English 90

Practices of Literary Study: Where Did the Realist Novel Come From?

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
2 Spring 2022 Sorensen, Janet
TTh 3:30-5 Dwinelle 279


Before the literary form we now think of as the realist novel took critical shape as an aesthetic entity in the nineteenth century, a wide range of very interesting and new forms of prose fiction in eighteenth-century Britain (works we now call novels) aimed to represent the real, sometimes at the expense of aesthetics. These works represented everyday and even “low” life (thieves and prostitutes) as well as probable as opposed to clearly imaginary scenarios—and they sometimes claimed to be “true stories.”  


Suggestively, this new attention to the particulars of quotidian, local life took place in the midst of an expanding British maritime empire. In this introductory course on the practices of literary study, we shall think about how we might analyze formal innovations in prose fiction alongside such social and historical changes. How did relations of empire impact and even give rise to representations of local life in Britain? What aspects of this society might have made it matter that stories be empirically true—or seem as if they could be? How did new technologies—both scientific and narrative—invite attention not only to what was represented but how it was represented? To think through these questions, we’ll read novels alongside a range of other writings—keeping in mind that at this moment “literature” named all writing, not simply imaginative “literary” works. As we read philosophical writing of the period, voyage narratives, “spy” stories, and science writing, we’ll discuss how to integrate different genres of writing and fields of knowledge into our literary analyses. We’ll pay special attention to writing in class, from passage analysis to thesis development to argument structure. Two 5-page and one 7-page paper are required, and occasional quizzes will help you keep up with the reading.  


Readings will likely include Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, Daniel Defoe, Roxana, Tobias Smollett, Roderick Random, Transactions of the Royal Society, William Dampier, Voyages, John Locke, Essay Concerning  Human Understanding, Ned Ward, The London Spy

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