Introduction to Literature in English

If you sit in a 3D cinema, you will have an extraordinary experience of three-dimensional bodies and of movements, as if in real space. This experience is achieved by projecting, on a screen, simple two-dimensional images which also carry extra information. By looking through a special pair of glasses your eyes become capable of channelling this extra information and thus you can convert the two-dimensional images on the screen into a mental experience of three-dimensional space. Without the glasses, however, you will just see somewhat smeared, ordinary, flat images on an ordinary screen, because the extra information is lost and instead of allowing you to see what is there, it rather just obscures your sight.

This course intends to provide you with the special glasses you need to experience the extraordinary richness of literature. Indeed the experience which literature can provide contrasts with the flatness of everyday experience in much the same way as a 3D film does to a simple 2D representation. If, however, you do not know how to channel the extra information encoded in a literary text, you will just not be able to perceive this richness. Rather than add anything to it, the peculiarities of literary expression will only seem unnecessary complications that get in the way of simple, ordinary communication. You need, therefore, a special pair of glasses; you need to learn how to notice and utilize the extra information encoded in a literary work of art to be able to see what is there and thus be able to participate in the extraordinary experience that only literature can provide.

The primary purpose of this course therefore, is not to make you learn but to make you see: we want to give you vision, rather than just facts. To acquire this vision, however, you will need to understand some basic notions and processes that pertain so closely to literature that without understanding them you will not be able to achieve a true appreciation of literature. Over the millennia an immense amount of knowledge has been accumulated on the subject of literature, from which we selected only the most basic elements to be included in this course. When selecting and presenting this material we have paid special attention to the following considerations:

This course has been designed for individual study. The explanations, examples, exercises, links we provide should make it possible for you to understand all the notions presented here on your own. However, we do not wish to pretend that any written or electronic source can equal the value of personal instruction. So if you are in doubt about any of the notions you are trying to learn from this course, or if you are uncertain whether your solutions to the exercises are correct, we encourage you to consult a good teacher. In theory, however, this course should make it possible for you to equip yourself with the special glasses you need to be able to appreciate literature in English.

The structure of the website

The course consists of three main chapters (on the chief literary genres); nine satellite chapters that discuss some crucial aspects of understanding literature not treated in the main chapters; and a glossary, which provides a quick link to all the terms we explain in this course. The basic structure of the website is represented in the following chart:

  Literature and Society Literature and Tradition Literature and the Sister Arts Literature and Gender  
Literary History Prose Poetry Drama Literatures in English
  Index / Glossary Symbol, Figures of Speech Critical Approaches to Literature Genre  

How to use this course?

Each chapter (both main and satellite) is a self-contained unit that can serve as a starting point for your introduction into literature in English. However, we recommend that you start with one of the main chapters and then proceed to the satellites as you become interested in one or more of them.

Within the chapters the arrangement of the material is linear suggesting the order in which we think the information in the chapter can best be absorbed. However, in the window on the left we provide a table of contents for each chapter, so that you can access the pages within it in any order you wish.

Some other websites on the internet

Within every chapter you will find further links to internet websites where you can read more on the subject of that particular chapter. Here, therefore, we only recommend a few general websites on the study of literature.

Two very good ‘Introduction to Literature’ websites are A Guide to the Study of Literature available on the website of Brooklyn College, and Basics of English Studies posted on the web by the English Studies Department of the University of Freiburg.

To find more websites on literature you can consult one of the following general resources websites:

Literary Resources on the Net
Literature Webliography
Voice of the Shuttle