ENG 334 Seminar: Servants in Literature and Film

Ambreen Hai, Th 1:00 PM-2:50 PM

 What would Romeo and Juliet have done without the Nurse? Or Jane Eyre without Bessie? Domestic servants have often been peripheral but necessary figures in British literature from Shakespeare’s plays to modern fiction. They can enable the action, serve as comic relief, tell the story (Wuthering HeightsThe Moonstone), marry their masters (Pamela), or be hoodwinked by them (Remains of the Day). And they tell us a lot about family and class structures, domestic arrangements, gender and sexuality, and power dynamics at each point in time.

By comparison, what roles do domestic servants play now in contemporary postcolonial and global or transnational literature? How do various authors in different societies with different cultural and political histories use the figure of the servant and to what purposes? In literatures emergent from newly formed democratic nations, or produced by writers who straddle several nations and cultures, what new questions about (in)equality, class, sex, family, or effects of modernity and globalization do representations of servants ask us to consider? What happens to servants, particularly women, when societies change, nations fall apart and violence threatens? To whom do they owe loyalty? What kind of intimacies, violence, or abuses may occur in the space of the home which is also for servants a place of paid work? Among the most invisible and vulnerable in society, servants are not slaves (they are nominally paid, and may change their employment) but they are in positions of servitude and subordination, with a lot less power than their employers. What happens when they (apparently) start telling their own stories, as in Aravind Adiga’s 2008 Booker Prize winning first novel, The White Tiger? How does servant storytelling change our assumptions about literature and who tells (whose) stories? How can a view from below, from the margins, change how and what we see? What problems arise when modern middle class writers make well-intentioned efforts to represent an underclass character’s subjectivity or experiences that they themselves may know little of? What blindnesses or prejudices do they reveal? Why (and how) do women writers more frequently pay attention to domestic servants and their relationships with their masters/ mistresses? What are we to make of a recent interest in modern servitude in current American bestselling fiction like Kathryn Stockett’s The Help and Mona Simpson’s My Hollywood, and the highly acclaimed popular TV series Downton Abbey?

            To explore such questions, this course will study a range of literature and film from Shakespeare to the present. We will start with some canonical British texts (Romeo and JulietPamelaThe Moonstone or Wuthering Heights) as well as the British television series Upstairs, Downstairs, and move to some stunning late 20th c and 21st c fiction and film from Africa, South Asia, Chile and the U.S., including Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People, Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger, and films like The MaidRemains of the Day and Gosford Park.

Pre-requisite: Permission of the instructor, based on prior coursework in English literature or CLT or SWG. Enrollment limited to 12.

Requirements: One 5-7 page paper by midterm, worth 20% of the grade; a final 12-15 page research paper (30%), two oral presentations (10% each), the remaining 30% will include class participation, attendance and six informal written responses to the reading. 

Please email Professor Hai (ahai@smith.edu) for an application form.