Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Postgraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2020-2021 (archived)


Department: English Studies


Type Open Level 4 Credits 30 Availability Not available in 2020/21 Module Cap


  • Students must hold a good BA degree in English or a related subject to be eligible for entry onto the MA in English Literary Studies.


  • None.

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None.


  • Building upon analytical and investigative skills developed at undergraduate level, this module will provide students with a rigorous but open-ended introduction to the fictions of Thomas Pynchon. To these ends, it will integrate close textual study with broader discussions of the cultural, historical and political co-ordinates that frame Pynchon’s unique body of work.
  • The module will pay particular attention to debates about the nature of postmodernity raised by his novels, stories and essays — encouraging students to both evaluate and problematise Pynchon’s status as a “postmodern” writer.
  • The module also provides a unique opportunity to analyse in depth what might tentatively be called Pynchon’s emerging “late style”.
  • It aims to forge productive connections with other American and world literatures that might share some of Pynchon’s aesthetic or political concerns.
  • The module complements other single-author modules at Masters level and widens the options available in American and, more broadly, “contemporary” literature.


  • The emergence of Thomas Pynchon (1937—) on the literary scene heralds a unique kind of American voice. He is a writer who directly inherits from the formal experiments of the modernist avant-garde yet at the same time absorbs the lessons of genre fiction, the Beats and the 1960s counter-culture. Frequently held up as the arch postmodernist, whose texts are characterised by a perpetual state of epistemological crisis, Pynchon’s work both invites and resists an extraordinary range of critical/historical approaches. The status of Gravity’s Rainbow alone, for example, is testament to this — a novel often described as a natural successor to Ulysses or Moby Dick in its intricacy and encyclopaedic scope. However, an emphasis on Pynchon’s formidable reputation and his status as a recluse has tended to obscure the cogent analysis of his texts and the implications of his work beyond the free play of the signifier. For all his trickery and wild humour, Pynchon is a writer who has consistently engaged with such weighty and pertinent themes as the legacy of Enlightenment, colonialism, resistance politics, genocide, military-industrial warfare and more. This module will therefore consider the ways in which Pynchon can read as both a postmodernist and as a writer who complicates or unsettles certain notions of postmodernity. Studying Pynchon in this way provides students with the rare chance to analyse Pynchon’s long novels in detail over a sustained period of time. Whilst the module will familiarize newcomers with the established critical approaches to Pynchon’s fiction, it is designed to encourage students to formulate their own responses to his difficult but exhilarating body of work. The choice of texts will be open to some negotiation, ranging across the whole corpus of Pynchon’s writing (up to and including recent works such as Mason & Dixon and Against the Day).

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • Students are expected to acquire a sound working knowledge of Pynchon’s fiction and a sophisticated critical awareness of his development as a writer from the late fifties to the present day.
  • Students will also gain a clear understanding of the small but significant body of criticism that has evolved in tandem with Pynchon’s emergence as a major literary talent.
  • In a wider sense, students will also engage with Pynchon’s “difficulty” — or with the subversive and/or problematic dimensions of his fiction.
Subject-specific Skills:
  • Students will reflect on the various ways in which Pynchon forces his readers to reconceive of the relationship between “narrative” and “historical” time, for example, or on the complex relays between postmodern “play” and committed political engagement. With this in mind, students will further develop their ability to interact with a variety of advanced theoretical texts that will enrich their sensitivity to Pynchon’s writing and his place in literary history.
Key Skills:

Modes of Teaching, Learning and Assessment and how these contribute to the learning outcomes of the module

  • Students are encouraged to develop advanced conceptual abilities and analytical skills as well as the ability to communicate an advanced knowledge within seminars.
  • The capacity for advanced independent study is demonstrated through the completion of two summative pieces of work (3,000 words in length).
  • Typically, directed learning may include assigning student(s) an issue, theme or topic that can be independently or collectively explored within a framework and/or with additional materials provided by the tutor. This may function as preparatory work for presenting their ideas or findings (sometimes electronically) to their peers and tutor in the context of a seminar.

Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
Seminars 9 Fortnightly in Michaelmas and Epiphany terms 2 hours 18
Independent student research supervised by the Module Convenor 10
Preparation and reading 272
Total 300

Summative Assessment

Component: Coursework Component Weighting: 100%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Summative essay 1 3,000 words 50%
Summative essay 2 3,000 words 50%

Formative Assessment:

One essay of not more than 2,000 words.

Attendance at all activities marked with this symbol will be monitored. Students who fail to attend these activities, or to complete the summative or formative assessment specified above, will be subject to the procedures defined in the University's General Regulation V, and may be required to leave the University