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American Literature Final Exam Questions

  1. The quote is from Amy Tan’s novel, The Joy Luck Club (1989). The quote is given by the narrator of the novel. It is an extremely important quote in the novel because it represents the central conflict of the story which rests on the narrator’s inability to integrate her mother’s expectations that she excel in life into her own world view. the quote shows that the superficiality of ambition and success can often stand as barriers between people who might otherwise be emotionally close. The narrator feels inadequate due to her mother’s insistence that she perform to academic standards of excellence. The narrator fails to belive that her mother’s vision of hard-work and achievement have any real meaning in life. The narrator rebels against her mother by under-achieving because she wants to be an individual rather than another sign of accomplishment that her mother can use to prove her own merit and self-worth.
  2. The symbolism of Stella’s white dress and red shoes in Malamud’s story “The Magic Barrel” is meant to indicate the duality that is present in human love and in the human erotic response. When Leo first sees Stella, she appears like a prostitute. The white dress symbolizes purity and the red shoes are indicative of desire. Malumud’s inference is that love and lust are involved in both demeaning and redeeming human spirituality. For example, the fact that Salzman is saying prayers for the dead may mean that he views his daughter and Leo as being “dead” to the true spiritual nature of life. It may also mean that Leo had been dead until meeting Stella and that their meeting awakened him to true life. In his previous meeting with Lily, Leo had come to realize, to his terror, that he had not actually ever loved anyone, not even God. His spirit is awakened by the simultaneous “fire” and purity of love that are shown through the symbols of Stella’s dress and shoes.
  3. Sylvia Plath’s convergence of the details of her personal life with mythic archetypes and historical events is an effective poetic device that allows her to more fully articulate her experiences. For example, in her poem ‘Daddy” when she compares herself to the Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust, the emotional impact of her difficult childhood and her feeling of being a victim to the patriarchal society of America is quite powerful. It is also possible through her use of conflating myth and history with her personal life for her private experiences to take on a universal significance. Plath’s equating her personal suffering with the suffering of the Jews is therefore not extravagant or jarring but highly effective and based in the notion that suffering and grief are universal human experiences.
  4. Welty’s use of dialogue in “Petrified Man” is the driving device and source of narrative tension in the story. The rhythm and words of the characters’ speech serves as both the method of plot development and character development. Compared to short stories such as “The Snows of Kilamjaro” by earnest Hemingway and “Babylon Revisted” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Welty’s use of dialogue is far more complex and also more sophisticated. Hemingway adn Fitzgerald both attempt to utilize dialogue as a way of creating mood and furthering the story, but they fall short of using the intricacies of dialect, speech-rhythms and colloquialisms to produce a full-color sense of scene and action that is evident in Welty’s use of dialogue. The rhythm, slang, and conflict of dialogue in Welty’s story are the ways in which the dialogue creates a comic effect.
  5. By speaking of her own tragic relationships in terms of mythic symbols and historical events, she allows a wider range of readers to feel and understand the expression of her personal grief. When she compares her father to a “Panzer Man” it is a way for her to acknowledge the emotional brutality of her relationship with her father in way that is direct and obvious to the reader. Plath strives to equate the oppression of living in middle-class America with the more obvious trappings of oppression that are evident in the Nazi death camps. This is because she wants the reader to understand that oppression in any form is a life-destroying power. Her poem, “Daddy” is a rebellion against the “quiet desparation” of middle-class life that insists on conformity and banality rather than celebrating individualism and true freedom.

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