English R1B

Reading and Composition: Plain Girls

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
2 Spring 2020 Eisenberg, Emma C.
MWF 10-11 31 Evans

Book List

Brontë, Charlotte: Jane Eyre; Rooney, Sally: Conversations with Friends

Other Readings and Media

Course reader with theoretical and critical readings TBD


"But I couldn't explain that to her. I certainly couldn't tell her what I found most endearing about him, which was that he was attracted to plain and emotionally cold women like me."

In Conversations with Friends (2017), Sally Rooney's protagonist, Frances, engages in many fraught conversations. Often, what is most important goes unsaid. In narration, we have access to her trauma, desire, fear—in short, to her intense embodiment—but when she speaks, Frances works hard to be as emotionally inexpressive as she is physically plain. In this class, we will pair Frances's story with the original plain girl novel: Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847). Like Frances, Jane is an adolescent woman grappling with desires that she doesn't believe the world will let her satisfy. Like Frances, Jane identifies her (alleged) plainness as the most obvious sign that other people find her disappointingYet both women are gripping, seductive narrators, as well as characters who turn out to have more power (sexual and otherwise) than they expect.

In this class, we will approach such deceptive plainness through secondary readings on both female desire and theories of communication. That is, we will investigate how Rooney and Brontë’s various female characters relate to sex and their own appearances, but we will seek answers in narration and dialogue that are far from plain. How does language enable and disable women from expressing their desire? What’s sexy about talking and what’s violent about certain intimate conversations? Is the plain girl an ideal narrator because, on the outside, she can choose to give nothing away?

These themes, methods, and questions will inform this course’s broader purpose: to develop analytical and argumentative skills introduced in R1A, while teaching students to identify and work effectively with pertinent secondary materials. Work will consist of a series of short assignments building up to a final research paper (with mandatory revision).

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