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Unit information: Seduction and Destruction: 1772–1808 in 2017/18

Unit name Seduction and Destruction: 1772–1808
Unit code GERM30063
Credit points 20
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 1 (weeks 1 - 12)
Unit director Dr. Debbie Pinfold
Open unit status Not open




School/department Department of German
Faculty Faculty of Arts


The unit is taught by Dr Ellen Pilsworth.

This unit explores the late eighteenth-century fascination with the undoing of innocent women: on stage, in prose, and in a great many poems and ballads. Watching the plot of 'verführte Unschuld' (ensnared innocence) unfold was a way for readers and audiences to explore issues around sexuality, morality and the social freedom of the individual. For instance, how could a society that called itself enlightened still enforce codes of sexual honour which led unmarried women to kill their new-borns – a crime which was punishable by death – rather than face the public shame of having been made pregnant?

An essay prize in 1780 with the question, 'What are the best and most practical means of curbing infanticide without encouraging immorality in turn?' received an overwhelming number of responses. This interest was not limited to the academic realm, but also shaped the literature of the period. Around twenty literary works between 1772 and 1791 told stories of seduced, unmarried women who commit infanticide. These figures alone show the obsession of the period with this theme – but how did it develop over the decades? Did the fiction reflect the facts, or rather the fears of a generation of (mostly male) writers? How, if at all, did Goethe's work as a lawyer influence his work as a poet when it came to the topic of infanticide?

The literary texts for study include two plays (Lessing's Emilia Galotti, Goethe's Faust I) and one short story (Kleist's Die Marquise von O). In addition to these key texts, individual seminars will examine ballads by Bürger, Goethe and Schiller, selected poems from Arnim and Brentano's Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and extracts from Sophie von La Roche's novel, Die Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim (1771). Each text features a heroine who faces seduction and its consequences, yet their conclusions vary significantly. Why do some authors choose to punish, and others to save their heroines?

Intended learning outcomes

By the end of this unit successful students will have:

  1. Demonstrated, to a standard appropriate to level H, knowledge of issues around sexual morality in the German-speaking lands between the 1770s and 1800s, based on sound familiarity with historical debates, legal evidence and literary writing;
  2. Articulated an advanced, critical understanding of the particular place of literature in approaching these issues;
  3. Developed and deployed advanced topic-specific skills and methodologies: independent literary interpretation, close reading, critical engagement with secondary literature;
  4. Demonstrated advanced skill in the selection, synthesis, evaluation and analysis of relevant topic-based material, appropriate to level H;
  5. Presented independent judgements confidently in writing, in an appropriate style and at a high level of complexity.

Teaching details

1 x 2-hour seminar weekly.

Assessment Details

2 essays of 3000 words each, weighted 50%/50% and each testing ILOs 1-5.

Reading and References

Key texts for study:

Lessing, Emilia Galotti (1772)

Goethe, Faust I (1808) and Faust, ein Fragment (1790)

Kleist, Die Marquise von O (1808)

Other selected poetry and prose texts will be made available at the start of term in the form of a reader.

Introductory Reading:

Ute Frevert (ed), Bürgerinnen und Bürger. Geschlechterverhältnisse im 19. Jahrhundert, (Göttingen, 1888)

Sigrid Lange. Ob die Weiber Menschen sind. Geschlechterdebatten um 1800. (Leipzig, 1992)

Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, (Cambridge, M.A., 1990)

Susanne Kord, Murderesses in German Writing, 1720–1860: Heroines of Horror (Cambridge, 2009)

Helen Fronius and Anna Linton (eds), Women and Death: Representations of Female Victims and Perpetrators in German Culture, 1500–2000 (Rochester, N.Y., 2008)