English 180N

The Novel: Intimates and Strangers: Henry James, J.M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Otherness

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
1 Spring 2020 Hale, Dorothy J.
MW 5-6:30 note new location: 211 Dwinelle

Book List

Coetzee, J.M.: Age of Iron; Coetzee, J.M.: Disgrace; Coetzee, J.M.: Waiting for the Barbarians; James, Henry: The Ambassadors; James, Henry: The Turn of the Screw; James, Henry: What Maisie Knew

Other Readings and Media

Course Reader from Copy Central.


Henry James (1843-1916) and J.M. Coetzee (b.1940), born just about a century apart, share a view of novel writing as an inquiry into the ethics of inter-personal relations.  Both fiction writers favor plots that initiate an ethical crisis by throwing the protagonist into an exceptional social situation.  More particularly, both novelists stage this ethical dilemma as the protagonist’s encounter with a stranger or a foreign social world, whose difference poses a powerful challenge to normative belief.  James and Coetzee (the latter a 2003 Nobel Prize winner) have won critical accolades for the intelligence and complexity each brings to the depiction of ethical decision-making and ethical action.  But interestingly and importantly, their novels also raise ethical problems for some readers.  For example, in independent lines of critical reception, each novelist has been accused of treating his characters with cold-bloodedness and even sadism.  A different line of critical reception faults James for class bias and Coetzee for colonialist complicity. 

Focused on major works of fiction by James and Coetzee, this course will explore the nature of ethical choice as depicted in each novel, the ethical problems that motivate and structure plot, and the way each novel establishes an ethical relation between storyworld events and narrative method.  To help guide our investigation, we will read nonfictional essays by each author as well as key philosophical and literary critical works.  This body of thought will allow us to characterize with complexity and precision the notion of ethical value most relevant to James’s and Coetzee’s respective novelistic practice and critical reception.  These readings will also help locate James and Coetzee in a larger “ethical” novelistic tradition and guide our meta-consideration of the advantages and disadvantages of competing ethical paradigms.

Written work for the course includes two short essays (7-9 pages) and required weekly posts to b-courses.

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