Telling stories: the novel and beyond
How have writers chosen to tell their stories, and why? What techniques do they use to make us believe in the reality of the worlds they create? If you’re interested in finding out in-depth about how literature works, this module is for you. You'll read gripping stories from across literary history, from Shakespeare to science fiction, from Thomas Hardy to Arundhati Roy, with a particular focus on nineteenth- and twentieth-century novels. This will develop your understanding of key techniques and devices used by writers as you investigate the historical contexts behind their work and discover new ways of understanding literature.
What you will study
There are two parts to the module, one devoted to realism, the other to fantasy. In each, you’ll be reading and studying texts from a variety of periods and in a variety of different forms. This will develop your skills in the analysis of key features such as characterisation, narrative voice, plot structure, imagery, symbolism and verbal style. You'll receive two module books to guide your study and a wealth of online material, including interviews with leading critics and videos of settings used by some of the authors.
Part One – Realism: depicting the world
The first part of the module is all about the following five texts that depict, in diverse ways, the ‘real world’ lived in by their authors. A short introduction will set the scene by discussing past and present ideas about storytelling and realist fiction.
- Thomas Hardy’s richly enjoyable Far from the Madding Crowd (1874). The novel is set in Wessex, a beautifully described and fictionalised version of the Dorset in which Hardy grew up.
- Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country (1913) takes place in a very different world: the high society of early twentieth-century New York. Its central character, the upwardly mobile Undine Spragg, is one of the most intriguing characters in literature.
- Ali Smith's Hotel World (2001) will leap you forward into the twenty-first century. You'll explore the background to a mysterious death through the voices of five very different women.
- Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War (1928) is an absorbing and moving evocation of life as a soldier in the First World War. With this text you'll focus on the use of realist literary devices in a non-fiction narrative.
- Arundhati Roy’s Booker Prize-winning The God of Small Things (1997) is a novel set in twentieth-century southern India. Roy’s attention to the details of the world she is describing and the occasional startling supernatural elements in the book make it the ideal bridge from the realism of part one to the ‘fantastic' writing you'll study in part two.
At the end of part one, in a special ‘Book Club’ section, you'll choose a text to study from a shortlist of five, each option similar in some way to one of the five books you have already read. This is your chance to build on your earlier work on the module, to explore your enthusiasms, and to develop skills as an independent learner.
Part Two – The fantastic: creating new worlds
In the second part, you'll study the techniques used in the following selection of works of fantasy literature. These have been written in a range of different periods, and you'll find there is a range of different ways in which ‘fantastic’ stories relate to the real world we live in. You'll also move beyond the novel, studying poetry, a play, short stories and an illustrated book as well as a classic science fiction novel.
- You'll ground your work on the fantastic by studying one of its most fundamental genres: the fairy tale. You’ll read fairy tales from diverse authors and periods, focusing in particular on the sophisticated retellings of Charles Perrault (1628–1703), the darker work of the Brothers Grimm, the playful and poignant tales of Hans Christian Andersen (1805–1875) and the challenging adult reversionings of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (1979). You'll learn new ways of analysing the structure of stories that you'll apply in your work later in this part.
- The contemporary English poet Simon Armitage provides a modern translation of the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This fantastic narrative tells of the encounter between Gawain, one of King Arthur’s knights, and a mysterious supernatural figure.
- Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess' Stardust (1999) reimagines the genre of the fairy tale with a hero who crosses the boundary between Victorian England and the magical land of ‘Faerie’. Stardust is a close collaboration between the author (Gaiman) and the illustrator (Vess), and you will study the relationship between its vivid text and action-filled pictures.
- Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974), an example of a 'fantastic' text employing many realist devices, uses science fiction to work out the implications of complex political ideas.
- Shakespeare’s captivating play The Tempest (c.1611) is appropriately a story about ends and beginnings, set on an imaginary island inhabited by a magician, his daughter and two mysterious non-human beings.
You will find that some of these set texts engage with difficult topics, including suicide and sexual violence. We appreciate that some students will find it helpful to be aware in advance of material of this kind in specific texts. For this reason, a list of potentially distressing content is provided at the beginning of the module. Contact us if you would like to discuss this further with an advisor in the Student Support Team prior to registering for the module.
You will learn
In addition to exploring the texts and topics detailed above, as you progress through the module, you'll 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.
This is an OU level 2 module and builds on the OU level 1 modules Discovering the arts and humanities (A111) and Cultures (A112), or the discontinued modules The arts past and present (AA100) and Voices, texts and material culture (A105). These 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 any doubt about the suitability of the module, please speak to an adviser.
You may find it helpful to read some of the set texts in advance. For the sequence in which you’ll study these texts, see 'What you will study'. If you don’t have time to do this, however, don’t worry: the module materials have been written assuming that you will be reading the set texts for the first time at the same time as studying the module.
In early September, you'll have access to the English Literature Stage 1 to Stage 2 bridging materials and a forum where you can discuss any questions you have with members of the English department and other students. This will help prepare you for Stage 2 English Literature study in general and this module in particular. You'll also have access to the English Literature toolkit, a special OU resource providing you with subject-specific study skills.
You'll be provided with two printed books and have access to the module website, which includes:
- a week-by-week study planner
- module materials
- audio and video content
- assessment guide
- access to online tutorials and forums.
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 Monterey 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
- Wharton, E.: Orgel, S. (ed) The Custom of the Country Oxford World's Classics £8.99 - ISBN 9780199555123
- Wharton, E.: Orgel, S. (ed) The Age of Innocence Oxford World's Classics £7.99 - ISBN 9780199540013 * This is an A233 'Book club' set book option.
- Smith, A. Girl Meets Boy Canongate Books £9.99 - ISBN 9781786892478 * This is an A233 'Book club' set book option.
- Sassoon, S. Memoirs of an Infantry Officer Faber and Faber £9.99 - ISBN 9780571064106 * This is an A233 'Book club' set book option.
- Hardy, T. Wessex Tales Wordsworth Editions £2.50 - ISBN 9781853262692 * This is an A233 'Book club' set book option.
- Anand, M.R. Untouchable Penguin £9.99 - ISBN 9780141393605 * This is an A233 'Book club' set book option.
- Smith, A. Hotel World Penguin £8.99 - ISBN 9780140296792
- Shakespeare, W.: Orgel, S. (ed) The Tempest Oxford World's Classics £7.99 - ISBN 9780199535903
- Roy, A. The God of Small Things 4th Estate £8.99 - ISBN 9780006550686
- Perrault, C.: Betts, C. (trans.) The Complete Fairy Tales Oxford World's Classics £7.99 - ISBN 9780199585809
- Le Guin, U. The Dispossessed Gollancz £8.99 - ISBN 9781857988826
- Grimm, J. & Grimm, W.: Crick, J. (trans.) Selected Tales Oxford World's Classics £10.99 - ISBN 9780199555581
- Hardy, T.: Falck-Yi, S.B. (ed) Far from the Madding Crowd Oxford World's Classics £4.99 - ISBN 9780199537013
- Gaiman, N. & Vess, C. Stardust DC Comics (Vertigo) £14.99 - ISBN 9781401287849
- Carter, A. The Bloody Chamber Vintage £8.99 - ISBN 9780099588115
- Andersen, H.C. Hans Andersen's Fairy Tales: A Selection Oxford World's Classics £7.99 - ISBN 9780199555857
- Armitage, S. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Faber and Faber £10.99 - ISBN 9780571223282
- Blunden, E. Undertones of War Penguin £10.99 - ISBN 9780141184364
Note: There are five books marked with an * which are A233 'Book club' set books options. Students should choose and purchase only one of the five books. The 'Book club' choice will be studied during weeks 15-17 of the module. For the sequence in which you will study these texts, see "What you will study".