Sample Abstracts

Below are links to some sample abstracts that I've written for past conference presentations. These examples are about 500 words in length and fit on one page, single-spaced. They all follow a similar format: the introductory paragraph generally introduces the topic and may include the thesis claim of the paper; a second (and sometimes a third) paragraph outlines the trajectory of the argument, naming examples or texts which will be discussed; and a final paragraph offers provisional conclusions and contains the thesis if it was not presented in the introductory paragraph. (Also note that each is tailored to the topic or theme of the panel or conference -- not a concern for your assignment, but one that you should keep in mind when submitting abstracts for consideration for presentation.)

"Sex, Books, and Patriarchy: Modernism on Trial in Byatt's Babel Tower"

Karin E. Westman, College of Charleston

As the third installment in her projected tetralogy about British culture at mid-century, A.S. Byatt's Babel Tower (1996) investigates the opposing forces of individual freedom and institutional control during the 1960s, beginning with the written word. The struggle of Byatt's heroine, Frederica, to tell her story to the divorce court runs in counterpoint to the prosecution of the novel's inter-narrative, Babbletower: A Tale for Children of Our Time, under the Obscene Publications Act of 1959. If this latter "Tale," a dystopian satire heavily influenced by the Marquis de Sade, warns the reader against the excesses of individual desire, Frederica's "fairy tale," as she calls it, warns the reader of the excesses of patriarchy lurking within the so-called freedom of the 1960s. Provided with alternating scenes of Frederica's marriage and the utopian experiment of La Tour Bruyarde during the first half of the novel, Byatt's readers are in a position to judge the failings of both experiments as well as sympathize with their goals. However, any debate over the abstract ideas of freedom and control in Frederica's tale quickly disappear: we discover that Frederica is trapped within a cultural narrative of marriage which she thought to be her liberation.

Byatt's use of metafiction to tell Frederica's story encourages us to question, along with Frederica, the "masculine" Modernist narratives of Lawrence and Forster, and to value in their place a feminist strategy built around story-telling and multiple narratives. While teaching Lawrence and Forster for an extra mural class as she prepares for her trial, the bookish Frederica discovers that their narratives should be tried and convicted. The divine "Oneness" which both authors claim for personal relationships has not liberated Frederica's body from the pressure of culturally freighted words, as their novels suggested; rather, the myth that one can "only connect" ultimately diminished the multiplicity of her self, body and mind. Telling her own fractured fairy tale for the courts and experimenting in private with avant-garde decoupage, Frederica realizes she could "accept the fragments, layers, tesserae of mosaic, particles," "[t]hings juxtaposed but divided" (315), rather than feeling the need to cede authorial control to a central narrative voice, a patriarchal grammar.

By emphasizing the telling of tales and how language matters in political and personal ways, the narrative structure of Babel Tower (1996) suggests that A. S. Byatt has more in common with her experimental contemporaries Jeannette Winterson and Angela Carter than her oft-cited alligence to George Eliot's nineteenth-century realism would indicate. Purposefully and productively postmodern, Byatt presents multiple narratives to her readers in Babel Tower, with an ear towards the politics of narration and the teller of the tale. Never relinquishing complete narrative authority, Byatt nonetheless encourages her readers to question the stories she presents, juxtaposed as they are one against the other. The novel's intertwining tales leave the reader considering the relationship between its many stories, and wondering how we can revise the existing cultural narrative of history.

"'History in Live Performance': Revising History's Script in Roy's The God of Small Things"

Karin E. Westman, College of Charleston

While reviewers such as Alex Clark of The Guardian feel "Roy's big theme is inexorability, and how individuals often unwittingly contribute to the relentless progress of events which comes later to seem as their fate," my paper will argue that Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things (1997) emphasizes the performance of those events to illustrate the possibility of challenging, if not immediately changing, the course of History. Roy's novel does invest "History" with the power to shape characters' lives, but through metaphor, allegory, and non-linear narrative form, her novel encourages readers to see "History" as a script written by those in power for others to enact. Through this very construction comes a possibility for change.

Chako's metaphor for India's post-colonial history -- "history was like an old house at night," "the ancestors whispering inside," but from "which we have been locked out" by the Anglo enemy (51-2) -- has a literal referent for the seven-year old twins, Rahel and Estha: they think of the History House across the river, once owned by "Ayemenem's own Kurtz" (51), its beauty now fallen into disrepair. This History House is the stage from which their divorced mother Ammu and the Untouchable family servant Velutha challenge the Love Laws, but their brief attempt to re-script India's caste system fails. The History House in turn becomes the stage from which the young Rahel and Estha watch the police, "history's henchmen," "collect the dues from those who broke [History's] laws" (293) through their violent, ultimately fatal, beating of Velutha.

The tragic result of Ammu and Velutha's challenge to the Love Laws would seem to insist not only upon a determining link between private acts and public histories, but to identify their attempt to usurp the authoritative script as quixotic. But if the events at the History House represent "human history masquerading as God's Purpose" -- "History in live performance" (293) -- then Roy's narrative insists upon the human authors of that script: the twins' aunt, Baby Kochmama, with the help of a willing police department. The "inexorable" force of History exists, but it is not absolute, and its power comes from the power of narrative, not fate. And it is not where Roy ends her story: on the last page, we read not of their impending deaths, but of Ammu and Velutha imagining their next meeting, "tomorrow."

"Keeping It Local, Keeping It Real: Global Capitalism, American Culture,

and British Identity in Zadie Smith's White Teeth"

Karin E. Westman, Kansas State University

My paper will explore the intersection of global marketing and Smith's study of British culture in her novel White Teeth (2000). While the novel's mimetic representation of a multi-ethnic London at the turn of the 21st century might at first glance encourage its free circulation in the global market place, Smith tethers her characters to a particularly British past and present. Smith's continual re-insertion of the novel into a British context further emphasizes the novel's connection to a national, rather than international, identity. Keeping it local -- in Cricklewood, in Willisden, in London -- allows Smith to keep it real.

Smith and her novel have received a warm welcome inside and outside her home country, fulfilling the promise her editor, Simon Prosser of Hamish Hamiliton (part of Penguin UK), was banking on: "What we saw was this work that appealed to anyone, regardless of age, gender or political position" (Russo), Prosser explains, when asked about Penguin's willingness to purchase the rights to Smith's first book for an unheard of sum. That the prestigious Andrew Wylie agency signed Smith to their ranks alongside Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie signaled to the literary press at home and abroad that Smith would be an international star. Going global, however, demanded losing some of the complexities of British life for which the novel's narrative is often praised: while UK dust jackets featured a rich mosaic of pink, turquoise, and gold textures reminiscent of a sari, the United States and other countries received a pure white dust jacket for the mosaic within. To be a British woman writer marketed abroad also cast Smith alongside "the infamous British 'lad lit' of Martin Amis, Irvine Welsh, Will Self, Nick Hornby et al" (O'Grady), a rare woman -- and a Black British woman at that -- amidst this white male club. In America, in order separate her work from the successful British export Helen Fielding, Smith took pains to pre-empt inevitable comparisons between her work and the "chick-lit" ("Face to Face") of the best-selling Bridget Jones's Diary, a genre for which Smith has little regard (O'Grady). When approached by Hollywood execs for the film rights to her novel, Smith declined their lucrative offers, granting permission for a miniseries to the BBC and the Independent Company Television instead: she believes these British organizations will retain "the integrity of her work" ("Willisden to Whitbread"). Smith's resistance to the pressures of the international marketplace suggests that the novel's and the author's global circulation, particularly in America, undermines their artistic aims rather than advancing them.

The narrative of White Teeth itself already resists this degree of circulation within the global marketplace. If the genealogies of people, places, and things in Smith's novel reveal a multi-ethnic legacy transmuted into a vibrant and often contentious present, it is the British past and present which Smith emphasizes in her novel. The novel raises the spectres of Britain's colonial and imperial past upon the world of her characters but does so to link those spectres to their current lives as Britons. The narrative's relationship to American culture, while more complicated, still accentuates a British experience and incorporation of America into British culture. The Britishness of the narrative stands out to the British reader: a Guardian reviewer declares White Teeth to be "perhaps the best novel ... we have ever read ... about contemporary London" (qtd in "Willesden to Whitbread"), while a West Indian Muslim who lives in London, NW10 posted to that he sees the novel as "a window into the life of the community where I have made my home." Smith's emphasis on multiculturalism, then, serves to emphasize the novel's investigation into contemporary British identity -- a focus that even the American dust-jacket cannot white-wash away.

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