England.  Change location

Literature in transition: from 1800 to the present

Qualification dates
Start End

This module draws you into the main currents of literature from 1800 to the present day. You'll engage with some of the most stimulating literary works ever written and track the seismic historical transitions and transformations relevant to them – with an eye on our present and the future. Numerous major authors are offered for close critical study (Dickens, Tennyson, Woolf, T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Winterson, and others) alongside exciting but relatively neglected authors. Influential literary movements and critical interventions will be discussed while leaving ample space for your own ideas.

What you will study

The thrust of this module is captured in its title, “literature in transition”. This suggests that the relation between texts and contexts, and between different texts, cannot be thought of in fixed ways. You'll be encouraged to consider these relations as processes. In examining texts from 1800 to the present day closely, you are asked to consider whether literature generally should be understood in terms of continuous transitions. There are three parts to the module.

Part 1: Realities (six set texts)
This covers the period 1800-1870. Here you'll examine literary works which were produced within English-speaking contexts and reflected social realities of the time. The set texts here complicate notions of literary study which you have encountered at OU level 2. Some of these texts follow narrative strategies, which allow for multiple and contradictory readings. Some work deliberately across several conventional genres. Seemingly these texts were written to generate complex responses and question conventions. They appear to push the boundaries of interpretation and genres. All do this with an intense awareness of the social issues which they contemplate. This part, as a whole, therefore, encourages you to question conventional approaches to genre and interpretation. And you are asked to think about the relationship between literature and history.

The texts studied are: Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, Henry Thoreau’s Walden, poetry by Alfred Tennyson and Arthur Clough, and George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss

Part 2: Movements (six set texts)
Covering the period 1870-1940, this part develops the issues raised in Part 1 and takes you beyond them. Self-conscious artistic and intellectual movements played a significant part in the literature of this period. Different phases of modernist experimentation deliberately played with literary expression, form and effect. Ideas from other fields were actively brought to bear upon literature: from, for example, psychology, sociology, philosophy and science. This is also a period of very significant social and political transitions. Stronger ties and exchanges developed within Europe and across the Atlantic. The imperialist domination of Europe in the world was challenged by new anti-colonial nationalisms. Political ideologies – capitalism, socialism, fascism – were hotly debated. A series of global conflicts, particularly World War 1, changed the face of global arrangements. All this was reflected in the literature of the time, both as themes and through the stylistic experiments mentioned above. The chosen texts enable you to examine literature in relation to a more complex English-speaking world and the global situation at large.

The texts include: J.M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, Katherine Mansfield’s short stories, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, two parts from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts, and Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight

Part 3: Futures (seven set texts)
Examining texts from 1940 to the present, the picture of literature from Parts 1 and 2 is expanded further, leading towards features of the contemporary (our) world. You'll focus on several trajectories of transition here. The changing global context is traced from World War 2 to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and beyond. The increasingly close connections between countries across the world provide the backdrop: variously, in the postcolonial sphere, during the Cold War, through the European Union, through economic globalisation. Identity-based movements – along the lines of race, gender, sexuality, religion – challenged traditional social orders and continue to be passionately debated. These transitions have wrought a sea change in the current condition of literature and literary criticism. Also, technological developments in mass and new media have transformed literary production and reception. You'll engage with these exciting recent and contemporary developments through carefully chosen literary texts to obtain a sense of our world.

Literary works featured in this part are: Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, Tayib Saleh’s Season of Migration to the North, David Hare’s Stuff Happens, short stories from Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth, and a selection of electronic literary works.

Entry requirements

This is an OU level 3 module. OU level 3 modules build on study skills and subject knowledge acquired from previous studies at OU levels 1 and 2. They are intended only for students who have recent experience of higher education in a related subject, preferably at the OU. The module Telling stories: the novel and beyond (A233) would be ideal preparation, although it is not a formal requirement.

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

Preparatory work

You will find it helpful to read as many of the set books as you can before the module begins. 

What's included

Three module books, each covering one block of study, and access to a module website which includes:

  • a week-by-week study planner
  • module materials, including electronic versions of the printed study materials
  • online exercises
  • audio recordings
  • a module and assessment guide
  • online tutorials and forums.

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

  • Calvino, I. : McLaughlin, M., Parks, T. & Weaver, W. (trans.) The Complete Cosmicomics Penguin £9.99 - ISBN 9780141189680
  • Rhys, J. Good Morning, Midnight Penguin £8.99 - ISBN 9780141183930
  • Millington Synge, J.: Collins, C. (ed) The Playboy of the Western World Methuen £8.99 - ISBN 9781350155497
  • Salih, T. : Johnson-Davies, D. (trans.) Season of Migration to the North Penguin £9.99 - ISBN 9780141187204
  • Winterson, J. Oranges are not the Only Fruit Vintage £8.99 - ISBN 9780099598183
  • Mansfield, K. Selected Stories Oxford World's Classics £7.99 - ISBN 9780199537358
  • Woolf, V.: Kermode, F. (ed) Between the Acts Oxford World's Classics £6.99 - ISBN 9780199536573
  • Dickens, C.: Bradbury, N. (ed) Bleak House Penguin £9.99 - ISBN 9780141439723
  • Ford Madox Ford The Good Soldier Wordsworth Editions £2.50 - ISBN 9781840226539
  • Lahiri, J. Unaccustomed Earth Bloomsbury £9.99 - ISBN 9780747596592
  • Thomas, D. Under Milk Wood W&N/Phoenix £8.99 - ISBN 9781780227245
  • Thoreau, H.D.: Rossi, W. (ed) Walden, Civil Disobedience and Other Writings Norton £9.99 - ISBN 9780393930900
  • Hare, D. Stuff Happens Faber and Faber £9.99 - ISBN 9780571234066
  • Eliot, T.S. Four Quartets Faber and Faber £10.99 - ISBN 9780571068944
  • Mayhew, H. London Labour and the London Poor Wordsworth Editions £3.99 - ISBN 9781840226195
  • Eliot, G.: Haight, G.S. (ed) The Mill on the Floss Oxford World's Classics £8.99 - ISBN 9780198707530

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You'll have a tutor who will help you with the study materials and who will mark and comment on your written work. Tuition will be online and you will have the opportunity to attend online events with members of your tutor group, as well as larger events with students from other groups. Alongside these tutorials, there will also be a series of lectures delivered by members of the module team and/or expert guest lecturers.

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.

If you have a disability

The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying A335 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 in transition: from 1800 to the present starts once a year – in October. This page describes the module that will start in October 2024. We expect it to start for the last time in October 2027. 

Course work includes:

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

Student Reviews

See what other students thought.