Skip to main content

Unit information: Laughter Through Tears: The Comic Tradition in Russian Literature in 2015/16

Please note: you are viewing unit and programme information for a past academic year. Please see the current academic year for up to date information.

Unit name Laughter Through Tears: The Comic Tradition in Russian Literature
Unit code RUSS20049
Credit points 20
Level of study I/5
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 1 (weeks 1 - 12)
Unit director Dr. Chitnis
Open unit status Open




School/department Department of Russian
Faculty Faculty of Arts


Nikolai Gogol, often considered the ‘father’ of quintessentially Russian prose fiction, wrote in Dead Souls: ‘I am fated to […] survey the surging immensity of life through the laughter that all can see and through the tears unseen and unknown by anyone’. Though this juxtaposition of laughter and grief might define the high literary comic in general, it has become particularly associated with the approach of Russian writers, where the distinction between the human and the Russian condition is often blurred. In this unit, students will explore features of the comic, including irony, satire, parody, hyperbole, caricature, the Surreal and Absurd, through classic works of short fiction and drama by writers like Gogol, Saltykov-Shchedrin, Bulgakov, Zoshchenko, Kharms, Shukshin, Dovlatov, Petrushevskaya and Pelevin. The unit will thus develop students’ understanding of not only an important, continuous tradition in Russian writing, but also the work of key Russian writers, some of whom are better known for short prose and drama than novels.

Intended learning outcomes

By the end of the unit, students will

1) understand and be able to discuss the comic as a continuous tradition in Russian literature since the nineteenth century.

2) be able to identify and analyse features, strategies, modes and devices associated with comic writing.

3) be familiar with key theoretical approaches to comic writing as they relate to the Russian context.

4) be adept at applying this knowledge to the discussion of texts and building extended arguments and comparative analyses in written form and formatively in class presentations as appropriate at level I.

Teaching details

Two seminar hours per week across one teaching block (22 contact hours).

Assessment Details

1 x 2000-word essay (50%) and 2-hour examination (50%), testing ILOs 1-4.

The 2000-word essay will focus on the notion of a ‘comic tradition’ and ask students to compare the use of a particular feature of comic writing in the work of two writers studied in the first part of the unit. The examination will be divided into two sections. The first section will consist of a text for commentary, testing the students’ ability to identify and analyse techniques and devices associated with comic writing, and the second will consists of essay questions focusing on the more contemporary writers covered in the final part of the unit.

Reading and References

Nikolai Gogol et al., How the Two Ivans Quarrelled and Other Russian Comic Stories (2011)

Mikhail Zoshchenko, The Galosh and Other Stories (2009)

Daniil Kharms, Today I Wrote Nothing: Selected Writing (2007)

Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, Cinzano: Eleven Plays (1991)

Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, London: Macmillan, 1911.

Andrew Bennett, ‘Laughter’ in Andrew Bennett, Nicholas Royle (eds), An Introduction to Literature, Criticism

and Theory, Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2004.