Formal Essay on The Book of Salt

Due in class on Wednesday, February 17

Three to Five Pages, Printed Out and Stapled

100 Points

In the previous essay, on The Latehomecomer, you wrote about shared cultures and shared experiences. In this paper you will focus on an important aspect of culture, language. As we began to discuss The Book of Salt I presented you with two questions:

  1. What is Binh's relationship to the French language?
  2. What is Binh's relationship to his two Mesdames?

In this paper you will concentrate on one of these questions, although you might find it possible to answer both simultaneously.

This paper is significantly different from the previous one because you will be doing the operation that has largely come to define literary study in the US since World War II: "close reading." Follow these steps before you begin to write:

  1. Select a passage of about 1/2 page in length that is particularly relevant to one or both of the questions above. Formulate a hypothesis about how the passage answers one of the questions.
  2. Read the passage several times. Pay attention to every single word and to every single grouping of words (such as clauses, sentences, paragraphs; extended metaphors; repeated imagery) that you can recognize. Look up words that you are unfamiliar with. Pay particular attention to anything that seems unusual--for instance, an unusually short or long sentence or a striking metaphor.
  3. Since this is a work of fiction, try to imagine as concretely as possible a situation involving all of the characters present in the passage. Fiction constructs situations. You might imagine something that is not immediately given in the passage but that makes the situation meaningful and perhaps poignant.
  4. Take notes as you read and re-read.
  5. Test your original hypothesis against the data that you have collected from reading the passage several times.

Once you have a hypothesis that matches the data to your satisfaction then simply write it up. Type your passage on a separate sheet of paper. Your passage does not count towards the three-page minimum. Your hypothesis is your thesis statement, and your paper consists of a demonstration of why you believe your hypothesis is true based on the data.

In this class, though, we have departed somewhat from a more traditional form of reading and interpretation through our focus on the social, cultural, and historical conditions that have helped to shape the course texts. The Book of Salt, as I have emphasized, is set during a period when Vietnam was part of the French colony of Indochina. This of course will have a significant effect on the answers to either of the questions above. Binh relates neither to the French language nor to his Mesdames as an equal. However, Binh's relationship to French and his relationship to his Mesdames is not simply antagonistic--he does not simply hate the language and hate his Mesdames. After all, Binh is not a simple character, nor are GertrudeStein and Alice B. Toklas. Try to account for the complexity in a way that is grounded in both history and in the text itself. Remember that, in this class, we have considered the identity "Asian American" as an identity complicated by differences along the lines of gender, sexuality, mixed heritages, and socio-economic class.

Remember that this is a formal, academic essay and that you are writing for an academic audience. Here are things I will pay attention to as I read your paper:

  1. Introduction, conclusion, and overall unity and coherence of the paper
  2. Clearly identifiable thesis
  3. Paragraphs with transitions
  4. Grammar and mechanics
  5. Printed out and stapled.
  6. 12pt font, double-spaced, 1 to 1.25" margins, 3-5 pages

Additionally, from the last paper it seems like many of you need to work on MLA documentation, block quotations, and the use of colons and semi-colons. Here is a link to an online handbook:

Parenthetical citations:

Block quotations:


Finally, italicize the title The Book of Salt.

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