English 161

Introduction to Literary Theory: The Theory Monster

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
1 Fall 2010 Serpell, C. Namwali
Serpell, Namwali
MW 4-5:30 9 Lewis

Other Readings and Media

Stevenson, R.: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; James, H.: The Turn of the Screw; Barthes, R.: S/Z; Muller, J.P. and Richardson, W. J.: The Purloined Poe; Leitch, V. et al.: The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism


At the close of “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” Jacques Derrida takes recourse to the language of monstrosity in his account of the loss of a stable center for human discourse: “the as yet unnamable which is proclaiming itself and which can do so, as is necessary whenever a birth is in the offing, only under the species of the non-species, in the formless, mute, infant, and terrifying form of monstrosity.” This course begins with the premise that the collection of texts that goes under the dread name “theory” is best considered in just this way: as a nascent, monstrous assemblage. Like Frankenstein’s monster, theory too is a composite of parts, suturing together disparate bodies of knowledge. It too is belated, “always already” dead, condemned to look back toward its origins even as it attempts to destroy them. Theory, too, is self-regarding, peering at its seams, racked with revulsion at the face it presents to itself in the mirror. Through this two-way lens of monstrosity, we will gaze at theory and let it gaze back. The goal is to learn to apply theory to the practice of literary analysis. We will respond to three monstrous short stories (Honoré de Balzac’s “Sarrasine,” Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,” and Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony”); two Gothic novellas (Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw); and two horrifying films (Alien and The Others). Each of these texts will work as a central hub around which various theories revolve. Along the way, we will encounter monsters, ghosts, aliens, medusas, and wolfmen. I recommend that you read the literary texts (available online) and watch the films (available at the library) on your own before the course begins—there will be time allotted for them but the theoretical reading (up to 60 pages per week) is very intensive. Three 3-page papers; a take-home final.

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