Which "questy" books should I teach undergrads?
July 1, 2010 11:52 AM   Subscribe

Looking for teachable, modern, western and nonwestern examples of "quest" narratives in literature?

I'm a new English professor and I've been asked to fill in teaching an introductory college literature course outside my usual area of expertise. I need to redesign the syllabus, and I'm looking for some advice on books to include that will be accessible to freshmen/sophomores, but aren't too lightweight.

The course is supposed to be on the so-called "quest myth" in world literature of the post-1700 era. This is not my usual approach to literature; I'm assuming whoever designed the theme had in mind something like Joseph Campbell's stuff, which I'm not a fan of.

My syllabus needs to be "international" and include at least a few nonwestern works. I'm rather ignorant of modern nonwestern literature so this is what's giving me the most trouble. I need examples of novels and/or short stories that could plausibly be called "quest" narratives ("about a hero's journey towards self-discovery and social redemption"). They don't have to be utterly canonical, but I guess I'd like for them to be not too obscure to people familiar with the literatures of their countries of origin. I'll take suggestions on western literature too, of course, if you have favorites. I hate Siddhartha, though.
posted by demonic winged headgear to Education (41 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
posted by hermitosis at 11:55 AM on July 1, 2010

HA! I read everything up until the last sentence. Guess I fail the course.
posted by hermitosis at 11:56 AM on July 1, 2010

Does Going After Cacciato by Tim O'Brien count by the theme designer's lights?
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 11:57 AM on July 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Cold Mountain (I've not read it, but isn't it based loosely on the Odyssey?), Catch-22, Gravity's Rainbow
posted by OmieWise at 11:58 AM on July 1, 2010

I hate Siddhartha, though.

And the more power to you!

How about some Rushdie? Midnight's Children and The Satanic Verses could both reasonably be seen as quest narratives.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:58 AM on July 1, 2010

Actually, my favorite (western) novel with a quest narrative is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. That is one great book. A more difficult but also excellent American novel with a quest narrative is Moby Dick.

I'd also suggest assigning a Northrop Frye essay on quest mythology.
posted by bearwife at 12:00 PM on July 1, 2010

Does a failed quest help? Think about Frankenstein.

Less fail-y: Ulysses.

Does it have to be fiction? You could probably use a chapter of Rhodes' The Making of the Atomic Bomb for this. Bonus: FUCKING TERRIFYING.

Utterly Western: Barbara Kingsolver's Animal Dreams

Finally, obligatory: Carrol's The Hunting of the Snark

Any of these are, of course, arguable. Sigh. I miss college.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 12:07 PM on July 1, 2010

Also, I think that's a pretty silly definition of quest, so I went with "somebody trying to achieve something."
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 12:08 PM on July 1, 2010

A kind of left-field suggestion for a non-traditional western book: The Amalgamation Polka?
posted by .kobayashi. at 12:09 PM on July 1, 2010

Vikram Chanra's Sacred Games is 900+ dense pages of quests, often interlocking and/or at odds with one another. It's quite the brick, but it covers a lot of ground. Mostly, it's about people trying to be happy in the chaotic world of modern Mumbai, but the different experiences of the characters lead them to define happiness in different ways, thus the struggle. And the quest.
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:13 PM on July 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Definitely western, but you could use Lord of the Rings, focusing on the character of Sam.
posted by chrisamiller at 12:18 PM on July 1, 2010

I think the stadard is the Iliad and the Odessey.
posted by WhiteWhale at 12:22 PM on July 1, 2010

Haruki Murakami, maybe? The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in particular could be interpreted as a quest narrative.
posted by aparrish at 12:26 PM on July 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Aparrish beat me to the only Murakami novel I could think of that fit this description.

The date restriction here is challenging. All my favorite modern(ish) international literature tends to be less quest-y and more ambiguous.
posted by deludingmyself at 12:34 PM on July 1, 2010

Can you assign "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" as a softball, perhaps at the start of the semester?

Also, Michael Chabon wrote "Kavalier and Clay" (which may fit), but have you read the more-picaresque "Gentlemen of the Road"? It's quest-y, and also not as much of a grind.
posted by wenestvedt at 12:35 PM on July 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm assuming whoever designed the theme had in mind something like Joseph Campbell's stuff, which I'm not a fan of.

Can you elaborate? Do you mean you are not a fan of the way JC defines the hero's journey? You want quest lit that doesn't follow the denial-acceptance-transformation-return path?
posted by phearlez at 12:39 PM on July 1, 2010

The Road by Cormac McCarthy and Fight Club by Chuch Palahniuk

You could compare and contrast to the films with both.
posted by Elle Vator at 12:44 PM on July 1, 2010

Response by poster: Failed quests are just fine, as long as they are recognizable as questlike. (I also think the given definition of quest above is a little silly.)

I should probably say that shorter works might be better; I'd love to teach Moby Dick or Vikram Seth or something big, but those might be inaccessible for students who are likely to be inexperienced readers. Also, in a survey class which aims at great breadth of coverage, doing one or two really long books means spending less time for exploring other areas.

My problem with Campbell is just with some of the assumptions of his theory; I might actually give a selection from him in order to have students compare our readings to his theory and see how it works and doesn't work. His description of what a hero quest basically *is* is more or less OK. (A side note: I more or less agree with Cosma Shalizi about the value of Campbell.)
posted by demonic winged headgear at 1:05 PM on July 1, 2010

There's The Red and the Black, but it may be a bit long.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 1:10 PM on July 1, 2010

- The Alchemist.
- Lolita.
- Some short stories by Borges, e.g., The Library of Babel.
posted by milarepa at 1:13 PM on July 1, 2010

I'm not sure how you feel about plays, but in Soyinka's The Road, the Professor character is on a quest to find The Word.

V.S. Naipaul's A House for Mr. Biswas involves the quest to, well, own a house.

The Hakawati (which I confess I haven't read) seems to start with a quest, although reviews tell me that if I were to try to greatly reduce the book to a single theme, the theme would be storytelling, rather than a quest per se.

As an aside, Words Without Borders does some great stuff with translating and reviewing contemporary fiction, mostly fiction originally written in languages other than English.
posted by lillygog at 1:21 PM on July 1, 2010

This online syllabus recommends Basho's Narrow Road to the Deep North and Johnson's Middle Passage.
posted by lillygog at 1:28 PM on July 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

A number of classic fairy tales are quest themed, like "East of the Sun and West of the Moon", as just one example. You could include a few like this in your readings, if you want to stretch things. Both Alice in Wonderland and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz are very much a form of quest literature, though may be too far afield for your purposes?
posted by gudrun at 1:36 PM on July 1, 2010

(One more!)

From this syllabus, Discoveries: 50 Stories of the Quest might be a little heavy on Campbell, but also be a nice short-story anthology, including some multicultural/global focus.

You may have already done this, but there are lots of syllabi out there that might be helpful to you; I just searched Google for world literature syllabus or quest literature syllabus etc.
posted by lillygog at 1:37 PM on July 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

That Cosma Shalizi critique of Joseph Campbell was an interesting read; thanks for linking to it. The early parts of it remind me of my favorite passage from Middlemarch, which I want to share now because, heck, I may never have a better opportunity:
But Mr Casaubon's theory of the elements which made the seed of all tradition was not likely to bruise itself unawares against discoveries: it floated among flexible conjectures no more solid than those etymologies which seemed strong because of likeness in sound, until it was shown that likeness in sound made them impossible: it was a method of interpretation which was not tested by the necessity of forming anything which had sharper collisions than an elaborate notion of Gog and Magog: it was as free from interruption as a plan for threading the stars together.
"...as free from interruption as a plan for threading the stars together." Man, I love that.
posted by .kobayashi. at 1:41 PM on July 1, 2010

I'd classify Cry, the Beloved Country in the "quest" category. It's a South African novel, basically about a priest's quest for his son, although the amazon page describes it better. It does have a lot of racial, apartheid type themes in it, which could be a pro or a con depending on whether you wanna go there in the classroom. It's about 300 pages.
posted by hoperaiseshell at 2:05 PM on July 1, 2010

These are Western lit and kinda long, but would Middlesex by Eugenides and the Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow be quest-y enough?
posted by thewrongparty at 2:13 PM on July 1, 2010

Speaking of stories from South Africa that also seem to fit into this kind of "quest" category, I'd recommend as well The Power of One.

Another option that might work well for freshman and sophomores, though it ends on a very downbeat note, is A Separate Peace.
posted by bearwife at 2:13 PM on July 1, 2010

Going After Cacciato is an excellent
suggestion -- it blew me away when I read it as a college freshman, and served as a great entry point to the larger world of literature. And what about The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon?
posted by newmoistness at 2:59 PM on July 1, 2010

It's huge, but I think Stephen King's The Stand has many quest elements with pretty much most of the main characters each having one.

M-o-o-n, that spells quest.
posted by NoraCharles at 3:14 PM on July 1, 2010

Nikos Kazantzakis's Oddysey: A Modern Sequel might be interesting if you want something with an obvious connection to older quest myths.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 3:38 PM on July 1, 2010

Horse in The Fan Man is definitely on a quest, though it's an unconventional one.
posted by bgrebs at 3:41 PM on July 1, 2010

I have to say, my advice would be, given your apparent antipathy to the topic, to recuse yourself from the course. I feel you'll be doing your students a disservice by providing a sub par level of teaching on a topic they presumably have interest in.
posted by dnash at 5:13 PM on July 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Obvious ones that haven't been mentioned yet:
The Divine Comedy
Don Quixote

Maybe somewhat less obvious:
Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Pretty much everything by Hermann Hesse (I hate Siddhartha too but in my opinion the others are somewhat better)
On the Road by Jack Kerouac?
The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen (many others in that travel-as-metaphor genre too)
posted by k. at 5:20 PM on July 1, 2010

Another semi-softball: Q&A by Vikas Swarup, the novel that became Slumdog Millionaire.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 5:52 PM on July 1, 2010

Sorry I ignored the post-1700 part. Candide would work, though. I still can't think of any non-western examples.
posted by k. at 5:52 PM on July 1, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for all the suggestions so far, people. Especially lillygog; the anthology of quest stories looks freaking awesome and I'm interlibrary-loaning that sucker right now. I've really been interested in doing a short-story based course and that will let me combine the two! The Road, Huck Finn, Crying of Lot 49, and Cacciato are also really intriguing suggestions. I guess I'm still wondering if people know who the really great (say) modern Chinese, Korean, Indian, Japanese, African, Middle Eastern, etc authors are that I don't know about because I've been so eurocentric up to now. I've heard that relatively little of those national literatures gets translated into English, so maybe there is not much available. Or maybe the quest theme is not as popular there.

I have to say, my advice would be, given your apparent antipathy to the topic, to recuse yourself from the course. I feel you'll be doing your students a disservice by providing a sub par level of teaching on a topic they presumably have interest in.

I didn't mean to come off as antipathetic to the topic; I actually think it's quite interesting. I just didn't feel comfortable with the approach the previous prof seems to have taken to it. Your comment did a great job of playing on my insecurities as a teacher, though. I'm always secretly in terror that my students are having no fun. I've never taught a class in which a few students didn't tell me, of their own free will, that they really enjoyed it; but by the same token there are always a couple who obviously don't like it. You may even be right that I'm a "sub par" teacher at this early stage of my career, but I really want to improve my skills, and perhaps teaching outside my comfort zone is one way to do that. If you have ideas on how I can make the course more fun, I'm all ears. Your advice to give up before starting might rob future students of my possibly-improved skills down the road, though!
posted by demonic winged headgear at 6:43 PM on July 1, 2010

If you want something African, here are my suggestions, though they're both autobiographical.

A Long Way Gone
(Ishmael Beah) - Beah was a child soldier in Sierra Leone and wrote this book after being adopted by an American woman. It is harrowing, but it describes his journey from fairly sheltered kid to child soldier to traumatized ex-child soldier to functioning member of society. This was assigned reading in my Intro to African Studies class, incidentally, and was something that was a quick read but full of substance.

What is the What (Dave Eggers, but based on extensive interviews with Valentino Achak Deng) - I haven't read this in a while, but it follows a similar trajectory as A Long Way Gone in that it's a story about a young man escaping war and turmoil. Valentino's one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, a Dinka who fled from Sudan into Ethiopia. The book details his life from before the SPLA (I think? It's been a while) attacked and killed his family to his resettlement to the US. Really well written! I read this in a class as well - if you want any supplementary information about the context of either of these books, let me know and I'll pass those on.

Both of these books are accessible, and tell functionally similar stories. I though A Long Way Gone was better, but Dave Eggers is a Serious Writer :-P so that may pull more weight curriculum-wise.

I'd also put in a good word for Everything is Illuminated by Jonathon Safran Foer (quest to find the woman who saved his grandfather during the Holocaust, plus wonderful use of language and some sex). I'm trying really hard to think of a book with a female character or two, as well. Warriors Don't Cry by Melba Patillo Beals might work - it tells the story of one of the Little Rock Nine who integrated Central High School, though it's another autobiography. I haven't read it yet, but Chimamanda Adichie (who gave my favorite TED talk) just published a book of short stories which may have something to offer for you. She's a contemporary Nigerian author.
posted by ChuraChura at 8:23 PM on July 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

This is kind of way out on a limb, and I'm not sure I'd actually use it with students, but just throwing it out there: Pynchon's Mason & Dixon is about a quest, and what makes it great it that it is all about how two people come to care about each other organically through having a shared goal they achieve together. But the style might throw everybody off.
posted by ifjuly at 8:58 AM on July 2, 2010

If you're going the short story route, I want to put in a plug for Tim O'Brien's "How To Tell A True War Story." The quest, such as it is, is all about identifying/conveying truth. One of the best discussions we ever had in my senior HS lit seminar.
posted by deludingmyself at 6:32 AM on July 3, 2010

As an alternative to Everything is Illuminated, I would suggest Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (also by Jonathan Safran Foer). Both novels are excellent and have a wholly unique perspective - at once comedic and thought-provoking. With ELaIC, the pace is slightly faster, and you might avoid the problem of students watching the movie instead.

Also, it might be helpful to look into using a couple of stories from an anthology like Discoveries: Fifty Stories of the Quest.
posted by genekelly'srollerskates at 7:51 AM on July 8, 2010

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