Tu/Th 08:00-09:30 279 Dwinelle Instructor: Keru Cai

Does every detail or object mentioned in a piece of literature necessarily have a purpose, a meaning? Does it advance the plot, evoke the setting, contribute to characterization, establish a motif? Are some details or objects just thematically purposeless? We will begin the course by considering one literary critic’s famous take on this question: Roland Barthes’s idea of “the reality effect.” When a literary text purports to represent reality, what use does it make of random, seemingly extraneous details and objects?

We will then look at some French and Russian texts that are meant to be more or less realist in genre. These short stories are often structured around and obsessed with simple mundane objects: an overcoat, a necklace, a dog. Why do these writers give so much importance to things that seem quite trivial? Does the Barthesian “reality effect” obtain in these short stories? We will then transition to selections from Chinese fiction (of varying lengths) and film, which often depart from the aims of realism. How do these new aesthetic forms in a new national literature depict ordinary objects and extraneous descriptive details? Are these quotidian things (food, clothes, furniture, and so on) more heavily imbued with symbolism or allegory? Finally, we will end with a different genre entirely, that of traditional Chinese drama. When objects mentioned in a play are actual physical props onstage, how does this affect their symbolic significance?
As a reading and composition class, we will use these discussions and close-readings as a foundation for improving analytical and persuasive writing. To this end, we will also read and discuss the work of critics who have thought about some of these questions. Students will be asked to write two essays themselves.
Required texts (subject to change):
Guy de Maupassant, “The Necklace”
Nikolai Gogol, “The Overcoat”
Anton Chekhov, “The Lady with the Dog”
Lu Xun, “Medicine,” “New Year Sacrifice,” “Diary of a Madman,” “The True Story of Ah Q,” “Kong Yiji,” “Soap,” “In the Wineshop”
Eileen Chang, Lust, Caution
Ang Lee, Lust, Caution (film)
Wong Kar-Wai, Chongking Express (film)
Ah Cheng, The King of Trees: Three Novellas
Kong Shangren, The Peach Blossom Fan