Areas of concentration in literature

Medieval British literature

Courses in Old and Middle English literature introduce students to a crucial period for the shaping of our own language and culture.

The Middle Ages saw the first development of literary texts from oral traditions, the rise of book production and literature in vernacular languages. Old English (Anglo-Saxon) is the oldest written vernacular language in Europe, while Middle English (the language of Chaucer) is considerably closer to our modern English.

Many of the issues addressed in the literature of the later Middle Ages are still of crucial concern to us today:

  • Violence and social injustice
  • Ethnic struggle and oppression
  • Corruption of political and religious institutions
  • Sexuality and gender
  • Life crisis and personal experience of grief
  • Consolation and love, both human and divine

Medieval texts include some very sophisticated and influential forms of narrative: epic, romance, lyric, dream vision, satire, comic tales, drama, mystical revelation, and saints' lives.

You will have an opportunity to study works of heroism and national struggle (such as Beowulf or the Icelandic sagas); of courtly literature and social comment (by writers like Chaucer and the Gawain-Poet); of political and religious vision (by writers like Langland), as well as the first autobiography in English (written by a woman, Margery Kempe).

  • 337 Medieval British Literature in Translation
  • 338 Introduction to Old Icelandic
  • 339 Old Icelandic Literature
  • 340 Introduction to Old English
  • 341 Old English Literature
  • 342 Early Middle English Literature
  • 343 Later Middle English Literature
  • 344A Chaucer: Canterbury Tales
  • 344B Chaucer: Troilus and Minor Works
  • 348 Alliterative Traditions
  • 350 Medieval and Renaissance Scottish Literature
  • 353 Studies in Medieval English Literature

Please see the UVic calendar for a complete listing of courses.

Renaissance British literature

A time of great intellectual excitement, the English Renaissance (1500-1660) marks the beginning of the modern world as distinct from the aspirations and culture of medieval Christendom.

The transformation of art and literature through the rediscovery of ancient Greece and Rome, the expansion of the physical world brought on by geographical discovery and the scientific revolution, the sometimes violent reshaping of politics and nationhood, and the upheavals in the spiritual landscape caused by the Protestant Reformation-these revolutionary changes created a ferment of ideas and emotions, and an unequalled explosion of literary expression.

The dominant figure is William Shakespeare, whose originality and comprehensiveness of vision are unabatedly compelling; but even without "the Bard," the period would be remarkable for its profusion of literary geniuses in virtually every genre.

In Renaissance drama-the greatest since ancient times-we have Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and John Webster, among many others. Epic poetry finds two great exponents in Edmund Spenser and John Milton, both of whom also excelled in other forms. Lyric poets include the soldier-scholar Sir Philip Sidney and other sonneteers; the witty and learned John Donne, George Herbert, and other "metaphysical" poets; and Jonson, Herrick, and the "Cavalier" poets. The age also has great prose writers, such as John Lyly, Francis Bacon, Sir Thomas Browne, and Thomas Hobbes.

The most compelling feature of Renaissance literature is its imaginative engagement with powerful ideas.

The conflict between exalted humanist notions of personal capacity and the Calvinist insistence that human beings are naturally depraved emerges in a tormented Doctor Faustus or in the struggle between the magician Prospero and the brutish Caliban. The quest for spiritual perfection is figured in Arthurian allegory or the anguished voice of a "holy sonnet." Scientific rationalism expresses itself in both formal discourse and the unlikely guise of classical myth, while political and moral conflicts take shape in history plays, epic poems, and tragedies. Perennial questions about love and gender are embodied in a wealth of comic drama and lyric poetry.

Modern interpretive movements such as New Historicism and Cultural Materialism have grown directly from critical debates on Renaissance literature, which has also attracted widespread attention from feminist critics, deconstructionists, and cultural critics. Little wonder, since this body of writings not only is challenging and stimulating in itself, but provides insights into the origins of our own culture and society.

  • 359 Sixteenth-Century Poetry and Prose
  • 360 Special Studies in Shakespeare
  • 362 Special Studies in Renaissance Literature
  • 364 English Renaissance Drama
  • 365 Seventeenth-Century Poetry and Prose to 1660
  • 366B Shakespeare: Histories and Tragedies
  • 366C Shakespeare: Comedies, Problem Plays, and Romances
  • 366D Shakespeare (Individual Studies): Histories and Tragedies
  • 366E Shakespeare (Individual Studies): Comedies, Problem Plays, and Romances
  • 369 Milton: Major Poetry and Selected Prose
  • 473 Women Writers in English From the Medieval to the Augustan Age)

Please see the UVic calendar for a complete listing of courses.

Restoration and eighteenth-century literature

Courses in this field deal with literature written in Great Britain during the later seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries, the period now referred to as the "long eighteenth century."

With the great cultural shiftings we call the Enlightenment and the rise of Romanticism as its backdrops, this was a period in which comic and satiric poetry, drama, and prose flourished, the novel (and such associated forms as biography) matured.

The novel began to assume unprecedented popularity and artistry, poetry evolved from witty, traditionalist elegance to personal, feeling-centered utterance, criticism took on new sophistication and importance, and writing by women became a very significant part of the literary mainstream.

Readings in the courses listed below may include works by Bunyan, Dryden, Winchilsea, Etherege, Wycherley, Rowe, Congreve, Behn, Mandeville, Centlivre, Defoe, Swift, Pope, Gay, Thomson, Young, Haywood, Richardson, Sarah and Henry Fielding, Collins, Smollett, Johnson, Boswell, Hume, Sterne, Frances and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Goldsmith, Reynolds, Blake, Cowper, Crabbe, Burke, Gibbon, Burney, Austen, and Wollstonecraft.

  • 372 Special Studies in 18th Century Literature
  • 373 English Literature of the Restoration Period: 1660-1700
  • 374 Swift, Pope, and the Literature of the Augustan Age: 1701-1745
  • 375 Johnson, Blake and the Later 18th Century
  • 376A The Beginning of the English Novel: 1660-1750
  • 376B The English Novel: 1750 to the Early 19th Century
  • (see also 473 Women Writers in English From the Medieval to the Augustan Age
  • 474 Women Writers From the Age of Sensibility to the Victorian Era)

Please see the UVic calendar for a complete listing of courses.

Nineteenth-century British literature

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us."

The opening sentence of Dickens' Tale of Two Cities suggests the contradictions and, indeed, some of the main issues of nineteenth-century literature.

The Romantic Age, with its great poets Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Byron, and Keats, stressed individual freedom and imagination, while Austen and Scott investigated the social and historical worlds in fiction at the beginning of the century.

Advances in industry and science transformed a largely agrarian society into an exciting, crowded, anxious urban culture riven by social, economic, and religious controversy. The rise of organized feminism and of Decadent hedonism added to the fruitful debates and tensions characterizing the literature of this period.

Victorian poets (Tennyson, Elizabeth and Robert Browning, Matthew Arnold, Christina Rossetti, and the Pre-Raphaelites), prose writers (Carlyle, Newman, Darwin, Mill, and Ruskin), and novelists (the Bronte sisters, Dickens, Thackeray, George Eliot, Hardy) treated such issues as the loss of faith, the moral life, the changing roles of women, the construction of masculinity, the nature of sexuality, the significance of art, the growing dehumanization and alienation of the new society, and the impact of history.

  • 379 British Fiction and Non-Fiction of the Early Nineteenth Century
  • 380 Victorian Fiction: Dickens to Eliot
  • 381 Late Victorian and Edwardian Fiction
  • 382 The Romantic Period: I
  • 383 The Romantic Period: II
  • 385 Special Studies in 19th Century British Literature
  • 386 Victorian Poetry
  • 387 Victorian Culture and Thought

Please see the UVic calendar for a complete listing of courses.

Twentieth-century British literature

Twentieth-century literature illustrates an aesthetic shift marked by a tendency of literature to grow more provisional, more anxious, and more self-questioning.

The propensity of literature toward form, fictionality, and reflexive self-examination is deeply implicated in socio-historical events which have seen two World Wars, social and political upheavals, the consolidation and expansion of multinational capitalism, the emergence of the information age, the struggle of postcolonial voices after the end of the British empire, and the changing configuration of a new multicultural population. In literary terms, we can speak of two key periods: modernism at the beginning of the century, and postmodernism since 1945.

Responding to chaotic historical events and a troubled social order, modernism turned inward to examine the complexities of the subjective consciousness and the processes of literary construction.

Modernist fiction, poetry, and drama became self-consciously "difficult," drawing attention to their fictionality and disrupting our habitual perceptions through fragmentation, symbolism, disorienting narrative perspectives, and opaque language. The 1950s experienced a brief revival of more traditional, realistic forms of literary representation. In the 1960s the mood changed again to what we now call a postmodernist sensibility. Contemporary British literature participates in various debates within an international context.

The novel in particular is characterized both by formally highly self-conscious "metafictional" experimentations and by a desire to assert literature's socio-political relevance. Literature is no longer interpreted according to primarily aesthetic criteria but finds itself scrutinized for its ideological investments and cultural representativeness. The literary canon of twentieth-century British literature is becoming more inclusive of voices speaking from perspectives of gender, race, and class. The debates in twentieth-century British literature go hand in hand with new critical practices shaped not only by aesthetic considerations of formalism but also by theoretical issues raised in a broad range of disciplines from philosophy to history, psychoanalysis, gender studies, Marxist ideology critiques, discourse analysis, deconstruction, and postcolonialism.

  • 388 Special Studies in 20th Century British Literature
  • 433 Modern Anglo-Irish Literature
  • 433A Modern Irish Literature
  • 433B Contemporary Irish Literature
  • 434 British Poetry From 1914 to the Present Day
  • 434A British Poetry 1914-1950
  • 434B British Poetry from 1950 to the Present
  • 435 Modernist Poetry
  • 436A 20th Century British Fiction to World War II
  • 436B 20th Century British Fiction After World War II
  • 437A Modern Drama to World War II
  • 437B Modern Drama Since World War II

Please see the UVic calendar for a complete listing of courses.

Canadian literature

Our literature courses have traditionally developed around national literatures (British, Canadian, and American) with a general focus on genre and on chronological periods. Occasionally, some courses (such as women's literature or special themes) may cross traditional boundaries of genre or geography. This Guide presents course offerings according to the following categories, which correspond roughly to the Department's Area Committees.

Canadian literature provides a unique and exciting guide to our culture and its development. Reading the early exploration narratives, or the poetry of the Nineteenth Century, we see the Canadian nation discovering itself historically, and beginning to move away from the cultural influence of England to develop its own literary forms.

In the early Twentieth Century, we see the flowering of Canadian traditions in fiction, poetry, and drama, while more recently, we see Canadian writers like Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje assuming their place on the world stage. In recent years, Canadian literature has been widely recognized as featuring some of the most inventive and challenging authors in the English language, as well as standing at the forefront of developments in post-Modernist, post-Colonialist, feminist, and experimental writing.

The study of Canadian literature has grown enormously in the last 25-30 years, and academic credits in Canadian literature are now an expected part of most Honours programs, as well as being a prerequisite for Graduate studies in Canada and for advanced work in Faculties such as Education.

This Department's offerings are based both on genre and on chronological divisions, as well as incorporating the multiple traditions (native, ethnic, multicultural) within Canadian literature. By picking two or three courses, students can cover a wide range, from Susanna Moodie to Alice Munro, from Frederick Philip Grove to Rohinton Mistry. The Special Studies course (448) focuses on particular authors, themes, or periods; some background in a more general Canadian course will prove helpful.

You should also note the possibility of a Combined Major in French and English Canadian Literature. This major draws on courses in both the French and English Departments, with one core course (458) explicitly devoted to a comparative study of the two traditions. (458 is also open to students who are not taking the Combined Major, but who may still be interested in a comparative view.)

  • 426 Studies in North American Literature
  • 448 Special Studies in Canadian Literature
  • 450 Modern Canadian Fiction: I
  • 451 Modern Canadian Fiction: II
  • 452 Modern Canadian Poetry: I
  • 453 Modern Canadian Poetry: II
  • 455 Contemporary Canadian Fiction and Poetry
  • 456 Literature of British Columbia
  • 457 Traditions in Canadian Literature
  • 458 Comparative Studies in Contemporary French and English Canadian Literature
  • 459 Early Canadian Prose

Please see the UVic calendar for a complete listing of courses.

American literature

"Living next to you," Pierre Trudeau once explained to America, "is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt."

Maybe Trudeau had been reading Allen Ginsberg, who had recently written, of such a conjoining, in such a bed, "we hug and kiss the United States under our bedsheets the United States that coughs all night and won't let us sleep."

Given how much twitching, grunting and coughing there has been, we in Canada are uniquely poised to study American literature and culture. It is no accident that William Faulkner, in his masterpiece Absalom, Absalom!, imagines for his Southern tale of race, guilt, and inheritance an interlocutor who is Canadian. And it is worth noting that Sacvan Bercovitch, one of the most influential scholars of American literature of the past 30 years, is a Canadian. In our current world it's crucial for us to understand as much as we can about the elephant, and American literary studies is one way to do it.

Our standard offerings in American literature break down roughly into three period categories: 19th-century, modern (1900-1945), and contemporary (post-World War II to the present). In the 19th-century courses, one studies the writers who put American literature on a world map: Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Henry James, Mark Twain, and Kate Chopin. The major literary genres-tale, essay, lyric, and novel/"romance"-are covered, as well as the influential fugitive slave narrative (Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs). The modern American courses reflect America's emergence as a global power and the impact of an international "modernism" in the arts.

Among writers studied are several who shaped not merely American literature but world literature in the 20th century:

In poetry: Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot.
In fiction: Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner.
Other major writers include William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Edith Wharton and Zora Neale Hurston.

The contemporary American courses focus on 15 the recently canonized and important living writers, reflecting the impact of America's superpower status in the aftermath of the Cold War and the various intellectual, aesthetic, and institutional trends that fall under the rubric "post-modern."

Authors studied include, under fiction, Ralph Ellison, Vladimir Nabokov, Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Pynchon, Philip Roth, E.L. Doctorow, Maxine Hong Kingston, Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, and Cormac McCarthy; and under poetry, Allen Ginsberg, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, Charles Olson, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, and James Merrill.

  • 425 Special Studies in the Literature of the United States
  • 427 Nineteenth-Century American Literature
  • 428A 19th Century American Fiction: I
  • 428B 19th Century American Fiction: II
  • 429A 20th Century American Fiction to World War II
  • 429B Mid-20th Century American Fiction
  • 429C Contemporary American Fiction
  • 431 American Poetry: 1910-1950
  • 432A American Poetry: 1950-1975
  • 432B American Poetry: From 1975 to the Present Day
  • 414B American Film Since 1945
  • 426 Studies in North American Literature
  • 437A Modern Drama to World War II
  • 437B Modern Drama Since World War II

Please see the UVic calendar for a complete listing of courses.

Gender theory

One of the major challenges to the traditional understanding of literary studies made during the last twenty years has been the inclusion in English courses of writing by women, and of new critical perspectives on sex and gender.

Courses in Gender Studies offer students a chance to engage with these challenges at first hand through a range of approaches to the study of literary representations of gender roles and sexuality. Approaches include a variety of methodologies, among them literary and cultural history, feminist theory, queer theory, and other theories of gender and sexual difference. Particular attention is paid in these courses to women's writing and literary traditions, the changing constructions of gender over time, and the major issues of gay, lesbian, and bisexual writing.

  • 463 Studies of Women and Critical Theory
  • 470 Women's Literary Traditions
  • 471 Women and Literature
  • 472 Gender Issues in Literature
  • 473 Women Writers in English From the Medieval to the Augustan Age
  • 474 Women Writers From the Age of Sensibility to the Victorian Era

Please see the UVic calendar for a complete listing of courses.

Critical theory

Critical Theory is primarily concerned with processes of interpretation.

Reading is considered to be a learned rather than a natural activity. Courses in critical theory tend to reflect on the many different perspectives from which texts can be read and on the historical contexts in which they are produced (by an author) and consumed (by readers). Aesthetic questions of what makes a text specifically "literary" have been raised since Plato and Aristotle; however, over the last thirty years, theoretical discourses have proliferated at an unprecedented rate.

Informing the critical readings of particular texts to such an extent that students without any background in theory often find it difficult to understand what is being said about their favorite novel, play, or poem. Critics tend to interpret literary texts from such diverse perspectives as formalism (new criticism), structuralist narratology, psychoanalytic theory, reader-response theory, new historicism, Marxist ideology, deconstruction, poststructuralism, postmodernism, postcolonialism, gender (including feminism), race, and ethnicity. These theoretical discourses generate their own terminologies as well as their own issues and debates.

Aside from its direct relevance to the study of literature, theory exposes students to the most exciting trends in intellectual circles. Through theory's connections with developments in other disciplines, English departments have become central in our understanding of cultural issues which transcend the narrow focus on the literary text as an aesthetic object. Theory courses forever change the way students perceive literary interpretation, their own status as subjects, and the socio-cultural spaces they inhabit.

  • 460 Major Issues in Literary Criticism
  • 461 Introduction to Contemporary Literary Theory
  • 462 Studies in Modern Critical Theory

Please see the UVic calendar for a complete listing of courses.


The study of the history of cinema, and of "visual literacy" in general, is increasingly seen as an essential part of a student's interdisciplinary education.

Our film courses focus on the history of English-language cinema, especially the classic films of the American tradition (414A, 414B). 413 looks at various relationships between film and literature, including both adaptations of literary works to film, and common issues in narration and semiotics. All of the Department's film courses are eligible options for the Film Studies Minor.

  • 413 Studies in Film and Literature
  • 414A American Film to 1945
  • 414B American Film Since 1945
  • 415 Special Studies in Film

Please see the UVic calendar for a complete listing of courses

Non-period-specific courses

Not all English courses fit neatly into the periods or genres indicated above. In the hundred or so years that it has been a discipline, English has evolved a number of different approaches to and conceptions of the literature that is its primary focus.

The English department tries to reflect this variety by offering a range of courses that allow for more specialized as well as more general study, both within and outside of the literary tradition. More specialized courses focusing on a particular genre or a single major author make possible an in-depth knowledge not always available in courses that cover broader fields.

More general courses permit the student to explore the nonliterary cultural texts-for example, the Bible, religion and philosophy, and mythological traditions that are important for an understanding of literary texts as well as of the development of the literary tradition.

Courses in literature for children and, in a related vein, childhood or youth as a theme in literature expand or challenge the canon of literature, while exploring the changing cultural and historical understanding of childhood. The variety of contexts in which one can read literature also includes the history of the language, as well as the literature of postcolonial English writers, including those from India, Africa, Australia, and the West Indies.

While these courses encourage an understanding of literature in a wide and complex set of traditions, histories, and contexts, courses in "cultural studies" challenge the notion that literature is the primary focus of the discipline of English studies; for this reason, while it may examine literature as an instance of a larger cultural context, cultural studies will also examine a variety of cultural documents, practices and artifacts other than literature-from popular culture to industrial and information technologies.

  • 391 Special Studies in Literary Genre
  • 392 Studies in a Major Figure
  • 393 Myth and Literature
  • 394 Thematic Approaches to Literature
  • 395 Special Topics in Cultural Studies
  • 400 Advanced Workshop in Composition
  • 402 Children's Literature
  • 403 Literary Approaches to Childhood and Adolescence
  • 404 Special Studies in Children's Literature
  • 410 Backgrounds to English Literary Traditions
  • 438 Special Studies in Post-Colonial Literature and Theory
  • 439A Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Studies
  • 439B Special Studies in Postcolonial Literatures
  • 440 The History of the English Language
  • 449 Special Studies in Contemporary Literature
  • 464 The Bible and Literature
  • 466 Cultural Studies

Please see the UVic calendar for a complete listing of courses.