984.

I feel strangely bad for not liking this one. It really does come down to personal taste in terms of narrative style, because I did find it to be a very poignant snapshot, a lot like The Virgin Suicides (not in theme, at all, but in approach). But I can’t stand the Modernist-era experimentation with narrative technique that, while this isn’t Modernist, still manages to show up here. That opinion may be rooted in some literary elitism, so I’ll work on confronting that, but I don’t know, man, I also just enjoy reading things that I find accessible.

“The Goblin Market”

Christina Rosetti, 1862.

I read a lot of poetry this summer, so I could never review all of it (I mean, I could, but this is already too long and I’ve probably already lost you and am literally talking to myself only). But this one just struck me so much that even though it was one of the first things I read in May, it’s still popping into my mind at night while I’m trying to go to sleep.

The poem is all about temptation and it’s deeply sexual in all its fruit symbolism…and I love it. I really recommend it, especially since it’s so easy to find online.

Unfortunately, that isn’t all I read this summer. I also read a lot of secondary works, which varied widely in quality and in the extent to which I felt condescended to by those works and their authors. Some of it was helpful and really rad (especially Victorian People and Ideas by Richard Altick and The Resisting Reader by Judith Fetterly).

What a summer it has been. It was strangely kind of nice to have a reason to adhere to a routine over what would otherwise surely have been very aimless months. And now, even though I have a heck of a semester ahead of me, with no break to speak of before jumping into teaching remotely and starting to put a dissertation proposal together, I am unspeakably relieved to have this step behind me.

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