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David Copperfield and the "Social-Problem" Novel (The One Series)

ENGL 4510.301
MW 3:30-4:59pm

Charles Dickens wrote in the Preface to David Copperfield (1849-50) that he liked it “the best” of all his work, even going so far as to call himself a “fond parent” and the novel his “favourite child.” This famous coming-of-age tale is full of everything you’d expect from a Dickens novel: larger-than-life characters, dastardly villains, humor, romance, and tragedy set against the backdrop of industrial England. But the text also offers profound insights into the trauma and exploitation that children—especially orphans—encountered in Victorian England. In this course, we will interrogate literature’s relationship to social justice, using David Copperfield and the status of children as our primary case study. We will read the novel closely and thoughtfully. Along the way, we will familiarize ourselves with nineteenth-century “condition-of-England” novelists, essayists, and poets who argued that art had an important role to play in advancing social change. We will end the semester reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Demon Copperhead (2022), a distinctly American retelling of Dickens’s novel set in poverty-stricken Appalachia. What does Kingsolver’s adaptation suggest about David Copperfield’s continued relevance in our modern social context? All students will leave the course with a stronger grasp of Victorian fiction and a greater awareness of the connection between art and politics. Assignments will include brief research exercises and short writing in various forms. For the final project, students will have the choice of a critical essay or creative project.

English Major Requirements
  • Literature Seminar pre-1900 (AEB9)
  • Sector 2 Difference and Diaspora (AEDD)
  • Sector 5 19th Century (AE19)
English Concentration Attributes
College Attributes
Additional Attributes