Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A few of my favorite things

I was talking with a friend recently about favorite chapters from favorite books. Here are excerpts from my top two, plus a favorite Christmas poem. All of these selections were on the final exam for the academic writing class I taught this term. If you're curious about how you'd do on the exam, just read the excerpts and answer the questions that follow. (Note: Except for a couple of editions, this is part of an exam for what's basically a freshman composition class and could come very easily to you!) Feel free to leave answers to one or all in the comments or just answer them to yourself. And I'd love to know your favorites if you have any. Either way, happy reading and good luck.

From the beginning of Peter and Wendy by J. M. Barrie:
“All children, except one, grow up. They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this. One day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs. Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, "Oh, why can't you remain like this for ever!" This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end.
Of course they lived at 14 [their house number on their street], and until Wendy came her mother was the chief one. She was a lovely lady, with a romantic mind and such a sweet mocking mouth. Her romantic mind was like the tiny boxes, one within the other, that come from the puzzling East, however many you discover there is always one more; and her sweet mocking mouth had one kiss on it that Wendy could never get, though there it was, perfectly conspicuous in the right-hand corner.
The way Mr. Darling won her was this: the many gentlemen who had been boys when she was a girl discovered simultaneously that they loved her, and they all ran to her house to propose to her except Mr. Darling, who took a cab and nipped in first, and so he got her. He got all of her, except the innermost box and the kiss. He never knew about the box, and in time he gave up trying for the kiss. Wendy thought Napoleon could have got it, but I can picture him trying, and then going off in a passion, slamming the door.”
1.) Summarize each paragraph using no more than one sentence for each. No quotations allowed. (Probably the hardest question on the exam!)
2.) What does the selection seem to say about Mrs. Darling's personality? Provide evidence to support your claim. Remember, tone must be taken into account if it can be determined.
3.) In your opinion, who seems to be the intended audience for this piece (from what you can tell so far)? Provide evidence from within the text to support your claim.
4.) Give an example of figurative language from the selection and identify the type of figurative language being used.
From The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (Ratty has just been mesmerized by the stories of a seafaring rat he met on the road. He's determined to head off and live the adventurous life the rat described, but has been convinced [quite forcefully] by his best friend Mole to see reason and stay home, which results in Ratty having an involuntary panicked physical/mental attack [not a tantrum--big difference] at the thought [for lack of better word] of missing the opportunity):
“Poor Ratty did his best, by degrees, to explain things; but how could he put into cold words what had mostly been suggestion? How recall, for another's benefit, the haunting sea voices that had sung to him, how reproduce at second-hand the magic of the Seafarer's hundred reminiscences? Even to himself, now the spell was broken and the glamour gone, he found it difficult to account for what had seemed, some hours ago, the inevitable and only thing. It is not surprising, then, that he failed to convey to the Mole any clear idea of what he had been through that day.
To the Mole this much was plain: the fit, or attack, had passed away, and had left him sane again, though shaken and cast down by the reaction. But he seemed to have lost all interest for the time in the things that went to make up his daily life, as well as in all pleasant forecastings of the altered days and doings that the changing season was surely bringing.
Casually, then, and with seeming indifference, the Mole turned his talk to the harvest that was being gathered in, the towering wagons and their straining teams, the growing ricks, and the large moon rising over bare acres dotted with sheaves. He talked of the reddening apples around, of the browning nuts, of jams and preserves and the distilling of cordials; till by easy stages such as these he reached midwinter, its hearty joys and its snug home life, and then he became simply lyrical.
By degrees the Rat began to sit up and to join in. His dull eye brightened, and he lost some of his listening air.
Presently the tactful Mole slipped away and returned with a pencil and a few half-sheets of paper, which he placed on the table at his friend's elbow.
'It's quite a long time since you did any poetry,' he remarked. 'You might have a try at it this evening, instead of—well, brooding over things so much. I've an idea that you'll feel a lot better when you've got something jotted down—if it's only just the rhymes.'
The Rat pushed the paper away from him wearily, but the discreet Mole took occasion to leave the room, and when he peeped in again some time later, the Rat was absorbed and deaf to the world; alternately scribbling and sucking the top of his pencil. It is true that he sucked a good deal more than he scribbled; but it was joy to the Mole to know that the cure had at least begun.”
1.) Think about how Ratty and Mole have different perspectives in this scene. How does Mole perceive what has happened, and why does he see it that way? How does Rat perceive what has happened, and why does he see it that way? What, then, is the unspoken point (if there is one), in your opinion?
2.) Should Ratty have taken a chance and gone to sea? (BONUS: ...though you really need to have read the entire chapter, perhaps the entire book, and lived to be an adult: If he had gone, what could have been lost? What could have been gained?)
3.) Contrast paragraph 1 to paragraph 3. What aspects of the author's style and the characters' personalities are revealed?
“Christmas at Sea” by Robert Louis Stevenson:
“The sheets were frozen hard, and they cut the naked hand;
The decks were like a slide, where a seaman scarce could stand;
The wind was a nor’wester, blowing squally off the sea;
And cliffs and spouting breakers were the only things a-lee.

They heard the surf a-roaring before the break of day;
But 'twas only with the peep of light we saw how ill we lay.
We tumbled every hand on deck instanter, with a shout,
And we gave her the maintops’l, and stood by to go about.

All day we tacked and tacked between the South Head and the North;
All day we hauled the frozen sheets, and got no further forth;
All day as cold as charity, in bitter pain and dread,
For very life and nature we tacked from head to head.

We gave the South a wider berth, for there the tide-race roared;
But every tack we made we brought the North Head close aboard:
So’s we saw the cliffs and houses, and the breakers running high,
And the coastguard in his garden, with his glass against his eye.

The frost was on the village roofs as white as ocean foam;
The good red fires were burning bright in every 'longshore home;
The windows sparkled clear, and the chimneys volleyed out;
And I vow we sniffed the victuals as the vessel went about.

The bells upon the church were rung with a mighty jovial cheer;
For it's just that I should tell you how (of all days in the year)
This day of our adversity was blessèd Christmas morn,
And the house above the coastguard’s was the house where I was born.

O well I saw the pleasant room, the pleasant faces there,
My mother’s silver spectacles, my father’s silver hair;
And well I saw the firelight, like a flight of homely elves,
Go dancing round the china-plates that stand upon the shelves.

And well I knew the talk they had, the talk that was of me,
Of the shadow on the household and the son that went to sea;
And O the wicked fool I seemed, in every kind of way,
To be here and hauling frozen ropes on blessèd Christmas Day.

They lit the high sea-light, and the dark began to fall.
“All hands to loose topgallant sails,” I heard the captain call.
“By the Lord, she’ll never stand it,” our first mate, Jackson, cried.
. . . “It’s the one way or the other, Mr. Jackson,” he replied.

She staggered to her bearings, but the sails were new and good,
And the ship smelt up to windward just as though she understood.
As the winter’s day was ending, in the entry of the night,
We cleared the weary headland, and passed below the light.

And they heaved a mighty breath, every soul on board but me,
As they saw her nose again pointing handsome out to sea;
But all that I could think of, in the darkness and the cold,
Was just that I was leaving home and my folks were growing old.”
1.) Is the speaker in the poem actually seeing all that he describes, or is he describing scenes from memory? Is the shore he's seeing his true home or simply one like it? How is the poem changed by possible answers to those two questions?
2.) Without looking back, describe one strong image from the poem as you remember it.

3.) Contrast the images of the festive calm of home being disturbed by the shadow of the son going to sea with the images of the ship finally clearing the headland and continuing on its journey, and try to find a possible theme in the contrast.