V3235: Imagining the Self

Prof. Rebecca Stanton
226D Milbank Hall, x4-3313
rstanton @ barnard.edu
Office hours: Thursdays, 4-6 and by appt.

In this course, we take a close look at the construction of the self in Western and Russian literature, drawing comparisons among different literary forms and cultural traditions, and paying special attention to the tensions inherent in self-narration: self-invention vs. self-disclosure, design vs. "truth," memory vs. imagination, etc.  Beginning with some of the earliest texts in which a character tells stories of himself, we will examine the various ways in which the narrating self is formed and deformed by the literary conventions that define him, including certain typical plots of the life story, such as the trip to the Underworld, the childhood epiphany, the voyage of discovery, sin and redemption, etc. We will also read some seminal texts from the theoretical literature on autobiography and discuss the ways in which theory both informs and complicates our reading of self-narratives.

Among the questions we shall ask of our texts are the following:  Why do we read self-narratives?  What are the risks and rewards of self-narration?  What tools do authors use to turn their lives (or imaginary lives) into narrative? Is the impulse to self-narration universal, or must one be ‘extraordinary’ to feel it?  Is there any such thing as a strictly ‘autobiographical’ narrative, and if so where do we draw the line?  What do we do with texts, like I, Rigoberta Menchú, in which the main character tells her story “in her own words” via a narrative actually penned by someone else?  Conversely, what do we do with texts, like Dante’s Inferno and Wordsworth’s Prelude, in which the author and protagonist are “the same,” but the events described are clearly not literally “true”?  And how do these questions of genre and form affect our reading of fictional “autobiographies,” like Lermontov’s Hero of Our Time, or Nabokov’s Lolita?


  • Class discussion ...................................... 20%
  • Journal[1] ............................................... 25%
  • Paper(s) (1 x 10pp. OR 2 x 5pp.) [2] ..... 30%
  • Final exam .............................................. 25%



Topics and Readings


Tues 7

Thurs 9


The problem of autobiography.  “Design” vs. “truth”; authenticity and invention.
Theory: Smith and Watson, Chapter 1: “Life Narrative: Definitions and Distinctions”

Unit 1.  Self-narrative in antiquity: Epic travellers

*Homer, Odyssey: Books 9-12.
Theory: Smith and Watson, Ch. 3: “Autobiographical Acts”

Tues 14


Thurs 16
Rosh Hashanah

*Vergil, Aeneid: Books 2-3

Unit 2.  The Self as Reader: Literary travellers

(St.) Augustine of Hippo, Confessions: Books 1-6
Theory: Smith and Watson, Ch. 2: “Autobiographical Subjects”

Tues 21

Thurs 23

Augustine, Confessions, Books 7-9

Dante Alighieri, Inferno: Cantos 1-12

Tues 28

Thurs 30

Inferno: Cantos 13-24

Inferno: Cantos 25-34

[Suggested paper topics handed out]


Tues 5

Thurs 7

Tues. 12

Unit 3.  The Importance of Childhood

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Confessions, Foreword and Books 1-2 (pp 3-85)
Theory: Smith and Watson, Ch. 4: “Life Narrative in Historical Perspective” (pp. 85-96 only)

Rousseau, Confessions, Book 3.

Rousseau, Confessions, Book 4 and Appendix (“Neuchâtel Preface”)
Smith and Watson, Ch. 5: “History of Autobiography Criticism, Part 1”
Mikhail Bakhtin, “Epic and Novel” (excerpt)

Thurs 14

FRI 15

Tues 19

*William Wordsworth, The Prelude (1799)

[First 5-page paper due at noon to my office door, 226D Milbank]

*The Prelude, cont. (possible sections of 1805/1850 versions TBA).
Theory: Smith and Watson, Ch. 4: “Life Narrative in Historical Perspective”
             (pp. 97-109)

Thurs 21

Tues 26

*Leo Tolstoy, Childhood

*Isaac Babel, “Childhood,” “The Story of My Dovecote,” “First Love,” “In the Basement,” “Awakening”


Thurs 28

Unit 4.  Forms of Ventriloquism

Rigoberta Menchu et al., I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala:     Translator’s note, Introduction, and Chapters I-VII
Theory: Smith and Watson, Ch. 6: “History of Autobiography Criticism, Part 2”



Tues 2

Thurs 4


University holiday – no class

I, Rigoberta Menchu: Chapters XII-XXI

Tues 9

Thurs 11

I, Rigoberta Menchu: Chapters XXIV-XXXIV
Press articles TBA

Mikhail Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time: “Bela,” “Maksim Maksimych,” “Taman”

Tues 16



Thurs 18

A Hero of Our Time: “Princess Mary,” “The Fatalist”

 [suggested topics for final paper handed out]

Unit 5.  Pulling it all together: Vladimir Nabokov as Case Study

Nabokov, Speak, Memory, Foreword and Ch. 1-4
Theory: Smith and Watson, Ch. 7: “A Tool Kit”

Tues 23

Thurs 25

Tues 30

Speak, Memory, Ch. 5-9

no class (Thanksgiving)

Speak, Memory, Ch 10-15 (Note: this is a long assignment [115pp.]. Plan accordingly!)


Thurs 2

Tues 7


Nabokov, Lolita, pp. 1-142. (Note: this is a long assignment. Plan accordingly!)
N.B.: the "Foreword" by "John Ray Jr." is part of the novel.  Do not skip it!!

Lolita, pp. 145-247

Thurs 9

FRI 10


Lolita, pp. 247-309.  Discussion of final exam.

[second 5-page paper OR single 10-page paper due at noon to my office door, 226D Milbank]




The following books will be available at Labyrinth Books, 536 West 112th Street (between Broadway and Amsterdam), and on reserve in Butler Library.  Readings marked in the syllabus with an asterisk (*) will be distributed in a course reader.

  • Sidonie Smith & Julia Watson, Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives (U. of Minn.) 
  • Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford World’s Classics)
  • Dante Alighieri, Inferno, trans. Allen Mandelbaum (Bantam)
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Confessions, trans. Angela Scholar, ed. Patrick Coleman (Oxford World’s Classics)
  • Leo Tolstoy, Childhood, Boyhood and Youth, trans. Rosemary Edmonds (Penguin Classics) = out of print (we will use a xerox instead)
  • Mikhail Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time,  trans.Vladimir Nabokov (Everyman's Library)
  • Rigoberta Menchu et al., I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala (Verso)
  • Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (Vintage)
  • ---, Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (Vintage)

[1] In keeping with the subject matter of the course, and especially with our sub-topic “The Self as Reader,” you will be asked to keep a journal reflecting on your reading, and to hand it in three times over the course of the semester.   You should use your journal

  1. to reflect on your own reaction to the assigned texts;
  2. to examine why you respond to each  text the way you do – i.e. what your response reveals about the way the text works and/or about  you as a reader; and
  3. to identify questions or topics that you plan to bring up in the class discussion.

Your journal entries may be as long or as short as you wish.  The only requirement is that they be genuinely thoughtful.  Expressing boredom is both valid and acceptable, as long as you also reflect on why you are bored and what it is about the text that fails to inspire or attract you.  Your reasons might be personal, cultural, theoretical, mysterious, or any combination of the above.

[2] You may choose whether to write two five-page papers (due on Oct. 17 and Dec. 8, respectively), or undertake a more ambitious project culminating in one 10-page paper (due Dec. 8).  I will hand out suggested topics in class, but you should feel free to alter these or come with something completely different that interests you.  However, please consult me before beginning work on a paper topic of your own devising!  If you choose to write the ten-page paper, you should exhibit some basic familiarity with any theoretical and critical texts of direct relevance to your topic.

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