In the fall of 2009, I will be teaching English 220 for the first time in many terms. 220 is the second of the two courses we require of all Rutgers English majors. Like 219, it is entitled Principles of Literary Study. English 220 is devoted to narrative -- that is, to stories as they get told in literary forms like epic, romance, the short story, and the novel. Many of the concepts students learn about in English 219 remain indispensable as one moves from lyric poetry to narrative.
For instance, I teach that it is essential to pay close attention to the narrator -- the storyteller whose "voice we hear speaking from the page" -- who is the exact equivalent of the speaker whose voice and consciousness students learn to analyze in English 219. In the same way, the narrator is always telling his or her story to an internal audience - an audience "inside" the work, projected by its discourse and belonging to its world -- just as the speaker of Marvell's To His Coy Mistress is speaking to the lady he addresses at the beginning of the poem.
This section of 220 follows directly from the "close reading" method taught in my 219. It is designed so that students who had learned to read Wyatt and Donne and Browning and T.S. Eliot with me will be able to move on to longer narrative works in a way that seems natural and continuous with what they had already learned. But now there are certain central concepts from "narratology" that have to be covered as well.
We'll cover the usual topics studied in connection with narrative -- e.g., plot, character, setting -- while keeping in view the deeper principle expressed in the quote at the top of this page: the idea that narrative or "story" is really a category of human perception that also happens to be a literary category, so that in studying stories we are really moving towards something like an underlying "deep structure" of individual and collective human consciousness. The progress of the course will be from "traditional" narrative that focuses on society and moral psychology (Austen) to modern narrative (Nabokov) that takes the "problem of consciousness" as its great subject.
We'll also be incorporating a number of narratological concepts developed in my own latest work in literary theory -- an introduction to Paul Ricoeur's three-volume opus Time and Narrative -- and in Myra Jehlen's Five Fictions in Search of Truth, which uses a mode of analysis that brings to light the concept of "style as epistemology" in fictional narrative: style as a means of revealing or disclosing moral or aesthetic truth that can be understood only through a mode of "showing" as opposed to "saying" or telling.
We'll begin the course with novels that embody "traditional" narrative form: Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love, Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall, and Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. This portion covers narrative voice, internal audience, the story/discourse distinction, emplotment as "narrative causality," the notion of genre, and psychological v. "objective" time. We'll end with the "exploding of narrative form" in two novels by Vladimir Nabokov -- they are really "traditional" and "modernist" versions of the same story -- Pnin and Pale Fire. Our focus will be on the way the "problem of consciousness" becomes the actual subject when traditional narrative modes are dismantled while "voice" is left intact. In between, we'll read several novels that permit us to trace the transition between the two fictional modes.
To the left: English 220, Rutgers University, spring semester 1997, a rather brilliant group of young people known to themselves, as no doubt they will be known to posterity, as the Metanarrativity Dream Team. Each appears to be gazing pleasantly towards the camera. Each is in fact lost in thought about the implications of Pnin's remarks on the "relativity of time" in Anna Karenina as they apply to the novel in which Pnin makes those remarks. Their professor, having noted the reflections in the window in the background, is wondering if he might by any chance have been the shadow of the waxwing slain by the false azure of the window pane. It is, in short, a typical and rewarding day in English 220.