The Quest in Western Literature

From the earliest western
literature, the theme and structure of the quest has figured prominently. The
quest has been used as a powerful metaphor for the individual’s journey through
life, for the exploration of philosophical truth, for the probing of the depths
of the human soul and psyche, and for the search for personal and cultural

An examination of various forms of the quest in
different ages and contexts allows for exploration of some of the major
movements that have marked the development of western culture. With the
ODYSSEY, we can reflect on the mythic foundations of western civilization. In
medieval Europe, the quest, as in Malory’s KING ARTHUR AND HIS KNIGHTS, becomes
associated with the desire to find social order in a chaotic world, and for the
first time incorporates the search for the Holy Grail. DON QUIXOTE wittily and
movingly explores the limitations of the medieval quest for adventure and
chivalric perfection. Also witty and ironic, Twain’s HUCKELBERRY FINN uses the
motif of the river journey to explore human pretense, social injustice and
arrogance, and the nature of human bondedness. Conrad explores some of the same
issues as Twain, but in a darker fashion. As a response to the growing
pessimism about the power of society to provide a satisfying framework for
human endeavor, we find that in HEART OF DARKNESS, the quest moves inward
towards a definition of the complex makeup of the human psyche and the moral
and philosophical questions that such knowledge necessitates. Viewing excerpts
from APOCALYPSE NOW will allow us to talk about such issues as
re-interpretations and colonialist attitudes embedded within our own culture.
Finally, in Mukharjee’s JASMINE, we can explore the quest as the search for
cultural identity and ask whether the quest is fundamentally different for
women than it is for men.

Class procedures: Primarily discussion, with occasional
introductory lectures on historical backgrounds and cultural contexts. Regular
(but not daily) short in-class response writings. Regular short (3-4 page)
essays. Midterm and final. This course is designated Writing Intensive.