Spring 2015 EN 220 Courses

CAS EN 220: Undergraduate Seminar in Literature
Academic Year 2014-2015, Semester II

Fundamentals of literary analysis, interpretation, and research. Intensive study of selected literary texts centered on a particular topic. Attention to different critical approaches. Frequent papers. Limited class size. Required of concentrators in English. Satisfies WR 150 requirement.

The Boundaries of Life

How do writers create distinctions between lifeless matter and living beings in fictional worlds made out of nothing but marks on a page? And how can we understand matter to either lose or acquire life and sentience? In Fun Home, Alison Bechdel spends large parts of her childhood helping her father in a funeral home. Thomas Hardy marvels at noisy finches who, only a year before were “only particles of grain, /And earth and air and rain. Looking at biological and philosophical definitions of life, this course explores the mysterious transformation that happens when a baby leaps naked into the “dangerous world,” or King Lear’s daughter suddenly has “no breath at all.” How does a writer distinguish between the shearing of a panting sheep and the skinning of a dead lamb? This course tracks the contrasts writers set up between sensitive, receptive surfaces and the inanimate world. Authors include Shakespeare, Dickens, Hopkins, Darwin, Hardy, and Bechdel.

CAS EN 220 B1 Henchman
Mon, Wed, Fri 11:00-12:00

Literature and Moral Life

Investigations into the complex relationship between literature, ethics, and reading. We will interrogate the ways literary texts aspire to teach us to live not in ways that are “right” but in ways that are fulfilling, satisfying, and measure up to our vision of a truly moral existence. Does literature simply instruct us? Does it help us see the world from others’ points of view? Does it advise or prod our thinking on various “issues”? Does it dramatize and show us ways of being and living that animate and inspire our moral sense? We will engage these questions by looking at the self’s relationship to society and its own examined life in a range of theoretical (Aristotle, Friedrich Nietzsche, Wayne Booth) and literary (William Wordsworth, Jane Austen, Walt Whitman, Henrik Ibsen, Henry James, Bertolt Brecht, Virginia Woolf, Allen Ginsberg) texts. We will also pursue (rather than take for granted) the question of what it means to count something as having ethical charge, valence, and significance. Our readings at every point will keep deliberately open the question of the moral of the story.

CAS EN 220 C1 Ostas
Mon, Wed, Fri 12:00-1:00

“What is this thing called love?”

Sacred, secular, profane elements in prose, verse, drama, philosophy, theology, and psychology, from Plato, Greek and Roman lyric, to Yeats, Eliot,Woolf, Lawrence, and Joyce — Some consideration of lyrics of popular music and art. Close reading, frequent papers.

CAS EN 220 D1 Levine
Tues, Thurs 9:30-11:00

Contemporary American Fiction

Contemporary American Fiction comes in many shapes and sizes.  We will focus on novels, graphic novels, and short stories written between the 1960s and today.  Inevitably, we will encounter the postmodern impulse, with its penchant for catastrophe and literary experimentation.  But so too we will read continuations of the  19th and 20th century tradition of closely observed prose realism, as in the works of Toni Morrison.  We will take forays into science fiction (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), “genre literature,” and emerging internet genres.  Whenever possible, we will view the films that have spun off of the works we study (Elizabeth Strout’s story collection, Olive Kitteridge, now an HBO mini-series).  We will encounter works built on themes of gender and sexuality (Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex), and others focusing on the predicaments of immigrant experience (Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies).  Because the works we will study are recent, we will have to make up our own minds as to whether they are “good” and why.  We will read critics who praise and condemn the same book and ask why their views differ so dramatically (and who is right!).  For students who are themselves fiction writers, this course will also focus on questions of technique, and you will be invited to compose in the style of the authors we study.

CAS EN 220 F1 Prince
Tues, Thurs 9:30-11:00

“Tell It Slant”: Art and Authorship

“Tell all the Truth,” said Emily Dickinson in a famous line, “but tell it slant.” “Show,” goes a dictum of creative writing, “don’t tell.” Such remarks raise a question that has been around since Plato first banned the poets from his republic: Just how do fictions and poems say things? Religious books, political pamphlets, philosophical treatises, newspaper reports, editorials, lab reports, business memoranda—these kinds of texts all clearly aim for truth or instruction, and do so with minimal “slant.” So why read works with fancy words, odd rhymes, and eccentric designs? Why read stories whose characters never even existed, doing things that never happened? Why would authors use masks, rhetorical devices, complex narrative structures, and other techniques to obliquely “show” what they won’t directly “tell”? Through an examination of poems, novels, critical essays, and artistic manifestoes, this course will examine the line between art and argument, declaration and insinuation.  If poems and fictions “say” things, how do we interpret them? If they don’t “say” anything, why bother reading them? Readings may include Plato, David Hume, Shakespeare, Dickinson, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, W.B. Yeats, Leo Tolstoy, Susan Sontag, Walker Percy, and Cynthia Ozick.

CAS EN 220 G1 Chodat
Tues, Thurs 12:30-2:00

American Gothic

American writers seem to have a peculiar and deep-rooted fondness for gloomy mansions, characters buried alive, haunting secrets from the past, hypnotically powerful villains, and corpses that won’t stay dead. From Poe to Hitchcock to Toni Morrison, the Gothic mode never loses its ability to rivet us to the page or screen. Why are these stories so compelling? Why are we so fascinated by these characters who face situations so extreme, so incomparable to the events of “real life”? And how do Gothic stories change over time? Are the things that terrify in the late eighteenth-century (which is when the first Gothic novels appear) the same as the things that terrify us now? In this seminar, we will investigate the history of fear, first by trying to define the term “Gothic,” and then by turning to four moments in the mode’s history: the British origins of the genre in the novels of Horace Walpole and Mary Shelley; the emergence of the classic horror story in the fiction of Edgar Allan Poe; the Gothic’s impact on lyric poetry and the sense of personal life in the writings of Emily Dickinson; the continuing presence of the genre in modern and contemporary fiction (Toni Morrison’s Beloved) and film (Psycho and the many more recent films inspired by Hitchcockian horror).

CAS EN 220 H1 Otten
Tues, Thurs 2:00-3:30

Unreliable Narrators

We explore novels and short stories in which it is not always clear if the narrator is telling the truth or is in a position to tell the whole truth. How self-aware or reflective are the unreliable narrators we study? What purpose is served by the fact that sometimes narrators say more (or less) than they mean to? Why does irony feature prominently in many of these stories? What is the author’s aim in having a story be told by someone who is unreliable, anyway? Doesn’t that defeat the point of the story? More broadly, can unreliable narrators help us think more precisely about contemporary reality, when it is often hard to distinguish between truth and falsehood, between reality and its presentation? Can the unreliable narrator teach us how to grapple with moral dilemmas and historical challenges? We will consider works of fiction by Joseph Conrad, Jean Rhys, V. S. Naipaul, J. M. Coetzee. We also read critical and theoretical works by Edward Said, Wayne Booth, Ian Watt, and Roberto Schwarz.

CAS EN 220 I1 Krishnan
Tues, Thurs 11:00-12:30

Shakespeare After Shakespeare

During his lifetime, William Shakespeare was the ultimate underdog; he wrote for common people and a public theater that was anything but “literary.” Four centuries after his death, he has it all: fame, prestige, and a crowd of imitators. This course will investigate how and why Shakespeare’s texts have been reincarnated through the twenty-first century. Why do contemporary writers use Shakespeare to raise questions of race, romance, gender, rebellion, class, power, and colonialism? How can texts more than four centuries old still speak to our values and ideas about the role of literature in life, and what it means to be human? And what makes Shakespeare the ultimate cultural icon? We will explore selected plays from Shakespeare’s canon alongside fiction, drama, and films appropriating and experimenting with Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Othello, Twelfth Night, Hamlet, The Taming of the Shrew, The Tempest, and Macbeth.

CAS EN 220 J1 Keck
Mon, Wed 3:00-4:30

Reading Boston
On the Page and On Foot

English Class Animates City’s Literary and Cultural Geography

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Making Sense
of Ethnicity

Featured Graduate Student
Emily Donaldson Field

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Faculty Member

Bonnie Costello, Professor of English

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