ENGL 356

Literature, Politics, and Activism :: Spring 2015

Tuesdays and Thursdays, 11 a.m. – 12.15 p.m., MLIB 442

Abbreviated calendar here with links to assignments and readings
Complete syllabus here with all class policies and calendar

Art, Don't Use Photo courtesy John Lurz

Honestly, what’s the use of books and movies when the history happening outside our doors is so troubling and immediate and seems to demand action and activism, not fiction and film? This question, or a version of it, has occasioned much debate ever since Plato decided to banish poets from his ideal Republic as useless liars. Certain historical moments have made this debate even more important, though, and authors of literary works have often sought to alter the political landscape by intervening directly in the pressing issues of the day. From antebellum slavery in the USA to 20th-century apartheid in South Africa, from 19th-century industrial exploitation to the contemporary exploitation of immigrant labor, from the Holocaust to Hiroshima, writers have attempted to highlight injustices and affect society and social policy. In this class, we’ll ask how and why.

Students will read a number of “politically engaged” texts or read seemingly unpolitical texts in political ways in order to:

  • understand the political, ethical, and social contexts to which these texts respond;
  • suggest possible stances taken by or within the texts, or possible solutions to political problems posed by these texts;
  • become familiar with some of the radically different strategies adopted by politically engaged writers, from avant-garde experimentalism to descriptive realism;
  • and critically reflect on the role that these texts, and literature or literary intellectuals in general, can play as a force for political or ethical activism.

Grade Breakdown

  • Midterm :: 200 points :: 20%
  • Final :: 200 points :: 20%
  • Annotated bibliography :: 125 points :: 12.5%
  • Research paper :: 250 points :: 25%
  • Character Persona :: 100 points :: 10%
  • Introductory blog :: 25 points :: 2.5%
  • Concluding blog :: 100 points :: 10%

Course readings

All of the course books are available at the campus bookstore, but feel free to buy them used if you can save a few bucks. Please have the edition listed, so that you can fully participate in and follow class lectures and discussion.

Required texts:

Émile Zola, Germinal (Oxford) ISBN: 9780199536894
Samuel Becket, Waiting for Godot (Grove) ISBN: 9780802144423
Yevgeny Zamyatin, We (Penguin) ISBN: 9780140185852
Alan Moore et al, V for Vendetta (DC Comics) ISBN: 9781401208417
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (Oxford) ISBN: 9780199535569

"The best course that I ever took in college was in my sophomore year, and it was a course in Shakespearean literature. I learned more about political communications in that one semester from a Catholic nun than I learned in any political science course. It made me aware of the power of language, and how telling a story…a political campaign is about big issues, but you have to describe a narrative. You have to create a storyline. You know, what is this all about?"
         --Karl Rove, on Freakonomics Podcast

3 thoughts on “ENGL 356”

  1. Mary Bennett: It seems that Mr Bingley has really taken a liking to my sister Jane. Jane wanted to go visit him and mother made her ride the horse instead of taking the carriage. Only because the weather was poor, and she knew the Bingleys would take pity on poor Jane when she showed up soaking wet. Mother can be so embarrassing sometimes. However, this time her plan worked, Jane has fallen sick and must remain at the Bingley’s residence for now. Mother could not be happier with herself. When will she ever learn that her unacceptable behavior is ruining our family reputation? She wants so desperately to marry us all off, but she is chasing all the men away, because of her ill manners.


  2. Mary Bennett:
    As Jane’s plans with Mr Bingley seem to be working out; Mr Darcy has shown an interest in Elizabeth. Mr. Darcy is so proud and looks down on everyone I can’t imagine Lizzy taking him seriously. My dear sister Lizzy appreciates merit in someone. Mr. Darcy has no merit, he is arrogant and rude. In a letter to Lizzy he mentions our family as embarrassing; all of us, even down to father. Lizzy is appalled by this, because she loves our father. Everyone knows mother is embarrassing, she is making it impossible for us girls to get married off, she does not know how to behave in public.


  3. Mary Bennett:
    It seems things change very quickly around here, and things also appear to be other than what they seem. Darcy talked Mr. Bingley out of marrying my beautiful sister Jane; he could not see how much she does love him. Meanwhile, he has been impressing Lizzy. As it turns out, Mr. Bingley’s sister has been after Darcy, speaking ill of my wonderful sister Lizzy, however, Darcy stood up for my sister, and mentioned how much he does admire her. Our Aunt and Uncle took Lizzy to Penberly estate where they run into Mr. Darcy. It is here that Lizzy realizes Mr Darcy is not the arrogant man everyone thinks of him to be. She see’s his beautiful, very natural estate. He is very polite about meeting her relatives, he does not consider their status at all. Darcy and Lizzy fall in love and realize they are both who the other one has been looking for.


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Associate Professor of Literature :: Yale-NUS College

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