Tragedy and Postcolonialism

Ato Quayson

It is conventional to take the view that the postcolonial world provides great examples of trauma: famine, brutal dictatorships, failed states, communal violence, etc. And yet to identify these samples of trauma is not to necessarily understand the ways in which postcolonial literary tragedies reflect upon such events. For tragedy is first and foremost a genre that has its roots in ancient Greece and has been exemplified in different traditions from Shakespeare, through Racine, Henrik Ibsen, Samuel Becket, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and many others. The objective of this course will be to relate postcolonial tragedy to this long literary tradition. How do postcolonial writers deal with the question of the relationship between determinism (the gods) and contingency (human agency)? With the relation between self and society? And with the ethical burdens of solitude? The course will be essentially comparative, and will set up a dialogue between various postcolonial writers and others from the Western tradition. The rationale for some of the pairings will be self-evident from the start, but for others it will become clear only when we come to the books themselves. Background preparation is essential for this course, as is class participation a preparedness to write regular response papers in the form of interrogative questions.

Primary Texts:

  • Wole Soyinka, Death and the King’s Horseman (with Sophocles, Philoctetes)
  • Chinua Achebe, Arrow of God (with Shakespeare, Hamlet)
  • Arundhati Roy, God of Small Things (with The Book of Ruth, Holy Bible)
  • Toni Morrison, Beloved (with Euripides, Medea)
  • Junot Diaz, Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Stand alone)
  • Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient (Stand alone)


Secondary Texts:

  • PMLA 129: 4, Special Topic: Tragedy, 2014 (essays by Helene P. Foley and Jean E. Howard and Simon Goldhill)
  • Rita Felski, ed. Rethinking Tragedy, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008
  • 9 Essays by George Steiner, Simon Goldhill, Martha C. Nussbaum, and David Scott)
  • Judith Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself, New York: Fordham University Press, 2005.


Performance Evaluation

  • Final essay (2,500-3,000 words): 45%
  • Final exam (2 hrs, 2 essays): 45%
  • Participation, progress and attendance: 10%

Lecture Hours: 12 x 1hr 15min (total 15 hours)

Seminar Hours: 8 x 1hr 15min (total 10 hours)