R5A Section 2: Reading and Composition

MWF 8-9 | 259 Dwinelle | Instructor: Emily Rabiner

Units: 4

Image and Identity: “Reading” the Portrait

All Reading and Composition courses must be taken for a letter grade in order to fulfill this requirement for the Bachelor’s Degree. This course satisfies the first half or the “A” portion of the Reading and Composition requirement.

How do we “read” portraits? On the surface level, they may seem to represent the uncomplicated likeness or essence of the sitter, forever fixed in time and space. Yet, while a portrait may at first seem to provide us with a stable identity, supported by a network of visual cues, it also offers ample room for revisionist interpretations, projections, and identifications. In this course we will study the ways in which portraits appear in novels, poems, films, and short stories, with the goal of thinking critically about characters’ responses to and interpretations of the images with which they are confronted. What secrets do they believe are to be extracted from the images or what truths do they think are concealed? How does the fixity of the portrait interact with narrative progression? How do these portraits seduce and/or repulse their viewers? And to what extent are people (primarily women) conflated with images? Throughout the course of the semester, we will engage with recurring themes of identity, gender, sexuality, and the uncanny in order to develop the skills necessary for thoughtful academic work.

Course Requirements

Students are expected to attend class regularly and to participate actively in discussions of the assigned reading. Since the purpose of the course is to enhance your skills as critical readers and writers, we will work on (among other elements) developing confidence and fluency in approaching texts, close readings, understanding the writing process, and learning to ask productive questions. Short reading responses will prepare you for the formal essays, and revision of these essays will be a central component of the course.


Successful completion of the UC Entry Level Writing Requirement.Students may not enroll in nor attend R1A/R5A courses without completing this prerequisite.


Camillo Boito, “A Body” (course reader)

Alfred Hitchcock, Vertigo (film)

Vernon Lee, “Oke of Okehurst” (course reader)

Edgar Allen Poe, “The Oval Portrait” (course reader)

Georges Rodenbach, Bruges-la-Morte, Dedalus European Classics, ISBN-10:1903517826 (ISBN-13: 978-1903517826)

Iginio Ugo Tarchetti, “A Spirit in a Raspberry” (course reader)

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oxford University Press, ISBN-10: 0199535981 (ISBN-13: 978-0199535989)

The course reader may also include the following works:

Selected poems from Petrarch, Gaspara Stampa, Robert Browning, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Charles Baudelaire, The Mirror of Art: Critical Studies, excerpts

Selected secondary and critical texts