How does literature allow us to experience the interior of minds? How does it let us feel the way one mind becomes permeated by other minds? Professor Sophie Volpp’s spring course, CL190, is framed as a senior seminar but is open to students at all levels with an interest in literature.
Comp Lit (Chair Miryam Sas): What led you to want to teach this class?
Professor Volpp: I decided to teach this class after a debate in one of my seminars between two students. One student was speaking of the motivations and feelings of a character in the Chinese novel The Plum in the Golden Vase (Jin Ping Mei). The other student criticized her for talking about the character as though she were a real person. The first student then stated that if the 17th -century commentators spoke of the characters in this way, surely she could as well. I started to wonder about the history of the taboo on thinking about characters as though they are real people. Students do come into our courses with this taboo – and yet the moments when we break it are often the most animated moments of discussion. I developed a syllabus for a course on reading character that would examine the history of the taboo at the same time that we analyze the techniques writers use to allow us to enter the minds of their characters.
CL: Who are some of the writers you are most excited for students to learn about and get to know in this class?
SV: I have taught this class a number of times and I would say that the big surprises for students tend to be how much they love Henry James’ What Maisie Knew and Cao Xueqin’s novel The Dream of the Red Chamber (Honglou meng), which we read in David Hawkes’ translation. In What Maisie Knew, James relates the antagonistic feelings of two divorcing parents through the restricted consciousness of their child. Students really get how James’ convoluted sentences reveal the complexity of minds permeated by other minds. As for Dream of the Red Chamber, the freshness of Cao Xueqin’s eighteenth-century experiments with the representation of interior states feel very avant-garde even today.
CL: What do you most hope students will gain from this class?
SV: I hope that students will re-encounter the pleasures of reading character at the same time that their understanding of the history of thinking about literary character becomes more sophisticated.
CL: Do students need any special preparation?
SV: Students do not need any special skills or language abilities or other preparation. This is a seminar where we work intensively on developing skills of verbal and written presentation. Since this is the capstone course in the 100 sequence, we focus on writing one seminar paper. Students who want to gain skills in writing a longer research paper in Comparative Literature should take this course.