Sample "Dirty Dozen" Discussion Questions

When I assign a major text, I provide "The Dirty Dozen," a list of questions (and sometimes background information) that my students can use to guide their reading. Here are some sample "Dirty Dozen" questions.

Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own

  1. What is Woolf's argument exactly? How does she argue it? Do you agree? Why or why not? Why does it take her over 100 pages?
  2. What are the roles of fact, proof and evidence in Room? Does this argument hold water? Why or why not? At what points do you find these techniques especially effective or not? What is new information to you? What else would like to know?
  3. What is the role of fiction and/or narrative in Room according to Woolf? According to the text? What does Woolf have to say about them? How does the text use them? Are they effective? How so?

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Virginia Woolf's Jacob's Room

Introduction to and Notes on Jacob's Room

- Originally published in 1922.
- Seen as the first novel in which Woolf begins to fully explore her "method" of stream-of-consciousness.
- She considered the epigraph: Atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale, Julian Thoby Stephen (1881 - 1906) - which translates "And so forever, brother, hail and farewell" from Catullus and in memory of her brother, Thoby....

Jacob's Room Dirty Dozen

  1. What exactly is Woolf doing with the form of the novel here? How would you describe it? How does it work? How is it different? Experimental? Revolutionary? Compared to what? Is there a plot? How does it (or not) fulfill her mission for fiction in general and this novel in particular that she describes in the passages above?
  2. What is the role of the body in the novel? What happens to it? How can we agree with Leonard that "the people are ghosts" or that the body is missing? Does the significance and/or workings of the body change with that character's position in class and gender systems? How is this connected to and a foreshadowing of Jacob's death?
  3. What do you make of the ways in which the novel begins (in medias res) and concludes (abrupt, truncated)? What does Woolf accomplish by presenting the story in these ways and in these kinds of bookends?

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Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre

  1. The "Note" to our Dover Thrift Edition states that Jane Eyre "is at once a Bildungsroman or 'coming-of-age' novel; a Gothic story shot through with elements of horror and the supernatural; and a withering critique of Victorian assumptions concerning gender and class structure. But most of all it is a love story" (iii). Do you agree? Which element of the novel most dominates for you? Why? Where?
  2. Considering the passage above, how is Jane Eyre a Bildungsroman? Where do you see this developed in the novel? Why is this important in Victorian Literature?
  3. Considering the passage above, how is Jane Eyre a Gothic story? Where do you see this developed in the novel? Why is this important in Victorian Literature?

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Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones' Diary

Pride and Prejudice

  1. If this novel is considered a novel of manners, what does it teach us about manners, behavior and society?
  2. What role does the land play in the novel, specifically in the courtship of Elizabeth and Darcy?
  3. How does the novel explore issues of power? How do we know who is powerful? What are the consequences of not honoring that power?

Bridget Jones' Diary

  1. How does the physical body figure in the novel? What do you make of Bridget's emphasis on her appearance? How does that compare and contrast to the female characters in Pride and Prejudice?
  2. What is the role of courtship and marriage in Bridget Jones's Diary? How is it discussed? What are the options? How does this compare to Austen?
  3. What do you make of the self-conscious foregrounding of the character of Darcy? What does Fielding accomplish by using this character and his history?

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Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness

Introduction to and Notes on Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad: 1857 - 1924. With Polish parents, he was raised in the Ukraine by his uncle after their death. Traveled to France to become a sailor and eventually became a British citizen. English is his third language which he learned in his twenties.

Imperialism: the policy, practice, or advocacy of extending the power and dominion of a nation....

Heart of Darkness Dirty Dozen

  1. How does the form of the novel (in layers of speakers and stories) contribute to or comment on the story of the novel? What is the difference between Conrad, Marlowe, and the Narrator's missions? How does this structure effect your reading of the novel?
  2. How is the city (both London and the sepulchral European city of Marlowe's departure) described? To what are they compared? What does Conrad accomplish through these characterizations?
  3. How are the various landscapes described? How is the African landscape personified? What kinds of ideas, assumptions, fears, and expectations are projected into it through these descriptions?
  4. What is considered "wild" and "civilized" in HOD? Is this constant throughout the novel? What does this tell us about Marlowe? Kurtz? Conrad? What does this tell us about Europe and Africa? What does this tell us about Europeans and Africans? Do you agree?

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Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things

  1. How is the land described in TGOST? Does it have its own agency? What kind of atmosphere does it create? What ideas does this imagery evoke? How does it compare to the ways in which the land is described in Heart of Darkness?
  2. Considering that India is a former British colony, what is the role of empire and colonialism in this text? How does it play out in the novel and for its characters? What other forms (besides by the British state) of colonialism are evident? To what end? What does it mean to attempt to undo the effects of colonialism? How does Roy (attempt to) accomplish this?
  3. What is the effect of the narrative structure of the novel? Consider its flashbacks, incomplete and out-of-sequence stories, and its subsequent suspension of truth (or at least fact). How does this affect you as a reader? How does this affect your understanding of the novel? What exactly does this accomplish for Roy?
  4. What is the place of women in the novel? How significant is it that the novel is told primarily from Rahel's perspective? Is it possible to do a feminist reading of the novel? To what end?

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Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway

Introduction to and Notes on Mrs. Dalloway

Virginia Woolf: 1882 - 1941. Part of the Bloomsbury group which also included her sister, brothers, and their colleagues. Known for developing the use of stream-of-consciousness and for her wide experimentations in fiction. Married to Leonard Woolf. Committed suicide by drowning during WWII.

stream-of-consciousness: direct representation of characters' consciousnesses....

Mrs. Dalloway Dirty Dozen

  1. Mrs. Dalloway is often seen as a paradigm of modernism. What in particular about this novel is modernist? Are there signs or symptoms of postmodernism (or Victorianism) as well? More importantly, what changes (or matters) with these definitions and/or categorizations?
  2. How does this novel work? What is significant about its use of stream-of-consciousness? What exactly does it accomplish? How does it change how we see the characters or understand the ideas of the novel?
  3. What do you make of the way the body is described and used in the novel? Is it different for male and female bodies? Specifically, what do you make of the ways in which both the young and older Clarissas are described? And, of Septimus' demise?
  4. How are portrayals of the land utilized in the novel? What is the difference between the countryside of Bourton, the city of London, the wilds of Manchester, and the colony of India? With what are they each associated?

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Michael Cunningham's The Hours

  1. What does it mean to rewrite a "masterpiece"? (It is okay here to debate whether or not Mrs. Dalloway should be considered a masterpiece in the first place.) What does this do to the first text, and can the subsequent text ever stand on its own? Specifically, what is it like for you to read The Hours after having just finished Mrs. Dalloway? How does it compare? How does it change your reading of Mrs. Dalloway? And, since The Hours won the Pulitzer Prize, is there a way in which we can see it as a modern masterpiece?
  2. What happens when an author is written into a fiction such as Virginia Woolf is written into The Hours as one of its three main characters? How seriously are we to take her as a character? Does it matter if she and/or her life is misrepresented or misconstrued? Does it somehow effect how you also read Mrs. Dalloway?
  3. Would you consider The Hours to be a modern or postmodern text? What passages, stylistic maneuvers, or thematic choices point you in one direction or another? How does it compare to Mrs. Dalloway?

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