Henry James and Edith Wharton

Department of American and Canadian Studies, School of English, Drama and American & Canadian Studies

College of Arts and Law


Code 23911

Level of study Third/Final year

Credit value 20

Semester 1

Pre-requisite modules You must have completed at least two years of appropriate study in this discipline.

Module description

This course offers intensive study of a selection of the works of Henry James and Edith Wharton. Both James and Wharton depict life among the financially comfortable classes in late nineteenth and early twentieth century America, but their novels and shorter writings are more than mere dramas of manners. Wharton’s writing treats the very fine gradations of social and cultural prestige critically, and paints a complicated and contradictory picture of pre-World War One New York society, while James is always alert to the moral and ethical minutiae of an upper-class New England world. Both writers’ focus lies on the individual and psychological weight of tradition and class, and both find innovative ways to represent personal and psychological experience that foreshadow (and indeed overlap with) modernist experimentation. The course will follow a number of key ideas that coalesce in the oeuvres of James and Wharton: their representations of American society; their interest in Italy as a site of escape; romance and death; and their abiding interest in the plight of the `New Woman’. Novels and short stories from both writers will be studied in the light of these wider contextual issues, and the course will offer students the chance to explore these topics in the light of primary and secondary critical work. James and Wharton also took the opportunity late in life to offer their own assessments on their respective careers; this course will allow students to explore James’ and Wharton’s autobiographical writings alongside ideas of authorial control and `self-fashioning’. The course will also offer students the chance to study some of Henry James’ later work, which has the reputation of being difficult and obtuse. Later James is difficult, but is also richly rewarding; we will look at James’ turn inward in his later work in the context of his growing interest in the modes of psychological reality in some of his seminal late short stories.

Teaching and learning methods