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The Duchess of Malfi

John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi

Published: 1623 Webster's story of the Duchess of Malfi may be an Elizabethan tragedy, but it is also a psychological horror story as well told as any modern novel in the genre
The Duchess inherits her realm as a widow, and is urged by her broothers Ferdinand Duke of Calabria and the Cardinal to marry again. Although at first she vows never to remarry, she eventually falls for her steward, Antonio Bologna. Because he is her servant and not noble, they hide their marriage until she becomes obviously pregnant and is delivered of a son. When her brothers discover this, they assume that the child has been born out of wedlock. Ferdinand eventually discovers the truth, and the duchess realises that he and the cardinal will not be willing for her land to descend to her children by Antonio. They attack her lands and take her prisoner, then torture her by showing her signs as though Antonio and the children are dead.
It is the captivity of the duchess which is the greatest part of the play. The attempts by her brothers to drive her insane are treated in a way guaranteed to move even the most heartless; the proceedings themselves move her jailor, steeped in crime though he is. This justly ranks as one of the best known non-Shakespearean plays of the period.


Death of a Traveling Salesman

Eudora Welty, Death of a Traveling Salesman

The protagonist has been off work for some time due to a bad bout of influenza that has damaged his heart. He is back on the road before he is fully recovered, and throughout the tale his heart seems to be lurching and clutching, trying to speak. His car inexplicably falls into a ravine, and he goes to the nearest farmhouse for help. The woman there assures him that "Sonny" will help him; he assumes Sonny is her son, but upon closer examination he realizes the woman is not as old as he first thought, and Sonny is her husband. In fact, the woman is pregnant with Sonny's child. The farm wife is dowdy, frumpy, and prematurely aged -- no one that the more cosmopolitan salesman would find attractive -- but he recognizes that within her there is life as well as the evidence of having been loved. Within him there is nothing.
He sleeps overnight at their house and leaves in the morning, alone as always; he has been profoundly changed by his meeting with the farm couple, but he has not articulated this to them because he cannot quite understand it himself. What would he like to say? Possibly that he now understands the necessity of love, and of roots; possibly that he needs to reform his life. But he keeps the emotion bottled up inside him, the words unspoken. When he gets back out to his car, back onto the highway which symbolizes his rootless life, the pressure is so great that his heart bursts, and he dies.


The Picture of Dorian Gray

Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray

Employs very lush language and many musings on 'art for arts sake.' Basil Halliwell paints a striking portrait of Dorian Gray, a young English aristocrat. Like Faust, Dorien makes a deal with the devil that he will always look as young and beautiful as his portrait. He soon realizes that his wish has come true with one slight catch. All his indiscretions and real age are painted on the picture while he remains young. Lord Henry takes Dorian out on the town in perpetuity as Dorian's life becomes more and more debauched. An aspiring actress, Sibyl Vance commits suicide over Dorian. Dorian ends up killing Basil after he shows him the painting. In the end, Dorian kills himself by stabbing the portrait, which reverts to the original painting, while the real Dorian lies old and dead.
But beauty, real beauty, ends where an intellectual expression begins. Intellect is in itself is a mode of exaggeration and destroys the harmony of any face.
The more he knew, the more he desired to know.' He had mad hungers that grew more ravenous as he fed them


William Carlos Williams: (1883-1963)

William Carlos Williams: (1883-1963)

Known for his disagreements with other modernists.
He wrote stories, plays and autobiographies as well as poems. His most memorable achievement is probably his five books of poetry about the humble and downtrodden Northern New Jersey city of Paterson, which few people would have seen as a fit subject for an epic poem. "No ideas but in things," he writes in the first page, and to hammer the point home he studs this unpretentious but dramatic work with ancient newspaper articles, anecdotes and letters from friends and admirers.
One of the letter-writers was A.G., an enthusiastic young poet admirer from Paterson. This was the then-unknown Allen Ginsberg. Williams wrote the introduction for Ginsberg's first book of poetry, "Howl and Other Poems", in 1955. He died on March 4, 1963, the same year he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. Look for few words per line.


The Country Wife

William Wycherley, The Country Wife (1673)

Mr. And Mrs. Pinchwife: Margery and Bud Pinchwife represent a hostile marriage between an old (or older man) and a young woman -- a May/December marriage.
Mr. Horner: Horner runs around cuckolding all of the husbands (Mr. P included), while he pretends to be a eunuch.
Also: Sir Jasper Fidget, Mrs. Squeamish, Mrs. Dainty Fidget
Horn. [aside]. A quack is as fit for a pimp, as a midwife for a bawd; they are still but in their way, both helpers of nature. [Aloud.] Well, my dear doctor, hast thou done what I desired?

Quack. I have undone you for ever with the women, and reported you throughout the whole town as bad as an eunuch, with as much trouble as if I had made you one in earnest.


John Winthrop

John Winthrop (1587-1649) was elected governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1629, and on 8 April 1630 he led a large party from England for the New World.

Winthrop was extremely religious and ascribed fervently to the Puritan belief that the Anglican Church had to be cleansed of Catholic ritual. Winthrop was convinced that God would punish England for its heresy, and believed that English Puritans needed a shelter away from England where they could remain safe during the time of God’s wrath.

His only work of notes is his Journal, which is a Puritan chronicle of the Massachusetts Bay Colony


John Woolman (1720-1772)

John Woolman (1720-1772) was an itinerant Quaker preacher, traveling throughout the American colonies, advocating against conscription, taxation, and particularly slavery.

A major tale in his journal deals with a turning point in his life in which he happened upon a robin’s nest with hatchlings in it. Woolman began throwing rocks at the mother robin just to see if he could hit her. He ended up killing the mother bird, but then remorse filled him as he thought of the baby birds who had no chance of surviving without her. He got the nest down from the tree and quickly killed the hatchlings, believing it to be the most merciful thing to do. This experience weighed on his heart, and inspired in him a love and protectiveness for all living things from then on.

At age 23 his employer asked him to write a bill of sale for a slave. He told his employer that he thought that slavekeeping was inconsistent with the Christian religion. Many Friends believed that slavery was bad–even a sin–but there was not a universal condemnation of it among Friends. Some Friends bought slaves from other people in order to treat them humanely and educate them. Other Friends seemed to have no conviction against slavery whatsoever.

His only work of notes is his Journal which is a Quarker spiritual autobiography.


Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784

Phillis Wheatley

Wheatley (1753-1784) is most notable because she was a child prodigy and slave who, having learned to read, wrote remarkable–mostly pious–poetry. She is known to use three different elements to create make her poetry meaningful: Christianity, classicism, and hierophantic solar worship.

In 1770 she wrote a poetic tribute on the death of the Calvinist George Whitefield that received widespread acclaim in Boston. Her poetry was praised by many of the leading figures of the American Revolution, including George Washington, who personally thanked her for a poem she wrote in his honor. However, this praise was not universal. For example, Thomas Jefferson was among the harshest critics of her poetry, writing “The heroes of the Dunciad are to her, as Hercules to the author of that poem.”

Because many white people found it hard to believe that a black woman could be so intelligent as to write poetry, in 1772 Wheatley had to defend her literary ability in court. She was examined by a group of Boston luminaries including John Erving, Rev. Charles Chauncey, John Hancock, Thomas Hutchinson, the governor of Massachusetts, and his Lieutenant Governor Andrew Oliver. They concluded that she had in fact written the poems ascribed to her and signed an attestation which was published in the preface to her book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral published in Aldgate, London in 1773. The book was published in London because publishers in Boston had refused to publish the text. Phillis and her master’s son, Nathanial Wheatley, went to London, where Selina, Countess of Huntingdon and the Earl of Dartmouth helped with the publication.

Some critics cite Wheatley’s successful defense of her poetry in court and the publication of her book as the first official recognition of African American literature.


Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

For many, Walt Whitman (1819-1892) and Emily Dickinson stand as the two giants of 19th-century American poetry. Whitman’s poetry seems more quintessentially American; the poet exposed common America and spoke with a distinctly American voice, stemming from a distinct American consciousness. The power of Whitman’s poetry seems to come from the spontaneous sharing of high emotion he presented. American poets in the 20th century (and now, the 21st) must come to terms with Whitman’s voice, insofar as it essentially defined democratic America in poetic language. Whitman utilized creative repetition to produce a hypnotic quality that creates the force in his poetry, inspiring as it informs. Thus, his poetry is best read aloud to experience the full message.


“Democratic Vistas”

“Democratic Vistas”

Whitman did write prose, and if his prose shows up on the GRE, it will likely come from here:

In this essay, Whitman justly criticizes America for its “mighty, many-threaded wealth and industry” that mask an underlying “dry and flat Sahara” of soul. He calls for a new kind of literature to revive the American population (“Not the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does”).

It ends: “We see our land, America, her literature, esthetics, &c., as, substantially, the getting in form, or effusement and statement, of deepest basic elements and loftiest final meanings, of history and man — and the portrayal, (under the eternal laws and conditions of beauty,) of our own physiognomy, the subjective tie and expression of the objective, as from our own combination, continuation, and points of view — and the deposit and record of the national mentality, character, appeals, heroism, wars, and even liberties — where these, and all, culminate in native literary and artistic formulation, to be perpetuated; and not having which native, first-class formulation, she will flounder about, and her other, however imposing, eminent greatness, prove merely a passing gleam; but truly having which, she will understand herself, live nobly, nobly contribute, emanate, and, swinging, poised safely on herself, illumin’d and illuming, become a full-form’d world, and divine Mother not only of material but spiritual worlds, in ceaseless succession through time — the main thing being the average, the bodily, the concrete, the democratic, the popular, on which all the superstructures of the future are to permanently rest.”


The House of Mirth

The House of Mirth
Edith Wharton (1862-1937)

It is centered around Lily Bart, a New York socialite who attempts to secure a husband and a place in affluent society.

The title is taken from Ecclesiastes 7:4: “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” In the Gillian Anderson version, she admits as much to Gus Trenor at the end of her downward spiral: “I have been such a fool.”

Of all of her best-known novels, “House of Mirth” seems the most tragic. The heroine, who is far from stupid, is so bound-up in her rigid principles, that she flatly refuses to grab hold of the virtual life-rafts thrown to her. Her lawyer friend, Lawrence Selden, would gladly have married her, but she thought him not rich enough. When Bertha Dorset’s husband asks for her help in a proposed divorce suit against his wife by reason of infidelity, Lily coldly stands aside, uninvolved. Had the trial gone forward, she might have become his second wife. A wealthy and doting Mr. Gryce, evidently taken with her, is impetuously snubbed as she decides not to meet him at church. Compelled by her reverence for honesty, in a disastrous move she admits her gambling debts to her dour and snippy Aunt Julia, who then disinherits her. Having repeatedly refused the help of her powerful friends, she alienates them all, and now must seek increasingly menial and disreputable (i.e. proletarian) work.


Ethan Frome

Edith Wharton (1862-1937)
Ethan Frome

It is set in turn-of-the-century New England, in the fictitious town of Starkfield, Massachusetts.In the novel, infidelity is explored as the title character wishes to feel vibrant and young again. His wife, Zenobia (nicknamed Zeena), is a hypochondriac and has led herself to believe that she is going to die. Her relatives send for her cousin, Mattie Silver, who needs work as she has been left penniless and an orphan.

He embarks on a chivalrous affair with his wife’s cousin, which culminates in Ethan nearly leaving his wife numerous times. When Mattie displeases Zeena, she sends her back to the city. Emotion overcomes Ethan, and he tells Mattie that he wants to live with her forever. They decide to sled into a bulky tree, so it will kill them instantly and they can be together in heaven. The accident paralyzes Mattie and leaves Ethan with many ailments.

The story is presented in a style reminscient of Peyton Place, in that a visitor to the town hears of the entire story not from Ethan, but from other villagers, like the visitor’s landlady, Mrs. Ruth Varnum Hale and the trolley operator, Harmon Gow.


Richard Wright (1908-1960)

Richard Wright (1908-1960)

The grandson of slaves, Wright became a respected author, best known for his novel Native Son (1940). It tells the story of Bigger Thomas, an African-American of the poorest class, struggling to live in the Chicago, Illinois of the 1930s. His life, however, is doomed from the outset: after Bigger accidentally kills a white woman, he runs from the police, kills his girlfriend and is then caught and tried.

Wright is also renowned for the semi-autobiographical Black Boy (1945), which describes his early life from Roxie through his move to Chicago, his clashes with his Seventh-day Adventist family, his difficulties with white employers and social isolation.


Alice Walker (1944-)

Alice Walker (1944-)

Walker’s writings include novels, stories, essays and poems. They focus on the struggles of African-Americans, and particularly African-American women, against societies that are racist, sexist, and often violent. Her writings tend to emphasize the strength of black women and the importance of African-American heritage and culture.


“The Color Purple”

“The Color Purple”
Alice Walker (1944-)

The Color Purple is an epistolary novel: that is, the book is written in the form of letters. The central character is Celie, a young woman who is sexually abused by her father (who, she later discovers, is her stepfather) and is forced to marry a widower with several children, who is physically abusive towards her.

When her husband’s mistress, singer “Shug” Avery, comes on the scene. Initially, Celie feels threatened by this effervescent, liberated version of feminity – a form that has previously been alien to her.

Like “Mr-“, Celie’s husband (Albert Johnson), Shug has little respect for Celie and the life she lives at first and continues in her lover’s footsteps, abusing Celie and adding to her humiliation.

In time, however, the two women bond, and Celie gradually learns what it means to become an empowered woman in her own right, through both sexual and financial emancipation and she finds the strength to leave her tyrannical husband.

This book is often argued to address many issues which are important to understanding African-American life during the early-mid 20th century. Its main theme is the position of the black woman in society, as the lowest of the low, put upon both because of her gender and her color. The book also deals with the idea of how Celie finds true emotional and physical love with Avery.


Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542)

Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542)

Wyatt, along with Surrey, was the first to introduce the sonnet into English, with its characteristic final rhyming couplet. He wrote extraordinarily accomplished imitations of Petrarch’s sonnets, including ‘ I find no peace ‘ (‘ Pace non trovo ‘) and ‘ Whoso List to Hunt .’


The Country Wife

The Country Wife
Wililam Wycherley

A product of the tolerant early Restoration period, the play reflects an aristocratic and anti-Puritan ideology, and was controversial for its sexual explicitness even in its own time. Even its title contains a lewd pun. It is based on several plays by Molière, with added features that 1670s London audiences demanded: colloquial prose dialogue in place of Molière’s verse, a complicated, fast-paced plot tangle, and many sex jokes. It turns on two indelicate plot devices: a rake’s trick of pretending impotence in order to safely have clandestine affairs with married women, and the arrival in London of an inexperienced young “country wife”, with her discovery of the joys of town life, especially the fascinating London men.

The Country Wife is more neatly constructed than most Restoration comedies, but is typical of its time and place in having three sources and three plots. The separate plots are interlinked but distinct, each projecting a sharply different mood. They are:

Horner’s impotence trick
the married life of Pinchwife and Margery
the courtship of Harcourt and Alithea


Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf is by reputation one of the foremost modernist literary figures of the twentieth century. Though she is commonly regarded by many as feminist, it should be noted that she herself deplored the term, as she felt it suggested an obsession with women and women’s concerns. She preferred to be referred to as a “humanist” .

Between the World Wars, Woolf was a significant figure in London literary society and a member of the Bloomsbury Group. Her most famous works include the novels Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, and her essay A Room of One’s Own.


Mrs. Dalloway

Virginia Woolf
Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs Dalloway details one day in Clarissa Dalloway‘s life about post-World War I England.

The novel follows Clarissa Dalloway throughout a single day in post-Great War England in a stream of consciousness style narrative. The basic story is that of Clarissa’s preparations for a party she is to host that evening. Using the interior perspective of the novel, Woolf moves back and forth in time, and in and out of the various characters’ minds to construct a complete image, not of just Clarissa’s life, but capturing the Edwardian social structure in the space of a single day.

Because of structural and stylistic similarities, Mrs Dalloway is commonly thought to be a response to James Joyce’s Ulysses, a text that is commonly hailed as one of the greatest novels of the Twentieth Century. Woolf herself derided Joyce’s masterpiece, even though Hogarth Press, run by her and her husband Leonard, initially published the novel in England. Fundamentally, however, Mrs Dalloway treads new ground and seeks to portray a different aspect of the human experience.


To the Lighthouse

To the Lighthouse
Virginia Woolf

**The famous opening words:

“Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,” said Mrs Ramsay. “But you’ll have to be up with the lark,” she added.


A Room of One’s Own

A Room of One’s Own
Virginia Woolf

The essay examines whether women were capable of producing work of the quality of William Shakespeare, amongst other topics. In one section, Woolf invented a fictional “Shakespeare’s Sister”, Judith, to illustrate that a woman with Shakespeare’s gifts would have been denied the same opportunities to develop them because of the doors that were closed to women. Woolf also examines the careers of several female authors, including Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters and George Eliot. The author subtly refers to several of the most prominent intellectuals of the time, and her hybrid name for the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge – Oxbridge – has become a well-known term in English satire.

The title comes from Woolf’s conception that to be a successful writer, a woman needed space of her own in which to work and enough money to support herself. It also refers to any author’s need for poetic license and the personal liberty to create art.

A Room of One’s Own is written with supreme irony and sarcasm over the power-balance between men and women, and it is commonly accepted that Virginia Woolf succeeds in convincingly getting her view across to the reader. However one may analyze this book, it nevertheless stands out as one of the most important feminist essays of the early 20th century.