54705 - English Literature 3

Course Unit Page


This teaching activity contributes to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN 2030 Agenda.

Quality education Peace, justice and strong institutions

Academic Year 2019/2020

Learning outcomes

Upon completing this course students will have acquired an in-depth knowledge of the history of English literature. They will have obtained critical insight into a selection of literary works and will be capable of evaluating their literary qualities, analysing them with the help of precise critical metholodogies. They will have acquired the theoretical tools they need to recognise the formal, thematic and stylistic components of the works included in the syllabus, relating them to their historical and cultural contexts. They will be able to discuss, translate and relate the contents of these works from a linguistic, historical and philological viewpoint.

Course contents

Detective deeds and criminal minds

This course will explore the 19th- and 20th-century development of crime fiction, with a double focus on the subgenres of detective fiction and of the psychological thriller, which flourished in relation to the relevance psychoanalysis acquired as an interpretative paradigm of the human. Its aim is to illustrate the complexity of a genre that was reductively considered in the past as structurally formulaic and critically uninteresting, but which has recently obtained increasing attention and recognition as a significant literary phenomenon.

Contemporary critics have reassessed the normative view of this genre – which crystallised in the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of detective fiction, the interwar years, the age of Agatha Christie, when the ‘clue-puzzle’ formula, based on a skilful use of clues and on the ‘fair play’ principle, asserted itself – opting for a more descriptive and inclusive approach. This change of perspective is testified to by the wide currency a critical term such as crime fiction has now acquired in contrast with the traditional definition of detective fiction. As we can see, the weight is no longer on the investigative agent, but on the transgression of social norms. Needless to say, this conceptual shift reflects the central role Gothic elements play in the collective imagination, notably in relation to the development of the psycho-thriller, with its emphasis on ‘criminal minds’.

Rejecting the stereotyped view that this genre is identified solely by the focus on clues and the disciplinary presence of a detective, critics have reassessed its complex history. They have underlined its debt to the Gothic tradition, and have explored the relation between interweaving subgenres such as 19th century sensation fiction, detective fiction proper, the hardboiled, the noir and neo-noir, the thriller and its many variants, the police procedural and postmodern anti-detective fiction, to name but a few. As we can see, crime fiction is incessantly metamorphosing. Moreover, in the course of the 20th century this galaxy of subgenres has been characterised by processes of both remediation and cross-fertilisation with the result that films and tv series now play a major role in shaping the imagination of the reading public.

This cross-media genre will be explored as a ‘field of tension’ in order to study the changing status of both detection/detectives (due to the development of forensic science) and of crime/criminals (due to the continuous reshaping of laws and social norms). We will investigate the interplay between aspects of the detective such as mind and body (thinking machines versus vulnerable detectives), intellect and emotions (how do these apparently opposed dimensions concur to the personality of fallible and infallible detectives?). We will also utilise the critical category of gender to investigate authorial issues and characterisation.


Primary sources

E.A. Poe, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841)

E.A. Poe, “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843)

A.C. Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902)

Agatha Christie, Murder at the Vicarage (1930)

Robert Bloch, Psycho (1959)

Agatha Christie, Endless Night (1967)

Christopher Nolan, Memento (2000), film

The course will include the viewing and discussion of other films.

Critical sources

Maurizio Ascari, A Counter-History of Crime Fiction, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007 (paperback edition 2009).

K. D. M. Snell, “A drop of water from a stagnant pool? Inter-war detective fiction and the rural community”, Social History, 35.1 (February 2010), pp. 21-50.

Nieto García, “Robert Bloch through the Looking Glass: Psycho, Doubles and Narrative Technique”, in Peeping Through the Holes: Twenty-First Century Essays on Psycho, edited by Eugenio M. Olivares-Merino and Julio A. Olivares Merino, Newcastle Upon Tyne, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013, pp. 51-66;

Tony E. Jackson, “‘Graphism’ and Story-time in Memento”, Mosaic 40.3 (September 2007), pp. 51-66;

Jesse Oak Taylor-Ide, Ritual and the Liminality of Sherlock Holmes in The Sign of Four and The Hound of the Baskervilles”, in English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, 48.1 (2005), pp. 55-70.

Literary history

Students will be required to prove their knowledge of the main tendencies of twentieth century English literature. Reference text: Lilla Maria Crisafulli e Keir Elam, Manuale di letteratura e cultura inglese, Bologna: Bononia University Press, 2009, pp. 327-70 (Il Novecento: Introduzione; Modernisti e Antimodernisti; Il romanzo); 385-94 (Il teatro di Samuel Beckett); 463-92 (Letteratura, nazionalità e regionalismo). This does not apply to Erasmus students.

Non-attending students

Non-attending students are not required to study any additional literary/critical texts. Should they feel the need to do so, they can contact the teacher.

Teaching methods

The course will consist of

1) frontal lessons, aiming to provide participants with the critical tools they need to interrogate and understand literary texts, both in terms of linguistic analysis and of historical/cultural contexts;

2) seminars in which students will discuss a literary text in an informal context;

3) since our critical itinerary will be cultural rather than literary, the course will include the viewing and discussion of films.

Assessment methods

Two different options are possible:

1) A written test followed by an oral exam.

The written test will take place only once, at the end of the course, and will assess the students' knowledge of the main lines of 20th century English literature as outlined in the Manuale di letteratura e cultura inglese. The test will consist of 10 multiple choice questions and 1 open question. Each correct answer in the first group will be awarded 2 marks while up to 6 marks will be awarded for a good reply to the open question.

The written test will be followed by a 20-minute oral exam in English the aim of which is to evaluate the students' critical and methodological skills. In order to assess these skills students will be invited to discuss the literary and critical texts that will have been presented during the course.

2) Oral exam only.

Those who decide not to take - or who will not pass - the written test, will have to take a 25-minute oral exam in English, which will be divided into two parts. The first part will focus on 20th century English literature, while the second will aim to evaluate the students' critical and methodological skills. In order to assess these skills, students will be invited to discuss the literary and critical texts that will have been presented during the course.

NB: In order to take this exam, students who are registered in Bologna need to have already passed the following exams: Letteratura inglese 1, Letteratura inglese 2. This does not apply to Erasmus students.

Teaching tools

The Powerpoint files that will be used during the course will be available for students on the Insegnamenti Online website: https://iol.unibo.it/.

Office hours

See the website of Maurizio Ascari