HomeJuly 2024Exploring the topic of care in literature

Professor LAURA OTIS of Emory University shares with KASHISH KALWANI the list of books chosen for the course “Representation of Care in Literature,” and why those particular books are significant.

Q: Welcome Professor Otis. In your course on how care is represented in literature, we discussed books like Klara and the Sun, Frankenstein, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Beloved, and more. Each story presents a very unique perspective on ethics and care. I would like to know your thoughts on the themes in those books and why you chose them.

LO: Professor Paul Wolpe and I put a lot of thought into the books, and there were many candidates that didn’t make it. The ones we chose were particularly good at representing different kinds of care, for example:

Frankenstein by Mary Shelly

We wanted to make sure we thought about care throughout the human lifespan. One dimension is parents caring for children… or not, which is what happens in Frankenstein, or failing to fulfill their responsibilities and care for their children. Frankenstein raises those questions so powerfully. You see all the rationalizations of someone who is running away from his responsibilities, and you keep wondering, “How can they think that way?” 

Florida by Lauren Groff

I wanted to think about caregiving on a social level, not just one individual to another, not just within one family. I wanted us to read Lauren Groff’s stories, especially about homelessness in Florida. There is one about a female graduate student who ends up homeless; anyone can potentially become homeless with a certain combination of things going wrong in their life. Her story raised the issue of how we react when we come face-to-face with somebody who needs care in our community. What do we do? Is it something we should do personally, or is it something that should be done at a social level?

The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy

We wanted to look at the end of life. It was Professor Wolpe who chose The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which focuses on the very difficult transition of becoming someone who has to be taken care of. He has a servant who does most of the caring; it’s not really his family who does it.

It’s What Indian Girls Do by Mary Rina Chittooran

We wanted to look at different cultures to show how very different the expectations are around caregiving. In It's What Indian Girls Do, a professor is taking care of her mother. She can’t eat right, and she doesn’t have time to sleep. I think it is her mother who says, “Well, that’s what Indian girls do.” That was the argument. There are cultures where, if you act like Frankenstein, or if you refuse to take care of your parents, you become a pariah. No one respects you. Then there are other cultures in which it is perfectly acceptable to look for a nursing home.

Those are the different dimensions: beginning of life, end of life, different cultures, and then social level of care.


Laura Otis

Laura Otis

Dr. Otis is Professor of English at Emory University. Her research has been supported by MacArthur, Guggenheim, Fulbright, and Humboldt Fellowships. She is the author of non-fiction and fiction books, includin... Read More