Sample Paper or Exam Topics

Teaching Jane Austen and the Male Romantic Poets
Sample Paper or Exam Topics

Beth Lau
California State University, Long Beach

Below are some topics I have used for papers (usually 5-7 pages) or exam essays in my “English Literature of the Romantic Period” course for upper-division undergraduates. The topics could also be used for discussion prompts or small-group assignments. The two Austen novels I have used in this class are Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, but instructors may be able to apply the topics listed to other Austen works. In addition, they may think of other works by male (or female) Romantic writers that could be treated with these topics.

In my directions, I tell students that the questions included in each topic are meant to help them generate ideas, but all of the questions do not necessarily need to be addressed in their essays and some questions may be more relevant than others depending on which works and issues they choose to explore. Also, for each topic students are asked to treat only two writers and no more than four works total (for example, one Austen novel and one, two, or at most three poems by one poet).

In my Romantic Period class, students write a final term paper for which they generate their own topics (according to guidelines I establish) and use outside sources. The topics listed here I have used for either a first paper or a final exam, for which students are asked to draw on evidence from the primary texts, any secondary works assigned for the course, and points brought up in class discussions, but not outside research.

  1. Analyze the treatment of gender roles and male/female relationships in two of the following writers. How are men and women represented by each writer: what are their needs, desires, opportunities, duties, etc.? To what extent does each writer conform to conventional depictions of male and female roles and to what extent do they challenge or undermine these? If problems exist in male/female roles or relationships, who or what is to blame (eg., the man, the woman, another person, society, education, etc.)? Do the writers suggest that problems between men and women can be resolved‑‑if so, how? What overall attitudes toward love, sexuality, and/or gender roles does each writer express? Compare and contrast.

    • Austen, Pride and Prejudice
    • Byron, Don Juan
    • Keats, La Belle Dame sans Merci; The Eve of St. Agnes; Lamia
    • Hemans, The Indian Woman’s Death Song; Properzia Rossi; Casabianca
  2. A number of writers we have studied may be said to express conflicts in their works between two belief or value systems that may be variously characterized as idealism and realism, romance and reality, faith and skepticism, optimism and pessimism, emotional and rational, or the like. Choose two writers (between two and four works total) and explore the conflicts between different values or points of view in their works. How would you define and characterize the competing belief or value systems; how are these expressed (eg., through contrasting characters, changes undergone or inner debates experienced by a central character or speaker, symbols or image patterns, etc.)? Does one value system or point of view predominate; do both remain in tension or conflict; or is a healthy balance achieved? Compare and contrast.

    • Austen, Sense and Sensibility
    • Byron, Don Juan
    • Shelley, Hymn to Intellectual Beauty; Ode to the West Wind; To a Skylark; Ozymandias; England in 1819; A Song: Men of England
    • Keats, Ode to Psyche, Ode to a Nightingale, Ode on a Grecian Urn, Ode on Melancholy, To Autumn
  3. Many of the Romantic works you have read reflect conflict over the merits of solitude and individualism versus relationships and commitment to the human community. Choose between two and four works (total) from two authors and explain how each treats this issue. What are the attractions of solitude and/or commitment to others in each work (solitude may involve rejection of the human community in favor of some spiritual, otherwordly companionship); what are the dangers or drawbacks of either condition; does the author value one state over the other, reflect ambivalence, or change opinions in the course of his/her career? Compare and contrast.

    • Wordsworth: Tintern Abbey; Ode: Intimations of Immortality; Elegaic Stanzas; Expostulation and Reply, The Tables Turned (treat as one work); any of the Lucy poems; I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud
    • Coleridge: Frost at Midnight; The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
    • Austen, Sense and Sensibility
    • Byron: Fare Thee Well; Manfred
    • Percy Shelley: Alastor; or The Spirit of Solitude; Hymn to Intellectual Beauty; To a Skylark
    • Keats: The Eve of St. Agnes; La Belle Dame sans Merci; Ode to a Nightingale; Ode on a Grecian Urn; Ode to Melancholy; To Autumn
    • Mary Shelley: Frankenstein
  4. Many Romantic writers explore stages of human growth or a process which may be characterized variously as maturation or as a fall from innocence to experience (which may in turn be either a fortunate or an unfortunate fall). Compare the treatment of this topic in two Romantic writers, analyzing between two and four works total. How are the different stages of life characterized; is the passage from youth to maturity or innocence to experience regarded as growth, decline, or some combination of the two? If problems occur in any of the stages of life, who or what is to blame (eg., the individual, society, the natural or supernatural order)? Do the works provide solutions to problems or suggest that a healthy and happy adult state is possible? Does the gender of the writer make a difference in the treatment of youth and adulthood?

    • Blake: Songs of Innocence and Experience (no more than three poems total)
    • Wordsworth: Tintern Abbey, Intimations Ode, We Are Seven, Simon Lee, She dwelt among the untrodden ways, Three years she grew, A slumber did my spirit seal, It is a beauteous evening
    • Coleridge: Christabel, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
    • Wollstonecraft: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
    • Austen: Pride and Prejudice
  5. Nature—meaning both the natural world and natural human impulses, as opposed to modes of thinking, feeling, and behaving imposed by human culture--is important in the works of many Romantic writers. Explore the role of and attitude toward nature and the natural in two writers, treating between two and four works total. What values are associated with nature; how is it opposed to human institutions or traditions; are nature and natural impulses portrayed as good, bad, or some mixture? To what extent does the writer celebrate the natural and to what extent does he or she advocate activities and values associated with civilization and human culture (such as reason, study of past writers, books, self-discipline and restraint of emotions, acceptance of human authorities, institutions, and traditions, etc.)? Compare and contrast.

    • Wordsworth: Tintern Abbey, Intimations Ode, We Are Seven, Expostulation and Reply,
    • The Tables Turned (can treat both poems as one work), She dwelt among the untrodden ways, Three years she grew, A slumber did my spirit seal, I wandered lonely as a cloud, Composed upon Westminster Bridge, It is a beauteous evening, The world is too much with us
    • Coleridge: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Kubla Khan, Christabel, This Lime-Tree
    • Bower My Prison
    • Wollstonecraft: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
    • Austen: Pride and Prejudice
    • Keats: On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer, On Sitting Down to Read King Lear
    • Once Again, Ode to a Nightingale, Ode on a Grecian Urn, To Autumn
    • Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
  6. Many Romantic writers challenged the traditional, hierarchical social system, which assumes that some people (upper classes, men) are inherently superior to others (lower classes, women) and embraced an egalitarian, meritocratic outlook, which emphasizes the rights and of all people and the worth of each individual's thoughts, feelings, and experiences. A meritocratic outlook also demands that people be judged on their individual characteristics, not on the basis of the position in life into which they are born or other arbitrary matters of appearance, gender, etc. Compare the egalitarian concepts expressed by two of the following writers and no more than four works total. Consider both content (theme, plot characters, direct statements, etc.) and style (language, genre, tone, etc.). What democratic or egalitarian ideals are expressed; how radical or far‑reaching is the author's vision; does the writer express any ambivalence or contradictions in his/her attitudes toward equal vrs. hierarchical or democratic vs. elitist relationships?

    • Wordsworth: Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Simon Lee, We Are Seven
    • Coleridge: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
    • Wollstonecraft: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
    • Austen: Pride and Prejudice
    • Shelley: Ozymandias; England in 1819; A Song: Men of England

    The following two topics refer only to Pride and Prejudice, but they treat issues that could easily be explored in other Romantic works as well.

  7. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth realizes she has been mistaken in her assessment of Mr. Darcy’s (as well as Mr. Wickham’s) character and undergoes a change in her own personality and behavior. Do Elizabeth’s errors and eventual change chiefly involve the intellect or the heart; does she learn to reason more accurately or become more emotional? Do her emotions initially get in the way of her judgment or does her intellect initially impede her emotions? Or, do you believe Elizabeth’s errors and change involve both head and heart in equal measures?

  8. Does Pride and Prejudice advocate “family values” or are characters presented chiefly as autonomous individuals? To what extent is the family collective important as a source of identity and duty? To what extent are personal fulfillment and relationships formed outside the family of primary importance? Must the family to some extent be rejected in order for the individual to develop his or her autonomous identity, or are family ties considered indissoluble? Are family members and family relationships portrayed chiefly in a positive or negative light? Does the novel consistently advocate one position over the other; does it recommend a balance of commitment to family and individual autonomy; is its point of view conflicted?


Below is a sample outline of main points I have used as a handout to give students an idea of how to approach and organize a comparison essay on topics such as those listed above. This outline responds to topic #4. I emphasize that many other points besides these could be made about Wordsworth’s poem and Austen’s novel.

Both Wordsworth in “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” and Austen in Pride and Prejudice depict a process of maturation or growth from youth to adulthood.

Wordsworth celebrates childhood as the preferred state. The child is wise and closest to divinity; he perceives the divine in nature. For Austen, by contrast, youth is characterized by foolishness and lack of virtue (especially selfishness). Lydia, the youngest Bennet, and childish Mrs. Bennet illustrate these flaws. Also Elizabeth is flawed initially and gains greater reasoning ability and judges less by her own self-interest after she reads Darcy’s letter and matures.

Although Wordsworth and Austen differ in which stage each values, we can see a similarity in that both go against gender stereotypes for their time: Wordsworth as a man celebrating childhood and nature; Austen as a woman valuing maturity, sound reasoning, knowledge of self and others.

Another similarity is that maturity for both Wordsworth and Austen involves greater closeness to other people than the youthful state. Wordsworth finds “soothing thoughts that spring / Out of human suffering” and appreciates the “human heart.” As he loses contact with the divine, he gains closer connection to other mortals. Elizabeth in P&P becomes less detached as she matures, relaxes her defensive wit, and risks emotional engagement with Darcy.

In conclusion, both Wordsworth and Austen explore changes that occur as individuals grow older and mature. They differ on which state they consider the wisest and most virtuous, Wordsworth preferring childhood and Austen adulthood. Nonetheless, they are alike in that both challenge traditional gender roles for their time. In addition, both agree that maturity brings greater closeness to other human beings.