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Upstairs, Downstairs: Servants in Literature

ENGL 290.920
instructor(s):

Fulfills Distributional Course in Arts & Letters (for students admitted before Fall 2006)

 I am the perfect servant. I have no life." So says Helen Mirren's character, Mrs. Wilson, in Gosford Park. But despite having "no life," Mrs. Wilson's story is at the centre of the film. This course seeks to discover the hidden stories of the often hidden class of servants, the different kinds of service they render, and the extent of their influence over the lives of those whom they supposedly serve. From comic slaves to bawdy nurses, clever servants to evil sidekicks, we'll examine a range of servants in literature to uncover what it really means to be the perfect servant, and how changing depictions of servants comprise social, political, and moral commentary upon shifting structures of society and on the upper classes. Readings will include Shakespeare's The Tempest and The Comedy of Errors, Richardson's Pamela, and P.G.Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster stories. We'll also think about more recent retellings and reimaginings of the servant narrative: Aravind Adiga's 2008 Man Booker Prize winner The White Tiger, Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, and Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus' The Nanny Diaries, as well as the films Gosford Park, The Remains of the Day, and Good Will Hunting. In particular, we'll focus on questions of race, class, and gender, privacy, the space of the household, and upward mobility, as well as larger questions about how certain groups of people get written in and out of texts. And finally, we'll think about the social, political, and legal resonances and ramifications of our current "service industries," and of the often hidden category of domestic employees in American homes today.