ENGL 442 A: The Novel: Special Studies

Meeting Time: 
MW 1:30pm - 3:20pm
MUE 154
Joint Sections: 
GWSS 490 D
Jessica Burstein
Jessica Burstein

Syllabus Description:

 Excellent Women: The Female Character, Private and Public

Diaries, murders, art-making, and houses: this class focuses on American and British novels featuring strong female characters. The novels are written starting in the 1920s and through to the 21st century. We will 1. engage some under-read writers like  Anita Brookner and Barbara Pym (whose excellent novel gives this course its title), 2. focus on issues of privacy and forms of the public that attend them. 3. engage the gothic country house novel as a genre (Du Maurier's Rebecca); in keeping with the scary, or at least the pseudo-scary, we'll have some murderous moments where we stay at home with Miss Marple. We will engage Claire Messud’s 2013 The Woman Upstairs, which recently raised a demi-brouhaha about the issue of likeability in regard to female characters; and Zadie Smith's brand-new, and first first-person, novel about female friendship and its variants. We read a novel a week, so you have to be able to be in control of your schedule and your super-ego. This latter is an excellent skill.

In addition to wanting to read some excellent novels, there are several other reasons you might take this class: 1. an interest in novels about and by women; 2. an interest the psychological and philosophical issues that go along with privacy: solipsism, sexuality, and the construction of identity. 3. An interest in thinking critically about the issue of, as the critic Blakey Vermeule puts it, “why we care about literary characters.”

Excellent Women Syllabus


Professor Burstein                                                                           Class: English 442A /GWSS 490 Winter 2017 1.30-3.20 MUE 154

Office/Hours: Padelford A502 W 11-1 and by appt. jb2@uw.edu

Course Packet readings are in "Files".


Texts: Get These Editions. Bring them to Class Every Discussion Day. No Alternate editions/Kindles unless you already own them (see me) and/or have financial Duress.


Anita Loos Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Liveright Publishing Corporation, ISBN: 0871401703

Barbara Pym, Excellent Women, Penguin, ISBN-10: 014310487X

Agatha Christie, Murder at the Vicarage, Berkely: 0425094537

Anita Brookner, Hotel Du Lac,Vintage ISBN-13: 978-0679759324

Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca; Harper Paperbacks (ISBN-10: 0380730405)

Claire Messud, The Woman Upstairs, ISBN-13: 978-0307743763

Zadie Smith, Swing Time, Penguin ISBN-13: 978-1594203985



1st Week: 4 January

Wedn: Introduction


2nd Week: 9 and 11 January

Mon:  No class. (JB at/leaving MLA conference, Philadelphia.)

Wedn: Loos, Gentlemen; Response Paper #1 due


3rd Week: 16 and 18 January

Mon: MLK Day: No class. [Start Pym]

Wedn: Loos


4th Week 4: 23 and 25 January

Mon: Pym, Excellent Women (256 pg); Gan, pp. 3-16* RP #2 due

Wedn: Pym


5th Week: 28 Jan and 1 February

Mon: Christie, Murder PAPER #1 Due; no response paper due

Wedn: Christie


6th Week: 6 and 8 February

Mon: Du Maurier, pp. 1-180; Gan, “The Loss of a Private World”* Read/skim ahead in Du Maurier/Messud and have potential final paper topic ready for discussion.

Wedn: Du Maurier, remainder. Perhaps Vermeule, selection from Why Do We Care About Literary Characters?—download chapter from library (to discuss) RP#3 due


7th Week 13 and 15 February

Mon: Brookner, Hotel du Lac RP# 4 due

Wedn: Brookner     [Start reading Smith: longest novel: 420 pp]


8th Week: 20 and 22 February

Mon: No class: university holiday.

Wedn: Smith, Swing Time RP #5


9th Week: 27 Feb and 1 March  

Mon: Smith [Start reading Messud]

Wedn: Smith Discuss/Show Swing Time film (103 mins)? Smith, essay on some amazing dancers: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/29/zadie-smith-what-beyonce-taught-me

If you have any desire to see the best that (male) America can be, watch The Nicholas Brothers below. Smith’s weak on grasping their greatness. Potentially greatest dance sequence ever in film (Astaire said this; Baryshnikov too) is here, starting with musician Cab Calloway, in Stormy Weather (1943)CC introduces them vocally around 1.30, and concentrate on watching them after that: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fNKRm6H-qOU. Re-watch and notice Fayard’s especially elegant use of his hands and arms (almost balletic port du bras) [elder of the two, shorter hair]. Their dance sequences were often freestanding in their films, so the sequences could be cut out when shown in the Jim Crow South, so this context is also the worst—a quiet variety thereof—of America. They also broke the color barrier, insofar as it was then broken.


10th Week: 6 and 8 March

Mon: Messud. No response paper due.

Wedn: Messud, con’t. See debate: 1) Publishers Weekly interview www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/authors/interviews/article/56848-an-unseemly-emotion-pw-talks-with-claire-messud.html

2)Slate magazine reaction: www.slate.com/articles/double_x/roiphe/2013/05/novelist_claire_messud_author_of_the_woman_upstairs_says_interviewer_was.html


ALSO on Wedn: Final paper due --or Friday 10 March 10 A.M., my office, without comments.

Course Requirements

  1. With the single exception noted, have completed reading the entire novel by the day we begin its discussion. The books are syntactically pretty straight-forward and should read smoothly. I have paced longer with shorter ones, alongside university holidays, and noted when you should begin reading “ahead.” Time management is part of being in college;/an adult; don’t wait until the night before to start a novel. Look at the book ahead of time and consider your life’s workspace rhythms.
  1. You are expected to participate in class discussions, which will play a large part in the course. You must be present to do so, which is to say: come to class. Participation is part of your grade. If for some bizarre reason you miss class, do not email me to explain why unless there’s a medical reason and official documentation of that. Check with a classmate, catch up, and see me for specific questions.
  1. Response Papers. Being a good reader means being an active reader. On four of the five days indicated you will turn in a single-spaced, substantive one-page /500 words-or-so response paper (RP) formulated around a specific question or observation having to do with the text under discussion that day/week. You can skip one of the five RP’s with no penalty. If you want to do all 5, that’s fine too; I’d drop one of the lower “grades.”

      Your response paper will receive either a check minus, check, or a check plus. Check minuses mean you need to try harder next time (see the comments on where to begin); checks mean you are doing fine; check pluses mean you have moved beyond fine. I tend to be parsimonious with check pluses; don’t panic if you don’t get one—a series of checks is a solid performance, and combined with good paper grades mean you’re doing quite well. At the end of the quarter, I will assess your performance on the responses papers over the arc of the course as a whole.

      The intellectual purpose of the response papers is twofold: to give you a start in thinking critically and in a focused manner about the material; and to give me a chance to register your impressions and adjust our discussions accordingly.

  • You may formulate your response papers as questions, ones which you begin to consider how to answer, or explain why the question emerges as an important one. In addition to being focused (Avoid questions like “What is the author's intention in using X?"; "What is the deeper meaning of Y?": they’re too big), the question you engage should not be answered readily by a simple yes or no; and indeed you are relieved of the burden of answering the question definitively—but you should begin to answer the question. Think concretely, and stay focused on what the text tells you, not what your impressions are at a general which is to say unfocused level.
  • Do not use first person; avoid reference to “the reader.” This will force you to focus on the text. (“I love how X happens” will become “X is an important issue because [some reason more specific than your love for it: the way it mattered to the text, the way it was reversed later, etc.].”)
  • Use quotations from the text, cited parenthetically with page number, like “this” (42), to reference or explain your question, and your answer or tentative answers to it; or to explain why the question is an important one. The point is to keep you "close" to the text; don't speculate, engage in generalizations. Avoid clichéd conclusions. You don’t have to explain life or that people can be like that (whatever “that” is like). Occasionally, in order to open discussion, you may be asked to verbally present/paraphrase your response paper to the class.
  • Regard it as a mini-paper, but one for which you do not need a thesis.
  • Proofread. Style matters. See “Format” and “Marginal Comments” below.
  • I may announce a given topic or specific directions for the next response paper. If you turn in a response paper that does not respond to that announcement, it will count as a zero. Response papers may not be turned in handwritten, late, early, or by Email.

If you do not observe the above, it suggests you have not read the syllabus closely enough, or perhaps at all (in which case of all of this may appear moot, but later you may discover it mattered). Following—and not following—the above instructions matter.

  1. Papers (these are distinct from “Response Papers”). See due dates above. The first paper is to be 5 pages, the second 7-10 pages. The first paper should be about a single book, and the second may take up 2 or 3 books. Both need to involve close reading as evidence. Please meet with me to discuss your ideas in advance. If you don’t, you’re risking going down a garden path. I want to help you.

      Format: Papers must be stapled, typed, double-spaced, with numbered pages and one-inch margins. You must use a standard 12 point font, standard paragraphing, and spacing (not the default extra spacing between paragraphs Word now puts in, which inserts spaces: this can be adjusted easily; see me). You will be penalized for spelling errors, grammatical infelicities, and infelicitous syntax.

                              If papers are late, they will be graded down. If very late, they may not be accepted. Make and keep an extra hard copy of each paper until the term is over.

                              If you want to discuss ideas you have (or don't have) regarding your paper as you are writing (or not writing), you are most welcome to do so during office hours. I do not read drafts but you can bring the paper/notes with you to help you focus your questions.

                              Do not plagiarize. Plagiarism includes lifting material from the web, collusion, and the use of sources without citation. If you have any questions regarding what constitutes plagiarism, consult me. All sources must be documented, and papers are to be the result of your own labor.

  1. Grading: Paper #1: 25%; Paper #2: 30%; Response papers: 25%; Verbal Participation: 20%

Marginal Comments: The Lexicon

I put comments on papers so you can improve. You may find in the margins some or all of the following abbreviations indicating errors and problems. Subsequent papers should not repeat these errors. Making the same mistakes repeatedly over the course of the quarter will weigh increasingly heavily against the grade.

             c.s. Comma splice: joining 2 sentences with a comma, rather than treating them grammatically by (1) employing a semicolon, (2) joining them with a conjunction, or (3) severing them with a period.

            This is one of the most common errors, I will grade you down for it, if you still don't know what a comma splice is you haven't read this sentence closely enough.

frag   Sentence fragment. Do not begin a sentence with “But,” “And,” or “So.” Or "Or." That last one was a fragment.

w.c.   Word choice is inappropriate. Look the word up in a dictionary.

sp   Misspelled word

syn Syntax is awkward

awk   Awkward use of language or idea

l.c.   Word should be lower-cased

cap. Word should be capitalized

 If you require accommodation owing to a disability, immediately contact the Disabilities Resources for Students Office (DRS) in Schmitz Hall 448 (206-548-8924; uwdss@u.washington.edu) or the Disabilities Services Office (DSO) at dso@u.washington.edu. It is your responsibility to notify me in writing and in advance of any accommodations to be arranged by either the DSO or DRS office and—should forms be involved—to deliver those to me in person during office hours, with time enough to allow for us to arrive at a mutual understanding of the means by which those accommodations are best met.

This syllabus is subject to change. You are responsible for keeping up with any modifications to our schedule or assignments.

Catalog Description: 
Readings may be English or American and drawn from different periods, or they may concentrate on different types - gothic, experimental, novel of consciousness, realistic novel. Special attention to the novel as a distinct literary form. Specific topic varies from quarter to quarter.
GE Requirements: 
Visual, Literary, and Performing Arts (VLPA)
Last updated: 
August 4, 2017 - 10:50pm