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English- EN 203: Tradition and Change in Literature: All in the Family

Block 5: Katherine Carlstrom

Block 6: Jessie Dubreuil

Dining room table set for Passover Seder at Home of Emil Wassermann until  1912 in Bamberg. By Center for Jewish History, NYC. No known copyright restrictions.

This two-block course meets the Critical Perspectives: The West in Time requirement.

"Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city."

– George Burns

This course examines stories of family in Western literature from the Greeks to our modern and contemporary moment.  Through tales of belonging and betrayal, we will explore the inherited, emotional, and social ties that bind families together, and investigate the varying conceptions and expectations of family that have influenced and shaped individuals’ relationships with relatives both distant and intimate. In literary representations of parents and children, spouses and siblings, exposed (abandoned) infants and wicked stepmothers, we will look at the shaping force of nurture and think deeply about what William Faulkner called “the old fierce pull of blood.” How do these various cultural productions test and prod the value of consanguinity or the lack of it? Through these texts we’ll explore various ideas of where family starts and stops, who gets one and who doesn’t, what trumps family at any given time or place, and what’s erased or obscured in its name. We will ask about family’s influence on how we see the world, ourselves, and those outside the circle of domestic intimacy. We will analyze how shared cultural and emotional experience connects family members to one another, and see how conflict, cohabitation, collective delusion, loyalty, love, anger and anomie lay down deep roots in our collective idea of the family tree. Among other things, we will focus on the shared stories and powerful, intergenerational narratives that give coherence to these relationships over time, all while teasing out the formal, compositional, narrative and artistic choices through which these issues are given life on the page. From genes to genre, we will interrogate the fabric of family connection as we hone skills for reading, writing, and talking about literature. Readings, classroom discussion, writing assignments, film screenings and projects will situate these works in cultural and historical context, and students will explore how changing ideas of family and the relationships contained therein impact literary production and the larger social framework.

Block 1 will start by looking at the story of family told by the great Greek tragedies Antigone, Oedipus Rex and Medea. From there we will move on to the Romans with the comedies of Plautus and the satires of Juvenal, looking at depictions of family dynamics (father-son relationships, exposed children, mistaken identities and recognition) just before the dawn of Christianity. Through these texts and the literatures of medieval Europe (stories of saints’ lives, of cautionary and exemplary tales for girls and women, and poetic retellings of legends and histories) that follow, we will track how Christianity and other aspects of social and political life develop and are defined through the changing ideas of what it means to be in (or out of) a family. From these writings we move through the carnivalesque complexity of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s views on the subject of family (and marriage) to the Renaissance and the familial disintegrations of Shakespeare’s King Lear. We conclude with a consideration of various enlightenment ideas as articulated in Charlotte Lennox’s novel, Sophia, which redefines the domestic sphere as a specifically feminine space. We’ll conclude by viewing a film version of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, as a way of looking forward to next Block and raising some of the issues that will occupy us during the second part of the class.

In practical terms, the class will equip you with the tools you’ll need to begin your career as student here at Colorado College. We’ll explore different ways of reading and writing about literature, and discuss the kinds of questions that need to be asked about interpretation itself. We’ll visit the library as a class, where you’ll learn about the different resources available to you as a student researcher at Colorado College, and about some important ways in which the college essay may differ in expectations and in content from work that you may have done at the high school level. In connection with this introduction to writing at the college level, you’ll also learn the specific techniques involved in performing a “close reading” of a literary text, and you’ll read and learn to identify a variety of poetic, dramatic, and other literary forms. We’ll also be watching a number of films during the Block and will discuss particular interpretive approaches that one might bring to these different kinds of media.

Block 2 will begin with traditional fairy tales and the Brothers Grimm, asking what the norms and narratives of family relationship embodied in these tales mean for how we foster identity through stories about kind and kin. Moving on to poetry, we will explore poetic representations of family life ranging from John Donne’s Marriage Songs to the Victorian Cult of Domesticity and “The Angel in the House,” and from Wordsworth’s vision of childhood nurture and Coleridge’s Romantic hearth to modern and contemporary poetic articulations of the delicate bond between generations (including works by Robert Frost, Robert Hayden, Philip Levine, Eavan Boland, Li-Young Lee, Adrianne Rich, Seamus Heaney, and Rita Dove). We will proceed into readings of selected short fiction from across the tradition (stories by Poe, Hawthorne, Joyce, Faulkner, Olsen, O’Connor, Welty, and Wolff, among others) and then on to the modern and contemporary novel (Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and H.D.’s The Gift). The course will conclude with the dramatic depiction of family relationships in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

During the second block, students will also have the opportunity to work collaboratively with Aaron Cohick, Printer at the Press at Colorado College, to design and print a project using the College’s letterpress studio. Tutt Library will be integral to students’ experience in the research and exploration of our topic, and class may involve field trips to History Colorado, the Denver Public Library, and/or Denver art museums.

A two-block course with a different instructor in each block. Separate grades will be given for each block. 


  • There will be occasional film screenings in the afternoon.
  • Class may involve field trips to area museums in Colorado Springs and Denver.
  • Class may involve an overnight fieldtrip to the Baca Campus.
  • Class will involve work with the Press at Colorado College.