New Zealand Literature

Please note: this is archived course information from 2020 for ENGLISH 221.


ENGLISH 221 offers an historical survey of major writers and key issues in New Zealand literature. We look at how versions of the past have been remembered and explore the significance of those pasts for New Zealanders today. We raise questions about the representation of other cultures and other times, about identity and belonging, about the human place in nature and aim to provide a rich and complex map of our cultural history from the period of first contact until now.

Our first text is FE Maning’s Old New Zealand (1863), a memoir of the life and times of a Pākehā who lived with a Māori tribe in the years before the Treaty of Waitangi. We introduce strategies for cross-cultural reading, examine problems of European settlement and raise questions about the relation between traditional Māori values and modern forms of life—questions that will be asked in different ways by many other works in the course.

In our drama section, for example, we explore Māori and Pākehā relations through comparisons between a play written by a Pākehā dramatist in the 1960s, when assimilation was official policy, with another play, set in the same period, written by a young Māori playwright in the "bicultural" 1990s. Both plays involve journeys from the country to the city, and involve conflict between traditional values and the attractions of popular culture and the modern secular world.

The tension between old and new is also explored in two novels of family history, Bulibasha and Plumb,written by two of our most eminent living writers, Witi Ihimaera and Maurice Gee.

Early in the semester, we make a detailed study of the short stories of Katherine Mansfield and Frank Sargeson, and pay particular attention to narrative theory and modes of experimentation in representing psychology and social issues in fiction.

Robin Hyde’s biography of a World War One soldier, Passport to Hell, puts our theme of representing the past into another key: she is interested in "the making of a man who can both murder a surrendering prisoner and carry a wounded comrade across no-man’s land as gently as a kitten".

Gender issues are also important in our study of Frank Sargeson’s stories, which seem coded "gay" to readers today, yet did not strike their first audience that way. CK Stead’s All Visitor’s Ashore recreates the energy and confusion of bohemian life in the Auckland of the 1950s. With Stead’s novel, we begin a turn away from realism towards a more "metafictional" treatment of the relation between people and places, as exemplified by Janet Frame’s fascinating novel about New Zealanders travelling to the United States, Living in the Maniototo.

The poetry section of the course offers a detailed study of early and late works by our most distinguished poet, Allen Curnow, alongside poems by his contemporaries writing in the 1930s—Bethell, Mason, Glover—as well as a major mid-century figure, James K Baxter. We also examine work by several contemporary poets.

This course can fit into your degree in a number of ways. For all students majoring in English, a "stand alone" course in New Zealand literature makes an ideal introduction to the culture of your own place. Our literature is not only interesting in its own right, but knowing about writing produced here, in a local and familiar context, gives you a counterweight that will enable you to better understand the literature of other times and places.

For some students, ENGLISH 221 might be part of a pathway in world or postcolonial literatures. Looking beyond our own major, ENGLISH 221 might also be part of a concentration in New Zealand Studies with strong links to courses in History, Media Film and TV, Māori Studies and other subjects.

Course outcomes

Students taking this course will have a solid historical grasp of the main themes and concerns of New Zealand literature from the 1840s until now, and will become familiar with work by each of the four major canonical figures (Mansfield, Sargeson, Curnow, Frame), as well as with work by a selection of writers of historical and/or contemporary interest.

Students will also develop competence in each of the following genres: poetry, non-fiction, the short story, the novel and drama.

The course is interested in ideas and argument and will require students to make connections between the various works studied. Students taking this course will also develop their skills in close reading and essay writing.


Coursework + exam

Availability 2020

Semester 1


Coordinator(s) Associate Professor Alex Calder


FE Maning, Old New Zealand and Other Writings (Continuum or e-text)

"Maoriland" writers: selection provided on Canvas

Katherine Mansfield, Selected Stories (Oxford World Classics or e-text)

Frank Sargeson, The Stories of Frank Sargeson (Cape Catley)

Robin Hyde, Passport to Hell (AUP)

Bruce Mason, Awatea (VUP) (e-text)

Hone Kouka, Wairoa (Huia)

Witi Ihimaera, Bulibasha (Reed)

Maurice Gee, Plumb (Faber)

C.K. Stead, All Visitors Ashore (Godwit)

Janet Frame, Living in the Maniototo (Hutchinson) 

Allen Curnow and other poets (e-texts, and selection provided on Canvas)

Recommended Reading

Terry Sturm ed. The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature, 2nd ed. (Auckland: OUP, 1998)

Patrick Evans, The Long Forgetting (Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 2008)

Alex Calder, The Settler’s Plot: How Stories Take Place In New Zealand (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2011)

John Newton, Hard Frost: Structures of Feeling in New Zealand Literature, 1908-1945, (Victoria University Press, 2017).


Coursework + exam


ENGLISH 221: 15 points


30 points at Stage I in English