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Campus Classics

April-May 2009

For each Penguin Classics Newsletter we invite a professor to share an experience of teaching with a Penguin Classic. Tanya Agathocleous chose the Penguin Classics edition of The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner for her class.

This fascinating bildungsroman about life on a remote South African farm in the nineteenth century is not widely known in the U.S. outside of the academy, but, once introduced to it, students love it for its excesses and idiosyncrasies. I teach it in a course that examines it in the context of late-Victorian imperialism and the emergence of the New Woman, but it always ends up defying categorization. The novel explores many fin de siècle cultural and philosophical preoccupations with rigor yet remains wildly original, combining elements of Christian allegory, socialism, Emersonian transcendentalism, and Nietzschean philosophy and featuring a bizarre cast of characters that brings farmers and servants together with a con-man, a dandy, and a cross-dresser, among others. Many students are drawn in particular to the adolescent turmoil of Waldo the farmboy and autodidact who serves as the vehicle for Schreiner's often painfully realistic exploration of the transition from absolute faith to radical doubt while others are captivated by the mysterious Stranger who teaches him the power of interpretation. A number end up choosing to write about the novel for their final paper: like the statue Waldo hands the Stranger, it seems to demand interpretation, and students are eager to take it on.

Tanya Agathocleous Assistant Professor
Yale University
Course: The Victorian Fin de Siècle
Course: Literature: Forms and Techniques