Backgrounds of Western Literature

ENG 311: Backgrounds to Western Literature

Nandini Chandra


Credits: 3

TR: 12 noon to 1: 15 pm SAKAMAKI C 101

Western literature implicitly assumes the existence of a less significant non-western world. However, 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 ironically hailed as the touchstones of a superior civilization. But these are also societies in which patriarchy, slavery, and exemplary violence were everyday realities.

These paradoxes allow for a variety of narrative forms. 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 from our own, but also challenge our sense of what is right and wrong.

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 (all 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);

Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel;

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

Assignments include weekly quizzes, oral presentations, a concept note, and a final essay based on comparison between two texts.

Learning Outcomes:

  • Appreciate the complex background to what is simplistically deemed “western literature”
  • Demonstrate familiarity with the vocabulary used to analyze different narrative types, literary styles, and figures
  • Undertake group discussions with your classmates, and render them into concise and effective web presentations
  • Articulate constructive critical responses to your classmates’ presentations and writings
  • Undertake disciplined revision of your writing in response to constructive criticism