Theme & Narrative Form: How to Combine Cultural Criticism and Formalist Analysis
This course provides practical training in critical analyses of narrative fiction. We will be reading three canonical novels from three distinct historical periods—a nineteenth-century novel, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), a modernist novel, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925), and a contemporary postcolonial novel, Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). These texts are connected by a common central theme: authored by women writers and dealing with the subject of madness, they are linked thematically via gendered and racialized critiques of cultural constructs of insanity and madness.
We will analyze these narratives by placing equal emphasis on narrative form and cultural themes. Ideas and cultural materials can be transposed into different media (think about the countless film adaptations of literature, for example), but the medium is always part of the message: we must learn how novels signify (as media of communication)—just as in a cinema course we would learn how cinema signifies differently—in order to fully understand the message. It won’t do to leap past the poetics of the novel straight to the topic. Thus, we will introduce ourselves to major elements of narrative fiction (such as the distinction between discourse [text] and story [plot], levels and voices of narration, etc.) studied by the discipline of narratology. In addition, we will also familiarize ourselves with some major paradigms of cultural criticism (such as feminism, psychoanalysis, postcolonialism) that are relevant to the three assigned novels.
Formalist analysis (How does fictional narrative signify?) and cultural criticism (What is the novel’s ideology of gender, race, class, etc.?) are inseparable, even though I have presented them here as distinct for the sake of clarity. As we shall see, questions of What? (themes, ideas, ideologies) impinge on and shape the How? (narrative form), and vice versa. Exploring how this happens means to embark on the adventure of critical analysis.
Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre; Norton Critical Edition, ed. Richard Dunn: 3rd ed. ISBN 0-393-975-42-8
Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway; Annotated Edition, ed. Bonnie Kime Scott. ISBN 978-0-15-603035-9
Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea; Norton Critical Edition, ed. Judith Raiskin ISBN 0-393-96012-9
Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics (Routledge) ISBN 0-415-28022-2