Oscar Wilde and the French Decadents

Instructor: Dr. Petra Dierkes-Thrun

COMPLIT 112, 312; FRENCH 112, 312


Winter 2013-14, Stanford University

Contact:  , office phone 650-725-8646 (but email is best way to reach me)

Course description

This course offers a close reading of Oscar Wilde’s work together with major texts and authors of 19th-century French-speaking Decadence, including Symbolism, l’art pour l’art, and early Modernism. We will investigate points of contact between Wilde and avant-garde Paris salons; provocative creative intersections between (homo)eroticism and gender transgression and aesthetic styles (exemplified by the male dandy and the female cross-dresser, for example).  We will compare literary and cultural developments from Baudelaire to Mallarmé, Huysmans, Flaubert, Maeterlinck, and Rachilde, with works such as Wilde’s Salomé, The Picture of Dorian Gray, selected poems, short fiction (“The Canterville Ghost,” “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.”), and important critical writings by Wilde, and place our readings in relevant historical and philosophical contexts.  Some recurring topics in our conversations will include the relationships between symbolism, decadence, aestheticism, and modernism; cosmopolitanism; decadence, gender, and sexuality; decadence and religion; critical positions regarding literary influence studies and adaptation; various critical approaches within Oscar Wilde studies itself; and understandings of Oscar Wilde and the fin-de-siècle period in general in light of contemporary feminist and queer theory.

In addition to your in-class performance and regular writings for the course, you will collectively work on our common online project throughout the quarter: a public class blog dedicated to “Oscar Wilde and the French Decadents.” We will actively solicit public comments and questions via social media and academic listservs and engage directly with our public readership at various points in the course. The purpose is to bridge the gap between what we do in a closed classroom and the way our knowledge and learning interact with the world, and to bring together analog literature and digital methods.  Please take a look at our course blog as soon as possible, play around a bit, and familiarize yourself with it. It will grow with us as we grow.

A few times this quarter, we will also use Twitter to interact with the larger public and each other, and you’ll need to sign up for a Twitter account (you can do this under an assumed name to keep your anynomity intact). My Twitter handle is @petradt, and the hash tag we will be using for our class is #digwilde. You do not have to be an expert in digital tools to take this class, by any means; the whole point is to keep the tech side very simple and supportive of the literary and cultural contents in this seminar, not the other way around.  This is a course about Oscar Wilde and the French Decadents, first and foremost, and they will be our focus at all times.

All course readings and writings will be in English (although French students are welcome and encouraged to read our texts in the original wherever possible). All student levels are welcome.  I very much look forward to working with you this quarter!

Text books

Oscar Wilde, The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (Collins Classics). Introd. by Merlin Holland.  HarperCollins, 2003. ISBN-10: 0007144369, ISBN-13: 978-0007144365.  (Tip: You can buy the Paperback or the electronic edition for this course.  If you buy an electronic edition of Wilde’s works (Kindle or other tablet platform), please make sure it’s this one, as they all differ substantially in the texts they include.)

Charles Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil; Les Fleurs du Mal [English trans. facing French original]. Introd. by Jonathan Culler, trans. by James N. McGowan. Oxford University Press, USA (Oxford World’s Classics), 2008. ISBN-10: 0199535582, ISBN-13: 978-0199535583.

Rachilde, Monsieur Venus. Modern Language Association of America, 2004.  ISBN-10: 0873529308, ISBN-13: 978-0873529303.

Joris-Karl Huysmans, Against Nature [À rebours]. Ed. by Nicholas White, trans. by Margaret Mauldon. Oxford University Press, USA (Oxford World’s Classics), reissue ed., 2009. ISBN-10: 0199555117, ISBN-13: 978-0199555116.

Gustave Flaubert, The Temptation of Saint Anthony.  Introd. by Michel Foucault, trans. by Lafcadio Hearn. Modern Library, 2002.            ISBN-10: 0375759123, ISBN-13: 978-0375759123.

In addition to these main books for the course, there are a few pdfs you’ll need to download from (as marked in the Course Schedule below). Any necessary changes or additions to our schedule will be announced by email as well as updated on the “Syllabus” tab on our course blog.

Students with Documented Disabilities: Students who may need an academic accommodation based on the impact of a disability must initiate the request with the Office of Accessible Education (OAE). Professional staff will evaluate the request with required documentation, recommend reasonable accommodations, and prepare an Accommodation Letter for faculty dated in the current quarter in which the request is made. Students should contact the OAE as soon as possible since timely notice is needed to coordinate accommodations. The OAE is located at 563 Salvatierra Walk (phone: 723-1066, URL:


Grading and Assignments


This course is available for 3, 4, or 5 credits.  Detailed descriptions of the various requirements follow on the next pages.

Requirements for 5 credits:

  • Attendance and active participation in class, online                                    10%
  • Final research paper (8-12pp. for undergrads, 15-20pp. for grads)                        50%

OR final online project for the course

  • 2 blog posts, 500 words or more each, 10% each                                                20%
  • Online presentation project for one specific text of your choice from
  • our syllabus (ca. 1,000 words for undergrads, ca. 1,500 words for grads)            20%

Sign up for presentation dates in the first week of class (you can send me email with preferred dates/topics or sign up on the sheet I’ll be circulating in class).


Requirements for 4 credits:

  • Attendance and active participation in class, online                                    10%
  • Final research paper (8-12pp. for undergrads, 15-20pp. for grads)                        60%

OR equivalent final online project for the course


  • 2 blog posts, 500 words or more each, 15% each                                                30%


  • Online presentation project for one specific text of your choice from
  • our syllabus (ca. 1,000 words for undergrads, ca. 1,500 words for grads)            30%



Requirements for 3 credits:

  • Attendance and active participation in class, online                                    20%


  • Final research paper (8-12pp. for undergrads, 15-20pp. for grads)                        80%
  • or equivalent final online project for the course


A series of blog posts, no more than one in any specific week,

500 words or more each; at least two of these must include some research (scholarly articles/books about your topic), list in bibliography at end of post

  • 7 total (graduate students)
  • 5 total (undergraduates)                                                                        80%


Detailed Description of Requirements


Attendance and active class participation:

I expect you to attend all classes and to be prepared by having read the assigned materials ahead of time, and done any occasionally assigned, required homework/exercises. Two absences per quarter are allowed, but more than two absences will adversely affect your grade. If you miss more than four classes overall, I strongly suggest you withdraw from the course. More than five absences overall will result in automatic failure (F) for the course. Please discuss any special circumstances with me.  Your participation grade in class is a composite of your in-class and your online discussion and comment activity; please participate as actively as you can on both fronts.  Let’s have lively and interesting discussions in and outside of class this quarter!

Online presentation project (ca. 1,000 words or more for undergrads, ca. 1,500 words or more for graduate students):

The online presentation project is a substantial, researched blog post on a text of your choice that basically provides all the information you would give us in an oral presentation, and that ALSO provides links, images, video, or other media in connection with your chosen text that enrich and enhance our understanding and appreciation of that text. Your online presentation needs to be posted at least 24 hours before our first discussion of that specific text in class, so that all students and I have a chance to look at and read it in advance and can jump into discussion well-prepared. For instance, if your presentation project is about Rachilde’s Monsieur Vénus (on the syllabus for Wed. 1/22 and Mon. 1/27), your presentation needs to be ready and posted on our class blog before 11am on Tues., 1/21.

SPECIFIC INSTRUCTIONS: For your presentation, pick a text of your choice from the syllabus. Your presentation should consist of two major parts (1 and 2 below), which should take up about 50% each, plus a brief bibliography at the end. Make sure you have enough time to prepare your presentation, as it involves some library research! I will be more than happy to consult with you individually ahead of time about your plans for the presentation. It would be a very good idea to run your online presentation by me at least two days ahead of “your” class session for feedback and further tips or questions to think about.  I’m here to help, but please don’t do this last minute—prepare ahead of time so there is time to make any adjustments if needed.

1. Introduction to the text: Introduce the main text of the day with remarks on the text’s general circumstances such as its position in the author’s work, any cultural, social, political etc. contexts, relevant background or history of the text itself, and any biographical information on the author (only as necessary to introduce the text). Remember that you can use links, images, video, etc., to make this introduction meaningful and interesting. You should consult relevant print sources (books, journals) as well as giving us online links: good research means a trip to the library as well as looking for online materials to enrich your blog post. Consult me for tips if needed, and don’t forget the good people at the Reference Desk in Green Library, who are excellent sources of information on how to find the best sources for your text/topic.

2. Discussion questions and textual observations about your chosen text to help us explore the text in class: Come up with five interesting, concrete observations and questions about the text to jumpstart class discussion.  These observations/questions should cover both close reading aspects (e.g. a specific theme, character, symbolism, stylistic observation, etc.), and some relevant context for this text within the larger course.  For the context remarks/questions, you could for example ask us to compare the text to other texts or themes we’ve already discussed (how does this text possibly relate to some of them, how does it echo or oppose them?), or speculate on how a certain political, social, or cultural circumstance might enter or influence our interpretation of the text.

  1. 3.     Don’t forget to include a brief bibliography at the end of your online presentation (MLA style). All citations, from print or other sources, should be documented here (including your online links).

Finally, prepare to actively help lead discussion in class on the day you’ve signed up for.  That means taking an especially active part in class discussion that day, asking provocative questions or bringing different strands of the conversation together, summarizing, jumping in whenever needed to advance our class discussion and keep us productive. I’ll expect you to act as an “assistant teacher” on your presentation day; but don’t worry, we’ll do this together!

Final research paper (8-10 pp. for undergraduate students, 15-20pp. for graduate students) or equivalent final digital research and writing project:


Please consult with me individually about possible topics for your final paper or final online research project for the class; the earlier, the better, but please make an appointment for office hour with me no later than Week 7. By Week 8 of the quarter you should have a good idea what you’ll be writing on.  Some actual library research will be required for this paper as well as for any online projects (using the MLA International Bibliography and as initial databases for your library research). Contact me early if you need some guidance about databases (online and at Green Library). But the main object of your final paper/project is for you to pursue a certain text, author, relationship, issue, or question from the course that has interested you in more depth, and with the assistance of research.

Final paper/project workshop: during our last class week, you are also required to hand in 1-2 pp. outline of your paper/project with the main questions, theses, and research items (working bibliography) for your paper/project. We will discuss strategies and main theses for each paper, and share research items/tips. Please bring two hard copies of your outline to class.

Blog posts (500 words or more each, must be posted in advance of class discussion):


These types of writings are open in topic so that you can choose something that truly interests you, and they can best be compared to an online “reading journal” in which you talk about the texts you’re reading that week, posted in advance of class discussion (i.e. your reading journal must be posted before the class in which we will discuss that text, so please plan ahead). Blog posts can be rather informal in tone and normally require no special research (except for 2 blog posts written by anyone signed up for 3 credits only), but they should reflect genuine critical thinking and effort. Each entry/post should be about 500 words long (the equivalent of 2 double-spaced pages; longer if you like) and carefully proofread. How many posts you have to write this quarter, if any, depends—check under “Grading and Assignments” above).

You should post these blog posts directly to our website, but if you’re having technical trouble, you may send them to me on email). Please include the word count and sign each blog post with your initials or your chosen screen name for the course (no real names on our website, please!).


Guidelines for formal written work (applies to final papers and other writings submitted in Word or. pdf format, etc.):


All formal written work (papers) must be typed, 12 pt font, Times New Roman or similar font such as Cambria (no Courier), double-spaced, and have a margin of 1 inch on all sides for my comments.  If you give it to me as a hard copy, it must also be carefully proofread and stapled.  Please include page numbers and the correct word count.  You may print your paper out and hand the hard copy in, or you may send it to me on email by the deadline indicated.  Please include a formal header (your name, class, quarter, assignment name (such as “Presentation handout,” “Final paper,” etc.). Papers, posts, and reading assignments are due on the date and by the time indicated in the syllabus; lateness will inevitably impact your grade.  Feel free to talk to me about any special circumstances.

Written work will be judged both on contents (intellectual level and depth of thinking, creativity, correctness of facts, quotations and argumentative use of text/s cited) and form (level of style, diction, syntax, grammar, spelling, etc.).  Generally speaking, the content is certainly more important than any possible language-related errors in what you write and submit to me.  But since writing, thinking, and communicating your thoughts to your reader are intrinsically related activities, the overall quality of your paper or online post will inevitably suffer if it is poorly argued, presented, or proofread.  Please make sure you present your learning and ideas in the best form possible, and leave plenty of time for proofreading before you hand in your work to me.  Any out-of-class written assignment that looks careless or doesn’t follow the formal requirements may be returned to you ungraded and marked late for each day it takes you to revise it and turn it in again. Always keep a copy of our computer work on your hard drive or portable memory stick—it is your responsibility to ensure your work reaches me on time.


Honor Code:

You are responsible for adhering to Stanford University’s honor code.  I do not tolerate any form of plagiarism, and depending on the severity of the plagiarism you may be asked to drop the class.  Please familiarize yourself with the code at, and ask me if you have any questions whatsoever.

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