How to Survive a Pandemic: Connection, Vulnerability, and Empathy

Video essay by Sariah Cheadle (MA ’22) for ENGL 625 (Fall 2020) on “What an Eighteenth-Century Novel and The Big Bang Theory Taught Me About Surviving a Pandemic.”

For the final project in ENGL 625 “Eighteenth-Century British Women Writers” (Fall 2020), students were asked to devise an original topic pertaining to one or more of the assigned texts. The students were offered an alternative to composing a 8-12-page standard research paper by selecting from a variety of non-standard mediums (such as the journalistic op-ed/think piece, the digital humanities resource, the video essay, or the podcast) with special attention to the genres and styles that would best complement the substance of their work.

Ultimately, the aim of the final project was to foster independent inquiry into eighteenth-century studies — an evolving field progressively invested in unorthodox approaches to literary history that view the eighteenth century as continuously and contiguously linked to our current temporal moment — by having these students enter the scholarly conversation on their own terms.

The following video essay by Sariah Cheadle (MA ‘22), titled “What an Eighteenth-Century Novel and The Big Bang Theory Taught Me About Surviving a Pandemic,” embodies the spirit of this final assignment.

Cheadle invites an audience who may be unfamiliar with the eighteenth-century novel in question (i.e., Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote) to be simultaneously exasperated, enthralled, and edified by its quixotic protagonist’s idiosyncratic world view. She introduces Arabella from The Female Quixote by comparing the 18th-century heroine to a 21st-century counterpart: the character of Sheldon from the TV series, The Big Bang Theory. Through the deft analysis and unique framing of these two texts, Cheadle persuasively demonstrates how Arabella and Sheldon struggle to understand and be understood by the people around them before establishing empathy with the ones they love (and conversely, with the audience) through rare moments of self-aware vulnerability. Furthermore, it is through Arabella and Sheldon’s so-called “narratives of disconnect” that Cheadle highlights the necessity of human connection, especially amid this painful moment of pandemic-induced social distancing.

To view the video essay, visit

I hope you enjoy this expansive and inspiring approach to literature, television, and empathy. And, I wish you all the courage during these challenging times “to show up and… be seen.”

Shirley Tung, Assistant Professor / Instructor for ENGL 625 (Fall 2020)

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