Reading Questions

Alison Bechdel’s Fun  Home: A Family Tragicomic


  1. How does the novel use literary, mythic, and cultural references to refract and illuminate Alison’s experiences of transgression—others’ and her own?
  2. What do the maps, letters, diary entries (fictional or not) contribute to the story–what do they express, and how do they work both similarly and in addition to the literary, mythic, and cultural references in the novel?
  3. What about the ‘tragicomic’ in the subtitle? Where can we find specific examples of the tragicomic mode in the novel?
  4. What do we learn about Alison herself?
  5. What do we learn about her dad and her relationship with him?
  6. Find a few examples where the text and the accompanying images are really different but a) somehow importantly complement, or b) contradict the words. What is the effect of this parallelism on the reader, and why is it in important technique in this novel?  In other words, what does it contribute to, or how does it help shape, our experience of the story?
  7. Comparisons to other texts we’ve read in the course? Shared themes or sentiments? Also, what’s new for you in this type of text–what does this particular novel contribute to our conversation about transgression this quarter?
  8. What do you personally think about the comic book/graphic novel format for a queer autobiography? Does it work for you as a reader? Why or why not?


Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita

1. What is it like to read (and write) a novel which gets inside the mind of a pedophile – what is the experience for you as a reader of inhabiting his mental space and his language – does it make him more appealing, his crime more understandable?

2. Do you agree with the remarks in the Forward by the invented “John Ray Ph.D” that “H.H. is abject, he is horrible […] He is abnormal. He is not a gentleman. But how magically his singing violin can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion for Lolita that makes us entranced with the book while abhorring its author!” ?

3. How does the fascinating language of the novel – at times colloquial, at times scholarly and literary, with its various French interjections and allusions to the classics of the Western canon – affect the moral content of the novel? Does it bring moral questions to the fore or does it obfuscate them?

4. What are some of the stylistic choices the narrative employs in the passage with the definition of “Nymphets” to seduce a reader (who is presumably not a pedophile) into understanding and potentially appreciating the sexual preferences of the narrator?

5. What about the comic and satirical traits of the protagonist – his funny repetitive name Humbert Humbert, his old-world manner, his whining voice. Do these periodic elements make it harder for the reader to take him and his evil/transgressive thoughts seriously? In which passages do you find that the satirical elements potentially undermine the seriousness of the theme?

6. How does this novel compare to some of the earlier works we studied in terms of the way in which it portrays transgression? Compare Nabokov’s novel to a work written in the 19th century.

Eugène Ionesco, The Chairs (1952)

  1. How does this play exemplify typical features of the Theater of the Absurd? (See Theater of the Absurd handout in class.)
  2. The orator’s performance at the end is the central irony of the play. How so? Explain.
  3. What is the significance of the stage setting (empty chairs, semi-circle, etc.) to the message of the play, as you understand it—how does the stage symbolize some of the central themes of the play?
  4. What were the Old Man’s and the Old Woman’s lives like, what were their dreams, and what sort of commentary does Ionesco seem to make on the human condition and on the idea of free will in this play?
  5. How does the play relate to some of the questions around transgression, such as the limit, the death of God, subjectivity, transgression with regard to individuality vs. the social spher, etc.) we have been talking about this quarter?
  6. What about the theme of language? How can the orator be read as a commentary on the role of literature/rhetoric to provide hope and meaning?


Georges Bataille, “Madame Edwarda” and Michel Foucault, “A Preface to Transgression”

  1. Foucault’s “Preface to Transgression” is a very influential theoretical text for the topic of transgression, and it takes some of its most important cues from Bataille. In discussing Bataille, what points does Foucault make about him?
  2. A crucial element of Foucault’s understanding of transgression is the notion of “the limit.” How does Foucault understand “the limit” and how does he figure the idea of oscillation (a continual crossing and recrossing, a back and forth, not a standing still) into his idea of transgression? Collect and mark passages as you read.
  3. How does Foucault connect the idea of modern sexuality to the death of God?
  4. For Foucault, transgression is a positive, life-affirming force after the death of God. How so?
  5. How does or doesn’t Bataille’s text “Madame Edwarda” illustrate some of Foucault’s points, as you understand them?
  6. How does Bataille play with transgression, taboo, desire, and subjectivity in this text (what are the elements, respectively)?
  7. In the actual story (which starts after the Preface notes), there are several places in which the narrator becomes self-conscious of his language or writing process. What function do these passages serve, in your view?
  8. Bataille was affiliated with the Surrealists and Andre Breton in the 1920s. What possible surrealist elements do you see in “Madame Edwarda” (preface or/and story)?
  9. How would you characterize Bataille’s narrator?
  10. We have encountered a few other texts thus far that mix religion and openly displayed sexuality in provocative ways. How does Bataille’s text compare, for instance, to Salome, Madame Bovary, Joyce’s “Nausicaa” or other texts we’ve read, in this particular respect?
  11. Why figure God as a whore in this text? What statements does the text seem to make about belief, individuality, solitude, agency as they relate to the relationship between the narrator and God in this text? Would you characterize it (only) as blasphemy? Why or why not?
  12. For those of you who have read some Nietzsche–do you see any possible conceptual parallels or comparisons between Bataille’s story and Nietzsche’s critique of religion and figuration of human subjectivity?

Gertrude Stein, “Composition as Explanation”

You will soon notice that Stein has a unique writing style and that the quick conveying of information is not her goal here.  Try to pin down (with examples as you read):

1. What is different and unique about this style?  Note specific instances where the writing style makes you stumble or stop, and try to say what it is that is unusual there.  Try to come up with a list of “typical” unusual moves the language makes, e.g. with regard to the syntax, ideas, causal logic, audience (the way it addresses the reader), rhetorical or other purpose … etc. (be as specific as you can be in thinking about this: collect passages as examples).

2. As a reader, what is your main difficulty, frustration, or amusement as you read this text?

3.  Are there any discernible arguments or specific points that Stein seems to make here?  What are they?  Collect passages/sentences/ideas that seem to form the core around which this essay revolves.

4. What role does repetition play, and how do you think it may be related to the subject of the essay?

5. What role does playfulness have here?  What demands does this type of writing make on a reader, and why may Stein have chosen to write this way (feel free to speculate)?

6. In class, you’ll get a lot more information about Stein’s life and context, but suffice it to say that she was a queer writer and artist who was central figure within the avant-garde artistic and gay community in Paris in the 1910s and 1920s.  She also took her work extremely seriously.  How does her writing style “queer” literary and linguistic convention, in your eyes, or how does it “transgress” conventions?

7. What does the essay have to say about the subject of beauty?  How does that compare to other discourses of beauty we’ve encountered in other texts in the course so far?

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

Part 1:

  1. Part 1 starts with a pretty elaborate look back into the childhood and youth of Charles Bovary. Why do you think Flaubert decided to do that–why start the book off in this way?
  2. Pay some attention to the narrator(s) or narrative technique in the opening chapters and notice if or how the point of view seems to shift.
  3. Flaubert is known for participating in a style called Realism, which was the dominant mode of writing in the novel at the time, although with variations among authors. (Famous English-speaking sample authors are George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Olive Schreiner, Thomas Hardy, Henry James.).  Briefly look up a definition of Realism as a 19th-century style and think about how Flaubert’s novel seems to fit (or/and doesn’t seem to fit) the definition that you found.
  4. What role do books and literature play in this novel, especially for Emma?  Mark important passages as you read.
  5. In this first part, where do our sympathies and antipathies lie, in terms of the characters?
  6. How is class subtly portrayed in this novel? And how does class mix with fantasies of sexuality and romance? Mark passages as you read.

Oscar Wilde’s Salomé

Cf. also the chapter from Dierkes-Thrun, Salome’s Modernity (on Coursework–optional reading but will give you a lot of background for this play)

  1. Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1891) was banned from the English stage in its own time, and it is quite an innovative and perhaps shocking version of the Salome story in the gospels (see below). What do you think people might have criticized in his version, and why? What about this play could have offended religious and social sensibilities of the time?
  2. Wilde’s play reads very “unusual” for us today because it is Wilde’s only theatrical experiment according to the goals and ideas of Symbolism, a late-19th century literary and artistic movement that critized realism, and prominently worked with verbal repetition, symbols, and non-realistic plot and characters to lull viewers and transport them into a strange, different, and evocative world of the senses. What could be some Symbolist features of this play, as far as you can see?
  3. What are some notable instances of symbolism in this play, and what do you think their function could be?  Pay close attention to color imagery and any prominent symbols you notice.
  4. Wilde himself wished to present Salome as a positive, transgressive character who asserts her own individualism by going after what she wants (a positive value for Wilde, who asserted aesthetic individualism). How does Salome appear here—what are some of her characteristics, and how does she relate to the world around her (Herod’s court, her mother, her stepfather) and to Iokanaan (= St. John the Baptist)?
  5. How is Iokanaan characterized here—positive, negative, how/why?
  6. How does Wilde characterize Herod and Herodias?
  7. What is the effect of the ending of Wilde’s play on you as a reader? Some critics think Salome gets justly punished and order restored at the end, others are more skeptical and think it’s an unsettlingly open ending—why? And what do you think?

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