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Martin Kevorkian, Chair CAL 226, Mailcode B5000, Austin, TX 78712 • 512-471-4991

Fall 2005

E 392M • The Only Child: Literary Representations

Unique Days Time Location Instructor
33710 TTh
9:30 AM-11:00 AM
PAR 206

Course Description

Until recently, having or being an "only child" was perceived as a misfortune. The phrase itself suggests inadequacy: the glass half empty rather than half full. Mothers of one are supposedly over-invested in their offspring, who will be spoiled, arrogant, and selfish; moreover these children will be lonely in childhood and burdened in middle age by the sole responsibility for elderly parents. Although sociological research in both America and China has established that only children are no more lonely or selfish than their peers, and that their self esteem and educational attainments are slightly higher, popular wisdom still endorses the 1928 diagnosis of child psychologist G. Stanley Hall: "Being an only child is a disease in itself."

Yet the single child family is currently the fastest-growing demographic group in the developed world. Within the last twenty years, precipitous declines in fertility have begun to reverse what was once seen as an inevitable upward trend. World population is now expected to stabilize around mid-century, and there will soon be more old people than young ones on the planet: a situation new in human history. The main impetus behind this enormous change is the entry of women into the workforce. Commentators on the status of women, work and family emphasize the struggle entailed in balancing jobs and children; but it appears that the majority of women still intend to have two offspring. Working women, however, marry later and delay pregnancy: factors such as divorce and secondary infertility frequently intervene to frustrate their plans. The only child, whether the result of a joyful positive choice, an eleventh-hour concession to the biological clock, or the failure to produce a sibling, may represent a middle way between the desire for motherhood and the desire or need for paid employment.

To appreciate the magnitude of this social change we have to remember that before the era of antibiotics and reliable contraception, sexually active married women used to be serially pregnant; and their numerous children provided an insurance against high infant mortality, a security for old age, a labor pool for poor families, or a guaranteed heir for aristocratic dynasties. Starting with the Renaissance, we will analyze the changing literary representations of only children in England and North America. Our examples will be selected from influential popular sources, including legends and folktales, the Bible, Shakespeare, the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, and Henry James. We will also examine contemporary novels, films, and excerpts from popular parenting manuals, the "conduct books" of our time. We will be concerned with the history of women in the family, the perpetuation or revision of cultural stereotypes, and the considerable aesthetic advantages of the single child: pathos, economy, and intensity. Because of the artistic power of what is unique, there may have been more only children in literature than there were in life. Throughout the course, therefore, we will balance the insights of history, demography and sociology against the imperatives of aesthetic form.


Selections from the Bible

"Rapunzel"; "Sleeping Beauty"; "Snow White" and other myths and folktales

Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado about Nothing, Hamlet, Coriolanus, The Tempest

Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights

Charlotte Bronte: Jane Eyre

Anne Bronte: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Henry James: Washington Square, What Maisie Knew

J.M. Coetzee: Disgrace

In the Bedroom, Dir Todd Field

Course packet containing essays by feminists, social historians, demographers, and parenting "experts."


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