Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Postgraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2020-2021 (archived)

Module ENGL43130: Thinking with Things in Victorian Literature

Department: English Studies

ENGL43130: Thinking with Things in Victorian Literature

Type Open Level 4 Credits 30 Availability Not available in 2020/21 Module Cap 20


  • 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


  • To enrich students’ understanding of Victorian literature, chiefly fiction, by attending to the formal and cultural significance of its representation of material objects.
  • To develop a critical awareness of the uses to which different kinds of objects are put in literary texts from the period.
  • To examine the literary representation of material things in conjunction with relevant major intellectual/theoretical formulations of objecthood in modernity.


  • This module examines the representation of objects in Victorian literature. It is concerned with the appearance of objects in literary contexts, and with asking how literary enquiry might be led by objects (rather than originating from the perspective of subjects) in order to disclose knowledge of Victorian modernity. Discrete material items throng the period’s fiction: jewels, garments, handkerchiefs, souvenirs, books, display pieces, luxuries, personal property, and so on, including objects in circulation or exchange, objects of sentimental attachment, and objects embedded in ritual or social practices. How do fictional objects acquire meaning in specific texts? What significance inheres in, through, and around them? What is the bodily and psychological experience of material things? These broad questions will be addressed through a range of texts, mostly novels, by major writers such as Carlyle, Gaskell, Dickens, Collins, Eliot, and Hardy, in conjunction with theoretical writing on modernity’s subject/object relation (Marx, Freud, and Heidegger) to address objecthood in the terms of ideology, psychoanalysis, and phenomenology. The module will also reflect upon the rise of materiality in recent Victorian studies, through the work of Thing Theorists (Bill Brown and Elaine Freedgood) and its critics (such as David Trotter).

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • An extensive and detailed knowledge of the literature covered.
  • An understanding of the significance of objects as aspects of modern literary representation, and especially as a feature of the Victorian novel.
  • Sound knowledge of the critical debates surrounding these questions
Subject-specific Skills:
  • The module will combine advanced critical and formal literary analysis with a specialized understanding of the various cultural, historical, philosophical, political, and intellectual contexts reflected in the literary representation of material things.
Key Skills:
  • Students studying this module will develop:
  • an advanced ability to analyse critically;
  • an advanced ability to acquire complex information of diverse kinds in structured and systematic ways;
  • an advanced ability to interpret complex information of diverse kinds through the distinctive skills derived from the subject;
  • expertise in conventions of scholarly presentation and bibliographical skills;
  • an independence of thought and judgement, and ability to assess acutely the critical ideas of others;
  • sophisticated skills in critical reasoning; an advanced ability to handle information and argument critically;
  • a competence in information-technology skills such as word-processing and electronic data access;
  • professional organisation and time-management skills

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

  • Through a variety of teaching activities and approaches, seminars will facilitate the development of effective communication and critical skills. Sessions will introduce broad topics and genres, contexts and frameworks to aid conceptual understanding and specific texts for analysis as well as encourage individual interpretation and enquiry. Two summative assignments will assess the competencies and outcomes outlined above and foster advanced independent study.
  • 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 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 3,000 words 40%
Summative essay 3,000 words 60%

Formative Assessment:

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