Art and Immortality

“Art and Immortality”

Course Description

How can you represent the ultimate unknown—death and the afterlife? In “Art and Immortality” we will discover how various genres—elegy, gothic, revenge tragedy, theater of the absurd, slave narrative, historical fiction, and science fiction—offer distinctive resources for imagining death and beyond. Each unit will pair an author whose work is more typical of a given genre with one whose work reinvents or pushes the boundaries of that genre. Such pairs may include Edgar Allen Poe and David Mitchell, William Shakespeare and Tom Stoppard, Harriet Jacobs and Colson Whitehead, Kazuo Ishiguro and George Saunders, Robert Sheckley and Octavia Butler, and W.H. Auden and Emily Dickinson. We will trace how such authors turn to the grotesque, the absurd, the haunted, and the supernatural to depict mortality and immortality. This is a writing intensive course: we will practice writing a number of genres for different audiences and revising our work throughout the semester.

Course Goals

By the end of this class you will

  • Develop a framework for analyzing the significance of mortality and immortality in literary texts
  • Strengthen interpretive skills through close reading of literary texts
  • Explore the relationship between form and content
  • Understand how literary genres function through tropes and conventions, ranging from structure and archetypes to tone and mechanics
  • Consider writing as an ongoing process, which includes generating ideas, drafting, revising, and polishing
  • Practice critiquing others’ works in constructive ways through peer review workshops
  • Cultivate strong research skills by analyzing primary and secondary sources and synthesizing them with your own ideas

 Required Texts

 Hamlet, William Shakespeare

The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro

Slade House, David Mitchell

Wild Seed, Octavia Butler

Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders

Course Assessment


You will receive a participation grade that includes attitude, in class writing, and willingness to contribute to class discussions.

Literary Analysis—Close Reading

You will practice “close reading” by writing a two to three page analysis of one of the elegies we read in class. Your analysis should be as detailed and systematic as possible. Your close reading should discuss both issues of form—rhyme, meter, assonance, alliteration, tone, etc.—and content—symbolism, allusion, irony, etc. You should discuss how what you observe in the poem exemplifies or pushes against the genre of the elegy.

Group Presentation

You will give a ten minute group presentation on one of the genres that we will cover throughout the course. Your presentation must include a visual component, such as a PowerPoint slide show. Your group should discuss 1) the key literary features of the genre 2) the genre’s historical origins 3) relevant political, social, economic, or cultural developments and 4) any major subgenres and important examples besides those we read in class. You should cite all resources you use in your presentation.

Scholarly Debate

You will write a three to four page response to two scholarly articles, in which you explain why one is more persuasive than the other. Each article will take opposing positions about an issue in Hamlet. You should summarize both arguments and explain why one better accounts for the details of the text in its interpretation.

Peer Review Workshops

You will give each other both written and verbal feedback on your work in progress. We will dedicate certain class periods to discussing each other’s work. To prepare for these workshops, you will need to read your peers’ work ahead of time and write responses to the questions for discussion.

Literary Criticism—Researched Argument

You will write a five to six page argument about the significance of mortality/immortality in one of our course texts. You will strive to make an original claim supported with evidence from the text itself and in conversation with the claims of other critics. Questions to consider include: What formal devices does the author use to represent mortality and immortality? How has the author’s choice of genre shaped these representations? Does the significance of mortality/immortality shift throughout the text? Drawing on the skills you developed from the Literary Analysis and Scholarly Debate assignments, you should perform a close reading of at least one key passage from the text and you should situate your argument in the context of other scholars’ commentary.

Stylistic Translation and Reflection

You will choose a short passage from one of the works we read in class to “translate” into another genre. One model of this is Stoppard’s rewriting of Hamlet as theater of the absurd. You will need to consider all the elements of literary style—diction, syntax, metaphor, etc. You will write a two-page reflection, discussing the choices you made in your stylistic translation and the difficulties you encountered, as well as how this exercise enhanced your understanding of genre.

How grades are calculated

10%  Participation/Daily Assignments

15%  Literary Analysis

15%  Scholarly Debate

15%  Group Presentation

10%  Peer Review Workshops

15%  Stylistic Translation and Reflection

20%  Literary Criticism

Tentative Schedule
RGD=Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

ILSG=Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

TBG=The Buried Giant

LitB=Lincoln in the Bardo

TUR=The Underground Railroad

WS=Wild Seed

Date Topic Readings Writing
Wed Jan 17th Course Introduction
Fri Jan 19th Elegy 1.      “The Wanderer”

2.      “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” W.H. Auden

Mon Jan 22nd 1.       “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” Emily Dickinson

2.      “Married,” Jack Gilbert

3.      “The Tradition,” Jericho Brown

Wed Jan 24th Peer Review 1 Peer drafts
Fri Jan 26th Revenge tragedy Hamlet, William Shakespeare Act I Literary Analysis due
Mon Jan 29th Hamlet Act II
Wed Jan 31st Hamlet Act III
Fri Feb 2nd Hamlet Act IV
Mon Feb 5th Hamlet Act V
Wed Feb 7th Peer Review 2 Peer drafts  
Fri Feb 9th Theater of the absurd Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Tom Stoppard p. 11-53 Critical Debate due
Mon Feb 12th RGD p. 54-126
Wed Feb 14th Gothic “The Fall of the House of Usher” Edgar Allan Poe
Fri Feb 16th Slade House, David Mitchell p. 1-83
Mon Feb 19th Slade House, David Mitchell p. 84-141
Wed Feb 21st Slade House, David Mitchell p. 142-238
Fri Feb 23rd Peer Review 3 Peer drafts Literary Criticism draft due
Mon Feb 26th Slave Narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs p.  
Wed Feb 28th ILSG p.
Fri Mar 2nd The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead p. 1-70
Mon Mar 5th TUR p. 71-132
Wed Mar 7th TUR p. 133-196
Fri Mar 9th TUR p. 197-236 Literary Criticism due
Mon Mar 12th Spring Break
Wed Mar 14th Spring Break
Fri Mar 16th Spring Break
Mon Mar 19th TUR p. 237-306
Wed Mar 21st Science fiction Immortality, Inc., Robert Sheckley
Fri Mar 23rd Immortality, Inc.
Mon Mar 26th Wild Seed, Octavia Butler p. 1-64
Wed Mar 28th WS p. 65-135
Fri Mar 30th WS p. 136-193  
Mon Apr 2nd WS p. 194-254
Wed Apr 4th WS p. 255-320
Friday Apr 6th Peer Review 4 Peer drafts Stylistic translation and reflection draft due
Mon Apr 9th Historical Fiction The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro p. 1-46
Wed Apr 11th TBG p. 47-93
Fri Apr 13th TBG p. 94-158
Mon Apr 16th TBG p. 159-200
Wed Apr 18th TBG p. 201-243
Fri Apr 20th TBG p. 244-317
Mon Apr 23rd Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders p. 1-88
Wed Apr 25th LitB p. 89-170
Fri Apr 27th LitB p. 171-262 Stylistic translation and reflection due
Mon Apr 30th LitB p. 263-343