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The History of World Literature

Dive into the history of world literature—offering concise summaries and thought-provoking interpretations of each work.
History of World Literature is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 89.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Masterful You can't summarize a great work of literature, but if you're very good, you can express the kernel of truth in each, and provide a means to put that book in global perspective. Voth does this in a manner few others could achieve. He is a masterful lecturer and interpreter.
Date published: 2024-04-12
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Narration is Monotonous and Boring I'm quite sure this course would be good in transcript form, but Voth's voice is excruciating. It just drones on and on with no inflection or cadence. I cannot believe no one seems to have mentioned this in any of the reviews. I'm guessing Voth isn't a big hit at parties. Is there a transcript for this course?
Date published: 2024-03-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Plus Excellent Plus. For a STEM-oriented reader of mostly non-fiction works, this course was a revelation. Favorite lectures: #11 Beowulf; #16 Inferno, from Dante’s Devine Comedy; #22 Cervantes’s Don Quixote; # 23 Molière’s Plays; #24 Voltaire’s Candide; #28 Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin; #29 Flaubert’s Madam Bovary; and #43 Faulkner –Two Stories and a Novel. As lecturers go, Prof. Voth is first-class: insightful and well organized. This course is definitely worth one’s time. HWF & ISF, Mesa AZ.
Date published: 2023-10-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from one of the best this guy has a exceptional talent to be entertaining and come to the point. wonderful!
Date published: 2023-07-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course, I also got in DVD format I listened to the audio version of this first since I didn't get the DVD format till later, and just finished the audio version recently. I loved the literary topics he spoke about, from some of the first stories about Gilgamesh and the Bible to the 20th Century with Rushdie. I think I've not given the Classics a chance and may have to go back and add them to my to-be-read list. If for no other reason, this Professor has inspired me by his obvious delight and enthusiasm for the books he breathes new life into and made them sound interesting enough to give them a go. I'm definitely going to be watching the DVD version of this course because it's worth re-listening/watching again.
Date published: 2023-03-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I have purchased over 200 courses in the past 20 years and this ranks in the top ten!
Date published: 2022-11-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fabulous course If I could give it 10, I would have. It is a very mesmerizing course. At times it becomes heavy; needs a lot of concentration at times, specially if one listens to it while biking or in the gym.
Date published: 2022-09-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very interesting! Professor Voth is very informative and a fine presenter. I learned a lot from this course, about books I had read, books I had heard of, and books entirely new to me. Professor Voth notes at the end that the books are like a Whitman's sampler. Pick one out and try it. The Course Guidebook is comprehensive and excellent. After finishing the course, I am only getting started with Voth's sampler.
Date published: 2022-05-30
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Whether around the campfire or between the covers of a book, the urge to express life's meaning is a human constant. Distinguished scholar Grant L. Voth guides you through the great works of literature that reflect the deep need for self-expression, in a journey that will take you from the auditoriums of Ancient Greece to the quiet study of a 19th-century New England spinster. You'll sample some of the greatest literary expressions the world has known and experience storytelling in its many forms.


Dr. Grant L. Voth

No idea of any single culture will ever capture the entire human sense of god, or creation, or the hero; and to get a more complete human picture, we have to look at the myths of many cultures.


Monterey Peninsula College
Dr. Grant L. Voth, is Professor Emeritus at Monterey Peninsula College. After earning his Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy and Greek, he received his Master of Arts degree in English Education from St. Thomas College and his doctorate in English from Purdue University. Professor Voth was the Monterey Peninsula Students' Association Teacher of the Year and the recipient of the first Allen Griffin Award for Excellence in Teaching in Monterey County. Professor Voth is the author of more than 30 articles and books on subjects ranging from Shakespeare to Edward Gibbon to modern American fiction, including the official study guides for 26 of the plays in the BBC Television Shakespeare project. He created a series of mediated courses in literature and interdisciplinary studies, one of which won a Special Merit Award from the Western Educational Society for Telecommunication. Professor Voth's other Great Courses include A Day's Read, The History of World Literature, Myth in Human History, and The Skeptic's Guide to the Great Books.

By This Professor

Great Mythologies of the World
Stories and Storytellers

01: Stories and Storytellers

Humankind has always sought to understand its existence through stories. In this opening lecture, Professor Voth provides a preview of the literary journey to come, and begins to define the relationship between history and literature.

33 min

02: The "Epic of Gilgamesh"

In this lecture, we examine one of the world's oldest literary works. This ancient poem combines a heroic story of a legendary king with a spiritual quest about coming to terms with the inevitability of mortality.

30 min
The Hebrew Bible

03: The Hebrew Bible

Blending literature, history, and theology, the Hebrew Bible (or Tanakh) is perhaps one of the most important books ever written. We explore some of the unique elements of this sacred literary text, including its introduction of the concept of monotheism.

30 min

04: Homer's "Iliad"

Through a consideration of Homer's classic poem about the fall of Troy, Professor Voth defines the key elements of the epic and examines how the poem expresses ancient Greek views of heroism and individual honor.

30 min

05: Homer's "Odyssey"

Our consideration of the epic continues with the "Odyssey," which follows the 10-year journey of the warrior Odysseus after the end of the Trojan War.

29 min
Chinese Classical Literature

06: Chinese Classical Literature

This lecture features a lyric poem and two prose works that demonstrate how early Chinese literature differed from contemporary works from Mesopotamia, Israel, and Greece.

30 min
Greek Tragedy

07: Greek Tragedy

By the 5th century B.C.E., Greek theater had entered a golden age, producing plays that would set a standard of excellence for centuries to come. In this lecture, we explore the three greatest Greek playwrights: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

30 min

08: Virgil's "Aeneid"

When Virgil (70–19 B.C.E.) set out to write a national Roman epic poem, he took as his model the classic epics of Ancient Greece. Professor Voth illuminates the ways that Virgil both imitated and adapted the epic to express the values of his own culture.

30 min
Bhagavad Gita

09: Bhagavad Gita

At seven times the combined length of the "Iliad" and "Odyssey," the "Mahabharata" may be the longest epic poem in the world. In this lecture, we examine one episode of this enormous work, the Bhagavad Gita, which offers a Hindu meditation on the meaning of life.

30 min
The New Testament

10: The New Testament

Like the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament can be read as history, literature, and theology. This lecture examines how the various parts of this seminal text reflect the goals of their different authors and the needs of their particular audiences.

28 min

11: "Beowulf"

In this lecture, Professor Voth compares the Germanic saga "Beowulf" with the other heroic epics studied in the course thus far. The poem also provides an opportunity to explore the variety of interpretations that can be made about a single literary work.

31 min
Indian Stories

12: Indian Stories

We move from epic poetry to prose as we explore the rich narrative strategies of Indian stories in three collections: "Jataka (Story of a Birth)," the "Pañcatantra (The Five Books or the Five Strategies)," and the "Kathasaritsagara (Ocean of the Rivers of Story)."

30 min
T'ang Poetry

13: T'ang Poetry

China achieved one of its Golden Ages during the T'ang period (618–907 C.E.), which included a rich tradition of poetry. This lecture examines three T'ang poets to illustrate the deeply personal aesthetic of Chinese poetics.

29 min
Early Japanese Poetry

14: Early Japanese Poetry

While Japanese poetry is indebted to Chinese models, it also boasts some unique features. Using several examples, Professor Voth outlines the key features of the Japanese aesthetic, which include irregular verse styles, simplicity, and the theme of transience.

30 min

15: "The Tale of Genji"

Written by a Japanese lady-in-waiting during the 11th century CE, "The Tale of Genji" is believed to be the first novel in literary history. This complex tale presents a new kind of hero, for whom taste and sensitivity count for more than prowess on the battlefield.

29 min

16: "Inferno," from Dante's "Divine Comedy"

Considered the greatest poem in the Western world, Dante's "Divine Comedy" traces the allegorical journey of a pilgrim from the depths of hell through purgatory and into heaven. We examine key features and interpretations of the first part of Dante's masterwork: "Inferno."

29 min

17: Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales"

Borrowing techniques from Boccaccio's "Decameron," Geoffrey Chaucer narrates a variety of tales through a frame story about 30 travelers who tell stories during a pilgrimage to England's Canterbury Cathedral.

31 min

18: "1001 Nights"

In this lecture, we again consider the narrative technique of the "frame story;" a work which includes within it many recounted tales. Complex and encyclopedic, "001 Nights" serves as a crossroads where stories from many different cultures meet.

30 min
Wu Ch'eng-en's

19: Wu Ch'eng-en's "Monkey"

Based in history and enhanced by legend and folklore, "Monkey" tells the story of a Chinese monk on a journey to India, accompanied by fabulous creatures, the most important of which is Monkey, one of the great creations in literature.

31 min

20: The "Heptameron"

Based in history and enhanced by legend and folklore, "Monkey" tells the story of a Chinese monk on a journey to India, accompanied by fabulous creatures, the most important of which is Monkey, one of the great creations in literature.

30 min

21: Shakespeare

After a brief account of drama in other cultures, Professor Voth considers Shakespeare's place in English drama, focusing on his use of language. A closer look at a famous speech from "Macbeth" serves to illustrate the Bard's mastery of poetic language.

32 min

22: Cervantes's "Don Quixote"

While not the first novel in history, "Don Quixote" is one of the first in the Western world and has been by far the most influential. This lecture explores Cervantes' revolutionary use of prose to present a realistic view of life that contrasted to the popular romances of his day.

31 min
Molière's Plays

23: Molière's Plays

This lecture opens with a consideration of the values and dramatic style of the Neoclassical Age (c.1660–1770) in Western literature. A master of theatrical comedy, French playwright Molière used the drama to point out society's foibles.

31 min

24: Voltaire's "Candide"

Why does suffering exist? Why are people prey to human cruelty and natural disasters? In "Candide," Voltaire seeks to answer these questions.

31 min
Cao Xueqin's

25: Cao Xueqin's "The Story of the Stone"

Recounting the story of an aristocratic family in decline, "The Story of the Stone" is simultaneously a Buddhist-Taoist meditation on the illusory nature of existence and a gripping and detailed novel of personal relationships.

31 min

26: Goethe's "Faust"

Goethe's Faust is a new version of a story dating back to the 16th century, when the historical Faustus lived. In Goethe's version, "Faust" becomes the ultimate Romantic hero - one who strives to express his own will and experience all life has to offer.

32 min
Emily Brontë

27: Emily Brontë "Wuthering Heights"

Brontë's story about the passionate love between Catherine and Heathcliff is perhaps one of the best loved 19th-century novels. In this lecture, we explore the relationship of the novel to Romanticism and discuss Brontë's use of competing narrative perspectives.

32 min

28: Pushkin's "Eugene Onegin"

Alexander Pushkin is usually considered Russia's national poet - the equivalent of Shakespeare in England. In "Eugene Onegin," he employed a complicated poetic form to create a witty novel-in-verse that satirizes Romantic excesses.

32 min

29: Flaubert's "Madame Bovary"

An ordinary story about ordinary people told with detachment and objectivity, Flaubert's tale of a bored housewife living in a French provincial town marks a turning point in literature: the rise of Realism.

32 min

30: Dostoevsky's "Notes from Underground"

Unappreciated in its own day, "Notes from Underground" serves as an excellent introduction to Dostoevsky's later novels. Through his unnamed narrator, the Russian novelist voiced the desire to rebel against the increasingly mass-produced culture of modern life.

32 min

31: Twain's "Huckleberry Finn"

In "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn", Mark Twain allowed a vernacular, regional character to tell his own story. In this lecture, we explore Twain's narrative achievement and the societal questions raised by his classic travel tale.

30 min
Dickinson's Poetry

32: Dickinson's Poetry

After a brief consideration of Emily Dickinson's solitary life and writing career, we turn to the techniques that characterize her remarkable poetry: the use of common meter stanza form, unconventional punctuation, and grammatical density.

32 min
Ibsen and Chekhov-Realist Drama

33: Ibsen and Chekhov-Realist Drama

In this lecture, we examine the works of two very different Realist playwrights. For Ibsen, Realism entailed bringing to the stage contemporary people and social concerns. For Chekhov, it required discarding the standard forms of the "well-made play;" for a more realistic imitation of life.

32 min
Rabindranath Tagore's Stories and Poems

34: Rabindranath Tagore's Stories and Poems

Absorbing the influence of Realist authors, Tagore adapted this literary style to reflect life in his native India. Through his short stories and poems, he criticized those who exploited the caste system, suppressed women, and benefited from the sufferings of the poor.

31 min
Higuchi Ichiy

35: Higuchi Ichiy "Child's Play"

Although she had no exposure to Western Realism, Ichiyo pioneered a Japanese version of this literary movement in "Child's Play," her novella about children living in and around the pleasure district of Edo (modern-day Tokyo).

31 min
Proust's <

36: Proust's <"Remembrance of Things Past"

In this elegiac novel, Proust sought to reject Realism and recreate the novel as an exploration of personal impressions. Influential to later writers, Proust's novel took a revolutionary approach by attempting to capture life as it is experienced.

31 min

37: Joyce's "Dubliners"

In a context of experimentation in all of the arts, we consider the contribution of James Joyce's "Dubliners" to the modern short story, focusing on Joyce's device of the epiphany, or revelation.

31 min

38: Kafka's "The Metamorphosis"

In this lecture, we consider the bleak, darkly comic work of Franz Kafka. In "The Metamorphosis," a man wakes up to find that he has been transformed into a gigantic insect - an absurd premise that reflects the alienation of modern life.

31 min

39: Pirandello's "Six Characters"

This lecture discusses the rebellion against Realism in drama exemplified in the work of Luigi Pirandello. In "Six Characters in Search of an Author," Pirandello created a world in which fictional characters argue that they are more "real" than living human beings.

31 min

40: Brecht's "The Good Woman of Setzuan"

Bertolt Brecht continued the rebellion against Realism by using theatrical techniques to create a critical distance between audience and play. An examination of "The Good Woman" demonstrates how Brecht used this technique to critique capitalist society.

31 min
Anna Akhmatova's

41: Anna Akhmatova's "Requiem"

Written in response to Russia's Yezhov Terror of 1937 and 1938, the poem "Requiem" describes a sick society in which the poet must speak for voiceless victims everywhere. Professor Voth explores the aesthetic and historical contexts that helped shape this poem.

31 min
Kawabata Yasunari's

42: Kawabata Yasunari's "Snow Country"

Adapting Western techniques to suit Japanese sensibilities, Yasunari created a Modernist work, using such techniques as a disciplined point of view and stream-of-consciousness in his story of a detached man and his love for two women.

31 min
Faulkner-Two Stories and a Novel

43: Faulkner-Two Stories and a Novel

Using the short stories "A Rose for Emily" and "Wash," in addition to the novel "As I Lay Dying," Professor Voth examines the literary achievements of William Faulkner, an author who sought to capture the "whole truth" of life in all its comedic, grotesque, and heroic glory.

30 min
Naguib Mahfouz's

44: Naguib Mahfouz's "The Cairo Trilogy"

The Arabs did not really have a novel tradition until the 20th century. In his career, Arab writer Naguib Mahfouz encompassed all of the novelistic traditions, from historical romances to Realist novels to experimental narratives.

31 min

45: Achebe's "Things Fall Apart"

Achebe's novel is a reaction against Western novelistic depictions of Africans, exemplified in Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" In this lecture, we examine this tale of a native people, the Igbo, and their heroic but flawed leader Okonkwo.

31 min
Beckett's Plays

46: Beckett's Plays

In this lecture, we take up our first Postmodernist writer, Samuel Beckett. His works, including "Endgame, Waiting for Godot," and "Happy Days," illustrate Beckett's view that humankind lives in an absurd world which provides no clear definition of life's meaning.

31 min

47: Borges's "Labyrinths"

Our examination of Postmodernism continues with Jorge Luis Borges, whose comic, often magical stories attempt to express the untranslatable gap between reality and the human constructions of logic and language.

30 min

48: Rushdie's "Haroun and the Sea of Stories"

The final lecture considers Salman Rushdie's children's book about the importance of stories in our lives, and it closes with William Faulkner's idea that stories are one of the ways in which humans can not only endure, but may even prevail.

32 min