Please read our student and staff community guidance on COVID-19
Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Unit 2: What is literary history?


As readers, we tend to feel that literature is in some way unbound by history: when we read Eliot, Richardson, or Shakespeare, their works affect us in what can appear to be a direct and unmediated engagement. But works of literature, and readers, are historically-situated products of particular times and places. How can we understand the situation of literature in history, while preserving some sense of its autonomy and its ability to inhabit constantly-shifting historical contexts?


These questions are posed in a particularly acute form by the core text for this unit: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which appeared in 1818 but is more familiar in the heavily-revised version of 1831. Marilyn Butler’s classic essay on Shelley’s novel suggests that the proper context of the 1818 version is the ‘vitalist debate’ of 1814-19 at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, but also claims that the changes in the 1831 text resulted from ‘outside pressures which have little to do with aesthetics, and make it hard to say that it was [Shelley] who changed her mind.’


This unit presents a range of different ways of accounting for how those ‘outside pressures’ are registered in works of literature.

Frontispiece to Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1831 ed.)  

List of secondary readings on Frankenstein

Ian Watt’s classic study The Rise of the Novel (1959) relates the emergence of the English novel in the eighteenth century to intellectual and social changes attendant on enlightenment philosophy and the ‘rise of the middle class’. Under the heading of ‘historical formalisms’ we explore the ‘new historicism’, a movement in literary scholarship which rejected an exclusive focus on ‘the words on the page’ to attempt to account for the situation of literary texts in particular historical moments, while retaining their ability to signify in ways that their authors and readers might not have recognised – but which literary historians can. Ian Hacking’s essay ‘Making Up People’ challenges us to historicise our own categories and concepts, and to think about the work they do in constituting what we take to be ‘reality’. Historical materialists like Williams and Lukács understand literature in terms of the productive forces and relations that, as Marxists, they see as the driving force of history. Finally, under ‘Critique’ we examine what until recently had been a dominant tendency among literary scholars to read works of literature as encodings of ideological and discursive formations, which delimit the possibilities of thought and action in a given historical moment. In place of the ‘suspicious’ readings of literature that this outlook tended to produce, many literary scholars have followed Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s call for ‘reparative readings’ that seek to restore and add meaning to texts, rather than stripping it away to reveal a supposedly hidden ideological core.

Week 7: Narrative and History

Lecture slides


  • Ian Watt, 'Realism and the Novel Form', in The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding (1959, 25pp.)
  • Marilyn Butler, 'The First Frankenstein and Radical Science', The Times Literary Supplement 9 April 1993 (3pp.)


Week 8: Historical Formalisms


  • Catherine Gallagher & Stephen Greenblatt, 'Counterhistory and the Anecdote', in Practicing New Historicism (2000, 28pp.)
  • Ian Hacking, 'Making Up People', in Historical Ontology (2004, 16pp.)

Suggested further readings:

  • Marjorie Levinson, “What is New Formalism?”, PMLA 122 (2007, 12 pp.)
  • Isobel Armstrong, The Radical Aesthetic (2000)
  • Samuel Otter, “A Different Formalism” (review essay on Davis, Formalism, Experience, ...), Novel 43 (2010, 3 pp.)
  • David Alworth, “Form’s Function”, LA Review of Books (March 2015) - review essay on Levine, Forms
  • Jonathan Kramnick and Anahid Nersessian, “Form and Explanation”, Critical Inquiry 43 (2017, 20 pp.)
  • Claude Levi Strauss, “The Structural Study of Myth”, Journal of American Folklore 68 (1955, 17 pp.)

Week 9: Historical Materialisms


  • Raymond Williams, 'Dominant, Residual, and Emergent', in Marxism and Literature (1977, 7 pp.)
  • Gyorgy Lukács, 'The Classical Form of the Historical Novel', in The Historical Novel (1962, 44 pp.)

Suggested further readings:

  • Roy Bhaskar, 'Materialism', and William Shaw, 'Historical Materialism', in A Dictionary of Marxist Thought (2001, 5pp, 6pp.)
  • Franco Moretti, 'The Dialectic of Fear', New Left Review 136 (1982), 67-85


Week 10: Critique


  • Rita Felski, 'Introduction', in The Limits of Critique (2015, 14 pp.)
  • Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, 'Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You're So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is about You', in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (2002, 29pp.)

Suggested further readings:

  • Elizabeth Anker and Rita Felski, "Introduction," in Critique and Post-Critique (2017)
  • Judith Butler, “What is Critique?” in David Ingram ed., The Political: Readings in Continental Philosophy (2002)
  • Alain Badiou, “The Democratic Emblem” in Giorgio Agamben et al., Democracy in What State? (2009)
  • Paul de Man, “The Resistance to Theory”, Yale French Studies 63 (1982, 18 pp.)