Spring 2025

Discovering the Self in English Literature, 1650-1850

Listed in: English, as ENGL-419


Amelia Worsley (Section 01)


[Before 1800] Although many people believe that they know themselves better than anyone else does, it is difficult to say exactly what a “self” is. Some people believe true selves only emerge in public or in relationships, while others believe that the true self is one we tend to keep private (or “to ourselves”). To try to define selfhood is to encounter a series of paradoxes. Even if we tend to praise those who are “self-aware,” for instance, it’s paradoxically not so good to be “self-conscious,” or too “sure-of-oneself.” How does the idea that we become different selves in different roles square with the theory of the self? In this class, we will think about this question historically, and read various theories of how selfhood emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and what literature had to do with this. A central theme will be the question of how autobiographical and faux-autobiographical literature works as a tool of self-discovery. We will consider how race, class, and gender affected the formation of selves in this period. We will also consider the question of how far the self is defined by the advent of other concepts that became central to the production of literature in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, such as character, privacy, identity, inwardness, and interiority. For instance, we will think about how changes to the architecture of both domestic space and city life led, in turn, to new ways of writing, and new spaces for inner life to flourish. Primary texts students will encounter in this class include (for example) the poetry of John Donne and John Milton, the diary of Samuel Pepys, the letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and Mary Prince’s account of what it was like to be enslaved in the eighteenth century. No prior knowledge of early texts will be assumed.

Limited to 20 students. Spring semester. Professor Worsley.

How to handle overenrollment: If over-enrolled, preference goes to English Majors.

Students who enroll in this course will likely encounter and be expected to engage in the following intellectual skills, modes of learning, and assessment: Assignments will require some experience of writing essays in English.

Course Materials


Other years: Offered in Spring 2023