ENGL250 - Reading Women Writing: Women's Imagined Worlds - Utopias and Dystopias
WB21 - Maggie Ray

Course Description

Chaucer’s character the Wife of Bath famously tells us with a quick reference to Aesop’s fables how much perspective matters.  In the fable, a lion and a man examine a piece of art depicting man’s triumph over the lion, and the lion, the Wife reminds us, astutely remarks that the art would look much different if it were created by the lion.  Perhaps, even, the art would depict the animal victorious over the human.  We all know this instinctively: the person telling the story matters to the story being told.  Yet for centuries and across countries, women’s abilities to tell their own stories—both privately and publicly—have been stymied by various cultural limitations and expectations about what it means to be “womanly.”  In this course, we will examine a literary tradition in English as written by women; we will, so to speak, analyze the art that was created by the lion.

Our goals throughout this course will be 1) to gain an understanding of the historical phenomena that is women’s writing and how such phenomena is grounded in temporally, geographically, religiously, and culturally contingent contexts; 2) to interrogate the category of “woman writer” in order to draw connections across texts but also to destabilize the idea that women write about certain topics or in certain ways because they are women; 3) to use theories of feminism and gender studies to understand literature as cultural byproducts that reflect certain systems of power; 4) to identify ways that writing becomes an avenue for women to establish or question their identities as mothers, wives, daughters, political and religious subjects, and members of a feminine collective.

To achieve these goals, we will read/view a wide variety of texts ranging from the Middle Ages to present day, in forms such as poetry, essays, plays, short stories, songs, and more modern genres such as comedy skits.  We will use theoretical frameworks to guide our readings of these texts, and we will aim to situate each writer and her work in the history in which she belongs. 

Course Theme

In order to lend coherence to what could be an overwhelmingly large amount of material to survey (women have been writing for far longer than many of us realize!), this course is themed especially to address women writing about utopian and dystopian worlds.  In our examination of these imagined worlds—the ideal and the ravaged—we will explore how and why women engage in such genres, what such imaginative moves offer women writers in the way of cultural agency, and how women engage with contemporary concerns through such works.  Readings will include utopias, dystopias, ambiguous utopias, and critical works of feminist theory. Texts include Christine de Pizan's Book of the City of Ladies, Margaret Cavendish's The Blazing World, Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed, and Veronica Roth's Divergent.

poster describing the content of the course including book cover images

Also offered as: WMST255. Credit only granted for: ENGL250 or WMST255.