Backgrounds of Western Lit

Fall 2020                                                                            `       Office: Kuy 714

Format: Asynchronous

Office Hours: M 2 – 3:00

W 2 – 3:00 (and by                                                                                                                                                  appointment)


Instructor: Nandini Chandra, UHM Department of English


Western literature implicitly assumes the existence of a less significant non-western world. Ironically, the sources of so-called western culture—classical Greece and the Judeo-Christian world—encompass a geographical area corresponding to the present-day Middle East, North Africa, and Eastern Mediterranean. In this class, we will read select texts from this tradition. We will read them to see their continuum with “non-western” values as well as to understand why the west is regarded as inherently superior. The ideals of democracy, citizenship, and equality enshrined in ancient Athens, and the message of compassion for the weakest members of society in the New Testament, are hailed as the touchstones of a superior civilization. But it must not be forgotten that both these cultures were ruthlessly patriarchal, not to mention thriving in worlds where forms of slavery and exemplary violence were everyday realities. What is the role of women in these two very distinct patriarchal cultures? What allowed these two vastly different world-views to be framed into a unified construct of the western world and western literature? How did the sublime and tragic dimensions of these ancient cultures turn into farcical and comical pieces in the medieval epics of Chaucer, Rabelais, and Cervantes?

These are different types of narrative, and in this course we work to define and compare different narrative-types. We will learn to distinguish between legends, myths, and historical stories, and how they all shape our sense of reality in different ways. The Bible’s floods, plagues, and fires; the deep and dark psychological motifs of Greek myths and tragedies; the moral lessons implicit in the allegories and farces of the medieval period—these stories not only transport us to a world very different, but also challenge our sense of what is right and wrong. The background texts teach us how west and non-west have never really been separate, and that the idea of “western literature” has been constructed somewhat arbitrarily in relatively recent times. Premodern narrative literature, when studied on its own terms, seems to make the category “western” close to irrelevant at times, and yet the paradox with which we must reckon is that these premodern civilizations have been put to uses they themselves could have never imagined, which we still live with today. And yet they have so much more to offer when examined closely.

Readings (electronic texts)

The Epic of Gilgamesh;


The Gospel According to St. Matthew;

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (film);

Homer, The Odyssey;

Augustine’s Confessions;

Euripides, Medea;

Pasolini, Medea (film);

Aristophanes, Lysistrata;

Arabian Nights, The Prologue;

Pasolini, Canterbury Tales (film);

Chretien de Troyes, Ywain, or The Knight with the Lion;

Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel;

Miguel de Cervantes, The History of Don Quixote, Vol. I.