English R1A

Reading and Composition: Reason and Superstition in the Nineteenth Century

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
4 Spring 2020 Kaletzky, Marianne
MWF 12-1 31 Evans

Book List

Carpentier, Alejo: The Kingdom of This World; Shelley, Mary: Frankenstein; Stevenson, Robert Louis: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Stoker, Bram: Dracula; Wilde, Oscar: The Picture of Dorian Gray

Other Readings and Media

Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (excerpts); Arthur Conan Doyle, selected Sherlock Holmes stories; Christina Rossetti, "Goblin Market"; William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, selected poems


Nineteenth-century Britain was the setting for a dazzling array of scientific discoveries and technological innovations, from the advent of electric lighting and photography to the formulation of new theories of evolution and disease to the extension of railways and telegraph lines across the nation and the globe. The same period saw an unprecedented interest in esoteric pursuits now often dismissed as superstition. Séances, fortune-telling, and attempts at telepathic communication not only captured the British public’s imagination, but also became the subject of study by leading intellectual authorities.

How could the same era that generated so many scientific breakthroughs also give rise to such fervent enthusiasm for occult beliefs? Do the two tendencies represent opposing social forces, or might they develop from a set of common circumstances? To answer these questions, we will read broadly in two of the period’s most popular literary genres—detective fiction and the Gothic novel—as well as consider selected readings in poetry and nonfiction. The course will close with a novel by twentieth-century Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier, whose representation of the Haitian Revolution challenges us to reconsider how we distinguish between reason and superstition, as well as the values we assign to each.

The goals of this course fall into two categories: reading and writing. The course will develop students’ abilities to read texts closely and carefully, to examine both points of coherence and moments of tension within them, and to analyze the relationship between meaning and textual form. The other major aim is to help students express increasingly complex ideas in writing. The various writing activities in the class, from the major analytical essays to shorter creative exercises, will connect critical thinking and writing, improve students’ control over their writing voice, and introduce new ways of thinking about structure and development.

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