Literary Theory and the Modernist Short Story

Course Description:

Why do we study literature? What can it tell us about our culture and ourselves? Does good literature transcend the everyday social, economic, and political business of the world, or does it offer a different way of perceiving that business? In this course, we’ll address these questions and more as we explore the philosophies undergirding English as a discipline today. We’ll study four prominent schools of literary theory: humanism and New Criticism, feminism and gender studies, postcolonial theory, and posthumanism. We’ll ask how these theories can help us to read modernist short stories (i.e. stories from the first half of the twentieth century), a genre noted for its self-conscious experimentation with literary conventions. And, as we read and write about these texts, we’ll begin to develop our own theories of what literature does and how to interpret it.


This course has a demanding reading load, including a good deal of fairly difficult theoretical material. It will also require a substantial amount of written work, including four blog posts and two medium-length essays. Expect to devote at least two to three hours of work outside class for each hour spent in class. Class discussions will also be a significant part of this course, so please come to each session prepared and ready to talk. Finally, please note that the syllabus has been left empty for the final third of the semester. During this time, students will be selecting readings and, in groups, leading classes on these readings.


Course Requirements:

Essay 1: 15%

Essay 2: 15%

Blog Posts: 40% (10% each)

Group Presentation: 15%

Participation: 10%

Quizzes: 5%




Course schedule: (All readings should be completed prior to the class in which they are listed.)


T 1/7/14

Course introductions

Virginia Woolf, “Nurse Lugton’s Curtain” (handout)

Th 1/9/14

Mark Edmundson, “The Ideal English Major

David Mikics, “Cultural Studies: Bane of the Humanities” (access via VU library proxy)

T 1/14/14

Henry James, “The Figure in the Carpet

Th 1/16/14

Syllabus quiz

Peter Barry, “Theory Before ‘Theory’—Liberal Humanism” (OAK)

T 1/21/14

Virginia Woolf, “Solid Objects” and “Kew Gardens 

Th 1/23/14

Blog Post #1 Due

John Crowe Ransom, “Criticism, Inc.

T 1/28/14

Virginia Woolf, “Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street” (OAK) and “The New Dress 

Th 1/30/14

Ruth Hoberman, “Collecting, Shopping, and Reading” (OAK)

T 2/4/14

Blog Post #2 Due

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper

James Joyce, “Eveline

Th 2/6/14

Essay 1 draft due in class; peer review session

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, Chapter 3

T 2/11/14

Katherine Mansfield, “Prelude

Virginia Woolf, “A Society

Th 2/13/14

Essay 1 Due

Audre Lorde, “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” (OAK)


T 2/18/14

Blog Post #3 Due

James Joyce, “The Dead” and “Araby

Th 2/20/14

Michael Levenson, “Living History in ‘The Dead’” (OAK)

T 2/25/14

Field trip to the Frist Center

“Looking East: Western Artists and the Allure of Japan”

Th 2/27/14

Blog Post #4 Due

Essay 1 final draft due

Group presentation reading assignments due

Rupert Richard Arrowsmith, “The Transcultural Roots of Modernism” (OAK)

Edward Said, excerpt from Orientalism (OAK)

T 3/4/14

Spring break

Th 3/6/14

Spring break

T 3/11/14

Franz Kafka, “A Report to an Academy” (first translation by Edwin and Willa Muir) 

Th 3/13/14

Giorgio Agamben, excerpt from The Open (OAK)

T 3/18/114

Student presentation: Modern Family


Th 3/20/14

Lea Jacobs, “John Stahl: Melodrama, Modernism, and the Problem of Naïve Taste”

T 3/25/14

Student presentation: Saturday Night Live videos: “Celebrity Jeopardy” and “The Californians

Th 3/27/14

Janet Lyon, “On the Asylum Road with Woolf and Mew”

T 4/1/14

Student presentation: Of Mice and Men

Th 4/3/14

Essay 2 first draft due in class; peer review 

T 4/8/14

Student presentation: No Country for Old Men

Th 4/10/14

Essay 2 due

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, Chapter 3

T 4/15/14

Student presentation:The Awakening, chapters 1-3

Th 4/17/14

Blog Post #5 Due

Course review; course evaluations

Essay 2 final draft due 4/24/14 by noon


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.