Sample Exams

Below are some examples of texts selected and questions posed for the Senior Exam that marks the culmination and conclusion of the Fundamentals Program. Each question is individually tailored to fit the student's stated interests, but is articulated in such a way as to challenge inherent assumptions and push critical reflection within that area of interest. Thus, no two exams are alike, and two students who select the same text are likely to be examined on very different aspects of it. Nonetheless, this list demonstrates the "feel" of the Senior Exam, along with showing the range and diversity of texts selected by past cohorts of Fundamentals students.

Arendt / The Human Condition and “What is Freedom?”: Hannah Arendt writes, "If men wish to be free, it is precisely sovereignty they must renounce." But if nonsovereignty is the condition of democratic politics, are political actors to give up all sense of agency? If we had no sense of agency when we act politically, why would we so act?, a critic might ask. What if any answer does Arendt have to this dilemma of freedom as nonsovereignty?

Aristotle / Nicomachean Ethics: In Nicomachean Ethics III.1, Aristotle discusses the ways in which action can fail to be voluntary. Explain how his criteria for voluntariness—and the ways in which actions can fall away from being voluntary—are or are not compatible with the claim that what makes an action voluntary is that it is done for a reason.

Ibid.: Aristotle argues that even the best person needs friends. But he also maintains that the happy person is self-sufficient. What sense can we make of Aristotle's ideal of self-sufficiency in the context of his theory of friendship?

Augustine / Confessions: In the Confessions, Augustine often writes as though he thought that his sense of identity was fractured in various ways. For example, he speaks of being in a “state of disintegration” (2.1.1), of having “departed from myself” (5.2.2), of being “in conflict with myself and … dissociated from myself” (8.10.22), and of being unable to “grasp the totality of what I am” (10.8.15). Yet the self-portrait he constructs in the Confessions suggests someone with definite sense of himself. Define in what terms you think Augustine would accept the concept of “identity” as applicable to himself (this implies defining the concept, which is ours rather than his), explain what factors he recognizes as threatening his sense of identity and how, and draw some conclusion about the extent to which his sense of identity changes (or does not change) over the period of time covered by the Confessions.

Boccacio / Decameron: Boccacio’s Decameron is replete with tales of deceived husbands (cuckolds) and their unhappily married (“mal maritate”) wives. Is Boccaccio, after all, a disillusioned lover? Is marital “intimacy” at all possible in the society he depicts? What kind of dialectical tension does Boccaccio establish between his frame tale, his ideals and idyllic settings, and the outside world? Does “infidelity” transcend socio-economic (‘us’ and ‘them’) boundaries? Keep these questions in mind as you elaborate on your understanding of Boccaccian “intimacy” and its spatial settings.

Bohumil Hrabal / Too Loud a Solitude: Hrabal’s text, Too Loud a Solitude, is one that is easily read—and has been read dominantly by critics—as semi-autobiographical. And it is true that Hrabal does offer to Haňťa many of his—Hrabal’s—deviant identity, his non-conformity to social, political, even religious, categories. The novel too is deviant; it exists in multiple versions with no stamp of approval from the author on any one over the other. With all this deviance abounding, how does Too Loud a Solitude inform the identity of the novel itself?

Calvin / Institutes of the Christian Religion: In the Christian tradition, sin against God and neighbor brings about slavery to “the law of sin and death,” as St. Paul puts it. That is to say, sin is the use of freedom to destroy freedom. In this respect, “deviance” from the law of God is self-destructive and self-contradictory. John Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, focus on redemption and membership in the “school of Christ.” In this essay, pleased clarify what Calvin means by “sin” and how it is related to the redeemed life in the Church.

Cao Xueqin / Dream of the Red Chamber: On the one hand, the expansive cast of characters in the novel contributes to a sense of human life as a collective experience; on the other hand, detailed accounts of each individual character’s experiences reveal the uniqueness of that experience for each character. In what sense do characters in the novel share the same human experience and in what sense are their experienced worlds distinct? Thinking about how human experience is framed in the novel—for example, how ideas about fate or reincarnation underlie or contrast with circumstantial narratives of lived experiences—may be helpful in discussing this topic.

Cervantes / Don Quixote: Does Quixote follow a chivalric duty or just a fictional dream?

Chekhov / The Seagull: Tennessee Williams called The Seagull the first and greatest of modern plays. "Our theatre has to cry out to be heard at all," he explained. Discuss this notion of "crying out" in relation to your concern with words and subjectivity. Can one insist upon being heard? Understood? How do characters in the play attempt to be heard? How, by contrast, does the symbol of the seagull operate within the text? Or, more generally, how do the many strong symbolic gestures, and silences, of the play relate to your concern with the word?

Coleridge / The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: Consider the (apparently) scholarly notes in the margins of the poem. In the first published version of the poem, (1797 edition of Lyrical Ballads), there were no such notes; Coleridge added them to all later editions. Some of the notes seem to be helpful, but might not truly be so; others seem intended to muddy issues rather than clarify them; still others (e.g., the allusion to an 11th century Byzantine monk, Michael Psellus) seem either to be a joke or a remnant of Coleridge’s experiments with drugs. How does Coleridge’s addition of these notes affect our attempts to interpret the Mariner’s (apparent) guilt?

Confucius / Analects: Book II.4: The Master said, ‘At fifteen I set my heart on learning . . .; Book IV.5: The Master said, ‘Wealth and high station are what men desire . . .; Book XII.1: Yen Yüan asked about benevolence. The Master said, ‘To return to the observance of the rites . . . . Use the above three Analects passages to discuss the individual and morality. How does Confucius understand the philosophical basis for morality? Can morality be learned, and how? What is the difference between knowing what morality is, and achieving moral behavior? You may add other related issues in your discussion, and cite other passages in the Analects to support your ideas.

Dante / Divine Comedy: One of the first things readers learn about the "rules" of the Dante's voyage in the Divine Comedy is the he has been granted a divine right of way to visit the divine court. Yet this "passport" is continually challenged by the administrators of the afterlife, especially in Hell (by the monstrous guardians and demons) but to an extent in Purgatory as well (for ex. by Cato). Using one of the more of these dramatic border crossings, examine how Dante probes the limits of positive law through the jurisdictional tensions that are brought to the fore in negotiating territorial limits.

David Foster Wallace / Infinite Jest: In Realist Vision, Peter Brooks writes, “I think we have a thirst for reality. Which is curious, since we have too much reality, more than we can bear. But that is the lived, experienced reality of the everyday. We thirst for a reality that we can see, hold up to inspection, understand." How does David Foster Wallace’s maximalist 1996 novel Infinite Jest engage "reality" through what you call "hysterical realism"? What formal properties does the novel use to make the reality of the late twentieth-century American world accessible (if not comprehensible)? What types of "control" or "play" does Wallace's text seek to achieve by modeling a subset of the contemporary world? How do readers figure into this world?

Dostoyevsky / Crime and Punishment: Undoubtedly it is Sonya’s love for Raskolnikov that allows him to begin to understand and even reform himself. However she is not the only one who loves him unconditionally; so does his mother. And Sonya is not the only highly intelligent person who tries to understand him; so does Porfiry Petrovich. In fact one might even argue that the person who understands Raskolnikov best is Svidrigailov, yet he does not lead Raskolnikov to self-knowledge. Why does Sonya succeed where these three fail?

Edmund Burke / Reflections on the Revolution in France: Consider Burke's Reflections as an instance of his statesmanship in action. What generalizations or theoretical conclusions can you deduce from his argument about the proper response to the events unfolding in France? How does he resolve the problem of making room for innovation and adjustment to new circumstances without depriving society of the "glue" that would keep it from disintegrating in the future?

Exodus: Chapters 32-34 of the book of Exodus recount the famous story of the golden calf and the subsequent remarkable conversation between Moses and the Lord in which Moses pleads successfully for the Children of Israel. Based on a careful reading of these chapters, considered against the background of what has come before, discuss whether and how this episode, taken as a whole, alters Moses’ relationship both to the people and to the Lord.

Ferdowsi / Shahnameh: Reza Shah Pahlavi, who took over from the Qajars in 1921 and crowned himself king in 1925, promoted Ferdowsi’s Shâhnâmeh in the 1930s as part of a project to create the impression of a continuous tradition of Iranian monarchy stretching back to mythical time; to reject non-Iranian religious traditions; to celebrate pre-Islamic Iranian kingship; strengthen patriotic feeling; and to refashion the country as a modern secular state. Though Reza Shah was forced to abdicate in 1941 by the Allied Powers, this project was largely continued by his son, Mohammad-Reza Shah, until he, in turn, was toppled by the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79. How well, we may ask, did Reza Shah Pahlavi understand the message(s) of the Shahnameh? To what extent would a close reading of the Shahnameh (whether in its individual episodes, or as a continuous narrative of the national history of greater Iran) lend support to a hopeful vision of the future of Iran, specifically the political institution of monarchy, its stability, and specifically its ability to transfer power from generation to generation? With which character(s) from the epic would Reza Shah, or Mohammad-Reza Shah, have ideally hoped their subjects to identify them?

Flaubert / L'Education Sentimentale: Can Art play a role in a society in transition, or, in the case of "L’Education sentimentale", in a revolution ? Could we say that Frederic failed as a revolutionary in the same way he failed at understanding the function of art in a “Human education”. In brief, what is the relationship between art and revolution?

Freud / The Ego and the Id: In The Ego and the Id Freud says, “we obtain our concept of the unconscious from the theory of repression. The repressed is the prototype of the unconscious for us… Now we find during analysis that, when we put certain tasks before the patient, he gets into difficulties; his associations fail when they should be coming near the repressed…. Since, however, there can be no question that this resistance emanates from his ego, we find ourselves in an unforeseen situation. We have come upon something in the ego itself which is also unconscious, which behaves exactly like the repressed – that is, which produces powerful effects without itself being conscious and which requires special work before it can be made conscious…. we must admit that the characteristic of being unconscious begins to lose significance for us. It becomes a quality which can have many meanings, a quality which we are unable to make, as we should have hoped to do, the basis of far-reaching and inevitable consequences”. (Standard Edition, XIX: 15-18) What is the problem Freud is talking about and what kind of difficulty does it pose for developing an authentic identity or an authentic self?

George Eliot / Middlemarch: You write, “I am curious about the ways in which the ethical dimension of aesthetics can be expressed and developed in a novel or a character.” How does Middlemarch use symbol, description, structure, or some other aesthetic means to probe the psychology of at least two characters, and especially their orientations towards beauty and what is good or ethical? How do these characters struggle with their aesthetic interpretations and ethical actions to grow (or fail to grow) as people?

Guy de Maupassant / Le Horla: According to the literary theorist Tzvetan Todorov, “the fantastic requires the fulfillment of three conditions. First, the text must oblige the reader to consider the world of the characters as a world of living persons and to hesitate between a natural and a supernatural explanation of the events described. Second, this hesitation may also be experienced by a character; thus the reader’s role is so to speak entrusted to a character, and at the same time the hesitation is represented, it becomes one of the themes of the work — in the case of naïve reading, the actual reader identifies himself with the character. Third, the reader must adopt a certain attitude with regard to the text: he will reject allegorical as well as ‘poetic’ interpretations” (Todorov, The Fantastic). How is this hesitation—of both character and reader—inscribed in the narrative form of Maupassant’s Le Horla ? To what extent is the narrator’s journal a mirror of subjectivity and a tool for self-knowledge, and how does it highlight problems of identity and non-identity?

Hobbes / Leviathan: Is Hobbes an authoritarian? When answering this question, keep in mind Hobbes' openness to a democratic sovereign; his scathing critique of tradition; and his exhortation to readers to learn to think for themselves, disregarding the authority of priests and prophets. Why do these "anti-authoritarian" tendencies play such an important role in Hobbes' argument for absolute sovereignty? Can you reconcile Hobbes' critique of authority with his defense of sovereignty, or are the two fundamentally in tension?

Homer / Iliad: Why does the Iliad end with the funeral of Hector, rather than the funeral of Patroclus?

Homer / Odyssey: Write an essay that shows how Penelope and Odysseus negotiate human geographies in ways that reflect and re-construct mappings between gender and experience in the Odyssey. How do place and gendered patterns of action encroach upon each other in one episode of Odysseus’s adventures and in Ithaca? Or, to ask a closely related question, how do Odysseus and Penelope negotiate gendered modes of conduct in some important physical or social context?

J. M. Coetzee / Disgrace: Disgrace is a devastating book to read because it undermines not just the possibility of true intimacy, but even the possibility of true sincerity. To mean well is impossible in a world without meaning, or at least in a world where intended meaning is always thwarted by uncontrollable desires or circumstances. And if one can’t mean well, it becomes impossible to do good. Argue for or against this reading on the basis of David Lurie’s relationships to his student and to his daughter.

Jean-Léon Gérôme: What, in the paintings of Gerome, would lead one to claim that they operate on a meta-pictorial level in relation to issues of bodily representation? How would such an understanding of Gerome’s paintings affect, on the one hand, what is attended to in his works, and on the other, how his importance in the history of 19th century French art is assessed?

Kafka / The Trial: In Kafka’s The Trial, the protagonist, Josef K. seems to dwell in a paradoxical state in which constant activity and extreme passivity intersect. He reaches a point where he neglects everything in his life for the sake of his defense; all he thinks about is his trial and he tries to use everyone he meets to gain some strategic information concerning the progress of his case. At the same time one gets the impression that this constant activity is really a kind of stasis, a running in place, a mode of intense idling. How might one account for this paradoxical impression? Does the novel indicate some sort of character flaw on K.’s part? Or does the novel “argue,” instead, that K. is caught up in a world in which activity and passivity become indistinguishable? In a word, are we dealing here with something primarily subjective or with an objective state and structure of the world? Or is this, rather, a false dichotomy?

Leo Strauss / On Tyranny: What is the teaching about tyranny that Leo Strauss attributes to Xenophon (or his Simonides) in On Tyranny? What is Strauss's own teaching about tyranny in his "Restatement"?

Machiavelli / Discourses on Livy: What are the differences between laws and orders for Machiavelli? What are the implications of these differences for continuity, corruption, change and reform in republics?

Mata / The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata: Mata is a novel of deeply complex narrative layers and voices where the paratextual, intertextual, and peripheral occupy the same space as the so-called central text. Focussing on the three *female* commentators, annotators, and “readers” of Mata and their various agendas and using specific examples, how, in fact, does the “imagined confront the real through read[ing]”

Melville / Moby-Dick: How does Ishmael’s understanding of whales develop over the course of Moby-Dick, and how does this understanding distinguish him from Ahab?

Merleau-Ponty / Le Visible et l'invisible: On p. 193 of Le Visible et l'invisible, Merleau-Ponty says that works of art -- specifically referring, somewhat unusually for him, to music -- and other "beings of culture" take us directly to "the most difficult point, that is, the link of flesh and the idea." How does his aesthetics correlate with his account of corporeality? Are there areas of non-correspondence between the two, and if so, how does Merleau-Ponty deal with them?

Michael Chabon / The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is a book on every level about self-actualization in the face of hurdles—which is part of the reason the transformation-oriented superhero trope is so key to the book. The book is also, like Asterios Polyp, about formal innovation. First, how does the book suggest its characters’ understanding of narrative and storytelling change over the course of the novel? And how does this relate to their characters’ sense of themselves in history? Second, please comment on the book’s own sense of itself as a narrative. Is “historical fiction” the most accurate way to describe the book? How do you understand Chabon’s inclusion of footnotes, for instance?

Milton / Paradise Lost: Your question refers to the “mystery which surrounds life” in which characters seek “to understand themselves” through their narratives. “The self-awareness which comes with creativity is both their fuel and their tool in understanding themselves.” Does Satan fashion narratives to understand himself in Paradise Lost (for example, in IV. 32-113)? If so how does at least one of his narratives help him understand himself and his relationship to God? If he does not use narrative to understand himself, show how he uses his stories for other goals, and, thus, does not understand himself.

Nabokov / Lolita: Why must Nabokov make Humbert Humbert a pedophile? Why must (for the novel to “work”) his “psychosexual” profile be that of a “girleen” rapist?

Nietzsche / Beyond Good & Evil: In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche conceives a fundamental form of the will, the will to power, through which all drives, including the will to truth, can be understood. What is the relation between the will to power and will to truth? Is the will to truth one manifestation of will to power? Or is Nietzsche's teaching on the will to power discovered by his will to truth? Could Nietzsche coherently assert both? What is the basis of Nietzsche's conceptions of will to power and will to truth, reason or will?

Plato / Republic: Socrates’s account of political change in books 8-9 of Plato’s Republic culminates in the degeneration of democracy into tyranny. How is his dialogue with his interlocutors shaped by its location somewhere in that stage in Athens?

Plato / Symposium: In your statement on the Symposium, you say that the first feature of that dialogue that interests you is “the investigation of desire that is at the heart of thinking about happiness.” Indeed, the Symposium is the dialogue in which Plato first puts forward what some philosophers have called the “attractive” theory of good, which claims that (1) the good is, definitionally, what produces happiness and (2) the way we humans get to happiness is by being drawn to the good, responding to its attractiveness. And yet, as you note, the dialogue makes it quite clear that “not all desires are alike.” Not all desires, obviously enough, are so consituted that gratifying them gets a human being closer to happiness. The (very) various speeches of the dialogue seem to thematize precisely this problem. Desires can be low instead of high, sick instead of healthy, base instead of noble. And desires of the first kind of each pair don't (or don't obviously) look like avenues toward the good that makes a human life a happy one. What objections to the “attractive” theory of good can the Symposium be taken as raising, implicitly or explicitly? And what answers to those objections can it be taken as offering?

Plotinus / Enneads: Is embodiment a help or a hindrance to contemplation in the Enneads?

Shakespeare / Hamlet: Why does the play include so many extended quotations and excerpts from other plays? Consider the role of the Pyrrhus speech and the "play within the play" in Shakespeare's play as a whole. Why are they there and how do they function? What does it mean -- this may or may not be a related matter -- that Hamlet sometimes sees himself as a character in a play?

Simone de Beauvoir / The Second Sex, vol. 1, “Facts and Myths”: In volume 1 of The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir exposes various justifications of woman as “Other” and also the seemingly fixed status of and limited prospects for women that such justifications imply or enforce. Beauvoir also portrays a variety of women—from Judith and Mary, the Tunisian women in the caves, to Joan of Arc and Mme Roland—as nearly without exception having been lived on the margins of society and history. She concludes: “Being on the fringes of the world is not the best place for someone who intends to re-create it: here again, to go beyond the given, one must be deeply rooted in it (152).” In your essay, discuss Beauvoir’s interpretation of woman as the seemingly inevitable and perpetual “Other” and of women as historically situated on the margins in relation to the ideas of deviance and its implied correlate, “normality.” More specifically, drawing on Beauvoir’s work, explore the limitations and contributions of deviance/normality for the task of interpretation and moral assessment of women’s lived situation/s. Since Beauvoir herself very rarely uses the language of “deviance” explicitly, you may want to stipulate a definition.

Søren Kierkegaard / Concluding Unscientific Postscript: In his journal Søren Kierkegaard wrote: “Socrates doubted that one is a human being by birth; to become human or to learn what it means to be human does not come that easily…” Please discuss this claim in relation to the conception of subjectivity that the pseudonymous author Johannes Climacus puts forward in Concluding Unscientific Postscript.

St. John of the Cross / Cántico Espiritual: How would you characterize the poetic structure of the Cántico Espiritual? You might consider, in particular, how St. John employs patterns of sensory imagery, together with metaphor and symbol, to evoke the experience of being distanced from and proximate to the Divine. How do these patterns reflect a mystical journey from absence and ineffability to an illuminating inner presence of the Word? How would you describe the way in which St. John structures his exploration into the limits of poetic language, and the power of interiorized figures as a means of exploring these limitations?

Tolstoy / Anna Karenina: Though he is the gloomiest character in Anna Karenina, Levin nonetheless experiences episodes of profound joy in the novel—when mowing, becoming engaged to Kitty, or having a successful morning at hunting, for example. How do these moments relate to the happiness that has been the subject of your research? Are they the result of what is being done in a particular moment, and thus suggestive of a practice that could produce a more abiding happiness? Are they in any way the product of reflection (or philosophy)? What can be learned from the experience of happiness in the novel?

Virgil / Aeneid: In the Aeneid, Aeneas tells his story to Dido in a narrative that spans two entire books of the epic. What do these two books and their place in the broad storyline of the poem have to teach us about fictionality

Zbigniew Herbert: Between "The Envoy of Mr. Cogito" and "Pebble", two very different poems, one a fervent appeal, another growing out of a quiet contemplation--comment on the nature of intellectual forces at work in Herbert's poetry.