Narrative and Moral Crisis


ENG 319S / ETHICS 320S – Narrative & Moral Crisis, Prof Thomas Pfau

A course exploring four concepts at play wherever a moral crisis is explored in narrative form: Justice; Suffering; Sin; and Self-Recognition (& Forgiveness).  The course meets MW 12:00-1:15. Please consider registering for this course to satisfy the CTM requirement or an elective. This course also counts towards both the English minor and creative writing minor (as the non-creative writing course).

Satisfies course codes EI, ALP, CZ and fulfills the CTM requirement for English majors

Who we are has always been closely entwined with the stories we tell and in which we see ourselves implicated, either as a protagonist (e.g., autobiography, adventure stories) or because we grasp a given story as a parable that sheds light on our very existence. At the same time, some type of conflict, or moral dilemma, forms the backbone of most, if not all narrative. Lastly, the very fact that we habitually tell stories suggests that what we mean by “moral crisis” appears to be integral to our very existence; and it is specifically in fashioning narrative that we grasp the moral life as something insistent, enigmatic, and altogether inescapable.  

During the first half of the semester, we will explore four concepts that are typically in play wherever a moral crisis is explored in narrative form: 1) Justice; 2) Suffering; 3) Sin; and 4) Self-Recognition (& Forgiveness). The readings for this first half of the course will be fairly compact: our initial reading is Aeschylus’s Antigone, which stages the tragic conflict between two competing notions of justice. Turning next to The Book of Job, we’ll consider the challenge posed by extreme and (seemingly) gratuitous suffering to the monotheist cosmos of Old Testament narrative. Following that, some selections from Augustine’s Confessions will help us crystalize the concept of sin (and the notion of free will presupposed by it), which ever since has served as the foundation for narrative practice and moral valuation. The first half of the term will conclude with a few Cantos from Dante’s Purgatorio (the second Canticle of his Divine Comedy), where the main focus is on self-recognition and forgiveness.  

The second half of the term will be given over to exploring the way that all the above concepts operate in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866), a book we will discuss in some depth.  

Requirements: 3 medium-length papers (approx. 2,500 words each) – Active in-class participation – Consistent attendance and preparedness throughout the term.

It is often said that literature encourages ethical reflection, and even that it somehow fortifies our disposition to behave in ethical ways. This class will consider a different possibility, that literature, or narrative more generally, often represents or provokes circumstances of extreme moral uncertainty. Such uncertainty, sometimes focused in a moment of decision and sometimes arising from a clash of perspectives, can gather around characters, narrators, authors, and even readers. We will be focusing on a few works of literary and cinematic art, ranging from the Book of Genesis to Ian McEwan's Atonement, in which moral issues emerge with particular urgency and complexity.
Curriculum Codes
  • EI
  • ALP
  • CZ
Cross-Listed As
  • ETHICS 320S
Typically Offered
Spring Only