In this course, we will study some of the great works of the 19th and 20th centuries, beginning with the novels of Austen, Eliot, and Dickens, moving to the short fiction of Conrad, Hawthorne, and Melville, and concluding with a little-known novella by Isak Dinesen. We will investigate these authors’ investigations of the human being; but we will also consider these authors’ reflections on their own art asking, What is literature for? What is it meant to do for and to us?
“[T]here is not a place of splendor or a dark corner of the earth that does not deserve if only a passing glance of wonder or pity,” says Joseph Conrad in his famous “Preface,” where he discusses the purpose of art and particularly of literary fiction. During the 19th and 20th centuries, when the world lost (for good or ill) its sense of philosophical and theological grounding and consensus, we see a flowering of realistic fiction that seeks to portray both the splendid and the dark, to arouse wonder and pity, and to investigate questions of human meaning and purpose from a uniquely literary angle.