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Midterm Exam Study Guide Example

This example is unique in that it also includes a study guide. Students can use study guides not only as a resource to find out what is important for an exam, but they also serve as an easily accessible way to review class material.

Study Guide Examples
Spring 2009
Midterm Exam Study Guide

The midterm exam will be given next Thursday, March 12, during class. It will consist of three parts: quote identification, short answer, and an essay. The exam will cover all the novels and stories we’ve read so far, including The Art of the Novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Passion, and The Dharma Bums. The exam will also include the critical terms we’ve used to understand these texts, such as ambiguity, irony, point of view, and sublime. Here follows one hypothetical example from each section of the exam.

I.  Quote Identification: Answer the questions that follow each passage. (80 pts)

     “Hopeless heart that thrives on paradox; that longs for the beloved and is secretly relieved when the beloved is not there. That gnaws away at the night-time hours desperate for a sign and appears at breakfast so self-composed. That longs for certainty, fidelity, compassion, and plays roulette with anything precious.
     “Gambling is not a vice, it is an expression of our humanness.”

1.  In which novel and in whose psyche do these thoughts appear?
2.  Describe one instance where “gambling” in this novel might be an expression of “humanness” and explain your answer.

II.  Short Answer. (60 pts)

3.  Present Kundera’s definition of comic and offer TWO examples from the texts that we have read so far, explaining how each corresponds to Kundera’s definition.

III.  Essay: Choose one of the essay options listed below and respond using the two pages that follow, being sure to discuss specific characters, events, images, narrative and/or structural techniques, etc., to support the claim you make. (60 pts)

A. In both The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Passion, “compassion” acts as an important component of the narrative’s “existential code.” Compare the two texts, arguing how the idea of compassion is developed in each case to reach similar and/or distinct conclusions.

Relevant Critical Terms

As a poetic device, ambiguity refers to the use of a single word or expression to signify two or more distinct meanings or attitudes simultaneously. Romeo’s friend Mercutio, after being stabbed, famously quips: “Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man,” indicating on the one hand that he might tomorrow be dealing with a very serious wound, but more likely that he’ll be a dead man in his grave. See IRONY.

Part of Kundera’s definition claims: “Whatever aspects of existence the novel discovers, it discovers as beautiful,” meaning that even those discoveries made by the novel that we find morally or aesthetically repugnant, such as tragic endings or the “strange, dark beauty” of Kafka’s vision are beautiful—see SUBLIME. Kundera goes on to qualify this term as “the suddenly kindled light of the never-before-said,” implying that all discoveries are revelations of our human nature, and therefore valuable.

In the “existential code” of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera identifies betrayal as “breaking ranks and going off into the unknown.” Aside from Kundera’s characters, we could also discuss how Villanelle and especially Ray Smith are attracted to this particular version of “betrayal.”

Kundera asserts that whereas tragedy offers us consolation by presenting us with “the lovely illusion of human greatness,” the comic “brutally reveals the meaninglessness of everything.” Tim O’Brien, in an essay titled “How to Tell a True War Story,” offers an example of this sort of comedy:
Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast, but it’s a killer grenade and everybody dies anyway.
The noble gesture made by the “jumper” is totally wiped out by the brutality of reality (if you’ll pardon the rhyme). O’Brien goes on to show how such brutal meaninglessness is quickly converted to complex tragedy:
Before they die, though, one of the guys says, “The fuck you do that for?” and the jumper says, “Story of my life, man,” and the other guy starts to smile but he’s dead.
Everyone still dies, but the exchange between the two soldiers represents an acknowledgment of the jumper’s willing sacrifice (indicative of “human greatness”), framed by his comrade’s (ironic) appreciation.

A system of sociopolitical thought and action questioning the inequality between men and women, especially the socially-constructed roles, privileges, and obligations of each respective gender (showing or not showing emotion, nurturing people or competing with them, giving birth to children or giving financial support to them, etc). In its development of Villanelle and Henri’s characters, The Passion could be said to offer a feminist critique, since The Passion shows Villanelle to be more prone to masculine action and aggressiveness than Henri, who dreams of peaceful love and blue skies—desires more conventionally associated with the feminine gender.

This multifaceted term comes to us from Greek drama, where the eiron was a character who deliberately pretended to be less intelligent than he was to act as a foil for the alazon, an arrogant braggart. Although there are several different context-specific versions of irony, the sense of two meanings—one apparent and the other actual—is fairly consistent throughout. Verbal irony, for instance, is when you accidentally drop your cell phone into a glass of Mountain Dew and mumble to yourself, “Great—that’s just great.” This apparent meaning is in direct contrast to what you actually mean: “That sucks.” A more complex manifestation of this tension between what is apparent and what is actually happening is when Henri, for instance, is certain that he’s found a paradise at the end of The Passion, while the reader knows that he’s locked in a madhouse and quite possibly insane. Or is he? Kundera says that “Irony irritates. Not because it mocks or attacks but because it denies us our certainties by unmasking the world as an ambiguity.” See AMBIGUITY.

Kundera supplies several characteristics of the “kafkan” in the chapter of The Art of the Novel called “Somewhere Behind,” including confrontation “by a power that has the character of a boundless labyrinth,” a “theological (or rather: pseudotheological) dimension,” and entry “into the guts of a joke, into the horror of the comic.” See SUBLIME.

According to Kundera, “kitsch is something other than simply a work in poor taste. There is a kitsch attitude….the need to gaze into the mirror of the beautifying lie and to be moved to tears of gratification at one’s own reflection.”

Point of View
The position or vantage-point from which the events of a story are observed and presented to the reader. The chief distinction made is usually between first- and third-person narratives. A first-person narrator’s point of view will normally be restricted to his or her partial (and possibly flawed or biased) knowledge and experience (see UNRELIABLE NARRATOR). A third-person narrator, on the other hand, may be omniscient (literally “all-knowing”), and therefore demonstrate an unrestricted knowledge of the story’s events from outside or “above” them (e.g., the Bible), or limited, a point of view that confines itself to the knowledge and experiences of a single or finite number of characters. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is an unusual case, since it most often appears to be told from a third-person omniscient POV, until the narrator reveals himself to be (presumably) Kundera himself, musing on the state, significance, and origins of his characters. Narratives can also involve multiple points of view, as in the case of The Passion, which we would call “first-person multiple,” since the multiple points of view are each first-person accounts given by Villanelle or Henri.

Since the ancient Greeks, the sublime or “lofty” character of literature has been praised as its most distinguishing quality. The sublime depicts powerful subjects that are vast, mysterious, and possibly even counter to our accepted moral code, evoking “delightful horror” in the viewer or reader—a combination of terror and awe similar to Kundera’s treatment of VERTIGO in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. We might find a landscape painting very pleasing, whereas we might experience something of the sublime as we are dropped into that landscape from 10,000 feet with a small parachute strapped to our backs. Contrast with KITSCH.

Unreliable Narrator
A narrator whose account of events appears to be faulty, misleadingly biased, or otherwise distorted deliberately by the author, such that the reader understands events or the significance of events in the story more accurately than the narrator. The discrepancy between the unreliable narrator’s view of events and the view that readers suspect (or know) to be more accurate creates a sense of IRONY (see also) or AMBIGUITY (see also). Henri’s narrative near the end of The Passion can in some ways be considered “unreliable.”