Course: The Mystery You’re Investigating May Be Your Own

HC 222H

Professor: Casey Shoop

This course explores a range of literary and cinematic works in which protagonists, narrators, and even readers/viewers find themselves caught up in plots beyond their understanding. If one traditional convention of the detective genre entails a central character who solves the mystery through the sheer power of his/her reason to order the clues into a coherent account of ‘whodunit,’ the texts in this course offer no such clear resolution nor any agent capable of standing outside of the mystery and verifying its final meaning. On the contrary, these characters and protagonists inhabit uncertain worlds, negotiate abstract systems of power, and experience unstable relationships to both their own identities and the larger realities around them. This is not a course on the detective genre per se—we will consider texts from 1600 to the present—but we will be interested in how certain works may be said to produce the mystery of their own interpretation. How and why do particular literary works create self-conscious ambiguity about their meaning? What is the value of our own uncertainty in reading such texts?

Does our act of reading/viewing reduplicate the experience of the protagonists at the center of these plots? Are we caught in the plot as well? If so, what is the meaning of our own capture in these elusive narratives?

Possible authors and titles may include William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Michel de Montaigne’s essays, Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Herman Melville’s “Bartleby” and Benito Cereno, Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories, Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories, Jorge Luis Borges’s shorts stories, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Franz Kafka’s The Trial, Joan Didion’s The White Album, Haruki Murakami’s Heart-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, the films of Michelangelo Antonioni and David Lynch, among other possibilities.