Tag Archives: against-the-grain arguments

Spring 2021, Thesis

The Hypocrisies of Wonka’s Chocolate World: Flipping Dahl’s Story Inside Out

In a Tortoiseshell: In the following introduction and excerpted body paragraphs from her final Writing Seminar paper on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Paige Min adopts an against-the-grain argument. She complicates the mainstream understanding of the text, namely that good children like Charlie who resist capitalistic temptations are rewarded while bad children who succumb to their desires are not. Paige frames her motive and thesis by orienting the reader to this common argument. Based on a close reading of the text, she argues that the story actually normalizes dangerous elements of capitalism and teaches children to blindly accept authority.  Continue reading


Tortoise Tuesday: The seeds of an essay — in praise of personal motive

[CW: sexual violence]

Throughout my time at Princeton, one significant change I’ve noticed in my writing is in the way I think about motive. Like many people coming into Writing Sem., I was initially confused about motive and especially about the relationship between different kinds of motive. Once I had a stronger grasp on these lexicon terms, I focused mainly on in-text and scholarly motive in my writing. Over the years, though, personal motive has taken on a more and more important role in my papers. More often that not, I choose topics for my papers because my personal interests and experiences draw me to particular elements of a text, and I want to explore these elements in my own close analysis of the text and in my engagement with the scholarly conversation surrounding it. Writing on topics in which you have a personal investment— and which may even be triggering— can certainly be challenging, but I have also found these projects to be some of the most rewarding I have undertaken at Princeton.

I am currently working on my second junior paper, where my personal, textual, and scholarly motives are very much intertwined. In fact, I was motivated to choose my topic in part because I got angry with a scholarly source! For my JP, I am writing on patriarchal violence in Euripides’ Medea and the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, and examining how the female characters of each text resist this violence through language. To give a brief summary of the myth recounted in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter: Hades abducts Persephone, and Demeter (her mother) manages to get her back from the underworld. Yet because Persephone has eaten a pomegranate seed, she must return to live with Hades for one-third of every year. One piece of evidence in the hymn that has become important to my analysis is Persephone’s account of how Hades forces her to eat the pomegranate seed. As I read it, this scene stands in for another penetrative violation that Persephone does not describe. But because Persephone’s narrative conflicts with an earlier account of the same events (focalized from Hades’ perspective), many scholars have discounted it as falsehood. For example:

In 372 (“ἔδωκε φαγεῖν”) nothing is said of the compulsion on which Persephone here insists. Plainly Hades did not use actual force or compulsion of any kind, especially as Hermes was present. Persephone only means that she had no wish to eat, and could not refuse the food. Nor would it be unnatural for her to overstate the case, from a desire to avoid blame for her thoughtlessness.

Allen and Sikes n413

In my opinion, interpretations like this one are really just victim-blaming masquerading as scholarship, and the assumptions they make aren’t grounded in morality or the text.

My personal motivation for “picking a fight” with these scholars pushes me to be especially rigorous in how I engage with this passage of the hymn and these secondary sources. I have tried to reframe my strong emotional response to my sources as observations and questions that can form the basis for my textual and scholarly motives. There is clearly a tension in the text between how the pomegranate incident is described earlier in the hymn and how Persephone describes it to her mother. Is there a way to explain this tension without discrediting Persephone’s account? (Answer: yes!) How have other scholars accounted for this discrepancy? What assumptions do their interpretations make? How do these assumptions hold up to a close analysis of the text?

Obviously, I can’t treat such personal topics in all of my academic writing — and I’m sure it would be exhausting to try! But it is deeply satisfying whenever I can do scholarly work that is important to me at an emotional as well as intellectual level. Motive can be about what motivates you to write, about the unique perspectives and experiences that each of us brings to our writing, and about how your voice can change the stories we tell and how we tell them. 

– Meigan Clark ’22

Works Cited

Homer, Thomas W Allen, and E. E Sikes. The Homeric Hymns. London: Macmillan, 1904.

Against-the-grain arguments, Spring 2017

A Pool of Thought: Modest Water’s Mighty Work in ‘To the Lighthouse’

In a Tortoiseshell: In this paper about introspection in To The Lighthouse, Carolyn Kelly’s against-the-grain approach to Woolf’s novel examines the significance of smaller, less obvious details as they recur throughout the text. In the first paragraph of her introduction, Kelly constructs motive by orienting readers to how water imagery in To the Lighthouse is typically read. She then disrupts this context in the following paragraphs, illustrating why and how her close reading of overlooked bodies of water in the text can shed light on Woolf’s large project.

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Against-the-grain arguments, Spring 2017

“Curiouser and Curiouser”: Discouraging Female Agency and Curiosity in ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’

In a Tortoiseshell: In her paper about female curiosity and agency in Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland excerpted below, Julia Schorn adopts an against-the-grain approach to mainstream feminist readings of the beloved children’s story, arguing instead that female agency and curiosity is actually discouraged in Wonderland. By both orienting us to these mainstream readings and close reading the text to differentiate herself from them, Schorn’s particularly strong motive calls the entire establishment of Alice scholarship into question.

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Against-the-grain arguments, Spring 2017

Against-the-grain arguments

Frequently within the Writing Seminars and introductory college courses, students are asked to do the seemingly impossible: to make compelling, original arguments about classic texts, ideas, and phenomena that have been written on extensively for decades or even thousands of years, from Homer’s Odyssey to Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity.

More specifically, these students must attempt to articulate (and then answer!) questions that could be considered equally puzzling, interesting, and urgent to expert scholars in the field, often with only partial or vague knowledge of the secondary literature these experts have produced and proliferated. These questions are the beginning of what the Princeton Writing Lexicon more concisely calls “motive”—that is, the paper’s purpose, which can also be defined as the intrinsic why necessitating both the student’s thesis argument and the reason(s) that such an argument must be made in the first place.

This is no small order, especially when the scholarship surrounding what a student is writing on might be vast enough to fill a thesis or doctoral dissertation. However, some of the best student writing often results when a student placed in this situation ultimately uses to her advantage 1) her limited tools and 2) the intimidating establishment of scholarship around the paper’s topic.

Instead of claiming authority on the big picture of a text or theory, the student has several options: for example, she can disagree with or qualify the dominant approach used by existing scholarship to explore that text of theory, substituting instead her own ideas and/or the approaches of a discipline with which she is more familiar.

These are exactly the kind of against-the-grain arguments we are featuring and celebrating in this issue of Tortoise, although each argument and author accomplishes such an approach in their own way.

The first excerpt, by Julia Schorn, similarly presents a new take on an old, much-beloved work, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Unlike Carolyn’s argument, which succeeds in suggesting an alternative approach to complement existing scholarship, Julia directly attacks the establishment surrounding Alice to argue that feminist praise for the titular heroine’s curiosity and agency in Wonderland is actually unsupported by several details in the text, details which she addresses in her paper in order to argue that Wonderland is perhaps more static and less wonderful than we may have thought it to be.

The second excerpt, by Carolyn Kelly, demonstrates the value of approaching a classic work such as Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse by studying not the most obvious symbolism and imagery in the novel—the sea, for example—but instead the recurring instances of a smaller body of water, pools, in order to show through close-reading how, taken together, the seemingly insignificant cumulatively speaks to the larger introspection of Woolf’s work. Carolyn successfully showcases how an in-text motive and roadmap thesis can be developed by first rejecting (or, rather, innovating upon) traditional approaches to how literature is typically analyzed.

Finally, my “works in progress” excerpt ending the section showcases how motive can come from an interdisciplinary place: in this case, the application of literary close-reading techniques to the postwar writings of John Maynard Keynes, an economist. Even with its flaws, this excerpt—much like Julia’s and Carolyn’s work—attempts to approach a work that seems untouchable and over-studied in an entirely new light, demonstrating that sometimes the most interesting arguments begin as radical, risky ideas, counter to the consensus and seen out thoroughly to their ends.

Against-the-grain arguments, Spring 2017

Treating the Body Politic: Keynes’s Postwar Rhetoric of Corporeality

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In this excerpt from my second paper for ENG 208: Reading the Essay with Professor Jeff Nunokawa, the reader can quickly see that, in terms of motive, I perhaps bit off more than I could chew.

Arguably, my larger motive holds up—that within “The Economic Consequences of the Peace,” Keynes is departing from serious economic analysis for rhetorical purposes, using literary metaphors of embodiment that we should attempt to analyze using traditional methods of close-reading.

However, I then overcomplicated this sufficiently interesting, interdisciplinary approach with another layer of motive: the scholarly motive of disagreeing with my professor, Jeff Nunokawa, who had read Keynes’s metaphor of embodiment in lecture as a purely a sexual one.

While I stand by my original claim that the consequences of Nunokawa’s misreading have a provocative gravity worth reconsidering in the service of medical rather than sexual imagery, this claim was poorly timed in the excerpt above, making for an overly lengthy, somewhat muddled introduction.

Months later, looking at this paper with fresh eyes tells me that many elements of my Keynes close-reading could indeed remain in the paper if restructured correctly. My disagreement with Nunokawa could generate a meaningful concession later on in body of the paper (pun intended) after I felt I had sufficiently answered some of my initial motivating questions (“But what are Keynes’s motivations behind using this political vocabulary of corporeality? Upon further close reading, what does it do to complement his typical mode of written expression?”) through the kinds of close-reading featured at the end of the excerpt.

The lessons here then are clear: first, just like a good thesis, motive too can (and should!) be allowed to evolve over the course of a well-structured paper. Second, especially in shorter papers, I would say it is inadvisable to frontload your paper with more material than can be artfully handled in a single introduction—it isn’t fair to your reader or yourself.


In his 1919 book “The Economic Consequences of the Peace,” economist John Maynard Keynes sought to persuade European leaders that excessive Allied reparations following the First World War would not only lead to the collapse of Germany’s economy but also to that of Europe as a whole—a prophetic warning which few statesmen heeded at the time.

In the essay “Paris,” he warns “the spokesmen of the French and British people” that the Peace “run[s] the risk of completing the ruin, which Germany began,” thus “impair[ing] yet further (…) the delicate, complicated organization, already shaken and broken by war, through which alone the European peoples can employ themselves.” On one level, Keynes is arguing here that, during the Treaty of Versailles, a kind of surgical precision was required from leaders like Lloyd George in order to restore Europe’s “complicated organization” and unity—a precision much unlike the harsh and unrealistic reparations which England actually proposed. But on another level, Keynes is also writing in a format far more accessible than his usual—serious economic analysis—using relatable devices to convey his points and rhetoric to the layman or political outsider—most prominently, the political metaphor of embodiment, the body politic. “Europe is apart,” he says, “and England is not of her flesh and body.”

Keynes’s description of Europe as a corporeal entity should not be read as coincidental. Throughout the entire essay, he consistently anthropomorphizes the postwar state of European affairs, crossing an inchoate body politic to persuade us that there is economic stability in this body being “solid with itself”—or, as Keynes also phrases it, when all of Europe’s constituent nations “throb together, and their structure and civilization are essentially one.” But what are Keynes’ motivations behind using this political vocabulary of corporeality? Upon further close reading, what does it do to complement his typical mode of written expression?

Princeton professor Jeff Nunokawa argues that it serves to sexualize Europe or “libidinalize its economic sphere,” suggesting that the economic activity will always be motivated unconsciously by “animal spirits” that are, thus, in some way inextricable from the erotic. However, though Nunokawa is right to probe the importance of organic imagery in Keynes’s essays, I ultimately take issue with how his argument ignores certain clinical dimensions of the economist’s diction that, beyond establishing a corporeal metaphor, are selective about for whom this metaphor applies. Whereas Nunokawa sees every state in Keynes’s writing as a body politic (and a sexual one at that), a closer reading suggests that only those states belonging to continental Europe are bodies at all—England has intentionally been excluded. Furthermore, rather than a voyeur, Keynes in his essays instead casts himself as a sort of medical practitioner who, I will argue, seeks to treat Germany as a limb of Europe’s sick body wracked by unfair reparations, contrasting this body against the aloof, inhumanly “unconscious” England in order to shift postwar political action and opinion toward sympathy for the former.


The economist writes “that Europe is solid with herself. France, Germany, Italy, Austria, and Holland, Russia and Roumania and Poland, throb together,” and even the rollicking sentence structure here ebbs and flows, embodying the palpitations these states together experience. Meanwhile, England, apart and sleeping, is not involved in this at all: in neither “Europe’s voiceless tremors” nor her “fearful convulsions of a dying civilization.” Thus, to throb as continental Europe does is not akin to participation in a sexual body politic, but an ill one: rather than shivers of pleasure to be tamed, these convulsions are death throes. Now enter Keynes, who seeks to address these matters “of life and death, of starvation and existence” much like a doctor does.


Ideally, Keynes believes a fair compromise would leave “Germany and Austria-Hungary now prostrate” to critical care and treatment from policymakers—much “Like a patient etherized upon a table,” as T.S. Eliot (another, more-fringe member of the Bloomsbury group) once wrote in “The Lovesong of Alfred J. Prufrock.”

To Keynes’s distaste, however, the Treaty of Paris turned out to be “a nightmare” — “every one there was morbid,” he tells us. Etymologically, the root of “morbid” is the Latin morbus, meaning “sickness, disease, ailment, illness,” from the verb mori “to die.” Even in passing, Keynes’s language is painfully aware that, in reality, all economic decisions have bodily consequences, sometimes even deadly ones. Dealing with the flesh is ultimately unavoidable, so to assume pure rationality in issuing postwar reparations is like wearing “a tragic-comic mask” instead of a surgical one—a theatrical waste of time, ignoring the reality of Europe’s situation.

Works Cited

Keynes, John Maynard. “Paris (1919).” The Economic Consequences of the Peace: Pequod, 2016. 130-132. Print.

Nunokawa, Jeff. “The Heart of the Matter and Public Affairs: The Essay as Unacknowledged Legislation.” English 200: Reading Literature: The Essay. McCosh Hall, Princeton University. 28 November 2016. Lecture.