Sample 'A' Paper

Below is a paper written by a student in Spring 2003.

Things to note (in order of importance):

1) The student never rests at paraprase but always seeks to interpret the descriptions s/he provides. What you have here is an argument that enlightens the work not a mere rehashing of plot. The student is also offerring up a fascinating application of theoretical work by Julia Kristeva.

2) The student has used a good deal of evidence from the work s/he examines to support his/her case. S/he also provides insight into these passages and incorporates her quotations well.

3) Rather than making numerous points briefly, the student has chosen to concentrate on a specific topic so that s/he can provide an in-depth and extensive interpretation of the work at hand.

4) The paper has a clearly articulated thesis in the introduction, one that is developed in different ways in each of the paragraphs of the paper.

5) The paper proceeds logically from sentence to sentence, from point to point, from paragraph to paragraph.

6) The paper has almost no grammatical and stylistic problems.


Losing Touch with the Symbolic Order

[my comments are in this color]

In the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “The Body,” the audience is forced to face the Real every time the director makes a shock cut to Joyce’s dead body after each commercial break. Joyce’s body reminds viewers of the materiality of the human condition as we see her zipped into a body bag, then examined by a mortician, and finally covered with a white sheet. By exposing viewers to Joyce’s body, the creators of Buffy are treating the audience as another member of the Buffy diegesis. Like Buffy, Dawn, and Giles, we recognize the Real because the camera constantly returns us to the physical presence of [her] corpse. We understand how Buffy experiences the abject because we, too, experience the shock of seeing Joyce’s dead body. One question that remains, however, is how do people deal with the abject when they know there is death but do not see the corpse. In “The Body,” there is a sequence that explores this question. It is a scene where we see Buffy’s closest friends deal with the loss of a mother figure, without seeing her corpse. Because they are not exposed the body, they try to hang on to the symbolic order through language and action. However, the abject is always present in their minds. Willow faces what Julia Kristeva calls a narcissistic crisis as she struggles to appear as a collected, supportive figure for Buffy. Xander practices transference as he looks for someone to blame for Joyce’s death. Anya experiences her own breakdown of reality as she recognizes her own mortality. Through language and action, these characters try to cover their own fears of the Real, but they are never able to fully repress [split infinitive] the abject.

Like many of the other scenes in this episode, this particular sequence opens with a shock cut: first, viewers see a mortician cutting the undergarments off of Joyce’s lifeless body; then, we see Willow and Tara standing in Willow’s dorm room; and finally, we see Xander and Anya riding in Xander’s car. During all three of these shots, no one speaks, and there is no music playing (not even on the car radio). The shock cuts and the lack of sound create a feeling of the abject for the audience. Through the shock cuts, the audience can see how language has been broken down and made meaningless. We are given the time to absorb the impact of seeing the dead corpse through the silence of Willow, Tara, Xander, and Anya. This opening is intriguing because the rest of the sequence focuses on how the characters try to make sense of Joyce’s death through language and transference. Instead of recognizing the abject, the four friends try to maintain their place within the symbolic order.

The first example of how a character tries to maintain the symbolic order can be seen through Willow’s desire to find the proper outfit to wear. As she rummages through a pile of shirts, she talks about how she wants to be supportive for Buffy. Every shirt has some negative connotation to it. A yellow blouse would mean she was too cheerful, or as Willow puts it, it would be too “La, La, La, I don’t care.” Meanwhile, a purple blouse would be “too depressing-- like [she was] a funeral guy.” When her lover Tara tells her that purple is a royal color, Willow becomes even more dismayed in the fear that Buffy might see her acting as “the king of everything” at a time when she needs Willow’s compassion. For Willow, the only shirt that is proper to wear is her missing blue sweater, and that is only because “Joyce liked it so.” Willow’s desire to be a collected and supportive friend for Buffy can be seen as her attempt to protect the symbolic order of her reality from the abject. She does not want to feel childlike and defenseless when she sees Buffy. At one point, she cries out to Tara, “Why can’t I just dress like a grown up? Can’t I be a grown up?” In this sequence, Willow is struggling through what Julia Kristeva would call a narcissistic crisis; in other words, she is experiencing the abject (Kristeva, 14). Willow envisions herself as a supportive friend for Buffy; however, Joyce’s death has shaken her view of that role and exposed Willow to the Real. Suddenly, she is forced to think of Joyce’s mortality, and these thoughts put her in the place of child who has lost a mother figure. Willow’s weakness can also be seen in the fact that her lover Tara, who is usually the more passive of the couple, has taken on the stronger and more active role. By choosing an outfit, Willow sees herself taking on a particular part: a funeral guy, the king of everything, a grown up. Taking on a role is important for Willow because it will help her find her place in the symbolic order. By wearing the sweater that Joyce liked, Willow can pretend that Joyce will be comforted by her thoughtfulness. However, this cannot happen since Joyce is dead.

Like Willow, Xander experiences a breakdown of the symbolic order. When Xander and Anya arrive at Willow’s dormitory, he double-parks. Anya warns him that he is going to get a ticket, but Xander simply replies, “Let them give me a ticket.” By disregarding the traffic laws, Xander is ignoring the restrictions that are placed on society through Lacan’s “Name-of-the-Father.” When confronted by Joyce’s death, Xander finds that the institutions that enforce the “Name-of-the-Father” are insignificant. Xander, however, is not fully ready to give up the symbolic order; instead, he demands a reason for Joyce’s death. According to Xander, “Things don’t happen—I mean, they don’t just happen.” Through transference, Xander searches for an explanation for Joyce’s death. First, he blames Joyce’s death on the evil god Glory, who threatened to come after Buffy’s family; yet Willow reminds him that Glory would have bragged about it. When he cannot find a supernatural explanation, Xander blames the doctors for not properly checking up on Joyce after her brain surgery. By questioning the authority of the doctors, Xander is defying once again the “Name-of-the-Father.” For Xander, the doctors should have been able to protect Joyce from dying. When this did not happen, the system of the “Name-of-the-Father” lost its authority. By looking for something to blame for Joyce’s death, Xander is experiencing the abject. He rejects natural causes for her death because he fears that would make it meaningless. That is why when he finds nothing else to blame, he chooses to punch his fist through the wall. When Xander pulls his fist out of the wall and his friends examine his hand, they are looking at a form of their own materiality: an open wound. Tara looks at Xander and says, “It hurts.” These words remind him that knowing our own materiality is painful, that the abject is painful.

Whereas Willow and Xander try to create symbolic order by acting out a certain role or looking for something to blame, Anya tries to find symbolic order by asking questions. For Anya, there has to be a way to get through the pain of losing someone; she knows that humans have experienced the death of love [loved] ones throughout history. However, she becomes almost obsessed with the abject because she finds no sense or explanation for death. She keeps asking questions like, “What will we do? What will we be expected to do?” and no one gives her a satisfactory answer. She watches Xander cry and sees Willow change clothes, and she wants to know if that is the proper way to act. She also is fixated on the thought of Joyce’s body. She keeps asking if they are going to see the body. Every time Anya mentions the body, Willow shudders. Anya’s questions disturb Willow because they force her to think of Joyce’s body as a material thing. Anya proceeds to ask, “Are they gonna cut the body open?” This causes Willow to cry out, “Oh my God, will you just stop talking!…It’s not okay for you to be asking these things!” What Willow does not understand is that Anya’s questions are the result of her breakdown of reality. This 1000-year-old former demon is realizing her own mortality, and she cannot make sense of the Real. Joyce’s death makes Anya think of her own physical materially. She explains her fears when she says, “And I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well Joyce will never have any fruit punch, ever, or she’ll never have eggs, or yawn, or brush her hair. Not ever. And no one will explain to me why.”

Shortly after Anya expresses her own fears of death and asks why Joyce’s death had to happen, silence once again falls over the room. Anya goes to sit on a chair in the corner and picks up a stuffed animal to hold close. When she does this, she grabs the sweater that Willow wants to wear and stuffs it in a nearby drawer. This action goes unnoticed by Willow, showing how unimportant the blue sweater is once the question of “why this happens” has been asked. The blue sweater, even if it had been noticed, would still have been no comfort to Willow because it would not give her anymore [any more] control over the situation.

According to Julia Kristeva, “Curious primacy, where what is repressed cannot really be held down, and where what represses always already borrows its strength and authority from what is apparently very secondary: language” (Kristeva 14). [sentence fragment: improper incorporation of quotation] This sequence between Willow, Tara, Xander, and Anya shows how language is used to express the pain and fears created through the abject. Willow, Xander, and Anya want to repress their fears of death and hold on to the symbolic order through action, transference, and language; however, the Real and the abject cannot be repressed. Willow gives into the abject by crying out against Anya’s tactlessness. Xander faces the abject by looking down at his bloody hand and realizing there is nothing left to blame. Anya recognizes her own mortality by comparing Joyce’s physical condition with her own. For these characters, the loss of Joyce, a mother figure, causes them to realize their own human condition. Symbolic order and language, at times, fails because thinking about Joyce’s death forces the Real to permeate in their minds. The desire to hold on to the symbolic order remains, however, in order to help them get through the loss of their loved one and to continue living.


Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP. 1982.

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