Comprehensive Exam for Literary Studies Emphasis

The comprehensive examination for the M.A. in English with Emphasis on Literary Studies is administered by the candidate's examining committee. Traditionally, the examining committee consists of three members from the Department of English and one related field/minor examiner from outside the department. (Candidates listing linguistics as an internal related field or minor should familiarize themselves with the description of "Linguistics as an Internal Related Field or Designated Minor.") 

The comprehensive examination consists of a six-hour written portion and a one-hour oral component.

Written Portion

The written portion of the exam is a three-part test taken on two days. Texts and notes are not allowed for the second and third parts of the examination unless an individual's committee decrees otherwise. All parts of the written examination will test the candidate's writing ability.

Part One: Primary Text with Selected Secondary Works (Two Hours)

The first part, lasting two hours, is based on an approved text (a novel, a play, a group of poems or short stories). The text must be selected and the examining committee approve it at least four weeks before the examination. A list of 5-8 secondary works read in conjunction with the preparation of the text is to be submitted at the same time; complete bibliographical information about the works should be included.

A copy of the primary text and notes on the secondary texts may be used during this part of the examination. All other portions of the exam are closed-book.

The candidate is expected to be familiar with and to indicate references made to secondary works by citing the authors and titles. The student should be able to answer questions appropriate to the literary form dealt with (e.g., questions about the plot, theme, characterization, point of view and style), and formulate his/her own critical assessment in relation to other critical opinions.

Part Two: Pre-1800 British Literature; British Literature after 1800; American Literature (Three Hours)

The second part, lasting three hours, is based on three reading lists approved by the three examining committee members. The lists must be approved at least four weeks prior to the examination; ideally, reading lists should be prepared by the candidate gradually and more or less continuously as courses are completed. These reading lists represent the range of English, American literature. 

In devising the three lists, the student should observe the following:

1. They should consist of whole works, substantial parts of whole works, or groups of works, and collectively total at least 25-30 texts from a diversity of authors and/or genres.

2. The authors should be chosen from the main literary periods, with some representation for each one, for example: 

    • Old and Middle English
    • Renaissance
    • Restoration and 18th Century
    • 19th Century British
    • 19th Century American
    • 20th Century British
    • 20th Century American

Roughly speaking, at least a third and at most a half of the authors should be in American literature.

In this part of the examination there will be some choice of questions, which will assume the student's general familiarity with major periods, movements, and styles as well as detailed knowledge of the chosen works. This part of the examination will also attempt to be reasonably representative of genres.

No texts or notes are to be used in this Part of the exam unless specified by the committee.

Part Three: Related Field, Minor Field, or Synthetic Option (One Hour)

The third part, lasting an hour, is based either on

  • the student's work in the related field or minor and covering a reading list drawn up by the candidate in consultation with the related or minor field representative.
  • OR on a set of questions by the examination committee asking the candidate to draw synthetic connections among works from the different periods, national traditions, genres, or other elements of the reading lists.

No texts or notes are to be used in this part of the exam unless specified by the committee.

Oral Portion

On the fourth working day after successful completion of the written exam portion, the candidate will meet with the examining committee for the one-hour oral component (see "Principles and Procedures For Conducting the Oral Component of the Comprehensive Exam").

Sample of a Reading List for the Primary Text, with Criticism Section

Primary Text

Paul Laurence Dunbar, The Sport of the Gods (1901)


  • Baker, Houston, A., Jr. "The 'Limitless' Freedom of Myth: Paul Laurence Dunbar's The Sport of the Gods and the Criticism of Afro-American Literature." The American Self: Myth, Ideology, and Popular Culture. Ed. Sam B. Girgus. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1981. 124-143.
  • Brezina, Jennifer Costello. "Public Women, Private Acts: Gender and Theater in Turn-of-the-Century American Novels." Separate Spheres No More: Gender Convergence in American Literature, 1830-1930. Ed. Monika M. Elbert. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2000. 225-42
  • Candela, Gregory L. "We Wear the Mask: Irony in Dunbar's The Sport of the Gods." American Literature 48 (1976): 60-72.
  • De Santis, Christopher C. "The Dangerous Marrow of Southern Tradition: Charles W. Chesnutt, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and the Paternalist Ethos at the Turn of the Century." Southern Quarterly: A Journal of the Arts in the South 38.2 (2000): 79-97.
  • Inge, Casey. "Family Functions: Disciplinary Discourses and (De)Constructions of the 'Family' in The Sport of the Gods.Callaloo: A Journal of African-American and African Arts and Letters 20.1 (1997): 226-42.
  • Revell, Peter. Paul Laurence Dunbar. Boston: Twayne, 1979.
  • Rodgers, Lawrence R. "Paul Laurence Dunbar's The Sport of the Gods: The Doubly Conscious World of Plantation Fiction, Migration, and Ascent." American Literary Realism24.3 (1992): 42-57.


Samples of Reading Lists for Part Two: Pre-1800 British Literature; British Literature after 1800; American Literature

Sample One

Old and Middle English

  1. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
  2. Chaucer: Troilus and Criseyde, Books III and IV.



  1. More: Utopia
  2. Shakespeare: Othello
  3. Jonson: "To Penhurst", "On my first Daughter", "On my first Sonne", "Epitaph on S. P.", "Come my Celia", "Drink to me only", "Queen and Huntress", "Still to be neat".
  4. Sidney: Defence of Poesie
  5. Milton: "L'Allegro and Il Penseroso", "Lycidas".


Restoration and the 18th Century

  1. Dryden: MacFlecknoe
  2. Pope: Essay on Man
  3. Swift: Tale of a Tub
  4. Richardson: Clarissa, abridged


Nineteenth-Century British

  1. Austen: Emma
  2. Shelley: Prometheus Unbound
  3. Wordsworth: Preface to Lyrical Ballads
  4. Keats: "The Eve of St. Agnes", "Hyperion", "The Fall of Hyperion", "Lamia", "Ode on a Grecian Urn", "Ode to a Nightingale", "To Autumn".
  5. Hardy: Tess of the D'Urbervilles


19th Century American

  1. 17. Thoreau: Walden
  2. Hawthorne: Scarlet Letter
  3. Melville: Moby-Dick
  4. Whitman: Leaves of Grass, 1855 edition
  5. James: The Ambassadors


20th Century British

  1. Conrad: Nostromo
  2. Shaw: Major Barbara
  3. Woolf: To the Lighthouse


20th Century American

  1. Stein: Three Lives
  2. Eliot: The Waste Land
  3. Ellison: Invisible Man
  4. Miller: Death of a Salesman
  5. Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby


Sample Two

  1. Chaucer. The Book of the Duchess; from The Canterbury Tales: "The General Prologue", "The Pardoner's Tale and Prologue", "The Prioresse's Tale and Prologue".
  2. Sidney. The Defence of Poesie; Song from Arcadia: "Ring out your bells, let mourning shows be spread"; From Astrophel and Stella: sonnets #1, #31, #39.
  3. Shakespeare. HamletMacbeth; sonnets #65, #73, #146.
  4. Webster. The White Devil.
  5. Milton. Areopagitica; "Lycidas", "L'Allegro", "Il Penseroso".
  6. Donne. "The Good-Morrow", "Goodfriday, 1613. Riding Westward", "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning", "The Extasie".
  7. Swift. A Modest ProposalAn Argument Against Abolishing Christianity.
  8. Pope. "An Essay on Criticism"; "Essay on Man".
  9. Austen. Emma
  10. Shelley. Defense of Poetry: "Ode to the West Wind", "Ozymandias".
  11. Keats. "Ode on a Grecian Urn", "Ode on Melancholy", "Ode to a Nightingale", "To Autumn"; Letter to John Hamilton Reynolds ("Mansion of Many Apartments").
  12. Mill. On Liberty.
  13. Dickens. Hard Times.
  14. Hopkins. "The Windhover", "Pied Beauty", "God's Grandeur", "The Caged Skylark".
  15. Joyce. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
  16. Yeats. "The Second Coming", "Byzantium", "Sailing to Byzantium", "Leda and the Swan", "The Lake Isle of Innisfree".
  17. Shaw. Man and Superman
  18. Woolf. A Room of One's Own; "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown".
  19. Thoreau. Walden
  20. Hawthorne.The Scarlet Letter.
  21. James. "The Art of Fiction"; What Maisie Knew.
  22. Dickinson. "Further in Summer than the Birds", "I heard a Fly buzz", "After great pain, a formal feeling comes", "The Soul selects her own Society", "Because I could not stop for Death".
  23. Dreiser. Sister Carrie.
  24. Eliot, Four Quartets
  25. Miller, Death of a Salesman
  26. Morrison, Beloved