Seminar in Literary Genres: The Politics of the Victorian Novel

Representation and Reform: The Politics of the Victorian Novel

This course will cultivate the ability to read literature from the vantage point of historical and contemporary political theory, while exploring the relationship between literary form and politics. We will trace the development of the Victorian novel in conjunction with the shifting political sphere to understand how the novel functions as a political entity and mode of political engagement. We will explore historical and theoretical political discourses by reading a combination of political theory, literary theory and literary criticism alongside our novels and other primary sources. The larger political framework of the course is liberalism, as it was the dominant political ideology of the period. We will examine liberalism as a specific political philosophy and set of legislative goals, as well as a set of beliefs that influenced how Victorians thought and acted on a daily basis. More specifically, we will examine a wide set of “political” concerns influenced by and representative of Victorian liberalism, as well as those in tension with it: democracy, class and income inequality, labor, capitalism, social reform, imperialism and colonialism, feminism, race, animal rights, and socialism. We will trace how these political issues are represented in and influenced by the different forms of the Victorian novel: sentimentalism, industrial fiction, realism, sensation fiction, new women’s fiction, the adventure novel, and utopian romance. As liberalism remains our guiding political ideology today, and as many of the political issues from the Victorian period remain relevant today, we will continuously make connections between the Victorian era and our own political moment. Requirements include participation, short writings, leading group discussion for part of the class, an article-length research essay, and a short presentation on your final paper.


The following questions will frame and guide our discussions:

How do varying representational and generic strategies work for different political ends?

How did the Victorian novel represent the political sphere?

What were the major political debates of the Victorian period and how did the novel enter into them?

What are the limitations of the novel as a political entity?

What does it mean to read a text politically?

How can history inform our current political moment?


Assignments and Requirements:


Article length research essay (20 pages)

Short writings

Leading group discussion


Student Learning Outcomes:

Understand the relationship between politics and literature


Develop the ability to apply theory to primary texts

Become more familiar and comfortable with academic writing

Develop written, oral, and research skills

Become familiar with a specific period of literary history and set of theoretical concerns


Required Texts (please purchase the correct editions!):

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty and other Essays (Oxford World’s Classics)

Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton (Broadview Press)

Charles Dickens, Hard Times (Broadview Press)

George Eliot, Felix Holt, The Radical (Penguin)

Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now (Oxford World’s Classics)

Wilkie Collins, Heart and Science (Broadview Press)

Rider Haggard, King Solomon’s Mines (Oxford World’s Classics)

Sarah Grand, The Heavenly Twins (University of Michigan Press)

William Morris, News from Nowhere (Broadview Press)


Primary and Secondary Readings on Laulima by Elaine Hadley, Lauren Goodlad, Michel Foucault, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Frederick Jameson, Thomas Carlyle, Olive Schreiner, Charles Dickens, Sarah Grand, Chantal Mouffe, Ernest Laclau, Giorgio Agamben, Carolyn Lesjak, Amanda Anderson, Alex Woloch, Carolyn Betensky, Uday Singh Mehta, Zarena Aslami, Wendy Brown, and others.