status quo, n: “the existing state of affairs”

ESSAY TOPIC

status quo, n.: “The existing state of affairs.”
~ Oxford English Dictionary

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Many works of literature we’re reading this semester feature figures who struggle against the status quo in one way or another—figures who speak truth to power, who seek to call attention to historically entrenched inequalities, who seek to fight oppression, and who consciously defy societal expectations of them. Essentially, many characters in our texts resist and challenge “the existing state of affairs” during their time, consciously or unconsciously striving for change. These figures vary widely in terms of what—and who—they struggle against and what they seek in their struggle, but in all cases they strive for changes that have implications that extend beyond just their own lives.

In this essay, your task is to construct an argument—supported by textual evidence, close reading, and historical context—about figures from two different course texts (see below list) that struggle against the status quo and strive for change. Your essay should address both the causes and contexts of these two characters’ struggles: how and why they strive for changes, for example, and against what/whom they struggle. In the process, your argument should make claims about the broader significance of their struggles in terms of the societies in which they live. When considering this broader significance, remember that literature itself is often a powerful form in which authors give voice to their critiques of society.

POSSIBLE TEXTS

Choose two texts from the list below
Note: You can only choose one text from each bullet point. This means you cannot write about both Arabian Nights and “Barn Burning,” for example; your two texts need to be from two different bullet points.

• Arabian Nights OR William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning”
• WWI poetry by Wilfred Owen assigned in week 4 (you must focus on one poem, though you may mention other poems)
• William Shakespeare’s Othello
• Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The American Embassy”
• Ama Ata Aidoo’s Anowa
• Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place
• Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi

GETTING STARTED

You should choose two texts that speak to one another in a meaningful way. You could, for example, choose two texts in which figures struggle against similar aspects of the status quo of their respective societies, analyze two figures whose emotional response to their struggle is similar, or choose figures who face similar consequences because of their struggle. You might, on the other hand, choose texts in which there are some similarities between the characters, but also meaningful differences.

Your most important goal should be to choose two texts that will allow you to bring the unique dimensions of each text into sharper focus. Finding meaningful connections between the two texts you choose will allow you to construct an essay that aims at true synthesis and will allow you to make an argument that is more sophisticated than a simple compare and contrast essay.

General questions to think about as you choose your two texts and begin to plan your essay:

• What causes some people to struggle against the way things are—and what enables them to imagine a different path forward?
• What inspires some to speak out even when others stay silent?
• What are the consequences of striving against traditions, stereotypes, and societal expectations, and what possibilities are opened up by such struggles?
• How can individual struggles give us insight into society-level struggles—for civil rights, for example, or for gender equality?
• What are the consequences for the individual of fighting against ideas and systems that are much bigger than they are?
• How, when, and why can individual struggles lead to broader change in society?

REQUIRED ESSAY COMPONENTS

1) Thesis Statement: Make sure that you have a clear thesis statement that makes an argument about the specific significance of how figures in two different texts struggle against the status quo. Your thesis statement can be more than one sentence; indeed, sometimes two sentences are needed to articulate and flesh out your argument. Your thesis statement should be in the first paragraph of the essay and should be easy to identify by readers.

2) Textual Evidence: Make sure to support your argument with evidence from both of your chosen texts. Evidence will include quotes and examples from the text to demonstrate your argument, but also to provide you with passages to close read and analyze. When quoting a passage, be sure that you properly introduce it, cite it, and analyze it. Quotations should not be used for summary or description purposes; they should be used as textual evidence or as an occasion for close reading.

3) Analysis & Close Reading: Make sure to close read and analyze your textual evidence. Think critically about how the passages you cite demonstrate your argument. Pay attention to individual words and details in your quotes, and explain how they illustrate your claims. Cite the passages you quote from.

4) Engagement with Social and Cultural Context: Make sure that your argument and close readings demonstrate an awareness of historical and social context, specifically as it relates to setting or environment. While we don’t expect you to be experts on any historical culture, we do require that you demonstrate a familiarity with the material covered in the lecture videos, and we require that you engage with the specificity of settings, which vary from culture to culture and are always historically specific.

STRUCTURING YOUR ESSAY

Paragraph 1 (introductory paragraph)

• Your introductory paragraph must specifically introduce the texts, characters, and key ideas your paper will discuss. It must lead up to a clear thesis statement (offering an argument with a distinct point of view, not just a plot summary or description). It should avoid broad generalities and instead narrow the argument of your essay using clear and specific language.

Paragraphs 2, 3, etc. (body paragraphs—as many as needed)

• Each body paragraph must begin with a clear topic sentence forecasting the content or argument of the paragraph. Think of each paragraph as making a small argument that supports your broader argument and thesis. In each paragraph, you must provide textual evidence that supports your argument, and you must offer a compelling close-reading of that evidence that clearly relates your analysis back to your thesis statement.

Final Paragraph (conclusion)

• Your concluding paragraph must link the various parts of your argument (different texts, cultures, and characters) into one cohesive whole. Reassert and restate your argument in new words, and indicate the broader conclusions you can draw from that argument.

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER FOR SPECIFIC TEXTS

Note: These are simply meant to kickstart your thinking. Feel free to ask other questions and write about other issues not listed here, so long as they address the prompt.

Arabian Nights
• How does Shahrazad’s storytelling challenge social inequalities and injustices represented by the status quo? What/who exactly is she struggling against and fighting for?
• What features of the status quo does the mad king represent? In what ways does the king’s madness give expression to social inequalities and injustices?
• How does Shahrazard’s individual struggle provide insight into societal-level struggles against gender inequality? In what other ways does her struggle speak to broader issues about power, authority, equality, and citizenship?
• How does Shahrazard’s defiance against her father, the king, and other societal expectations draw attention to broader inequalities around gender?

William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning”
• How does Sarty’s struggle against his father constitute a challenge to the status quo? What traditions, conventions, and expectations is he fighting against when he defies and ultimately rejects his father?
• What possibilities are opened by Sarty’s defiance and courage? What are the consequences of his actions? How can the struggles of a single boy provide us with insight into broader societal injustices?
• How does Faulkner use Sarty’s individual struggle to provide commentary on broader societal injustices in the South involving gender, race, and class?
• How does Abner’s violence and rage constitute a challenge to the status quo in the 1890s? What are the social and economic injustices that he fights against?
• How does Faulkner use the flawed character of Abner to highlight social and economic injustices during either the time of the story (the 1890s) or the time of the story’s publication (the Great Depression)?

WWI poetry by Wilfred Owen
• How does Owen’s goal of speaking the “truth” about war constitute a challenge to the status quo? (See Owen’s “Preface,” which is discussed in the Owen biography lecture.) What/who exactly is Owen challenging by seeking to tell the “truth,” and how does a commitment to “truth” shape his poetry?
• In what specific ways do specific poems by Wilfred Owen challenge the military leadership, political leaders, and/or the propaganda circulating through the United Kingdom during the Great War?
• In what specific ways do specific poems by Owen scrutinize societal expectations, such as the expectations of men and soldiers during WWI?
• What specific language and imagery in Owen’s poetry exemplify his challenge to the status quo—by, for example, adding emotional depth or a sense of urgency to his challenge?
• How do formal aspects of specific poems by Owen—for example, meter, rhyme, line breaks, stanza length, and/or poetic devices—factor into the challenge those poems pose?

William Shakespeare’s Othello
• How does Othello, by being a “moor” and general in the Venetian army, challenge the status quo of Venice? How do others respond to Othello’s leadership and position in the Venetian army? What are the consequences to Othello of striving against the status quo?
• How do Othello and Desdemona, as an interracial couple, challenge the status quo of Venice? How do other characters respond to their marriage? How does Desdemona’s active role in their romance complicate or resist gendered stereotypes?
• As women, how do characters like Emilia and Desdemona struggle against stereotypes and traditional expectations of women? Where, why, and how do they choose to speak out against oppressions or wrongs? What are the consequences of such speaking out?
• Ultimately, does the conclusion of the play suggest that resistance to the status quo is futile and dangerous? How might the play suggest that resistance is productive and necessary even when there are dire consequences for it?

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The American Embassy”
• How does the protagonist’s husband challenge the status quo through his journalism?
• What are the consequences of the husband’s journalism—to himself, to his family, to his readers, and to his country? Are the potentially positive and productive effects of such journalism worth its costs?
• How do the characters struggle under the oppressive dictatorship of General Abacha?
• How does the unnamed protagonist struggle for her own autonomy and agency? How and why does she imagine silence (or at least reticence) as potentially more powerful than speaking and sharing?

Anowa
• How does Anowa’s character—her personality, her ambition, her decisions, her ideas—challenge stereotypes and traditions about daughters, women, and wives? What are the consequences of her resistance?
• How do Anowa’s parents struggle with the status quo in deciding how to raise Anowa?
• How and why does Anowa speak out against slavery, and what are the effects of her speaking out?
• How does colonialism—the relationship between the British Empire and the Gold Coast—become part of the status quo, and how and why does Anowa resist it?

Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place
• To what extent can we consider each section of A Small Place, as well as the text considered as a whole, a challenge to dominant narratives—for example, some narratives of Western history, Transatlantic slavery, and colonialism?
• To what extent do the figures of the enslaver, British colonist, and tourist represent the status quo of their respective historical periods? What methods do they use to maintain the status quo, and how does Kincaid challenge them?
• What are the emotional consequences for Kincaid of speaking out? What, according to Kincaid, are the consequences of not speaking out or resisting when one encounters racism?

Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi
• What factors (including historical events and personal experiences) help to account for Anne Moody’s decision to become involved in the civil rights movement—both the movement in general, and also individual aspects of it (e.g. the Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in)? To what extent does her childhood explain her path to activism?
• What are the consequences of Moody’s participation in the civil rights movement—emotional, familial, etc.?
• In what ways does Moody allow us to better understand the motivations and actions of those who defended the status quo—that is, those who fought to maintain white supremacy and work against the civil rights movement?

ADDITIONAL REQUIREMENTS

• Academic Honesty Statement: Essay must include the academic honesty statement at the top of the first page. Any evidence of plagiarism will result in the immediate failure of the essay and, potentially, of the class.
o Here is the Academic Honesty Statement: “I have read, understand, and am in compliance with the Academic Honesty policy. In particular, I have not committed any kind of plagiarism. There are no un-attributed direct or indirect quotations or paraphrases from printed materials, websites, other students’ papers, or any other sources in my essay.”
• Length: Essay must be a minimum of 1300 words in length and no longer than 1500 words. This word count does not include the heading, the title, the works cited page, and the academic honesty statement.
• Paper Format: Essay must have an interesting and original title; must include a works cited page; must be formatted according to standard MLA style; and must be typed, double-spaced, and written in 12-point Times or Times New Roman font.
• File Name: Must conform to the following file name format: essaylastnamefirstname.
For example, if your name is John Doe, your file name would be: essaydoejohn

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