Syllabus: Reinventing Literary History: Women and Culture

First-Year Seminar/Spring 2011

Course Description:

Students in First-Year Seminars will develop their skills in critical reading and analysis, writing, and effective speaking.  They will assess and use textual evidence in support of oral and written arguments.  Finally, they will explore important issues through significant texts ranging across genres, disciplines, and historical periods.  The object of “Reinventing Literary History: Women and Culture” is to explore the development and deployment of certain ideas about women and female subjectivity in literature and culture (as in “woman is to man as nature is to culture, as pathos is to logos, as body is to mind,” etc.).  While our departure point is the myth of Eve, our ultimate goal is to examine how historical and contemporary representations of gender affect how we think about and live our lives.

Because one of the goals of First-Year Seminar is to build an intellectual community, we will have one or two outings together outside of class.  One of these events will be dinner and a mutually agreed upon movie at my house during Reading Period.  The other may be a play, movie, exhibit, or other event that relates to the themes of the course.  We will discuss this possibility in the next couple of weeks.


  • Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1929):

“Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.  Without that power probably the earth would still be swamp and jungle. . . Whatever may be their use in civilised societies, mirrors are essential to all violent and heroic action” (35-36). 

  • Sherry Ortner, “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?” Women, Culture, and Society. Ed. Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo & Louise Lamphere (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1974):

“How are we to explain the universal devaluation of women?….women are seen ‘merely’ as being closer to nature than men.  That is, culture (still equated relatively unambiguously with men) recognizes that women are active participants in its special processes, but at the same time sees them as being more rooted in, or having more direct affinity with, nature…even if women are not equated with nature, they are nonetheless seen as representing a lower order of being, as being less transcendental of nature than men are” (71-73).

  • Gayle Rubin, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex.” Toward an Anthropology of Women. Ed. Rayna R. Reiter (New York: Monthly Review, 1975):

“’Exchange of women’ is a shorthand for expressing that the social relations of a kinship system specify that men have certain rights in their female kin, and that women do not have the same rights either to themselves or to their male kin.  In this sense, the exchange of women is a profound perception of a system in which women do not have full rights to themselves” (177).

  • Nancy Chodorow, “Family Structure and Feminine Personality.” The Homeric Hymn to Demeter: Translation, Commentary, and Interpretive Essays. Ed. Helene P. Foley (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1994):

“This paper suggests that a crucial differentiating experience in male and female development arises out of the fact that women, universally, are largely responsible for early child care for (at least) later female socialization.  This points to the central importance of the mother-daughter relationship for women, and to a focus on the conscious and unconscious effects of early involvement with a female for children of both sexes…in any given society, feminine personality comes to define itself in relation and connection to other people more than masculine personality does” (243-44).

  • Adrienne Rich, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision.” On Lies, Secrets and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978 (New York: Norton, 1979):

“Re-vision–the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction–is for women more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival.  Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched, we cannot know ourselves.  And this drive to self-knowledge, for women, is more than a search for identity: it is part of our refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-dominated society.  A radical critique of literature, feminist in its impulse, would take the work first of all as a clue to how we live, how we have been living, how we have been led to imagine ourselves, how our language has trapped as well as liberated us, how the very act of naming has been till now a male prerogative, and how we can begin to see and name–and therefore live–afresh.  A change in the concept of sexual identity is essential if we are not going to see the old political order reassert itself in every new revolution.  We need to know the writing of the past, and know it differently than we have ever known it; not to pass on a tradition but to break its hold over us” (35).

Course Requirements:

You will write three papers and two revisions: one close reading of a passage from Milton’s Paradise Lost (Paper #1), one work of personal literary criticism on any text from the syllabus (Paper #2), and one creative project, analysis, & presentation on any text from the syllabus (Paper #3).

My goals in the teaching of writing for this course are two-fold:

  1. to help you write well-organized, thoughtful, and insightful analyses of literary texts
  2. to make the writing process as enjoyable and meaningful as possible

Schedule of Classes: 

Jan. 18: Introduction: Women and Culture/Genesis 1-4
Jan. 20: John Milton: Paradise Lost: Books I-III
Jan. 25: Paradise Lost: Books IV-V; Christine Froula: “When Eve Reads Milton”
Jan. 27: Paradise Lost: Books VI-VIII
Feb. 1: Paradise Lost Books IX-X
Feb. 3: Paradise Lost: Books XI-XII
Feb. 8: Eliza Haywood: Fantomina: Or, Love in a Maze
Feb. 10: Fantomina
Feb. 15: Mary Wollstonecraft: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (selections)
Feb. 17: Lady Hyegyong: Memoirs
Feb. 22: Leonora Sansay: Secret History
Feb 24: Sansay
March 1: Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights
March 3: Wuthering Heights
March 8: Wuthering Heights
March 10: Emily Dickinson: selected poems
March 22: Dickinson
March 24: Sigmund Freud: “Female Sexuality”
March 29: Virginia Woolf: A Room of One’s Own (selections)
March 31: Woolf: Mrs. Dalloway
April 5: Woolf: Mrs. Dalloway
April 7: Woolf: Mrs. Dalloway
April 12: Gertrude Stein: “Identity A Poem” & Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights
April 14: Stein
April 19: Yvette Christiansë: Castaway
April 21: Christiansë
April 26: Final presentations
April 28: Final presentations

For more from this author, please see the essay in the Pedagogy section of this issue.

Kate Levin

Aphra Behn

Aphra Behn

Aphra Behn is a pseudonym for ABOPublic. This is not the real Aphra Behn—she died in 1688, and the world hasn't been the same since!
Aphra Behn

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