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History of World Literature

History of World Literature

Professor Grant L. Voth Ph.D.
Monterey Peninsula College
Course No.  2300
Course No.  2300
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Course Overview

About This Course

48 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture
In The History of World Literature, you'll sample brilliant masterpieces that reflect humanity's deep need for self-expression. It's a journey that will take you through time and around the world-from the enormous auditoriums of Ancient Greece, to the dazzling courts of Classical China and Japan, to the prison camps of Stalinist Russia, to a quiet study in the home of a 19th-century New England spinster.

Your guide on this enchanting literary tour is distinguished scholar Grant L. Voth. An experienced teacher, critic, and lecturer, Professor Voth provides the perfect introduction to the history of world literature, offering concise summaries and thought-provoking interpretations of each work.

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In The History of World Literature, you'll sample brilliant masterpieces that reflect humanity's deep need for self-expression. It's a journey that will take you through time and around the world-from the enormous auditoriums of Ancient Greece, to the dazzling courts of Classical China and Japan, to the prison camps of Stalinist Russia, to a quiet study in the home of a 19th-century New England spinster.

Your guide on this enchanting literary tour is distinguished scholar Grant L. Voth. An experienced teacher, critic, and lecturer, Professor Voth provides the perfect introduction to the history of world literature, offering concise summaries and thought-provoking interpretations of each work.

"Tell Me a Story"

As Professor Voth explains, "As long as there have been people in the world, there have been stories." In this course, you'll sample some of the greatest literary expressions the world has known and experience storytelling in its many forms, including poetry, drama, and narrative.

The course begins in the ancient world, where tribal bards created national myths and founded religious texts out of legends, history, philosophy, and local lore.

From there, you'll travel to the Far East to encounter a completely different form of early literature: the brief, suggestive, and deeply personal lyric poets of Classical Japan and China.

You'll also wander the countryside and aristocratic courts of India and the Middle East, collecting stories and folklore of magical men, terrifying beasts, alluring women, and conniving tricksters that live on in today's fairytales and bedtime stories.

Subsequent lectures follow the evolution of the art of the story as it appears in sophisticated narratives such as Wu Ch'eng-en's Monkey and Voltaire's Candide, the poetic masterpiece of Dante's Inferno, the great drama pioneered by Shakespeare and Molire, and other works of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment.

With the coming of the modern world, you'll trace the rise of new forms intent on capturing daily life with scientific precision, from the Realist narratives of Flaubert and Dostoevsky to the groundbreaking drama of Chekhov and Ibsen. The course also explores the experimental modes that followed Realism, including Brecht's politically charged experimental drama, Beckett's Absurdism, and the fragmented Postmodern perspectives of writers such as Borges, Rushdie, and Pirandello.

As you'll soon see, none of these great works stands in isolation. Each is part of a great web of influences and responses, which you'll learn about over the course of this comprehensive survey. With Professor Voth as your guide, you'll follow the trajectory of stories as they are created, passed along, and adapted to suit different cultures and historical circumstances.

Are you ready for a good story? Join Professor Voth for this tour of The History of World Literature, and prepare for an enriching and satisfying excursion around the world and into the human imagination.

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48 Lectures
  • 1
    Stories and Storytellers
    Humankind has always sought to understand its existence through stories. In this opening lecture, Professor Voth provides a preview of the literary journey to come, and begins to define the relationship between history and literature. x
  • 2
    The Epic of Gilgamesh
    In this lecture, we examine one of the world's oldest literary works. This ancient poem combines a heroic story of a legendary king with a spiritual quest about coming to terms with the inevitability of mortality. x
  • 3
    The Hebrew Bible
    Blending literature, history, and theology, the Hebrew Bible (or Tanakh) is perhaps one of the most important books ever written. We explore some of the unique elements of this sacred literary text, including its introduction of the concept of monotheism. x
  • 4
    Homer's Iliad
    Through a consideration of Homer's classic poem about the fall of Troy, Professor Voth defines the key elements of the epic and examines how the poem expresses ancient Greek views of heroism and individual honor. x
  • 5
    Homer's Odyssey
    Our consideration of the epic continues with the Odyssey, which follows the 10-year journey of the warrior Odysseus after the end of the Trojan War. x
  • 6
    Chinese Classical Literature
    This lecture features a lyric poem and two prose works that demonstrate how early Chinese literature differed from contemporary works from Mesopotamia, Israel, and Greece. x
  • 7
    Greek Tragedy
    By the 5th century B.C.E., Greek theater had entered a golden age, producing plays that would set a standard of excellence for centuries to come. In this lecture, we explore the three greatest Greek playwrights: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. x
  • 8
    Virgil's Aeneid
    When Virgil (70–19 B.C.E.) set out to write a national Roman epic poem, he took as his model the classic epics of Ancient Greece. Professor Voth illuminates the ways that Virgil both imitated and adapted the epic to express the values of his own culture. x
  • 9
    Bhagavad Gita
    At seven times the combined length of the Iliad and Odyssey, the Mahabharata may be the longest epic poem in the world. In this lecture, we examine one episode of this enormous work, the Bhagavad Gita, which offers a Hindu meditation on the meaning of life. x
  • 10
    The New Testament
    Like the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament can be read as history, literature, and theology. This lecture examines how the various parts of this seminal text reflect the goals of their different authors and the needs of their particular audiences. x
  • 11
    In this lecture, Professor Voth compares the Germanic saga Beowulf with the other heroic epics studied in the course thus far. The poem also provides an opportunity to explore the variety of interpretations that can be made about a single literary work. x
  • 12
    Indian Stories
    We move from epic poetry to prose as we explore the rich narrative strategies of Indian stories in three collections: Jataka (Story of a Birth) , the Pañcatantra (The Five Books or the Five Strategies) , and the Kathasaritsagara (Ocean of the Rivers of Story) . x
  • 13
    T'ang Poetry
    China achieved one of its Golden Ages during the T'ang period (618–907 C.E.), which included a rich tradition of poetry. This lecture examines three T'ang poets to illustrate the deeply personal aesthetic of Chinese poetics. x
  • 14
    Early Japanese Poetry
    While Japanese poetry is indebted to Chinese models, it also boasts some unique features. Using several examples, Professor Voth outlines the key features of the Japanese aesthetic, which include irregular verse styles, simplicity, and the theme of transience. x
  • 15
    The Tale of Genji
    Written by a Japanese lady-in-waiting during the 11th century C.E., The Tale of Genji is believed to be the first novel in literary history. This complex tale presents a new kind of hero, for whom taste and sensitivity count for more than prowess on the battlefield. x
  • 16
    Inferno, from Dante's Divine Comedy
    Considered the greatest poem in the Western world, Dante's Divine Comedy traces the allegorical journey of a pilgrim from the depths of hell through purgatory and into heaven. We examine key features and interpretations of the first part of Dante's masterwork: Inferno. x
  • 17
    Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales
    Borrowing techniques from Boccaccio's Decameron, Geoffrey Chaucer narrates a variety of tales through a frame story about 30 travelers who tell stories during a pilgrimage to England's Canterbury Cathedral. x
  • 18
    1001 Nights
    In this lecture, we again consider the narrative technique of the "frame story": a work which includes within it many recounted tales. Complex and encyclopedic, 1001 Nights serves as a crossroads where stories from many different cultures meet. x
  • 19
    Wu Ch'eng-en's Monkey
    Based in history and enhanced by legend and folklore, Monkey tells the story of a Chinese monk on a journey to India, accompanied by fabulous creatures, the most important of which is Monkey, one of the great creations in literature. x
  • 20
    The Heptameron
    Based in history and enhanced by legend and folklore, Monkey tells the story of a Chinese monk on a journey to India, accompanied by fabulous creatures, the most important of which is Monkey, one of the great creations in literature. x
  • 21
    After a brief account of drama in other cultures, Professor Voth considers Shakespeare's place in English drama, focusing on his use of language. A closer look at a famous speech from Macbeth serves to illustrate the Bard's mastery of poetic language. x
  • 22
    Cervantes's Don Quixote
    While not the first novel in history, Don Quixote is one of the first in the Western world and has been by far the most influential. This lecture explores Cervantes' revolutionary use of prose to present a realistic view of life that contrasted to the popular romances of his day. x
  • 23
    Molière's Plays
    This lecture opens with a consideration of the values and dramatic style of the Neoclassical Age (c.1660–1770) in Western literature. A master of theatrical comedy, French playwright Molière used the drama to point out society's foibles. x
  • 24
    Voltaire's Candide
    Why does suffering exist? Why are people prey to human cruelty and natural disasters? In Candide, Voltaire seeks to answer these questions. x
  • 25
    Cao Xueqin's The Story of the Stone
    Recounting the story of an aristocratic family in decline, The Story of the Stone is simultaneously a Buddhist-Taoist meditation on the illusory nature of existence and a gripping and detailed novel of personal relationships. x
  • 26
    Goethe's Faust
    Goethe's Faust is a new version of a story dating back to the 16th century, when the historical Faustus lived. In Goethe's version, Faust becomes the ultimate Romantic hero—one who strives to express his own will and experience all life has to offer. x
  • 27
    Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights
    Brontë's story about the passionate love between Catherine and Heathcliff is perhaps one of the best loved 19th-century novels. In this lecture, we explore the relationship of the novel to Romanticism and discuss Brontë's use of competing narrative perspectives. x
  • 28
    Pushkin's Eugene Onegin
    Alexander Pushkin is usually considered Russia's national poet—the equivalent of Shakespeare in England. In Eugene Onegin, he employed a complicated poetic form to create a witty novel-in-verse that satirizes Romantic excesses. x
  • 29
    Flaubert's Madame Bovary
    An ordinary story about ordinary people told with detachment and objectivity, Flaubert's tale of a bored housewife living in a French provincial town marks a turning point in literature: the rise of Realism. x
  • 30
    Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground
    Unappreciated in its own day, Notes from Underground serves as an excellent introduction to Dostoevsky's later novels. Through his unnamed narrator, the Russian novelist voiced the desire to rebel against the increasingly mass-produced culture of modern life. x
  • 31
    Twain's Huckleberry Finn
    In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain allowed a vernacular, regional character to tell his own story. In this lecture, we explore Twain's narrative achievement and the societal questions raised by his classic travel tale. x
  • 32
    Dickinson's Poetry
    After a brief consideration of Emily Dickinson's solitary life and writing career, we turn to the techniques that characterize her remarkable poetry: the use of common meter stanza form, unconventional punctuation, and grammatical density. x
  • 33
    Ibsen and Chekhov—Realist Drama
    In this lecture, we examine the works of two very different Realist playwrights. For Ibsen, Realism entailed bringing to the stage contemporary people and social concerns. For Chekhov, it required discarding the standard forms of the "well-made play" for a more realistic imitation of life. x
  • 34
    Rabindranath Tagore's Stories and Poems
    Absorbing the influence of Realist authors, Tagore adapted this literary style to reflect life in his native India. Through his short stories and poems, he criticized those who exploited the caste system, suppressed women, and benefited from the sufferings of the poor. x
  • 35
    Higuchi Ichiyō's "Child's Play"
    Although she had no exposure to Western Realism, Ichiyo pioneered a Japanese version of this literary movement in "Child's Play," her novella about children living in and around the pleasure district of Edo (modern-day Tokyo). x
  • 36
    Proust's Remembrance of Things Past
    In this elegiac novel, Proust sought to reject Realism and recreate the novel as an exploration of personal impressions. Influential to later writers, Proust's novel took a revolutionary approach by attempting to capture life as it is experienced. x
  • 37
    Joyce's Dubliners
    In a context of experimentation in all of the arts, we consider the contribution of James Joyce's Dubliners to the modern short story, focusing on Joyce's device of the epiphany, or revelation. x
  • 38
    Kafka's "The Metamorphosis"
    In this lecture, we consider the bleak, darkly comic work of Franz Kafka. In "The Metamorphosis," a man wakes up to find that he has been transformed into a gigantic insect—an absurd premise that reflects the alienation of modern life. x
  • 39
    Pirandello's Six Characters
    This lecture discusses the rebellion against Realism in drama exemplified in the work of Luigi Pirandello. In Six Characters in Search of an Author, Pirandello created a world in which fictional characters argue that they are more "real" than living human beings. x
  • 40
    Brecht's The Good Woman of Setzuan
    Bertolt Brecht continued the rebellion against Realism by using theatrical techniques to create a critical distance between audience and play. An examination of The Good Woman demonstrates how Brecht used this technique to critique capitalist society. x
  • 41
    Anna Akhmatova's Requiem
    Written in response to Russia's Yezhov Terror of 1937 and 1938, the poem Requiem describes a sick society in which the poet must speak for voiceless victims everywhere. Professor Voth explores the aesthetic and historical contexts that helped shape this poem. x
  • 42
    Kawabata Yasunari's Snow Country
    Adapting Western techniques to suit Japanese sensibilities, Yasunari created a Modernist work, using such techniques as a disciplined point of view and stream-of-consciousness in his story of a detached man and his love for two women. x
  • 43
    Faulkner—Two Stories and a Novel
    Using the short stories "A Rose for Emily" and "Wash," in addition to the novel As I Lay Dying, Professor Voth examines the literary achievements of William Faulkner, an author who sought to capture the "whole truth" of life in all its comedic, grotesque, and heroic glory. x
  • 44
    Naguib Mahfouz's The Cairo Trilogy
    The Arabs did not really have a novel tradition until the 20th century. In his career, Arab writer Naguib Mahfouz encompassed all of the novelistic traditions, from historical romances to Realist novels to experimental narratives. x
  • 45
    Achebe's Things Fall Apart
    Achebe's novel is a reaction against Western novelistic depictions of Africans, exemplified in Conrad's Heart of Darkness. In this lecture, we examine this tale of a native people, the Igbo, and their heroic but flawed leader Okonkwo. x
  • 46
    Beckett's Plays
    In this lecture, we take up our first Postmodernist writer, Samuel Beckett. His works, including Endgame, Waiting for Godot, and Happy Days, illustrate Beckett's view that humankind lives in an absurd world which provides no clear definition of life's meaning. x
  • 47
    Borges's Labyrinths
    Our examination of Postmodernism continues with Jorge Luis Borges, whose comic, often magical stories attempt to express the untranslatable gap between reality and the human constructions of logic and language. x
  • 48
    Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories
    The final lecture considers Salman Rushdie's children's book about the importance of stories in our lives, and it closes with William Faulkner's idea that stories are one of the ways in which humans can not only endure, but may even prevail. x

Lecture Titles

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Grant L. Voth
Ph.D. Grant L. Voth
Monterey Peninsula College
Dr. Grant L. Voth is Professor Emeritus at Monterey Peninsula College in California. He earned his M.A. in English Education from St. Thomas College in St. Paul, MN, and his Ph.D. in English from Purdue University. Throughout his distinguished career, Professor Voth has earned a host of teaching awards and accolades, including the Allen Griffin Award for Excellence in Teaching, and he was named Teacher of the Year by the Monterey Peninsula College Students' Association. He is the author of insightful scholarly books and articles on subjects ranging from Shakespeare to Edward Gibbon to modern American fiction, and he wrote many of the official study guides for the BBC's acclaimed project, The Shakespeare Plays. Before joining the faculty at Monterey Peninsula College, Professor Voth taught at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University and for several years served as a consultant on interdisciplinary studies programs for the National Endowment for the Humanities. He has led travel-study tours to countries including England, Ireland, France, Greece, and Turkey, and he is a frequent guest lecturer for the internationally acclaimed Carmel Bach Festival in Carmel, California.
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Rated 4.8 out of 5 by 46 reviewers.
Rated 4 out of 5 by A Nicely Done Intro or Review; High School Level This course would make a fine introduction to literature for motivated high school students (or for college students who managed not to learn very much about literature in high school.) It would also serve well as a review of many of the high points and movements of world literature for those desiring a broad overview, but not expecting deep insights. Professor Voth is an accomplished speaker, with a likable, low-key conversational style and an unflagging enthusiasm for his subject. Going by these lectures, he seems to have read everything and remembered everything he has read. If he is reading off a prompter he is doing a remarkably subtle job of it; the impression given is one of effortless scholarship. Almost every lecture treats one work of one author, with a few obvious exceptions such as the Bible and Shakespeare. (The half-hour treatment of Shakespeare, by the way, which I expected to be a quixotic and impossible quest, was remarkably one of the best in the course.) Professor Voth summarizes the work and then comments on the work itself, the author, and their place in the history of literature. The amount of stress given to these divers aspects varies widely. The greatest weakness of the course is the obvious and unavoidable one: Even forty-eight lectures, even in the hands of an outstandingly knowledgeable and capable teacher such as Professor Voth, can barely give form, much less substance, to the subject at hand: 5000 years of the best writing of all of humanity. I admire him and The Great Courses for making this effort, and for doing what I imagine is as excellent a job as is possible. (For some reason Don Quixote keeps popping into my mind. . .) As an unimportant aside, but along these lines, it so happens that not one of my own most admired authors or works was covered: Melville and "Moby-Dick"; Fitzgerald and "The Great Gatsby"; and Woolf and "To the Lighthouse." And while our good professor did a lovely job with Joyce's "Dubliners," I would have far preferred a treatment of "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man." So it goes. A lesser but still significant weakness was an amorphous quality to the lectures. They flowed freely, without clear organization. It would have been extremely helpful for Professor Voth to have followed that inestimably wise bit of rhetorical advice: tell them what you're going to say; say it; then tell them what you've said. I watched the DVD, but there would be no loss in taking it as an audio course except a few pictures of the authors. The Course Guidebook is excellent, and includes a timeline, glossary, biographical notes, and an annotated bibliography. So - I do recommend this course to any with a desire for a broad, but not deep, introduction to, or review of, world literature. It will have served its purpose best if it functions to inspire us all to continue to read great books. November 11, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Impressive! In this series of 48 lectures, Professor Voth ambitiously sets out to present a survey of world literature, from Antiquity to the present. He succeeds masterfully and, constantly centering on storytelling, he covers epic poetry, drama and novels from Ancient Greece to contemporary India. With true scholarship and without a milligram of pedantry, he constantly emphasizes the strongpoints of the pieces covered and presents criticism in only one instance, with respect to the concluding chapters of the ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’. As Professor Voth mentions tongue in cheek in the first lecture, a possible side effect of taking this course lies in developing an insatiable appetite for reading a diversity of works. This risk is worth taking and the series is strongly recommended to all, even those already knowledgeable in the field of literature. October 5, 2014
Rated 3 out of 5 by A Good Survey Course, But... Professor Voth does an adequate job with the assignment that he took with the Teaching Company. As he says in the last lecture, he fashioned this course as a sort of Whitman's Sampler, that is, as a box of candy with one of each type, with the idea that the customer would simply like the variety and/or seek out later more of the preferred candies. I applaud the professor for keeping a pretty good balance in the lectures between biography, plot, and background on the one hand and interesting and strong comments on meaning on the other. Professor Voth has obviously done considerable work in this field and brings knowledge and good insights into his teaching. Having praised the professor in these respects, I must say that I only deem the course average. The Great Courses has an extraordinary stable of professors in literature. Weinstein, Heffernan, Spiegelman, Kinney, and Thorburn immediately come to mind. What distinguishes their work from this is the degree of depth, brilliance, power and quality of analysis. Don't get me wrong: Voth is quite good. I just don't believe his work here warants the higher evaluation. (I will likely finish Heffernan's truly remarkable course on Ulysses in the next few weeks and will write then a bit more about what, for me, merits 5 stars.) The other thing I must confess and disclose: I never liked Whitman's Samplers! Over half the candies never suited me, and I wondered why I spent the money on them. This is not to say I don't like survey courses. I've rated some of TGC literature survey courses more favorably, but they're generally not my cup of tea. Giving Shakespeare no more time than the Heptameron just doesn't work for me. Nor does giving Rabindranath Tagore the same attention as Emily Dickinson. Many other reviewers obviously disagree. I'm just wanting to bring out the other side. September 11, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Doesn't get any better After a bachelor's degree worth of literature course, I learned to identify when someone identifies key concepts in popular stories and explains them clearly. Professor Voth does this time and again throughout this lecture series, traveling easily through literature from other cultures and illustrating how the questions they raise about the human condition apply to everyone. Professor Voth does not slack off in his rigor and the listener benefits greatly because of it. Furthermore, he displays this exposition without the bombast of moral presumptuousness, or the smugness of a person with an extended stay in academia. Remarkable. August 27, 2013
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