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Dr. Marty Gould, Associate Professor of English

Information for Graduate Students: Doctoral Comprehensive Exams

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Doctoral Comprehensive Exams: General Principles for Creating a Reading List

Your first order of business is to determine the period/topic you want to be examined in. Though you may be inclined to define those things very narrowly (novels by women or fin de siecle), it is in your best interests to define a broader exam area (Victorian literature or literature of the long nineteenth century). The sample list below takes texts from the very long nineteenth century (Romantic to Edwardian). This is, after all, a comprehensive doctoral exam, and it should represent a knowledge that is broad as well as deep. Think of the exam as your opportunity to provide yourself with the broader area of knowledge out that will provide the larger context for your very narrowly focused dissertation and serve as the resource for a lively career as a teacher and researcher. Keep in mind, too, that although your three exam areas should ideally inform one another, the reading list for each area should be distinct, with no single text appearing on more than one list.

Your reading list should contain 80-100 items. A complete list would include at minimum

  • 15-20 novels representing the work of at least 10-12 novelists
  • 25-30 poems, representing the work of at least 7-10 poets
  • nonfiction prose selections representing the work of at least 3-5 major writers
  • 3-5 scholarly monographs, representing classical work in the field or recent and significant scholarship

Remember that your reading list should be comprehensive, meaning that it should represent a broad spectrum of writing in the period. Your list should target the more canonical texts, which are the texts you'll more often teach and which you're more likely to be asked about in job interviews. Although your dissertation interests may lie with obscure, forgotten, neglected, or underappreciated authors and texts, your comprehensive exams should focus on the period's core figures and titles.


  • Include at least 3 novels from each of the major novelists (Austen, Dickens, Eliot, Hardy).
  • Include 1 or 2 novels by novelists of some significance (E. Bronte, C. Brontë, Collins, Gaskell, Thackeray, Trollope).
  • For any given novelist, select the most important and/or representative texts.
  • If your exam area is the long ninteenth century rather than Victorian, you'll need to include the major Romantic-era novelists as well (Austen, Scott, Shelley).


  • Include 6-8 poems by the most important poets (E. Browning, R. Browning, C. Rossetti, Tennyson).
  • Include 3-4 poems by poets of some significance (Hardy, Hopkins, Housman, D. Rossetti, Swinburne).
  • For any given poet, select the most important and/or representative texts.
  • If your exam area is the long ninteenth century rather than Victorian, you'll need to include 6-8 poems by each of the "big six" Romantic poets (Blake, Byron, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth) in addition to the "big four" Victorians (E. Browning, R. Browning, C. Rossetti, Tennyson).

Nonfiction Prose

  • Include important text selections from at least three of the major figures (Arnold, Carlyle, Darwin, Mill, Pater, Ruskin).


  • Include at least two plays by the most canonical playwrights (Wilde, Shaw).
  • Though no further drama need be represented on the list, you might include one or two texts by other significant playwrights (Boucicault, Reade).

Scholarly Monographs

  • Include 3-5 important scholarly monographs (not reference books or collections of essays), representing a broad spectrum of approaches or topics.
  • Include no more than one book closely related to your dissertation.
  • Book reviews can be helpful in identifying possible texts. Check recent issues of scholarly journals and Review19 for ideas. Consult course syllabi for potentially useful scholarly texts.
  • Select monographs written by notable scholars and published by respectectable presses.
Exam Preparation: Making the Most of the Directed Reading

The assumption generally is that you'll do directed readings with members of your comps committee--that makes sense, given that those are the folks who will determine the shape of your exam list and the content of the exam itself. This is not to say that you must do a directed reading with the members of your exam committee, just that it's the usual practice. The best use of the directed readings is to prepare for the exam, so pick texts that you will definitely include on your exam list and texts that you haven't studied before (use this opportunity to add new texts to your knowledge base).

Once you've identified the faculty you want to work with, meet with them to discuss putting your exam reading list together: the sooner you have a list, the sooner you can begin preparing for the exam. You'll want your lists in place before you file the exam paperwork. When approaching faculty to ask if they're willing to serve on your exam committee, it helps to arrive at the meeting prepared: show them you've been thinking about your exam in advance of the meeting.

Exam Preparation: Some Study Tips

Create a study guide for each author and text. Your study guide should record any factual information about the author and text (publication history, historical context of the work, etc.), but it should also record all the ideas you have about the text: What are the arguments you might make about this text? What are the larger cultural, political, or historical issues that inform the text or that the text comments upon? What are the broad topical concerns of the text, and what exactly does the text do with those concerns? You should also list other texts you might compare or pair with the text in question (the essay questions on the exam will most likely ask you to discuss several texts in relation to each other and to a particular issue). Finally, for each text, prepare a brief (2-4 entry) annotated bibliography of scholarship that represents a range of approaches to the text.

Compile a timeline of texts and important historical events for your period. Think about the significance of these events for the texts and authors on your exam list.

Use histories and reference works to help you contextualize the texts. And be sure you have a general understanding of the period (industrialization, social class, empire, gender, religion, publishing technologies, etc). Compile for yourself a bigger picture of the period, and be attentive to changes and developments across the period.

Compose a set of questions, drawn from your reading list, that address a wide range of issues/topics and that represent a "big picture" understanding of the period. These questions should represent you, as a scholar, thinking in an informed way about the nineteenth century and its literature.

Meet with me a couple of times in advance of the exam. Be sure you understand what your exam will look like and what the committee will be looking for in your answers.

Compiling the Exam Reading List: How to Begin

I usually ask students to begin by making an inventory: list all the 19th-century texts you have already read and would feel somewhat confident in discussing on the exam. Leave off texts you barely remember, and leave off texts you have never studied. Once I see that list, I can make specific recommendations about what else to include. My experience is that most students are stronger in fiction than in poetry, and most list no nonfiction prose, drama, or criticism on their initial lists. But we can talk more specifically about any gaps you might have once you've put together a preliminary inventory. Be sure to format titles of works appropriately (so that I can readily tell novels from poems), and provide a numerical summary sketch of the list (total # of novels by # of authors, total # of poems by # of authors, etc). This numerical sketch will help both of use gauge how complete this initial list is. Keep in mind that the exam is meant to be comprehensive: I will insist that you include novels, poems, plays, and nonfiction texts by a wide variety of authors writing across the full range of the period. If you are not prepared to be examined on such a list, either you are not ready to sit for comps in the area or you need to work with another member of the faculty.

The final reading list will be determined through a process of negotiation and compromise: you an I will sit down and talk about what must be on the list, what should not be on the list, and what could be on the list. We'll talk over your areas of strength and weakness, and I'll push you to use the exam as an opportunity to fill in gaps in your reading. I'll also talk to you about the job market and your plans for employment, and I'll make suggestions for including on your list texts and authors that will improve your general marketability (keeping in mind that many of our students are most competitive for "generalist" jobs at "teaching-intensive" institutions). Finally, we'll talk about your ideas for a dissertation, and I'll encourage you to include on your list some of the texts you'll be working with in your dissertation project while creating a list that moves well beyond the narrow focus of the dissertation. I see the comprehensive exam as a moment of review, a summation of the work you've done in the past; as a moment of commpletion, an opportunity to read and think about new texts you've never before studied; and as a moment of preparation, an anticipation of your later life as a teacher of nineteenth-century literature. I think of the exam not as a hoop but as a meaningful and useful exercise. As we negotiate your final list, I will keep in mind these various functions of the exam, and I will work with you to design a list that will not only test what you know but also prepare you for the road ahead.

Doctoral Comprehensive Exams: Some Suggested Texts for Your Reading List


  • Austen: Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Emma (1816), Persuasion (1818)
  • Bennett: Anna of the Five Towns (1902), The Grim Smile of the Five Towns (1907), The Old Wive's Tale (1908)
  • Braddon: Lady Audley's Secret (1862)
  • C. Bronte: Jane Eyre (1847), Villette (1853)
  • E. Bronte: Wuthering Heights (1848)
  • Butler: Erewhon (1872), The Way of All Flesh (1903)
  • Carroll [Dodgson]: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Through the Looking Glass (1871)
  • Collins: The Woman in White (1859), The Moonstone (1868)
  • Conrad: The Nigger of the "Narcissus" (1897), Heart of Darkness (1899), Lord Jim (1900), The Secret Agent (1907)
  • Dickens: Oliver Twist (1839), A Christmas Carol (1843), Dombey and Son (1848), David Copperfield (1850), Bleak House (1853), Hard Times (1854), Little Dorrit (1857), Great Expectations (1861), Our Mutual Friend (1869)
  • Disraeli: Coningsby (1844), Sybil (1845), Tancred (1847)
  • Doyle: The Sign of the Four (1890), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901), The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892)
  • Eliot [Evans]: Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), Middlemarch (1870), Daniel Deronda (1876)
  • Forster: Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), A Room with a View (1908), Howard's End (1910), Maurice (1913)
  • Gaskell: Mary Barton (1848), North and South (1855), Wives and Daughters (1866)
  • Gissing: New Grub Street (1891), The Netherworld (1889), The Odd Women (1893)
  • Gosse: Father and Son (1906)
  • Haggard: She (1887), King Solomon's Mines (1885)
  • Hardy: Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), The Return of the Nativei (1878), The Mayor of Casterbridge (1876), Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891), Jude the Obscure (1895)
  • Kipling: Kim (1901), Selections from The Man Who Would Be King (1888) and Plain Tales from the Hills (1888)
  • Oliphant: Miss Marjoribanks (1866)
  • Pater, Marius the Epicurean (1885)
  • Schreiner: The Story of an African Farm (1883)
  • Scott: Waverly (1814), Heart of Midlothian (1818)
  • Shelley: Frankenstein (1818)
  • Stevenson: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886)
  • Stoker: Dracula (1897)
  • Taylor: Confessions of a Thug (1839)
  • Thackeray: Vanity Fair (1848)
  • Trollope: The Warden (1855), Can You Forgive Her? (1865), The Eustace Diamonds (1871), The Way We Live Now (1875)
  • Wilde: Picture of Dorian Gray (1895)

Nonfiction Prose

  • Arnold: Selections from Culture and Anarchy (1868) [Recommended: "Sweetness and Light," "On Doing as One Likes," "Hebraism and Hellensim"], "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time" (1864)
  • Carlyle: Sartor Resartus (1830), Selections from On Heroes and Hero-Worship (1841) [Recommended: "Hero as Divinity," "Hero as Poet," Hero as Man of Letters"], Selections from Past and Present (1843) [Recommended: Books I, III, and IV]
  • Macaulay, "Minute on Indian Education" (1835)
  • Mill: On Liberty (1859), The Subjection of Women (1869)
  • Nightingale: Cassandra (1852)
  • Pater: Selections from The Renaissance (1873) [Recommended: "Preface" and "Conclusion," "Michaelangelo," "School of Giorgione," "Winckelmann"]
  • Ruskin: Selections from The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1847), Selections from Modern Painters (1843-1860), Selections from Unto this Last (1860)
  • Wilde: De Profundis (1905)


  • Burton: First Footsteps in East Africa (1856), Wanderings in East Africa (1863), Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al Medinah and Mecca (1856)
  • Kingsley: Travels in West Africa (1894)
  • Seacole: Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands (1857)
  • A. Trollope: The West Indies and the Spanish Main (1859)
  • F. Trollope: Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832)


  • Arnold: "The Forsaken Merman" (1849), "Empedocles on Etna" (1852), "To Marguerite" (1852), "Memorial Verses" (1852), "The Buried Life" (1852), "Philomela" (1853), "The Scholar Gypsy" (1853), "Dover Beach" (1867), "Stanzes from the Grande Chartreuse" (1867)
  • E. Bronte:
  • E. Browning: "The Cry of the Children" (1844), "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point" (1850), "Casa Guidi Windows" (1851), Aurora Leigh (1857), Sonnets from the Portuguese (1860), "Curse for a Nation" (1860), "Mother and Poet" (1862)
  • R. Browning: "My Last Duchess" (1842), "Soliloquoy of the Spanish Cloister" (1842), "Porphyria's Lover" (1842), "The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church" (1845), "Abt Vogler" (1864), "Caliban upon Setebos" (1864), "Rabbi Ben Ezra" (1864), "Fra Lippo Lippi" (1855), "Andrea del Sarto" (1855), Selections from The Ring and the Book (1868)
  • Fitzgerald: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayaam (1859)
  • Hardy: "Hap" (1866), "Neutral Tones" (1867), "In Tenebris" (), "Heiress and Architect" (), "Drummer Hodge" (1899), "The Darkling Thrush" (1900), "Tess's Lament" (1901), "The Trampwoman's Tragedy" (1902), "The Convergence of the Twain" (1912)
  • Hopkins: "The Wreck of the Deutshland" (1876), "God's Grandeur" (1877), "The Windhover" (1877), "Pied Beauty" (1877)
  • Housman: A Shropshire Lad (1896)
  • Kipling:
  • Levy: "Xantippe" (1881), "A Minor Poet" (1884)
  • Morris: "The Defence of Guenevere" (1858)
  • C. Rossetti: "Remember" (1849), "After Death" (1849), "Echo" (1854), "In an Artist's Studio" (1856), "A Birthday" (1857), "The Convent Threshold" (1858), "Goblin Market" (1859), "Cousin Kate" (1859), "When I am Dead, My Dearest" (1862), "Amor Mundi" (1865), Monna Innominata (1881), "A Better Resurrection" (1862)
  • D.G. Rossetti: "Jenny" (1870), Selections from The House of Life (1881)
  • Swinburne: Atalanta in Calydon (1865), "The Triumph of Time" (1866), "Hymn to Proserpine" (1866), "Anactoria" (1866), "Before the Mirror" (1866), "The Garden of Proserpine" (1862), "A Forsaken Garden" (1876), "Ave Atque Vale" (1868), "On the Death of Robert Browning" (1889)
  • Tennyson: "The Kraken" (1830), "Mariana" (1830), "The Lady of Shalott" (1832), "The Palace of Art" (1832), "The Lotus-Eaters" (1832), "Ulysses" (1833), "Tithonus" (1842), "St. Agnes' Eve" (1842), "Break, Break, Break" (1842), "Locksley Hall" (1842), The Princess (1847), In Memoriam (1850), Maud (1855), "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (1854), Idylls of the King (1872)
  • Webster: "The Castaway" (1870), "Circe" (1870)
  • Wilde: "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" (1898)
  • Yeats: "The Stolen Child" (1889), "When You Are Old" (1892), "Sorrow of Love" (1892), "The Rose of the World" (1893), "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" (1893), "The Song of Wandering Aengus" (1899), "Adam's Curse" (1904)


  • Boucicault: The Colleen Bawn (1859), London Assurance (1841)
  • Collins and Dickens, The Frozen Deep (1857), No Thoroughfare (1867)
  • Reade: It Is Never too Late to Mend (1865)
  • Shaw: Mrs. Warren's Profession (1893), Arms and the Man (1894), Major Barbara (1905), Pygmalion (1912)
  • Wilde: An Ideal Husband (1895), A Woman of No Importance (1893), The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)

Scholarly Monographs

  • Altick, The English Common Reader
  • Arata, Fictions of Loss
  • Armstrong, Victorian Poetry
  • Beer, Darwin's Plots
  • Brantlinger, Rule of Darkness
  • Gallagher, The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction
  • Gilbert and Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic
  • Levine, The Realistic Imagination
  • Litvak, Caught in the Act
  • Miller, The Novel and the Police
  • Miller, Narrative and Its Discontents
  • Poovey, Uneven Developments
  • Stewart, Dear Reader
  • Tucker, Epic
  • Woloch, The One vs. the Many