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Topics in the Novel

ENGL 275.301
MWF 11

Fictions of Deformity

At the turn of the eighteenth-century, modern teratology--the science of monsters--was born. Doctors sought to systematize, analyze and explain deformity, experimenting on eggs and animals, and even buying the bodies of deceased freaks for purposes of dissection and skeletal display. This new emphasis on monstrosity--the need to organize, understand and control--coincided with the publication of one of the most celebrated monster narratives of all time, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818). Taking as our starting point Shelley's story about a scientist who assembles and animates a monster from pieces of human and animal corpses, we will track the deformed body across a range of nineteenth- and twentieth-century literary and medical texts. Examining the multiple and shifting ways deformity has been narrated over time, we will pay particular attention to moments when the misshapen body becomes the means of articulating transgressive fantasies of culture; in other words, when twisted bodies give rise to twisted stories. Our scope will be broad, locating literary and medical treatments of deformity in the context of broad debates about the social status of human defect--from the fabulous popularity of the Victorian freak show to the ethics of modern genetic engineering. In addition to Frankenstein, novels will include Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Mark Twain's Puddnhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins, L. Frank Baum's The Marvelous Land of Oz, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Katherine Dunn's Geek Love, and Alisdair Gray's Poor Things. We will flesh out these fictions of deformity with a variety of non-fictional readings drawn from nineteenth-century teratology, medical case studies, personal testimonials, and side show circulars. Finally, we will study contemporary theoretical engagements with the human body, using the work of such critics as Michel Foucault, Mark Seltzer and Donna Haraway to add texture and depth to our collective inquiry. Requirements: regular attendance, lively class participation, weekly listserve assignments, two formal papers and a final exam.