Caring About Characters

ENGL 203-01 Fall 2018

Professor Sam Fallon

Course description

Why do we care about fictional characters? That we do care about them seems to be a basic fact of reading: we open books at least in part because of their power to make us feel things for people who don’t actually exist. Yet in the classroom the strong feelings that characters elicit are often left behind or ignored, as we learn to read coolly and critically, to analyze rather than to sympathize. In this class, we will explore this essential but easily overlooked feature of literary experience: the pull of sympathy, of love and care and grief, that lead us to literature in the first place. In doing so, we will confront crucial questions about what literature is and how it works on us. What, we will ask, is the relation between fiction and reality? What leads us to treat imagined characters as actual persons? At the same time, we will think hard about just what it is we do when we read. Do interpretation and analysis demand detachment and distance? Does reading critically mean abandoning the emotional attachments that books continually tempt us to form? Can we study literature without loving it less?

Our conversations will focus on characters who frame sympathy and identification as challenges—from Hamlet, who reads himself through others, to the “monster” of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, who learns what it is to be a person (and an outcast) from his books, to the sociopathic protagonist of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, who resists our care even as he solicits it. As we read these texts and others, we’ll also look at how literary critics and theorists have approached the problem of character and, more broadly, the challenges of reading and interpretation.


Find the syllabus in Google docs.