Vassar Critical Journal

The Vassar College English Department Student Journal of Critical Essays

For communicating, language is perfect; there could be nothing better. And yet, language doesn’t say everything. The body speaks, objects speak, history speaks, individual or collective destinies speak, life and death speak to us constantly in a thousand different ways. Man is an interpreting machine and, with a little imagination, he sees signs everywhere.

― Laurent Binet, The Seventh Function of Language

The 2024 Vassar Critical Journal boasts a strong contingent of essays on the speaking body, a configuration of signs, that can be read, misread, or reinterpreted. Zhiyue Ding offers a transformative reading of Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury through the lens of “crip time,” where the Compson family unit is seen to lag behind, dragging its proverbial foot, while modernity marches on. Chenxuan Hu takes issue with the critical predilection for presuming that Henry James’s protagonist in The American, Christopher Newman, is a cisgender straight white male. Privileging asexuality, Chenxuan challenges both heteronormative expectations regarding “manifest sexuality” and queer readings, such as Eve Sedgwick’s, that equate the absence or ambiguity of a character’s sexuality with homosexuality. Bryn Marling homes in on “the way sexual doubling [in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood] structures modern relationships of desire and allows for the proliferation of assemblagic modes of gender representation” in her characterization of the androgynous Robin Vote. Reading Frank Norris’s McTeague through the lens of Bakhtin’s theorization of the grotesque body, Bryn Marling bypasses the critical disposition to read the novel as a treatise on degeneration. Instead, she considers Norris’s Naturalism in relation to antecedent literary forms where the “vestiges of the positive grotesque,” expressed as interest in the body’s natural processes (eating, drinking, copulation, defecation, birth, death), remain open, public, before bourgeois privatization. Kai Speirs is similarly attentive to an operative binary of critical discourse: interiority vs. exteriority. In his essay on the “Proteus” episode in Joyce’s Ulysses, Speirs employs Felix Guattari’s concept of “Ecosophy” to argue that Stephen Dedalus’s singular subjectivity is actually formed from “material external to the corporeal body,” comprised of the heterogeneous elements of the environment he traverses. Lastly, Alexander Swift describes the literary evolution away from the “essentializing, Black Power-inspired Black Arts Movement” of the late 60s and 70s towards a contemporary Black aesthetic that prizes hybridity and individualism in “Look Who’s Talking: The Evolution of the Black Public Intellectual from Kelley to Smith.”

This is the fifth year of my involvement with the Vassar Critical Journal. Before I pass the baton to the next faculty advisor, I want to ensure that a journal produced by the English department, yet inching towards near-total interdisciplinarity of method, can continue to hold the interest of students of literature while attracting submissions from departments and programs far and wide. It seems to me that the Vassar Critical Journal deserves to be better known on campus. (Dear reader, if you have any idea of how to make that happen, please tell me.) Undergraduate education, with its organizational imperatives—major in one or more disciplines and take classes outside your curricular division—exposes students to many different critical lenses and bodies of knowledge. Students frequently remark that the discussions in their literature classes reflect what they’re learning in the social sciences and art humanities. The Vassar Critical Journal appreciates student essays that take advantage of such confluences. Moreover, this is my chance to remind our readers (and potential contributors) that undergraduate publication impresses graduate schools. Several of our recent contributors are pursuing Masters and Ph.D. degrees in the humanities in both the US and UK. I hope the journal will continue to be an outlet for these students, but also a resource for all our students, giving them the opportunity to sample the interpretive strategies, disciplinary breadth and depth, and writing chops of their peers.

While the current editorial board approached its task with enthusiasm for all aspects of the work at hand, I must give special commendation to Claire Miller, who served as our technical and managing editor. In addition to her role as student editor, Claire oversaw the website for submissions and evaluations, corrected proofs, and she was instrumental in the population of the WordPress digital platform for the Vassar Critical Journal, where our back and current issues can be accessed. Willem Doherty proposed continuing the recent practice of student editors writing their own introduction, and he is the principal author of the introduction that graces this publication. I would also like to thank Stacy Merinoreyes and Zack Garipoli 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 first-year and sophomore editors will stick around in 2025 to provide continuity to the journal.

Wendy Graham
Faculty Advisor


“Cultural Distinction and Asexual Selfhood in Henry James’ The American” by Chenxuan Hu

“Caves and Valleys: Grotesque Corporeality and Space in Frank Norris’ McTeague” by Bryn Marling 

“Environmental Processes of Subjectivation in the ‘Proteus’ Episode of Ulysses” by Kai Speirs

“Uncanny Desire and the Production of Marginal Gender in Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood by Bryn Marling

“‘Crip Time’ for the Compsons: Reading the Compson Family as a Disabled Body in The Sound and The Fury” by Zhiyue Ding

“Look Who’s Talking: The Evolution of the Black Public Intellectual from Kelley to Smith” by Alexander Swift

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