A Sample Response to the Following Question:

Although the epic traditionally depicts a male hero at the heart of its narrative, each of the texts we’ve examined also deals with issues of femininity, often representing female characters (Penelope, Clytemnestra, and Helen in the Odyssey; Sin and Eve in Paradise Lost; Belinda, Thalestris, and Clarissa in The Rape of the Lock) or feminized ideals (such as Nature or emotion in Wordsworth's Prelude). Discuss the development of the feminine across three of these texts and explain the significance of any changes in the representation of femininity. To what extent is the feminine important to epic tradition?


Things to note:

1) The response has strong, well-articulated, and logical transitions between sentences and paragraphs. The argument seems to proceed inexorably from point to point.

2) The student is referring to highly specific details from both the texts s/he explores and the time periods she discusses.

3) The student is making powerful connections among the three texts s/he examines, interpreting any differences s/he identifies.

4) The student is providing interpretation of the text rather than mere paraphrase. The student has even made points that were not made in class. S/he is interpreting the text on her own and providing evidence to support his/her claims.

Note: I have included my marginal comments in red.

Misogyny is prevalent throughout many of the traditional epics. The characterization of women has been that of the unfaithful (such as Clytemnestra and Helen) women, which is accompanied by the overtly vain female characters (Eve and Belinda). The representation of the female characters has eveolved along with the society from which the authors of the epics are spawned. [Note: specify how in the intro.]

In The Odyssey, the female characters are expected to be evil because of references to Clytemnestra and Helen. Clytemnestra and Helen both betrayed their husbands in inexcusable ways, and Helen was even said to be the cause of the infamous Trojan War. Due to the infidelity of these two women, Odysseus automatically assumes that his wife, Penelope, has been disloyal to him. Upon his return, he tests Penelope in a number of ways, and illustrates the society's distrust of females. During this period beauty (particularly in women) obviously was thought to cause corruption of some sort.

In Milton's Paradise Lost, Eve's vanity ultimately leads to her demise. The only two females that were included in the text of Paradise Lost were Sin and Eve, who were both apparently evil. Sin is presented as appearing "fair"; however, Milton then proceeds in describing the rest of her grotesque figure. This shows that women appear innocient because of their beauty, but are ultimately evil beneath that facade. Eve, not unlide Narcissus, is polluted by her vanity. She falls in love with her reflection in a pool of water, and her greed, in the end, results in the fall of mankind. In Paradise Lost, Milton plainly criticizes an emphasis on beauty (in short, femininity).

In the same culture of Pope's Rape of the Lock, emphasis on physical appearance is what their society was built upon. Although Pope illustrates (using bathos) how vain and obsessed with physical appearance Belinda is, the rest of the society is the same way. Even though the society was obsessed with appearance, Pope's mock epic was written to criticize that very vanity. Throughout the text he uses bathos and zeugmas to let the reader see how ridiculous the culture actually was. Although Belinda is pinpointed and particularly vain, the rest of the society joins her in her obsession with appearance. In The Odyssey and Milton's Paradise Lost, the females were the only ones who seemed overly concerned with vanity and beauty. This element changed, however, in Pope's Rape of the Lock. Before the females were alone in their obsession, but in Rape of the Lock the rest of society is included in the criticism, thus relieveing some of the pressure from females. The shift is important because, although vanity is negated throughout all the epics, misogyny is less prevalent in more recent texts. This shows a distinct decrease in sexism and the negative portrayal of women, no matter how small it may be.

Grade: 30

See the Response to the Exam's Other Essay Question on the Convention of the Epic Battle

Back to Exam Responses to the First Two Sections