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Topics and Patterns

To help put our discussions in a larger context, and to remind you of where they have taken us, I've decided to create this page. You'll find in it a range of terms, issues, and questions that have taken "center stage" in our discussions, along with my own observations on the structure of the course, the organization of the readings, and connections between texts in a given unit. Hopefully this page can help you orient yourself if you feel lost or refamiliarize yourself with a story if you are considering possible subjects for critical response essays or studying for the mid-term examination--not to mention give you a better sense of the goals of the course and the skills I expect you to develop over the course of the semester. Please let me know how I can make this page more useful to you--and feel free to send me content to incorporate into the page if you wish.

What Makes a Ghost Story?

In this unit, I want us to consider fundamental questions about narrative and genre. Our chosen genre is the ghost story, but the questions we will be asking can be applied to any kind of literature (e.g., mystery novels, science fiction, horror fiction, romance novels, as well poetry and drama): (1) DEFINITIONS--what are the defining features of a ghost story? that is, what criteria do we rely on to identify a ghost story or to distinguish a ghost story from some other sort of literature? is there only one "true" definition of a ghost story, or are there several valid ones? if the latter, what are the benefits and limitations of adhering to one definition over another? (2) VALUES--what makes a good ghost story? that is, what criteria do we rely on to identify a good ghost story, or distinguish an excellent one from an all right one? are the criteria for what makes a good ghost story any different from the criteria for what makes a good story? what happens when we disagree over whether a ghost story is bad, middling, good or excellent? what happens if some of us think certain criteria are more important and others of us think other criteria are more important? is all this just subjective or relative, or is it possible to come to some sort of reasoned agreement on this? how are we to negotiate disputes over literary value?

Our goal is not to come up with definitive answers to these questions, or even to come to some sort of class consensus on them. Rather, it is for each of us (1) to become more aware of our own, often taken-for-granted, assumptions about what makes a (good) ghost story; (2) to become more aware of the range of possible assumptions and criteria and perhaps even to reconsider our own in light of them; and (3) to become better able to communicate the reasons and reasoning behind our definitions, values, and criteria.

To help us do this, we're going to be reading stories from various places and times: from contemporary Native North America to seventeenth-century England, from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century China to twentieth-century Ireland, Africa, and Latin America. These stories will be challenging for several reasons: because of the cultural and temporal diversity of the milieus from which these stories emerge, because of the unfamiliarity most of us are going to have with the historical or social contexts of the stories' settings, and because of the diversity of narrative styles and conventions, we will all have to work together to make sense of the stories. And most likely we will put in question some of our fundamental assumptions about what makes a (good) ghost story.

Haunted Fictions

In this unit, we're going to be considering the question of "haunting" more broadly than in the previous one: we're going to be reading stories and novels in which key characters are not only haunted in the "literal" sense by ghosts or spirits, but also in a more "metaphorical" sense by history and society, by their pasts and their presents. In a related yet different sense, we're going to be considering the ways in which events from the past continue to haunt the present--whether it is a legacy of conquest or conflict (Devi, Mukherjee, Keller), slavery or bondage (Morrison, Keller), or gender-based discrimination and sexual abuse (Cisneros, Keller, Morrison).

The reading load will be heaviest during this section of the course, but the writing load will be light, particularly after the mid-term exam.

Telling Ghost Stories

In this final unit, we're going to return to the genre of ghost stories, but focus on works that are themselves about the telling of ghost stories. In effect, each writer in this section is making an implicit argument about what makes a (good) ghost story--the way he or she tells the story can often be a subtle criticism of other ways of telling a ghost story.

The reading load lightens in this last third of the course because the writing load gets heavier, but each story rewards an attentive reading. In fact, you can treat this unit as a way to tell how far you've come over the course of the semester in developing your interpretive and analytical skills. The stories are assigned in order of increasing narrative complexity, from narrators who address the reader directly to stories within stories to stories about other stories.


M A I N * N E W S * T O P I C S * L I N K S * R E S E R V E S


EN 209: Novels and Tales, Fall 1999
Created: 8/25/99, 5:04 pm
Last modified: 9/15/99, 3:46 pm