In Which I Hope to Demystify Topic Selection
So we’re moving into Inquiry Two territory quite earnestly now, which means it’s time for you to start really thinking about what you want to write about for your next major assignment. For those of you who think you might want to write about Slaughterhouse-Five, I know this seems a bit premature. Yes, you don’t know the whole story yet, but you don’t actually need to know everything that happens in the book to at least start to poke around for context. Considering a book from different angles and contexts is an ongoing process, and it takes place both during and after your first reading. Your opinions about certain angles on the book may change as you learn new things about it, but you can also trust your instincts early on about what’s important. Remember, we’re educated readers, and we pick up on more things than we often give ourselves credit for.
Finding a topic, as I mentioned in class, begins with knowing what you’re interested in, both in the book itself and in terms of possible contextual angles. Keep your personal interests in mind. For example, I’m interested in societal gender constructs and science fiction, so I tend to focus on both in my academic studies. Think about what classes you’ve been enjoying so far in college, and what you’ve learned in them. Are there things you can apply to the literature we’ve been reading?
Once you have a broad topic you think would be cool to research and apply to either The Road or Slaughterhouse-Five, it’s time to research. We’ll learn how to do this tomorrow at the library, but keep in mind that you’re not only researching outside the text, but also looking for clues inside the text that relate to your topic. Gather them together. Do you see a pattern? How does the outside context play an important role in the book? How do we understand the book differently when we hold it up next to the context? Answer these questions and you’ll have the “what” and the “how” of a thesis.
Some of you may already know what your topic is going to be. Others of you may still be playing around with ideas. We’re still in the early stages of Inquiry Two, so this is not a problem. But if you’re looking for some guidance, here are some questions that could help you find possible paper angles. These are not the only angles, of course, so remember there are other literary theories you could apply, and other contexts you can examine these texts from.
- Our two main characters constantly refer to themselves as “The Good Guys.” Usually, we think of “Good Guys” as heroes. How do these characters fit in with modern concepts of “hero?”
- What character archetypes do we see in this book? Why are they important?
- How does the character of the little boy change over time? How can you contextualize it? Childhood development? Coming-of-age myth?
- How does this book reflect and/or undermine traditional concepts (either religious or not) of death?
- Psychoanalysis is interested in the unconscious, and sometimes in how it is manifested in dreams. What do the father’s dreams show us about his motivation and personality? Where do these dreams stem: id, ego, superego, a combination?
- How is the little boy’s unconscious manifested? What shows us his underlying drives?
- Names and identity play a large role in this book. What is it saying about the nature of names and identity? Is it commenting on current practices of names or identity? How does the philosophy of names and identity in this book figure in with traditional concepts of these things, either in current society or in myth?
- What is the role of religion in this book? Is there religious allegory in it? How does a reading alongside certain parts of The Bible or religious tradition in general add more meaning to the text?
- How does this book reflect and/or undermine traditional family relationships? Gender relationships?
- What do you think happened to cause this apocalypse? Do you think it was man made, or natural?
- How does the future world portrayed comment on our current culture? What is important for us that is no longer important for them? Do you see any sort of warning here?
- How does this text interact with conventions of its genre? How does it participate, expand, or subvert tradition? What genre does it even fall into?
- How does the text interact with its movie version? (Be careful with this. You are not going to be looking at the movie to see how the text is reflected in it, but instead looking at how the movie changes our understanding of the original text. So this is not a way to avoid reading the book if you haven’t been keeping up with the reading.)
- How does this text participate in the postmodern style? What postmodern features of the text are important for understanding its deeper meaning?
Keep in mind that as we keep reading, we’ll come up with more of these.
- What sort of man is Billy Pilgrim? How does he fit into society? How do we usually view people like him? What is this book saying about him and others like him?
- How does the book interact with traditional concepts of time? Free will?
- How does this text interact with and comment on societal portrayals of death and war?
- There are lots of allusions to other texts in this book, starting with Charles Mackay’s text about The Children’s Crusade. Considering this is the subtitle of the book, how does this historical event (and Mackay’s text about it) change the way we understand this book? What about other texts and allusions?
- Who is Kurt Vonnegut and how might his personal life have affected this book? He becomes a character in it once or twice, which is very interesting and unconventional . . .
- What was going on in the world at the time Vonnegut was writing this book? How are these historical and political events and issues reflected in the text? How do they help us understand the text better?
- The bombing of Dresden figures prominently in this book. How does a fuller understanding of the circumstances in that historical event help us understand the point of the text better?
- How does this book interact with other texts by Vonnegut? He re-uses characters quite a lot, so how does understanding a this larger “Vonnegut-ian” context change our view of this text?
- How does this book interact with the tradition of satire? What does it do to fulfill/transcend/subvert/etc its genre?