ENGL 1500 Introduction to British Literature
Grace Rexroth, PhD Candidate
About the Course:
While writing A Room of One’s Own in 1929—in the midst of economic collapse and the aftermath of the first world war—Virginia Woolf observed: “This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room.” Her point here is that in moments of crisis the need for literature is always felt but not always well understood because we tend to hierarchize our readerly priorities according to a set of ingrained expectations about what matters most. But should we, perhaps, read about women in a drawing room in the aftermath of war? What should we read and write when it feels like the world is falling apart—and how might it guide our thoughts and our actions? What literature matters most for a world on fire?
In ENGL 1500, we will be examining what generations of readers and critics have heralded as the “best” works of British literature—and we’ll be focusing specifically on what people wrote and read during times of great social and political upheaval. You will be invited into the romance and adventure of novels, short stories, and plays while also considering their cultural, social, and political effects. We will study writers like William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and Jane Austen as well as authors with whom you may be less familiar. We’ll read “serious” literature alongside popular genres like early crime fiction and the graphic novel. We will also examine major developments in British poetry, while critically examining what good poetry is and does. Throughout this class you will be asked to consider, what is a “masterpiece”? Who decides? And what counts as British literature? This is a course that will teach you not just to read and interpret the British literary canon, but how to understand the legacy of those stories—how “masterpieces” of British literature continue to shape our world and ourselves—especially in moments of crisis.
Students who actively participate in the class and complete all assignments on time will be able to perform the following tasks by the end of the course:
- Gain an initial exposure to a number of literary works composed by British writers
- Demonstrate comprehension of the historical circumstances in which each work was produced, from Shakespeare to the present
- Develop and use a vocabulary of literary terms and concepts
- Identify and describe characters, plots, significant passages, and themes in selected works
- Apply techniques of close reading to texts to be able to identify, define, and discuss genre, poetic language, poetic form, tone, audience, allusions, imagery, rhetorical devices, etc.
- Formulate an interpretative thesis and defend it with analysis of textual evidence, as demonstrated in frequent writing assignments (discussion posts and papers)
- Distill the breadth of class discussion, lecture material, and literary musing into concise, focused, and formal prose pieces of literary analysis
Overall, my aim for this course is to improve your critical reading, thinking, and writing skills.
- Critical reading is the ability to recognize literary devices, such as allusions, underlying assumptions, subtle implications, and meaningful omissions in a particular text.
- Critical thinking is the ability to analyze the significance of literary devices, and includes assessing the relationship between a text and the cultural and historical period in which it was written.
- Critical writing is the ability to successfully articulate an analysis, explaining how it leads to a particular interpretation of a text. An effective critical analysis provides textual evidence to support a particular interpretation of a text.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. New York: Penguin Classics, (1813) 1996.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Norton Critical Edition, 2001.
Ishiguro, Kazuo. The Remains of the Day. Vintage Books, 1988.
More, Alan. V for Vendetta. Vertigo, (1982) 2008.
Shakespeare, William. Merchant of Venice. New York: Bedford/St. Martins, (1604) 2007.
Grading (out of 1000 points):