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The title of this supplementary handbook--Contexts and Comparisons: A Student Guide to the Great Works Courses--points to its two basic purposes. In this introduction, we will examine why "contexts" and "comparisons" play a central role in the study of literature within The Great Works Courses.

Each semester of the course emphasizes five historical periods and the literary genres that best characterize them. One function of Contexts and Comparisons: A Student Guide to the Great Works Courses is to establish the context for each unit, to demonstrate that art does not exist in a vacuum. Maps, timelines, and illustrations will help you visualize some social and cultural details relevant to the literary texts you study. Brief (and thus inevitably oversimplified) essays touch on a few significant features of the different eras and genres you will encounter in the course, to help you appreciate the often complex connections between works of literature and the cultures from which they arise.

These chronologically arranged contexts outline some major Western literary traditions. The comparisons mentioned in the book's title extend this traditional view in a few different directions. Many of the Passages for Study in each unit invite a consideration of influential literary achievements from the non-Western world and significant writing by women in a variety of cultures. Other Passages for Study offer readings that demonstrate the ambivalence artists may feel in reacting to the work of their predecessors, for out of these feelings, simultaneously admiring and competitive, traditions arise. A typically divided response animates the title of a painting by the Chinese artist, Wu Li (1632-1718): "The Continuing-and-Rejecting-The-Classic-Inheritance Landscape." Contexts and Comparisons attempts, then, to heighten the reader's awareness that texts (1) both inherit and modify traditions and attitudes, and exist in relation to, rather than in isolation from, each other.

On Canons

In choosing the specific texts you will read this semester, your instructor has given considerable thought not only to broad questions of cultures and traditions, but also to the intrinsic merits of each "great" work you will read. Class syllabi will differ because instructors have their own personal definitions of what makes a work of art "great." Deciding what to read in itself assigns value; the selection of texts that seem essential components of a good undergraduate education recently has been been called "canon formation," adopting a word that has a long history. World literature embraces many formal and unchanging canons (or rules, or lists of sacred texts); two of the best known and most ancient are the Chinese canonical texts and the Bible. The Chinese canon comprises five books: The Book of Songs, an anthology of folk poems that date to the 12th century B. C.; The Book of Documents; The Spring and Autumn Annals; The Record of Ritual; and The Book of Changes. These choices, attributed to the philosopher Confucius (551-479 B.C.), focus for the most part on pragmatic rather than imaginative texts and promote what we now call Confucian values; the works teach how to behave in this world and how best to serve the state.

The biblical canon, whose formation is described in the unit on Sacred Texts, has a far different emphasis. But like the Confucian canon, the Bible is set for all time and promulgates certain assumptions about the proper sphere for human beings in the universe. Without knowing these ancient and fixed canons, students may find it difficult to understand either the cultures that produced them, or the cultures that they in turn produced.

When we speak of texts typically studied in classrooms in the United States at the end of the twentieth century as "canonical works," however, we mean something quite different. These "canons" keep shifting as new options present themselves and tastes change. Forgotten literary texts are rediscovered, texts previously ignored are uncovered, and writings inaccessible to readers of English are translated at so rapid a pace that commercial textbooks used in courses like ours undergo constant revision. Your teachers have constructed their own canons in order to transmit to their students a core of ideas that they deem essential. This individual choice permits instructors to assign readings in which they believe, often reflecting their own areas of scholarly expertise, since it seems reasonable to assume that teachers teach best the texts that most interest and engage them.

On Period Designations

Ideally, literature sharpens our vision of what is generally taken for granted by making us scrutinize the existing state of things, the so-called status quo. In preparing ourselves to see more clearly, we might begin with a critical examination of one manifestation of the status quo, the chronological units of study chosen for these courses, which reflect a set of assumptions generally taken for granted in the United States. While the habit of giving names to differentiate periods of the past from one another is hardly unique to the West, the names by which cultures mark their histories tell us a great deal about the way they see their own experience. The civilizations of East Asia, for instance, emphasize the continuity of their traditions by selecting the names of ruling families, or dynasties, to mark off centuries. China's long history begins with the Shang dynasty in roughly 1200 B. C. and, in its three-thousand year passage to the Ch'ing (or Manchu) dynasty that held power from the end of the sixteenth until the beginning of the twentieth century, changes dynasties only eleven times.

By contrast, dramatic changes in historical periods have been the rule rather than the exception in the West, indicating a view of time as the initiator of change rather than the conservator of value. Moreover, Western eras tend to bear descriptive names that sometimes exalt, or, as in the following case, even slander, rather than simply denote. Consider, for example, the long popularity of the term "Dark Ages" to describe the period following the final collapse of the Roman Empire in the fifth century A. D. If one holds classical civilization as vastly superior to any other, then its decline looks like a loss of light. Conversely, an age in which intellectuals believe that they have discovered basic truths about the life of the universe regards itself as the Enlightenment, a self-congratulatory name often assigned to eighteenth-century Europe. Yet artists of the Enlightenment era disturbed the complacency implied by that name and probed the dark areas of their culture; indeed, their example suggests that one mark of a "great" work is its capacity to question rather than accept the status quo.

In the course of the twentieth century, scholars have stopped referring to the "Dark Ages" because they have begun to realize that this period had its own kind of cultural brightness, although it was not an appealing culture to Western Europe in the eighteenth century, when the terms "Dark" and "Middle Ages" gained currency. Today, the designation "Middle Ages" undergoes similar questioning: with the passage of time, the term becomes increasingly inaccurate, since its implied notions of "beginning," "middle," and "end" are a few hundred years out of date. The "modern," by the same token, is always changing. We now speak of the early part of this century as the period of "modernism," to mark off its special qualities as permanently linked to a specific time. In this book, we speak of today's world as "contemporary," a term which refers to a different era as time moves on, or as the era of "postmodernism."

All of these designations are less exact than are dynasty names or dates, but we believe it best to use the familiar terms, even with their attendant prejudices, and to call attention to these prejudices if we can identify them. Thus throughout this book we rely on the standard system of dating events as B.C. ("Before Christ") or A.D. ("Anno Domini," that is, in Latin, "in the year of our lord"). These terms, today probably used by more non-Christians than Christians, were invented in the Christian Byzantine Empire during the sixth century in order to mark the birth of Jesus as the central event in human history. The year counted as 1 B. C., however, is not the precise year of the birth of Jesus, so the system is fundamentally flawed. (You may be familiar with an alternative terminology, B.C.E. and C.E., for "common era," which changes the terms but not the historical division they mark.) Rather than try to change Western custom, the essays in this book, whenever appropriate, acknowledge the styles of dating and the historical norms recognized in other parts of the world.

As an example of how creative artists question the reliability and meanings of these conventions and signs by which we organize our lives, we offer below the first of the Passages for Study prepared for Contexts and Comparisons, an excerpt from the seventh in a collection of poems by the Ugandan poet Okot p'Bitek (1931-82), called Song of Lawino. In this poem, tellingly entitled "There is No Fixed Time for Breast Feeding," an African woman speaks to her husband, Ocol, about the differences between male and female perceptions in general, and of the Western system of ordering time in particular.

Excerpt from Song of Lawino:

Ocol tells me
Things I cannot understand,
He talks
About a certain man,
He says
The man was born
Long ago
In the country of white men.

He says
When Jesus was born
White men began
To count years:
From one, then it became ten.
Then one hundred
Then one thousand
And now it is
One thousand
Nine hundred
And sixty six.

My husband says
Before this man was born
White men counted years backwards.
Starting with the biggest number
Then it became
One thousand
Then one hundred
Then ten,
And when it became one
Then Jesus was born.

I cannot understand all this
I do not understand it at all!

Questions for Discussion

  1. What does Lawino mean when she says that white men used to count years backwards?
  2. This poetic excerpt is the first of the "comparisons" promised in the title of this book. What purpose is served by comparing the view of the world implied in a passage like this with the standard assumptions of traditional white male culture?

Asking Useful Questions

After each of the Passages for Study in this book, you will find a set of Questions for Discussion to encourage you to become active and inquiring readers. Perhaps the most fundamental question, as implied above, challenges the very title of this course: what constitutes a "great work"? Any effort to address that question has political as well as aesthetic dimensions. Can a work of literary art be universally "great" or is it "great" only for a certain set of readers? Who profits from the arrangement of the world depicted or promoted in a given text? What sort of social and literary preparation makes the text intelligible, that is, what sort of audience does it demand?

The context-setting introductions respond to such questions by suggesting how eras and cultures leave their marks on the works produced by them as well as by documenting the extraordinary social and historical impact that some individual literary texts have themselves exerted.

Other sets of questions focus on the literary means by which texts achieve the power to influence and attract audiences in the first place. The following lists of questions focus on how a story is told as much as on what it tells. Ultimately, both the how and the what require attention, for form cannot be separated from content. By observing how literary materials have been organized, we can begin to appreciate how writers address the most fundamental question of all, why things happen as opposed to what things happen.

The Importance of Literary Genres

A time-honored formula divides literature into narrative, dramatic, and lyric forms, the basic literary genres or types. The narrative genre includes epics, novels, and short stories; the dramatic, comedies, farces, and tragedies; the lyric usually denotes a poem, but poems can be organized in myriad ways, by subject or by structure. Each of these basic genres, in other words, includes a multitude of subgenres especially typical in specific historical periods and places, as we shall see.

The more we understand a text's genre, the easier it is to approach the text. You will discover as you review these questions that certain categories recur: in discussing any literary genre, we usually try to consider many elements, including character, setting, point of view, and language. Each genre, however, presents these categories with respect to its own special qualities.

These generically linked literary questions rarely have "right answers"; indeed, the impulse to create probably stems more from a desire to ask questions than from a capacity to answer them. Even writers who think they communicate a stable truth often end up expressing something other than their original intention when they began to write, for they may lose their didactic focus once they become immersed in fictions of their own creation. The following sections offer possible questions to consider as you encounter different generic forms; the answers you reach may change as you discuss your reading or make comparisons with other texts. Enjoy the process: the deepest questions have many answers.

Reading Narratives

When we call something a story, we generally mean that a set of events happening to certain people has been cast in narrative form. In casual conversation, for instance, we tend to narrate what happens to us and to our friends, rather than to draw abstract conclusions from events. Is there anyone who has never uttered these words: "So he said to me. . . and I said to him. . . ."? This is the narrative impulse at work, as we organize raw experience by commenting and ordering it into dialogue interrupted by our own voice, giving our audience directions for understanding what we recount. The following questions suggest how to look for the directional signs in the many different modes of fictional narratives.


Noticing the form of a narrative helps the reader grasp the attitude promoted by the text toward its content. Do you want to laugh or cry? Does the story anger or move you? Try to determine what devices create an emotional response to the way the story is told.

Narrative perspective

Who is telling the story? Is the narrator a participant in the events of the story or not? What difference does that make in understanding why we are given the information available in the text? Can we trust the teller of the tale?


What are we told about the characters? Do we know about their home life? their families and friends? their experiences as travelers or at work? What kinds of names do they have? If the names seem odd, try to figure out what they mean; do they offer any clues to understanding the nature of the person?


At what point in the story does the narrative start: at the beginning, the middle, or the end? Do we get the information we need to understand events as they happen or do they make sense only in retrospect? How does the order of information presented affect the way we understand the narrative?


Where does the narrative occur? Do scenes change? Do the settings have any kind of symbolic relationship to the events that occur in them?


Is there a shape to the narrative--does it move in a circle, for example, returning to a point from which it started, or does it move outward in a linear way? Does the plot focus on one event or are many stories interwoven? If many narratives co-exist, do they seem related to each other in a coherent way?


Is this narrative prose or poetry? Do characters have personal quirks of self-expression? Is dialogue an important part of the text? Is description very detailed?

Generic expectations

Does the story seem traditional and symbolic, like folklore or a fairy tale, or is the plot an original invention? Does the narrative attempt to mirror or depart from the "real world"? How does the language contribute to your ability to make that judgment? Is the narrative a novel? Is it an epic? How can you tell? If you know what to call the narrative, how does that set up a series of expectations?

Reading Plays

When you read a play, remember that in all likelihood the work originally was intended to be performed rather than read. If you find a portion of dialogue hard to follow, try reading it out loud to yourself as if you were an actor speaking the words on stage. Similarly, in looking at the play as a whole, think of yourself as the director responsible for bringing the playscript to life before an audience in the theatre.

Certain kinds of questions guide the actor and the director in their efforts to interpret drama. Some of them appear below to help you in the same task.


One famous piece of theatrical wisdom says that there are no small parts, only small actors; that idea suggests that no part in a good play is expendable. As you read, ask yourself what each character contributes to the whole. What are the major roles in the play? What are the minor roles? What are the characters like? How old are they? How would you cast them? How should they dress? How should they move? What kinds of personalities do they have? How do they react to each other?


Does the play emphasize intimate personal relations or spectacular action? What should the stage look like? Has the playwright specified detailed scenic instructions? Does the set have to be changed frequently? Will numerous realistic props be required?


What are the most important moments in the play? Is there a single plot or are there many subplots? If the latter is the case, can you see whether the subplots relate to each other?


What is the language of the play like? How do the characters speak? Is the emphasis on stylized verse or colloquial dialogue? Is there a mixture of speech patterns? Are different characters identified by idiosyncratic speech or do they all sound pretty much alike?

Performing Techniques

Is spoken dialogue the focus of the play or are there many scenes requiring non-verbal performance, including different forms of action, dance, music, or other theatrical means of communication?

Reading Lyric Poetry

The lyre, a harp-like instrument with which the ancient Greeks used to accompany their songs, gives us the term lyric, familiar today as the name we give to the words of a song. Originally, lyric poetry was sung, not written out; the generic term usually labels short poems, often in formal patterns that help order the emotions they express. It seems that the human need to sing--to vent our feelings--lies at the core of our nature, for every culture the world has known has produced an identifiable lyric tradition. Although the subjects of these brief songs often have been love or nature, the approaches to these universal themes vary greatly. A careful reading of a lyric poem, therefore, may provide insights about an entire civilization, even while it describes an essentially private experience. Here are a few suggestions for approaching short lyric poems:

  1. Who is the speaker? (Do not assume that the voice of the poem is necessarily that of the author.) Are there any clues that imply a personal history for the speaker? Whom is the speaker addressing--another person or persons? the self? God?
  2. What is the dramatic situation? Is there any suggestion of an event in progress? Are there changes in the attitudes expressed by the speaker? If so, can you tell what motivates those changes?
  3. What is the setting for the poem? Can you tell where the speaker is? Do the surroundings have some impact on the subject of the poem?
  4. What does the poem look like on the page? Is the poem divided into stanzas? Are there breaks in the lines? Can you see how structural divisions mark shifts in emotion?
  5. Do you recognize any poetic devices, including rhyme, the number of syllables per line, the rhythmic stresses in each line? Try reading the poem out loud; "acting out" the poem, and paying attention to the way it sounds, often clarifies what seems confusing on the page.
  6. Can you see any repetition of significant words, or striking metaphors and similes? Are there odd or unusual word choices? Try to think about the relation between what is said and how it is said.

From your experience of trying to learn a new language, you probably recognize that every language has its own rules, and that those rules encourage native speakers to think about their experiences in idiomatic ways. When you read any work of literature in translation, but especially when you read poetry in translation, try to distinguish how cultural and linguistic characteristics (both the poet's and the translator's) affect the nature of lyric expression.


Trust Your Own Judgment

Once one asks questions like these, of course, the problem of how to answer them and what the answers may imply still remains. Many interpretations will always be possible, but at least if you have thought about the relation between the work's form and its content, you will be gathering evidence to support your ultimate judgments. It is important to recognize that most of the humanistic disciplines and most especially the study of literature revolve around asking questions like those listed above. We have written Contexts and Comparisons to support your efforts to find some answers, remembering always that any answer that emerges from your personal involvement with a question will have its own validity. Some answers may be more persuasive than others, because their relation to the text can be demonstrated convincingly. Keep in mind that only a careless or dishonest answer deserves to be rejected out of hand.

Commit Yourself to Careful Reading

You will enjoy classes more if you can contribute to group discussion and you will appreciate the design of the course if you see the way one work relates to the next; these goals can be achieved only if you do your reading assignments regularly and on time. Most texts will require careful and repeated readings, and you may be tempted to consult the commercial Study Guides that claim to "explain" these difficult texts. We urge you instead to profit from your own confusion rather than turn to these pre-digested "Notes." Not only do many of the guides contain actual errors; worse, they falsely suggest that there are simple answers to enormously complex questions. To rely on such Notes as a shortcut to understanding is to shortchange yourself. An apparent economy of effort costs you more in the long run, because you will not have developed the knack of working through difficulties and mastering them.

Writing Your Essays

Papers assigned in literature courses provide the opportunity for you to work through and master difficulties. In preparing to write your papers, follow your teacher's instructions carefully; as canons vary from classroom to classroom, so do paper topics and approaches. Generally, however, you write well if you focus on a specific issue that genuinely interests you. Don't try to cover everything in one short essay and don't summarize the plot or repeat class notes. Instead, pay attention to supporting the points you want to make with clear evidence from the text.

Although most essay assignments in the Great Works Courses encourage this sort of independent thought and ask you to deal only with primary materials, occasionally you may be expected to do some research in connection with writing a paper. Should you deal with secondary materials, remember the information you acquired in your composition courses about properly documenting sources. There are two basic ways to borrow insights or information from research materials: either directly quote the exact words of your source or paraphrase your source by restating the ideas you borrow so that you show you have fully understood them. In either case, it is necessary to acknowledge your source. Ask your teacher what form of documentation is expected when you begin a paper that involves research. And remember that even in a paper that does not require formal research, if you find yourself referring to a point made in an introduction to a text, in an essay in this book, or simply in class discussion, you must cite your source. Remember also that it is never acceptable to copy word for word without using quotation marks or to approximate the wording of something you have read, even if you do document your source.

Correct citation of your source is only a first step toward using your research creatively. The best essays show that the writer has done more than borrow and acknowledge that borrowing; the goal is to use the borrowed material so that you can offer an informed but still personal statement about the topic at hand. Professors consider plagiarism to be the most serious of all possible academic crimes because they place so high a value on originality of thought, reflecting an attitude formed by a culture that prizes the individual and the new. One purpose of a literature course like ours is to demonstrate how attitudes like this came into existence, to examine their benefits and their cost, and to see how they stand in relation to attitudes formed in other cultures, in other times; another, more practical purpose is to recognize that they do exist, and to make the most of the possibilities they provide for learning and growth.


1. The term "text" will be used throughout to mean any organized form of human expression, for our purposes, anything that has been written down.

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Chapter 1 - Epic Poetry

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