skip to content
  • Calendar
  • Maps

Student Sample Essays


Please feel free to look at the student samples below as possible models for your own writing as you begin working on your own essays. Please note as well that these samples are not "perfect" (one of the most slippery of terms), nor are they meant to be, but they advance an interesting thesis, support their argument with sufficient evidence and research, and are generally well written. — Thank you to your fellow students for allowing us to have a glimpse at their work!


(1) McTeague: Naturalism and the Ironies of Human Aspiration


The distinction between humans and animals is a recurring topic of discussion among humans. Our human egos require that we make a distinction, and this discussion, of itself, constitutes a major distinction. Our human ability to converse, a need to interrelate in language, is a primary difference between us and other animals. Language, then, with a decidedly human element of ego-centric desire to preserve the ideas we think or vocalize, evolves in us a drive to record those ideas in a more visible form than thought, a more permanent form than speech. Humans want their thoughts and ideas to endure, but unless spoken, no one else knows we had them. Can ideas endure if silent, contained only inside one body, one mind, as corruptible as all humans have proven to be? No. And so we contrive to share our ideas through speech.

Once spoken, however, the ideas, present in the instant vocalized, evaporate almost as quickly as the moisture in the respiration required to speak the words. If the spoken words are heard by another human, they still are only as permanent as the mind or body of that hearer. Human evolution of recording or reproducing language and ideas begins, then, with hand-written language, moving through a series of escalated manipulations, each a technological improvement over the last. Thus it can be argued that dexterity—an ability to use our hands better than other animals or even that we have hands—is an essential component of the transmission of ideas and language reproduction, an essential component of humanity.

These elements of humanity—language and the ability to manipulate a record of our language-imposed ideas—however, do not exempt us from animalistic, instinctual drives. We humans, with all our delusions of superiority, especially as seen from the deterministic philosophy of naturalism, are driven from a base, atavistic center which runs beneath, subterranean to our consciousness—our surface selves, so that while we pride ourselves on our “humanity,” perhaps that station is not as elevated as we might like to think. At the very least, a consciousness of our subconscious, instinctive drives might lend a sense of groundedness as we humans bite, tear, hack, bash, bludgeon our superior selves through this existence, but then, naturalism, the context in which Norris places his characters in McTeague, allows little insight into one?s own subconscious. On the contrary, naturalism points to an instinctual, animalistic, unconscious nature of man as he is shaped by the inescapable forces of his environment. Frank Norris's McTeague: A Story of San Francisco exemplifies this philosophy of naturalism, offering stark images to illustrate the ironies of our quite possibly futile, though strenuous, efforts to distinguish ourselves from the animals.

As events develop, the characters in McTeague, initially ordinary, reasonable, only a little quirky and definitely human, begin to exhibit behaviors which can be described as deterministic and arguably animalistic. Norris gives us actual dogs in counterpoint to McTeague and Marcus. In fact, the dogs do better than the humans do when they finally confront each other. The Irish setter, Alexander, and the Scotch collie next door, always snarling through the fence, one day come face-to-face on the street. Trina cautions Miss Baker that “[t]hose two dogs hate each other just like humans” (Norris 123). The dogs circle and menace but never come to the violent clash promised through the slats of the backyard fence. Much to the disappointment of the women watching, hoping for the spectacle and entertainment of a good fight, “Alexander stalked back to the corner of the street. The collie paced toward the side gate whence he had issued, affecting to remember something of great importance. They disappeared” (Norris 123). Norris may be guilty of a touch of anthropomorphizing in this passage but to good effect. Let us compare the animals to the humans now

McTeague and Marcus, having just that morning been called to repent their differences and shake hands, resort to extreme brutality in their confrontation—a confrontation made in purported good-nature and friendly competition. While we would not have been surprised if the dogs had bitten each other, we are shocked when Marcus bites “through the lobe of the dentist?s ear” (132). In this instance we have an example of a common denominator between animals and humans: teeth and a willingness to use them. In response to the animal brutality in his rival?s behavior:

[t]he brute that in McTeague lay so close to the surface leaped instantly to life, monstrous, not to be resisted. He sprang to his feet with a shrill and meaningless clamor, totally unlike the ordinary bass of his speaking tones. It was the hideous yelling of a hurt beast, the squealing of a wounded elephant. He framed no words; in the rush of high-pitched sound that issued from his wide-open mouth there was nothing articulate. It was something no longer human; it was rather an echo from the jungle (132).

The dogs resist their animal instinct to fight, but in his fury, McTeague grabs Marcus?s arm in both hands and snaps it. Considering the behaviors of the humans in contrast with the animals characterized in this story, it is difficult to account for the human behaviors. What, then, defines human or animal?

The discussion on the distinctions between humans, admittedly members of the animal kingdom, and non-hominid animals is voluminous. It would be preposterous to try to describe that entire discussion within the parameters of this single essay, but it is relevant to speak to the basic distinctions since Norris so directly juxtaposed these images in his narrative and because making the distinction blends into the discussion on naturalism.

It can be argued that most animals do not value material things. It could never have bothered Marcus?s dog that he did not win the lottery. But I have seen the contents of a crow?s nest, and I have seen a dog protect food, a favorite bone or toy with grim dedication. My daughter?s cat was so acquisitive that if a small toy or item were to go missing or someone suddenly noticed the contents of their sock drawer had diminished, we learned to look in Shadow?s favorite corner under Kate?s bed. So the tendency toward materialism is not the distinction. Animals like things too; they want them, just as humans do.

One might submit that animals do not make war or attempt to deliberately annihilate or enslave another group of animals, but there are ant species who march on other ant colonies for acquisition of nurseries and slaves and to plunder food stores. Of course most animals do not behave in this fashion, but war, enslavement, pillaging and plundering are not exclusive to humanity.

Some might say that animals are incapable of wisdom or discretion, but my dopey cocker spaniel once gently dragged our new kitten back into the house through the open front door when he perceived that the resident humans had not noticed the problem. He had never concerned himself with her forays into the fenced backyard, and he was usually the first to take advantage of an open front door for his own walk-about adventures. So wisdom is not exclusive to humans.

It is safe, however, to state that animals have yet to exhibit a quality or sustainment of conscious abstraction, insight, synthesis, or any pursuit thereof. Non-hominid animals do not appear to grasp inner, ethereal concepts such as spirituality, the mysteries of existence, or scientific truths, nor can they apply any of these to a practice or to the development of complex technology—machines. While primates do have opposable thumbs, they still have not evolved the sustained mental focus to use their grasp for anything more complex than simple tools.

If these distinctions in the intangible realm can be attributed exclusively to humans, to what factor can they be attributed? Linguistics professor Derek Bickerton in his essay, “Resolving Discontinuity: A Minimalist Distinction between Human and Non-human Minds,” proposed, with fellow linguist William H. Calvin, that due to evolutionary selective pressures leading to “linguistic elaboration” in combination with a “factor X,” “the capacity of the brain to sustain complex coherent signals over what are (for the brain) significant time periods” (Bickerton 6) is increased. Bickerton and Calvin assert that this is a plausible explanation for the major distinction between humans and animals. In simple terms, not only is a human?s brain bigger, but we have a higher “degree of connectivity [. . .] between most brain areas” so that, through a series of factors and consequences too involved to dissect here, we developed an ability to sustain or store “in episodic memory” the things we learned. Over time, humans understood, and retained, differentiation which led to a distinction in our minds between agent/actor and goal/recipient—between subject and object. We had grammar. From protolanguage, where “utterance is completed when the speaker has finished saying whatever he wanted to say, regardless of whether any structural requirements are met,” we had evolved to structured, “modern syntacticized language” (Bickerton 5). “African grey parrots, bonobos [primates closely related to hominids], chimpanzees and orangutans can master quasi-linguistic symbolic codes and produce propositional utterances that are structurally similar to human versions of protolanguage, such as pidgin „languages? and the speech of infants” (Bickerton 5), but for whatever reason, parrots and primates, among others, missed the evolutionary selective pressures responsible for language development, “a pressure that applied [apparently, and so far] only to hominids” (Bickerton 5).

So humans developed the primary distinction of language while other animals did not. Factors which enabled sustained thought, discernment of subject versus object, thus created egoic consciousness. This egocentric human not only had a need and a desire to communicate, but a need and desire to remember, to record. It is possible to extrapolate that this factor or some combination of factors led to the use of tools to make communications visible and permanent: charcoal on a rock face, stylus in clay, and chisel on marble, evolving in some order to pencil, quill or brush and ink, mechanical pen, printing press, typewriter—manual, then electric, wordprocessor.

Development and use of such implements required opposable thumbs, but the manual dexterity to use the hands, opposable thumbs notwithstanding, for more than simple tools and tasks required sustained thought which led to language. It might also be argued that, to some extent, a specific level of egoic awareness of agency—subject action upon object—was necessary if progressively more complex tools were to be developed. But self-awareness, like the use of the hand for higher functions, is also derived from that shift in evolutionary selective pressure which favored sustained thought leading to language development in the first place.

Still, the hand and its role in the process of recording language—transcribing the thoughts and ideas into visible, tangible, audible, permanent (an imprecise use of the word since I have learned the hard way that no bit of data is permanent) forms is demonstrably inextricable from the uniquely human trait of language. In his essay “Parmenides,” Martin Heidegger declares, “Man himself acts through the hand; for the hand is, together with the word, the essential distinction of man. Only a being which, like man, „has? the word, can and must „have? „the hand.? [. . .] [T]he hand holds the essence of man, because the word as the essential realm of the hand is the ground of the essence of man” (Heidegger 1). Heidegger recognized the inextricable nature of language and dexterity as well as their exclusivity for humans. We see an ironic reversal, however, of the human versus animalistic behavior as Norris portrays the role of the human hand in McTeague.

Hands, so active in the realm of agency with which humans egotistically credit themselves, figure prominently in McTeague, but not necessarily in any sense of the humanity with which Heidegger or Bickerton imbued them. It is, perhaps, not surprising that this physical feature, among others, plays such a dominant role in Norris?s naturalism since hands highlight, so effectively, the ironies of humanity. Let us examine some of the hands found in Norris?s book.

McTeague, the dentist, for example, is repeatedly described as some variation of a “young giant, carrying his huge shock of blond hair six feet three inches from the ground; moving his immense limbs, heavy with ropes of muscle, slowly, ponderously.” Continually, some mention is made of his hands which were “enormous [. . .] hard as wooden mallets, strong as vises, the hands of the old-time car-boy” (Norris 6). While perhaps not the finest of operators, McTeague offered a brute strength: “Often he dispensed with forceps and extracted a refractory tooth with his thumb and finger. [. . .] Altogether he suggested the draught horse, immensely strong, stupid, docile, obedient” (Norris 6). Norris specifies that “there was nothing vicious about the man” (Norris 6), yet when enraged, pushed to his extremity, he uses his hands to break Marcus?s arm and, later, to bludgeon his wife, Trina, to death. Marcus?s hands warrant an examination as well.

Disappointed at losing Trina and her money to McTeague, Marcus leaves San Francisco to become a cowboy. This dream, at least, he is able to realize, even “[t]o his intense satisfaction [. . .] involv[ing] himself in a gun fight [. . .], with the result that two fingers of his left hand were shot away” (Norris 237). Twice now, Marcus has suffered damage to a handed appendage. Thus disfigured, Marcus confronts McTeague on the fifth day of his flight into Death Valley and, having the upper-hand, so to speak, orders, “Hands up!” (236, 239) in an attempt to level the playing field—using a gun as an extension of the arm more powerful, even, than McTeague?s mallet-hard fists. It is not difficult to draw the connection to a gendered aspect of hands inside the relationship between these two men, especially considering Norris?s strong feelings about hands and handwriting, so intrinsic to his own livelihood.

Norris wrote in a time when the typewriter had been in common use for a generation, yet he insisted in hand-writing his books, true manuscripts with no imposition of the machine—at least, that machine—between himself and the expression of his ideas. In his book, Enduring Words, Michael Wutz speaks to Norris?s “obsession with the scene of writing,” indicating that “his work suggests a premechanized investment in the hand and the consequent triangulation between mind, hand, and paper, that is, the compositional fluidity between conception, articulation, and self-expression” (Wutz 12). Norris?s sense of “loss of agency and authority, the loss [or injury] of limb leading to a loss of self and power,” as Wutz puts it, indicates the aforementioned gendered aspect. If, as Wutz suggests, “Writing by hand is for Norris an act of authorial mastery and aesthetic self-expression, of physical and stylistic control over the materials of writing, and a virile exercise of self-generation, and hence part of what Amy Kaplan has called the naturalist „spectacle of masculinity?” (Wutz 13), then McTeague?s deliberate injuring of Marcus?s arm—that limb which extends the hand—is a deliberate emasculation, a broken phallus. And while Marcus may have been, on some level, pleased at the tough cowboy image of losing his fingers in a gunfight, that “manual disfigure-, or, rather, disfinger-ment” would represent a further emasculation in McTeague?s eyes, and a representation of same, “the loss of agency and authority” (Wutz 12), in Norris?s estimation as well.

In consideration of hands and the importance Norris placed on them, it could be argued, then, that McTeague?s loss of licensure to practice dentistry was a turning point for him. As Miss Baker commented to Trina, “It?s just like cutting off your husband?s hands, my dear” (Norris 155). He might have been able to withstand the privations of living with a miserly wife indefinitely if not for the “loss of agency and authority” he suffered when his livelihood was taken from him through a retributive emasculation, compliments of Marcus. Having lost his authority to practice dental surgery, he “secured a position with a manufacturer of surgical instruments, where his manual dexterity in the making of excavators, pluggers, and other dental contrivances stood him in fairly good stead” (Norris159), but ultimately he was fired from that position as well, leaving him not only unable to wield the tools but even disallowed from manufacturing them.

Thus McTeague and Trina enter the final stage in their relationship where there are no more expressions of affection, no healthy physical relations, and no hope of productivity. McTeague begins to drink, Trina becomes increasingly stingy at the lack of income, and McTeague becomes abusive, sometimes extorting money from Trina by biting her finger-tips, “crunching and grinding them with his immense teeth, always ingenious enough to remember which were the sorest” (Norris 171). In Freudian terms it could be said that McTeague has reverted to an earlier, oral stage of sexuality because he feels impotent at the loss of his hands— his ability to work. It is not accidental that Norris refers to Trina and Maria?s shared confidences about their respective husbands? abusiveness as “mishandling” (Norris 172). Spousal abuse is a perversion of that for which a man?s hands were intended.

The condition of Trina?s hands, too, is an important indicator of her station and power. As long as she is able to work for her uncle, carving wooden animals for Noah?s ark, she has a certain manageable level of authority over her life, but when she loses her fingers to bite-induced infections exacerbated by contact with “non-poisonous” paint, she is reduced to “a solitary, abandoned woman, lost in the lowest eddies of the great city?s tide—the tide that always ebbs” (Norris 193). From that point on, her condition steadily ebbs to her last hiccough. She takes a job as a scrub-woman, abandons the idea of taking her money and going to live with her family, and eventually resorts to withdrawing the entirety of her principal, rendering even the inanimate gold incapable now of producing interest—essentially impotent, and taking a perverse “pleasure in the touch” (Norris 198) of the impotent gold on her naked skin.

Norris further comments on the significance of the loss of Trina?s fingers when she receives yet another letter from her mother lamenting their financial woes. Trina realizes that her family cannot help her and that they will only be a constant drain on her precious principal. More to the point, however, in her extreme and ever-growing greed, Trina does not even mourn the fact that her mother?s letter is in response to “one she herself had written just before the amputation of her right-hand fingers—the last letter she would ever be able to write” (Norris 194). While Norris portrays Trina with a marked dissociation from the idea evidenced here, a complete disregard for the loss of an important aspect of her own humanity, it is not lost on his reader that she has been divested of her individuality through the loss of her hands. She is no longer capable of the very act he, Norris, engages in by writing her—the expression of thought, of individuality. Norris notes that “One can hold a scrubbing brush with two good fingers and the stumps of two others even if both joints of the thumb are gone,” but he goes on to state that “it takes considerable practice to get used to it” (193). Through Trina?s injury, Norris has illustrated the point that although she has managed to develop the use of what remains of her hands, her quality of life is substantially diminished by her loss. The ability to use one?s hands corresponds to articulation. The mutilation of her fingers equals a loss of articulation, whether through her inability to write a letter, through her loss of dexterity—the use of her hands to work, create, provide, or finally, even as a thinking person. She has been rendered inarticulate, less than human.

Her disarticulation or “disfinger-ment” is an ultimately fatal progression of the machine?s subsumation of Trina as seen earlier when she carves only animals because she cannot compete with the turning lathe, a machine which renders human figures more efficiently than she can. This can be read as further evidence of Wutz?s assertion that Norris was indicating a “fear of technological disempowerment [. . .] in a technologized world” (Wutz 46).

Norris continues his comparison of the “technologized world” with the hand-written goodness of Selina?s letter. The ominous, oblong, official-looking letter arrives from City Hall, informing McTeague that he is “forbidden to practice his profession any longer” for lack of a “diploma from a dental college” (Norris 145). We never learn the content of Selina?s letter, so completely overwhelming is the news in the other. While Selina?s letter is in “„elegant? handwriting,” the other is “typewritten [. . .] stamped in one corner with the seal of the State of California, very official; the form and file numbers superscribed.” It falls through the mail slot, “flat-wise to the floor with a sodden, dull impact,” indicating its burden of fear and consequence; it contains “a printed form with blanks left for names and dates,” illustrating its impersonal, implacable, unremitting nature. In his book, Enduring Words: Literary Narrative in a Changing Media Ecology, author Michael Wutz points to the idea that the typewritten nature of the letter, as distinct from Selina?s handwritten message for example, accounted for part of the alienating force it represented. Wutz refers to Norris?s dramatizing of “the conflicting modes of textual production,” calling it a “discursive bifurcation [. . .]: the rupture between handwriting and typewriting” and calls attention to Norris?s “investment in his handwriting and a corresponding resistance to typewriting” (Wutz 48).

This “investment in manual embodiment” (Wutz 13) attributed to Norris explains the dominant preoccupation with bodily descriptions, especially of hands, throughout the text of McTeague. Another pointed example of a hand image is seen in Norris?s description of Zerkow. He is a Polish Jew with fiery red hair, a “dry, shriveled old man” with the “thin, eager, cat-like lips of the covetous; eyes that had grown keen as those of a lynx [. . .] and claw-like, prehensile fingers—the fingers of a man who accumulates, but never disburses” (Norris 28). He is greed personified—embodied. And as such, he is driven by his innate, hereditary nature to grasp and accumulate to his death. He has no choice in the matter as dictated by the deterministic philosophy of naturalism.

Old Grannis gives us yet another set of active hands to examine. His shyness inclines his hands to trembling or tapping nervously about his chin. He still runs an animal hospital, but his primary occupation as his veterinary practice winds down is the obsessive binding of pamphlets which he accomplishes on a machine of his own invention. When he sells his apparatus, “his happiness,” to a book-binding firm, however, he is left with nothing to occupy his hands. His hands are idle, and he is fearful that now he will have no further interaction with Miss Baker. As it turns out, the change in routine tweaks Miss Baker into bringing tea to Grannis rather than her custom of “keeping company” by having her tea so close to the wall that Grannis can hear her dress “brushing against the wall-paper” (Norris 181). Old Grannis is suddenly moved to occupy his hands in another manner, taking her hand in his. Now, “with nothing to separate them, they can finally “„keep company?” in “a little Elysium of their own creating,” walking “in a delicious garden where it [is] always autumn” (Norris 181).

Perhaps Grannis?s innate drive is to be busy, so his busy-ness—which he is powerless in this natural context to alter—keeps him happy, but alone. His one impulsive, non-instinctive act of selling the machine allows this same busy-ness to solve his loneliness, although too late in the game to be of any biologically productive consequence. At least he contributes to society at the last with his book-binding invention.

So humans might not be entirely without hope if Grannis could break, even momentarily, out of his instinct-driven manner, but even that impulse was largely unconscious on his part, not thought out or chosen. He simply behaved like a leaf on water when the ripple—the book-seller with a proposal to buy his invention—swelled under him. In each character?s hands, we are left with the sense that everything that transpired was inevitable, humanity notwithstanding. The distinction of language is moot. In a naturalist world, driven increasingly by technology, the distinction hardly matters. The humans have barely more choice in the outcome than the animals, and any power they do wield is contained entirely in a person?s ability to use his or her hands effectively.


Works Cited


Bickerton, Derek. “Resolving Discontinuity: A Minimalist Distinction between Human and Nonhuman Minds,” American Zoologist 2000, 40(6): 862-873;, 11/27/2009

Heidegger, Martin. “[On the Hand and the Typewriter],” Parmenides, trans. Andre Schuwer and Richard Rojcewicz. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1992, 80-81, 85-86., 10/12/2009.

Norris, Frank. McTeague A Story of San Francisco, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1997.

Wutz, Michael. Enduring Words: Literary Narrative in a Changing Media Ecology, The University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, 2009.


(2) Fate, Scapegoats and Accident — Oedipus Rex and The Sweet Hereafter


The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks is a modern tale about the way in which a small town reacts to a terrible tragedy. It can be viewed as a contemporary morality lesson in the same vein as the classical Greek play Oedipus. There are obviously big differences; however, the themes and the idea of catharsis through being a scapegoat are present in both works. Banks has recast the scene from ancient Thebes to the fictional upstate New York town of Sam Dent, but there is a chorus, a sage, incest and someone who shoulders the blame for the entire town. The sin of hubris has been replaced with the sins of greed, wrath and litigiousness as these sins are much more relevant to contemporary America. Banks takes a classic tale and recasts it for a modern audience. By doing so, he spans Oedipus over four characters instead of just one man. We are given the story more like modern court depositions rather than in the form of a drama. This paper will show that although many years and place separate these two works, they are actually very similar stories with only a few minor differences.

So why would a contemporary author revert back to ancient themes? Is it just that every story has been told? There seems to be more at work with The Sweet Hereafter. It seems as though he needs to use large mythological structures in order to relate a story of this magnitude. He is not the first author to do so. According to T.S. Eliot in his article, "Ulysses, Order and Myth," James Joyce also used these structures in his modernist novel Ulysses. He states that "In using the myth, in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and is ...a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history...It is, I seriously believe, a step toward making the modern world possible for art" (177-178). The use of an ancient story retold in a modern way is a way of providing meaning and structure to an otherwise meaningless story. Just as James Joyce uses the Odyssey to convey a modern story, Banks uses Oedipus.

The narrative structures of The Sweet Hereafter and Oedipus Rex are in many ways the same. Both stories are told from the point of view of the narrators, which means that there is an inherent bias already built into the tales. As Margaret Fried and Lawrence Frolik state in their article, "The Limits of Law: Litigation, Lawyers and the Search for Justice in Russell Banks' 'The Sweet Hereafter:'" "...the 'real' story is composed of subjective experience, self-serving motivation and conflicting interests" (2). In much the same way, Oedipus constantly makes us think he is smarter and better than he really is. The Chorus, too, is swayed by Oedipus' statements about his own self-worth. Even after the prophet Tiersias reveals him to be less than what he seems, the Chorus says, "But I, for my part, will never join those who blame Oedipus...We all saw how the Sphinx came against him—there his wisdom was proved. In that hour of danger he was the joy of Thebes. Remembering that day, my heart will never judge him guilty of evil action" (33). Oedipus has convinced the Chorus of his innocence, just as each narrator in Banks' novel convinces us of his or her innocence. Dolores Driscoll, the driver of the bus, states on the first page, "...when I'm wrong at least I'm wrong on the side of the angels." We have no idea whether or not she is guilty, because like the Chorus in Oedipus, we have only what we are told upon which to base our assumptions. The reader is left to cobble a composite truth from what we are told. There is no omniscient narrator to give us the entire story.

The circularity in both the world of the ancient Greeks and in Banks' novel is another reflection of the connection between these two works. According to Michael Fowler the Greeks, especially Plato, believed that "the world was constructed with geometric simplicity and elegance" and that "the sun, moon and planets...would have a natural circular motion, since that is the simplest uniform motion that repeats itself endlessly" (1). These circular ideas are demonstrated in many ways within The Sweet Hereafter. The first and most obvious way is the way in which Dolores Driscoll both starts and ends the narrative thus forming a circle. Another more subtle way is the way in which many of the characters have double-letters in their names. This causes an echoing effect. For example you have Delores Driscoll, Billy Ansel, Abbott Driscoll, Mitchell Stephens, Nichole Burnell, Wendell Walker, and Harley and Wanda Otto.

There is also all of the circular imagery that appears at the end of the novel when the town has the carnival. Delores describes the scene by saying "the Ferris wheel spun slowly, rising and falling in the distance like a giant clock. The faint music of the merry-go-round...was strangely sad to me; it was like the sound of childhoods that were gone forever but still calling mournfully back to us" (256). The circular universe that the Greeks described is very much present in the modern world of Sam Dent. It is also evident within Oedipus as Oedipus liberates Thebes from the menace of the Sphinx when he first arrives and once again liberates Thebes from the plague that he has caused in the end. As McDonald says, "The intent to move beyond a present or evade a deadly future, merely traces the path back towards the end" (147). These ancient circular structures work in both texts to provide the idea that we are all bound to some larger universe. The idea is also present in the word disaster itself – literally meaning out of sync with the stars. The cosmos are misaligned in both of these texts and the people in them are constrained to fix the problem that is causing this discord within their respective universes.

In many ways these are both the stories of the loss of innocence. Sam Dent loses its innocence when the children die. The character of Billy Ansel feels that "A town that loses its children loses its meaning" (78). In much the same way, Thebes loses its meaning as a powerful city state whose ruler defeated the Sphinx. The priest tells Oedipus that Thebes is " a ship rolling dangerously; it has lost the power to right itself and raise its head up out of the waves of death" (2). Both towns are floundering in the wake of tragedy and both are at a loss of what to do. Thebes looks to Oedipus to save it again, and Sam Dent is eventually saved by Dolores Driscoll through a ritualistic, pre-Christian, pagan scapegoating.

The stories are also similar in that they both begin after the major event associated with the plot has occurred. The accident in Sam Dent has already occurred, the plague that affects Thebes is already in motion. We are introduced into the stories and shown how the various characters are left to deal with the aftermath of these tragedies. In Oedipus, the beginnings of the story are revealed as the action continues, and it is the same way in The Sweet Hereafter. The story is not told in terms of a beginning, middle and end, but rather as a series of flashbacks and steps forward that intermingle. It seems that whenever the tragedy is this great, telling the story in the traditional manner is inadequate. An event like the bus accident or Oedipus' sin must be revealed in pieces or the emotional impact is too great. Our psyches prevent us from absorbing that much grief and sorrow at once. Both Sophocles and Banks understand this and thus present their stories in bits and pieces. This is an echo of the circularity that is in both works; Sophocles and Banks circumlocute around their subjects. Banks doubles this circularity by having Dolores narrate both the beginning and ending chapters of the book. This narration completes the circle of the novel.

Instead of one centralized tragic hero, Banks presents us with the stories of four everyday people. Perhaps this is because in modern times a man like Oedipus, who is a hero, a king, and the representative for his town, no longer exists. Or because, as David McDonald puts it in his article "The Trace of Absence: A Derridean Analysis of 'Oedipus Rex,'" "Oedipus of course is a non-person, a semiopoetic structure, a purely mythic figure and hence is both a demigod and a reification of a living consciousness, and as such a projection of the self-deconstructive forces inhabiting the self and apperceived by the self" (157). Because Oedipus is this way, Banks must create four characters that each embody some aspect of Oedipus' character. The idea of a non-person will not work in Banks' realist setting. Mitchell Stephens represents his pride, Nichole Burnell the incest, Billy Ansel the attempt to defy fate, and finally Dolores his pain, suffering and his eventual scapegoating (in many ways similar to a medieval morality play). In fact, Dolores becomes the key character, repeated twice within the narrative structure. Her name comes from the old Latin root word for pain, dolor. She represents many of the mythological structures that are at work in Banks' novel. The Chorus of Greek drama becomes all of the other citizens of Sam Dent that are not given individual voices, but are none the less felt and heard. So that while there are differences between the Greeks and Banks' story, the character structures work in much the same way.

The idea that incest is among the worst sins you can commit is prevalent in both stories. In The Sweet Hereafter, Nichole Burnell uses this idea to punish her father for committing incest with her. She lies at her deposition so that her parents will be forced to drop the lawsuit and lose out on the money they would have received. She says, "I suddenly realized that I myself—and not Daddy...could force Mr. Stephens to drop the lawsuit. I could force their big shot lawyer to walk away from the case. And Daddy would know that I did it...And because of what I knew about him, he wouldn't be able to do a thing about it afterwards" (199). As Bert Cardullo puts it in his article "Blood, Snow and Tears," "Nichole is lying but her lie, in her view, is a malignant means to a benign end: the killing of the lawsuit, for now there is no one with 'deep pockets' to sue for malfeasance" (113). Nichole knows that because of the incest her father has committed, he will be unable to speak up. Oedipus also realizes that this sin is horrible. He says, "If there is any evil worse than the worst that a man can suffer—Oedipus has drawn it for his lot" (98). In other words, Oedipus has committed the worst evil possible. Both Nichole (in terms of her father) and Oedipus realize that the sin must be punished. Nichole prevents her family from suing the town and Oedipus puts his eyes out. In both cases, the person who commits the incest is severely rebuked.

In both tales advice comes from a person who is disfigured. In Oedipus it is the blind prophet Tiresias who truly "sees" Oedipus for what he is. The Chorus leader comments that Tiresias, "The man who sees most eye to eye with Lord Apollo...and from him you might learn most clearly the truth for which you are searching" (17). In The Sweet Hereafter, Dolores's husband Abbott represents the soothsayer. Confined to a wheelchair following a stroke, Abbott is the one who pronounces the great wisdoms of the story and prevents Dolores from joining the lawsuit. Mitchell Stephens, the lawyer in the novel, says that Dolores takes Abbott's words "like Delphic pronouncements" (149). This is an obvious echo back to the Greeks and Oedipus the King in particular, since it is the oracle at Delphi who commands that Thebes be cleaned. Also Dolores feels that "he's passed so close to death he has a clarity about life that most of us can't even imagine" (3). In other words, his stroke has given him insights that the average able-bodied person lacks. It seems that both Sophocles and Banks recognize that in order to truly see the world around you for what it is; you must be physically handicapped in some way. It is only when your world is restricted physically that you become fully mentally aware of your surroundings in a manner which elevates you to a prophet, in Tiresias his blindness becomes the ability to see, in Abbott lack of clear speech leads to pronouncements.

The reactions that both Mitchell Stephens and Oedipus have to Tiersias and Abbott are the same. They both look upon the prophet with disdain and disbelief. As Robert L. Kane points out in his article "Prophecy and Perception in Oedipus Rex," "...the circumstance which has the greatest effect on his [Oedipus'] destiny is not simply that he is ignorant of the facts but that...he often acts as if he knew what he does not" (190). Mitchell Stephens's thinks that Delores heard, "what she wanted to hear" (149). Stephens acts like he knows what is best for Delores and the town of Sam Dent, just as Oedipus acts like he knows what is best for Thebes. Neither of them realizes, of course, that they are the source of the relative plagues affecting both of these towns. As Kane puts it "Believing that the situation contains what he [Oedipus] sees in it (and nothing more), he not only fails to recognize the truth when it is placed before his eyes (i.e., his guilt), but ends up 'seeing' what is not there (e.g., the 'treason' of Creon)" (191). In the same way Stephens sees that "Dolores was the ventriloquist and Abbott was the dummy" (152). Stephens is so convinced of his knowledge that he dismisses Abbott as a puppet, just as Oedipus dismisses Tiersias as a traitor.

Both the ancient Greeks and Banks share a distaste for lawyers and unnecessary litigation. In many ways Oedipus is a demonstration of the failure of the law to produce a story that satisfies all parties that are present in the story. While waiting for reliable witnesses to verify or deny his story, the plague upon Thebes continues. It is the process of the trial that leads to Oedipus accusing his brother-in-law Creon when he has committed no wrong. As Fried and Frolik point out, the great Greek philosopher Socrates felt that "a lawyer's power to persuade is merely instrumental; it is not a virtue in itself. It brings happiness to no one, not even to the lawyer, because it cannot instruct us how we ought to live" (11). Billy Ansel, Banks' grieving father, describes the lawyers' arrival:

Naturally, the lawyers fed off this need and cultivated it among people who should have known better. They swam north like sharks from Albany and New York City, advertising their skills and intentions in the local papers, and a few even showed up at the funerals, slipping their cards into the pockets of mourners as they departed from the graveyard, and before long that segment of the story had begun—the lawsuits and all the anger and nastiness and greed that people at their worst are capable of (74).

The lawyers represent the greed and the worst of human nature for Banks. They are akin to parasites, feeding off of the tragedy of the bus accident. The lawyers become the catalyst for the community of Sam Dent turning on one another. They are become representative of the evils of litigiousness. The hatred for lawyers and what they do is obviously present in both works. We see that the system has failed both the people of Sam Dent and the people of Thebes. In the end, the courts and lawyers cannot provide the closure that these towns seek. It must come from the sacrifice of an individual. Abbott Driscoll sums it up when he says, "The true jury of a person's peers is the people of her town. Only they, the people who have known her all her life, and not twelve strangers, can decide her guilt or innocence. And if...she has committed a crime, then it's a crime against them, not the state, so they are the ones who must decide her punishment too" (151). This is in many ways similar to how the Chorus functions in Greek drama. Both Banks and Sophocles realize that the town is the ultimate decider in these matters. Since they are the ones that have been wronged, they are the ones that have to pass judgement.

The idea that society must be righted in the face of crisis also comes through in both of these stories. In the article "Oedipus Pharmakos? Alleged Scapegoating in Sophocles' 'Oedipus the King,'" R. Drew Griffith states that, "Society must respond to the crisis in order to return to its normal state, and this response...inevitably takes the form of the scapegoating mechanism" (96). In other words, the plague in Thebes and the bus accident that kills the children must both be answered by the creation of a scapegoat. Someone must take the blame for these tragedies. The idea of a blameless accident is one that cannot be accepted. A world without reason is intolerable: "To many, an unjust universe is more tolerable than a senseless one" (Fried and Frolik 6). According to Mitchell Stephens, Banks' lawyer, there are no such things as accidents (91). Thus someone is always to blame. We need the psychological release that a scapegoat provides.

One of the biggest similarities comes with the punishment, both literal and figurative, of the scapegoat of these two stories. According to R. Drew Griffith, "It is of prime importance that the scapegoat is chosen 'for inadequate reasons...and that he is completely innocent of the charges brought against him. This is true even though his persecutors are acting in good faith and believe him to be guilty" (97). This is part of the This is especially true in the case of Dolores Driscoll, who becomes the scapegoat in The Sweet Hereafter. In the case of Oedipus the scapegoat is himself. David McDonald says that "Oedipus is the scapegoat for Apollo...Oedipus stands in for the guilt as well as the glory of a god" (156). Although he is indeed guilty of killing his father and marrying his mother, he commits these acts in ignorance; therefore, when he chooses himself as a scapegoat he does so out of a sense of duty to his subjects, rather than a sense of guilt. He accepts the blame for his misdeeds and puts his eyes out. By doing so, he alleviates Thebes of its curse and life goes on. In The Sweet Hereafter, Dolores becomes the scapegoat, but it is her car, Boomer, who, in a form of displacement, receives the punishment. Boomer is entered into a demolition derby and as the car is battered, the townsfolk cheer. Boomer becomes the symbolic equivalent Oedipus' eyes and he is the recipient of the physical punishment that Dolores, the scapegoat, cannot receive in modern times. As Fried and Frolik put it:

Through the microcosm of Sam Dent, Banks reveals the fundamental belief that justice means the punishment of the guilty. Without an identifiable guilty party, there can be no justice, no resolution, and no healing. Someone must be guilty and therefore punishable if life's equilibrium is to be restored. By the identification of the car Boomer with Dolores, the demolition derby achieves a communal satisfaction beyond the law proper. The derby in all its ritualism proves to be a cathartic, quasi-legalistic purification that is a formal outlet for the town's pent up emotions (18).

Dolores becomes her namesake. She becomes the representation of pain for the entire town.

What both Sophocles and Banks make clear is that there is a catharsis to be had by being the scapegoat. After Billy Ansel reveals that Dolores has been blamed for the accident, she says, "I remember feeling relieved, but that's a weak word for it. Right away, without thinking once about it, I felt as if a great weight that I had been lugging around for eight or nine months, since the day of the accident, had been lifted from me" (247). Oedipus too, takes comfort in his suffering. He says, "The evil is mine; no one but me can bear its weight" (100). There is an understanding that by accepting the blame, Dolores and Oedipus have both freed their towns from further destruction and ruin. In an interview, Russell Banks said about Dolores's scapegoating:

If you look at in terms of archetype and ritual and universal concepts of social order, you can see that a scapegoat, from the point of view of the scapegoat, is a legitimate and ultimately relieving and transcendent experience. It resolves conflict rather than creating it. If the conflict is one that produces anxiety and suffering, such as the one Dolores is in, then becoming a scapegoat is a way of eliminating that suffering. And that's what occurs at the end of The Sweet Hereafter: Dolores becomes a scapegoat; the town recognizes her as such, and that relieves her of a kind of suffering that she's experienced up to that point (Wylie, 9-10).

In the case of Thebes, ruin from famine and plague, and in the case of Sam Dent ruin in the form of lawsuits which would have eventually caused the town to fall apart.

The description that Mitchell Stephens gives of the plagues that are affecting the youth of America is similar to a description that the Chorus in Oedipus gives of the suffering that is affecting Thebes. Stephens speaks of the modern pestilence "violent on the streets, comatose in the malls, narcotized in front of the TV" (99). There is also the idea that Stephen's daughter Zoe, suffers from the biggest plague of our modern world—AIDS. In the world of Oedipus, these plagues include sickness, pain, death and unripe and unharvestable crops (12). While the pain is different, the message is the same. Something is causing these infections in society.

The idea that fate and/or the greater forces of nature manipulate man is evident in both works. Mitchell Stephens feels the pull of the world that surrounds Sam Dent: " feel simultaneously surrounded by the darkness and released into a world much larger than any you've dealt with before. It's a landscape that controls you, sits you down and says, Shut up, pal, I'm in charge here" (93). Fate and the Gods operate in much the same way in Oedipus. The Chorus states, "May destiny be with me always" (60). The main lesson of Oedipus Rex is that destiny is with you always. All of the things that Oedipus does to prevent himself from fulfilling the prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother (leaving Corinth, going to Thebes), lead him to doing just that. Just as the landscape of Sam Dent seems to control the people, so does the fate of Oedipus control him.

There are some significant differences between these stories as well. While the people of ancient Greece seemed resigned to accept their fates, the same is not true of modern New York. One of the lessons that Sophocles seems to want to illustrate is that once the Gods design your fate, you are committed to that ending. It is when Oedipus tries to resist his fate that he ends up fulfilling the prophecy. The residents of Sam Dent are not willing to believe that everything is predestined. Many of them question whether or not a God exists, let alone many Gods. As Billy Ansel, who loses his twins in the accident, says, "...the Christian perspective came to seem downright cruel to me, because I learned that death touched everyone...I had come to be the reverse, the opposite of a Christian" (80). Yet the idea of a pure accident is an uncomfortable one. Mitchell Stephens explains, "There are no accidents. I don't even know what the word means, and I never trust anyone who says he does" (91). The idea of a random universe is unsettling, but the townspeople are also not willing to accept the notion that everything is predetermined. Thus, Banks' reveals what is at the heart of the modern dilemma. We do not want to believe that fate controls us, but we also do not want to live in pure chaos. This is in part what the novel addresses; our need to make sense out of the horribleness of life in the absence of the fate that directs Oedipus. This is also addressed in the film The Sweet Hereafter, in the opening scene in which Stephens is stuck in a car wash. By accident of it breaking down he is now at the mercy of modern technology. He may not believe in accident, but that does not make him immune to them.

Even though fate directs Oedipus, Apollo himself is noticeably absent.  Yet as McDonald points out, "The god who remains absent throughout is a decisive force in shaping the form of the whole: shaping the timely presence of appearances, entrances, prophecies and reports from the spaces beyond the present" (151). So that even though he is absent, Apollo's presence is very much felt. This is very different from the God that may or may not exist for Banks' characters. They feel no presence of a God. The absence of Apollo does work to make Oedipus a more human drama, rather than one that relies on a deus ex machina to continue the action of the plot. In this way, Oedipus is a much more modern drama than many of its contemporaries. Fate is a an unavoidable in the world of the Greeks, while accident is out of the control of everyone, including the Gods. Accidents are random and fate is not. This is the major difference between these two works.

So what is the point? Why should we care if these two stories are similar? Because it proves that within the scope of human tragedy, the things that mattered thousands of years ago still matter today. In the end, as different as these two stories are, they are also very similar. The themes of incest, punishment, scapegoats and catharsis are present in both of them. In many ways, The Sweet Hereafter is a retelling of the Oedipus story, with the protagonist divided among four separate characters. The modern tragedy is in, of course, the loss of the lives of fourteen children in a bus accident, but the same basic principles are there. The wrongs of a town cannot go unpunished, yet there is relief in the unburdening. Oedipus feels it after he puts his eyes out, and Dolores feels it after Boomer is battered. They have achieved the protection of their town and their community at the cost of bearing the brunt of the blame for its downfall. They achieve the catharsis that Aristotle insisted was the key to a tragedy. Somehow, we too also feel a sense of relief in their unburdening. This modern, realist novel and ancient Greek drama are connected in the end result that they produce. They force us to see that society needs a scapegoat in order to deal with the tragedy of accident or the plague of sin.


Works Cited


Banks, Russell. The Sweet Hereafter.  New York: Harper Perennial, 1991.

Cardullo, Bert. "Blood, Snow, and Tears." The Hudson Review. Spring, 1999. 107-114. Weber State Library, Ogden, UT. 10 Jan 2008.

Eliot, T.S. "Ulysses, Order and Myth." Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. Ed. Frank Kermode. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. and Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1975.

Fowler, Michael. "How the Greeks Used Geometry to Understand the Stars." Greek Astronomy. 1995. University of Virginia. 21 Apr 2007.

Fried, Margaret J. and Lawrence A. Frolik. "The Limits of Law: Litigation, Lawyers and the Search for Justice in Russell Banks' The Sweet Hereafter." Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature. Spring — Summer, 1995:1-29. Stewart Library, Weber State University, Ogden, UT. 16 Jan 2008.

Griffith, R. Drew. "Oedipus Pharmakos? Alleged Scapegoating in Sophocles' 'Oedipus the King.'" Phoenix. Summer 1993: 95-114. JSTOR. Stewart Library, Weber State University, Ogden, UT. 9 Apr. 2008.

Kane, Robert L. "Prophecy and Perception in the Oedipus Rex." Transactions of the American Philological Association. Vol. 105, 1975: 189-208. JSTOR. Stewart Library, Weber State University, Ogden, UT. 9 Apr. 2008.

McDonald, David. "The Trace of Absence: A Derridean Analysis of 'Oedipus Rex.'" Theater Journal. May 1979: 147-161. JSTOR. Stewart Library, Weber State University, Ogden, UT. 9 Apr. 2008.

Sophocles. Oedipus the King. New York: Washington Square Press: 1962. Translated by Bernard M.W. Knox.

Wylie, J.J. "Reinventing Realism: An Interview with Russell Banks." Michigan Quarterly Review. Fall 2000: 1-16.

Let's Connect!

mwutz@weber.eduPhone  801-626-7011
Skype  michaelwutz007

LebenslaufCurriculum Vitae
Weber – The Contemporary West
Follow Me On Facebook Follow Me On Twitter

Mailing Address


Michael Wutz, Brady Presidential Distinguished Professor
Editor, Weber - The Contemporary West
Department of English, 1404 University Circle
Weber State University
Ogden, UT 84404-1404 USA