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Seduction and Literature

ENGL 540.401
instructor(s):
T 12-3

Stories of seduction and betrayal preoccupied British writers during the late-17th and 18th centuries. These stories interrogated not only distributions of power in sexual relationships, but also some of the culture’s largest political questions.

Perhaps the central problem considered by writers and readers of seduction stories was the problem of resistance: when is it legitimate for subjects to resist authority? Is obedience to King, father, brother, or master always required, even if they make tyrannical or sinful demands? How far does patriarchal authority extend into individual consciences, and when are individuals justified in exerting (or even, required to exert) their own resistant agency? What forms might resistance take? Can it be consistent with Christian duty? These were deeply troubling, unresolved questions during the 18th century, questions that went to the heart of the culture's struggle to define the scope of individual, social, governmental, and monarchical responsibility.

In this seminar, we shall examine novels, drama, poetry, and expository prose where seduction stories raise questions about individual and social agency, about the limits of personal autonomy and public authority, and about the difficulty of imagining virtuous resistance. We'll ask how writers of the period defined seduction, and watch as they struggled to distinguish it from rape and courtship according to a new measure: female responsive agency. We'll examine what was at stake in making such a distinction at all, and how it was enabled or made problematic by competing representations of female and male sexual desire. And we'll trace the Tory partisan implications of most seduction stories from the period, interrogating their relation to developing theories of contract and consent and to changing structures of political authority. Emphasis will be on primary material, including political and social discourse. Requirements: individual meeting with Van Pelt reference librarian, two oral reports accompanied by annotated bibliographies (one primary material, one secondary), and a final paper.