Murder. A Course on Narrative Representation
In the popular BBC television series Sherlock, the titular character is not infrequently celebrating
the discovery of a murder. (“Oh it’s Christmas!” he exclaims in the first episode—when
presented with four corpses.) And despite ourselves, we viewers celebrate along with him. After
all, murder is the narrative dynamite that catalyzes our evening’s entertainment, launching us into
an absorbing three-quarters-hour of intrigue, suspense, and high-stakes deduction.
While killing is often central to light, popular fictions in the vein of Sherlock Holmes or Agatha
Christie’s Poirot, it is also often key to more philosophical representations of the darkest, most
antisocial aspects of the human psyche. In this course, we consider this intriguing range of
murder’s narrative function and meaning. We examine how representational strategies and genre
conventions inform readerly expectations and responses. While one representational context may
largely empty a killing of its horror, another depiction of murder may worm its way deep into the
reader’s or viewer’s psyche. As part of our larger examination of how context, convention,
plotting and style informs the meaning, we furthermore discuss the categories nonfiction, based on a
true story, and fiction. By the end of the course, students should have a working understanding of
key concepts from narratology, genre studies, and reader response criticism.
Meredith Castile
meredith.castile@gmail.com1 2
Office hours by appointment. I hope to meet with each of you, however briefly, at least
once during the quarter.
We all come to each class.3 In the minutes before 1.15.4 With thoughts.5
I am compelled to report any and all incidents of academic dishonesty to the University.
I check and answer email every weekday afternoon.
A decent academic email includes the following components:
(a) A searchable and explicit subject line.
(b) A opening salutation (“Dear Ms. Castile”).
(c) A closing salutation (“Kind Regards” is standard. Variations include “Many thanks!” or “All Best”).
(d) A phone number if you’re asking a complicated question better discussed viva voce.
3 Not always easy, I know. Do anyway.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
Short essay (1,500 word maximum) focusing on the student’s own experience processing
a chosen scene/work. Essay should analyze either the text’s style or, alternatively, its
narrative structure.6 Submit to me via email. If the attachment does not work, the paper is
late. Due midnight, 15 June.
Final presentation (seven minutes, live or via video) on an independent topic formally
proposed to the instructor in writing by 21 June, preferably earlier.
Final take-home essay exam (five short reponses, two short essays, twenty-four hours)
Term grades will be weighted accordingly:
short essay, 20%
final presentation 30%
final exam 30%
quality of classroom contributions (including unannounced in-class writings) 20%
week 1
murder and mimesis. introduction and historical overview
“I murdered myself, not her!”
Excerpt: Crime and Punishment. Fyodor Dostoevsky. Trans. Constance Garnett. 1866.
“Since Cain, no punishment has been capable of improving the world.”
A Short Film About Killing. Krzysztof Kieslowski. 1988.
week 2
murder as entertainment
“the murders which have given the greatest amount of pleasure to the British public”
“Decline of the English Murder.” [short essay] George Orwell. 1946.
“[---’s] been poisoned. Just like grandfather. It’s awfully exciting, isn’t it? ”
Crooked House. Agatha Christie. 1949.
Nota bene: Essay-writing procrastination is truly the end stage of moral degeneration: “Once a man indulges himself
in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing, and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbathbreaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. Once begin upon this downward path, you never know
where you are to stop. Many a man dated his ruin from some murder or other that perhaps he thought little of at the
time. Principiis obsta—that’s my rule.” (Thomas de Quincey, “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” 1827.
Emphasis added.)
week 3, into week 4
murder as philosophical experiment
“Since we’re all going to die, it’s obvious that when and how don’t matter.”
The Stranger. Albert Camus. 1942.
weeks 4 and 5
murder as true crime
“Nothing so vicious as this.”
Excerpts. In Cold Blood. Truman Capote. 1966.
week 6
murder as narratively inconclusive
“Someone is lying. And I really wanted to figure out who.”
Serial. [podcast] Sarah Koenig. Episodes 1-5. 2014.
week 7
murder as spectacle
“It was as if we were killing—happily.”
The Act of Killing. [film] Joshua Oppenheimer. 2012.
final presentations (day one and two)
week 8
final presentations (day three)
essay exam