UH395H: Literature and Ethics
Instructor: Stephen Behrendt, Dept. of English
TIME: 0930 – 1045 TR
Literature and Ethics are natural partners. The stories we tell, and the way we tell them, reflect
the moral and ethical assumptions, expectations, and practices that we have acquired in our
individual journeys through life. Those stories are often places where we actively question these
attitudes and beliefs within changing times and changing cultures. But all writing for public
consumption – like all public speech – is inherently political, too, because it inevitably attempts
to engage the minds of citizens in these same investigations of values. Any writer – any of us –
therefore has an ethical responsibility for what she or he writes and may be held responsible for
the consequences of that writing. Writing does not exist in a vacuum.
We will approach the complicated subject of ethics and ethical behaviors (of all sorts) as we
encounter them in a variety of literary texts from a broad range of times, places, and cultures.
Our purposes will be both (1) to get a clearer sense of just what it is we mean when we talk about
“ethics” and (2) to examine how ethical issues, confrontations and dilemmas are presented for
our principled examination in written texts that possess real literary, cultural, and/or aesthetic
power and significance.
Teaching Method:
Since this is a seminar, I will expect everyone to participate fully in an ongoing classroom
discussion, which I see as a conversational and relatively informal but intellectually engaged
exchange in which we work together to help one another wrestle with genuinely important –
although often very complex and difficult – intellectual, political, spiritual, and cultural issues
that continue to lie at the center of our lives as students and as citizens. So we will talk about the
readings and how they relate to one another and to the larger issues of ethics and ethical
(1) Thoughtful preparation, in advance, of assigned readings.
(2) Regular participation in classroom discussions and both individual and group
(3) Some brief and usually informal writing.
(4) A longer formal research-based seminar essay.
Tentative Reading List:
Required (probably): Ethics, Literature, Theory, ed. Stephen K. George, 2nd ed. (2005). Other
readings will be selected from among – but not all – of the following: Mary Shelley,
Frankenstein; Percy Shelley, The Cenci; Dickens, A Christmas Carol; Ha Jin, The Bridegroom;
Flannery O’Connor, The Displaced Person; Sophocles, Antigone; Machiavelli, The Prince;
Glaspell, Trifles; Eileen Chang, Lust, Caution; Conrad, The Secret Sharer; King, Letter from
Birmingham Jail; the Book of Job.