Category Archives: Reading questions

Reading questions: Alison Bechdel, Fun Home

  1. How does the novel use other literary,mythic, and cultural references to ‘make meaning’?
  2. What about the ‘tragicomic’ in the subtitle? Where can we find specific examples of the tragicomic mode in the novel?
  3. What do we learn about Alison herself?
  4. What do we learn about her dad and her relationship with him?
  5. Find a few examples where the text and the accompanying images are really different but a) somehow importantly complement, or b) contradict the words. What is the effect of this parallelism on the reader, and why is it in important technique in this novel?  In other words, what does it contribute to, or how does it help shape, our experience of the story?
  6. Comparisons to other texts we’ve read in the course? Shared themes or sentiments? Also, what’s new for you in this type of text–what does this particular novel contribute to our conversation about queer literary studies this quarter?
  7. What do you personally think about the comic book/graphic novel for at for a queer autobiography? Does it work for you as a reader? Why or why not?
  8. What do the maps, letters, diary entries (fictional or not) contribute to the story–what do they express, and how do they work both similarly and in addition to the literary, mythic, and cultural references in the novel?

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Reading questions: Cherrie Moraga essays


The following reading questions are meant to help you focus on certain aspects of the readings and start thinking about connections across the curriculum of this class.


1.  Why does Moraga choose to spell Chicana “Xicana”, and why is that important to her?

2. Moraga calls herself a XicanaDyke, signaling the confluence of “raza” and sexual orientation in her sense of identity.  Where in her texts do you see this confluence at work?  Collect important passages.

3. What observations can you make about the style of these essays (and the poem)?

4. When talking about the Taiwanese queer literary texts, one of the questions we had on the board concerned the relationships between the global and the local, and the past and the present.  How do those relationships map out in these texts by Moraga?

5. What new perspectives does Moraga’s voice add to our inquiry into queer literature this quarter–what’s distinctive here, and how would you position her in relation to, say, Judith Butler’s theories of performativity, or Tim Dean’s remarks on transgression?

6. Why the professed estrangement from the gay and lesbian movement (for instance as narrated in “A XicanaDyke Codex of Changing Consciousness”?

7. What role does “family” play for Moraga?  What constitutes “family” and “home”?  How does this compare to the idea of home in Giovanni’s Room?

8. There are certain recurring images and metaphors in Moraga’s writing, as we are reading it.  What are they, and what may be their functions a) for Moraga and b) for her readers?  Who is Moraga talking to (audience)?

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Reading questions: Giovanni’s Room

Here are some reading questions to help you think about the novel as you read it.

  1. Interestingly, Giovanni’s Room is the only one of Baldwin’s novels without an African American character, even though it has autobiographical connections (Giovanni is based on a young Swiss man Baldwin himself met in Paris, Lucien Happersberger). Do you think this is significant for the topic of the novel, or not?  Why or why not?
  2. What are the main points of crisis for the narrator (David) as he comes to terms with his own homosexuality—what is he most conflicted about?  Think not only about his own desires and feelings (Joey, Giovanni) but also the role other characters such as Jacques, Guillaume, his father, Hella, and others play as embodiments of certain fears and conflicts in David.  Make sure to mark passages that seem particularly important.
  3. In the 19th-century and early 20th-century texts, we talked about the Hellenizing discourse of beauty (Greek culture and homosexuality as a haven for imagining and beautifying queerness).  There are some moments of great beauty in this text (language, imagery).  What are some of them, for you?  Why and how do they strike you as beautiful?  Are these moments related to sexuality?
  4. What are some blatantly homophobic passages, and how are they related to David’s development in the novel?  What purpose do they serve?  Make sure you find at least two good examples.
  5. There are some interesting passages about being an American (as opposed to being French, Italian, etc.).  Pay some attention to these.  What relation do they have to the main themes of the novel, homosexuality and coming of age?
  6. Think about the main metaphor of the title: Giovanni’s room.  What symbolic role might this room play in the novel?  How does this “room” relate to another main theme of the novel, that of being/coming/being away from/making a “home”?
  7. What other largely symbolic themes and  images do you find in this novel, especially related to water and to stagnation/inaction/emptiness?  How might these be connected to the overall themes of a search for identity, self-denial, and the notion of “home”?
  8. What is Hella’s role, overall?  Would it be a stretch to compare hers to Sibyl Vane’s in The Picture of Dorian Gray?  How does/doesn’t the analogy work?
  9. What is the role of class?
  10. What is the role of aging/aged gay men, especially Jacques and Guillaume, especially in relation to the young men they meet and woo?  What gaps and hierarchies does that reveal within the gay male community, as it’s being depicted here? What does all this have to do with the crime that happens later in the novel?
  11. Overall, what sorts of contribution has Baldwin made to the developments of queer literature, as we have traced it in this course so far?  How does it reveal both a new step (progress) in depicting homosexuality in literature, and carry the burden of queer literature’s past?
  12. How does this novel address transgression and taboo (to follow up on our discussion of that with the Tim Dean article last week)?
  13. What do you personally think of the ending of this book?  What “lessons” do you think readers could possibly take away from it?

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Reading questions: Stein, Barnes; Dean, Wittig

Overarching questions for the class session on Tim Dean, Stein, and Barnes:  How can we define “transgression” in terms of eroticism and in terms of style, and how do Barnes’ and Stein’s writings “queer” language for their own ends? What are their own ends, respectively?

Tim Dean article:

Identify main points, have them handy to point to in class.  Think about how Dean’s points might be useful or limited tools to explore and explain Stein’s and Barnes’s transgressions.

Stein, “Composition as Explanation”:

You will soon notice that Stein has a unique writing style, and that the quick conveying of information is not her goal here.  Try to pin down (with examples as you read):

1. what is different and unique about this style?  Note specific instances where the writing style makes you stumble or stop, and try to say what it is that is unusual there.  Try to come up with a list of “typical” unusual moves the language makes, e.g. with regard to the syntax, ideas, causal logic, audience (the way it addresses the reader), rhetorical or other purpose … etc. (be as specific as you can be in thinking about this: collect passages as examples).

2. As a reader, what is your main difficulty and perhaps frustration or amusement as you read this text?

3.  Are there any discernible arguments or specific points that Stein seems to make here?  What are they?  Collect passages/sentences/ideas that seem to form the core.

4. What role does repetition play, and how do you think it may be related to the subject of the essay?

5. What role does playfulness play?  What demands does this type of writing make on a reader, and why may Stein have chosen to write this way (feel free to speculate)?

6. In class on Monday, you’ll get a lot more information about Stein’s life and context, but suffice it to say that she was a queer writer and artist who was central figure within a whole avant-garde artistic and homosexual community.  She also took her work extremely seriously.  How does her writing style “queer” literary and linguistic convention, in your eyes?  Can we think of a specific style as “queer”?  How “queer” is hers?

7. What does the essay have to say about the subject of beauty?  How does that compare to other discourses of beauty and queerness we’ve encountered, e.g. Wilde’s or Kuzmin’s?

Stein, “What Are Masterpieces and Why Are There So Few of Them?”  (voluntary reading)

Compare this essay to Stein’s “Composition as Explanation”–writing style, main points or arguments, complementary or contradictory moments to the first essay?

Barnes, The Book of Repulsive Women excerpts (make sure you read the introduction):

These are complex and sometimes impenetrable-seeming poems, but the major interest we’ll have in them revolves around their presentation of women’s bodies, femininity, sexuality, death.  Please mark imagery to this effect that strikes you.  We won’t be able to discuss all poems in detail, but pick one you find very important for this topic (even if you don’t fully understand it–that’s completely fine).  How are bodies, especially female bodies, portrayed in these poems?  How is femininity portrayed and to some extent disrupted here?  Why is this called the book of repulsive women, and what purpose might that title serve?

Barnes, The Ladies Almanack excerpts:

Look up “almanack” and take some notes; look up some biographical information on Djuna Barnes online, especially her relations with the natalie Barney circle in Paris, to which this book speaks and for which it was written (lots od in-jokes here that scholars are still debating). Why give this book this title and this specific form (ironic)?  Note the lesbian allusions and imagery here (where–text and images)?  What may have been the purpose of this book?  See especially the opening (and author’s note).

“Dame Evangeline Musset” = Natalie Barney; “Patience Scalpel” = Mina Loy.  Look up online who Barney and Loy were.  Also, look closely at the illustrations and especially at the intro section (before January): where are the lesbian allusions here, and how are they presented?  Remember this was written for the Paris salon people around Barney, who LOVED it. It became a lesbian underground classic. Can you see why, point to which features may have made it such a darling to this circle?

Here is some helpful context on Barnes, from Bonnie Kime Scott’s article “Transforming the Novel” in The Cambridge Companion to Modernist Women Writers (ed. by Maren Tova Linett, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p.25-26:

“Also successful in the evasion of the sexuality police was Djuna Barnes (1892-1982), whose comic depiction of Natalie Barney’s lesbian salon in Ladies Almanack (1928), distributed by friends in Paris, was beneath the censors’ radar.  At the time, Barnes lived in Paris with silverpoint artist Thelma Wood in a troubled lesbian relationship that would inspire her best-known novel, Nightwood (1936) […].  An admirer of Joyce and Eliot, whose work she reviewed, Barnes blended many genres, including the art of illustration, poetry, participatory journalism, plays, and short stories, as well as novels.  The Book of Repulsive Women (1915), a pamphlet published while she was living in Greenwich Village, included sketches, poetry, and stories.  This and short stories collected as  A Book (1923) set the precedent for writing on the margins of society, including immigrant cultures and the demimonde.  American folktale traditions connect her with the writing of African American novelist and anthropologist, Zora Neale Hurston.  Barnes took delight in antique books an literary forms, whether fifteenth-century drawings or Chaucerian language, which gave her license for bawdiness.  Her texts and illustrations probe the genitalia and engage in erotic imagery.  Barnes’s aphorisms and esoteric language yield multiple understandings.  An incest survivor, Barnes engaged traumas of sexuality as well as war.  Her family history lies behind the novel Ryder.”

Monique Wittig, “One Is Not Born a Woman”:
What are the main points?  Do you agree/disagree, and why?  Does this article seem dated to you, or does it still have relevance for our class and the subjects we study?
FINALLY, any more thoughts on what may connect Barnes and Stein under the rubric of queer style and representation?  What does each of these writers be most concerned with (in the texts that we read)?  What light does each of them shed (or what questions does each of them raise) about the innovative possibilities or challenges for representing “queerness” in literature?

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Reading Questions for Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness

1.  The novel heavily reflects 19th-century theories of “inversion” and the attached views of gender and sexuality, and Hall tries to use them to her advantage in creating empathy for her protagonist. Which passages or features in the physical descriptions (i.e. descriptions of people) remind you of ideas and opinions in the sexological theories we’ve briefly studied  (Ellis, Carpenter and the Sexology handout)?  Find at least one textual passage to point to.
2. Representation of Stephen’s childhood in Book 1—characterize and analyze.  
3. Presence of religious elements/imagery in the book—what may be their role?  
4.  Rather traditional writing style and plot development, influenced by sentimental romance and melodrama—why?
5.  What information or contextualization of this book or its author in J. Jack Halberstam’s chapter from Female Masculinity do you find useful or important for understanding the base lines of this novel or Radclyffe Hall’s historical context?  (Make sure you can point to a few specific passages–we’ll do a lot of textual work with this).


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Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray: Reading questions


The following questions are meant to guide your reading of the novel a bit, and to help you think about important aspects of the work.

▪                Preface:  Oscar Wilde was a proponent of Aestheticism, the 19th-century movement that promoted “art for art’s sake”—not art for conventional morality’s or any utilitarian social sake. The Preface of this novel is one of the most famous programmatic statements of the belief that art should not be measured by any other rod but by “beauty”—not necessity, morality, truth to life, politics, education, romantic metaphysics, etc.  In some ways, it proliferates the belief in the artist—in Wilde’s case, also the critic—as a creative genius removed from modern life.  And yet, art is not a neutral term here by any means; in fact, the Preface is full of direct or indirect value statements about art.  Which can you detect?  What seems to be the Preface’s purpose, audience, characteristics, relation to life, etc.?   How does its epigrammatic, often paradoxical form contribute to its contents?

▪                From reading the first few chapters of the novel, what impressions do you get of Wilde’s style and language?    How would you describe the novel’s style, the dialogue, the characters, the fictional universe that it depicts? This novel often seems like a mix of genres and styles.  What are some genres and styles whose influence you can detect here; for example, the gothic novel?

▪                Pay special attention to Lord Henry Wotton—he is an example of the quintessential 19th-century dandy. What is he like, what are his values (or more precisely, what things or traits in people and especially in himself does he seem to value), what is his position in society, his morals, etc.?

▪                What possible homoerotic elements do you detect in this novel?  What role do language and style play for such homoerotic elements or suggestions in the novel?

▪                What are the relationships between the principal characters, especially Lord Henry, Basil Hallward, and Dorian Gray?  How can we think of theirs as a triangular relationship?What indirect or direct comparisons can you draw between this novel and Rachilde’s Monsieur Venus? (Similarities, differences, echoes of similar themes or other influences?)

▪                What about the question of class in this novel?  It plays an important role here.  How does class intermingle with the other major themes of the novel, such as art or (homo)sexuality?

▪                What function does Sybil Vane have in this novel?  What kind of character is she?  How is her relationship with Dorian used as one of the ways in which Wilde depicts Dorian’s “development,” and his ideas?  Does it matter that Sybil is an actress, and as such, a representative of art as well?  How does Dorian’s idea of Sybil clash with reality?

▪                In many ways, one can characterize this novel as a novel of ideas, especially ideas about art, morality, and the nature of individuality. Pay special attention to, and mark, any statements about “beauty” and ideal art that you find in this novel, as well as remarks on the role of individualism (the stress on the individual, rather than society) or hedonism (especially highlighted in the second half of the novel).  They will give us important clues to Aestheticism’s philosophy of art,  connections to Decadence, and the ways homoeroticism was simultaneously signaled and concealed in late-19th-century fiction.

▪                This novel centrally features a portrait—itself a work of art.  Given Wilde’s philosophy of art, how odes the portrait’s role within the narrative reflect back on art and art’s role in life?  How is Dorian himself ‘a work of art, and a decadent one at that?  An important question!

▪                Paradoxically, this novel by the proponent of “art for art’s sake” (a phrase that goes back to one of Wilde’s teachers, the philosopher and art critic Walter Pater, the “founder” of English aestheticism) is very much a novel about good and evil.  Is there perhaps still a “moral” we can detect in this novel, and what could it be?  Who carries the main moral responsibility for Dorian’s development in the novel, and why?

▪                Early readers criticized the novel’s “decadence” and immorality.  What are some possible reasons and evidence for their views, as we find them in the novel?

▪                You may be familiar with the tale of Dr. Faustus (Marlowe, Goethe).  How could or couldn’t one compare The Picture of Dorian Gray with the story of Faust?  Similarities?  Differences?

▪                In many ways, Lord Henry has tried to make Dorian his “work of art.”  As the end of the novel shows, he has both tragically succeeded, and tragically failed.  How so?

▪                Critics have said that the end of the novel—and especially the role of the portrait as a certain indicator of Dorian’s moral development—can be seen as eventually undermining Wilde’s own philosophy of aestheticism.  How so? Is there a moral at the end, in your view?  And if so, what could that moral be?

And finally:

▪       How does the following quote (from the novel) help us think about, and also complicate, Dorian’s Gray character, his “culpability” as well as possibly his sexuality?

“[Dorian Gray] used to wonder at the shallow psychology of those who conceive the Ego in man as a thing simple, permanent, reliable, and of one essence.  To him, man was a being with myriad lives and myriad sensations, a complex multiform creature that bore within itself strange legacies of thought and passion, and whose very flesh was tainted with the monstrous maladies of the dead.”


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