Thoughts on Theses – Eugene Lee '16
Issue   |   Wed, 04/20/2016 - 00:56

Q: What is your thesis about?

A: On a very basic level, it’s rethinking character and allegory. Everyone knows what characters are, everyone knows what allegories are. I’m generally coming from the standpoint where most people would recognize there being flat and round characters. Those are E.M. Forster’s terms that have been popularized. Any character you think of today, like Harry Potter, are fully realized individuals. We can think of them as autonomous beings. Flat characters, on the other hand — we think of them as serving a narrative purpose and that’s it. There’s nothing more to them than that. We see them as didactic and boring.

[My thesis] is going to challenge that notion and unpack it, seeing what it is that allegorical characters actually do. Are they all flat? Do we want to have just the terms “round” and “flat?” How do we establish a vocabulary for talking about characters? That’s the general premise for my thesis.

The actual texts I use are more complicated. I’m using two medieval Christian morality plays. They’re removed from the modern novel. We are familiar with characters of the modern novel as being the standard for character. But the Christian morality play is an allegorical drama. In being medieval, allegorical and a drama, it has these three different traits from modern novels. My first chapter is dedicated to laying out all of this background information. I have a section that is dedicated to the history of allegory and of character.

Q: How did you get the idea for this thesis?

A: I was taking a one-on-one tutorial course on C.S. Lewis and Tolkien at Oxford. Eventually we started talking about allegory, because of Lewis, who was obsessed about allegory and wrote a lot about it. But Tolkien hated allegory, which is why “The Lord of the Rings” is not allegorical. Some could say it is, but Tolkien himself would say it is not.

That was a huge point of contention. I explored it a lot during my tutorial. I read a couple of short allegories that Lewis read, part of “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit.” I also read a lot of letters between the two.

I was trying to compare the medieval development of allegory to the modern-day reception of allegory, because “Lord of the Rings” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” are still popular today. Tolkien and Lewis were part of a movement to revive medieval literature. They drew from it and made something new that was popular and accessible. What is the connection between the two things?

The English Department gave me money to go to Wheaton College, so I went and did research over the summer. Then, back at school, I met with Professor Nelson, my adviser. She said, “This is a lot of stuff. You’re comparing two time periods.” I don’t know if I had enough time in the year to do all of that stuff. She said, “Come back to me in a week and give me one question — one thing you are interested in.”

My question came from C.S. Lewis. Once you know that Aslan is Jesus, your reaction is violent because the character no longer exists as an independent being. The idea is superimposed on the character, so you no longer see it as an individual, but a tool. That was weird to me. Aslan was interesting, but there was an issue with how far he could develop character-wise because of his allegorical purposes. That was my question that I brought back.

My adviser told me to narrow my topic again and gave me two plays — “Every Man” and “Mankind.” That was good advising on her part because she was playing to my strengths, with language I already knew about drama. I was already thinking about drama all the time.

I read through “Every Man.” The concept of the “every man” was interesting to me because it’s allegorical, and yet we’re included in the allegory. You are representative of something, and yet that thing itself is an individual person, or many individual persons. That kind of paradox is really interesting to me. In the end, I didn’t focus on Lewis or Tolkien at all.

Q: Were there any surprises in the thesis writing process?

A: I researched character theory and criticism on character. I unmasked all this information, but it was all about novels. I had a general preconception — “How am I going to bridge the gap?” — but when I started actually to think about plays in terms of the research, it started to make sense. That was really surprising. When I moved onto the second play it worked even better. I guess the surprise is understanding that the way we work with a conception of character was the same in medieval times as it is now. I don’t want to say it’s universal, but it’s kind of universal. Just a very natural and human process to relate to different individuals that are represented in text.

Q: What makes your thesis important?

A: When I was researching the topics together, there was nothing addressing character and allegory to this degree. Proposing this kind of case study for cross-media and trans-historical conceptions of character and developing a wider vocabulary for character is a very important thing. I also want to think about character and allegory as genre and concepts unbounded from media. Why should I think about characters as solely bound to the novel? That was my hope — to lay the groundwork for future work on that question.

Personally, the important part is the question of the roles we play in our lives. This is pretty accessible to anyone. Right now, I’m playing the role of an interviewee. You are playing the role of an interviewer. Later, you will be playing a role of a friend, or when you’re at home, playing the role of a son. One kind of personal academic question I had was thinking about those roles and who we are beyond those roles. My third chapter is essentially grounded in this concept of roles and how characters present different kinds of roles we can play. I thought that was an interesting resolution to that question I’ve had for a long time. It’s not a full resolution, but I was glad that it came up from what I was researching.

Q: Do you have any advice for people writing a thesis in English?

A: Professor Sanborn’s big thing is essay topics where there isn’t an actual prompt, except to focus on what you care about. I think that’s good advice for writing a thesis — you should write about something you really care about. You might not even have a full grasp of why you care about it.

You never really know what is going to happen with your inquiry. If you knew the answer, you wouldn’t be doing it. Not being too attached to your initial inquiry is also important — knowing what your strengths are, and not trying to establishing something entirely new.