ENGL289J - Special Topics in English; What is Justice: Literature and the Invention of Ethical Imagination

Justice matters.  We crave justice as much as we crave love and money.  In this course we will examine literature’s unique ability to animate the concrete human passions underlying the most abstract ethical dilemmas.  We will consider how literary texts have shaped our understanding of justice, and more particularly, how plays, novels, and films define, critique, challenge, and even alter a given society’s comprehension of equity and inequity, crime and punishment, pardon and torture, and ideas about civil liberties and human rights.  By attending to the ways writers have described the just and the unjust within their historical moment, we will gain insight into crucial role of the imagination in the formation of ethical citizens across time.  We begin with Plato and then move onto Sophocles’ Antigone and Euripides’ Medea.  We will also read Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and Hamlet, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Kafka’s The Trial, Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  In order to consider justice in the context of our current concerns, we will end the course with the documentary “The Central Park Five,” a film that  altered the outcome of the criminal trial it depicts.  There will be two formal papers, an in-class presentation, weekly reading quizzes, a midterm and a final examination.