21L.472 | Fall 2008 | Undergraduate

Major European Novels


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session

Course Description

This subject traces the history of the European novel by studying texts that have been influential in that history in connection with two interrelated ideas. The first of these ideas underlies much of our modern regard for the novel as a literary form-namely, the idea that if fiction intends to deal with the most important forces animating the collective life of humanity, it will not deal with the actions of persons of immense consequence—kings, princes, high elected officials and the like—but rather with the lives of apparently ordinary people and the everyday details of their social ambitions and desires: to use a phrase of Balzac’s, with “ce qui se passe partout” (what happens everywhere). This idea sometimes goes with another: that the most significant representations of the human condition are those dealing with a particular type of protagonist-namely, with someone not obviously qualified to be of consequence in the world (by reason, say, of birth or inheritance) but nonetheless conceives of himself or herself as destined for great accomplishment and who tries to compel society to accept him or her as its agent.

The readings begin for the sake of contrast with a comic representation of this second idea, Part One of Cervantes’s masterpiece, Don Quixote, which pokes fun at the idea that one can elect oneself as a person of destiny and which also introduces into narrative fiction a quality with which later novels will be much occupied-a kind of teasing inquiry into the various devices by which narratives tends to endow characters with importance. We then turn to serious representations of the idea in nineteenth century fiction: Balzac’s Old Goriot, Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Endowing characters with extraordinary intensity, these books constitute part of the main line of what is called the realistic tradition of novelistic representation. In reading them, we will consider the distinctions to be drawn between these texts and the two other main traditions of novelistic fiction in Europe-the romantic tradition, which endows characters with attributes which obviously qualify them for consequence in the world, and also the tradition of naturalism, which deals with characters more subdued in their relation to the social forces that constrain their lives. Four of these six texts are works of considerable length; an effort will be made to keep the reading within the limits of approximately 250 pages while reading them.

Course Format

As a Communication-Intensive Course, this subject requires 20 pages in writing, divided into three assignments as indicated below. The first of these assignments will be rewritten upon its return and resubmitted in a form complaint with corrections made by the instruction on the pages of the first version. This subject will offer students substantial opportunity for oral expression by reason of (a) its discussion format and (b) a division into groups of two or three students (depending upon enrollment), each of which will make two fifteen-minute presentations of materials conducive to the discussion of a given assignment, following the model of such presentations offered by the instructor at the outset of the term. The maximum number of students per section of this subject is 18, except in cases where there are no sections and where a writing fellow is attached to the subject, in which case the enrollment can rise to 25.

The subject meets twice a week for two ninety-minute sessions. Each session begins with a lecture of varying length, usually running for twenty-minutes to half an hour, although the lectures of the first two meetings will be somewhat longer. The rest of the session is devoted to class-discussion of the materials assigned for the session. Participation in discussion is essential to the life of the class and the force and cogency of students’ remarks will have a marked influence on grades. Much of the grade will also depend upon the quality of the three written assignments required by the course: an early paper (running from five to seven pages) a mid-term paper (running from seven to nine pages) and a final paper (running from ten to twelve pages). The papers will each deal with some aspect of the readings and discussion; topics may be invented by the students but an extensive list of suggested topics will be circulated two weeks in advance of each paper’s due date for those students who require it.

Summary Calendar

1 Introduction  
2-4 Cervantes, Don Quixote (excerpts)  
5-7 Balzac, Père Goriot  
8-11 Stendhal, The Red and the Black Paper 1 due in Lec #11
12-15 Flaubert, Madame Bovary  
16-19 Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment Paper 2 due in Lec #19
20-24 Tolstoy, Anna Karenina  
25-26 To be announced Paper 3 due in Lec #26

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2008
Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments