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Reading and studying literature

Reading and studying literature builds on the introductory modules in arts and humanities, The arts past and present (AA100), and Voices, texts and material culture (A105). It will introduce you to the study of English literature by looking at a selection of texts from the Renaissance to the present day. The module offers a stimulating mix of classic texts and less well-known works from a range of genres, including drama, poetry and prose fiction as well as autobiography, travel-writing and film. An overarching concern of the module is the uses we make in the present of the literature of the past.

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Module code
Study level
2 8 5
Study method
Distance Learning
Module cost
See Module registration
Entry requirements
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What you will study

This module will introduce you to the major literary periods and genres through the three books described below. You will learn how to read and study plays, poems and prose fiction written in different historical periods by a range of authors. You will also learn the basics of studying film. The discussion in the books is supported by extensive audio-visual resources, including studies of film versions of several of the set texts and interviews with prominent academic specialists.

The skills and subjects taught in this module have a value which extends beyond academic study, though the module also provides a solid foundation for advanced study of English literature and other subject areas.

Book 1: The Renaissance and the Long Eighteenth Century

Part 1 of this book, Love and Death in the Renaissance, deals with a literary period still famous for its experiments in the writing of tragic drama. We study two well-known examples written in the early years of the seventeenth century, William Shakespeare’s Othello and John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. Both plays are about marriages for love that violate social norms and are subsequently punished. We consider how the two dramatists depict these forbidden marriages and the ways in which they invest them with tragic meaning. We focus on the two themes of love and death, but we also explore other related themes of the plays, such as race and class. This first part is designed to hone your skills of textual analysis; it will also enable you to begin thinking about plays as texts written for performance.

The end of the seventeenth century witnessed the establishment of European colonies across the globe, an expansion of European power that was accompanied by a massive growth of interest in travel writing. In Part 2, entitled Journeys in the Long Eighteenth Century, we look at a number of such travel narratives, fictional and non-fictional, written between the 1680s and the 1790s. We begin with  Aphra Behn’s fascinating early novel, Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave, about an African prince tricked into slavery, and then move on to the French writer Voltaire’s satirical tale, Candide, which uses its hero’s journeys within and beyond Europe to interrogate the claim that we live in ‘the best of all possible worlds’. In addition to these two fictional accounts of journeys, we explore the autobiography of an ex-slave as well as the accounts of the famous mutiny on board the Bounty produced by Captain Bligh and Fletcher Christian. Part 2 will also consider how reading these texts in relation to their contexts helps us to understand them more fully.

Book 2: Romantics and Victorians

The first part of Book 2, Romantic Lives, looks at a selection of texts, both English and continental, from the romantic period. This was a literary period in which much writing displayed a new and growing interest in the inner imaginative life of the individual. It was also the period when many still prominent ideas about what it means to be an author – our association of writing with the gifted, inspired individual – were first developed. This part of the module begins by looking at the portrayal of the inner life and the nature and function of the author in poems by William Wordsworth, best known for his relationship to the Lake District, and Percy Bysshe Shelley, often thought of as the quintessential romantic poet. It then examines the dark side of the romantic inner life by studying an autobiographical text, The Confessions of an English Opium Eater, by the drug-dependent journalist Thomas de Quincey, and an eerie short story about obsession by E.T.A. Hoffman.

By the time Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837, the British Empire spanned the globe. In Part 2, Home and Abroad in the Victorian Age, we study representations of home (in both the domestic and the national senses of the word) and abroad in this age of empire. Part 2 starts with Emily Bronte’s famous novel Wuthering Heights, which is followed by Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story The Sign of Four and Robert Louis Stevenson’s South Pacific tale, The Beach of Falesá. Each of these texts offers compelling and complex depictions of the relationship between the homely and foreign, the familiar and the strange. Part 2 also encourages you to think about the role of the reader in the creation of a literary text’s meaning.

Book 3: The Twentieth Century

Cities have been a favourite literary theme for centuries, but they play a particularly prominent role in writing and art from the first half of the twentieth century, as writers and artists reflected on the nature of life in an increasingly urbanized environment.

The first part of Book 3, Twentieth-Century Cities, looks at a selection of representations of the city from 1900–1950: James Joyce’s short story collection Dubliners; Fritz Lang’s cinematic masterpiece Metropolis; and a selection of poems and prose about New York from the 1920s to 1950 by writers such as Langston Hughes and Jack Kerouac. In addition to studying the depiction of the city in these works, Twentieth-Century Cities examines the concept of literary periods, considering whether there are weaknesses as well as strengths in the practice of classifying literary texts according to period.

Part 2, Migration and Memory, examines texts from the second half of the twentieth century which reflect on the experience of migration undergone by people displaced by war or emigrating in search of a better life. We study Sam Selvon’s novel about Caribbean migrants’ experience of London in the 1950s, The Lonely Londoners; a collection of poems, Questions of Travel, by the American poet Elizabeth Bishop, herself something of a nomad; Brian Friel’s play about life in rural Ireland in the 1930s, Dancing at Lughnasa; and W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, an intriguing work that is usually called a novel but borrows freely from numerous other genres, including history and the memoir. This part of the module considers the depiction of migration in these texts and also their treatment of memory as a vital part of the migrant’s experience. We conclude the module by using this diverse selection of late twentieth-century texts as a basis for examining the question of what the word ‘literature’ means today.

You will learn

In addition to exploring the texts and topics detailed above, as you progress through the module you will develop skills of close reading and analysis as well as the ability to think logically and express yourself clearly. You will also increase your proficiency in IT. These are skills highly valued by employers in all sectors.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You will have a tutor who will help you with the study material and who will mark and comment on your written work. Your tutor will use a blend of methods that will include face-to-face tutorials and moderated online discussion forums.

Contact us if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box above.

You will be expected to submit your tutor-marked assignments (TMAs) online through the eTMA system unless there are some difficulties which prevent you from doing so. In these circumstances, you must negotiate with your tutor to get their agreement to submit your assignment on paper.

Future availability

The details given here are for the module that starts in October 2015. We expect it to be available once a year.


As a student of The Open University, you should be aware of the content of the Module Regulations and the Student Regulations which are available on our Essential documents website.

Course work includes:

6 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
No residential school

Course satisfaction survey

See the satisfaction survey results for this course.


This is an OU level 2 module and builds on the OU level 1 modules The arts past and present (AA100) and Voices, texts and material culture (A105). These OU level 1 modules develop skills such as logical thinking, clear expression, essay writing and the ability to select and interpret relevant materials. They also offer an introduction to a range of subjects in the arts and humanities.

If you have not studied at university level before, you are strongly advised to study at OU level 1 before progressing to OU level 2 study.

Your regional or national centre will be able to tell you where you can see reference copies of OU level 1 study materials, or you can buy selected materials from Open University Worldwide Ltd.

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please speak to an adviser.

Preparatory work

No preparatory work is necessary but if you would like to do some reading in advance, you might start by tackling the two plays with which the module starts, Shakespeare’s Othello and Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi.


Start End England fee Register
03 Oct 2015 Jun 2016 £2700.00

Registration closes 10/09/15 (places subject to availability)


You may need to apply for some payment or funding options earlier. Please check the Fees and Funding information or contact us for information.

This module is expected to start for the last time in October 2022.

Additional Costs

Study costs

There may be extra costs on top of the tuition fee, such as a laptop, travel to tutorials, set books and internet access.

If you're on a low income you might be eligible for help with some of these costs after you register.

Ways to pay for this module

Open University Student Budget Account

The Open University Student Budget Accounts Ltd (OUSBA) offers a convenient 'pay as you go' option to pay your OU fees, which is a secure, quick and easy way to pay. Please note that The Open University works exclusively with OUSBA and is not able to offer you credit facilities from any other provider. All credit is subject to status and proof that you can afford the repayments.

You pay the OU through OUSBA in one of the following ways:

  • Register now, pay later – OUSBA pays your module fee direct to the OU. You then repay OUSBA interest-free and in full just before your module starts. 0% APR representative. This option could give you the extra time you may need to secure the funding to repay OUSBA.
  • Pay by instalments – OUSBA calculates your monthly fee and number of instalments based on the cost of the module you are studying. APR 5.1% representative.

Read more about Open University Student Budget Accounts (OUSBA).  

Employer sponsorship

Studying with The Open University can boost your employability. OU qualifications are recognised and respected by employers for their excellence and the commitment they take to achieve one. They also value the skills that students learn and can apply in the workplace.

More than one in ten OU students are sponsored by their employer, and over 30,000 employers have used the OU to develop staff so far. If the qualification you’ve chosen is geared towards your job or developing your career, you could approach your employer to see if they will sponsor you by paying some or all of the fees. 

  • Your employer just needs to complete a simple form to confirm how much they will be paying and we will invoice them.
  • You won’t need to get your employer to complete the form until after you’ve chosen your modules.  

Credit/debit card

You can pay part or all of your tuition fees upfront with a debit or credit card when you register for each module. 

We accept American Express, Maestro (UK only), Mastercard, Visa/Delta and Visa Electron. 

Mixed payments

We know that sometimes you may want to combine payment options. For example, you may wish to pay part of your tuition fee with a debit card and pay the remainder in instalments through an Open University Student Budget Account (OUSBA).

For more information about combining payment options, speak to an adviser or book a call back at a time that is convenient to you.

Please note: your permanent address/domicile will affect your fee status and therefore the fees you are charged and any financial support available to you. The fees and funding information provided here is valid for modules starting before 31 July 2016. Fees normally increase annually in line with inflation and the University's strategic approach to fees. 

This information was provided on 30/07/2015.

What's included

Three books (as described above), additional literary texts, audio CDs, a DVD, website containing module guide, study planner, study guide, assessment materials, online exercises, audio and visual recordings and electronic versions of the three books.

You will need

The ability to play DVDs and CDs.

Computing requirements

You will need a computer with internet access to study this module as the study materials and activities are accessible via a web browser. Any other computer-based activities you will need to carry out, such as word processing, using spreadsheets, taking part in online forums, and submitting files to the university for assessment, are specified in the module materials. If any additional software is needed for these tasks it will either be provided or is freely available.

We recommend either of the following:

  • Windows desktop or laptop computer running Windows 7 or later operating system
  • Macintosh desktop or laptop computer running OS X 10.7 or later operating system.

A netbook, tablet, smartphone or Linux computer that supports one of the browsers listed below may be suitable. The screen size should be at least 1024 (H) x 768 (W) pixels. If you intend to use one of these devices please ensure you have access to a suitable desktop or laptop computer in case you are unable to carry out all the module activities on your mobile device.

We recommend a minimum 1 Mbps internet connection and any of the following browsers:

  • Internet Explorer 9 and above
  • Apple Safari 7 and above
  • Google Chrome 31 and above
  • Mozilla Firefox 31 and above.

Note: using the latest version for your browser will maximise security when accessing the internet. Using company or library computers may prevent you accessing some internet materials or installing additional software.

See our Skills for OU study website for further information about computing skills for study and educational deals for buying Microsoft Office software.

Materials to buy

Set books

  • Bronte, E. Wuthering Heights Oxford World's Classics £6.99 - ISBN 9780199541898
  • Shakespeare, W.: Neill, M. (ed) Othello Oxford World's Classics £7.99 - ISBN 9780199535873
  • Voltaire: Cuffe, T. (ed) Candide, or Optimism Penguin £5.99 - ISBN 9780140455106
  • Behn, A.: Todd, J. (ed) Oroonoko Penguin £7.99 - ISBN 9780140439885
  • Selvon, S. The Lonely Londoners Penguin £8.99 - ISBN 9780141188416
  • Joyce, J.: Brown, T. (ed) Dubliners Penguin £7.99 - ISBN 9780141182452
  • Sebald, W.G. The Emigrants Vintage £8.99 - ISBN 9780099448884
  • Conan Doyle, A.: Towheed, S. (ed) The Sign of Four Broadview Press £7.50 - ISBN 9781551118376
  • Friel, B. Dancing at Lughnasa Faber and Faber £9.99 - ISBN 9780571144792
  • Webster, J.: Kendall, M. (ed) The Duchess of Malfi Longman £9.75 - ISBN 9780582817791

Other materials

  • Fritz Lang (Director) Metropolis (Master of Cinema) DVD (Nov 2010) Master of Cinema £22.99 The DVD will be available at a discount from internet retailers by searching on or high street retailers.

If you have a disability

Block 5 of the module includes the study of the DVD of Fritz Lang’s silent film Metropolis. Students with a visual impairment will find this text challenging. However, fulfilment of the module’s learning outcomes and assessment will not be dependent on study of this text as it will be possible to focus on alternative texts in Block 5.

Elements of the module are delivered through a website and include the use of interactive online exercises. If you use specialist hardware or software to assist you in operating a computer or the internet and have any concerns about accessing this type of material you are advised to contact us about support which can be given to meet your needs.

Written transcripts of any audio components and Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) versions of printed material are available. Some Adobe PDF components may not be available or fully accessible using a screen reader and musical notation and mathematical, scientific, and foreign language materials may be particularly difficult to read in this way. Other alternative formats of the study materials may be available in the future.

If you have particular study requirements please tell us as soon as possible, as some of our support services may take several weeks to arrange. Find out more about our services for disabled students.