Syllabus for English 411

Bleak House: A Case Study in
Literary Theory and Criticism

My father, who's here today, was a foster child who was adopted as a teen-ager.
I am adopted. We have relatives who are adopted. We are not talking out of
some vague, impersonal, Dickens, Bleak House, middle-class, intellectual model.
We have lived the alternatives.

Newt Gingrich, 1995, defending his comment that children of teen-age mothers on welfare be put in orphanages.*

Course Description / Assignments / Reading Schedule / Suggestions for Presentations


Bleak House and critical theory have at least one thing in common: both have come under attack as esoteric and divorced from "real" life. Readers and proponents are charged with being overly-intellectual and elitist.

These attacks are understandable on at least two counts. First, Bleak House and critical theory can make for difficult reading. Dickens' novel is difficult for modern readers because most of us are no longer used to reading works of this length and detail, and most of us do not have the historical knowledge to readily recognize its contextual allusions. Critical theory may be difficult for new readers because it requires a facility with a highly specialized vocabulary and alludes to writers and texts that we may not be familiar with. Both Bleak House and critical theory can be analogous to learning a new language.

Second, the questions they ask of us may be unsettling. Bleak House proposes relationships between social ills, such as poverty and homelessness, and social privileges, such as wealth and education, that we may not be comfortable confronting. Critical theory asks us to examine our assumptions about literature, the production of meaning, and social reality: for example, what does literature, and the way we interpret the meaning of a text, have to do with these same social ills and privileges that we find in Dickens' novel? In short, both Bleak House and critical theory require new ways of thinking about literature, reading, and meaning.

Nonetheless, readers who have worked through these challenges have found these texts to be engaging and rewarding. Bleak House is considered one of the richest and most important novels in the English language, and an understanding of critical theory can, among other things, improve our facility with literary criticism in general. Over the course of this block, we will work through Bleak House and stop periodically to consider what a particular school of literary theory might say about the novel. Note that we will not read many primary theoretical texts in this course; rather, we will read a basic, accessible introduction to theory. (For example, together we will read about Deconstruction, and not essays by Jacques Derrida, its most celebrated proponent). In your individual projects, however, you'll read more deeply in one theory of your choice. We will end the course with discussion of a few critical articles about Bleak House that are shaped by different, competing literary theories.


We will conduct class in a seminar format. Everyone will be responsible for facilitating class discussions in turn. We will engage with readings through discussion, presentations, informal writing, and a research paper proposal. Your engagement and participation are crucial for the course's success.


1. Participation Expectations

    • attend class.
    • complete the daily reading assignments.
    • turn in written assignments promptly.
    • participate regularly in discussions.
    • be respectful toward classmates and engage with their ideas.
    • bring positive and constructive critical energy to these discussions.
I'll assess your participation toward the end of week two and again at the end of the course. Failure to meet any part of this criteria will diminish your participation grade. Feel free to approach me about your participation grade anytime, outside of class.

2. Thought Questions

Once during the block, you'll collaborate with a classmate to create four "thought questions" about the day's assigned reading. These are questions that are designed to make someone think: complex questions to which you don't have an easy answer. You'll type these, make enough copies for everyone (about 21) , and bring them to class. We'll use them to provoke discussion, usually during the second half of a class period. I am particularly interested in questions that relate theory to the novel, but you will receive full credit on thought questions for simply doing them.

3. Group Presentation

In groups of 2 or 3, you'll give one brief presentation, about 10 minutes, and lead discussion on the day's reading for about 30 minutes. Your goal should be to provide some helpful information, not to exhaust your subject, and to engage as many people as possible in a lively discussion. Presentation topics and resource suggestions are below. You will sign up on the first day of class for a topic and date. If, during the block, your group wishes to change topics, see me in advance for approval. After your presentation, you'll submit a one-page self-assessment addressing the following questions. Where was your presentation the strongest? What share of the work did you do? How might your presentation have been more successful? What did you learn in doing it? Be as honest as possible. I'll take this self-assessment into positive consideration when grading your presentation. Note: You should choose two different days for your group presentations and thought questions, and space these out to avoid getting overwhelmed.

4. Response Papers

You'll write two informal response papers, 3 pages each, on a topic of your choosing. These may build on your thought questions or group presentation. They should be rich in content and demonstrate the complexity of your thinking about the novel and/or theory. I don't expect a single, formal thesis that you will prove. Rather, I expect you to identify a problem in the novel that you find interesting or puzzling, and to explore that problem in as much detail as possible. You should consider the paper to be exploratory, not necessarily argumentative, in nature. I'll evaluate the paper for detail, clarity, complexity, and creativity. Note that if you build on a presentation you should include substantially new questions or material.

5. Paper Proposal

At the end of the block, you'll turn in a 7-8 page research paper proposal. You'll identify a research question, propose a tentative thesis, discuss your project's theoretical approach, give a sample analysis of some part of the novel, and include an annotated bibliography of at least three sources. Michelle Holschuch Simmons (Humanities Librarian) will provide research assistance and I'll provide you with details as we move forward. Participation, 10%
Thought Questions, 5%
Presentation, 20%
Response Paper 1, 20%
Response Paper 2, 20%
Project Proposal, 25%

Policy on Attendance and Due-Dates:

In keeping with the seminar format, more than two missed class periods constitutes grounds for failure of the course. Due primarily to class size, I will not accept late assignments.

Academic Integrity

Plagiarism is using others’ words, research, or ideas without crediting them fully and accurately, and it is a serious academic offense. Plagiarism can be as blatant as stealing (or buying) an essay and submitting it as your own, or as unintentional as paraphrasing a published interpretation but forgetting to document your source. Whatever the form, you are ultimately responsible for avoiding plagiarism. The MLA Handbook explains how to use and document sources properly in an English paper. I would be happy to discuss proper documentation or plagiarism in more detail at your request. If you plagiarize or cheat, whatever the method, you’ll receive an "F" as your final course grade.


BH = Charles Dickens' novel Bleak House.

RL = Scott Carpenter's Reading Lessons.

Critical Essays can be found in Bleak House, ed. by Jeremy Tambling.

Week 1

Readings, 9:00-11 am classes.

Assignments & Events

Mon., Sept. 3


Tues., Sept. 4

BH, read through Chapter 5.

Presentation: Chancery, Equity, the Inns of Court by Marshall & Sombret.

Wed., Sept. 5

BH, through Ch. 10.

Presentation: London Geography by Hurovitz & Schmidt.

Thurs., Sept. 6

BH, Ch. 15; RL, pp. 1-20.

Presentation: Dickens' Characterizations, by Hanson & Carley.

Fri., Sept. 7

BH, Ch. 20.

Field Trip. We'll leave at 8:15 from Commons for a visit to the University of Iowa's Special Collections Department. Be prompt. We'll return by noon.

Presentation: Pollution, Slums, & Vagrancy. Hamilton & Banks

Sat., Sept. 8

Due Noon, South Hall 207: Response Paper 1. You may email the paper to me but you must accept the consequences if the file will not open. I can generally open files in Microsoft Word without trouble.

Week 2

Readings, 9:00-11 am classes.

Assignments & Events

Mon., Sept. 10

BH, Ch. 25.

Presentation: Marriage, Couples, Parenthood: Kahl, Birkestrand, Saffer

Tues., Sept. 11

RL, pp. 21-64.

Wed., Sept. 12

BH, Ch. 31.

Presentation: Structure by Ohnstad, Ames, Structure

Thurs., Sept. 13

BH, Ch. 37; and

No Presentations. 1:00 pm, meet in Cole Library.

Fri., Sept. 14

RL, pp. 65-114.

Sat. Sept. 15

Due Noon, South Hall 207: Response Paper 2. See above regarding email.

Week 3

Readings, 9:00-11 am classes.

Assignments & Events

Mon., Sept. 17

BH, Ch. 44.

Presentation: Lady Dedlock by Wyant & Gent.

Tues., Sept. 18

BH, Ch. 52.

Presentation: Dickens' Life by Skwara & Wolf

Wed., Sept. 19

RL, pp. 115-134.

Thurs., Sept. 20

BH, Ch. 62.

Presentation: Detectives & Policemen by Krupicka & Mallum.

Fri., Sept. 21

BH, 67.

Presentation: Benevolence, Philanthropy, & Dickens by Choi & Stoughton

Sat., Sept. 22

Due Noon, South 107: draft of the theory section of your proposal.

Week 4

Readings, 9:00-11 am classes.

Assignments & Events

Mon., Sept. 24

Proposals/article Discussion

Tues., Sept. 25

Proposals/article Discussion

Wed., Sept. 26

Class Breakfast & Review.

Due 9:00 am: Final Proposals


Suggestions: Keep presentations down to about 10 minutes. I encourage you to use visual aids, such as handouts, transparencies, or websites. The more interactive the better. Let me know in advance if you need a laptop/projector for class and I'll try to arrange one.

Tuesday, Sept. 4

Chancery, Equity, and the Inns of Court. Perhaps the most malicious of Dickens' characters is an abstraction—the Court of Equity. Explain the distinction between Equity and Common Law. What are the Inns of Court, who attends them, and where in London are they located? What is Dickens protesting? Your main resource should be the "Introductory Note on Law: Courts and Colleges" beginning on xvi in your edition of Bleak House. Also, see websites at and for great visuals. Let me know if you'd like to demonstrate these websites in class.

Wednesday, Sept. 5

London Geography. Readers familiar with 19th century London would have understood the significance of Snagsby's living on Cursitor Lane, or Jo's resting on Blackfriar's Bridge. What places on the London map are significant in Bleak House? Who lives where, and what is suggested about these locations? Who travels (walks or drives) where? How far are St. Albans and Lincolnshire from London? Our class website links to several pages should be useful, particularly the following maps and discussions of nineteenth-century London: , , . You'll find a Poverty Map of Victorian London at,180400,6,large,5

Thursday, Sept. 6

Dickens' Characterization. Dickens is most famous for his powerfully quirky characterization. How does he create characters to be so memorable? What categories of characters exist in Bleak House? What techniques does he use to suggest that a character is malicious, sympathetic, and/or comical? To help you think about these questions, see "Characterization" at Dickens on the Victorian Web:

Friday, Sept. 7

Pollution, Slums, Vagrancy. The proverbial "London fog" is in fact smog. What roles do pollution, slums, and vagrancy play in Dickens'' depiction of London? What contemporary problems, laws, and debates was he exploring? See the section in your book on "Pollution" which begins on page 901.

Monday, Sept. 10

Marriage, Couples, Parenthood. Who are the married couples in Bleak House? What does Bleak House have to say about marriage, couples, and parenthood? What is Dickens up to in portraying so many married couples with or without children in the diversity of their dynamics? What are the objects of his satire?

Wednesday, Sept. 12

Structure. The structure of Dickens' novel has received a great deal of commentary since it was first published. What is the effect of the twin narratives? What function does each seem to serve? What techniques characterize each narrator's story-telling? How do they work together or against one another? What other structural patterns do you see emerging in the novel, such as parallel characters or repeated motifs, and what is their significance? 

Monday, September 17

Lady Dedlock, fallen woman? Dickens had complex views towards women, and toward "fallen women" in particular. What seems to be Dickens' understanding of the fallen woman in Bleak House? Is he sympathetic toward Lady Deadlock's plight, condemnatory of her morality, or some combination of the two? For background on the fallen woman, see "The Fallen Woman in Victorian Art" ( , read an recent discovery about Dickens and fallen women (, and learn about Dickens' attempt to save prostitutes at

Tuesday, September 18

Dickens' Life. What were some of the formative events of Charles Dickens' professional and personal life? What bearing, if any, should these events play in our interpretation of Bleak House? Do they add insight to your understanding of any particular part of the novel? Numerous websites exist devoted to Dickens' biography. For good scholarly material, start with the Victorian web at, and James Diedrick's page on Dickens' journalism career at You might also see his letters at the end of your edition of Bleak House.

Thursday, September 20

Detectives and Policemen. The 19th-century witnessed the expansion and organization of the police force, as well as the advent of the detective novel. How does the novel follow what we currently consider to be the classic detective novel? How does it differ from the classic detective novel? Speak with me about sources.

Friday, September 21

Colonialism, Philanthropy, and Dickens. How would you put Dickens' parody of Mrs. Jellyby in the context of British Imperialism and Colonialism? What about her work is Dickens precisely satirizing? How are we asked to view other acts of benevolence or charity that exist in the novel? Are there models of benevolence that Dickens views more favorably?