Life in Location

Some of my favorite, favorite types of novels are those which feature many different characters living in a specific place at a specific time, leading lives which are completely intertwined without their knowledge. In such novels, the place becomes a character unto itself, influencing the characters’ lives and shaping their experience of life. This week’s dream English course features these long, intricate stories about living in a place.

Life in Location

Unit I: The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende (2 weeks)

Book Specific Questions: How do the lives of the women change throughout the generations? How much of their behavior depends on their time and place? What about the men? How does politics affect their daily lives?

Unit II: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (6 weeks)

Book Specific Questions: What role does the law play in the characters’ lives? How do they use it and abuse it? How do their moral codes differ? What is a criminal? What systems are outside of the characters’ control? What is the role of religion? How do their lives change throughout the generations? How does their attempted revolution compare to the revolution in The House of the Spirits? Does the city exist in a liminal space?

Unit III: Middlemarch by George Eliot (4 weeks)

Book Specific Questions: How does Middlemarch’s isolation affect its culture? What role does gossip play? If the novel is essentially a romance, why is it titled Middlemarch? How does Dorothea’s outlook compare to the women in The House of the Spirits and Les Miserables?

Unit IV: City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg (4 weeks)

Book Specific Questions: How do the different areas of 1970s New York compare to the different areas of 1830s Paris? How does a character’s location affect his or her behavior? What revolution is happening, and is it similar to the revolution in The House of the Spirits? What about to the one in Les Miserables? Are the Hamilton-Sweeneys the same as the Truebas?

Overarching Questions: How are the different parts of the cities/towns characterized? Do they directly affect the characters lives, and if so, how? What role does social class play? How do the titles relate to the text? What are the novels’ narrative structures, and are they similar? How does the structure affect the story and the place? How are the places changing? What is the effect of seeing so many different viewpoints? Are seemingly universal experiences–such as eating, sleeping, and sex–the same or different across the novels?


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