College of Arts and Sciences | Russian Short Fiction
E103 | 8827 | --


This class fulfills the College Topics requirement and carries A & H
distribution credit.

This course aims at familiarizing students with Russian literature
from 1800 to present day through a reading of short fiction: short
stories, short story cycles, and novellas – that is, the tales of
good and evil, to borrow the title of Nikolai Gogol’s prose volume.
We will interpret these texts as narratives and stories in a broad
sense, and we will entertain theoretical questions such as: What is
a story? Why does culture need fictional stories and narratives?
What is fiction and what does fictional mean as a literary term?
Does non-fiction exist without being tainted by elements of fiction?
How does the notion of a story intersect with our lives? Why do we
read stories (books) and watch them onscreen (movies)? Why do people
need to construct and share stories, including literature?

We will analyze short fiction as material that will let us test the
hypothesis that stories and narratives are central to our experience
because they help us to represent, name, and understand our
fragmented reality: the material world that surrounds us and the
abstract world of ideas. Narratives provide a more or less linear
structure for discussing what we think, feel, see or hear; they
allow us to produce meaning out of the chaos of experience.

The course will be arranged into thematic modules that pertain to
the structure of short fiction. We will analyze a number of literary
concepts: the narrator, character, plot, setting, time, space,
mimesis, irony, humor, absurdity, and fantasy. We will examine what
elements a story must possess in order to be deemed successful or
good. We will consider criteria used by critics and readers to
determine why the short fiction read in the course has been seen as
worthy of being included in the canon of Russian literature (and why
some texts we will read may not be considered canonical). We will
trace the three genres of short fiction – the short story, short
story cycle, and novella – to see how they have developed in Russia
since 1800. We will also discuss what differentiates these genres
from other prose genres such as the novel, diary, memoir, or
reportage.

In this class, we will read around thirty-five Russian short fiction
texts published in the last two hundred years. Class readings will
include, among others: Pushkin’s depictions of military life in
early nineteenth-century czarist Russia (The Shot, 1830), and his
musings on the nature of artistic inspiration (Egyptian Nights,
1835); Gogol’s absurd tales, in which noses can become detached from
human bodies and lead independent lives (The Nose, 1836), while
items of clothing become objects of desire that alter one’s destiny
(The Overcoat, 1842); Dostoevsky’s examination of love, death, and
power (A Gentle Creature, 1876), Chekhov’s stories of seduction in
fin-de-siècle Crimea (The Lady with the Dog, 1899); Babel’s
documentary snapshots of the Russian-Polish war of 1920 (Red
Cavalry, 1926); Solzhenitsyn’s portrait of a Stalinist camp prisoner
starting a new life in a Soviet village in the 1950s (Matryona’s
House); Petrushevskaia’s vignettes of bleak Soviet reality in the
perestroika period (Our Crowd, 1988); Tolstaia’s sketches of the
late communist world as seen from the perspective of characters
marginalized by society (Peters, 1986; Fire and Dust, 1987), and
Ulitskaia’s story of a Russian woman’s life, published a few years
after the fall of communism (Sonechka, 1995).

These three areas of inquiry – definitions and cultural functions of
a narrative and a story, basic concepts of literary theory as
related to the short fiction genre, and the history and development
of Russian short fiction – will allow students to:
(1) learn and discuss basic theoretical concepts of narrative theory
(2) analyze how these concepts work in specific Russian literary
texts
(3) understand works of Russian short fiction in their historical
and political context.

As for the general academic skills that this course will develop,
students will hone their
(1) reading comprehension skills in the fields of fiction and
literary/cultural criticism
(2) analytical skills such as formulating questions that can/should
be asked when analyzing narratives/texts in general and short
fiction works in particular, identifying theoretical concepts in
fictional works, constructing arguments, finding evidence for
arguments in texts, citing evidence, interpreting (making sense of)
short fiction, making connections between different works with
regard to theme, form, and/or historical/political backdrop,
synthesizing detailed and/or fragmented information
(3) writing skills through a variety of assignments such as a
a short story analysis, explication du texte, critical essay,
comparative essay, and stylization exercise (a creative writing
exercise that approximates a writer’s style or a specific subgenre
of short fiction)
(4) oral presentation skills
(5) online and library research skills: investigating core concepts,
writers, works, reviews, and contexts to be used in class
discussions and oral presentations
(6) team work: group discussions and presentation of findings in
class.

Course information: No knowledge of Russian is needed; all texts
will be available in English (unless a student wants to read them in
Russian). Class meetings will be a combination of discussions,
lectures, group work, and student presentations. Requirements:
active participation in class discussions and group work, bi-weekly
quizzes (multiple choice and IDs), five written assignments totaling
16 pages (two 1-page short story analysis and/or explication du
texte), two 3-page critical essays, two 3-page comparative essays,
and two 1-page stylization exercises), and a 10-minute class
presentation. No midterm, no final.