Literary Analysis of American and English Literature

Course Description

This course teaches students how to analyse American and English literature. Students will engage with a curated selection of short works, ranging from the early narratives of Chaucer and Shakespeare to contemporary voices like Zadie Smith and Jhumpa Lahiri. Each week focuses on a different era or theme, providing a variety of literary styles, historical contexts, and cultural perspectives. The course is designed to enhance students’ skills in literary analysis, interpretation, and cross-cultural literary appreciation. Emphasising interactive discussions and reflective writing, it aims to deepen their understanding of the nuances and complexities inherent in American and English literary traditions.



[ON-DEMAND CLASS] Introduction to Literary Analysis

This class introduces literary analysis which illuminates the hidden layers of storytelling in literature. We'll unlock the secrets of profound reading, decoding everything from symbolic nuances to thematic intricacies. Drawing from Thomas C. Foster's celebrated guide How to Read Literature Like a Professor, we’ll dissect quest narratives, unearth symbols, and decipher character archetypes. This class will transform your reading experience, revealing the rich tapestry woven into the fabric of literary works.

Early English Literature

For Week 2 of the course, we will delve into Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Miller's Tale" from The Canterbury Tales. This particular tale is known for its humorous and somewhat bawdy narrative, offering a satirical take on romantic conventions. It serves as an excellent example of Chaucer's skill in character portrayal and his ability to weave humour and irony into his stories. Our focus will be on analysing how Chaucer employs these elements to reflect and critique the social attitudes of his time, particularly towards love and class. This analysis will involve a close examination of the story's character dynamics, its humorous elements, and its underlying satirical tones, providing students with an understanding of medieval literature's approach to storytelling and social commentary.

The English Renaissance

We will engage with William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, focusing on its critical scenes that highlight the themes of justice, mercy, and societal prejudices. This play is an exemplary piece of Elizabethan drama, known for its complex characters and moral dilemmas. Our analysis will delve into Shakespeare's linguistic prowess, particularly his skilful use of dialogue and soliloquy, to uncover deeper character motivations and thematic undertones. The historical and cultural backdrop of Elizabethan England will also be considered to understand the play's commentary on race and religion. This exploration aims to deepen students' understanding of Shakespeare's dramatic techniques and his engagement with timeless social issues.

[ON-DEMAND CLASS] Victorian Era 

For our study of the Victorian era, we will turn our attention to Charles Dickens' "The Signal-Man", a short story that reflects the complexities and anxieties of Victorian England. This narrative, distinct from Dickens' more widely known novels, delves into themes of industrialisation, supernatural premonitions, and the psychological impact of technological advancements. Our analysis will focus on Dickens' portrayal of the Victorian fascination with progress and its unintended consequences, as well as his skill in creating atmospheric tension and suspense. Through a detailed examination of the story's setting, characterisation, and narrative style, we will explore how Dickens captures the zeitgeist of his era, providing insight into the societal changes and moral questions that defined Victorian literature.

English Romanticism

We will examine Mary Shelley's "The Mortal Immortal", a work that encapsulates the themes and stylistic elements of English Romanticism. This story, less known than Shelley's Frankenstein, offers a poignant exploration of immortality and the human condition. Our analysis will focus on how Shelley employs Romantic motifs such as the sublime, the pursuit of forbidden knowledge, and the nature of suffering. By examining the narrative style, character development, and underlying themes, we will gain insight into the broader Romantic fascination with the supernatural and the emotional depths of human experience. This close reading aims to provide a deeper understanding of Shelley's work within the context of Romantic literature and its enduring influence on English literary tradition.

English Modernism 

In this week, we explore Virginia Woolf's "Kew Gardens", a short story that exemplifies the characteristics of English Modernism. This narrative stands out for its experimental style and focus on the internal experiences of its characters. Our analysis will concentrate on Woolf's use of stream-of-consciousness technique, her attention to the minutiae of everyday life, and the way she captures the fleeting nature of human thoughts and interactions. The story's setting in the famous Royal Botanic Gardens will also be a point of discussion, as it reflects the Modernist preoccupation with urban settings and the natural world. By engaging with Woolf's distinctive narrative approach, we will gain insights into the broader Modernist movement and its departure from traditional storytelling methods, marking a significant shift in the landscape of English literature.

Postwar English Literature 

This week's focus is on Graham Greene's "The Destructors", a postwar English short story that captures the social and moral upheaval of Britain in the aftermath of World War II. Greene's narrative presents a powerful examination of the loss of innocence, the impact of war on the younger generation, and the crumbling of traditional societal structures. We will analyse Greene's depiction of the gang of boys and their symbolic act of destruction, exploring themes of nihilism, rebellion, and the search for identity in a fractured world. Our discussion will also encompass the story's setting amidst the ruins of London, reflecting on how Greene uses this backdrop to comment on the broader themes of post-war disillusionment and societal change. Through this analysis, we will gain a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by postwar English society and the ways in which literature sought to grapple with these profound changes.

[ON-DEMAND CLASS] Contemporary English Literature 

Our exploration brings us to Zadie Smith's "The Embassy of Cambodia", a contemporary short story that offers a window into modern multicultural Britain. This narrative is a poignant exploration of themes such as identity, immigration, and the complexities of urban life. Smith's story, set in northwest London, revolves around the life of a young immigrant woman, providing a microcosmic view of a globalised, interconnected world. We will delve into Smith's use of perspective, her incisive social commentary, and her skill in capturing the rhythms and nuances of contemporary urban existence. The analysis will also consider how the story reflects the cultural diversity and social dynamics of modern England, showcasing Smith's ability to intertwine personal narratives with broader societal issues. This week's focus on "The Embassy of Cambodia" will help students appreciate the evolving nature of English literature in response to changing social landscapes and the challenges of the 21st century.

Early American Literature 

In this session, we will delve into Washington Irving's "Rip Van Winkle", a seminal work in the early American literary canon. This short story, set in the years before and after the American Revolutionary War, offers a unique blend of myth, legend, and a poignant exploration of identity and change. Irving's narrative is renowned for its use of folklore and allegory, depicting the transformation of both the titular character and the young nation. We will analyse how Irving employs these elements to reflect on the impact of historical change and the search for American identity in a new world. The story's mix of humour, nostalgia, and social commentary makes it an exemplary piece for understanding the foundations of American literary tradition. Our exploration of "Rip Van Winkle" will provide insights into the early stages of American storytelling and its evolving national consciousness.

[ON-DEMAND CLASS] American Romanticism 

Our journey through American literature brings us to Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher", a quintessential example of American Romanticism. This short story is a masterpiece of Gothic fiction, rich with themes of horror, madness, and the supernatural. Poe's narrative is renowned for its atmospheric tension and psychological depth, exploring the crumbling of both the physical and mental states. We will scrutinise Poe's use of symbolism, his construction of mood and setting, and the way he delves into the human psyche's darker recesses. This story's exploration of fear, family decay, and the unknown reflects the broader Romantic fascination with emotion, individual experience, and the sublime. Through "The Fall of the House of Usher", students will gain a deeper understanding of the Romantic era's impact on American literature and its enduring fascination with the mysterious and macabre.

American Realism 

This week, we turn our attention to Mark Twain's "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County", a seminal work in the American Realism movement. This short story, renowned for its vibrant characters and use of regional dialect, offers a humorous and satirical look at American society and culture. Twain's narrative is a prime example of the Realist emphasis on everyday life, local colour, and the depiction of ordinary people in ordinary situations. We will examine Twain's storytelling techniques, particularly his use of vernacular speech and satire, to capture the essence of rural American life in the late 19th century. Additionally, the story's exploration of themes such as deception, competition, and the human penchant for storytelling reflects broader societal attitudes and the American spirit. Through "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County", students will explore the development of American literary realism and its significance in reflecting the social and cultural realities of the time.

[ON-DEMAND CLASS] The Harlem Renaissance 

For this session, we will explore Langston Hughes' "Thank You, Ma'am", a significant work from the Harlem Renaissance period. This narrative, while concise, powerfully encapsulates the themes of empathy, dignity, and the human experience within the African American community. Hughes’ story is a poignant reflection on kindness and understanding amidst the struggles of life, set against the backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance, a pivotal time of African American artistic flourishing and cultural expression. We will analyse Hughes' use of dialogue, character development, and setting to convey his messages about human connection and the complexities of urban life. Additionally, the story's portrayal of race, class, and generational differences provides insight into the broader social and cultural dynamics of the time. Through "Thank You, Ma'am", students will gain an understanding of the Harlem Renaissance's impact on American literature and its role in shaping the narrative of the African American experience.

American Modernism 

This week's focus is on F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Ice Palace", a short story that vividly captures the essence of American Modernism. Set during a period of rapid societal change and cultural upheaval, Fitzgerald's narrative explores themes of tradition versus modernity, the clash of regional cultures, and the disillusionment of the Jazz Age. In The Ice Palace, we see Fitzgerald's masterful portrayal of character and setting as tools to examine the broader tensions and transformations of American society in the early 20th century. We will delve into his use of symbolism, narrative style, and the exploration of the American Dream, all of which reflect the Modernist preoccupation with introspection, disillusionment, and the fragmentation of the American experience. Through this analysis, students will gain insights into the complexities of Modernist literature and Fitzgerald's unique contribution to the American literary canon.

Postwar American Literature 

In this session, we delve into Raymond Carver's "Cathedral", a pivotal short story in postwar American literature. Carver's narrative is a profound exploration of themes such as isolation, connection, and the transformative power of empathy. Set in the later part of the 20th century, Cathedral reflects the minimalist style Carver was known for, characterised by sparse language and a focus on the subtleties of everyday life. We will analyse Carver's technique of using simple scenarios to reveal deep emotional truths and complex human relationships. The story's emphasis on perspective, both literal and figurative, and its exploration of prejudice and understanding offer a lens into the human condition in modern America. Through Cathedral, students will not only gain insights into Carver's narrative artistry but also understand the broader themes and stylistic tendencies of American literature in the postwar era.

[ON-DEMAND CLASS] Contemporary American Literature 

Our course concludes with an exploration of Jhumpa Lahiri's "Interpreter of Maladies", a poignant short story from her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection. This narrative stands as a profound representation of contemporary American literature, delving into themes of cultural identity, displacement, and the complexities of human relationships. Set against the backdrop of the Indian diaspora, Lahiri's story captures the intricacies of immigrant experiences and the challenges of navigating between two cultures. We will focus on Lahiri's nuanced storytelling, her exploration of emotional landscapes, and her ability to convey profound truths through the lives of ordinary people. The story's examination of communication, both verbal and non-verbal, and the exploration of personal and cultural alienation, provide a rich context for understanding the contemporary human experience. Through "Interpreter of Maladies", students will gain insights into the evolving nature of American literature, particularly its increasing diversity and focus on global narratives.