The MA Exam is held no later than August 1. The student is expected to answer four questions on the examination (one from each of four fields, pre-selected by the student from a list of designated periods/topics). The exam is written and evaluated by an exam committee, consisting of one faculty member per field. The student may assemble this committee him/herself, or ask the MA Advisor to do so. It is recommended that the student then consult with each member of the committee at least once prior to the exam, to get a sense of the kinds of questions he/she might put on the exam, and to talk through sample answers. The exam consists of two parts, to be taken in the morning on two consecutive business days; each part covers two fields. Students will respond to one question from among a selection of two or three per field. For each question, the student is given half an hour to read and plan out his/her answer, plus 1.5 hours for writing. This means that the student will begin Part I of the exam at 9:00 a.m. and turn it in by 1:00 p.m. on the first day. On the second day, the student will begin Part 2 of the exam at 9:00 a.m. and turn it in by 1:00 p.m. Exams may be provided and submitted in one of two ways: either in person (with the student picking up and dropping off the exam at the Department Offices) or via e-mail (with the student receiving the exam, and submitting his/her answers, in the form of an attachment). The student should make arrangements for one or the other option in consultation with the MA Advisor. Exams are closed-book, and students are expected to observe an honor code in the taking of these exams. If you would like the department to provide space—e.g. in the Robbins Library—for you to take the exam on campus, please inform the MA Advisor. Copies of recent exam questions are available online.
MA Examination Lists
A Sampling of Recent MA Exam Questions
During the MA Exam, you will be asked to select one from among two to three questions in each field. You are allowed a total of 2 hours—roughly 30 minutes for deliberation and 1.5 hours for writing—for each of the four fields you select.
Please note that some of the sample questions below might seem a bit more specific than is typical on a “general knowledge” exam because they are keyed to graduate seminars taught during the academic year. The students taking the exam had enrolled in these seminars.
- What constitutes a strong woman in Middle English literature? Use at least three different
authors when constructing your discussion, with a couple of contrasting examples by one or two
of the authors.
- Discuss the relationships of audience to author in medieval literature. Several of the most
intricately crafted poems of British literature come from the 14th century (e.g., Chaucer’s Troilus
and Criseyde and Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from the Cotton manuscript), with
marginal markers of various kinds to assist individual readers, all of which suggests that the
writers are consciously concerned with the potentialities of a new, literate and well educated
audience for vernacular literature. On the other hand, the literature is highly concerned with
aurality and subtle voicing. One approach to these issues might be to begin your discussion with
ideas of reading as a performative craft, whether the reading occurs primarily through the eyes or
through the ears, with intellect and memory as the essential staging areas.
- Issues of ethics in medieval literature usually focus on matters of the will—choice, motive,
and intention. Using the N-Town play “The Woman Taken in Adultery” as your starting point,
discuss the medieval aptitude for moral literature, with a refined sense of interface between the
high-minded and the comic.
- Select three plays from the reading list you have studied. Consider what you know more
generally about Renaissance practices surrounding death and Renaissance literary depictions of
death. How does your understanding of death in Renaissance society, culture, and/or literature
help you to interpret the significance of death in each of these three plays? Please remember that
the question focuses on interpretation . In other words, be sure to explain precisely why or how
the scenes of death or references to death matter in your understanding of these three plays.
- Select, from the list you studied, three works (plays, poems or prose) that depict women who
are verbally powerful (for instance, as writers, speech-makers, persuaders, cursers, gossipers).
Describe with precision the nature of their verbal power and then explain how each of these
works relies, presumably in quite different ways, on the figure of the verbally powerful woman.
This too is a question that focuses on interpretation. For example, how does each author use the verbally powerful woman to—and these are just "for instances" and not meant to be prescriptive
or to set limitations—establish their work's tragic or comic paradigms; examine the distinction
between and overlapping of public and private spheres; sort through acceptable and/or effective
versions of rhetoric, style, or authorship; mark or navigate through competing Renaissance
- Select three sonnets (representing work by at least two authors) from the list you studied.
How does each sonnet convey meaning by relying on the audience's knowledge of the formal
and thematic traits associated with the English or Italian sonnet? Again, this is a questions that
focuses on interpretation . You will need to produce three careful close readings that explain
precisely how each poem is trying to engage its audience.
Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Literature
- An overarching concern of much of eighteenth-century literature is the problem of how to
read the body. The Country Wife is about a notorious rake whose challenge is to feign impotence
to other men while making women understand that he is still very much – indeed, now more than
ever—open for business. Swift’s Lady’s Dressing Room seeks to “expose” the armory of
powders, paints, and pomades that women use to dissimulate the “reality” of their bodies.
Likewise, Tristram Shandy evinces an obsession with gesture and posture—the doffing of a hat,
the flourish of a walking stick, the angle of the orating body. Persuasion thematizes the
challenges of discerning thoughts and feelings on the surfaces of the body when social
circumstances render point-blank verbal declarations either improper or impossible.
What forms does the eighteenth century’s investment in body-reading take, what
significances does it seem to have (what “other” problems might it seem to stand for?), and how
does it change over time or across different texts? Your discussion may focus on the works
named above, or you may choose other examples; either way, your answer should engage with at
least two different genres.
- The eighteenth-century novel has traditionally been studied separately from drama or poetry.
Years’ worth of syllabi and conference-panel topics have cemented this division. As a result, the
“uniqueness” of the Novel has perhaps been overemphasized: the Novel is “modern,” is
“realistic,” is interested in “subjectivity,” in a way that other literature from the period is “not.”
What would be the effects, contrastingly, of considering the eighteenth-century novel in the
context of Augustan satire and/or Restoration drama? What insights into Pamela, Tom Jones, or
Tristram Shandy, for example, might be gained by discussing them in light of the stylistic,
thematic, and epistemological concerns of poetry and the theatre? Frame your answer in relation
to one to two novels and one to two non-novels.
British Romantic Writing
- Literary-histories of romanticism tend to posit a shift, at the end of the eighteenth century,
from “mimetic” to “expressive” models of poetry: the aim of literature was no longer to offer a
“reflection” of the external world, but rather to provide a “revelation of personality.” In terms of
genre, satire gave way to lyric; in terms of epistemological paradigms, empiricism gave way to psychology. But of course, the romantic poets are also famous for their interest in nature, and the
power of many of their poems hinges upon a striking use of visual detail (think of Wordsworth’s
description of daffodils, Shelley’s meditation on Mont Blanc, Keats’ ode to Autumn). How does
romantic poetry bridge both inner and outer, mind and matter? How did the romantics reconcile
their particularized attention to the natural world with their commitment to exploring memory,
emotion, and the unconscious? Refer to several texts in your response.
- Many definitions of romanticism highlight the romantics’ intense privileging of the individual
and individualism – their interest in how the poet becomes a poet (Wordsworth’s Prelude); their
focus on the passionate rebel-hero, pitted against a small-minded and restrictive society from
which he chooses to exile himself (Byron’s Childe Harold). Yet it is well known that these
authors often collaborated, and consciously cultivated literary coteries: The Prelude was
originally intended as part of a longer, epic poem called The Recluse, which Wordsworth and
Coleridge planned to write together; according to Wordsworth, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
was inspired by a conversation the two poets had about a book Wordsworth was reading; and
according to Shelley, it was with Shelley’s support and encouragement that Byron wrote Don
Juan. Certainly, even without reference to particular biographical details, we can find in these
authors’ poetry a multiplicity of overlapping concerns, motifs, settings, and characters. In a
consideration of several texts, discuss the interaction of solitariness and sociability in romantic
literature. In what ways do you see the two values in conflict? In what ways might they be seen
- Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy and Thomas Carlyle’s Past and Present both fault
Victorians for idolizing the value of personal liberty. In your essay, discuss the problems Arnold
and Carlyle perceive within a society of increasing democratization, industrialization, and
capitalism. What remedies do they propose?
- Drawing on at least three different authors from your reading list, discuss how the
novels/poems composed by these writers offer a critique of Victorian gender norms.
- John Stuart Mill once famously described the Victorian period as an “age of transition.” In
your essay, discuss how either George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss or Middlemarch depict a society
grappling with transition.
Nineteenth-Century American Literature
- How does Emerson's notion of self-reliance reflect a specific social orientation that is not
easily applied to all people living in 19th-century America? Use at least three texts on your list to
suggest the limitations of his universal claims.
- Compare Bartleby's infamous "I would prefer not to" to the type of resistance advocated by
Thoreau in "Civil Disobedience." How do these differing approaches conceptualize human
freedom, individuality and social change among other major 19th-century concerns? Supplement your response with at least one other text to argue for how American writers of this era
understood the limits and possibilities of resistance.
- W. E. B. DuBois famously said that the problem of the 20th century would be the problem of the
color line, but in many nineteenth-century works of literature the color line shows itself already
to be an issue. Chose two works from early in the century and two from late and discuss the
ways in which they reflect, interrogate, or critique the problem of race. Use specific examples
from the works in developing your answer.
- Emerson has often been cited as the dominant influence on American writers at mid-century.
Specify how Emerson may have influenced three writers from the following list: Melville,
Hawthorne, Poe, Thoreau, Dickenson, Whitman, Fuller, Stowe. Remember, a given writer might
manifest Emerson’s influence by resisting or even rejecting it. Be as precise as possible.
Modern American Literature
- Why, after nearly 100 years, does The Wasteland continue to play such a prominent role in
the stories we tell about twentieth-century American poetry? Describe the relationship of three
different poets (i.e., Williams, Crane, Lowell, Bishop, Oppen, etc.) to Eliot’s paradigm-shifting
- People often speak of the “meta-fictional” nature of post-modern fiction writing, but the
impulse is in many ways as old as the impulse to create fictions; think of Cervantes. Describe the
ways in which three modern American novels (i.e., Faulkner, James, Hurston, Cather, Wharton,
etc.) are themselves about novel-making or embody the impulse of novel-making in the formal
Modern British Literature
- One of the common claims about modern and postmodern fiction is that it is intensely selfreflexive—that it is writing about the subject of writing. In some cases, this takes the form of
foregrounding the process by which the text we read is constructed—whether as a written text or
an act of storytelling. Often, how the story is told (or written) becomes more important than
what the story tells. Put another way, one could argue that many works of twentieth century
British fiction are centrally concerned with the question of fiction-making, and these texts often
focus on the permeable boundaries between the fictional and the real. Looking closely at three to
four novels from the period, discuss their treatment of the process of writing, storytelling, or
- It has often been argued that World War I effected a decisive shift in modern consciousness,
necessitating new literary forms to meet a radically changed understanding of the world. More
recently, however, critics have suggested that the “the rupture of 1914-18 was much less
complete than previous scholars have suggested.” Jay Winter, for example, has argued that “The
overlap of languages and approaches between the old and the new, the ‘traditional’ and the
‘modern,’ the conservative and the iconoclastic, was apparent both during and after the war. The ongoing dialogue and exchange among artists and their public, between those who selfconsciously returned to nineteenth-century forms and themes and those who sought to supersede
them, makes the history of modernism more complicated than a simple, linear divide between
‘old’ and ‘new’ might suggest.” Looking at four twentieth-century works from your list, discuss
the extent to which you see the Great War as effecting a decisive break in aesthetic practice.
How do you understand the history of modernism in terms of the “old” and the “new”?