Close Analysis Essay #1 – Charles Johnson’s Oxherding Tale
(3-4 pages/15% of the Final Grade)
Charles Johnson’s novel Oxherding Tale functions as a fictional, “neo-slave narrative” that challenges the conventions of a genre traditionally based on the real-life accounts of African people enslaved in America (and elsewhere throughout the Black diaspora). Slave narratives sought to present a historical record of the captive person’s journey from bondage to freedom, of the cruelties that chattel slavery wrought upon its victims, and of the dehumanization even of those who benefited from it. Many slave narratives were also framed in explicitly didactic (instructional) terms, with the intention of provoking readers’ sympathies and spurring them into action for the abolitionist cause. Given that slave narratives were so heavily rooted in these realities, we might not expect one to ever be the subject of a speculative fiction story. However, it is precisely this set of expectations about what a slave narrative should do and how it should do it that Johnson’s novel seeks to disrupt. This assignment will therefore ask you to think through some of the specific ways that Johnson uses a speculative approach to a very serious historical subject in order to address aspects of it that a more “realistic” narrative might struggle to do compellingly.
- Choose a specific scene from the novel that contradicts what you would expect from a story about slavery. The scene should have a clear beginning, middle, and end and should probably not extend more than a few pages at most.
- Identify what makes the scene significant. Below are some questions you might consider, but don’t think of these as checklist. Instead, think of these as potential starting points to help develop your own approach:
- What’s the major conflict that drives the scene and how does it relate to the larger story?
- What stands out about the language (e.g., narration style, diction, tone, sentence & paragraph structure, imagery, metaphor, allusion, etc.)?
- Does Johnson use humor in this scene and if so, how? What exactly makes it funny?
- How does this scene develop the characters or advance the relationships between them?
- What does this scene suggest about power relationships under slavery?
- How does this scene explore questions about race, gender, or sexuality?
- How does this scene incorporate Buddhist ideas/influence or address other philosophical questions?
- Formulate a clear argument about how this scene works to challenge readers’ expectations.
- Analyze the scene in detail to support your claims.
Research & Citation
You are not required to consult any secondary sources, but the essay must still adhere to MLA 9th Edition style and formatting. This means that any direct quotations from the text must be introduced using signal phrases and then cited in-text using parenthetical citations:
Example: Andrew asserts that, “despite Flo Hatfield’s noisy eroticism, or because of it, she was lonely” (44).
Make sure to include a complete works cited entry for the novel at the end of your essay. If you do incorporate any ideas from secondary sources, they must be: 1.) introduced using signal phrases 2.) appropriately cited in-text 3.) cited with complete works cited entry.