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LibrlSt 722: Special Topics in Contemporary Cultural Studies
Sheila Roberts, Professor of English

Delusions, Delights, Entrapments, Escapes: Marriage in Western Literature & Art, Mid-19th Century to the Present

These days scholars have available to them an abundance of historical and theoretical texts examining marriages. Some texts concentrate on the early modern era, interpreting marriages as business contracts linking aristocratic or wealthy families together. Others theorize the causes of important changes in attitudes toward marriage after the mid-19th century, changes that have led to the ongoing crises in marriage and family life, in the poverty attendant on divorce, and the neglect of children. Yet, in spite of the percentage of current divorces as recorded in the media and in textual studies, many marriages continue to maintain a dynamic and viability, incorporating into themselves various, previously unforeseen structural arrangements. This statement does not aim to suggest that current marriages are able to meet the needs and desires of modern men and women; rather, that the institution of marriage continues to survive with unusual permutations, contiguous with the disturbing numbers of divorces.

In this course, we will read several novels, the foci of which are marriages facing difficulties unknown to previous generations; marriages where spouses dream not merely of divorcing but of radically harming each other; and marriages that survive, even when there seem to be insurmountable problems able to destroy civility. We will devote our first class sessions to discussing the history of marriage as a social necessity-insofar as scholars have understood this. Thereafter, we will begin reading and analyzing later and contemporary marriages, as depicted in fiction, poetry, the visual arts, and film. We will explore the tension between what is understood as "romance" and marriages where that state-of-heart or expectation is absent. We will attempt to understand the meaning of "intimacy" and the possibilities of "relationships" (a new word in the discourse of marriage). Inevitably, the fraught questions surrounding gender in marriage will be confronted as well as the new problems presented by same-sex marriages.

Each student will be required to give a 30-minute in-class presentation on one text from the theory booklist, or on a critique of films, a selection of visual artifacts, or on poetry (25%). There will be an 8-12 pp midterm paper, the topic chosen from a list circulated in class (30%). The final paper will explore whatever each student has found most interesting or disputable in the reading and discussions (35%). The final 10% of the course grade will be awarded for class participation and punctuality.

Examples of novels to be read: Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence; Carol Shields' Unless; Patricia Highsmith's Deep Water. Films will include Casablanca, Husbands and Wives, Scenes from a Marriage. Poets to be considered: Adrienne Rich, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sylvia Plath. Artists who depicted weddings and family life, for example, painters: van Eyck, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Munch; photographers: Arbus, Mann.

Thurs 6:30-9:10pm
Curtin Hall 939


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