From ancient epic to 21st-century TV serials, long narratives with many characters have always engaged their audiences by providing a sense of connection among individuals, and by modeling the relationship between individuals and society. In this seminar, we’ll zero in on this aspect of storytelling’s cultural function, and put it to two kinds of tests. First, historical: what kinds of communities or networks have novels of the last 150 years imagined into form? Does the sense of belonging inscribed in great fiction reflect real or imaginary social connections? The second test we’ll put to fiction has to do with a particular strain of contemporary narrative, the “hyperlink” story in which the worlds of the major characters intersect only tangentially, if at all. What to make of films and novels in which readers and viewers act as the central node in a network of dispersed characters who operate in isolation or boxed parallel? Can fiction still describe or enact connection in a world of niche marketing, social division, modern anomie, and intense technological mediation?
We’ll consider these questions in relation to several “network fictions,” including five recent films (Crash, Babel, Syriana, Traffic, and 21 Grams) and three recent novels (NW by Zadie Smith, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, and A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan). We’ll move back in time to explore one of the great novels of the Victorian period, Bleak House, aiming to see how Charles Dickens orchestrated dozens of human lives that crisscross each other in a single, dazzling plot. And we’ll read Virginia Woolf’s pocket masterpiece of 1925, Mrs Dalloway, with its flash of sympathetic communion punctuating a long and lonely train of thought.
This course is designed to introduce new Penn students to literary studies at the college level. The main goals will be: a) to hone your critical thinking skills and b) to refine the expression of your thought in both persuasive writing and informal discussion. Graded work will include three critical essays (1500 words each), one film review, and class participation.