Spotlight: French Literature & Inhumanity

French Poster with children

Troubled dreams in perilous times: A French take on the dark side of the 20th century.

FREN 306 Literature and Inhumanity: Novel, Poetry, and Film in Interwar France

What precipitated the crisis in human values that defined and shaped the early 20th century? That’s the principal question that James Petterson and his students tackle in Literature and Inhumanity, through French literature, poetry, and film. Specifically, the course looks at the cultural and intellectual history of France in the context of war-related crises that affected humanity’s belief in progress.  

Students read an extensive variety of French literature. Class discussions are based on the poetry of Robert Desnos, Guillaume Apollinaire, Francis Ponge, and André Breton. Films by Man Ray and Luis Bunuel and prose works by Paul Valéry, Blaise Cendrars, André Malraux, Jean-Paul Sartre, Marguerite Duras, Robert Antelme, and Maurice Blanchot  round out the curriculum.

But what makes this course so compelling is Petterson’s approach of letting students’ individual intellectual interests guide the secondary readings. For example, a philosophy major will find readings by Sartre especially relatable, while a student focusing on science will appreciate looking more closely at early 20th-century technological advances.

In addition to its particular French-language focus, Petterson believes the scope of the class makes it a “crucial course for understanding 20th century culture in general.”

Margaret Carrey photo“Professor Petterson encourages his students to participate actively in discussion by creating an environment that both nurtures and challenges us.”

—Margaret Carrey ’14