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The Modern American Novel: an introduction

In this course we shall study key novels that constitute contrasting interpretations of twentieth-century U.S.A.
University of Oxford University Offices Wellington Square Oxford ,OX1 2JD United Kingdom
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Course at a Glance

Mode of learning : Online - Instructor Lead(LVC)

Domain / Subject : General/Others

Function : General

Trainer name : Dr Andrew Blades

Starts on : 22nd Sep 2014

Duration : 10 Weeks

Difficulty : Advanced

About the course

Some of the most wonderful fiction in English has been written by Americans. In this course we shall study key novels that constitute contrasting interpretations of twentieth-century U.S.A. We shall examine the representation of history, region and family conflict in William Faulkner’s depiction of the poverty-stricken Deep South in As I Lay Dying (1930): in Leslie Marmon Silko’s exploration of modern Pueblo Indian experience in Ceremony (1987); and in Toni Morrison’s examination of slavery in Beloved (1987).

We shall also analyse fictional accounts of personal aspiration and downfall that explore questions of individual and national identity in the modern age: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925); and Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (1998). Our studies will focus on the relationship between the literary techniques of these works and on their social and political concerns.

Course aims

This course will enable participants to:

  • acquire both an overview and detailed knowledge of six novels that exemplify the diversity of American experience and narrative form in the twentieth century
  • consider each novel’s engagement with its specific historical and cultural contexts
  • develop their skills in analysing a range of narrative techniques such as multiple and unreliable narrative voices, disrupted chronologies and recurring symbolism. There is ample scope for applying skills and concepts learned from other online literature courses offered by the Department.
  • discuss the texts comparatively, in relation to other American fiction they have read, and in the context of on-going debates about 'great American novels'
  • contribute to a group reading list and to keep a personal reading blog

Assessment methods

Assessment for this course is based on two written assignments - one short assignment due half way through the course and one longer assignment due at the end of the course. Students will have about two weeks to complete each assignment.

Teaching methods

  • Guided reading of texts
  • Guided use of existing websites
  • Discussions of particular issues and responses to reading in the unit forums
  • Close critical analyses of selected extracts from the texts studied

Teaching outcomes

By the end of this course... You will understand:

  • the diversity of American experience and its representation in literary form
  • the history and context with which the novels studied engage
  • the effects of a range of narrative techniques
  • the reasons why specific texts might be defined as 'modernist' or 'postmodernist'
  • past and current scholarly and media-led debates about American fiction
  • And you will have developed the following skills:
  • to identify the principal themes and narrative techniques in a range of novels
  • to make a case for the relationship between subject-matter and form in each novel
  • to analyze reviews and scholarly essays and to engage with these in personal critical analyses
  • to reflect on a range of novels comparatively
  • to gain an overview of developments in American fiction over time

Course eligibility

Course Requirements

This course is delivered online; to participate you must to be familiar with using a computer for purposes such as sending email and searching the Internet. You will also need regular access to the Internet and a computer meeting our recommended minimum computer specification.

Recommended reading

To participate in the course you will need to have regular access to the Internet and you will need to buy the following books (in any reputable editon):

  • Faulkner, William., As I Lay Dying (1930) [page references will be to the Penguin 1991 edition with Introduction by Tony Tanner]
  • Fitzgerald, F. Scott., The Great Gatsby (1925) [page references will be to the 2004 Vintage Classics edition]
  • Morrison, Toni., Beloved (1987] [page references will be to the Penguin 1986 edition]
  • Silko, Leslie Marmon., Ceremony (1977] [page references will be to the 2005 Vintage International edition]
  • Roth, Philip., American Pastoral (1998). [page references will be to the 2005 Vintage International edition]
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Course Content

  • Reading and writing America: Some introductions.
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
  • William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying
  • Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony - I
  • Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony - II
  • Toni Morrison, Beloved - I
  • Toni Morrison, Beloved - II
  • Philip Roth, American Pastoral - I
  • Philip Roth, American Pastoral - II
  • The great American novel?


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