Literature and Social Categories
For this class, we hone the skill of close reading, which examines how a work of literature makes its meaning through its style (e.g., its tone, narrative perspective, figurative language, and so on). In particular, we consider the way works of literature challenge social categories by engaging with the stylistic conventions of their genre (literary category). The works we read in class both set and defy expectations about their literary category and its conventions. In so doing, they also set and defy expectations about the social categories with which they are preoccupied. The norm or habit of these literary works is to confront and change ideological constructs that might otherwise be taken for granted: Jorge Luis Borges’ “Library of Babel” (1941) proposes a universe in which the relationship between literature and meaning itself is radically defamiliarized. Machado de Assis’ The Alienist (1882) satirizes an attempt to definitively delineate the boundaries between reason and insanity. Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915) offers tragi-comic investigation into the limits of humanity.
The interpretive work of close reading reveals the ambiguities, paradoxes, tensions, and challenges that a text offers us (and that we offer a text!) The lively and unstable work of interpretation is evident in our class discussions. And yet, as we shall see, a thoughtful and carefully crafted literary argument can be highly convincing and elucidating. Students learn to write with the clarity, precision, and nuance of an excellent close reader. Students write essays that they improve and refine through deep revision. Requirements for the class also include regular attendance and reading quizzes as well as preparing for and participating in class discussion.