English - Free topic C: LITERATURE AND THE BRAIN ‘Narrative, Reader Response and the Brain’ and ‘(Ad)dressing the Wound: Trauma and Literature’

Course content

This module consists of two thematically related courses in as far as they are both, each in their own way, concerned with literature and neuroscience. Students are encouraged to begin their reading of the literary texts to be studied before semester start. Final reading lists will be available in August 2021.

Narrative, Reader Response and the Brain (IBS)

What happens when we read? Why do we feel real emotions at things we know are fictional? How can mere signs on the page or images on celluloid strips move us to tears? How can our bodies remain comfortably reclined in the velvet armchair at the cinema while in our minds we’re silently screaming at the protagonist not to enter the dark forest where the maniacal serial killer is waiting for her?  

When reading or watching a film, our brains are functioning differently from the way they function in ordinary life because we are not going to act on the work of art (Holland, Literature and the Brain, 2009).

In this course we will look at von Mossner’s work on ‘embodied simulation’ (2018) as a means of ‘transportation’ of the reader from reality into fiction, and drawing on reception theory and neuroscientific perspectives on the phenomenon of reading, we will study verbal narratives for instance by such writers as Cormac McCarthy, Nicole Krauss, Toni Morrison and others and look at their visual adaptations for comparison and contrast.


‘(Ad)dressing the Wound: Trauma and Literature’ (ERK)

In this course, we will discuss a selection of contemporary novels that re-explores histories of hurt and pain from approaches offered by trauma studies. As is well-known from trauma theory, trauma is an ‘unclaimed experience’ (cf. Cathy Caruth, 1996) and traumatic memory cannot readily be translated into narrative memory. The voicing, or representation, of trauma is always in conflict with the simultaneous urge in the traumatised individual to forget and remember. The ‘telling’ of traumatic experience annihilates order and continuity in representation and destabilises referential meaning as the traumatic impact has blocked full access to language. As a psychoanalytical approach to literary studies, trauma theory adds nuance to our understanding of the disruptive format of trauma narratives just as it informs our literary analysis with new modes of reading and ‘listening.’ We will look at how contemporary novels engage with and process traumatic experiences in the attempt to ‘represent the un-representable’ through an experimentation with genre, voice, and narrative technique.



Preliminary reading list: Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987); Michael Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost (2000), Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer (2015) and, depending on availability, either Taiye Selasi, Ghana Must Go (2013) or Lidia Yuknavitch, The Small Backs of Children (2015). A short compendium of theoretical and critical texts by Cathy Caruth, Bessel van der Kolk, Ruth Leys and others as well as selected pages from J. Roager Kurtza (ed), Trauma and Literature (2018) and Colin Davis and Hanna Meretoja (eds), Routledge Companion to Literature and Trauma (2020) will be made available at beginning of course.

This course only leads to exams Free Topic 1, Free Topic 2 and Free Topic 3.

Continuous feedback during the course of the semester
Peer feedback (Students give each other feedback)
Type of assessment
Portfolio, A joint portfolio uploaded in digital exam: Deadline January 5th 2022
A power point presentation (5-8 slides) at a student conference based on a synopsis and bibliography (3-5 pages) in the course Narrative, Reader Response and the Brain Slides, synopsis and presentation count as ½ of the final grade (November 25th).
Final essay (11-15 pages) on set question(s) in the course (Ad)dressing the Wound: Trauma and Literature counts as ½ of the final grade (December 17th).
Criteria for exam assessment

Single subject courses (day)

  • Category
  • Hours
  • Class Instruction
  • 56
  • Preparation
  • 353,5
  • English
  • 409,5


Course number
Programme level
Full Degree Master
Full Degree Master choice

1 semester

See schedule
Study board of English, Germanic and Romance Studies
Contracting department
  • Department of English, Germanic and Romance Studies
Contracting faculty
  • Faculty of Humanities
Course Coordinators
  • Inge Birgitte Siegumfeldt   (6-857b7779877f527a877f407d8740767d)
  • Eva Rask Knudsen   (5-768372847c5179867e3f7c863f757c)
Saved on the 23-03-2021

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