The Literature Major

The Literature Major allows students to address fundamental questions about the nature, function, and value of literature in a broadly comparative context. Majors read and write about a wide variety of literary works across periods, genres, and national traditions. They investigate traditional and contemporary approaches to literary study, ancient and modern literary theory, and the relationship of literature to film and to other branches of the arts and sciences.

The Literature Major offers students the freedom to construct a program of study that reflects their intellectual goals. All students planning to major in Literature should register with the Director of Undergraduate Studies, who will work with them to develop a coherent, well-focused sequence of courses suited to their individual interests.

The major offers a number of its own courses, which constitute the core of the program. Other courses are normally chosen from any one or more of Yale’s numerous departments of languages and literatures, many of which offer courses on literature and film in translation. Among these departments are African American Studies, Classics, East Asian Languages and Literatures, English, Film Studies, French, German, Italian, Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Portuguese, Slavic Languages and Literatures, and Spanish. Courses in film studies count toward the major in the same way as courses in literature.

Completion of the Yale College Foreign Language Requirement is a prerequisite for entry into the major. All students take an additional three courses in a foreign literature, in which they read the texts in the original language. Students who elect the intensive major develop competence in a second foreign language and take advanced courses in a second national literature. Students may also elect to include in their major two courses, or three with permission of the Director of Undergraduate Studies, in a related discipline, such as history of art, philosophy, anthropology, music, or theater studies, that has direct bearing on their study of literature. One of these elective courses may be in creative writing.

The Literature Major requires fourteen term courses, including two prerequisites, one required course, and the senior requirement.

Prerequisites and Required Courses

Prerequisites. LITR 120a, Introduction to the Study of Narrative, and LITR 122b, World Poetry and Performance, are prerequisite to the major. The courses may be taken in any order. Students are required to take at least one of these courses in either their freshman or sophomore year and must take both before graduation. Two additional semesters of ENGL 115, 125, 127, or 129, DRST 001, or THST 110 and 111, may also be counted as electives toward the major but may not replace the Literature Major prerequisites.

Required course. Students majoring in Literature must take LITR 300b, Introduction to the Theory of Literature. It may be taken in the sophomore or junior year.
Pre-1800 course requirement. The Literature Major requires that all students take at least one course in literature before 1800. Because both genres and individual works of literature refer to, emulate, challenge, and even rewrite older works and generic conventions, students benefit from acquiring a degree of historical perspective. All courses listed under “The Ancient World” and “Medieval and Early Modern Literature to 1800” fulfill the pre-1800 requirement.

Poetry or Drama requirement. In addition to LITR 122 and the pre-1800 course, all students must take one course in poetry or drama.

Courses taken in fulfillment of the Pre-1800 and Poetry or Drama requirements may be taken in any department of the university; they need not have a Literature number.

Foreign Literature Requirement

The experience of reading a foreign literature in the original language enables us to understand the nature of both language and literature more fully. Prospective Literature majors are strongly encouraged to begin the study of a foreign language and literature as early as possible in their academic careers and to continue such study throughout their time at Yale. Completion of the Yale College foreign language requirement in sophomore year is a prerequisite to entry into the Major. (Students who arrive at Yale with little knowledge of a foreign language may fulfill this prerequisite by completing courses designated L1 and L2 in a foreign language during freshman and sophomore years, but must proceed to the L3 level in the first semester of their junior year.)

All majors are required to take at least three additional term courses, beyond the Yale College foreign language requirement, in an ancient or modern foreign literature, in which the literature is read in the original language. One or more courses can be taken at the “basic” literature level (normally equivalent to the third year of language study); however, at least one course must be taken at the “advanced” level (normally equivalent to the fourth year of language study or higher). Students are encouraged to continue developing their foreign language skills by taking advanced language courses (at the L4 or L5 level) and may, if the Director of Undergraduate Studies so advises, substitute one such course for one of the three required foreign literature courses.

Sometimes the most suitable foreign literature course for a particular student will be one that is offered in translation. In such cases, Literature majors are expected to request additional assignments from their instructors in order to enable them to work with texts in the original language. They should fill out a form, signed by the instructor, attesting to their intent to do so. This form is available in the department office; students should submit it to the Director of Undergraduate Studies along with their course schedule.

Students in the intensive major must complete an additional three courses in a single literature, in which literature is read in the original language. If the additional literature is English-language, intensive majors must demonstrate proficiency at the intermediate (L4) level in a second foreign language.

Non-native speakers of English who are granted permission by Yale College to complete the language requirement by taking ENGL 114a or b, 120a or b, or 450b may take three additional English literature courses to fulfill the foreign literature requirement of the Literature Major or may fulfill the Major requirements in a third language. Students interested in graduate study in literature should be aware that many programs require reading knowledge of two or three foreign languages.

Junior year or term abroad. The Literature Major encourages students to consider spending a summer, semester, or full year abroad, and courses taken on international programs may, with permission of the Director of Undergraduate Studies, be applied to the Literature Major’s Foreign Literature requirement.

The following table lists languages in which advanced literature instruction is available at Yale (suitable for Literature majors), with courses that fulfill the basic literature requirement and those that fulfill the advanced literature requirement. Course numbers above those listed will also normally fulfill the requirement, providing the courses focus on literature (rather than language) and that the literature is read in the original language:


Fulfills basic literature req.

Fulfills advanced lit. req.


Arabic 104

Arabic 105 or 106


Chinese 150 or higher

Chinese 160 or 162


French 160 or higher

French 200 or higher


German 160 or higher

German 200 or higher

Ancient Greek

Greek 300 or 301

Greek 400 or higher

Biblical Hebrew

Hebrew 113

Hebrew 471

Modern Hebrew

Hebrew 103 or 104

Hebrew 103, 104, or 471


Italian 200 or higher

Italian 200 or higher


Japanese 150 or 157

Japanese 160 or 161


Korean 150

Korean 470 or 471


Latin 300 or 301

Latin 400 or higher


Persian 103 or higher

Persian 103 or higher


Portuguese 143 or higher

Portuguese 143 or higher


Russian 130 or higher

Russian 160 or higher


Spanish 261, 262, 266, or 267

Spanish 300 or higher

Other ancient and modern languages, including those from Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East, may be suitable for Literature majors if a faculty advisor can be found with sufficient knowledge of the language to supervise the major.

Core Seminars, the Senior Essay

In core seminars and the senior essay, students focus intensively on particular texts, films, literary and cultural issues, and theoretical problems. Students are required to take at least two core seminars, preferably one in the junior and one in the senior year. The seminars provide training in literary interpretation and theory, preparing students for the senior essay. Students in the intensive major are encouraged to take LITR 480a, Critical Practices, as one of their two seminars.

In the senior essay, required of all majors in Literature, students develop a research topic of their choice and work closely with an individual faculty adviser in conducting research and writing their essay. Normally, the senior essay will deal with texts in the language of their original composition. Any exceptions must be approved by the Director of Undergraduate Studies. Required deadlines for the prospectus, the rough draft, and the completed essay are listed in the course descriptions of the senior essay courses (LITR 491a or b and 492a or b, 493a or b).

The senior essay may be written over one term (LITR 491a or b) or over two terms (LITR 492a or b and 493a or b). Students may elect to fulfill the senior essay requirement within the context of a core seminar (the “senior seminar essay”). Because no more than five students per seminar may elect this option, students petition their instructor promptly at the beginning of the term. It is understood that students choosing the senior seminar essay will work closely with the instructor throughout the term and produce a substantial paper (approximately thirty pages).

Yearlong senior essays are extended research projects undertaken with the supervision of a faculty member. Students with an especially well-developed project may petition to write a yearlong senior essay. Interested juniors must apply to the curriculum committee by the last day of classes in the spring term. Students may count the second term of the essay as one of their elective courses toward the total of fourteen for the major. Students expecting to graduate in May enroll in LITR 492a during the fall term and complete their essays in 493b in the spring term. December graduates enroll in 492b in the spring term and complete their essays in 493a during the following fall term. Students planning to begin their essay in the second term should notify the Director of Undergraduate Studies by the last day of classes in the fall term.

Requirements of the Major

Prerequisites: LITR 120a; LITR 122b; completion of the Yale College foreign language requirement
Required course: LITR 300b
Number of courses: Twelve term courses beyond prerequisites (including the senior essay)
Distribution of courses: three advanced courses in a single foreign literature; at least one course in literature before 1800; at least one course in poetry or drama; two core seminars; three electives in literature or film; intensive major—instead of the three electives, three additional literature courses in a second language (which may be English) and demonstrated command of a second foreign language.
Substitutions permitted: for two of the electives (or three with permission of the DUS), two (or three) courses in another discipline with direct bearing on the study of literature; for one of the electives, a course in creative writing.
Senior requirement: One-term senior essay (LITR 491a or b); or two-term senior essay (LITR 492a and 493b, or 492b and 493a); or one core seminar (LITR 400–479) with senior seminar essay
Note: Students who began study in the major under the requirements in effect before 2006 may complete those requirements for graduation.