Literature and Place

a blog

Sample essays

Here are two fascinating essays composed by upper-level students at the University of Sydney (Australia) for a history course called “Writing Place: Land, Memory, and Place in History.” Though we’ll be focusing on literary analysis rather than historical analysis, academic essays about literature often include historical research. You may want to skim the blog posts for each “unit” on the “Writing Place” site to get a sense of how these students apply concepts of “space” and “place.” Consider how their approach compares to the way we are considering these concepts in our class. (Note, too, that they always cite sources that they refer to in their blog posts. While you are not required to use resources outside of Introduction to Fiction and Space and Place for your own posts, including citations at the end of a response is a very good habit to get into.) 

This semester we’ll be describing how space and place shape our understanding of literature, and how authors use the concepts of space and place to develop plots and characters, and to craft a “point of view.” While these sample essays (below) were written for the history course described above, they fluidly incorporate secondary source research in order to present developed, sophisticated, and intriguing discussions, touching on many of the ideas about the relationship between space and place that Tuan proposes in his book. In this way, they will provide you with one set of models for your final research paper.

“A Place Within: Historicising the Womb as Inner Space,” Heather McIntyre (2005) 

“While representations of the womb-as-place implicate the mother, the foetus and the scientific gaze, ultimately, attempts to comprehend the womb as place reveal little about an embodied experience of the womb, and less about the foetus’s experience an adult intellect makes up for, fills in for, the amnesia of infancy.’ They ‘suggest the urgency of the desire to reclaim that essential fragment of personal history’ which relates to our origins. Above all, then, representations of the womb reveal to us the importance of place to human identity. In the end, each of the subjects who attempt to understand the womb-as-place constructs a narrative of self-creation, attempting to re-experience a place lost to each of us at birth” (McIntyre 15).


Read the full essay here:

“Monticello,” Jack Sexton (notice how the tone and structure of this excerot from Sexton’s essay differs from McIntyre’s…)

“Another complicated vision of Monticello is found in a kind of prose poem published in 2003. It is both a short story and a non-fiction reflective piece, with the narration going back and forth in time between a contemporary tour of Monticello, and imaginary scenes from the life of the plantation’s slaves. The piece was published in Callaloo, a journal produced by Johns Hopkins University for African and African-American writers. The author was Vesper Osborne, a black woman:

Monticello, ‘little mountain’ in Italian, was home – refuge – for Jefferson and the white family born of his flesh and blood. For the slave, Monticello was an invisible cage. A prison. An existence with no choices, no voice…Monticello inspires and angers me, simultaneously. I am torn between the ideal of a free democracy and the reality of slavery. Monticello is majestic, elegant, but a symbol of the sweat and toil of my slave ancestors…Monticello you are magnificent. Monticello, you are a sorrow.

 The writing may be overblown; yet it reflects a movement of recent years which, though it may not have tarnished Monticello as a national monument, has at least made its place in the American imagination more ambiguous. Certainly, Osborne is hardly a ‘popular’ writer, and her work was probably read by only a handful of Americans. But the story of Sally Hemmings, the slave Thomas supposedly had children with, has become part of popular culture since a DNA test in 1998 suggested the descendents of Hemmings had Jefferson blood in their veins” (Sexton 11). 

Read the full essay here:

As we read through pieces of short fiction this semester, try to imagine actual places and spaces addressed in the stories that you might want to research in more depth for your final paper. When I say “actual places and spaces,” I mean I’d like you to consider places and spaces that are central to the plot, character develpment, and point of view of the stories and then categorize them. For example, if you were writing about A&P, your research might discuss supermarkets, their design, and how such a space/place allows one to cultivate a particular experiential perspective (i.e. the separation of space into long aisles, the encounter with cashiers across a conveyer belt, the way differnet types of shoppers move through such a space). You might research various supermarket layouts and discuss how architects cater to clientele of a certain socioeconmoic class through the way they design such a space. Then you would want to consider your research in the light of the short story in order to expand your analysis. How is an “experiential perspective” expressed by Updike’s narrator? How is such a perspective determined by specific aspects of the space/place of the supermarket?  

It’s never too early to start thinking about your final paper! You may approach me about this at any time. You should also begin to compose your weekly blog posts with this ultimate aim in the back of your mind, as one of these posts could be the foundation for a 10-page research paper…

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