Tuesday, April 30, 2013

An Example of Existentialism as Literary Analysis; "Love in L.A."


Sometimes the kinds of questions we ask about literature are the very questions philosophers ask in perpetuity.

In Dagberto Gilb's short story, Love in L.A., the situational irony within the story points to its existentialist underpinnings. The ending makes the reader question the main character's unethical motivations. Upon further examination, readers find that this main character simply makes choices that lead him toward greater comfort and freedom.

Situational Irony

This story indicates that like all of the referenced drivers sitting in traffic, all people can be divided into two types: those who are like Jake, the irresponsible winner, and those who are like Mariana, the responsible loser. Good things do not happen to good people in the world of this story, and bad things do not happen to bad people. Even more, Jake behaves as though he is, as Comte might say, alone in an indifferent universe. He shows no indication of fear of punishment for his actions and choices. This character knows there will be no divine retribution. As readers, we find ourselves reacting in a very primal way when Jake drives away from the scene of the crime having gotten away with such abysmal behavior. "It isn't fair," readers cry. However, rewards and punishments in this world are not doled out in a way most people have come to think of as “fair,” and therein lies the situational irony.

Existentialist Underpinnings

Even deeper into the heart of the story and the situation, there can be found existentialist underpinnings. Jake, and therefore those like him, choose to act, no matter what the situation, with an eye only toward self - with a "natural attitude of self preservation" (Appignanesi & Zarate, 2002, p. 24). The only love within this story is the love of self. More specifically, even after behaving despicably and irresponsibly toward Mariana, Jake thinks only of his own material comforts within the confines of his car. It's here the narrative voice gets to the heart of this existentialist character with the use of the word "freedom." Not only has this character escaped justice, but pride is indicated when the narrator tells the reader, “His sense of freedom swelled as he drove into the now moving street traffic” (Gilb, 1993, p. 63). Jake is free from any of the conventions that tie him to the responsibility to make honorable or noble decisions. He is free to make any choice at all without punishment.

To Jake, and those like him, there are no values to uphold and no moral gauge to appease. In this world, the world of the story, the situational irony within the story points directly to its existentialist underpinnings.


  • Gilb, D. (1993). Love in L.A.. In Schakel, P. & Ridl, J. (Eds.), Approaching literature: Writing+reading+thinking. (2nd ed.), (pp. 60 - 63). Boston: Bedford/ St. Martin’s.
  • Appignanesi, R., & Zarate, O. (2002). Introducing Existentialism. New York; Lanham, Md.: Totem Books.



Need More Help Writing About Literature?


Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Conspicuous Consumption In Lawrence's "The Rocking-Horse Winner"

Antique Rocking Horse, photo by Thomas Quine

I first read The Rocking-Horse Winner as a class assignment over twenty years ago. I remember my teacher smartly lecturing the class with erudite lucidity about its theme, which she then asked us to write about in essay responses. 

Sadly, her lecture was completely lost on me, and I received the following note on my completed essay: "You clearly do not understand the theme of this story. Reread." No amount of reading could have clarified the story for me at that time, though. At that age, I simply had no basis for comparative response and no experience with distant mothers or superior class pursuits.

Years have gone by, however, and I've learned not only to recognize these, but to name and learn from them. Fortunately for me, but unfortunately for the world, Lawrence's theme is still relevant today. Therefore, it is with bittersweet redemption I assert my thesis: In D.H. Lawrence's short story The Rocking-Horse Winner, the author uses irony to warn readers against living lives of conspicuous consumption.

Conspicuous Consumption

Although not directly used within the text of the story, the phrase "conspicuous consumption" was first used by Thorsten Veblen in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class in 1899, thirty-four years before the publication of D.H. Lawrence's short story. As simplified by Professor Jim Reid in the first paragraph of a Web page dedicated to its definition, the phrase refers to "the act of purchasing and using certain goods and services, not in order to survive, but rather to identify oneself to others as having superior wealth and social standing" (2008). Several references to this theory can be found throughout the story.

Sense of Belonging

In the first paragraph of the story, the narrator tells us the mother feels no love for her family and that her children are aware of her lack of love for them. We are told her love for her husband has "turned to dust" and that her three children react to her "coldly" (Lawrence, 1933, pg. 291). However, in an ironic juxtaposition of images that follow throughout the story, there are echoes of conspicuous consumption. For example, in the second paragraph the images turn from dust and hard-heartedness to "a pleasant house," "a garden," the idea of superiority, and a sense that the family is fighting to belong to an upper social class. These not only follow, but supersede the lack of love in the household. "There must be more money!" the house whispers several times, echoing the mother's ultimate desire. The mother's heart, we come to understand, belongs not to her family, but for her desire to belong with a superior society.

"Filthy Lucker"

Further irony in the story is fueled by Paul's mistaken use of "filthy lucker" for the phrase "filthy lucre" (pg. 293). Defined originally as simply "money," it is used idiomatically to suggest money that has been earned dishonestly or at the expense of health or decency (filthy lucre, n.d.). Paul's misuse of the phrase and timid attempt to talk to his mother about the family's financial situation brings about an even more damaging mistaken use of words. When Paul asks his mother for the meaning of "lucky," she uses "lucky" as a noun, defining it for Paul as those who "'will always get more money'" (pg. 293). Therefore, in an attempt to be his mother's definition of "lucky," Paul sets about earning "filthy lucre" by riding his magical rocking horse until he knows the names of the racetrack winners, then betting on horses with the help of his uncle and the gardener. The three dishonestly keep these actions a secret from the rest of the family, and gambling on horses is a habit we later find out has lead to "damage" in the family (pg. 300). Paul becomes, indeed, a "filthy lucker," feeding into his mother's conspicuous consumption by caring more for money than for his health or decency.

Change of Heart

Furthermore, Lawrence ends the story with an inevitable ironic twist that drives home the lesson that conspicuous consumption is a way of life to be avoided. Just as the mother has a change of heart and begins to care for her son - stepping away from a social event to do so - the truth is revealed and Paul is lost. Her change of heart comes too late to save her son. His last words, which are indicative of his mother's misuse of the word lucky, are full of bitter irony. "'Mother, did I ever tell you? I'm lucky,'" he says (pg. 302). His mother's and his own materialistic pursuits are quite literally the death of him.

The ironic use of words and twisted intentions in The Rocking-Horse Winner are the techniques through which Lawrence delivers his still-relevant lesson. We must beware conspicuous consumption or be willing to suffer the consequences.


  • filthy lucre. (n.d.). The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer. Retrieved July 02, 2011, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/filthy lucre
  • Lawrence, D. H. (1933). The Rocking-Horse Winner. In Perrine, L. & Arp, T. R. (Eds.), Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense. (6th ed.), (pp. 291 - 303). Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace & Company.
  • Reid, J. H. (2008). Conspicuous Consumption. Retrieved from http://lilt.ilstu.edu/jhreid/foi/conspicuous_consumption.htm


Need More Help Writing about Literature?


Copyright Amy Lynn Hess. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

APA Formatting and Citations: Personal Communication

Don't keep your source content hidden!
Photo by Edoardo Costa, [Line out[#2]

Every piece of source information used in an essay must be cited.  Source information is information that comes from a source. To cite a source is to give credit where credit is due.


In an essay cited in APA style, the source information must be cited in two different places.  First, the writer must cite information in the paper with the sentence in which the source information is used.  These “in-text” citations let a reader know which pieces of information in the text of the paper came from a source.  The writer must also cite that same source on the references page.  The references page entries give the reader and the writer enough information to find the original sources of information, again.  Both sets of citations play their own roles and have their own purpose.

However, there is one exception to the “cite-every-piece-of-information-in-two-places” rule.  The exception to the rule is when source information comes from a piece of personal communication.

Example of an In-Text Citation for Personal Communication 

If a writer is composing a paper about effectively managing an art supply store, he or she might contact the manager of an art supply store to ask a few questions.  The contact could be via email, in person, or over the phone.  If the information is helpful, the writer may choose to include a few of the ideas in his or her paper.  Because the ideas did not originate with the writer, the writer must cite the responses in the text of the paper.  In order to give credit where credit is due, the writer must indicate, in the text of the paper, which ideas came from the manager of the art supply store.  The writer will use quotation marks, introductory phrases, and in-text citations to indicate the information that came from the personal communication.  In fact, the writer will actually use the phrase “personal communication” in the in-text citation.  

Take a look at the following example, which uses the introductory phrase “according to,” the name and credentials of the source in the sentence, a direct quote in quotation marks, and an in-text parenthetical citation at the end of the sentence:

According to Fred Pohler, manager at Arts and Arts and Arts art supply store in Newark, effectively managing an art supply store requires not only an understanding of how to manage a business, but also an extensive knowledge of a vast array of art supplies (personal communication, September 23, 2013).

Example of a References Citation for Personal Communication 

Step two in citing this source is for the writer to determine whether or not Fred Pohler’s statements can be looked up or seen by others.  For example, if Fred answered the interview questions, and the writer posted the answers as a Blogger post, his answers can be seen by others, and the writer must cite the blog on the references page as a blog post.  The responses are not personal communication, and the in-text citation should be revised.  However, if Fred answered the questions in an email, and no one else but the writer can see those answers, then there will be only the in-text citation, no references citation.
Remember, the purpose of the references citation is to record the information necessary for the writer or reader to find the information, again.  Since the information cannot be found, as it’s not published for the public to read, there is no reason for it to be on the references page.


Just remember, when in doubt about what constitutes a piece of “personal communication,” ask whether the information the writer has used has been given only to the writer, or if it can be looked up or seen by others.  If the answer is “Yes, it can be looked up by others,” the information should not be cited as personal communication. 

Want to learn more about writing?  Try my online writing course at a discount, just for being a blog reader!

Want to learn more about writing essays?  

Try my complete online essay writing course on Udemy.com called "Quality Paragraph and Essay Writing."  Use the coupon code link to get 50% off the regular price of the course. Receive a certificate of completion when you've finished!

Ekphrasis: Describing Visual Art

This painting is called "L'Arbor et La Soleil." 
How does it make you feel? What about the painting makes you feel that way?

Ekphrasis is a literary term that refers to a piece of writing that describes a visual work of art. 

Ekphrasis can take the form of either poetry or prose, and a writer can choose to write about either a real object or a fictional object.

No matter what form the writing takes, or whether the subject is a real or imagined object, a writer should follow a few guidelines when writing in the descriptive mode.

Choose a Dominant Impression to Unify the Writing

Choosing a dominant impression is important because it will help control the content of the ekphrasis. The dominant impression for ekphrasis, a typically subjective or impressionistic type of writing, can usually be summed up with mood or emotion words, like “mysterious, joyful, nostalgic, or anxious.” Choosing a dominant impression might require a little prewriting, like clustering or listing, to generate an idea. On the other hand, writers might be so awed or transfixed by a work of art that they already know the type of mood or emotion they want to convey: Without having to think about it, a writer may know exactly how to describe how a work of art makes him or her feel. In that instance, a writer should start prewriting at the point where he or she needs to generate ideas for supporting details.

Add Consistent Supporting Details that Maintain the Dominant Impression

All of the descriptive details in ekphrasis should support the dominant impression. For example, if a writer describes a painting that conveys a feeling of sadness, all of the supporting details in the writing should support that dominant impression. The job of the writer describing this sad painting is to find ways to explain to the reader, then describe to the reader, how and why the painting depicts sadness.

Specific topics for discussion could include, but certainly are not limited to, the work’s composition, design, era, genre, subject matter, style, the evocation of memory, or an interpreted message. To help generate ideas for supporting details based on these topics, a writer might ask, “Why did the artist choose to paint, draw, sculpt, photograph, or design this way?” and “What effect do these choices have on me?” (Wyrick, 2011).

Include Specific and Visceral Details that Allow a Reader to "See" the Work of Art

Writing about a visual work of art requires writing that helps create a specific picture in the mind of the reader. This can be achieved by writers who include specific and visceral language in their descriptions. When writers write using specific language, they use words a reader is able to see in the mind’s eye as vividly as the writer sees the original. For example, instead of writing that a painting is empowering, a writer using specific language might state that a photograph makes the viewer feel empowered because of its realistic depiction of the linked arms of women from all races and ages at a women’s rights rally. The first description is too vague because the word “empowering” might mean different things to different people and does not create a picture in the mind’s eye. Another example is when a writer changes words like “things” or “very good” into more descriptive language like “mud puddles” or “it left me crying.”

No matter the type of ekphrasis a writer is composing, be it verse or a personal essay, there are a few good rules of thumb to follow. Writers should choose, and then stick to a dominant impression of the work of art, using specific and visceral language to convey a clear message to the reader.


Wyrick, J. (2011). Steps to writing well (11th ed.). Boston, MA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess.  Please contact the author for permission to republish.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Sample Literary Analysis: Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily"

Original image by Don,  Gothic Rest, used with 
Creative Commons License

Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" ends with a shockingly macabre scene, but that may not resonate with some readers. Why not? And how do we write about that?

When writing a literary analysis, student writers should try to keep some key ideas in mind. First, a good literary analysis is based on an interesting observation. Second, a good literary analysis must be framed as an argument (a statement that is neither verifiably true nor false,  but can be argued). Finally, a literary analysis should be narrowed to focus on one literary element within the story, and a writer should provide examples of that literary element in the context of his or her argument.

What follows in italics is a breakdown of how an argument about William Faulkner's short story, "A Rose for Emily" changes from observation to argument as the writer expands on the main idea. This argument begins with the writer's own personal observations, and then the writer focuses on one literary element while providing examples from the story.

Beginning with an Observation: Social Distance and Loss of Affect in "A Rose for Emily"

Skeleton Woman by Original Bliss
To begin, after reading the story a few times, a reader might notice a few things about the story. The reader
might notice some lines in the story that make her uncomfortable, and she might notice that although it seems to her  like the ending of the story should be shocking, it just isn’t.  She just doesn't feel "shocked."  The reader might then go on to try to figure out why the ending isn’t as shocking as she thinks it is supposed to be.  "It's probably because of all the violence on television," she thinks, as she has heard it so many times.  "I'm desensitized to the violence."

It might be easy for the reader to consider the argument that Faulkner's short story, "A Rose for Emily" is no longer relevant because today's readers have become desensitized to the macabre ending of the story. The reader jots that down as a working thesis statement and then looks for evidence in the story.

The reader jots down: When the narrator and other townspeople enter the room that "no one had seen in forty years," and discover Miss Emily's "rotted" love, the narrator reports they "just stood there" (Faulkner, 1931, pg. 183). The narrator and townspeople are shocked by the scene, whereas today's readers might easily recall seeing such a scene, or worse, in dozens of films, television shows, or even newspapers in recent years. It would be easy to say these readers would not be shocked, and this moment in the story, meant to be a jarring revelation, might be lost on them. 

However, although that argument can be supported, there’s something just not right about it. The reader knows that she is often shocked by any violence she sees in the media, so she knows that her exposure to violence can’t really be the reason the ending is lost on her. In order to reframe the argument, this writer must reexamine her initial interesting observations and dig deeper into the story.  "There are no shortcuts or easy answers in literature," she remembers her professor saying.  She draws a line through her first thesis and continues to work.

Reframing an Observation as an Argument: The Narrator's Tone Distracts the Reader

The reader knows she is not shocked by the ending of “A Rose for Emily,” but she knows it isn’t because of her desensitization to violence. The reader’s job is to find a better reason why she is disconnected from the end of the story. Going back to her original observations, she sees that she highlighted and starred a few lines in the story that all make her very uncomfortable, almost distracted. All of the lines, if spoken today, would be highly offensive to women or other races.  All of the lines she has marked demonstrate a lack of diversity consciousness.

The reader considers that her disconnect with the story has a lot to do with those lines and her own discomfort.  She was so distracted by the blatant racism and sexism in the lines, she wasn't even thinking about the ending of the story when it came along.

Supporting the Argument with Examples of the Distracting Narrative Tone

The reader jots down: A deeper argument about the relevance of this story has much more to do with the tone of the narrator, and much less to do with violent images in the media. Almost offhandedly, throughout the story the narrator demonstrates a negative and superior attitude toward both the Black race and female gender. The narrator seems to accept as fact his superiority over the two groups.

Then, the reader looks for examples in the story that support her argument: For example, “Only a woman could have believed it,” the narrator states when describing the invented business that led to Miss Emily’s tax remittance (pg. 177). Additionally, the female Blacks in this town are not allowed out on the streets without aprons (pg. 17), the judge uses what we refer to today as “The N Word” (pg. 178), and Miss Emily’s servant, Tobe, is her servant until the day she dies and he leaves the premises (pg. 183).

This tone, or attitude, toward both the Black servants and Miss Emily and the other women of the town creates a distracting distance between the reader and the cultural atmosphere of Faulkner's story. Because of the narrator's tone, today’s younger reader just cannot imagine himself or herself in that setting without feeling a bit of moral indignation. Distracted by their own thoughts and discomfort about the moral indignation within the story as gauged by contemporary standards, the morally wrong act committed by Miss Emily, the murder, is lessened. In fact, it's actually that distance, that unwillingness on the part of the reader to accept these negative attitudes, that causes the reader's disconnect with the jarring ending, not contemporary society's fascination with violent media images.

At this point, our reader can begin to add her ideas to an outline so the paper can be planned and drafted.  She has learned that to write about literature is to make observations about a work, frame the observation as an argument, focus on one literary element within the story, and provide examples in the context of the argument.


  • Faulkner, W. (1931). A Rose for Emily. In P. Schakel & J. Ridle (Eds.), Approaching Literature: Reading + Writing + Thinking, (3rd ed.), (pp. 176 - 183. Boston, MA: Bedford/ St. Martins.

Need More Help Writing about Literature?

Try the following blog posts: