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The Insides of Novels

ENGL 016.303
instructor(s):
TR 4:30-6
fulfills requirements:
Elective of the Standard Major

This freshmen seminar will undertake a focused study of the novel, the genre that has come to be seen as the dominant literary form of our modern age. What are the commonalities that bind together this immense and diversely populated category of literature? We will begin to explore this question by reading two of the earliest novels written in English: Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) and Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742). As the titles of these and so many other eighteenth-century novels demonstrate, the genre is study of, among other things, people—their habits, their experiences, their inclinations, their perspectives. What makes people people, according to novels? What does the world look like from inside another human mind? But the novel also studies—and is a case study in—change. As we move through the syllabus, we will address how novels written in different historical times and places ask us to bear witness to the transformative effects of social, political, and cultural climates on characters’ internal worlds and, more broadly, on the human condition. If novels distill a culture’s vision of itself and its inhabitants, then they might be understood as historical documents that articulate, from inside deeply layered psychological particularities, the effects of social problems on individual lives. How does this elastic genre use literary and narrative modes to accommodate ever-shifting social critiques, gender ideologies, theories of subjectivity, and political resistance? And how do these forces shape characters and, by extension, readers? Readings will include, in addition to our eighteenth-century novels, works by Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Chinua Achebe, and J.M. Coetzee. We will situate our own evolving conversations among those of the genre’s most influential theorists, including Samuel Johnson, Sigmund Freud, George Lukacs, Mikhail Bakhtin, Walter Benjamin, and Orhan Pamuk. Evaluation will be based on participation in class, including at least one oral presentation; a final exam; and three formal essays totaling 15-20 pages of writing. These essays will work closely with our primary texts, and in at least one we’ll familiarize ourselves with the conventions for engaging secondary critical work.