England.  Change location

Literature matters

Qualification dates
Start End

In this module you'll think about literature in the light of key contemporary concerns: representation and identity, the environment, politics, and the imagination. Along the way, you'll read books in a diverse range of literary genres, including novels, drama, short stories, poetry, and essays. In your literary encounters, you'll travel in time from the sixteenth century to the twenty-first century and read texts from Britain and around the world.

What you will study

This module takes a topical approach to literature. There are four blocks, each devoted to a key topic, and a wide-ranging selection of set texts. You’ll develop skills in analysing literary features, including narrative structure, characterisation, dialogue, and metaphor, equipping you with the skills you’ll need for English Literature at OU level 3. You’ll also encounter some key contemporary themes in literary study, including postcolonialism and ecocriticism (the study of literature and the environment). There is a substantial Independent Study component, enabling you to reflect on literature and its place in the world and develop your critical skills.

Block 1: Literature, Identity, and Representation
This first part of the module deals with the topic of identity. It asks the question—can literature represent us?

You’ll read:
  • Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was highly controversial when it appeared in 1891. As well as digging into Wilde’s innovative writing style, you’ll explore its key themes of social transgression, ‘art for art’s sake’ and gay identity.
  • Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000), an often hilarious novel that follows the fortunes of two interlinked families in a multicultural North London neighbourhood from the 1970s to the 1990s.
  • Sylvia Plath’s poetry collection Ariel, first published in 1965, two years after her tragic early death. You’ll examine how Plath represents female identity and how readers continue to be fascinated with her poems and her life.
  • Colson Whitehead’s The Colossus of New York (2003), Whitehead’s love letter to New York City. It’s a unique book in which voices and identities are as fluid and mobile as the urban experience itself.  

Block 2: Literature and the Environment
This block covers the vast and fascinating topic of how literature represents the natural world. It asks the key question—can literature help us understand our relationship with the natural environment?

In this block, you’ll study:
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads (1798), a groundbreaking and highly influential collection of Romantic poetry. You’ll learn about the ideas behind the Romantic movement and how Romantic poets developed revolutionary new techniques for representing the natural world.
  • Anne-Marie Fyfe’s No Far Shore (2019), which combines prose and poetry to enchanting effect. Fyfe’s book charts her fascination with coastlines and their histories in Britain and North America. These are places where the human and natural realms have been intersecting for millennia.
  • The New Zealand Māori writer Patricia Grace’s 1986 novel, Potiki, which follows one Māori community’s struggle to retain their land when they are faced with ruthless property developers. Potiki is an eye-opening novel that gives voice to indigenous understandings of the spiritual links between the human world and the natural environment.

Block 3: Literature, Power, and Politics
This part of the module is all about how literature relates to power. The following three texts you’ll read each relate to the key question – can literature write back to power?

  • William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (1604) is a stark and memorable play about one woman’s confrontation with the corruption of state power in her home city.
  • Abdulrazak Gurnah’s 2017 novel, Gravel Heart, talks back to Shakespeare’s play in provocative ways. Moving from Tanzania to 1990s London, Gravel Heart depicts shifting power dynamics within families against the wider contexts of the African diaspora experience in Europe.
  • George Orwell’s Essays are fearless literary interventions in the politics that shaped their time, the 1930s and 1940s. Orwell deals with the problems of class and empire, but also with how power seeks to shape language itself.

Block 4: Literature, Escape, and the Imagination
This final block examines how and to what ends literature can reimagine reality. In doing so, it asks the question—how does literature open up new worlds and possibilities?

You’ll study:
  • Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), a fascinating account of a society living on a fantastical island, Utopia, which its author insists is real.  
  • Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), one of the most talked-about books of its time. A so-called ‘sensation novel’, it leads its readers on a breathtaking journey of suspense.
  • Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1911), a classic children’s novel that revolves around a hidden garden and a mysterious house.
  • Isabel Allende’s The Stories of Eva Luna (1989), a book of South American short stories that fuses reality with legend, captivating readers across the globe with its vivid characters and settings and its appropriation of South American magical-realist traditions.

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), or the discontinued modules The arts past and present (AA100) and Voices, texts and material culture (A105).

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

Preparatory work

The recommended modules before studying A240 are 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). All of these modules include an English Literature component and develop skills such as logical thinking, clear expression, essay writing and the ability to select and interpret relevant materials that you will need to progress to studying English Literature at OU level 2.

Before you commence the module, you will find it useful to read and participate in the English Subject Forums, which contain links to resources highly relevant to OU level 2 English study, including bridging materials between OU levels 1 and 2.

What's included

You will receive four printed module books, each with an introduction that unpacks key issues, and in-depth, illustrated chapters devoted to each set text. You’ll also have access to abundant online content produced especially for this module. The module website includes:

  • a week-by-week study planner
  • a learning journal
  • a glossary of critical terms used over the course of the module
  • online activities and resources accompanying each week of study
  • bespoke audio and video content commissioned especially for the module to support your study
  • an assessment guide
  • access to online tutorials and forums

You will also have access to the OU Library’s comprehensive range of ebooks, databases, and online resources to support your study.

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 Ventura 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

  • Thomas More Utopia Penguin £7.99 - ISBN 9780141442327 Penguin Classics; Illustrated edition (30 Aug. 2012)
  • Isabel Allende The Stories of Eva Luna Scribner UK £8.99 - ISBN 9781471165665
  • Abdulrazak Gurnah Gravel Heart Bloomsbury £9.99 - ISBN 9781408881309 Bloomsbury Publishing; 1st edition (17 May 2018)
  • Zadie Smith White Teeth Penguin £8.99 - ISBN 9780140276336 Penguin; 1st Paper Back - 6th Impression edition
  • Sylvia Plath Ariel: The Restored Edition Faber and Faber £10.99 - ISBN 9780571236091 Faber & Faber; Main edition (5 April 2007)
  • Colson Whitehead The Colossus Of New York Fleet £8.99 - ISBN 9780708898765 1st edition (1 Feb. 2018)
  • Samuel Coleridge, William Wordsworth Lyrical Ballads 1798 and 1802 Oxford World's Classics £8.99 - ISBN 9780199601967 Lyrical Ballads, 1798 and 1802 - Oxford World's Classics Fiona J. Stafford (editor of compilation), William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Paperback (11 Jul 2013)
  • Anne-Marie Fyfe No Far Shore: Charting Unknown Waters Seren Books £9.99 - ISBN 9781781725177
  • George Orwell Essays (Penguin Modern Classics) £14.99 - ISBN 9780141183060 Paperback – 29 Jun. 2000
  • Frances Hodgson Burnett The Secret Garden (Oxford World's Classics) Oxford University Press £7.99 - ISBN 9780199588220 OUP Oxford; New edition (10 Mar. 2011)
  • Patricia Grace Potiki (Penguin Modern Classics) £9.99 - ISBN 9780241413555 Penguin Classics (27 Feb. 2020)
  • William Shakespeare (Author): A.R. Braunmuller (Anthology Editor) , Robert N. Watson (Anthology Editor) (ed) Measure For Measure Bloomsbury £10.99 - ISBN 9781904271437 Published, 23 Jan 2020, 3rd edition
  • Mary Elizabeth Braddon Lady Audley’s Secret (Oxford World's Classics) Oxford University Press £9.99 - ISBN 9780199577033 OUP Oxford; New edition (12 Jan. 2012)
  • Oscar Wilde The Picture of Dorian Gray Oxford University Press £4.99 - ISBN 9780199535989 OUP Oxford; New edition (17 April 2008)

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

Throughout your module studies, you’ll get help and support from your assigned module tutor. They’ll help you by:

  • marking your assignments (TMAs) and providing detailed feedback for you to improve
  • providing individual guidance, whether that’s for general study skills or specific module content
  • facilitating online discussions between your fellow students, in the dedicated tutor group forums.


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

If you have a disability

The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying A240 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

Literature matters starts once a year – October. This page describes the module that will start in October 2024. We expect it to start for the last time in October 2035.

Course work includes:

4 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
End-of-module assessment