English 150F

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Course Description

In 1967 John Barth wrote that "in an age of ultimacies and final solutions -- at least felt ultimacies, in everything from weaponry to theology, the celebrated dehumanization of society, and the history of the novel-- (novelists') work in several ways reflects and deals with ultimacy, both technically and thematically." Although Barth's remark is in no way prescriptive, it does succinctly define the dilemma in which many novelists after World War II find themselves.

This course will examine representative works, by writers with an established reputation, which demonstrate this condition of exhausted possibilities and the diversity of vision and method that result in the contemporary American novel.

Presentation: Lecture-discussion, with each student leading two in-class discussions

Syllabus (PDF copy of syllabus)

(Primer of Existentialism)

W–9/10–OVERVIEW & Ralph Ellison, INVISIBLE MAN (1950)

M–9/15-- "
W–9/17-- "

W–9/24--John Barth, THE END OF THE ROAD (1958) 
(Laocoon image)

W–10/1-- "

M–10/6--Philip Roth, THE GHOST WRITER (1979) (Roth on shame and writing)
W–10/8-- "

M–10/13-- "
W–10/15- " PAPER DUE!! (sample of successful essay)

M–10/20--Thomas Berger, LITTLE BIG MAN (1964)

M–10/27--MIDTERM (sample questions for mock midterm) (sample of successful midterm)
W–10/29-- "

M –11/3-- "
W–11/5– Joan Didion, PLAY IT AS IT LAYS (1970) 
("Why I Write")


M–11/17-- " PAPER DUE!! (sample of successful essay)

M–11/24--Thomas Pynchon, THE CRYING OF LOT 49 (1966)

M–12/1-- "
W–12/3-- "

M–12/8--TAKE HOME FINAL DUE (exam topics)


The final course grade will be based on:

 1 essay midterm (blue book required)

 20% final grade

 1 essay

 50% final grade

 1 essay final exam (blue book required)

 30% final grade


 no more than 10%

 class participation & improvement

 swing factors

*To miss any of the assignments above will result in an automatic failure of the course. NO EXCEPTIONS.


1.) Analyze the structure of the novel. Some have argued that it is sprawling and formless; do you agree? Does the novel's structure suggest a particular literary form or reveal a particular literary tradition?

2.) Examine Chapter 2 in which Mr. Norton meets Jim Trueblood. What is the

importance of this encounter; analyze for its significance.

3.) What is the point of all the attention given to the protagonist's adventures in the Brotherhood? What do these sections reveal?

4.) Examine the figure of Rinehart in Chapter 23; who is this figure and how is he important?

5.) Does the novel reveal any existential influences; if so explain and analyze these.


1.) Compare Joe Morgan and Jacob Horner and analyze their respective and collective significances.

2.) What is Cosmopsis and Mythotherapy and explain how they figure in the novel.

3.) Explain the importance of the scene where Jake and Rennie spy on Joe.

4.) Analyze and explain the significance of Rennie’s eventual fate. Do you think the author is making any specific point here?

5.) Explain the novel’s title.


1.) What is the significance of the chapter entitled "Nathan Dedalus"? Who is Nathan Dedalus?

2.) What is the nature of Lonoff’s relationship with Amy?

3.) How does Nathan discover that Amy is Anne Frank?

4.) Why is the narrative point of view switched from first person to an omniscient third person narrator (see p. 71)?

5.) What is the significance of the chapter entitled "Married to Tolstoy"?

6.) What is the significance of the novel’s title?

7.) What realization(s) does Zuckerman come to after his meeting with Lonoff? Is there a point to this rather small adventure?


 1.) Who is Jack Crabb, literally and figuratively?

2.) It is obvious that the novel is a Western, but what kind of Western is this? Consider the conventions of the Western form (relying on novels first or films you are familiar with) and apply those to the novel.

3.) There are repeated comparisons between the white and Native American cultures. What is revealed through these?

4.) Look closely at Custer; why so much attention given to this figure, what do you suppose is the point?

5.) Take an overview of the novel--what is it saying, how is it important, analyze it as a document of postmodern American literature.


1.) Discuss the importance of the setting.

2.) Analyze the significance of the recurring snake and gambling imagery.

3.) At one point the narrator writes, "Sometimes in the night she had moved into a realm of miseries peculiar to women [my italics], and she had nothing to say to Carter" (62). The suggestion here is that Maria’s experiences are uniquely female; explain the effect of the author’s choosing a female protagonist.

4.) Analyze and explain why Kate is so important to Maria. Granted that she is the woman’s child, but Maria’s obsession indicates that there may be something more involved here.

5.) What are some of the novel’s major themes; analyze the treatment of these.


1.) What is the point of the Rapunzel and tapestry images. Look especially at the description of the Remedios Varo painting, "Bordando el Manto Terrestre" ("Embroiderers of the Terrestrial Blanket"), and Oedipa’s reaction to it. Why does she respond as she does?

2.) What is the Second Law of thermodynamics and what might its significance be for the novel?

3.) What is entropy; how does it figure in the novel?

4.) What is the significance of Maxwell’s Demon, which John Nefastis has perfected?

5.) What is the Tristero system?

6.) What do you think the major theme(s) of the novel might be? It would appear that Pynchon is out only to confuse us; do you see echoes of any of the ideas we have discussed about other novels?


1.) Analyze the importance of the house. Look closely at descriptions of the structure and its individual parts. What significance does it have?

2.) There are repeated references to the lake and water in general. Analyze these for their importance.

3.) Explain the meaning and significance of the title.

4.) Ruthie frequently meditates on the importance of memory and dreams; explain and analyze this importance.

5.) Compare the work with others this semester; what areas of similarity do you find?

List of Readings up to 1995

Modern Library 100 Best Novels

Esquire's 80 Books Every Man Should Read

Traditional Canonical List



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