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Reading and studying literature

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This module 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 and travel-writing. An overarching concern of the module is the uses we make in the present of the literature of the past.

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. You'll 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. You'll consider how the two dramatists depict these forbidden marriages and the ways in which they invest them with tragic meaning. You'll focus on the two themes of love and death, but 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, Journeys in the Long Eighteenth Century, you'll look at a number of travel narratives, both fictional and non-fictional, written between the 1680s and the 1790s. You'll begin with Aphra Behn’s fascinating early novel, Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave, about an African prince tricked into slavery. 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’. 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 this book, 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. In this part you'll explore the portrayal of the life, nature and function of the author in a selection of poetry by William Wordsworth and Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, and E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story The Sandman

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, you'll study representations of home (in both the domestic and the national senses of the word) and abroad in this age of empire. Part 2 features Emily Bronte’s famous novel Wuthering Heights, 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. 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 this book looks at representations of the city from 1900–1950, including James Joyce’s short story collection Dubliners. The book also includes 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 the following four 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. Sam Selvon’s novel The Lonely Londoners is about Caribbean migrants’ experience of London in the 1950s. Questions of Travel is a collection of poems by the American poet Elizabeth Bishop, herself something of a nomad. Dancing at Lughnasa is Brian Friel’s play about life in rural Ireland in the 1930s. W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, is an intriguing work that is usually called a novel but borrows freely from numerous other genres, including history and the memoir.

The module concludes 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.

Entry requirements

This is an OU level 2 module and builds on the OU level 1 modules Discovering the arts and humanities (A111) and Cultures (A112). 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.

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 could start with the two plays, Shakespeare’s Othello and Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, as they feature at the start of this module. 

What's included

You’ll be provided with three printed module books, CDs, DVDs and have access to a module website, which includes:

  • a week-by-week study planner
  • module materials
  • electronic versions of the books and additional literary texts
  • module guide and study guide
  • online exercises
  • audio and video content
  • assessment guide
  • access to online tutorials and forums.

You will need

The ability to play CDs and DVDs.

Computing requirements

You’ll need broadband internet access and a desktop or laptop computer with an up-to-date version of Windows (10 or 11), or macOS (11 'Big Sur' or higher).

Any additional software will be provided or is generally freely available.

To join in spoken conversations in tutorials, we recommend a wired headset (headphones/earphones with a built-in microphone).

Our module websites comply with web standards, and any modern browser is suitable for most activities.

Our OU Study mobile app will operate on all current, supported versions of Android and iOS. It’s not available on Kindle.

It’s also possible to access some module materials on a mobile phone, tablet device or Chromebook. However, as you may be asked to install additional software or use certain applications, you’ll also require a desktop or laptop as described above.

Materials to buy

Set books

  • Behn, A.: Todd, J. (ed) Oroonoko Penguin £8.99 - ISBN 9780140439885
  • Friel, B. Dancing at Lughnasa Faber and Faber £9.99 - ISBN 9780571144792
  • Joyce, J.: Brown, T. (ed) Dubliners Penguin £7.99 - ISBN 9780141182452
  • Sebald, W.G. The Emigrants Vintage £9.99 - ISBN 9780099448884
  • Voltaire: Cuffe, T. (ed) Candide, or Optimism Penguin £7.99 - ISBN 9780140455106
  • Bronte, E. Wuthering Heights Oxford World's Classics £4.99 - ISBN 9780198834786
  • Shakespeare, W.: Neill, M. (ed) Othello Oxford World's Classics £7.99 - ISBN 9780199535873
  • Webster, J.: Kendall, M. (ed) The Duchess of Malfi Longman £12.59 - ISBN 9780582817791
  • Shelley, M.: Groom, N. (ed) Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus: the 1818 Text Oxford World's Classics £5.99 - ISBN 9780198840824
  • Conan Doyle, A.: Towheed, S. (ed) The Sign of Four Broadview Press £6.95 - ISBN 9781551118376
  • Selvon, S. The Lonely Londoners Penguin £8.99 - ISBN 9780141188416

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 online tutorials and moderated online discussion forums.

While you’re not obliged to attend any of these tutorial events, you are strongly encouraged to take part.

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.

If you have a disability

The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying A230 involves. You should use this information to inform your study preparations and any discussions with us about how we can meet your needs.

Future availability

Reading and studying literature starts once a year – in October. This page describes the module that will start in October 2023 when we expect it to start for the last time. A replacement module is planned for 2024.

Course work includes:

5 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
End-of-module assessment
No residential school

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