ENGL 111: Ways of Writing about Bleak House

Terms Taught

Autumn 2017, Winter 2018


This composition course was organized around reading Charles Dickens’s Bleak House serially over the quarter while dipping into a few different critical perspectives.


Humanistic modes of inquiry prioritize trying to ask the right questions, rather than necessarily finding the right answers. Charles Dickens’s epic 1853 novel Bleak House has an important question at its very core: “What connexion can there be,” the narrator implores us to ask, between rich and poor? Between social structures and individual freedom? Between past and present?

Bleak House’s inquisitive, pattern-finding narrative makes it a useful text to begin asking questions with in order to gain insight into society and culture through writing. We will spend the class working through Bleak House, reading it in “parts” over an extended period as its original audiences did, rather than all at once. Believe me: there is plenty to keep us busy all quarter in this long, jam-packed, funny, mysterious book. Taking our time with one text will let us slowly get used to reading a book written more than 150 years ago, and to hone close reading, argument building, and research skills. We will use Bleak House as a focal point for thinking, talking, and writing about questions that are still important today, including: what can literature do to help us understand problems of economic inequality? Gender? Climate change? The ways we consume culture? The differences (and similarities) in the ways people live in 1853 and 2017?

The goal of the course is not that you end up with an encyclopedic knowledge of Bleak House (though this is a risk you will have to take). Rather, you will conduct a case study in how literature helps us think critically, refine your writing and reading skills, and pick up habits that will help you communicate more effectively in different academic and professional settings. You will be assessed on a self-chosen portfolio consisting of substantially revised versions of your most effective writing from the quarter, and a final critical essay reflecting on your growth toward core learning goals.