ENGL 3060-100 Modern/Contemporary Literature for Nonmajors: Betrayal

Instructor: Paul Levitt

In the political world, betrayal became so commonplace after World War I that people regarded it as their patriotic duty to spy on others and even expose members of their own family.  But why did betrayal occur, and why was no one free from the taint of it? In the Soviet Union, for example, the number of betrayers (denouncers) was astronomical, far outstripping, for example, Nazi Germany, where an estimated one per ten thousand “squealed,” as compared to one per five hundred in the Soviet Union.

For the sake of accuracy, I should distinguish between public and private betrayal. The first can be divided into two parts: denouncing and informing. Denouncing usually happens spontaneously and almost always takes a written form: letters written by citizens on their own initiative and in a private capacity. Informing, which is often habitual, excludes reports written by regular police informers.  It also excludes officials writing in the line of duty and denunciatory statements solicited from citizens and prisoners in the course of interrogation. Denouncing can be voluntary or involuntary, forced or unforced. During police interrogations, a person, if subjected to torture, is likely to denounce another. We tend to forgive forced denunciations, but are unforgiving about voluntary informing, such as took place before the U.S. House Committee on Un-American activities.

Private betrayal casts a large net. It can include the loss of love or loyalty, ingratitude, blindness to human needs, self-deception, self-aggrandizement, moral cowardice, and myriad family failures. I intend to explore this theme through poetry (to be announced and distributed), short stories (“The Lady with the Dog,” “Guests of the Nation,” “The Late Colonel’s Daughters,” and “Araby), plays (From Morn to Midnight and The Journey of the Fifth Horse), and novels (The Great Gatsby and The Denouncer, published July 2014).

The writing assignments will involve short papers of analysis and argument, a take-home midterm, and a take-home final.