Vassar Critical Journal

The Vassar College English Department Student Journal of Critical Essays


Like many campus publications suspended at the height of the COVID pandemic, the Vassar Critical Journal was unable to publish in 2020. This was unfortunate for many reasons, not least of which because graduating seniors Ben Papsun, Kayla Gonzalez, and Gaby Caballero were among its founding editors and viewed the 2020 edition as a capstone to their time as Vassar English majors. At their instigation in 2019, the English department added the Vassar Critical Journal to the curriculum as an intensive, ensuring that student editors would get academic credit for what had been an extracurricular activity. Under this new regime, the senior editors continued to manage submissions, correspondence, and meetings, but the responsibilities of each member of the editorial group kicked into a higher gear. Asked to read and evaluate every submission, rather than a handful of essays on literary texts the editors had personally studied, student editors began to see how sharing a classroom with a contributor shaped their reception experience. Submissions were anonymous, but a shared classroom experience lent coherence to arguments and approaches that sometimes puzzled the general reader. Conversely, the originality of certain essays came into question when editors were familiar with class discussions, handouts, and essay prompts. In addition to the requirement that all essays selected for publication be well written and raise compelling questions that showcase a variety of approaches to literary analysis and to canonical and noncanonical writing, students formulated holistic criteria for acceptance. Essays must be readable and engaging while articulating a bold argument and managing the through-line of argument, from start to finish, in a display of cogency and solid organization. In addition, the age-old question for students— “do I address my paper to an informed or clueless reader?”— took on special urgency. In reckoning with these and like problems, the student editors learned more about writing literary criticism than we professors could hope to teach them in the classroom. The stakes and benefits were raised for student editors who had submitted their own work and then had the opportunity to listen to honest and astute critique. In fine, the process was not only more democratic, it left students better prepared to participate in the final cull based on the quality of the submissions and the composition of the edition.

Sadly, the editors of the 2020 Vassar Critical Journal had nothing to show for their efforts. Without access to printing facilities or digital publication, Vol 4 was in a state of suspended animation by April 2020. Essays had been selected but neither revised nor edited for publication; conversations with authors were abandoned or inconclusive. Our editorial board of 8 was buffeted by COVID-19, including but not limited to the significant alterations to college and classroom practices instituted as safeguards. There were graduating seniors among our contributors with competing demands on their limited time and strained attention. In this atmosphere, it was hard to muster energy to polish the edition for publication. In large measure, it is owing to Ben Papsun that the 2020 Vassar Critical Journal will see the light of day as part of a special double-issue. Ben worked tirelessly last summer to solicit revisions from authors, revise on his own hook when permitted by exhausted contributors, copyedit the final submissions, and help craft the senior editors’ introduction to the volume. Because the composition of the 2020 and 2021 editorial boards is almost entirely distinct, I will describe the contents of the 2020 edition before moving on to this year’s team and tome.

The 2020 Vassar Critical Journal boasts a strong contingent of essays on Literary modernism, two each on British and American modernist texts, respectively. In “Beckett, Modernist Antihumanism, and the Question of Meaning,” Ben Papsun outlines the discursive frameworks and aesthetic movements that shaped 20th-century modernism, such as psychology, philosophy, Dada, and the Theatre of the Absurd. Focusing on Beckett’s 1953 novel The Unnamable as an exemplar of late modern existential anxiety, Ben traces some of the cultural and ideological conditions that set the stage for Beckett’s decentering of “the human” in the wake of the first world war. In another essay that foregrounds the postwar literary landscape, but which ultimately resuscitates the category of “the human,” Francesca Lucchetti argues in “Elegy to a Lost Time: Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse” that Woolf sought to reframe human experience in light of the war. Francesca describes Woolf’s deployment of an impressionistic and associative narrative approach that supplants the exhausted conventions of literary realism and the otherworldliness of romanticism as an explanation for the unfathomable misery of war and its aftermath. In “Sailing from Western Myth to Black Modernism: The Role of Epic Narrative Structure in Robert Hayden’s ‘Middle Passage’,” Danyal Rahman reappraises T.S. Eliot’s appropriation of the most exalted elements of the Western literary canon and simultaneous disillusionment with the vulgarity of modern existence in “The Wasteland.” Rahman’s innovation is to view “The Waste Land” through the lens of African-American poet Robert Hayden’s “Middle Passage,” a poem which limns the Eurocentric biases present in Eliot’s idealism and argues that Black America has no such romanticized history to exalt. Working at the intersection of race matters and literary modernism, Leah Cates’s “A Risky Competition: How Motherhood Poses Danger––and Confers Power––in Nella Larsen’s Passing” explains how the mixed-race child’s potentially dark skin is a constant reminder of its light-skinned mother’s tenuous relationship to her Black heritage in racist 20th-century America. Leah contends that Passing depicts Black middle-class motherhood not as a labor of unconditional love, but instead as an elaborate performance that poses danger to Black women, while, at the same time, presenting opportunities for power within their social networks and the traditional domestic sphere.

A pair of essays invites the reader to think more broadly about canonical literature across the intersections of race, gender, and religion. In “Desiring the Unattainable: An Analysis of the Fall of Eve in Milton’s Paradise Lost and Othello in Shakespeare’s Othello,” Kayla Gonzalez identifies and contrasts Milton’s Eve and Shakespeare’s Othello as alienated characters in their fictional worlds. In the epic poem Paradise Lost, Eve is tasked with fulfilling the role of matriarch of mankind, and she must learn to subordinate her individuality, vanity, and desire to fulfil the inherently unequal nature of that role. In Othello, the eponymous protagonist is someone heterogenous yet necessary to Venetian society, as he assumes the role of outsider. Yet, because of the hideous stereotypes associated with his Blackness, Othello is ultimately unable to swallow his pride and subordinate his individuality to the requirements of Venetian society. Quinn Waller approaches Milton from a theological and new historicist perspective in “Milton’s Paradise Regained and Post-Miracle Protestantism.” Placing Paradise Regained in the context of theological debates about miracles and magic, Quinn reflects on the intra-textual echoes of the Protestant Reformation’s disavowal of miracles, which led to the desacralization and the demystification of the world, especially in the intellectually elevated sphere of theologians and politicians. Finally, a pair of essays centers an object d’art within a literary work as the representation of passions and crimes buried just below the narrative surface. In “Immortal Eroticism in ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’,” Melina Stavropoulos shows how Keats tests the limits of eroticism in this poem, as the speaker desires both the urn itself and the erotic scenes represented on its surface. By presenting the urn and the speaker as both seducers and seduced, Keats establishes a space for a fluid eroticism that parallels his conception of a fleeting reality. In recognition of his impending death, Keats constructs a poetic world in which eroticism and reality coexist in a liminal state that suspends time. In “The Temple Has Eyes: Setting as Character in The Temple of the Wild Geese,” Tsutomu Mizukami’s slow-burning 1961 thriller about the secrets and violence concealed by the monks of a famous Buddhist temple, Keira DiGaetano argues that the temple is the real protagonist of the story. Given a body—limbs to conceal and reveal its secrets, a heart where the titular painting of wild geese lies, and eyes that see and understand each of the characters well enough to tell the story from their perspective, Mizukami humanizes the setting of The Temple of the Wild Geese in order to illustrate the physical and spiritual impact that the events of the novella have on its fictional world.

In 2021, the editorial board was larger than it has ever been at 15 editors. This expansion was partly a function of the Vassar Critical Journal having been turned into an intensive; however, the current editorial board approached its task with enthusiasm for all aspects of the work at hand. Due to the delayed and protracted academic calendar, we had to meet before the semester began to plan and disseminate a call for papers. During their winter break, a handful of editors designed a new poster. While the editorial review board is no longer hierarchical, as befits an intensive, I must give special commendation to Rhea Randhawa and Tatum Blalock, who served as our technical editors. Rhea and Tatum created a new website for submissions and evaluations. They were instrumental in the redesign and population of the revived WordPress digital platform for the Vassar Critical Journal, where our back and current issues can be accessed. I would also like to thank our art editors: Ella Nguyen, Annika Heegaard, and Jeanne Malle, for their contributions to cover design and layout. Frankly, all of our editors have given their best to the selection, preparation, and production of this edition. It is to be hoped that a few of our sophomore and junior editors will stick around in 2022 to provide continuity to the journal.

As I reflect on the review process, what stands out is the careful and conscientious preparation of the entire editorial board, which came prepared to discuss every submission on the merits. We had over 30 submissions this year—all had admirable qualities, and it was not an easy matter to choose among them. Students defended their choices eloquently and informedly. They were prepared to push back against the majority view, which helped us reach a higher consensus. They were prepared to work hard through editing and conversations with contributors, which required tact as well as critical acumen. The current iteration of the Vassar Critical Journal reflects the learning, critical propensities, and tastes of a true collective. Every year the Vassar Critical Journal has showcased a wide-range of literary texts covered in courses taught by the English department, and 2021 was no exception. Traditional scholarship and mythography are represented by Emma Iadanza’s “The Hunt of Iul(ian)us: Poliziano’s Stanze and Virgil’s Aeneid” and Caleb Klein’s “Tolkien’s Use of Myth in the Legendarium.” Emma expertly traces Virgil’s influence on the unfinished epic of the lesser-known Italian poet, philologist, and classical scholar, Poliziano, whose work was sponsored by the Medici family. Embroidering her essay with her own translations from the Italian, Emma adds a new dimension to our offerings in comparative literary criticism. Caleb deftly explains Tolkien’s indebtedness to historical frameworks and mythology in the construction of his fantastical worlds. In his novel, The Silmarillion, Tolkien recycles classical themes of governance as well as an astonishing number of characteristics derived from the Olympians. Caleb’s contribution applies mythography to a popular literary genre.

            This year, we have a trio of essays written from a feminist perspective, two of which feature Shakespeare’s women. Victoria Bonacasa’s “Hero’s Gendered Scripts and Silences in Much Ado About Nothing” contrasts Hero’s silence with the volubility and caustic wit of her cousin Beatrice, who introduces the theme of a female threat to the social order. Victoria argues that Hero’s compliance with the patriarchal norms she is trained to respect is overstated by scholars and that Hero is aware of the gendered part she is asked to play. While Hero only voices her dismay in scenes with women, Victoria envisions Hero as momentarily able to claim the authority to script her own part. Eden Bartholomew’s “The Modern Maiden on Film: An Expansion of ‘Representing Ophelia’” adds the dimension of film and theater criticism to her reconsideration of Elaine Showalter’s famous essay and expands the VCJ’s critical scope. Eden argues that recent adaptions of Hamlet for screen and stage, featuring rebellious Ophelias, have failed to rescue the character from pitying infantilization. Focusing on Ophelia’s silence, which she is forced to preserve in front of those in power, Eden envisions a production of Hamlet where Ophelia is given agency and individuality through judicious costume, set design, and directing decisions. In “Emily Dickinson: Reframing Patriarchal Objectification,” Melina Stavropoulos contends that Dickinson’s disruption of historically male-dominated structures of poetic form and meter construct an unprecedentedly neutral place for women to exist outside of the patriarchal framework. Through meticulous close reading, Melina demonstrates that Dickinson employs the trope of blindness to strip the male gaze of its objectifying powers. Dickinson eliminates the masculine eye as a mode of sensory input and introduces hearing as a more appropriate framework for feminine self-knowledge. 

Margaret Connor’s “Melville’s Living Human Individuals” approaches three seminal texts by Herman Melville (the novellas: Billy Budd and Benito Cereno, and the short story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener”) from the perspective of Gender Studies. Margaret argues that Melville uses homoerotically charged relationships between men to examine and critique how power structures of racial hierarchy, colonialism, and capitalism damage human relationships. In each story, the central male-male relationship centralizes and counters empathy and desire—dramatized through the contest between homoeroticism and homophobia in one protagonist—to illustrate the unjust power structures of colonialism, authoritarianism, and capitalism. Sophie Novak’s “John Smith’s Journals: Development of American Identity through Colonial Consumption of Native Peoples” argues that Smith’s narrativization of his brief captivity with the Powhatan peoples displays a network of tensions quintessential to the American colonial project. Through literary tactics that erase real Indigenous peoples and provide a flattened sense of indigeneity, Smith facilitates the settler project of appropriating Indigenous lands and nullifying claims of theft. By positioning Pocahontas as a bridge between himself and the land, Smith renders Indigenous peoples as easily consumable, fueling the larger colonial project of appropriating ‘the other’ as a viable path towards becoming “rightfully American.” Combining Queer and Critical Race Studies, Luke Lefeber’s “Onticide in a New Light: Baldwin, His Father, and the Church in Go Tell It on the Mountain” frames Baldwin’s semi-autobiographical first novel through the lens of a contemporary hate crime against a Gay Black man, Steen Fenrich, as theorized by Calvin Warren in “Onticide: Afro-pessimism, Gay N— #1, and Surplus Violence.” This is an instance where a theoretical lens functions as it should to underscore and illuminate the existential threat to the young protagonist of the novel across familial, societal, and ecclesiastical spheres throughout his upbringing. To the extent that societal homophobia pervades his family, explicitly in the person of his tyrannical pastor father, and the Black Church itself, Baldwin’s protagonist is barred from living a life guided by his own volition. Luke then explains Baldwin’s decision to leave his family, the Church, and eventually his country both to refine his craft and to avert existential destruction by the forces surrounding the Gay Black man.

It has been a pleasure to collaborate with Vassar students over the past two years in the reimagining the Vassar Critical Journal as a part of the curriculum, while retaining the values and goals of its founders. Through these trying times, our students’ love of literature and dedication to the practice of critical thinking was tested but unvanquished.

Wendy Graham
Professor and Chair of English
Faculty Director


Emily Dickinson: Reframing Patriarchal Objectification

Onticide in a New Light: Baldwin, His Father, and the Church in Go Tell It on the Mountain

Tolkien’s Use of the Myth in the Legendarium

John Smith’s Journals:  Development of American Identity through Colonial Consumption of Native Peoples

“I am bound to speak”: The Speeches and Silences of Women in Othello

Melville’s Living Human Individuals

The Hunt of Iul(ian)us: Poliziano’s Stanze and Virgil’s Aeneid

The Modern Maiden on Film: An Expansion of “Representing Ophelia”

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