English 250: Interpretations of Literature


Required texts:

Atwood, Margaret.  Wilderness Tips.  NY: Anchor, 1991.

Brooks, Gwendolyn.  Selected Poems.  NY: Harper, 1963.

Faulkner, William.  The Sound and the Fury.  NY: Vintage, 1984.

Fuller, Charles.  A Soldier’s Play. NY: Noonday, 1988.

Frost, Robert.  The Poetry of Robert Frost.  NY: Henry Holt, 1979.

Haruf, Kent.  Plainsong.  NY: Vintage, 1999.

Moore, Lorrie.  Self-HelpNY:Penguin/Plume, 1995.

Wasserstein, Wendy.  The Heidi Chronicles and Other Plays.  NY: Vintage, 1990.

Class schedule:

Aug. 29: Introduction
Aug. 31: Atwood, 3-47; quiz 1

Sept. 3: Atwood, 77-118; quiz 2
Sept. 5: Atwood, 121-162; student leaders: __________, _________, _________
Sept. 7: Brooks, "kitchenette building" (3); "the mother" (4-5); "a song in   the front yard" (6); "the ballad of chocolate Mabbie" (7); "The Bean Eaters" (72); "the rites for Cousin Vit" (58)

Sept. 10: Atwood, 165-204; student leaders: __________, _________, _________
Sept. 12: Wasserstein, 79-153; quiz 3
Sept. 14: Brooks, "the independent man" (9); "Negro Hero" (19-21); "Strong Men" (71); "               We Real Cool" (73); "the preacher" (8); “The Ballad of Rudolph Reed” (110);            student leaders:             _________, _________, _________

Sept. 17: Wasserstein, Heidi Chronicles, act I; quiz 4
Sept. 19: Wasserstein, Heidi Chronicles, act II; student leaders: _________, ________, _________
Sept. 21:  Brooks, “Lovers of the Poor" (90-93); “A Bronzeville Mother" (75-80); "The Last Quatrain" (81); "Chicago Defender" (87-89)

Sept. 24: Haruf, 3-78; quiz 5
Sept. 26: Draft of paper 1 due, plus two copies
Sept. 28: Brooks, “Beverly Hills, Chicago” (61-62); “Jessie Mitchell’s Mother” (85-86); "Bronzeville Woman in a Red Hat" (103-106); “the children of the poor”—#1, 2, 4 (52-53); student leaders: ________, ________, ________

Oct. 1: Haruf, 79-166; quiz 6; student leaders: ________, ________, ________
Oct. 3: film: “The Piano” (1993; New Zealand/France; dir. & screenplay Jane Campion); Revision of paper 1 due in my office by 4:00 (attached to draft copies and peer reviews
Oct. 5: film, cont.

Oct. 8: Haruf, 167-242; quiz 7
Oct. 10: Haruf, 243-301; student leaders; ________, ________, ________
Oct. 12: Brooks, post-60s poems (handout)

Oct. 15: fall break
Oct. 17: Fuller, act 1; quiz 8
Oct. 19: Fuller, act 2; student leaders: _________, __________, _________

Oct. 22:  Faulkner, 3-51.1
24: Faulkner, 51.1-111.5; quiz 9
Oct. 26: Frost, “Mending Wall” (33); “Death of the Hired Man” (34); “Home Burial” (51); “A Servant to Servants” (62); student leaders: _________, _________, _________

Oct. 29: Faulkner, 111.5-179; quiz 10
Oct. 31: Faulkner, 180-251; quiz 11; student leaders: ________, ________, ________
Nov. 2:  Frost, “After Apple-Picking” (68); “The Wood Pile” (101); “The Road Not Taken” (105); “Hyla Brook” (119); “The Oven Bird” (119); “Birches” (121); “Putting in the Seed” (123)

Nov. 5: Faulkner, 252-321; quiz 12
Nov. 7: Draft of paper 2 due, plus 2 copies
Nov. 9: Frost,” “The Hill Wife” (126); “Out, Out-” (136); “A Star in a Stoneboat” (172); “The Ax-Helve” (185); “The Witch of Coos” (202); student leaders: ________, ________, ________

Nov. 12: Frost, “Fire and Ice” (220); “Nothing Gold Can Stay” (222); “Stopping by Woods” (224); “Spring Pools” (245); “Tree at My Window” (251); “Two Tramps” (275); “The White-Tailed Hornet” (277)
Nov. 14:   Revision of paper 2 due by 4:00 in my office (attach to draft copies and peer reviews); film: “American Beauty” (1999; U.S.; dir. Sam Mendes; screenplay Alan Ball)
Nov. 16: film, cont.

Nov. 19: Moore, 3-48; quiz 13
Nov. 21-23: Thanksgiving break

Nov. 26: Moore, 49-115; student leaders: ________, ________, ________
Nov. 28:  Moore, 116-178; quiz 14
Nov. 30: Frost, “Desert Places” (296); “Neither Far Out Nor In Deep” (301); “Design” 302); “Provide, Provide” (307); “I Could Give All to Time” (334); “The Subverted Flower” (339)

Dec. 3: Frost, “Never Again Would Birds’ Song” (338); “Take Something Like a Star” (403); “Accidentally on Purpose” (425); assessment essay
Dec. 5: draft of paper 3 due, plus two copies

Dec. 10: Revision of paper 3 due in my office by 11:00 am (section H)
Dec. 11: Revision of paper 3 due in my office by 2:30 (section A)

Course objectives and requirements:

This course is both an introduction to major literary genres (poetry, drama, novels, short stories) and an introduction to literary interpretation. We will explore different critical approaches (including formalist, reader-response, feminist, Marxist, and psychoanalytical criticism) by using them to interpret a variety of literary texts.

Since the format of this class is guided discussion, attendance is importance. More than four (4) absences during the term for any reason will lower your final grade (by one half-grade for each absence over four). Straggling in late is inconsiderate and disruptive: be here on time.

Although you'll be especially responsible for initiating and sustaining discussion when you're leading the class, you should contribute to every session. Talking about stories and poems is fun and rewarding, and developing your discussion skills is a primary aim of this course. You must: bring questions and concerns to class; offer your own ideas and interpretations (no matter how weird they might seem); challenge statements made by others (teacher included) that seem off-base and support those that seem dead-on; make classmates comfortable and draw ideas from them. Above all, you must listen to classmates. You can't contribute to a discussion unless you're following it carefully.

Violations of the academic honor code will be prosecuted. See the Elon University Student Handbook for a full description of the honor code.


1) Discussion leading: To keep me from setting the agenda for every discussion, one class meeting each week will be led by students. Prepare for leading by meeting with your partners before your assigned session. Brainstorm for questions that will focus discussion on particularly interesting, important, and puzzling aspects of that day's reading. These should include: New Critical or formalist questions about the work's style, structure, and themes (i.e., questions about opening and closing strategies, narrative point of view, setting, imagery, stanza structure, etc.); questions about the author's apparent moral, political, and social vision (i.e., questions that Marxist or feminist critics would raise about class, race, and gender relations represented in the text); questions about personal reactions from reader-response perspectives; questions about the psychological dimensions of the text (i.e., family tensions, identity formation, etc.).

            A short (two-page) paper is due on the day that you lead. In this paper you should: a) pose those questions raised by the text that we should consider as a group; b) provide rationales for the questions that you pose-that is, explain why they're important. Do not answer the questions that you raise and explain. The class should do that. You and your discussion partners may write this paper separately or collaboratively. (You should work together if you’re leading discussion on a single text, like Faulkner’s novel or Wilson’s play. But if your team is dealing with two short stories or several poems, you can divide the labor and each focus on one story or two poems.) You must plan the class collaboratively, however, and prepare enough material to keep us engaged for the entire period. When you're leading class, feel free to use any strategies that will help us to understand the text (i.e., divide the class into small groups and assign different tasks to each group; organize dramatic representations of key passages, etc.). Be inventive: class will be dull if we follow the same format every day.

2) Quizzes: These will be given on the days specified on the class schedule. Quizzes serve two purposes. First, they are intended to encourage you to attend to the details that provide keys to a work's meaning and an author's purpose. Secondly, the quizzes should motivate you to keep up with the reading so that you're prepared for discussion. Missed quizzes cannot be made up, since that would defeat this second purpose. I will, however, drop your two lowest quiz scores before calculating your final average.

3) Papers: Three papers are required in addition to your "discussion prep" paper. Brief summaries are given below; future class mini-lectures and workshops will provide more details. For each of these papers, you can write on any assigned text with two restrictions: you cannot write more than once on the same author and you cannot write on more than one film.

            Drafts and revisions of all papers are due on the dates specified. If you fail to attend a drafting conference with a full draft and copies for peer reviewers, your grade on the final revision will be lowered by one half-grade. Late final revisions will also lose a half-grade for each day overdue. All papers should be typed (double spaced), meticulously proofread, and documented according to the MLA format. (See Troyka’s Quick Accesss for details.)

            Paper 1 (about 4 pages; on Atwood, Wasserstein, or Brooks): Interpret a text using a reader-response or formalist approach. Questions to for a formalist analysis: What seems to be the idea or theme that unifies this work? What aspects of the work's style and structure help to convey this idea? Support your interpretation with detailed textual evidence. Questions to consider from a reader-response perspective: What are your personal reactions to the text? As you progress through the story or poem, how do your reactions change or evolve? What aspects of the text particularly affect you? Why?

            Paper 2 (about 5 pages; on Atwood, Wasserstein, Brooks, Haruf, Faulkner, Wilson, Frost, or “The Piano”): Interpret a work using a feminist, Marxist, or psychoanalytical approach. Questions to consider for a feminist or Marxist approach: What does the text seem to be saying about relations between men and women or between socio-economic classes? How does the text express these gender or class relations through its style, content, and omissions? How does your particular critical approach illuminate the meaning of the text? Questions for a psychoanalytical approach: What desires and/or fears motivate the characters in the story or the speaker of the poem? What family relationships are of central importance to the text? Are these relationships riddled with the tensions and conflicts that Freud describes as the norm?

            Paper 3 (about 6 pages; on either film or any assigned text by an author that you haven't yet written about): This paper should synthesize the theories, methodologies, and insights of two critical approaches. Begin by identifying and explaining an interpretive question about a text that: 1) genuinely interests you; 2) can be fruitfully explored by using two of the critical approaches that we’ve studied. (Use at least one critical perspective that you haven’t already applied in your first or second paper.) In this paper you must: 1) explain the significance of your interpretive question; 2) carefully show how two critical approaches offer complementary and/or conflicting answers to this question.

4) Assessment essay: To assess teaching and learning in 200-level literature courses, the English Department requires that all students write a brief critical interpretation of a text that we haven’t read or discussed in class. This assessment test will be administered on Monday, December 3.

5) Teaching assistant and other resources: Elizabeth Scott, a senior English major, will be serving as my teaching assistant in this course. You (and I) are very lucky to have her: she’s a superior reader and writer and a great person. She will be available to help you with drafting and revising papers, discussion-leading strategies, and understanding difficult readings. Don’t hesitate to seek her assistance when you have questions or problems. Elizabeth’s email address is escott@elon.edu.

            The Writing Center (located on the first floor of Belk Library) is another excellent source for help at every stage of the writing process. See the Writing Center’s web site for more information and their fall semester hours: http:www.elon.edu/writingprogram/writingcenter/

Course grades:

            participation:    20% (15% for daily contributions; 5% for leading)

            quizzes:             25% (20% for weekly quizzes; 5% for assessment essay)

            paper 1:            15%

            paper 2:            20%

            paper 3:            20%