Literature and Freedom

English 11

Lehigh University Fall 2005


Professor: Amardeep Singh


Email: (preferred); or


Office: 221 Drown Hall

Mailbox: 101 Drown Hall


Required Texts


Philip Roth, The Plot Against America

Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner*

Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran

Orhan Pamuk, Snow

Amitava Kumar, Husband of a Fanatic

Suketu Mehta, Maximum City





Brief Summary of the course:


This is an 'advanced introductory' writing course for first-year students who have placed out of English 1. The topic of the course is 'Literature and Freedom'; our focus will be on works of contemporary world literature (including novels and creative nonfiction) that explore the desire to be free in repressive conditions. Some of the books are situated in countries where totalitarian regimes dominate, like Afghanistan in the 1990s, or Iran, from 1979 to today. Others, like Roth's novel, take societies that are in fact free (the United States) and imagine it going down a different road. The goal in each case is to think about how writers imagine freedom: what it is, why it's important, and even, in some cases, how to get there. In addition to the books themselves, and several in-class discussions of what constitutes good, university-level writing, we will talk a bit about the social and political issues happening at the present moment. You might learn a thing or two about parts of the world you didn't know about previously.


Tentative Syllabus


Note: This syllabus is liable to change. Check Blackboard or your Lehigh mail for updates.


August 30        Introduction

September 1    Philip Roth, The Plot Against America. Read up to page 82.


                        In class: discuss the background for this novel, including basic U.S. History 1930-1940, especially Great Depression, New Deal, Franklin D.

                        Roosevelt. Also: anti-Semitism in America.


On your own (for Thursday), look up political keywords: Fascism, Nazism, Totalitarianism, Democracy, Socialism, Communism, Stalinism, anti-Semitism. In class we will talk a bit about distinguishing these terms from one another.

                        Hint: use 'Wikipedia' as a starting point on these keywords.


9/6                   Plot Against America. Read up to page 152

                        In class: discuss the concept of 'allegory'. Is this novel an allegory?

9/8                   Plot Against America. Read up to page 236

                        In class: compare America today to the fictional world of Roth's novel.


9/13                 Plot Against America. Read up to page 300

9/15                 Plot Against America. Finish novel; read appendix.


9/20                 Short paper on Roth due, on the question of allegory. Begin Reading

                         Lolita in Tehran


                        In-class: Discuss background for the book, including brief summary of

                        modern Iranian history, Reza Shah Pahlavi, the Iranian revolution,

                        Ayatollah Khomeini.


9/22                 Reading Lolita


                        In-class: Discuss Nafisi's references to American literature: The Great Gatsby, Henry James' Daisy Miller, Saul Bellow's Herzog, Vladimir

                         Nabokov's Lolita, etc.


9/27                 Reading Lolita

9/29                 Reading Lolita


10/4                 Reading Lolita

10/6                 Reading Lolita


10/11               Pacing break No class

10/13               Short paper on Nafisi due; Begin Pamuk's Snow


10/18               Snow

10/20               Snow


10/25               Snow

10/27               Finish Snow


11/1                 Short paper on Pamuk due; Begin Mehta's Maximum City

11/3                 Maximum City


11/8                 Maximum City

11/10               Maximum City


11/15               Husband of a Fanatic

11/17               Husband of a Fanatic


11/22               Husband of a Fanatic; Paper due on Maximum City and Husband of a


11/24               Thanksgiving; no class


11/29               Kite Runner or Bookseller of Kabul

12/1                 Kite Runner / Bookseller of Kabul


12/6                 Kite Runner / Bookseller of Kabul

12/8                 Kite Runner / Bookseller of Kabul


Final papers due: Friday 12/15


This is a course designed to address a very current issue, and that is the role of literature (and maybe artistic expression more broadly) as a means in expressing freedom in societies which are not free.


These writers tell stories of life in deeply repressive societies. In some cases, we are talking about places like Iran and Afghanistan, which have had (or still have) deeply repressive governments. In other cases, we are talking about countries which are in principle free – like India and Turkey – but where, for various reasons, the rule of law does not always apply. And finally, Philip Roth's novel The Plot Against America is a book set in an alternative version of the United States, in which a conservative, Nazi sympathizer became president in 1940, taking the country down a very different road than the one it has in fact gone down. The book takes its power from its plausibility – many of the debates about race and religion Roth describes in the novel were real ones that actually occurred here, and it's not so hard to imagine how his upside-down history might have been a reality. And it's also worth considering that he wrote this novel after September 11, at a time when the United States was becoming a much more cautious place. As we look at Roth's book, we'll also talk a little about changes in the 'real life' version of America we live in. Is it becoming more conservative? Is it as 'free' as it is widely thought to be?


Of course, asking this sort of question leads us to think about what freedom is at a basic, definitional level. It's one thing to talk about basics like democratic elections and constitutional rights, but it gets harder when we look at societies whose definition of “democracy” and “freedom” don't look like the American version. It's particularly tricky in places like Iran, Turkey, and maybe India, where ideas like the freedom of religion are quite different than in the U.S.


We can also test the idea of freedom from within. Are there times when the loss of freedom can be necessary? Is it all right for the police to search passengers randomly on the subway (as has been recently introduced in New York)? What do you think of racial profiling? We'll be looking at some newspaper articles along the way that deal with these types of debates, currently in play in response to the threat of terrorism.


For a course on literature and freedom, it might be surprising that three of the six books I've ordered are works of non-fiction – not novels so much as memoirs. But while they are not works of fiction, each of the three books is literary in its own way.


By literary I mean the books go beyond the simple accounting of events, such as one might find in a newspaper. The writers aim to tell 'true stories', but they are also aware that the stories they tell are still in some sense 'stories'. They don't tell the objective truth in an analytical way, the way a professional historian might approach an event. Instead, they use personal observations and insights, and in many cases, personal biases. Does this make them any less reliable? What do we do with this kind of nonfiction writing? [That is one of the questions we'll be addressing this fall]


One of these nonfiction books is Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran. Here, the connection to literary is even more explicit, as hers is a book about her experiences talking about American literature with a group of girls in Iran. So while she gives us an account of what life is like in Iran from a woman's perspective, she also gives us a number of opinions about American and European literature from an Iranian perspective.


One of the interesting aspects of her book in particular is the fact that she refers to quite a bit of American literature. For an Iranian, she knows an awful lot about the subject! I'll summarize the plots of some of the books she talks about as we work our way through her book. One of the side-benefits is, you may learn some things about classic American literature – books like Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and Nabokov's Lolita -- from this Iranian writer.


This is a writing-intensive class, so I've kept the primary readings somewhat light. But there will be quite a bit of writing. Indeed, I'll be asking for a short paper on each of the books in the course. The topic, I can tell you in advance, will be up to you.


I'll also ask for a very short paper – an opinion piece, on the question of freedom – for next class. This is not going to be graded on a letter-grade. It's really a way for me to get to know you, and see where we are in terms of your writing skills.