History of World Literature

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

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
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 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

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 304-page printed course guidebook
  • Suggested readings
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Your professor

Grant L. Voth

About Your Professor

Grant L. Voth, Ph.D.
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...
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History of World Literature is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 73.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Beethoven-His Life and Music I enjoyed the contents of the DVD immensely, but I would have preferred it in a CD format, which is handy for listening in a car.. There is little that can be shown of Beethoven's life, and watching Dr. Greenberg does not add to the topic. Many other courses would be preferable on CDs. I am distressed by the Great Courses policy of discontinuing the CD format
Date published: 2020-06-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Highly recommend audio or video version I've completed over 100 Great Courses and highly recommend this course. Without the special effects of some the newer courses, this course holds one's interest by the sheer richness of the content. I've finished the first DVD only but have found myself saying "aha" many times. Professor Voth's comparisons, contrasts, references to additional readings and even music are enthralling. He is a rare professor with deep knowledge but who is also able to see the "big picture". Nothing dry about this course, which delightfully is suitable for both audio and video. I do wish it were available on GC+ as well and could be streamed.
Date published: 2020-02-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Entertaining and Insightful This is one of my favorite courses. The professor is thoughtful in his presentation and provides wonderful insight and connection between lectures. Each is organized and focused on a clear theme and there is evident thoughtfulness is the inclusion and exclusion of works. He is generous in his commentary and highlights what other scholars have said in addition to his own position. I was very impressed and entertained!
Date published: 2020-02-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Caution: You may want to read a bunch of books This course doesn't need any more 5-stars. It is obvious this course has been very well received. Professor Voth has participated in several TGC I have taken; he is one of TGC's truly 5-star teachers. I am a novice at literature. Several of the books he covers I had to read either in high school or undergraduate college; at a time when my main interests were far from literature. A book worm may have a different reaction. I found this course very enlightening. Even without reading any of the books discussed in this course; the discussions on the books bring up many of life's philosophical questions. Those discussions alone are well worth the time and money. The Guidebook contains a timeline, glossary, and biographical notes all of which I find very useful.
Date published: 2019-11-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A great overview of story-telling This is one of my favorites of the 250 great courses I own! Professor Voth brings fascinating new perspectives on traditional classics and has made me discover new masterworks I was not familiar with. I enjoyed listening to all 48 lectures and wish there were many more. To give an example, I would compare the insightful, empathetic discussion of the Paolo and Francesca episode in this course with the crude and trivializing depiction of it in the course on the Divina Commedia (a course that should in my view never made the Teaching Company's catalogue!). Professor Voth's command of the English language is superb. I own three of his courses and wish there were many more courses by him in the GC catalogue!
Date published: 2019-11-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Big Surprise! I purchase a lot of science and math courses from the GC and have enjoyed them all. I got this course to balance my education (I'm over 75) with no expectations for something I generally have little interest in. I haven't completed it yet, but I love it. It really has awakened me to the need for some liberal education in my world of science and technology. This is an older course (not streamable), and had virtually no illustrations found in modern courses and it makes no difference. Worth the price.
Date published: 2019-09-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Probably Deserves 6 Stars! Because I have treasured so many of The Great Courses and have rated nearly all of them “good” or “excellent,” it is difficult to find words superlative enough to describe this “standout” course on world literature presented by Dr. Grant L. Voth. I will just share some of the specifics of what I valued and leave it to implication that I mean “valued a lot!” The first aspect to mention is that Dr. Voth’s lectures display the same quality that he repeatedly cited as being present in great literature; namely, the potential to be “read” in multiple ways. During Lecture 25 on Cao Xueqin’s “The Story of the Stone,” for example, we were shown how that Chinese classic could be read as a call for Buddhist-Taoist renunciation of the world and its desires, or as an ironic condemnation of such detachment, or as essentially a tragic love story, or as the story of the fall of an aristocratic “house,” or as a tribute to the “celestial” understanding and compassion of certain women, or even as “all of the above.” Well, “for my two cents’ worth,” this entire course can be interpreted in multiple ways: as a sort of ultimate “Cole’s Notes” covering dozens of literary masterpieces (including a few of which I’d been previously unaware); as a history of the influences that writers in different parts of the world have had on each other; as a tracing of the development of the concept of “the hero” through many centuries; as a cataloguing of literary techniques; and even as a special perspective on the general history of Classical Antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Romantic Era, the Modernist and Post-Modernist Eras, etc., etc. Secondly, I wish to praise Dr. Voth’s ability to make accessible for me the sense and artistry inherent in some works I had read but barely understood before. How he was able to “unpack” the deep meaning of poetry by Emily Dickinson is a perfect example of that. Thirdly, Dr. Voth’s obvious enjoyment of his subject matter and his teaching is another very special strength of the course. His joy so often became my joy as I watched and listened to him. I should add: corollary to the joy, he was able to share the poignancy and grief that some great literature conveys. His analysis of significant innovations in the literature discussed was so acute and discerning that I now feel compelled to take an interest in some authors whose works had formerly held no allure for me. My own past academic learning was focused on laboratory sciences and music. Though I am now in my eighth decade of life, I think I’m going to “change my major” to World Literature. Thank you so much, Dr. Voth.
Date published: 2019-01-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from So many books...so little time So, how would you choose the 60, or so, best literary works produced over the last 5000 years...or so? I suppose you'd have to read a whole bunch of works (thousands, I would guess), define their generalized genre, rank them (according to your, by this time, refined tastes) and prepare summaries and justifications for your various categories... and place each work into an historic timeline, just to make sure your audience is aware of the historic context during which the book/poem was written. Then, if I was capable, I would present them in a conversational, well-organized style, within 48 thirty minute lectures. Well...I couldn't do it, but Dr Voth certainly did! These 48 lectures are his anthology of 60 (or so) literary works that he thinks represent some of the best examples of man's literary progress. Is this the only list of books that might have been used as examples? No...as Dr Voth explains, it is just one possible collection of works. Will any Joe-reader out there agree with all his choices? Probably not, but at least Dr Voth has done his homework...thoroughly! I enjoyed these lectures, fully realizing that I will never read some of these books/poems, and perhaps if I did, I wouldn't enjoy them all that much. Some of these works, however, have intrigued me and have caused me to dig deeper into some of these classics (Don Quixote, Wuthering Heights and Haroun and the Sea of Stories are waiting on my Kindle). This is a very good anthology, well worth your time...and worth revisiting often. Find a sale and book a coupon, this one's a keeper.
Date published: 2018-11-06
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