Reading & Composition

Reading & Composition

In the Belly of the Beast: Exploring the Minds of Literary Criminals
Course Number: 
Course Type or Level: 
Erin Bennett
233 Dwinelle

“There are those who believe in my innocence and there are those who believe in my guilt. There’s no in between – either I’m a psychopath in sheep’s clothing, or I am you.”

-Amanda Knox


Class Location: Dwinelle 233

Office Hours: Wednesdays 1:15-3:15                                                             CCN: 23280

Course Description:

In this course, we will enter the minds of literary characters who commit crimes – often violent, sometimes just petty. In addition to exploring the motives that inspire our villains to exact atrocities, we will analyze the ways through which the texts portray our villains’ psyches. While we read each text, we will consider questions such as the following: How does the narrative structure of the text effect our ability to empathize with the enemy? Are we able to understand the motives behind the miscreant’s crimes more readily when we read from his or her point of view? What are the affective potentialities and limitations of first-person, second-person, and third-person narratives? How does the text illustrate the perpetrator’s contrition, if it does at all? And if the perpetrator appears to be repentant, does the text suggest that his or her expressions of guilt are authentic or artificial? Do societal pressures – such as racism, sexism, classism – under which the criminal lives help contextualize or even justify his or her offenses? How is the experience of reading about crimes in a literary text different from reading about the same crimes in a newspaper article or in an historical text? Are we able to identify with the murderers, the child abusers, and the rapists of the literary world?

We will consider a selection of texts that span across time, geography, and genre. We will read scholarly articles as well as works of literature. As this is a Reading and Composition course, one of our primary goals will be to build and to refine your ability to construct a cogent analytical argument about a literary text and to support your argument using textual evidence. You will write a total of 40 pages that will consist of various formal writing assignments throughout the semester. You will read 100-150 pages of literary and scholarly texts per week.

Possible Course Texts:

Atwood, Margaret – Alias Grace

Blackhurst, Rod and Brian McGinn – Amanda Knox (documentary film)

Braddon, Mary Elizabeth – Lady Audley’s Secret

Camus, Albert – The Stranger

Coetzee, J. M. – Disgrace and Waiting for the Barbarians

Dacre, Charlotte – Zofloya; or, The Moor

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor – Crime and Punishment

Eliot, George – Adam Bede

Euripides – Medea

Ferrante, Elena – The Lost Daughter

Fowles, John – The Collector

Nabokov, Vladimir – Lolita

Poe, Edgar Allen – “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Black Cat,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart”

Shakespeare, William – Hamlet and Macbeth

Süskind, Patrick – Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Warner-Vieyra, Myriam – Juletane

Wright, Richard – Native Son

Zola, Émile – Thérèse Raquin

A note on the material:

In this course, we will explore sensitive topics that include sexual abuse, racial violence, drug addiction, and suicide. Reading and thinking in depth about these issues can be emotionally taxing and triggering for some. I include this warning not to discourage you from taking the course, but to make sure that you are as informed as possible about its content. This being said, I want to emphasize that it is perfectly reasonable and expected to have an emotional response to the texts that we will analyze. It is my intention that the classroom will serve as a safe space in which to acknowledge and to express these emotional responses, while simultaneously functioning as a site of academic rigor. To this effect, please consider that to be a contributing member of our class community entails showing the utmost respect for one another.

A note on self-care:

If you find the material or the class discussion to be upsetting and would like extra support, please feel free to talk to me about additional self-care resources if you feel comfortable doing so. In addition, I encourage you to contact the Tang Center’s Counseling department. You can schedule an appointment by calling 510-642-9494 or by visiting their website: Here is the hotline rape crisis hotline for the Bay Area (the organization is called BAWAR: Bay Area Women Against Rape): 510-845-7273. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. A more comprehensive list of mental health and social services resources is on bCourses under “Files” and is included in the course reader.