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Storytelling as an Insight into Czech Literature

Class at Faculty of Arts |


Week 1: The first session will be devoted to finding out the participants’ experience with storytelling and narratology as a theoretical discipline. Additionally, it will discuss the variety of functions of storytelling based on a few short excerpts from Czech literature.

Week 2: The class will discuss the function of storytelling in “The Grandmother” by Božena Němcová. Based on the example, it will define the traditional/mythological role of telling stories in works of fiction.

Week 3: The class will discuss what narrative strategies make “The Grandmother” an idyll. The class will mainly be based around Gerard Genette’s description of focalization. The fact that the story is narrated from a child’s perspective will be identified as the reason behind the idyllic nature of the piece.

Week 4: Moving on to a short story from Jan Neruda’s “Prague Tales”, the class will lead the students to discover how the role of those elements that gave storytelling its ritual and uniting character (for example, a pipe) change and are questioned in Neruda’s work.

Week 5: Using Mikhail Bakhtin’s description of an idyllic space and time, the class will discuss how these elements of space and time are present in Neruda’s “Prague Tales”. Identifying the narrator as a first-person distanced narrator will lead the students to the source of Neruda’s famous irony.

Week 6: Using Seymour Chatman’s typology of dialogues, the class will discuss the difference between a dialogue and storytelling. In Kafka’s “Description of a Struggle”, the students will be shown how telling stories can be used to avoid any dialogue.

Week 7: Kafka’s piece will be further used to discuss features of a first-person narrator. Franz Stanzel’s distinction between the narrating and experiencing narrator will be used as the base for the discussion.

Week 8: Storytelling in Kafka’s short story was to show that two characters can never meet in dialogue because the dialogue becomes storytelling. Hašek’s “The Good Soldier Švejk” shows that storytelling can hide one’s identity and personality altogether: the character of Švejk consists of nothing but his stories. The students will be challenged to describe his character to come to the conclusion that he has none.

Week 9: Hašek’s narrator talks to the reader as if he was the author of the book. The class will discuss the relationship between the narrator and the author. The material the discussion will be based will not only be the comments of “the author” in Hašek’s book, but also everything that the course has covered so far. The necessity of the concept of the implicit author in literary theory will be clarified by the end of the class.

Week 10: Students will be guided to discover all the roles of storytelling that are found in Bohumil Hrabal’s “Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age”. Storytelling will be discussed as a form of reviving a memory and of confession. The narrator of Hrabal’s novella claims to be a good narrator. The students will discuss what makes a good narrator in Hrabal’s piece and what makes a good narrator in other pieces discussed in the course.

Week 11: Bohumil Hrabal’s “Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age” will be further used to trigger a discussion about the relationship between a story and reality. The ability of the text to conserve certain elements of reality that pass with time will be shown, and as a contrast, Lubomír Doležel’s “The Theory of Fictional Worlds” (which claims that a text has nothing to do with reality) will be introduced. Given the wide range of literary as well as theoretical pieces already discussed in the course, the conclusions of the discussion can be tested on the works that have been covered throughout the course.

Week 12: The class will discuss the ability of a story to manipulate, such as how the hero of Josef Škvorecký’s “The Swell Season” uses stories to change the world around him. The category of unreliable narrator has been defined in many ways. In the last class students will sum up the definitions in short presentations and discuss first whether the hero of “The Swell Season” is an unreliable narrator, and eventually whether it is a category that would be valid in the interpretation process.  

Primary Sources:

Jaroslav Hašek: The Good Soldier Švejk

Bohumil Hrabal: Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age

Franz Kafka: Description of a Struggle

Božena Němcová: The Grandmother

Jan Neruda: Prague Tales

Josef Škvorecký: The Swell Season  

Secondary Sources:

Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogic Imagination

Seymour Chatman: Story and Discourse

Lubomír Doležel: Possible Worlds of Fiction and History

Gerard Genette: Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method

Franz Stanzel: A Theory of Narrative

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This course has two aims. The main goal is to show the students the changing function of storytelling throughout

Czech literature of the 19th and 20th centuries. The second goal is to provide the students with a practical introduction into narratology, the area of literary theory that focuses on storytelling. After a thorough introduction in

Week 1, each pair of weeks moving forward will revolve around a canonic literary piece from a certain period of

Czech literature. The first lesson of the two will discuss the role of the art of telling stories within the specific piece

(usually a short story), while the second will use a theoretical text to offer the participants an insight into how the specific piece is written from the narrative point of view.