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EH 220
Literature and the Social Experience:
Gender, Race, and Class

Study Questions on Selected Readings



Bambara, "The Lesson"

1. If you are a white reader, what is your reaction to the statement "White folks crazy"? Is it a fair statement in the context within which it is spoken? Can you think of comparable statements about "Black folks" that you have heard? Where does this story suggest we get our racial stereotypes?

2. What is the significance of Miss Moore's "nappy hair and proper speech and no makeup"? What does this small piece of description suggest about the other grownup women in Sylvia's neighborhood?

3. What is the lesson of the story? On what do you base your conclusion?

Brown, "Forgiveness"

1. What might the arm symbolize in this story? (Don't stop with one answer.)

2. Is the narrator in this story a man or a woman? On what words, phrases, and/or passages do you base your answer?

Butler, "Bloodchild"

1. What is the effect on your perception of impregnation and pregnancy to have the impregnator be an alien and the pregnant person be a male?

2. In light of the question above, how do you suppose we have come to view impregnation, pregnancy, and childbirth as romantic and beautiful things? Whom does it benefit to replace the painful reality with a painless, romanticized image?

Cisneros, "The Eyes of Zapata"

1. Follow this link for a historical context to the story by Cisneros. What connections do you see between the private Zapata and the public Zapata? Why do you suppose that Cisneros would want to add this private account to the public record?

2. Comment on the significance of the following passage, paying particular attention to the verbs: "Love? We don't say that word. For you it has to do with stroking with your eyes what catches your fancy, then lassoing and harnessing and corraling. Yanking home what is easy to take."

3. Re-read the passage at the bottom of pager 152 and the top of page 153. In your experience, what do men "do to women who try to act like men"?

Crane, "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky"

1. Like "The Lesson" this story also has two distinct settings: the Pullman car in which the couple rides to Yellow Sky, and the Weary Gentleman saloon in that town. These settings correspond to the two people to whom Jack Potter has the closest connections: his new bride and his old enemy, Scratchy Wilson. What do these two settings suggest about the taming of the American West?

2. In keeping with the question above, how does a woman's presence change a "man's world"? In your own experience, do men behave differently when there are no women around? If so, how do they behave differently? Does the presence of women have a "civilizing" effect on men? Or would you define that effect differently? What does "civilizing" mean?

Fuller, A Soldier's Play

1. Which soldier does the title refer to? How do you come to that conclusion?

2. With whom do you identify most in the play? Why?

3. Before you finished the play, did you jump to any conclusions about who was responsible for the murder? Is there any racism involved in your jumps to conclusions? Explain.

4. Re-read Waters' long speeches on pages 244 and 252. Do you believe that Waters should have been ashamed of the men he talks about? Why or why not?

Gilman, "The Yellow Wallpaper"

1. Look carefully at the details of the setting in this story, especially the details of the room in which the narrator spends all of her time. What do these details suggest about how the narrator feels about her life?

2. The narrator's husband, who is a doctor, is responsible for establishing the restrictions that are meant to cure her of her mental illness (she suffers from post-partum depression). Why do you suppose that Gilman has the narrator focus on the wallpaper as oppressive rather than on the husband?

Gould, "X"

1. How gender-specific were the toys and clothes that you and your siblings received from your parents? Give some specific examples.

2. Did your parents have certain expectations about how you would or should behave based on your gender? Did your parents try to mold your behavior according to your gender, encouraging and discouraging certain behaviors? If so, give specific examples.

3. How would being raised as an "X" rather than a boy or girl have changed your life?

Hemingway, "The Sea Change"

1. Why is it harder for the man in the story to find that his lover is in love with another woman than it would be to find that she were in love with another man?

2. Reverse the situation and explain how similar or different it would be for the woman in a heterosexual couple to find that her lover was in love with another man. Relate your response here to your response to the question above. Are male and female ego different? If so, how?

Hurston, "The Gilded Six-Bits"

1. Consider the placement of the paragraph about Missie May bathing immediately after the paragraphs describing the neatness and cleanliness of the couple's house. What does this placement suggest about Missie May's role in her marriage to Joe?

2. In light of your answer to the question above, what is the significance of Joe tossing coins at Missie May?

3. Some critics suggest that this story is a version of the one in the book of Genesis in the Old Testament -- one of paradise, temptation, sin, punishment, and forgiveness -- right down to the name of the town in which the events take place. Do you agree or disagree with these critics, and why?

Ibsen, A Doll House

1. Compare the two couples, the Helmers and Nils Krogstad and Kristine Linde, for their reversed economic relationship. How does the play suggest that money and power are connected? Do you agree? Why or why not?

2. Look at the passage on page 67 in which Nora and Nils argue about the law. Are law and mercy compatible? Is there ever room to "bend" the law? If so, when? If not, why not? Who makes the law, and does it matter?

3. Many of us condemned Arlene in Viramontes' story "Miss Clairol" as a bad mother. What kind of mother is Nora? Is Torvald right that she's not fit to raise his children? Do you agree with his reasons?

4. What problems does this play reveal about traditional marriage, where the husband takes care of the wife in return for her obedience to him? Does Torvald love Nora? If so, define love in his case. If not, why not? (In other words, define love and show how Torvald does not live up to the standard.)

Jen, "In the American Society"

1. The two parts to this story correspond to the two settings in which the father finds himself: in his own restaurant and at the Lardners' party. What do you find interesting and/or ironic about the father's comparing himself to "that Godfather in the movie"? Likewise, what is significant about the father's choice of dress at the party?

2. What does this story suggest about racial stereotyping? What racial stereotypes are you aware of in your everyday life?

Kaneko, "The Shoyu Kid"

1. This story does not have a traditional plot in which the concluding scene provides a clear meaning or "moral." What alternative elements of fiction does Kaneko use to make his points? What are his points, and how does he make them?

2. What do you find significant about the rat/rabbit chase scene? Why do you find it significant?

3. What do you find significant about the references to John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart? Why do you find them significant?

4. What connections do you see being made in the story between racial and sexual prejudice? What purpose do you see in connecting these two kinds of prejudice?

LeGuin, "Sur"

1. Compare the community of women in this story with the "hunters in the snow" in Wolff's story. How do these two gendered communities differ?

2. Compare the two camps in the story: Captain Scott's hut and the women's base camp, South South America. What do the contrasting details suggest about LeGuin's ideas about the differences between the sexes? Do you agree or disagree with LeGuin's suggestions? Why?

McCullers, "Like That"

1. Near the end of the story, the narrator says the following: "I'm glad I'm thirteen and still wear socks and can do what I please. I don't want to be any older if I'd get like Sis has. . . . I wouldn't like any boy in the world as much as she does Tuck. I'd never let any boy or any thing make me act like she does." In your experience, does growing up have to be like it is for Sis? Why or why not?

2. Do you suspect that Tuck is behaving the same way as Sis during their time apart? Why or why not? Or to put it another way, do a man and a woman give up the same amount of independence when they become a couple? Explain your answer.

Moraga, Giving up the Ghost

Where do we get our ideas of gender difference? Sexual difference becomes obvious after boys and girls reach a certain age, but what about other differences between the genders, such as the ones Corky describes on page 93? Prepare for class discussion by making two lists, one of masculine traits and one of feminine traits, and by answering the following questions:

1. How are men expected to treat women? Where do they learn this?

2. Do men ever treat women differently than the way you describe above? When and how?

3. How are women expected to behave differently than men? Where do they learn this?

Oates, "Stalking"

1. What sort of person is Gretchen? How do you know?

2. What is Gretchen's family like? What are their values? How do you know?

3. Who is the Adversary? How do you come to your conclusion?

Rodriguez, "Proofs"

1. Think of the following four meanings for the word "proof": a) a trial sheet of printed material to be checked against the original manuscript and corrected before printing; b) one of a series of trial photographic prints from which the final picture is chosen; c) conclusive demonstration of something; d) a body of evidence used to determine a judgement in a legal case. How does each of these meanings apply or relate to the separate parts of this essay? Note that the essay is the written part of a photo essay: a series of captions written to accompany a series of photographs.

2. Owning a gun was a rite of passage into manhood for Dave in "The Man Who Was Almost a Man"; why is crossing the border into the United States "the rite of passage for the poor Mexican male"?

Russ, "When It Changed"

1. What is the effect on you when you realize that the narrator of the story is not a man?

2. What is the effect on you when you realize that your reaction to Janet and Katy is similar to the reactions of the Earth men, whose attitude toward the inhabitants of Whileaway is superior and smug?

3. At one point in the story, one of the Earth men calls Whileaway society unnatural, and Katy responds by saying that humanity is unnatural. What is nature, and where do you get your notions of natural and unnatural?

Stadler, "Love Problem"

1. Articulate what you think the narrator means when he says that he's a lesbian. Be specific, and consider as many aspects of lesbian lifestyle and relationships as you can. As you do, be sure to indicate where you get your ideas about what it means to be a lesbian.

2. Would this story work as well if the gender of the narrator were female and her "love problem" were that she imagined herself a gay man? Why or why not?

Updike, "The Rumor"

1. Do rumors such as the one in the story affect men and women differently? If so, how? If not, why not?

2. Think of instances in your own life when others' views of you changed your view of yourself. Who were those people and what sort of power did they have over you?

3. Have you ever changed your behavior when you discovered that it gave other people "the wrong idea about you"? How did such a situation make you feel about yourself and the other people?

Viramontes, "Miss Clairol"

1. What is the significance of the contrast between Miss Clairol, whom Arlene aspires to be, and Miss Breck, whose pictures Champ cuts out of old magazines? Follow this link for information on Miss Breck and Breck hair products.Try this link as well.

2. Think about the statements "Arlene is romantic" and "Arlene is a romantic." What does romance mean to Arlene? Where does the story suggest Arlene got her notions of romance? What does romance mean to you? Where have you gotten your notions of romance?

3. How do you respond to Arlene's language, both her "street" language and her Spanish phrases? Why do you suppose Viramontes made Arlene talk the way she does?

Wolff, "Hunters in the Snow"

1. Contrast the culture of hunting as you know it and the culture of hunting as Wolff presents it. What point do you think Wolff is by making by creating this contrast?

2. What do Tub's overeating and Frank's interest in the babysitter have to do with the way they treat Kenny after he has been shot?

Wright, "The Man Who Was Almost a Man"

1. What is the difference between a boy and a man? What is the difference between a girl and a woman?

2. How do you respond to Dave's dialect? Why do you suppose Wright made Dave talk the way he does?

3. Consider Dave as a representative of his race at a particular point in our country's history. If Dave symbolizes all African-Americans on the verge of freedom and independence, what do the other characters symbolize? What does Jenny symbolize? What does the pistol symbolize? Remember that when we do a symbolic reading of a work of literature, the symbolism of each element must be coherent with that of all the other elements.

Yamamoto, "The High-Heeled Shoes: A Memoir"

1. What similarities do you see between the men in this story and those in the poem "Rape"?

2. Consider in greater detail the appropriateness of Ghandi's non-violent ideals in the face of rape.

3. What do you think Yamamoto put Margarita in the story?




John D. Tatter, Birmingham-Southern College, jtatter@bsc.edu