Classic Novels: Meeting the Challenge of Great Literature

Course No. 2310
Professor Arnold Weinstein, Ph.D.
Brown University
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Course Overview

If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go? Europe? South America? The remote reaches of the African continent?

What if you could travel in time as well? Imagine yourself transported to the sparkling court society of 18th-century France, or sailing aboard a 19th-century whaling ship. What secrets would you learn about the human condition and the lives lived in distant lands and eras?

And what about the most remarkable journey of all: the voyage inside the mind of another human being, in which you plumb the thoughts and emotions that usually remain hidden deep within? What does this journey tell us about the puzzling, sometimes shocking thing we call human nature? More importantly, what does it tell us about ourselves?

These adventures await you in Classic Novels: Meeting the Challenge of Great Literature, taught by veteran Teaching Company Professor Arnold Weinstein. As Professor Weinstein says, "Life flows onto the pages of the books we read." More than a mere "slice of life," classic novels perform a sort of miracle, jolting us to see the remarkable, often provocative truths that underlie the human condition. To experience these extraordinary novels is to ask deep and sometimes unsettling questions about our lives and our world.

Classic Novels is your invitation to the dazzling, surprising, and deeply moving worlds revealed through these great works. You'll move beyond what is often offered in literary courses: plot synopses, anecdotes, facts about where and when a novel was written. With Professor Weinstein's guidance you'll gain something greater and more profound: an opportunity to experience the startling brilliance that makes each of these works a classic.

What Is a Classic?

What exactly is a classic? For many—and maybe for you—a "classic" means a book you should've read, or one that you have read and didn't like. Perhaps you've already encountered these great works, either in a course or while reading on your own. Maybe you think you know what to expect from a classic: engaging stories told by a master storyteller.

But that's only part of the story. What makes a work a classic, Professor Weinstein explains, is its ability to present the world as a more energetic, vibrant, and unpredictable place than we ever imagined. Classic novels open our eyes to the true nature of our world, and take us across the divide that separates mind from mind. They reveal to us our essential humanity, both its beauty and its horror, and hold the mirror up to our unknown selves.

With Professor Weinstein as your guide, you'll view this startling reality as it is unveiled by master authors. Along the way, you'll encounter some of the greatest names in novelistic fiction, including Dickens, Joyce, Tolstoy, Balzac, and Proust. Whether you read along with the course or choose to return later to these great works, you'll find that each lecture provides provocative food for thought about the worlds these authors created.

What is revealed is a notion of the "classic" that goes far beyond literary schools and theoretical approaches. A true classic speaks to the heart and soul, with a message of truth that echoes in our lives long after we've turned the final page.

Epic Explorations of Good and Evil

This epic journey into classic literature begins in the 18th century with Daniel Defoe's remarkable tale of the prostitute and thief Moll Flanders. As you move through the pages of this great novel, you'll travel back in time to the London of three centuries ago, transported by Defoe's precise and evocative prose.

While Defoe's journalistic style perfectly conveys the world of his amoral heroine, it is just one example of how great authors use the literary arts to create a world on the page. In just the first few works covered by this course, you'll view the novel as a sort of aesthetic shape-shifter, twisting and bending to fit a wide range of themes, styles, and historical contexts.

Take, for example, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos's Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which uses an exchange of letters to provide a glimpse into the inner workings of two decadent seducers, or consider Lawrence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, a playful, capricious text that delights in flaunting the conventions of narrative.

After this introduction to the dazzling variety of forms the novel can take, you'll sample the works of 19th-century authors. The authors of this "golden age" unfailingly find the epic in everyday life, exploring the unending battle of good and evil that unfolds over a lifetime and the tumultuous drama of a child growing to adulthood.

From Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert's tale of a bored provincial housewife, to Herman Melville's towering saga of whaling in New England, Moby-Dick, you'll experience firsthand how these remarkable authors used scenes of everyday life as the backdrop for grand struggles.

A Voyage Inward: The Modern Mind

With the last half of the course, you'll take a journey of a different kind: this time, into the inner recesses of the human mind. Professor Weinstein guides you through the challenging but rewarding masterpieces of the Modernist movement, where you'll encounter a new vision of what it means to live within the world of the novel.

This new artistic landscape includes the surreal dystopia of Franz Kafka's great works—his bleak and frequently disorienting exploration of modern alienation—and the richly symbolic Africa of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, where the hidden evil of human nature is horribly unmasked.

With the rise of Modernism and the experimental Postmodernist works that follow, you'll learn about the innovative narrative techniques these authors used to reflect a new understanding of the self and our perception of reality as fragmented and constantly changing, as seen in works as diverse as Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse and William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying.

With dazzling works such as these, you'll gain profound insights into the craft of novel writing and gain a deep appreciation for classic storytelling in its many forms.

Writing the Story of Life

It is this appreciation of the art of the story that is perhaps the most valuable aspect of this course. As Professor Weinstein explains, "Literature is miraculous because it makes available to us things that we cannot get in any other way."

In these great books, we get something we never see in our day-to-day world: the whole story of a life. When you open a classic novel, you open yourself to a powerful experience as you embark on a journey alongside the characters. As you trace the many trajectories of these lives, you begin to comprehend the patterns that develop over a lifetime.

And that, perhaps, is the most pressing reason to read these great works. To live with these characters and experience the lives contained on these pages is to confront a crucial question: "How would you write the story of your own life?" Join Professor Weinstein for this thought-provoking journey into the world of Classic Novels, and find your own answer.

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36 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    Meeting the Challenge of Great Literature
    Literature is a transcription of life into language that offers something seldom experienced in real life: the chance to view the entire story of a lifetime. This introductory lecture previews this extraordinary aspect of literature and provides an overview of the course. x
  • 2
    Defoe—Moll Flanders
    In the first novel of the course, journalistic author Daniel Defoe paints the striking portrait of the cunning, opportunistic harlot Moll Flanders. Through her adventures, he raises provocative questions about the nature of identity and disguise. x
  • 3
    Sterne—Tristram Shandy
    From Defoe's straightforward style, we move to the eccentrically digressive text of Tristram Shandy. With his ever-expanding narrative, multiple footnotes, and seemingly endless explanations, Sterne asks a strikingly modern question: With language, do we ever get to the point? x
  • 4
    Laclos—Les Liaisons Dangereuses
    Published in 1782, Les Liaisons Dangereuses caused an immediate scandal with its tale of two degenerate aristocrats who use seduction as a means to power. Written as a collection of letters, Liaisons provides a panoptic perspective which requires readers to make the same kinds of judgment calls that must be made in real life. x
  • 5
    Laclos—Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Part 2
    This second lecture on Laclos's masterpiece takes a closer look at his two antiheroes, the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont. Professor Weinstein shows how these two characters can be seen as both creators and readers of sexual signs, and what the limits are of the power they hold. x
  • 6
    Balzac—Père Goriot
    Written as part of La Comédie Humaine (The Human Comedy), Balzac's grand collection of novels exploring life in Paris, Le Père Goriot focuses on two extremes: the moment of maturation and the slow decline to death. In the story of Rastignac, the young law student, Balzac creates a version of the bildungsroman (the "coming-of-age" novel). x
  • 7
    Balzac—Père Goriot, Part 2
    In an update of Shakespeare's King Lear, Balzac creates in Le Père Goriot a sometimes grotesque, sometimes tragic exploration of the fate of fathers. In this lecture, we trace this theme, and also examine one of Balzac's greatest creations, the immoral Vautrin. x
  • 8
    Brontë—Wuthering Heights
    Emily Brontë's Gothic romance presents another example of the bildungsroman, one which teases out the distinctions between the natural and the civilized, the raw and the cooked. It also presents a complex variation on narrative structure, in which Brontë presents her tale from the competing perspectives of various unreliable narrators. x
  • 9
    Brontë—Wuthering Heights, Part 2
    We return to the wind-swept moors of England to examine further the tragic overtones of this tale of passion. From the brutal treatment of children to the dark, primeval love of Catherine and Heathcliff, Wuthering Heights presents a vision of the human experience that cannot be contained by the novel's conciliatory resolution. x
  • 10
    With Moby-Dick, Herman Melville completely demolishes all previous definitions of the novel and replaces it with a deeply philosophical meditation on metaphysics. In the image of the whale itself, we find a potent and multivalent symbol. x
  • 11
    Melville—Moby-Dick, Part 2
    In this lecture, we take a closer look at Ahab, the monomaniacal whale hunter, and his alter ego, the young cabin boy, Pip, to explore how their loss of rationality reflects the profundity of delving to the bottom of life's meaning. We also explore the symbolism of the whiteness of the whale, and its corrosive meaning in Melville's cluster of images. x
  • 12
    Dickens—Bleak House
    From its opening image of the London fog which figures the "death of the sun" to its confounding representation of the British court system, Dickens's masterpiece Bleak House presents a vision of characters living "in the dark." A sort of classic 19th-century detective novel, this narrative shows how dark truths are often hidden in daily life. x
  • 13
    Dickens—Bleak House, Part 2
    In this lecture, Professor Weinstein traces the theme of disease in Bleak House, and demonstrates how smallpox becomes a metaphor for connectedness and the interrelatedness of human society in the bustling London of Dickens's imagination. x
  • 14
    Flaubert—Madame Bovary
    Does love actually exist? Or is it something that we construct out of the books we read and the fantasies we cherish? In his story of the disillusioned housewife of provincial France, Flaubert explores this question, and in the process reveals his own internal split about the worth of romantic love. x
  • 15
    Flaubert—Madame Bovary, Part 2
    Here we return to Flaubert's classic tale of romantic disillusionment to examine the narrative methods he employs to take the reader inside Emma Bovary's world. Through his manipulation of timeworn literary clichés and his masterful use of juxtaposition, Flaubert creates a disturbing sort of double vision for the reader. x
  • 16
    Tolstoy—War and Peace
    At 1,350 pages long, Tolstoy's masterpiece is an epic tale set during a time of historic upheaval. Most unsettling of all is Tolstoy's fictional style, which forgoes a straightforward narrative for a tale with jagged edges and unresolved conflicts—a vision of disorder that reflects life as it is lived on the battlefield and in the salon. x
  • 17
    Tolstoy—War and Peace, Part 2
    "Tolstoy's characters are like a family that you live in," says Professor Weinstein. "You know them very well, but you don't particularly love them all the time." In this lecture, we examine more closely Tolstoy's all-too-human characters and the transcendent view of life that they afford. x
  • 18
    Dostoevsky—The Brothers Karamazov
    In this lecture, we explore Dostoevsky's strikingly modern tale of patricide in late 19th-century Russia. From the depiction of the murdered father as a cruel buffoon to the image of children as hopelessly damaged by abuse, this novel offers a bleak vision of a world in which God might be dead. x
  • 19
    Dostoevsky—The Brothers Karamazov, Part 2
    Why do the brothers kill their father? Is it the working out of an Oedipal urge, a need to gain authority, or a sign of the innate corruption of this world? Dostoevsky provides no answer, but instead provides a kaleidoscopic view of this unspeakable crime. x
  • 20
    Conrad—Heart of Darkness
    In Conrad's Heart of Darkness, we encounter for the first time the crisis in storytelling that will haunt the great authors of the Modernist movement. Nothing is clear in this primordial journey deep into the Congo—not even the ability to recount this dark adventure through language. x
  • 21
    Mann—Death in Venice
    What happens when a quiet academic travels to a land steeped in passion and myth? Italy is the backdrop for Thomas Mann's story of the power of sexual attraction, here imagined as a collision between the cold and orderly culture of Northern Europe and the mysterious, erotic canals of Venice. x
  • 22
    Kafka—"The Metamorphosis"
    Out of a classic horror motif—a man awakens to find himself transformed into a bug—surreal author Franz Kafka creates a puzzling, terrifying, and darkly comic representation of modern alienation. x
  • 23
    Kafka—The Trial
    Our consideration of Kafka's nightmare vision of modern society continues with this bizarre tale of a man trapped within a labyrinthine legal system. Is this unfinished novel a parable for life within a totalitarian state, or a more general commentary on human society? x
  • 24
    Proust—Remembrance of Things Past
    Over the course of 3,000 pages, Marcel Proust charts a new course for the novel as he takes a journey into the depths of human memory. Starting with the famous "Madeleine episode," Professor Weinstein traces Proust's characterization of memory as a sort of "secular resurrection" in which selves from the distant past spring back into view. x
  • 25
    Proust—Remembrance of Things Past, Part 2
    In this second lecture on Proust's masterwork, we consider treatment of key female characters—the narrator's mother, grandmother, and his first love. These various relationships cast a compelling light on how one's perception of other people contribute to the understanding of oneself. x
  • 26
    Proust—Remembrance of Things Past, Part 3
    What happens when we forget our dead? Where do they live? In this lecture, we examine what Proust's masterpiece has to say about the work of mourning, the act of forgetting, and the ability to re-create our past out of the memories we retrieve. x
  • 27
    In his portrait of a modern-day Dubliner, James Joyce takes on and undoes one of the great myths of Western culture, the story of Odysseus. In the process, he constructs a new shape for the novel, one which seeks to contain multiple voices and thematic strands in a glorious banquet of language. x
  • 28
    Joyce—Ulysses, Part 2
    The discussion of Ulysses continues with a consideration of some key episodes, including the breakfast shopping errand, the "Oxen of the Sun" chapter, and the "Sirens" chapter. These episodes demonstrate how Joyce's prancing style is more shocking and experimental than mere stream of consciousness. x
  • 29
    Joyce—Ulysses, Part 3
    The "Circe" episode in Ulysses serves to demonstrate the surreal side of this remarkable novel, one which enters into the realm of the dramatic and the subconscious. The final lecture on Ulysses ends with an analysis of Bloom's relationship with Molly and an explication of her rich closing monologue. x
  • 30
    Woolf—To the Lighthouse
    With To the Lighthouse, we turn to the most personal novel in the course. In it, Virginia Woolf conjures a fictionalized representation of her parents' marriage, and creates one of the most memorable characters in British novels, Mrs. Ramsay. Through this work, Woolf raises a potent question: Can we ever truly know our parents as people? x
  • 31
    Woolf—To the Lighthouse, Part 2
    In the second lecture on To the Lighthouse, Professor Weinstein considers the implications of a vision of the self as always partly hidden. He examines the final episode in the novel, the trip to the lighthouse, as a culmination of the novel's focus on coming to terms with the loss and chaos that are an inescapable part of life. x
  • 32
    Faulkner—As I Lay Dying
    In this consideration of the "scandal of human flesh," William Faulkner follows a backwoods family as they transport their mother's corpse across several counties to her final resting place. Grotesque and often hilarious, Faulkner's stream-of-consciousness narrative touches on core philosophical issues about language and flesh. x
  • 33
    Faulkner—As I Lay Dying, Part 2
    This lecture pursues a key question that recurs throughout the novel: What is in the coffin? Is it mother, and if so, how long can it continue to be mother? Professor Weinstein examines several episodes that explore that question, including a chapter written entirely in the dead mother's voice. x
  • 34
    García Márquez—One Hundred Years of Solitude
    In this lusty novel, magic realism is the mode used to measure one extreme, sexual liberation, against its opposite, coldness of heart. This struggle is set against the Edenic backdrop of a Latin American town where the powers of creativity are constantly challenged by war and corruption. x
  • 35
    One Hundred Years of Solitude, Part 2
    This lecture examines the many contradictory representations of love, lust, society, and sexuality that appear in the novel, and the blessings and curses that result. A key episode under consideration is the passionate consummation of an incestuous love between aunt and nephew. x
  • 36
    Ending the Course, Beginning the World
    "The reality of literature is not informational," says Professor Weinstein. Instead, its knowledge must be learned through the experience of reading. In this concluding lecture, we review the many "earned truths" presented in these classic novels, and examine the way in which, through reading, each of us becomes a "citizen of the world." x

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Your professor

Arnold Weinstein

About Your Professor

Arnold Weinstein, Ph.D.
Brown University
Dr. Arnold Weinstein is the Edna and Richard Salomon Distinguished Professor at Brown University, where he has been teaching for over 35 years. He earned his undergraduate degree in Romance Languages from Princeton University and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Harvard University. Among his many academic honors, research grants, and fellowships is the Younger Humanist Award from the National Endowment for...
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Classic Novels: Meeting the Challenge of Great Literature is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 66.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent teacher We have several courses from you by Prof. Weinstein. All of your lecturers are good, and he is one of the best.
Date published: 2020-07-13
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Read these books before taking course Like the 3 or 4 other "great books" courses I have attempted to take from The Great Courses, this one assumes that you at least have read or are very familiar with the books presented. This professor obviously knows his stuff, but his interpretation is meaningless if you don't know the books. I would like to know about these books, but I (like many others I suspect), simply do not have enough time to read them. So, I would like to suggest that any further courses in this vein be in a format where the first lecture on each book is a synopsis of what the book is about and then the second lecture goes into detail as the what the professor thinks is important about the book. I had only one humanities course in college (pre-med is very proscribed with no option for electives) and I, now retired, was hoping to learn about the great books. The only course on great books I have found close to helpful is J. Rufus Fears, "Life Lessons from the Great Books".
Date published: 2020-01-04
Rated 2 out of 5 by from professor too full of himself, with so-called insights that strain logic
Date published: 2019-04-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I have been a Great Courses customer for over 15 years and this course is one of the best! Dr. Weinstein's research and presentation is exceptional. Highly recommended for lovers of literature.
Date published: 2019-03-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Insight I bought this course on video some time ago and proceeded to watch the lectures of books I had already read and some of books that I wondered if I should read, or read again. As a result I have tackled and continue to read books discussed in this course, because the lectures provided ideas that provoked my imagination. For example, I had read War and Peace many years ago, but I was provoked to read it again, and was amazed at how much I enjoyed it and how sorry I was when I finished it. That is something to say about a 1500 page Russian translation. In short this lectures don't cover every aspect, solve every problem, answer every problem, or tie up every book in a neat package. That is not their object, rather it is to provoke thoughts on what the authors are trying to do and how well they succeed Just what I wanted, even though I didn't know it. Highest recommendation.
Date published: 2019-02-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Exceeded expectations I expected the course to present a ‘tree-top’ summary of these great novels not the deep dive he made into what made them universal even in today’s environment. When I read these years ago I thought I joined the ‘well-read’ crowd but happily the the professor dispelled me of this notion. If you expect a Cliff Notes presentation don’t buy this course. If you want a scholarly lecture on universal concepts of the human condition and the authors opinions then this is for you. The professor demonstrates a knowledge of the material that is extraordinary, thought provoking, and challenging. I hope he is considered for other courses.
Date published: 2019-01-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting title A book Literary Chickens encouraged me to read classical literature in chronological order starting with Beowulf (before 1000 AD). I am reading a mix of books from Literary Chickens and Writers. I have not yet reached writers/books in your course but do believe it will be helpful and useful. I am currently listening to the GreatCourse on Dante Alighieri and reading his book Inferno. This course is a great help and has made reading and understanding the course so much easier and more fun. Many things to ponder. It will be a while before I begin this course.
Date published: 2019-01-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An impressive and inspiring achievement In my review of Professor Weinstein's 1998 course, Classics of American Literature, I commented that "his soft, mid-range voice, despite being well recorded and at an appropriate volume, is sometimes hard to understand and takes some getting used to." I note that other reviewers of the present course have commented on this and downgraded their ratings because of it. However, whether because of alterations in the recording technique or my just getting used to his speaking style in this second, later course, this was much less a problem for me this time around. In fact, Dr. Weinstein may be the most eloquent of all the presenters in the nearly 100 Great Courses I have done. Here he discusses 18 classic novels, chronologically ranging from Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1721) to Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), in 34 lectures (1 to 3 per novel), plus 2 absolutely outstanding bookend discussions putting the whole in perspective. I should note that I probably got more out of the lectures on the books in this series I had actually read, but that the discussions were incredibly informative, interesting, and provocative with each of the others as well. With Dr. Weinstein, at least for me, the connection between professor and learner/viewer is truly unique: with the other top presenters one feels privileged to be in the audience the professor is speaking to, but with Weinstein it seems like just you and him—he’s describing and explaining these things directly to me. He uses the old-fashioned technique of speaking from notes, rather than reading the lectures or using a Teleprompter, and he has obviously taught these same novels for decades, permitting him to give each lecture as an intimate conversation with the learner, with a great deal of eye contact. He’s clearly the kind of teacher who makes life-long impressions on many of his students, and truly inspires some of them.
Date published: 2019-01-07
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