Classic Novels: Meeting the Challenge of Great Literature
Dr. Arnold Weinstein is the Edna and Richard Salomon Distinguished Professor at Brown University, where he has been teaching for over 35 years. He earned his undergraduate degree in Romance Languages from Princeton University and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Harvard University. Among his many academic honors, research grants, and fellowships is the Younger Humanist Award from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a Fulbright Senior Lecturer Award as a visiting professor at Stockholm University, Brown University's award as best teacher in the humanities, Professeur InvitÈ in American Literature at the Ecole Normale SupÈrieure in Paris, and a Fellowship for University Professors from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Professor Weinstein is the author of many books, including Fictions of the Self: 1550-1800 (1981); Nobody's Home: Speech, Self, and Place in American Fiction from Hawthorne to DeLillo (1993); and A Scream Goes Through The House: What Literature Teaches Us About Life (2003). Northern Arts: The Breakthrough of Scandinavian Literature and Art from Ibsen to Bergman (Princeton University Press, 2008), was named one of the 25 Best Books of 2009 by The Atlantic. Professor Weinstein chaired the Advisory Council on Comparative Literature at Princeton University, is the sponsor of Swedish Studies at Brown, and is actively involved in the American Comparative Literature Association.
01: Meeting the Challenge of Great Literature
Literature is a transcription of life into language that offers something seldom experienced in real life: the chance to view the entire story of a lifetime. This introductory lecture previews this extraordinary aspect of literature and provides an overview of the course.
02: Defoe—"Moll Flanders"
In the first novel of the course, journalistic author Daniel Defoe paints the striking portrait of the cunning, opportunistic harlot Moll Flanders. Through her adventures, he raises provocative questions about the nature of identity and disguise.
03: Sterne—Tristram Shandy
From Defoe's straightforward style, we move to the eccentrically digressive text of "Tristram Shandy." With his ever-expanding narrative, multiple footnotes, and seemingly endless explanations, Sterne asks a strikingly modern question: With language, do we ever get to the point?
04: Laclos—"Les Liaisons Dangereuses"
Published in 1782, "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" caused an immediate scandal with its tale of two degenerate aristocrats who use seduction as a means to power. Written as a collection of letters, "Liaisons" provides a panoptic perspective which requires readers to make the same kinds of judgment calls that must be made in real life.
05: Laclos—"Les Liaisons Dangereuses" Part 2
This second lecture on Laclos's masterpiece takes a closer look at his two antiheroes, the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont. Professor Weinstein shows how these two characters can be seen as both creators and readers of sexual signs, and what the limits are of the power they hold.
06: Balzac—"Père Goriot"
Written as part of "La Comédie Humaine" ("The Human Comedy"), Balzac's grand collection of novels exploring life in Paris, "Le Père Goriot" focuses on two extremes: the moment of maturation and the slow decline to death. In the story of Rastignac, the young law student, Balzac creates a version of the bildungsroman (the coming-of-age novel).
07: Balzac—"Père Goriot" Part 2
In an update of Shakespeare's King Lear, Balzac creates in "Le Père Goriot" a sometimes grotesque, sometimes tragic exploration of the fate of fathers. In this lecture, we trace this theme, and also examine one of Balzac's greatest creations, the immoral Vautrin.
08: Brontë—"Wuthering Heights"
Emily Brontë's Gothic romance presents another example of the bildungsroman, one which teases out the distinctions between the natural and the civilized, the raw and the cooked. It also presents a complex variation on narrative structure, in which Brontë presents her tale from the competing perspectives of various unreliable narrators.
09: Brontë—"Wuthering Heights" Part 2
We return to the wind-swept moors of England to examine further the tragic overtones of this tale of passion. From the brutal treatment of children to the dark, primeval love of Catherine and Heathcliff, Wuthering Heights presents a vision of the human experience that cannot be contained by the novel's conciliatory resolution.
With "Moby-Dick," Herman Melville completely demolishes all previous definitions of the novel and replaces it with a deeply philosophical meditation on metaphysics. In the image of the whale itself, we find a potent and multivalent symbol.
11: Melville—"Moby-Dick" Part 2
In this lecture, we take a closer look at Ahab, the monomaniacal whale hunter, and his alter ego, the young cabin boy, Pip, to explore how their loss of rationality reflects the profundity of delving to the bottom of life's meaning. We also explore the symbolism of the whiteness of the whale, and its corrosive meaning in Melville's cluster of images.
12: Dickens—"Bleak House"
From its opening image of the London fog which figures the "death of the sun" to its confounding representation of the British court system, Dickens's masterpiece "Bleak House" presents a vision of characters living "in the dark." A sort of classic 19th-century detective novel, this narrative shows how dark truths are often hidden in daily life.
13: Dickens—"Bleak House" Part 2
In this lecture, Professor Weinstein traces the theme of disease in "Bleak House," and demonstrates how smallpox becomes a metaphor for connectedness and the interrelatedness of human society in the bustling London of Dickens's imagination.
14: Flaubert—"Madame Bovary"
Does love actually exist? Or is it something that we construct out of the books we read and the fantasies we cherish? In his story of the disillusioned housewife of provincial France, Flaubert explores this question, and in the process reveals his own internal split about the worth of romantic love.
15: Flaubert—"Madame Bovary" Part 2
Here we return to Flaubert's classic tale of romantic disillusionment to examine the narrative methods he employs to take the reader inside Emma Bovary's world. Through his manipulation of timeworn literary clichés and his masterful use of juxtaposition, Flaubert creates a disturbing sort of double vision for the reader.
16: Tolstoy—"War and Peace"
At 1,350 pages long, Tolstoy's masterpiece is an epic tale set during a time of historic upheaval. Most unsettling of all is Tolstoy's fictional style, which forgoes a straightforward narrative for a tale with jagged edges and unresolved conflicts—a vision of disorder that reflects life as it is lived on the battlefield and in the salon.
17: Tolstoy—"War and Peace" Part 2
"Tolstoy's characters are like a family that you live in," says Professor Weinstein. "You know them very well, but you don't particularly love them all the time." In this lecture, we examine more closely Tolstoy's all-too-human characters and the transcendent view of life that they afford.
18: Dostoevsky—"The Brothers Karamazov"
In this lecture, we explore Dostoevsky's strikingly modern tale of patricide in late 19th-century Russia. From the depiction of the murdered father as a cruel buffoon to the image of children as hopelessly damaged by abuse, this novel offers a bleak vision of a world in which God might be dead.
19: Dostoevsky—"The Brothers Karamazov" Part 2
Why do the brothers kill their father? Is it the working out of an Oedipal urge, a need to gain authority, or a sign of the innate corruption of this world? Dostoevsky provides no answer, but instead provides a kaleidoscopic view of this unspeakable crime.
20: Conrad—"Heart of Darkness"
In Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," we encounter for the first time the crisis in storytelling that will haunt the great authors of the Modernist movement. Nothing is clear in this primordial journey deep into the Congo—not even the ability to recount this dark adventure through language.
21: Mann—"Death in Venice"
What happens when a quiet academic travels to a land steeped in passion and myth? Italy is the backdrop for Thomas Mann's story of the power of sexual attraction, here imagined as a collision between the cold and orderly culture of Northern Europe and the mysterious, erotic canals of Venice.
22: Kafka—"The Metamorphosis"
Out of a classic horror motif—a man awakens to find himself transformed into a bug—surreal author Franz Kafka creates a puzzling, terrifying, and darkly comic representation of modern alienation.
23: Kafka—"The Trial"
Our consideration of Kafka's nightmare vision of modern society continues with this bizarre tale of a man trapped within a labyrinthine legal system. Is this unfinished novel a parable for life within a totalitarian state, or a more general commentary on human society?
24: Proust—"Remembrance of Things Past"
Over the course of 3,000 pages, Marcel Proust charts a new course for the novel as he takes a journey into the depths of human memory. Starting with the famous "Madeleine episode," Professor Weinstein traces Proust's characterization of memory as a sort of "secular resurrection" in which selves from the distant past spring back into view.
25: Proust—"Remembrance of Things Past" Part 2
In this second lecture on Proust's masterwork, we consider treatment of key female characters—the narrator's mother, grandmother, and his first love. These various relationships cast a compelling light on how one's perception of other people contribute to the understanding of oneself.
26: Proust—"Remembrance of Things Past" Part 3
What happens when we forget our dead? Where do they live? In this lecture, we examine what Proust's masterpiece has to say about the work of mourning, the act of forgetting, and the ability to re-create our past out of the memories we retrieve.
In his portrait of a modern-day Dubliner, James Joyce takes on and undoes one of the great myths of Western culture, the story of Odysseus. In the process, he constructs a new shape for the novel, one which seeks to contain multiple voices and thematic strands in a glorious banquet of language.
28: Joyce—"Ulysses" Part 2
The discussion of "Ulysses" continues with a consideration of some key episodes, including the breakfast shopping errand, the "Oxen of the Sun" chapter, and the "Sirens" chapter. These episodes demonstrate how Joyce's prancing style is more shocking and experimental than mere stream of consciousness.
29: Joyce—"Ulysses" Part 3
The "Circe" episode in "Ulysses" serves to demonstrate the surreal side of this remarkable novel, one which enters into the realm of the dramatic and the subconscious. The final lecture on "Ulysses" ends with an analysis of Bloom's relationship with Molly and an explication of her rich closing monologue.
30: Woolf—"To the Lighthouse"
With "To the Lighthouse," we turn to the most personal novel in the course. In it, Virginia Woolf conjures a fictionalized representation of her parents' marriage, and creates one of the most memorable characters in British novels, Mrs. Ramsay. Through this work, Woolf raises a potent question: Can we ever truly know our parents as people?
31: Woolf—"To the Lighthouse" Part 2
In the second lecture on "To the Lighthouse," Professor Weinstein considers the implications of a vision of the self as always partly hidden. He examines the final episode in the novel, the trip to the lighthouse, as a culmination of the novel's focus on coming to terms with the loss and chaos that are an inescapable part of life.
32: Faulkner—"As I Lay Dying"
In this consideration of the "scandal of human flesh," William Faulkner follows a backwoods family as they transport their mother's corpse across several counties to her final resting place. Grotesque and often hilarious, Faulkner's stream-of-consciousness narrative touches on core philosophical issues about language and flesh.
33: Faulkner—"As I Lay Dying" Part 2
This lecture pursues a key question that recurs throughout the novel: What is in the coffin? Is it mother, and if so, how long can it continue to be mother? Professor Weinstein examines several episodes that explore that question, including a chapter written entirely in the dead mother's voice.
34: García Márquez—"One Hundred Years of Solitude"
In this lusty novel, magic realism is the mode used to measure one extreme, sexual liberation, against its opposite, coldness of heart. This struggle is set against the Edenic backdrop of a Latin American town where the powers of creativity are constantly challenged by war and corruption.
35: García Márquez—"One Hundred Years of Solitude" Part 2
This lecture examines the many contradictory representations of love, lust, society, and sexuality that appear in the novel, and the blessings and curses that result. A key episode under consideration is the passionate consummation of an incestuous love between aunt and nephew.
36: Ending the Course, Beginning the World
"The reality of literature is not informational," says Professor Weinstein. Instead, its knowledge must be learned through the experience of reading. In this concluding lecture, we review the many "earned truths" presented in these classic novels, and examine the way in which, through reading, each of us becomes a "citizen of the world."