English 222 American Literature Questions on O'Connor through Shepard, CSU Fullerton Spring 2014



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Note: see the Journal Schedule and Instructions Page for the details on how to keep your journal. You can either work up your own material altogether, or use your choice from among the questions below to help generate your responses; you can also move back and forth between these two ways of keeping the journal.


"The Life You Save May Be Your Own" (Norton Vol. E 437-44); "Good Country People" (Vol. E 445-58).

"The Life You Save May Be Your Own" (Norton Vol. E 437-44)

1. From 437-40 of "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," which is apparently set sometime during the 1940s (depending on how old that late-20s Ford was when it stopped running), what is the basic situation on the farm of Lucynell Crater when Tom Shiftlet makes his way there? How does he present himself to the elder Lucynell and try to establish rapport with her? To what extent is his self-presentation accurate – what does it reveal and what does it hide?

2. From 440-43 of "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," what more is revealed about the elder Lucynell's motives with regard to her daughter, and what more do we learn about Tom Shiftlet's true nature and intentions? In responding to this combined question, try to draw as much as you can from the at times roundabout or indirect dialogue between the two characters.

3. From 443-44 of "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," Tom Shiftlet abandons his new bride and makes his way towards Mobile Alabama, which would seem to have been his intention from at least the moment he married her. So he has tricked the elder Lucynell on the basis of her desire for a permanent son-in-law to help her on the farm. But I no doubt mentioned in class that the Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor's stories often end with a twist, one that leaves the main character in a difficult state that nonetheless seems to open up a space for redemption. How does what happens to Tom Shiftlet from the time he picks up a young hitchhiker onwards perhaps fit this pattern? In responding, consider not only events but Tom's words and feelings.

"Good Country People" (Vol. E 445-58)

4. From 445-49 of "Good Country People," the text's focus is mainly on the divorced farm-owner Mrs. Hopewell. What seem to be Mrs. Hopewell's main qualities? What is her relationship with her tenant Mrs. Freeman and with her own daughter Joy? Why, for example, is Mrs. Freeman supposedly "good country people" (also explain what that term appears to mean at this point), and what accounts for the tense, frustration-laced relationship between mother and daughter Hopewell?

5. From 445-49 of "Good Country People," how does the text weave in Joy's own outlook and personality – for example, when and why did she change her name from Joy to Hulga, and what does she seem to think of her mother and the "good country people" Mrs. Hopewell is always praising?

6. From 449-54 of "Good Country People," the visit of Manley Pointer the bible salesman is recounted, along with the visit's aftermath. How does this young man become an object of contention between the elder Mrs. Hopewell and her daughter Joy/Hulga? During and after this first encounter, what desires and intentions regarding the young man does Joy/Hulga reveal.

7. From 454-57 top of "Good Country People," characterize the progress of Joy/Hulga's arranged meeting with Manley Pointer. How does she imagine this meeting unfolding in advance? Then, during the actual meeting and conversation, what happens? What does she try to convince him of, and by what means? What is Manley himself interested in? Why does this interest of his both disturb and excite her?

8. From 457-58 of "Good Country People," Joy/Hulga's apparent seductive triumph turns to unpleasant shock and dismay when Manley Pointer takes away her artificial limb and refuses to give it back. He also mocks her atheist rhetoric on top of that strange accomplishment. I mentioned in class that the Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor's stories often end with a twist, one that leaves the main character in a difficult state that nonetheless seems to open up the possibility of deep insight and redemption. How does what happens to Joy/Hulga at the hands of the devious, cynical bible salesman Manley Pointer correspond to this pattern? In responding, consider what Joy/Hulga's wooden leg has meant to her, and what the taking away of it might mean. Consider, too, the connection between this artificial limb and the strong intellect in which she has prided herself as a mark of distinction amongst the country-dwellers she apparently despises.


"Howl" (Vol. E 492-500); "Footnote to Howl" (Norton Vol. E 500); "A Supermarket in California" (Vol. E 500-01); "Sunflower Sutra" (Vol. E 501-03).

"Howl" (Vol. E 492-500) and "Footnote to Howl" (Norton Vol. E 500)

Section 1 (Vol. E 492-97)

1. "Howl" begins with the words "I saw" and continues for more than 75 very long free-verse lines with a catalog of perceivers and experiencers mostly circumscribed by the pronoun "who." Reflect on Ginsberg's technique here: the first-person speaker immediately opens out to a third-person series of experiences, feelings, and visions. If we try to put all of these together, what emerges -- what can you identify as at least a couple of key realizations and moments and what seems to be the direction and purpose of the collective consciousness described in the first section as a whole?

2. The last several free-verse lines of the first section of "Howl" seem to comprise a sense of sacrifice on the part of all the perceivers mentioned in the section. To what end or with what success has that sacrifice been tendered, as you interpret the ending of this first part?

Section 2 (Vol. E 497-98)

3. The second section of "Howl" is devoted to naming and further delineating the unholy social and political system that the first part of the poem references. The name that the poet gives this system is Moloch. You're Norton Anthology note tells you that Ginsberg himself annotated this figure as "the Canaanite fire God…." Do a little research on the Internet and set down what you can about the history and significance of this god. What are some of the institutions and qualities referenced in both the first and second sections of "Howl"? Why does Moloch turn out to be perhaps the best possible characterization for these institutions and qualities: how do his nature and the actions of those who worshiped him in ancient times serve as a reference point for the modern age that Ginsberg is calling out?

4. The second section of "Howl" ends with a reference to many people heading down to a river. The purifying or salvational power of this traditional image should be obvious, but what is it doing here in the present poem? Does it indicate genuine liberation from the torments and bondage of Moloch? Explain your interpretation.

Section 3 (Vol. E 498-99)

5. The third section of "Howl" is specifically addressed to a friend of Ginsberg, Carl Solomon, and thus it takes on a more personal and intimate cast than the first two sections (which are also dedicated more generally to Solomon). Check out the back story of hwo Ginsberg met Solomon and what their dealings were with mental institutions, and go on to discuss how this information affects your reading of this section of the poem, which deals at least partly with a sense of liberation and reconciliation.

Footnote (Vol. E 500)

6. The Footnote to "Howl" begins with the word "Holy!" and then catalogs the things we should label as such. This part of the poem is surely inspired by William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, with its grand conclusion, "every thing that lives is Holy" (see Plate 27). The entire poem has been a vision, and if we register Blake's influence on Ginsberg, we may look for a conclusion that involves more than bearing witness to painful experience and un-denying what the age's official morality and "story" has denied (though those accomplishments are important, too) but to a sense of redemption (for Blake "redemption" would be a process, not a one-time event) or at least the possibility thereof. To what extent does Howl gesture towards a redemption of or liberation from the repression and cruelty that it has been raging against? Do you find the poem's overall effect satisfying in that regard – i.e. by means of its diverse and multifarious perspectives, does it achieve clarity and purity of vision at the end? Explain your reasons for responding as you do.

"A Supermarket in California" (Vol. E 500-01)

7. In "a Supermarket in California," the speaker takes Walt Whitman as his inspiration, and has a dream wherein he goes "shopping for images" in a supermarket. What is the ghostly figure of Whitman doing in this grocery store, and how does the modern store serve as a metaphor of the elder poet's vision of America?

8. In "A Supermarket in California" in what sense is the speaker comparing himself to Walt Whitman and measuring the difference between Whitman's America and the America of the 1950s?

"Sunflower Sutra" (Vol. E 501-03)

9. In "Sunflower Sutra," when Jack Kerouac points out a dead sunflower surrounded by industrial blight, the dead flower becomes the object of the speaker's meditation. How does the speaker build up for us a sense of what the sunflower looks like and associate its appearance with its blighted surroundings? What insights about the flower and the human spirit emerge from this meditation?

10. In "Sunflower Sutra," it is clear that the poet's meditation draws its inspiration from William Blake's brief poem "Ah! Sun-Flower!" from Songs of Innocence and of Experience. read the Blake poem available at the link I just provided or use your own copy, and reflect on how Ginsberg's insights in "Sunflower Sutra" relate to the meaning of his predecessor's effort.


From "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" (Norton Vol. C 1133-37).

"The Significance of the Frontier in American History" (Norton Vol. C 1133-37)

1. In "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," what does Turner suggest has long been the practical and symbolic value of "the Frontier" for Americans? What transformation is taking place by the 1890s (the time of Turner's address) in the concept of the Frontier, and how, according to him, might that change turn out to be important to the American experience?


True West (Norton Vol. E 870-909).

True West, Act 1 (Norton Vol. E 870-87)

Scene 1 (871-75)

1. What contrasts and tensions between Austin and Lee already begin to show in the first scene of True West, when Lee shows up at their mother's home where Austin is temporarily house-sitting? What is the two brother's common background, and yet how are they different in terms of personality and outlook?

Scene 2 (875-78)

2. In Scene 2 of True West, Lee mentions that he has some experience in the realm of art, which may come as a surprise to us. Why does Lee bring this up with Austin in the course of their continuing conversation, and how does this new piece of information change the dynamic between Austin and Lee?

Scene 3 (879-82)

3. How does Lee upstage his brother Austin in Scene 3 of True West? How do you interpret the interaction between producer Saul Kimmer and Lee -- does Saul appear to take Lee seriously at this point? If he does, what is it that he likes about Austin's elder brother?

Scene 4 (882-87)

4. In Scene 4 of True West, why is Lee so ambivalent about his new project, which involves using his imagination and Austin's skills as a writer to set down his Western story as a screenplay? What's the basis of the tension between Lee and Austin with regard both to the lives they've led up to now and the kind of cinema they prefer? In responding to the latter question, consider what the brothers say about concepts such as being true-to-life and authentic in one's delineation of character and action.

True West, Act 2 (Norton Vol. E 887-909)

Scene 5 (887-90)

5. In Scene 5 of True West, how did Lee (according to his own report on the matter) manage to convince Saul that he ought to accept his Western-themed story at the expense of Austin's love story? What is recounted about Saul's supposed view of the film industry's ways and needs?

Scene 6 (890-93)

6. In Scene 6 of True West, Austen and Saul argue about the quality of Lee's story, which is to be developed into a screenplay. They are also arguing about what is meant by "authenticity" and "the West," a conversation that the two brothers started in the previous scene. According to Saul, then, what makes Lee's story worthwhile, and what seems to be Lee's problem with Saul's analysis of Lee's imaginative efforts?

7. With regard to your own understanding of the Western film genre, what makes for a good Western? What makes for a bad one, and why? How does "the West" often figure even in films or television shows that aren't directly Westerns at all? Briefly discuss an example or two that you can think of.

Scene 7 (893-97)

8. In Scene 7 of True West, explore the role reversal that occurs between Austin and Lee – how thorough is this reversal, one that sees Lee trying to become a serious screenwriter and Austin wanting to escape to the desert? What are its limitations or boundaries?

9. In Scene 7 of True West, Lee recounts a story about his father's quest to get his teeth removed and obtain a set of false teeth. How does that story go, and to what extent does it successfully unfold Lee's notions about true-to-life, authentic narration?

Scene 8 (898-903)

10. In Scene 8 of True West, why does Lee take to beating Austin's typewriter with one of the golf clubs that Saul gave him? What are the terms of the deal the two brothers make towards the end of this scene, and by what process have they arrived at it, based on what you've noted about the earlier part of the scene?

Scene 9 (903-09)

11. In Scene 9 of True West, what effect does the return of Austin and Lee's mother have on events? How does she greet her sons, and how does she react to the news that they plan to go to the desert, and then to the nearly lethal confrontation they get into in her presence? What about her clumsy interest in Pablo Picasso and the exhibit of his work that's supposedly coming to town soon – what does that tell us about "Mom," and how might her confused remarks in this vein relate to the struggle between Austin and Lee?

12. In Scene 9 of True West, how would you describe the final state of affairs between Austin and Lee? Why have they fallen to fighting instead of pursuing the deal that they made back in Scene 8? How have each of the two men changed, if at all, from the beginning of the play, and what change, if any, is there in their prospects for a more meaningful or satisfying life in the future?

13. In Scene 9 of True West, Austin and Lee end up confronting each other in their childhood home, but the space they occupy is described by the stage directions as "a vast desert-like landscape" (909). We know that the desert is a (perhaps the) traditional symbolic site of "the West," both in films and in everyday life. So how do you interpret the symbolism of this setting for the final struggle between Lee and Austin? What does the play's title True West mean to you by this point in the action?

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