Marxism Criticism Example Essay For Scholarship

Contributors: Allen Brizee, J. Case Tompkins, Libby Chernouski, Elizabeth Boyle, Sebastian Williams.
Summary:

This resource will help you begin the process of understanding literary theory and schools of criticism and how they are used in the academy.

Literary Theory and Schools of Criticism

Introduction

A very basic way of thinking about literary theory is that these ideas act as different lenses critics use to view and talk about art, literature, and even culture. These different lenses allow critics to consider works of art based on certain assumptions within that school of theory. The different lenses also allow critics to focus on particular aspects of a work they consider important.

For example, if a critic is working with certain Marxist theories, s/he might focus on how the characters in a story interact based on their economic situation. If a critic is working with post-colonial theories, s/he might consider the same story but look at how characters from colonial powers (Britain, France, and even America) treat characters from, say, Africa or the Caribbean. Hopefully, after reading through and working with the resources in this area of the OWL, literary theory will become a little easier to understand and use.

Disclaimer

Please note that the schools of literary criticism and their explanations included here are by no means the only ways of distinguishing these separate areas of theory. Indeed, many critics use tools from two or more schools in their work. Some would define differently or greatly expand the (very) general statements given here. Our explanations are meant only as starting places for your own investigation into literary theory. We encourage you to use the list of scholars and works provided for each school to further your understanding of these theories.

We also recommend the following secondary sources for study of literary theory:

  • The Critical Tradition: Classical Texts and Contemporary Trends, 1998, edited by David H. Richter
  • Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide, 1999, by Lois Tyson
  • Beginning Theory, 2002, by Peter Barry

Although philosophers, critics, educators and authors have been writing about writing since ancient times, contemporary schools of literary theory have cohered from these discussions and now influence how scholars look at and write about literature. The following sections overview these movements in critical theory. Though the timeline below roughly follows a chronological order, we have placed some schools closer together because they are so closely aligned.

Timeline (most of these overlap)

  • Moral Criticism, Dramatic Construction (~360 BC-present)
  • Formalism, New Criticism, Neo-Aristotelian Criticism (1930s-present)
  • Psychoanalytic Criticism, Jungian Criticism(1930s-present)
  • Marxist Criticism (1930s-present)
  • Reader-Response Criticism (1960s-present)
  • Structuralism/Semiotics (1920s-present)
  • Post-Structuralism/Deconstruction (1966-present)
  • New Historicism/Cultural Studies (1980s-present)
  • Post-Colonial Criticism (1990s-present)
  • Feminist Criticism (1960s-present)
  • Gender/Queer Studies (1970s-present)
  • Critical Race Theory (1970s-present)
  • Critical Disability Studies (1990s-present)

 

Contributors: Allen Brizee, J. Case Tompkins, Libby Chernouski, Elizabeth Boyle, Sebastian Williams.
Summary:

This resource will help you begin the process of understanding literary theory and schools of criticism and how they are used in the academy.

Moral Criticism and Dramatic Construction (~360 BC-present)

Plato

In Book X of his Republic, Plato may have given us the first volley of detailed and lengthy literary criticism in the West. The dialogue between Socrates and two of his associates shows the participants of this discussion concluding that art must play a limited and very strict role in the perfect Greek Republic. Richter provides a nice summary of this point: "...poets may stay as servants of the state if they teach piety and virtue, but the pleasures of art are condemned as inherently corrupting to citizens..." (19).

One reason Plato included these ideas in his Socratic dialog is because he believed that art was a mediocre reproduction of nature: "...what artists do...is hold the mirror up to nature: They copy the appearances of men, animals, and objects in the physical world...and the intelligence that went into its creation need involve nothing more than conjecture" (Richter 19). So in short, if art does not teach morality and ethics, then it is damaging to its audience, and for Plato this damaged his Republic.

Given this controversial approach to art, it's easy to see why Plato's position has an impact on literature and literary criticism even today (though scholars who critique work based on whether or not the story teaches a moral are few - virtue may have an impact on children's literature, however).

Aristotle

In Poetics, Aristotle breaks with his teacher (Plato) in the consideration of art. Aristotle considers poetry (and rhetoric), a productive science, whereas he thought logic and physics to be theoretical sciences, and ethics and politics practical sciences (Richter 38). Because Aristotle saw poetry and drama as means to an end (for example, an audience's enjoyment) he established some basic guidelines for authors to follow to achieve certain objectives.

To help authors achieve their objectives, Aristotle developed elements of organization and methods for writing effective poetry and drama known as the principles of dramatic construction (Richter 39). Aristotle believed that elements like "...language, rhythm, and harmony..." as well as "...plot, character, thought, diction, song, and spectacle..." influence the audience's katharsis (pity and fear) or satisfaction with the work (Richter 39). And so here we see one of the earliest attempts to explain what makes an effective or ineffective work of literature.

Like Plato, Aristotle's views on art heavily influence Western thought. The debate between Platonists and Aristotelians continued "...in the Neoplatonists of the second century AD, the Cambridge Platonists of the latter seventeenth century, and the idealists of the romantic movement" (Richter 17). Even today, the debate continues, and this debate is no more evident than in some of the discussions between adherents to the schools of criticism contained in this resource.

Contributors: Allen Brizee, J. Case Tompkins, Libby Chernouski, Elizabeth Boyle, Sebastian Williams.
Summary:

This resource will help you begin the process of understanding literary theory and schools of criticism and how they are used in the academy.

Formalism (1930s-present)

Form Follows Function: Russian Formalism, New Criticism, Neo-Aristotelianism

Formalists disagreed about what specific elements make a literary work "good" or "bad"; but generally, Formalism maintains that a literary work contains certain intrinsic features, and the theory "...defined and addressed the specifically literary qualities in the text" (Richter 699). Therefore, it's easy to see Formalism's relation to Aristotle's theories of dramatic construction.

Formalism attempts to treat each work as its own distinct piece, free from its environment, era, and even author. This point of view developed in reaction to "...forms of 'extrinsic' criticism that viewed the text as either the product of social and historical forces or a document making an ethical statement" (699). Formalists assume that the keys to understanding a text exist within "the text itself" (a common saying among New Critics), and thus focus a great deal on, you guessed it, form (Tyson 118).

Typical questions:

  • How does the work use imagery to develop its own symbols? (i.e. making a certain road stand for death by constant association)
  • What is the quality of the work's organic unity "...the working together of all the parts to make an inseparable whole..." (Tyson 121)? In other words, does how the work is put together reflect what it is?
  • How are the various parts of the work interconnected?
  • How do paradox, irony, ambiguity, and tension work in the text?
  • How do these parts and their collective whole contribute to or not contribute to the aesthetic quality of the work?
  • How does the author resolve apparent contradictions within the work?
  • What does the form of the work say about its content?
  • Is there a central or focal passage that can be said to sum up the entirety of the work?
  • How do the rhythms and/or rhyme schemes of a poem contribute to the meaning or effect of the piece?

Here is a list of scholars we encourage you to explore to further your understanding of this theory:

Russian Formalism

  • Victor Shklovsky
  • Roman Jakobson
  • Victor Erlich - Russian Formalism: History - Doctrine, 1955
  • Yuri Tynyanov

New Criticism

  • John Crowe Ransom - The New Criticism, 1938
  • I.A. Richards
  • William Empson
  • T.S. Eliot
  • Allen Tate
  • Cleanth Brooks

Neo-Aristotelianism (Chicago School of Criticism)

  • R.S. Crane - Critics and Criticism: Ancient and Modern, 1952
  • Elder Olson
  • Norman Maclean
  • W.R. Keast
  • Wayne C. Booth - The Rhetoric of Fiction, 1961
Contributors: Allen Brizee, J. Case Tompkins, Libby Chernouski, Elizabeth Boyle, Sebastian Williams.
Summary:

This resource will help you begin the process of understanding literary theory and schools of criticism and how they are used in the academy.

Psychoanalytic Criticism (1930s-present)

Sigmund Freud

Psychoanalytic criticism builds on Freudian theories of psychology. While we don't have the room here to discuss all of Freud's work, a general overview is necessary to explain psychoanalytic literary criticism.

The Unconscious, the Desires, and the Defenses

Freud began his psychoanalytic work in the 1880s while attempting to treat behavioral disorders in his Viennese patients. He dubbed the disorders 'hysteria' and began treating them by listening to his patients talk through their problems. Based on this work, Freud asserted that people's behavior is affected by their unconscious: "...the notion that human beings are motivated, even driven, by desires, fears, needs, and conflicts of which they are unaware..." (Tyson 14-15).

Freud believed that our unconscious was influenced by childhood events. Freud organized these events into developmental stages involving relationships with parents and drives of desire and pleasure where children focus "...on different parts of the body...starting with the mouth...shifting to the oral, anal, and phallic phases..." (Richter 1015). These stages reflect base levels of desire, but they also involve fear of loss (loss of genitals, loss of affection from parents, loss of life) and repression: "...the expunging from consciousness of these unhappy psychological events" (Tyson 15).

Tyson reminds us, however, that "...repression doesn't eliminate our painful experiences and emotions...we unconsciously behave in ways that will allow us to 'play out'...our conflicted feelings about the painful experiences and emotions we repress" (15). To keep all of this conflict buried in our unconscious, Freud argued that we develop defenses: selective perception, selective memory, denial, displacement, projection, regression, fear of intimacy, and fear of death, among others.

Id, Ego, and Superego

Freud maintained that our desires and our unconscious conflicts give rise to three areas of the mind that wrestle for dominance as we grow from infancy, to childhood, to adulthood:

  • id - "...the location of the drives" or libido
  • ego - "...one of the major defenses against the power of the drives..." and home of the defenses listed above
  • superego - the area of the unconscious that houses Judgment (of self and others) and "...which begins to form during childhood as a result of the Oedipus complex" (Richter 1015-1016)

Oedipus Complex

Freud believed that the Oedipus complex was "...one of the most powerfully determinative elements in the growth of the child" (Richter 1016). Essentially, the Oedipus complex involves children's need for their parents and the conflict that arises as children mature and realize they are not the absolute focus of their mother's attention: "the Oedipus complex begins in a late phase of infantile sexuality, between the child's third and sixth year, and it takes a different form in males than it does in females" (Richter 1016).

Freud argued that both boys and girls wish to possess their mothers, but as they grow older "...they begin to sense that their claim to exclusive attention is thwarted by the mother's attention to the father..." (1016). Children, Freud maintained, connect this conflict of attention to the intimate relations between mother and father, relations from which the children are excluded. Freud believed that "the result is a murderous rage against the father...and a desire to possess the mother" (1016).

Freud pointed out, however, that "...the Oedipus complex differs in boys and girls...the functioning of the related castration complex" (1016). In short, Freud thought that "...during the Oedipal rivalry [between boys and their fathers], boys fantasized that punishment for their rage will take the form of..." castration (1016). When boys effectively work through this anxiety, Freud argued, "...the boy learns to identify with the father in the hope of someday possessing a woman like his mother. In girls, the castration complex does not take the form of anxiety...the result is a frustrated rage in which the girl shifts her sexual desire from the mother to the father" (1016).

Freud believed that eventually, the girl's spurned advances toward the father give way to a desire to possess a man like her father later in life. Freud believed that the impact of the unconscious, id, ego, superego, the defenses, and the Oedipus complex was inescapable and that these elements of the mind influence all our behavior (and even our dreams) as adults - of course this behavior involves what we write.

Freud and Literature

So what does all of this psychological business have to do with literature and the study of literature? Put simply, some critics believe that we can "...read psychoanalytically...to see which concepts are operating in the text in such a way as to enrich our understanding of the work and, if we plan to write a paper about it, to yield a meaningful, coherent psychoanalytic interpretation" (Tyson 29). Tyson provides some insightful and applicable questions to help guide our understanding of psychoanalytic criticism.

Typical questions:

  • How do the operations of repression structure or inform the work?
  • Are there any Oedipal dynamics - or any other family dynamics - are work here?
  • How can characters' behavior, narrative events, and/or images be explained in terms of psychoanalytic concepts of any kind (for example, fear or fascination with death, sexuality - which includes love and romance as well as sexual behavior - as a primary indicator of psychological identity or the operations of ego-id-superego)?
  • What does the work suggest about the psychological being of its author?
  • What might a given interpretation of a literary work suggest about the psychological motives of the reader?
  • Are there prominent words in the piece that could have different or hidden meanings? Could there be a subconscious reason for the author using these "problem words"?

Here is a list of scholars we encourage you to explore to further your understanding of this theory:

  • Harold Bloom - A Theory of Poetry, 1973; Poetry and Repression: Revisionism from Blake to Stevens, 1976
  • Peter Brooks
  • Jacque Lacan - The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 1988; "The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious or Reason Since Freud" (from Écrits: A Selection, 1957)
  • Jane Gallop - Reading Lacan, 1985
  • Julia Kristeva - Revolution in Poetic Language, 1984
  • Marshall Alcorn - Changing the Subject in English Class: Discourse and the Constructions of Desire, 2002

Carl Jung

Jungian criticism attempts to explore the connection between literature and what Carl Jung (a student of Freud) called the “collective unconscious” of the human race: "...racial memory, through which the spirit of the whole human species manifests itself" (Richter 504). Jungian criticism, which is closely related to Freudian theory because of its connection to psychoanalysis, assumes that all stories and symbols are based on mythic models from mankind’s past.

Based on these commonalities, Jung developed archetypal myths, the Syzygy: "...a quaternion composing a whole, the unified self of which people are in search" (Richter 505). These archetypes are the Shadow, the Anima, the Animus, and the Spirit: "...beneath...[the Shadow] is the Anima, the feminine side of the male Self, and the Animus, the corresponding masculine side of the female Self" (Richter 505).

In literary analysis, a Jungian critic would look for archetypes (also see the discussion of Northrop Frye in the Structuralism section) in creative works: "Jungian criticism is generally involved with a search for the embodiment of these symbols within particular works of art." (Richter 505). When dealing with this sort of criticism, it is often useful to keep a handbook of mythology and a dictionary of symbols on hand.

Typical questions:

  • What connections can we make between elements of the text and the archetypes? (Mask, Shadow, Anima, Animus)
  • How do the characters in the text mirror the archetypal figures? (Great Mother or nurturing Mother, Whore, destroying Crone, Lover, Destroying Angel)
  • How does the text mirror the archetypal narrative patterns? (Quest, Night-Sea-Journey)
  • How symbolic is the imagery in the work?
  • How does the protagonist reflect the hero of myth?
  • Does the “hero” embark on a journey in either a physical or spiritual sense?
  • Is there a journey to an underworld or land of the dead?
  • What trials or ordeals does the protagonist face? What is the reward for overcoming them?

Here is a list of scholars we encourage you to explore to further your understanding of this theory:

  • Maud Bodkin - Archetypal Patterns in Poetry, 1934
  • Carl Jung - The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Vol. 9, Part 1 of Collected Works. 2nd ed. Trans. R.F.C. Hull, 1968
  • Bettina Knapp - Music, Archetype and the Writer: A Jungian View, 1988
  • Richard Sugg - Jungian Literary Criticism, 1993
Contributors: Allen Brizee, J. Case Tompkins, Libby Chernouski, Elizabeth Boyle, Sebastian Williams.
Summary:

This resource will help you begin the process of understanding literary theory and schools of criticism and how they are used in the academy.

Marxist Criticism (1930s-present)

Whom Does It Benefit?

Based on the theories of Karl Marx (and so influenced by philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel), this school concerns itself with class differences, economic and otherwise, as well as the implications and complications of the capitalist system: "Marxism attempts to reveal the ways in which our socioeconomic system is the ultimate source of our experience" (Tyson 277).

Theorists working in the Marxist tradition, therefore, are interested in answering the overarching question, whom does it [the work, the effort, the policy, the road, etc.] benefit? The elite? The middle class? Marxists critics are also interested in how the lower or working classes are oppressed - in everyday life and in literature.

The Material Dialectic

The Marxist school follows a process of thinking called the material dialectic. This belief system maintains that "...what drives historical change are the material realities of the economic base of society, rather than the ideological superstructure of politics, law, philosophy, religion, and art that is built upon that economic base" (Richter 1088).

Marx asserts that "...stable societies develop sites of resistance: contradictions build into the social system that ultimately lead to social revolution and the development of a new society upon the old" (1088). This cycle of contradiction, tension, and revolution must continue: there will always be conflict between the upper, middle, and lower (working) classes and this conflict will be reflected in literature and other forms of expression - art, music, movies, etc.

The Revolution

The continuing conflict between the classes will lead to upheaval and revolution by oppressed peoples and form the groundwork for a new order of society and economics where capitalism is abolished. According to Marx, the revolution will be led by the working class (others think peasants will lead the uprising) under the guidance of intellectuals. Once the elite and middle class are overthrown, the intellectuals will compose an equal society where everyone owns everything (socialism - not to be confused with Soviet or Maoist Communism).

Though a staggering number of different nuances exist within this school of literary theory, Marxist critics generally work in areas covered by the following questions.

Typical questions:

  • Whom does it benefit if the work or effort is accepted/successful/believed, etc.?
  • What is the social class of the author?
  • Which class does the work claim to represent?
  • What values does it reinforce?
  • What values does it subvert?
  • What conflict can be seen between the values the work champions and those it portrays?
  • What social classes do the characters represent?
  • How do characters from different classes interact or conflict?

Here is a list of scholars we encourage you to explore to further your understanding of this theory:

  • Karl Marx - (with Friedrich Engels) The Communist Manifesto, 1848; Das Kapital, 1867; "Consciousness Derived from Material Conditions" from The German Ideology, 1932; "On Greek Art in Its Time" from A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859
  • Leon Trotsky - "Literature and Revolution," 1923
  • Georg Lukács - "The Ideology of Modernism," 1956
  • Walter Benjamin - "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," 1936
  • Theodor W. Adorno
  • Louis Althusser - Reading Capital, 1965
  • Terry Eagleton - Marxism and Literary Criticism, Criticism and Ideology, 1976
  • Frederic Jameson - Marxism and Form, The Political Unconscious, 1971
  • Jürgen Habermas - The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, 1990
Contributors: Allen Brizee, J. Case Tompkins, Libby Chernouski, Elizabeth Boyle, Sebastian Williams.
Summary:

This resource will help you begin the process of understanding literary theory and schools of criticism and how they are used in the academy.

Reader-Response Criticism (1960s-present)

What Do You Think?

At its most basic level, reader-response criticism considers readers' reactions to literature as vital to interpreting the meaning of the text. However, reader-response criticism can take a number of different approaches. A critic deploying reader-response theory can use a psychoanalytic lens, a feminist lens, or even a structuralist lens. What these different lenses have in common when using a reader-response approach is they maintain "...that what a text is cannot be separated from what it does" (Tyson 154).

Tyson explains that "...reader-response theorists share two beliefs: 1) that the role of the reader cannot be omitted from our understanding of literature and 2) that readers do not passively consume the meaning presented to them by an objective literary text; rather they actively make the meaning they find in literature" (154). In this way, reader-response theory shares common ground with some of the deconstructionists discussed in the Post-structural area when they talk about "the death of the author," or her displacement as the (author)itarian figure in the text.

Typical questions:

  • How does the interaction of text and reader create meaning?
  • What does a phrase-by-phrase analysis of a short literary text, or a key portion of a longer text, tell us about the reading experience prestructured by (built into) that text?
  • Do the sounds/shapes of the words as they appear on the page or how they are spoken by the reader enhance or change the meaning of the word/work?
  • How might we interpret a literary text to show that the reader's response is, or is analogous to, the topic of the story?
  • What does the body of criticism published about a literary text suggest about the critics who interpreted that text and/or about the reading experience produced by that text? (Tyson 191)

Here is a list of scholars we encourage you to explore to further your understanding of this theory:

  • Peter Rabinowitz - Before Reading, 1987
  • Stanley Fish - Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities, 1980
  • Elizabeth Freund - The Return of the Reader: Reader-Response Criticism, 1987
  • David Bleich
  • Norman Holland - The Dynamics of Literary Response, 1968
  • Louise Rosenblatt
  • Wolfgang Iser - The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett, 1974
  • Hans Robert Jauss
Contributors: Allen Brizee, J. Case Tompkins, Libby Chernouski, Elizabeth Boyle, Sebastian Williams.
Summary:

This resource will help you begin the process of understanding literary theory and schools of criticism and how they are used in the academy.

Structuralism and Semiotics (1920s-present)

Note: Structuralism, semiotics, and post-structuralism are some of the most complex literary theories to understand. Please be patient.

Linguistic Roots

The structuralist school emerges from theories of language and linguistics, and it looks for underlying elements in culture and literature that can be connected so that critics can develop general conclusions about the individual works and the systems from which they emerge. In fact, structuralism maintains that "...practically everything we do that is specifically human is expressed in language" (Richter 809). Structuralists believe that these language symbols extend far beyond written or oral communication.

For example, codes that represent all sorts of things permeate everything we do: "the performance of music requires complex notation...our economic life rests upon the exchange of labor and goods for symbols, such as cash, checks, stock, and certificates...social life depends on the meaningful gestures and signals of 'body language' and revolves around the exchange of small, symbolic favors: drinks, parties, dinners" (Richter 809).

Patterns and Experience

Structuralists assert that, since language exists in patterns, certain underlying elements are common to all human experiences. Structuralists believe we can observe these experiences through patterns: "...if you examine the physical structures of all buildings built in urban America in 1850 to discover the underlying principles that govern their composition, for example, principles of mechanical construction or of artistic form..." you are using a structuralist lens (Tyson 197).

Moreover, "you are also engaged in structuralist activity if you examine the structure of a single building to discover how its composition demonstrates underlying principles of a structural system. In the first example...you're generating a structural system of classification; in the second, you're demonstrating that an individual item belongs to a particular structural class" (Tyson 197).

Structuralism in Literary Theory

Structuralism is used in literary theory, for example, "...if you examine the structure of a large number of short stories to discover the underlying principles that govern their composition...principles of narrative progression...or of characterization...you are also engaged in structuralist activity if you describe the structure of a single literary work to discover how its composition demonstrates the underlying principles of a given structural system" (Tyson 197-198).

Northrop Frye, however, takes a different approach to structuralism by exploring ways in which genres of Western literature fall into his four mythoi (also see Jungian criticism in the Freudian Literary Criticism resource):

  1. theory of modes, or historical criticism (tragic, comic, and thematic);
  2. theory of symbols, or ethical criticism (literal/descriptive, formal, mythical, and anagogic);
  3. theory of myths, or archetypal criticism (comedy, romance, tragedy, irony/satire);
  4. theory of genres, or rhetorical criticism (epos, prose, drama, lyric) (Tyson 240).

Peirce and Saussure

Two important theorists form the framework (hah) of structuralism: Charles Sanders Peirce and Ferdinand de Saussure. Peirce gave structuralism three important ideas for analyzing the sign systems that permeate and define our experiences:

  1. "iconic signs, in which the signifier resembles the thing signified (such as the stick figures on washroom doors that signify 'Men' or 'Women';
  2. indexes, in which the signifier is a reliable indicator of the presence of the signified (like fire and smoke);
  3. true symbols, in which the signifier's relation to the thing signified is completely arbitrary and conventional [just as the sound /kat/ or the written word cat are conventional signs for the familiar feline]" (Richter 810).

These elements become very important when we move into deconstruction in the Postmodernism resource. Peirce also influenced the semiotic school of structuralist theory that uses sign systems.

Sign Systems

The discipline of semiotics plays an important role in structuralist literary theory and cultural studies. Semioticians "...appl[y] structuralist insights to the study of...sign systems...a non-linguistic object or behavior...that can be analyzed as if it were a language" (Tyson 205). Specifically, "...semiotics examines the ways non-linguistic objects and behaviors 'tell' us something.

For example, the picture of the reclining blond beauty in the skin-tight, black velvet dress on the billboard...'tells' us that those who drink this whiskey (presumably male) will be attractive to...beautiful women like the one displayed here" (Tyson 205). Lastly, Richter states, "semiotics takes off from Peirce - for whom language is one of numerous sign systems - and structuralism takes off from Saussure, for whom language was the sign system par excellence" (810).

Typical questions:

  • Using a specific structuralist framework (like Frye's mythoi)...how should the text be classified in terms of its genre? In other words, what patterns exist within the text that make it a part of other works like it?
  • Using a specific structuralist framework...analyze the text's narrative operations...can you speculate about the relationship between the...[text]... and the culture from which the text emerged? In other words, what patterns exist within the text that make it a product of a larger culture?
  • What patterns exist within the text that connect it to the larger "human" experience? In other words, can we connect patterns and elements within the text to other texts from other cultures to map similarities that tell us more about the common human experience? This is a liberal humanist move that assumes that since we are all human, we all share basic human commonalities.
  • What rules or codes of interpretation must be internalized in order to 'make sense' of the text?
  • What are the semiotics of a given category of cultural phenomena, or 'text,' such as high-school football games, television and/or magazine ads for a particular brand of perfume...or even media coverage of an historical event? (Tyson 225)

Here is a list of scholars we encourage you to explore to further your understanding of this theory:

  • Charles Sanders Peirce
  • Ferdinand de Saussure - Course in General Linguistics, 1923
  • Claude Lévi-Strauss - The Elementary Structure of Kinship, 1949; "The Structural Study of Myth," 1955
  • Northrop Frye - Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays, 1957
  • Noam Chomsky - Syntactic Structures, 1957; Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, 1965
  • Roland Barthes - Critical Essays, 1964; Mythologies, 1957; S/Z, 1970; Image, Music, Text, 1977
  • Umberto Eco - The Role of the Reader, 1979
Contributors: Allen Brizee, J. Case Tompkins, Libby Chernouski, Elizabeth Boyle, Sebastian Williams.
Summary:

This resource will help you begin the process of understanding literary theory and schools of criticism and how they are used in the academy.

Post-Structuralism, Deconstruction, Postmodernism (1966-present)

Note: Structuralism, semiotics, and post-structuralism are some of the most complex literary theories to understand. Please be patient.

The Center Cannot Hold

This approach concerns itself with the ways and places where systems, frameworks, definitions, and certainties break down. Post-structuralism maintains that frameworks and systems, for example the structuralist systems explained in the structuralist area, are merely fictitious constructs and that they cannot be trusted to develop meaning or to give order. In fact, the very act of seeking order or a singular Truth (with a capital T) is absurd because there exists no unified truth.

Post-structuralism holds that there are many truths, that frameworks must bleed, and that structures must become unstable or decentered. Moreover, post-structuralism is also concerned with the power structures or hegemonies and power and how these elements contribute to and/or maintain structures to enforce hierarchy. Therefore, post-structural theory carries implications far beyond literary criticism.

What Does Your Meaning Mean?

By questioning the process of developing meaning, post-structural theory strikes at the very heart of philosophy and reality and throws knowledge making into what Jacques Derrida called "freeplay": "The concept of centered structure...is contradictorily coherent...the concept of centered structure is in fact the concept of a freeplay which is constituted upon a fundamental immobility and a reassuring certitude, which is itself beyond the reach of the freeplay" (qtd. in Richter, 878-879).

Derrida first posited these ideas in 1966 at Johns Hopkins University when he delivered “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”: "Perhaps something has occurred in the history of the concept of structure that could be called an 'event,' if this loaded word did not entail a meaning which it is precisely the function of structural-or structuralist-thought to reduce or to suspect. But let me use the term 'event' anyway, employing it with caution and as if in quotation marks. In this sense, this event will have the exterior form of a rupture and a redoubling” (qtd. in Richter, 878). In his presentation, Derrida challenged structuralism's most basic ideas.

Can Language Do That?

Post-structural theory can be tied to a move against Modernist/Enlightenment ideas (philosophers: Immanuel Kant, Réne Descartes, John Locke, etc.) and Western religious beliefs (neo-Platonism, Catholicism, etc.). An early pioneer of this resistance was philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. In his essay, “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense” (1873), Nietzsche rejects even the very basis of our knowledge making, language, as a reliable system of communication: “The various languages, juxtaposed, show that words are never concerned with truth, never with adequate expression...” (248).

Below is an example, adapted from the Tyson text, of some language freeplay and a simple form of deconstruction:

Time (noun) flies (verb) like an arrow (adverb clause) = Time passes quickly.

Time (verb) flies (object) like an arrow (adverb clause) = Get out your stopwatch and time the speed of flies as you would time an arrow's flight.

Time flies (noun) like (verb) an arrow (object) = Time flies are fond of arrows (or at least of one particular arrow).

So, post-structuralists assert that if we cannot trust language systems to convey truth, the very bases of truth are unreliable and the universe - or at least the universe we have constructed - becomes unraveled or de-centered. Nietzsche uses language slip as a base to move into the slip and shift of truth as a whole: “What is truth? …truths are an illusion about which it has been forgotten that they are illusions...” ("On Truth and Lies" 250).

This returns us to the discussion in the structuralist area regarding signs, signifiers, and signified. Essentially, post-structuralism holds that we cannot trust the sign = signifier + signified formula, that there is a breakdown of certainty between sign/signifier, which leaves language systems hopelessly inadequate for relaying meaning so that we are (returning to Derrida) in eternal freeplay or instability.

What's Left?

Important to note, however, is that deconstruction is not just about tearing down - this is a common misconception. Derrida, in "Signature Event Context," addressed this limited view of post-structural theory: "Deconstruction cannot limit or proceed immediately to a neutralization: it must…practice an overturning of the classical opposition and a general displacement of the system. It is only on this condition that deconstruction will provide itself the means with which to intervene in the field of oppositions that it criticizes, which is also a field of nondiscursive forces" (328).

Derrida reminds us that through deconstruction we can identify the in-betweens and the marginalized to begin interstitial knowledge building.

Modernism vs Postmodernism

With the resistance to traditional forms of knowledge making (science, religion, language), inquiry, communication, and building meaning take on different forms to the post-structuralist. We can look at this difference as a split between Modernism and Postmodernism. The table below, excerpted from theorist Ihab Hassan's The Dismemberment of Orpheus (1998), offers us a way to make sense of some differences between Modernism, dominated by Enlightenment ideas, and Postmodernism, a space of freeplay and discourse.

Keep in mind that even the author, Hassan, "...is quick to point out how the dichotomies are themselves insecure, equivocal" (Harvey 42). Though post-structuralism is uncomfortable with binaries, Hassan provides us with some interesting contrasts to consider:

Modernism vs Postmodernism
ModernismPostmodernism
romanticism/symbolismparaphysics/Dadaism
form (conjunctive, closed)antiform (disjunctive, open)
purposeplay
designchance
hierarchyanarchy
mastery/logosexhaustion/silence
art object/finished work/logosprocess/performance/antithesis
centeringabsence
genre/boundarytext/intertext
semanticsrhetoric
metaphormetonymy
root/depthrhizome/surface
signifiedsignifier
narrative/grande histoireanti-narrative/petite histoire
genital/phallicpolymorphous/androgynous
paranoiaschizophrenia
origin/causedifference-difference/trace
God the FatherThe Holy Ghost
determinacyinterdeterminacy
transcendenceimmanence

Post-Structuralism and Literature

If we are questioning/resisting the methods we use to build knowledge (science, religion, language), then traditional literary notions are also thrown into freeplay. These include the narrative and the author:

Narrative

The narrative is a fiction that locks readers into interpreting text in a single, chronological manner that does not reflect our experiences. Postmodern texts may not adhere to traditional notions of narrative. For example, in his seminal work, Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs explodes the traditional narrative structure and critiques almost everything Modern: modern government, modern medicine, modern law-enforcement. Other examples of authors playing with narrative include John Fowles; in the final sections of The French Lieutenant's Woman, Fowles steps outside his narrative to speak with the reader directly.

Moreover, grand narratives are resisted. For example, the belief that through science the human race will improve is questioned. In addition, metaphysics is questioned. Instead, postmodern knowledge building is local, situated, slippery, and self-critical (i.e. it questions itself and its role). Because post-structural work is self-critical, post-structural critics even look for ways texts contradict themselves (see typical questions below).

Author

The author is displaced as absolute author(ity), and the reader plays a role in interpreting the text and developing meaning (as best as possible) from the text. In “The Death of the Author,” Roland Barthes argues that the idea of singular authorship is a recent phenomenon. Barthes explains that the death of the author shatters Modernist notions of authority and knowledge building (145).

Lastly, he states that once the author is dead and the Modernist idea of singular narrative (and thus authority) is overturned, texts become plural, and the interpretation of texts becomes a collaborative process between author and audience: “...a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue...but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader” (148). Barthes ends his essay by empowering the reader: “Classical criticism has never paid any attention to the reader...the writer is the only person in literature…it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author” (148).

Typical questions:

  • How is language thrown into freeplay or questioned in the work? For example, note how Anthony Burgess plays with language (Russian vs English) in A Clockwork Orange, or how Burroughs plays with names and language in Naked Lunch.
  • How does the work undermine or contradict generally accepted truths?
  • How does the author (or a character) omit, change, or reconstruct memory and identity?
  • How does a work fulfill or move outside the established conventions of its genre?
  • How does the work deal with the separation (or lack thereof) between writer, work, and reader?
  • What ideology does the text seem to promote?
  • What is left out of the text that if included might undermine the goal of the work?
  • If we changed the point of view of the text - say from one character to another, or multiple characters - how would the story change? Whose story is not told in the text? Who is left out and why might the author have omitted this character's tale?

Here is a list of scholars we encourage you to explore to further your understanding of this theory:

Theorists

  • Immanuel Kant - "An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?", 1784 (as a baseline to understand what Nietzsche was resisting)
  • Friedrich Nietzsche - “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense," 1873; The Gay Science, 1882; Thus Spoke Zarathustra, A Book for All and None, 1885
  • Jacques Derrida - "Structure Sign and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences," 1966; Of Grammatology, 1967; "Signature Event Context," 1972
  • Roland Barthes - "The Death of the Author," 1967
  • Deleuze and Guattari - "Rhizome," 1976
  • Jean-François Lyotard - The Postmodern Condition, 1979
  • Michele Foucault - The Foucault Reader, 1984
  • Stephen Toulmin - Cosmopolis, 1990
  • Martin Heidegger - Basic Writings, 1993
  • Paul Cilliers - Complexity and Postmodernity, 1998
  • Ihab Hassan - The Dismemberment of Orpheus, 1998; From Postmodernism to Postmodernity: The Local/Global Context, 2001

Postmodern Literature

  • William S. Burroughs - Naked Lunch, 1959
  • Angela Carter - Burning Your Boats, stories from 1962-1993 (first published as a collection in 1995)
  • Kathy Acker - Blood and Guts in High School, 1978
  • Paul Auster - City of Glass (volume one of the New York City Trilogy), 1985 (as a graphic novel published by Neon Lit, a division of Avon Books, 1994)
  • Lynne Tillman - Haunted Houses, 1987
  • David Wojnarowicz - The Waterfront Journals, 1996
Contributors: Allen Brizee, J. Case Tompkins, Libby Chernouski, Elizabeth Boyle, Sebastian Williams.
Summary:

This resource will help you begin the process of understanding literary theory and schools of criticism and how they are used in the academy.

New Historicism, Cultural Studies (1980s-present)

It's All Relative...

This school, influenced by structuralist and post-structuralist theories, seeks to reconnect a work with the time period in which it was produced and identify it with the cultural and political movements of the time (Michel Foucault's concept of épistème). New Historicism assumes that every work is a product of the historic moment that created it. Specifically, New Historicism is "...a practice that has developed out of contemporary theory, particularly the structuralist realization that all human systems are symbolic and subject to the rules of language, and the deconstructive realization that there is no way of positioning oneself as an observer outside the closed circle of textuality" (Richter 1205).

A helpful way of considering New Historical theory, Tyson explains, is to think about the retelling of history itself: "...questions asked by traditional historians and by new historicists are quite different...traditional historians ask, 'What happened?' and 'What does the event tell us about history?' In contrast, new historicists ask, 'How has the event been interpreted?' and 'What do the interpretations tell us about the interpreters?'" (278). So New Historicism resists the notion that "...history is a series of events that have a linear, causal relationship: event A caused event B; event B caused event C; and so on" (Tyson 278).

New Historicists do not believe that we can look at history objectively, but rather that we interpret events as products of our time and culture and that "...we don't have clear access to any but the most basic facts of history...our understanding of what such facts mean...is...strictly a matter of interpretation, not fact" (279). Moreover, New Historicism holds that we are hopelessly subjective interpreters of what we observe.

Typical questions:

  • What language/characters/events present in the work reflect the current events of the author’s day?
  • Are there words in the text that have changed their meaning from the time of the writing?
  • How are such events interpreted and presented?
  • How are events' interpretation and presentation a product of the culture of the author?
  • Does the work's presentation support or condemn the event?
  • Can it be seen to do both?
  • How does this portrayal criticize the leading political figures or movements of the day?
  • How does the literary text function as part of a continuum with other historical/cultural texts from the same period?
  • How can we use a literary work to "map" the interplay of both traditional and subversive discourses circulating in the culture in which that work emerged and/or the cultures in which the work has been interpreted?
  • How does the work consider traditionally marginalized populations?

Here is a list of scholars we encourage you to explore to further your understanding of this theory:

  • Michel Foucault - The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences, 1970; Language, Counter-memory, Practice, 1977
  • Clifford Geertz - The Interpretation of Cultures, 1973; "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight," 1992
  • Hayden White - Metahistory, 1974; "The Politics of Historical Interpretation: Discipline and De-Sublimation," 1982
  • Stephen Greenblatt - Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare, 1980
  • Pierre Bourdieu - Outline of a Theory of Practice, 1977; Homo Academicus, 1984; The Field of Cultural Production, 1993
Contributors: Allen Brizee, J. Case Tompkins, Libby Chernouski, Elizabeth Boyle, Sebastian Williams.
Summary:

This resource will help you begin the process of understanding literary theory and schools of criticism and how they are used in the academy.

Post-Colonial Criticism (1990s-present)

History is Written by the Victors

Post-colonial criticism is similar to cultural studies, but it assumes a unique perspective on literature and politics that warrants a separate discussion. Specifically, post-colonial critics are concerned with literature produced by colonial powers and works produced by those who were/are colonized. Post-colonial theory looks at issues of power, economics, politics, religion, and culture and how these elements work in relation to colonial hegemony (Western colonizers controlling the colonized).

Therefore, a post-colonial critic might be interested in works such as Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe where colonial "...ideology [is] manifest in Crusoe's colonialist attitude toward the land upon which he's shipwrecked and toward the black man he 'colonizes' and names Friday" (Tyson 377). In addition, post-colonial theory might point out that "...despite Heart of Darkness's (Joseph Conrad) obvious anti-colonist agenda, the novel points to the colonized population as the standard of savagery to which Europeans are contrasted" (Tyson 375). Post-colonial criticism also takes the form of literature composed by authors that critique Euro-centric hegemony.

A Unique Perspective on Empire

Seminal post-colonial writers such as Nigerian author Chinua Achebe and Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong'o have written a number of stories recounting the suffering of colonized people. For example, in Things Fall Apart, Achebe details the strife and devastation that occurred when British colonists began moving inland from the Nigerian coast.

Rather than glorifying the exploratory nature of European colonists as they expanded their sphere of influence, Achebe narrates the destructive events that led to the death and enslavement of thousands of Nigerians when the British imposed their Imperial government. In turn, Achebe points out the negative effects (and shifting ideas of identity and culture) caused by the imposition of Western religion and economics on Nigerians during colonial rule.

Power, Hegemony, and Literature

Post-colonial criticism also questions the role of the Western literary canon and Western history as dominant forms of knowledge making. The terms "First World," "Second World," "Third World" and "Fourth World" nations are critiqued by post-colonial critics because they reinforce the dominant positions of Western cultures populating First World status. This critique includes the literary canon and histories written from the perspective of First World cultures. So, for example, a post-colonial critic might question the works included in "the canon" because the canon does not contain works by authors outside Western culture.

Typical questions:

  • How does the literary text, explicitly or allegorically, represent various aspects of colonial oppression?
  • What does the text reveal about the problematics of post-colonial identity, including the relationship between personal and cultural identity and such issues as double consciousness and hybridity?
  • What person(s) or groups does the work identify as "other" or stranger? How are such persons/groups described and treated?
  • What does the text reveal about the politics and/or psychology of anti-colonialist resistance?
  • What does the text reveal about the operations of cultural difference - the ways in which race, religion, class, gender, sexual orientation, cultural beliefs, and customs combine to form individual identity - in shaping our perceptions of ourselves, others, and the world in which we live?
  • How does the text respond to or comment upon the characters, themes, or assumptions of a canonized (colonialist) work?
  • Are there meaningful similarities among the literatures of different post-colonial populations?
  • How does a literary text in the Western canon reinforce or undermine colonialist ideology through its representation of colonialization and/or its inappropriate silence about colonized peoples? (Tyson 378-379)

Here is a list of scholars we encourage you to explore to further your understanding of this theory:

Criticism

  • Edward Said - Orientalism, 1978; Culture and Imperialism, 1994
  • Kamau Brathwaite - The History of the Voice, 1979
  • Gayatri Spivak - In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics, 1987
  • Dominick LaCapra - The Bounds of Race: Perspectives on Hegemony and Resistance, 1991
  • Homi Bhabha - The Location of Culture, 1994

Literature and non-fiction

  • Chinua Achebe - Things Fall Apart, 1958
  • Ngugi wa Thiong'o - The River Between, 1965
  • Sembene Ousmane - God's Bits of Wood, 1962
  • Ruth Prawer Jhabvala - Heat and Dust, 1975
  • Buchi Emecheta - The Joys of Motherhood, 1979
  • Keri Hulme - The Bone People, 1983
  • Robertson Davies - What's Bred in the Bone, 1985
  • Kazuo Ishiguro - The Remains of the Day, 1988
  • Bharati Mukherjee - Jasmine, 1989
  • Jill Ker Conway - The Road from Coorain, 1989
  • Helena Norberg-Hodge - Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh, 1991
  • Michael Ondaatje - The English Patient, 1992
  • Gita Mehta - A River Sutra, 1993
  • Arundhati Roy - The God of Small Things, 1997
  • Patrick Chamoiseau - Texaco, 1997
Contributors: Allen Brizee, J. Case Tompkins, Libby Chernouski, Elizabeth Boyle, Sebastian Williams.
Summary:

This resource will help you begin the process of understanding literary theory and schools of criticism and how they are used in the academy.

Feminist Criticism (1960s-present)

Feminist criticism is concerned with "...the ways in which literature (and other cultural productions) reinforce or undermine the economic, political, social, and psychological oppression of women" (Tyson). This school of theory looks at how aspects of our culture are inherently patriarchal (male dominated) and "...this critique strives to expose the explicit and implicit misogyny in male writing about women" (Richter 1346). This misogyny, Tyson reminds us, can extend into diverse areas of our culture: "Perhaps the most chilling example...is found in the world of modern medicine, where drugs prescribed for both sexes often have been tested on male subjects only" (83).

Feminist criticism is also concerned with less obvious forms of marginalization such as the exclusion of women writers from the traditional literary canon: "...unless the critical or historical point of view is feminist, there is a tendency to under-represent the contribution of women writers" (Tyson 82-83).

Common Space in Feminist Theories

Though a number of different approaches exist in feminist criticism, there exist some areas of commonality. This list is excerpted from Tyson:

  1. Women are oppressed by patriarchy economically, politically, socially, and psychologically; patriarchal ideology is the primary means by which women are oppressed.
  2. In every domain where patriarchy reigns, woman is other: she is marginalized, defined only by her difference from male norms and values.
  3. All of Western (Anglo-European) civilization is deeply rooted in patriarchal ideology, for example, in the Biblical portrayal of Eve as the origin of sin and death in the world.
  4. While biology determines our sex (male or female), culture determines our gender (scales of masculine and feminine).
  5. All feminist activity, including feminist theory and literary criticism, has as its ultimate goal to change the world by prompting gender equality.
  6. Gender issues play a part in every aspect of human production and experience, including the production and experience of literature, whether we are consciously aware of these issues or not (91).

Feminist criticism has, in many ways, followed what some theorists call the three waves of feminism:

  1. First Wave Feminism - late 1700s-early 1900's: writers like Mary Wollstonecraft (A Vindication of the Rights of Women, 1792) highlight the inequalities between the sexes. Activists like Susan B. Anthony and Victoria Woodhull contribute to the women's suffrage movement, which leads to National Universal Suffrage in 1920 with the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment.
  2. Second Wave Feminism - early 1960s-late 1970s: building on more equal working conditions necessary in America during World War II, movements such as the National Organization for Women (NOW), formed in 1966, cohere feminist political activism. Writers like Simone de Beauvoir (Le deuxième sexe, 1972) and Elaine Showalter established the groundwork for the dissemination of feminist theories dove-tailed with the American Civil Rights movement.
  3. Third Wave Feminism - early 1990s-present: resisting the perceived essentialist (over generalized, over simplified) ideologies and a white, heterosexual, middle class focus of second wave feminism, third wave feminism borrows from post-structural and contemporary gender and race theories (see below) to expand on marginalized populations' experiences. Writers like Alice Walker work to "...reconcile it [feminism] with the concerns of the black community...[and] the survival and wholeness of her people, men and women both, and for the promotion of dialog and community as well as for the valorization of women and of all the varieties of work women perform" (Tyson 97).

Typical questions:

  • How is the relationship between men and women portrayed?
  • What are the power relationships between men and women (or characters assuming male/female roles)?
  • How are male and female roles defined?
  • What constitutes masculinity and femininity?
  • How do characters embody these traits?
  • Do characters take on traits from opposite genders? How so? How does this change others’ reactions to them?
  • What does the work reveal about the operations (economically, politically, socially, or psychologically) of patriarchy?
  • What does the work imply about the possibilities of sisterhood as a mode of resisting patriarchy?
  • What does the work say about women's creativity?
  • What does the history of the work's reception by the public and by the critics tell us about the operation of patriarchy?
  • What role does the work play in terms of women's literary history and literary tradition? (Tyson)

Here is a list of scholars we encourage you to explore to further your understanding of this theory:

  • Mary Wollstonecraft - A Vindication of the Rights of Women, 1792
  • Simone de Beauvoir - Le deuxième sexe (The Second Sex), 1949
  • Julia Kristeva - About Chinese Women, 1977
  • Elaine Showalter - A Literature of Their Own, 1977; "Toward a Feminist Poetics," 1979
  • Deborah E. McDowell - "New Directions for Black Feminist Criticism," 1980
  • Alice Walker - In Search of Our Mother's Gardens, 1983
  • Lillian S. Robinson - "Treason out Text: Feminist Challenges to the Literary Canon," 1983
  • Camiile Paglia - Sexual Personae: The Androgyne in Literature and Art, 1990
Contributors: Allen Brizee, J. Case Tompkins, Libby Chernouski, Elizabeth Boyle, Sebastian Williams.
Summary:

This resource will help you begin the process of understanding literary theory and schools of criticism and how they are used in the academy.

Gender Studies and Queer Theory (1970s-present)

Gender(s), Power, and Marginalization

Gender studies and queer theory explore issues of sexuality, power, and marginalized populations (woman as other) in literature and culture. Much of the work in gender studies and queer theory, while influenced by feminist criticism, emerges from post-structural interest in fragmented, de-centered knowledge building (Nietzsche, Derrida, Foucault), language (the breakdown of sign-signifier), and psychoanalysis (Lacan).

A primary concern in gender studies and queer theory is the manner in which gender and sexuality is discussed: "Effective as this work [feminism] was in changing what teachers taught and what the students read, there was a sense on the part of some feminist critics that...it was still the old game that was being played, when what it needed was a new game entirely. The argument posed was that in order to counter patriarchy, it was necessary not merely to think about new texts, but to think about them in radically new ways" (Richter 1432).

Therefore, a critic working in gender studies and queer theory might even be uncomfortable with the binary established by many feminist scholars between masculine and feminine: "Cixous (following Derrida in Of Grammatology) sets up a series of binary oppositions (active/passive, sun/moon...father/mother, logos/pathos). Each pair can be analyzed as a hierarchy in which the former term represents the positive and masculine and the latter the negative and feminine principle" (Richter 1433-1434).

In-Betweens

Many critics working with gender and queer theory are interested in the breakdown of binaries such as male and female, the in-betweens (also following Derrida's interstitial knowledge building). For example, gender studies and queer theory maintains that cultural definitions of sexuality and what it means to be male and female are in flux: "...the distinction between "masculine" and "feminine" activities and behavior is constantly changing, so that women who wear baseball caps and fatigues...can be perceived as more piquantly sexy by some heterosexual men than those women who wear white frocks and gloves and look down demurely" (Richter 1437).

Moreover, Richter reminds us that as we learn more about our genetic structure, the biology of male/female becomes increasingly complex and murky: "even the physical dualism of sexual genetic structures and bodily parts breaks down when one considers those instances - XXY syndromes, natural sexual bimorphisms, as well as surgical transsexuals - that defy attempts at binary classification" (1437).

Typical questions:

  • What elements of the text can be perceived as being masculine (active, powerful) and feminine (passive, marginalized) and how do the characters support these traditional roles?
  • What sort of support (if any) is given to elements or characters who question the masculine/feminine binary? What happens to those elements/characters?
  • What elements in the text exist in the middle, between the perceived masculine/feminine binary? In other words, what elements exhibit traits of both (bisexual)?
  • How does the author present the text? Is it a traditional narrative? Is it secure and forceful? Or is it more hesitant or even collaborative?
  • What are the politics (ideological agendas) of specific gay, lesbian, or queer works, and how are those politics revealed in...the work's thematic content or portrayals of its characters?
  • What are the poetics (literary devices and strategies) of a specific lesbian, gay, or queer works?
  • What does the work contribute to our knowledge of queer, gay, or lesbian experience and history, including literary history?
  • How is queer, gay, or lesbian experience coded in texts that are by writers who are apparently homosexual?
  • What does the work reveal about the operations (socially, politically, psychologically) homophobic?
  • How does the literary text illustrate the problematics of sexuality and sexual "identity," that is the ways in which human sexuality does not fall neatly into the separate categories defined by the words homosexual and heterosexual?

Here is a list of scholars we encourage you to explore to further your understanding of this theory:

  • Luce Irigaray - Speculum of the Other Woman, 1974
  • Hélène Cixous - "The Laugh of the Medusa," 1976
  • Laura Mulvey - "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," 1975; "Afterthoughts on Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," 1981
  • Michel Foucault - The History of Sexuality, Volume I, 1980
  • Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick - Epistemology of the Closet, 1994
  • Lee Edelman - "Homographesis," 1989
  • Michael Warner
  • Judith Butler - "Imitation and Gender Insubordination," 1991
Contributors: Allen Brizee, J. Case Tompkins, Libby Chernouski, Elizabeth Boyle, Sebastian Williams.
Summary:

This resource will help you begin the process of understanding literary theory and schools of criticism and how they are used in the academy.

Ecocriticism (1960-Present)

Ecocriticism is an umbrella term under which a variety of approaches fall; this can make it a difficult term to define. As ecocritic Lawrence Buell says, ecocriticism is an “increasingly heterogeneous movement” (1). But, “simply put, ecocriticism is the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment” (Glotfelty xviii). Emerging in the 1980s on the shoulders of the environmental movement begun in the 1960s with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, ecocriticism has been and continues to be an “earth-centered approach” (Glotfelty xviii) the complex intersections between environment and culture, believing that “human culture is connected to the physical world, affecting it and affected by it” (Glotfelty xix). Ecocriticism is interdisciplinary, calling for collaboration between natural scientists, writers, literary critics, anthropologists, historians, and more. Ecocriticism asks us to examine ourselves and the world around us, critiquing the way that we represent, interact with, and construct the environment, both “natural” and manmade. At the heart of ecocriticism, many maintain, is “a commitment to environmentality from whatever critical vantage point” (Buell 11). The “challenge” for ecocritics is “keep[ing] one eye on the ways in which ‘nature’ is always […] culturally constructed, and the other on the fact that nature really exists” (Gerrard 10). Similar to critical traditions examining gender and race, ecocriticism deals not only with the socially-constructed, often dichotomous categories we create for reality, but with reality itself.  

First and Second Waves

Several scholars have divided Ecocriticism into two waves (Buell)(Glotfelty), recognizing the first as taking place throughout the eighties and nineties. The first wave is characterized by its emphasis on nature writing as an object of study and as a meaningful practice (Buell). Central to this wave and to the majority of ecocritics still today is the environmental crisis of our age, seeing it as the duty of both the humanities and the natural sciences to raise awareness and invent solutions for a problem that is both cultural and physical. As such, a primary concern in first-wave ecocriticism was to “speak for” nature (Buell 11). This is, perhaps, where ecocriticism gained its reputation as an “avowedly political mode of analysis” (Gerrard 3). This wave, unlike its successor, kept the cultural distinction between human and nature, promoting the value of nature.

The second wave is particularly modern in its breaking down of some of the long-standing distinctions between the human and the non-human, questioning these very concepts (Gerrard 5). The boundaries between the human and the non-human, nature and non-nature are discussed as constructions, and ecocritics challenge these constructions, asking (among other things) how they frame the environmental crisis and its solution. This wave brought with it a redefinition of the term “environment,” expanding its meaning to include both “nature” and the urban (Buell 11). Out of this expansion has grown the ecojustice movement, one of the more political of ecocriticism branches that is “raising an awareness of class, race, and gender through ecocritical reading of text” (Bressler 236), often examining the plight of the poorest of a population who are the victims of pollution are seen as having less access to “nature” in the traditional sense.

These waves are not exactly distinct, and there is debate over what exactly constitutes the two. For instance, some ecocritics will claim activism has been a defining feature of ecocriticism from the beginning, while others see activism as a defining feature of primarily the first wave. While the exact features attributed to each wave may be disputed, it is clear that Ecocriticism continues to evolve and has undergone several shifts in attitude and direction since its conception.

Tropes and Approaches

Pastoral

This trope, found in much British and American literature, focuses on the dichotomy between urban and rural life, is “deeply entrenched in Western culture”(Gerrard 33). At the forefront of works which display pastoralism is a general idealization of the nature and the rural and the demonization of the urban. Often, such works show a “retreat” from city life to the country while romanticizing rural life, depicting an idealized rural existence that “obscures” the reality of the hard work living in such areas requires (Gerrard 33). Greg Gerrard identifies three branches of the pastoral: Classic Pastoral, “characterized by nostalgia” (37) and an appreciation of nature as a place for human relaxation and reflection; Romantic Pastoral, a period after the Industrial Revolution that saw “rural independence” as desirable against the expansion of the urban; and American Pastoralism, which “emphasize[d] agrarianism” (49) and represents land as a resource to be cultivated, with farmland often creating a boundary between the urban and the wilderness.

Wilderness

An interesting focus for many ecocritics is the way that wilderness is represented in literature and popular culture. This approach examines the ways in which wilderness is constructed, valued, and engaged. Representations of wilderness in British and American culture can be separated into a few main tropes. First, Old World wilderness displays wilderness as a place beyond the borders of civilization, wherein wilderness is treated as a “threat,” a place of “exile” (Gerrard 62). This trope can be seen in Biblical tales of creation and early British culture. Old World wilderness is often conflated with demonic practices in early American literature (Gerrard 62). New World wilderness, seen in portrayals of wilderness in later American literature, applies the pastoral trope of the “retreat” to wilderness itself, seeing wilderness not as a place to fear, but as a place to find sanctuary. The New World wilderness trope has informed much of the “American identity,” and often constructs encounters with the wilderness that lead to a more “authentic existence” (Gerrard 71).

Ecofeminism

As a branch of ecocriticism, ecofeminism primarily “analyzes the interconnection of the oppression of women and nature” (Bressler 236). Drawing parallels between domination of land and the domination of men over women, ecofeminists examine these hierarchical, gendered relationships, in which the land is often equated with the feminine, seen as a fertile resources and the property of man. The ecofeminism approach can be divided into two camps. The first, sometimes referred to as radical ecofeminism, reverses the patriarchal domination of man over woman and nature, “exalting nature,” the non-human, and the emotional” (Gerrard 24). This approach embraces the idea that women are inherently closer to nature biologically, spiritually, and emotionally. The second camp, which followed the first historically, maintains that there is no such thing as a “feminine essence” that would make women more likely to connect with nature (Gerrard 25). Of course, ecofeminism is a highly diverse and complex branch, and many writers have undertaken the job of examining the hierarchical relationships structured in our cultural representations of nature and of women and other oppressed groups. In particular, studies regarding race have followed in this trend, identifying groups that have been historically seen as somehow closer to nature. The way Native Americans, for instance, have been described as “primitive” and portrayed as “dwelling in harmony with nature,” despite facts to the contrary. Gerrard offers an examination of this trope, calling it the Ecological Indian (Gerrard 120). Similar studies regarding representations and oppression of aboriginals have surfaced, highlighting the misconceptions of these peoples as somehow “behind” Europeans, needing to progress from “a natural to a civilized state” (Gerrard 125).

Typical Questions

Taking an ecocritical approach to a topic means asking questions not only of a primary source such as literature, but asking larger questions about cultural attitudes towards and definitions of nature. Generally, ecocriticism can be applied to a primary source by either interpreting a text through an ecocritical lens, with an eye towards nature, or examining an ecocritical trope within the text. The questions below are examples of questions you might ask both when working with a primary source and when developing a research question that might have a broader perspective.

  • How is nature represented in this text?
  • How has the concept of nature changed over time?
  • How is the setting of the play/film/text related to the environment?
  • What is the influence on metaphors and representations of the land and the environment on how we treat it?
  • How do we see issues of environmental disaster and crises reflected in popular culture and literary works?
  • How are animals represented in this text and what is their relationship to humans?
  • How do the roles or representations of men and women towards the environment differ in this play/film/text/etc.
  • Where is the environment placed in the power hierarchy?
  • How is nature empowered or oppressed in this work?
  • What parallels can be drawn between the sufferings and oppression of groups of people (women, minorities, immigrants, etc.) and treatment of the land?
  • What rhetorical moves are used by environmentalists, and what can we learn from them about our cultural attitudes towards nature?

There are many more questions than these to be asked, and a large variety of approaches already exist that are asking different questions. Do some research to check on the state of ecocritical discussion in your own area of interest.

Further Resources

There are many more approaches to analyzing interactions between culture and nature, many of which are interdisciplinary. The following texts are recommended to help you start exploring other avenues of Ecocriticsm.

Theory and Criticism

  • Lawrence Buell - “The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture” (1995) and  “Toxic Discourse,” 1998
  • Charles Bressler - Literary criticism: an introduction to theory and practice, 1999
  • Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm – The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology, (1996)
  • Greg Garrard – Ecocriticism, 2004
  • Donna Haraway - "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century," (1991)
  • ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment (Journal)
  • Joseph Makus - The Comedy of Survival: literary ecology and a play ethic, (1972)
  • Leo Marx – The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America, (1964)
  • Raymond Williams - The Country and The City, (1975)

Literature & Literary Figures

Edward Abbey

  •  Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness (1968)
  •  Appalachian Wilderness (1970)
  • The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975)

Mary Hunter Austin

  • The Land of Little Rain (1903)

Rachel Carson

Aldo Leopold

  • A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There (1949)

John Muir

  • A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf (1916)
  • Studies in the Sierra (1950)

Henry David Thoreau

  • Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854)

Williams Wordsworth

  • Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems (1798)
  • Lyrical Ballads, with Other Poems (1800)
Contributors: Allen Brizee, J. Case Tompkins, Libby Chernouski, Elizabeth Boyle, Sebastian Williams.
Summary:

This resource will help you begin the process of understanding literary theory and schools of criticism and how they are used in the academy.

Critical Race Theory (1970s-present)

Introduction

Critical Race Theory, or CRT, is a theoretical and interpretive mode that examines the appearance of race and racism across dominant cultural modes of expression. In adopting this approach, CRT scholars attempt to understand how victims of systemic racism are affected by cultural perceptions of race and how they are able to represent themselves to counter prejudice.

Closely connected to such fields as philosophy, history, sociology, and law, CRT scholarship traces racism in America through the nation’s legacy of slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, and recent events. In doing so, it draws from work by writers like Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others studying law, feminism, and post-structuralism. CRT developed into its current form during the mid-1970s with scholars like Derrick Bell, Alan Freeman, and Richard Delgado, who responded to what they identified as dangerously slow progress following Civil Rights in the 1960s.

Prominent CRT scholars like Kimberlé Crenshaw, Mari Matsuda, and Patricia Williams share an interest in recognizing racism as a quotidian component of American life (manifested in textual sources like literature, film, law, etc). In doing so, they attempt to confront the beliefs and practices that enable racism to persist while also challenging these practices in order to seek liberation from systemic racism.

As such, CRT scholarship also emphasizes the importance of finding a way for diverse individuals to share their experiences. However, CRT scholars do not only locate an individual’s identity and experience of the world in his or her racial identifications, but also their membership to a specific class, gender, nation, sexual orientation, etc. They read these diverse cultural texts as proof of the institutionalized inequalities racialized groups and individuals experience every day.

As Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic explain in their introduction to the third edition of Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge, “Our social world, with its rules, practices, and assignments of prestige and power, is not fixed; rather, we construct with it words, stories and silence. But we need not acquiesce in arrangements that are unfair and one-sided. By writing and speaking against them, we may hope to contribute to a better, fairer world” (3). In this sense, CRT scholars seek tangible, real-world ends through the intellectual work they perform. This contributes to many CRT scholars’ emphasis on social activism and transforming everyday notions of race, racism, and power.

More recently, CRT has contributed to splinter groups focused on Asian American, Latino, and Indian racial experiences.

Common Questions

  • What is the significance of race in contemporary American society?
  • Where, in what ways, and to what ends does race appear in dominant American culture and shape the ways we interact with one another?
  • What types of texts and other cultural artifacts reflect dominant culture’s perceptions of race?
  • How can scholars convey that racism is a concern that affects all members of society?
  • How does racism continue to function as a persistent force in American society?
  • How can we combat racism to ensure that all members of American society experience equal representation and access to fundamental rights?
  • How can we accurately reflect the experiences of victims of racism?

Why Use This Approach?

As we can see, adopting a CRT approach to literature or other modes of cultural expression includes much more than simply identifying race, racism, and racialized characters in fictional works. Rather, it (broadly) emphasizes the importance of examining and attempting to understand the socio-cultural forces that shape how we and others perceive, experience, and respond to racism. These scholars treat literature, legal documents, and other cultural works as evidence of American culture’s collective values and beliefs. In doing so, they trace racism as a dually theoretical and historical experience that affects all members of a community regardless of their racial affiliations or identifications.

Most CRT scholarship attempts to demonstrate not only how racism continues to be a pervasive component throughout dominant society, but also why this persistent racism problematically denies individuals many of the constitutional freedoms they are otherwise promised in the United States’ governing documents. This enables scholars to locate how texts develop in and through the cultural contexts that produced them, further demonstrating how pervasive systemic racism truly is. CRT scholars typically focus on both the evidence and the origins of racism in American culture, seeking to eradicate it at its roots.

Additionally, because CRT advocates attending to the various components that shape individual identity, it offers a way for scholars to understand how race interacts with other identities like gender and class. As scholars like Crenshaw and Willams have shown, CRT scholarship can and should be amenable to adopting and adapting theories from related fields like women’s studies, feminism, and history. In doing so, CRT has evolved over the last decades to address the various concerns facing individuals affected by racism. 

Interestingly, CRT scholarship does not only draw attention to and address the concerns of individual affected by racism, but also those who perpetrate and are seemingly unaffected by racial prejudice. Scholars like W.E.B. Du Bois, Peggy McIntosh, Cheryl Harris, and George Lipsitz discuss white privilege and notions of whiteness throughout history to better understand how American culture conceptualizes race (or the seeming absence of race).

Important Terms

  • White privilege: Discussed by Lipsitz, Lee, Harris, McIntosh, and other CRT scholars, white privilege refers to the various social, political, and economic advantages white individuals experience in contrast to non-white citizens based on their racial membership. These advantages can include both obvious and subtle differences in access to power, social status, experiences of prejudice, educational opportunities, and much more. For CRT scholars, the notion of white privilege offers a way to discuss dominant culture’s tendency to normalize white individuals’ experiences and ignore the experiences of non-whites. Fields such as CRT and whiteness studies have focused explicitly on the concept of white privilege to understand how racism influences white people.  
  • Microaggressions: Microaggressions refer to the seemingly minute, often unconscious, quotidian instances of prejudice that collectively contribute to racism and the subordination of racialized individuals by dominant culture. Peggy Davis discusses how legal discourse participates in and can counteract the effects of microaggressions.
  • Institutionalized Racism: This concept, discussed extensively by Camara Phyllis Jones, refers to the systemic ways dominant society restricts a racialized individual or group’s access to opportunities. These inequalities, which include an individual’s access to material conditions and power, are not only deeply imbedded in legal institutions, but have been absorbed into American culture to such a degree that they are often invisible or easily overlooked.
  • Social construction: In the context of CRT, “social construction” refers to the notion that race is a product of social thought and relations. It suggests that race is a product of neither biology nor genetics, but is rather a social invention.
  • Intersectionality and anti-essentialism: These terms refer to the notion that one aspect of an individual’s identity does not necessarily determine other categories of membership. As Delgado and Stefancic explain, “Everyone has potentially conflicting, overlapping identities, loyalties, and allegiances” (CRT: An Introduction 10). In other words, we cannot predict an individual’s identity, beliefs, or values based on categories like race, gender, sexuality, religion, nationality, etc; instead, we must recognize that individuals are capable of claiming membership to a variety of different (and oftentimes seemingly contradictory) categories and belief systems regardless of the identities outsiders attempt to impose upon them.

Works Cited

Delgado, Richard and Jean Stefancic. Critical Race Theory: An Introduction. 2nd ed. New York: New York University Press, 2012.

Delgado, Richard and Jean Stefancic, eds. Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge. 3rd ed. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2013. Print. 

Recommended Sources for Additional Research

Bell, Derrick A. “Who’s Afraid of Critical Race Theory?” University of Illinois Law Review 4 (1995): 893-910.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, and Kendall Thomas, eds. Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement. New York: The New Press, 1995

Davis, Peggy. “Law as Microaggression.” Yale Law Journal 98 (1989): 1559-1577.

Gates, Henry Louis. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Harris, Cheryl. “Whiteness as Property.” Harvard Law Review 106.8 (1993): 1707-1791.

hooks, bell. Feminist Theory: From the Margins to the Center. Boston: South End Press, 1984.

Lipsitz, George. The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.

Spillers, Hortense. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17.2 (1987): 64-81.

Williams, Patricia. Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race. New York: Noonday Press, 1998.

Contributors: Allen Brizee, J. Case Tompkins, Libby Chernouski, Elizabeth Boyle, Sebastian Williams.
Summary:

This resource will help you begin the process of understanding literary theory and schools of criticism and how they are used in the academy.

Critical Disability Studies
(1990s to Present)

Disability studies considers disability in political, aesthetic, ethical, and cultural contexts, among others. In literature, many critics examine works to understand how representations of disability and “normal” bodies change throughout history, including the ways both are defined within the limits of historical or cultural situations. Disability studies also investigates images and descriptions of disability, prejudice against people with disabilities (ableism), and the ways narrative relates to disability (see “Narrative Prosthesis” below).

It’s important to understand disability as part of one’s identity, much like race, class, gender, sexuality, and nationality. Because of its concern with the body and embodiment, disability studies also intersects other critical schools like gender studies, queer studies, feminism, critical race studies, and more. In fact, many races, classes, ethnicities, and other parts of identity have been classified as or associated with disabilities in the past, emphasizing what feminist and disability theorist Rosemarie Garland-Thomson describes as the tendency of disability to be a “synecdoche for all forms that culture deems non-normative” (259). Put differently, disability frequently signifies things outside of the “normal” world, making it an important area to investigate critically.

The Social Model: Physical vs. Social

One approach to disability studies is the social model, a theory that distinguishes between impairment and disability. “Impairment” refers to a physical limitation, while “disability” refers to social exclusion. For instance, damage to the optic nerve resulting in limited vision may be an impairment. However, the inaccessibility of our society to those who are partially or fully blind is really based on assumptions about what a “normal” body is, not on some universal Truth or ideal. The social model stresses that we live in a disabling society—that the issue isn’t people with disabilities; rather, society has failed to account for the diversity of bodies that live in the world.

Sociologist Tom Shakespeare writes that the social model is useful for creating a group identity, spreading knowledge about disability, and promoting activism. However, the social model has been criticized in recent decades for too-easily making distinctions between physical impairment and social disability (Shakespeare 202). The way we understand the body is based on socially constructed terms, ideas, and narratives; therefore, the body is always already socially “coded” in one way or another. So, the clear dividing line between physical and social sometimes breaks down. Nevertheless, the social model is a good starting point for many when thinking about disability.

What Does It Mean to Be “Normal”?

Many literary critics in disability studies examine the ways novels and other public spaces reinforce concepts about “normal” individuals. For instance, Lennard Davis writes about the historical context of the term “normal,” noting that the word’s modern use came into being with the rise of statistics and eugenics in the nineteenth century. At this time, the idea of “the average man” became central to national discourses. For Davis, a normal body is actually a theory or idea based on “the average man,” a concept that ultimately disguises the drastic differences among individuals in a society.

In the context of literature, Davis writes, “the very structures on which the novel rests tend to be normative, ideologically emphasizing the universal quality of the central character whose normativity encourages us to identify with him or her” (11). Therefore, investigating normalcy in literary texts allows one to use a disability studies approach when reading almost any work.

In a similar vein, Garland-Thomson uses the term “normate” to describe those who are unmarked by the stigmas of disability, framing disability as a minority (rather than medical) discourse. The word “normate” highlights assumptions about the body in politics, rhetoric, literature, and other areas, including the erasure of cultural and bodily difference (compare “normate” to terms like “cisgender” or “cissexual,” for instance).

Narrative Prosthesis: The Story’s “Crutch”

Narrative is also intricately tied to disability. Theorists Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell write that disabled characters act as a “crutch upon which literary narratives lean for their representational power, disruptive potentiality, and analytical insight” (49).

Unlike some marginalized groups, people with disabilities have frequently been at the foreground of representation, according to Snyder and Mitchell in Narrative Prosthesis. For example, a captain’s prosthetic leg may entail a story about his obsession with a whale, or characters like Tiny Tim may serve as wellsprings of pity and emotion. In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, the protagonist’s disfigured foot and eventual blindness metaphorize disability as destiny, and the hunchbacked protagonist of William Shakespeare’s Richard III

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Angela HublerKansas State University

THE AFTERLIFE OF “LITTLE WOMEN,” by Beverly Lyon Clark. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014. 271 pp. $44.95 cloth; $44.95 ebook.

TURNING THE PAGES OF AMERICAN GIRLHOOD: THE EVOLUTION OF GIRLS’ SERIES FICTION, 1865-1930, by Emily Hamilton-Honey. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2013. 254 pp. $45.00 paper; $45.00 ebook.

READING LIKE A GIRL: NARRATIVE INTIMACY IN CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE, by Sara K. Day. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2013. 240 pp. $55.00 cloth; $30.00 paper.
PRAISING GIRLS: THE RHETORIC OF YOUNG WOMEN, 1895- 1930, by Henrietta Rix Wood. Studies in Rhetorics and Feminisms. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2016. 192 pp. $40.00 paper; $40.00 ebook.

Feminist critics have long been concerned with the influence that literature has upon young female readers. In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft, in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, suggested a remedy for the corruptions of sentimental literature:

The best method, I believe, that can be adopted to correct a fondness for novels is to ridicule them: not indiscriminately, for then it would have little effect; but, if a judicious person, with some turn for humour, would read several to a young girl, and point out both by tones, and apt comparisons with pathetic incidents and heroic characters in history, how foolishly and ridiculously they caricatured human nature, just opinions might be substituted instead of romantic sentiments.1

It would be some time before Simone de Beauvoir in Le Deuxième Sexe (1949; The Second Sex, 1952) and Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique (1963) took up Wollstonecraft’s suggestion, critiquing literature for its role in perpetuating female subordination. This review essay examines the ways in which four recent works of feminist criticism of children’s and young adult literature are animated by this concern and by the interest in finding texts that offer alternative constructions of gender. The scholarship discussed here represents valuable, new contributions to existing bodies of research. Beverly Lyon Clark’s fascinating The Afterlife of “Little Women” traces the reception of this ur-text in the field, showing the rise and fall of the novel’s reputation and its revaluation by feminist critics in the 1970s—part of a broader project of reclamation of women writers as represented by the scholarship of Nina Auerbach, Mitzi Myers, and other pioneers in the field.2 Emily Hamilton-Honey’s Turning the Pages of American Girlhood: The Evolution of Girls’ Series Fiction, 1865-1930 also usefully adds to a rich vein of scholarship focusing on girls’ series books, the analysis of which has been critically important in understanding how femininity has been represented in texts that, while they may not be highly regarded critically, have been widely read. Similarly, Sara K. Day’s Reading Like a Girl: Narrative Intimacy in Contemporary American Young Adult Literature focuses on popular contemporary novels for girls. Her work draws on reader-response theory, which rejects New Critical insistence that static meaning inheres in the text and seeks to account for the role of the reader in interpretation. Day’s innovative scholarship combines two versions of reader-response as she analyzes both the ways that the novels she reads construct ideal readers and the ways in which readers take up and resist those constructions. The final text discussed in this essay, Henrietta Rix Wood’s Praising Girls: The Rhetoric of Young Women 1895-1930, is quite different from the others. Indeed, it might be seen as outside this review’s scope, as it is not about children’s literature at all but instead about the rhetoric of young women’s writing; however, the field of children’s literature has long been interdisciplinary. The book overlaps both with girls’ and children’s studies, and like these fields, it is concerned with the agency of those who are often denied it. Moreover, Wood’s study extends into areas—particularly those of race and class—that the others do not and provides some meticulously researched examples of how the study of the culture of girls can be expanded into areas hitherto virtually unexplored.

A locus classicus for the consideration of female agency has long been Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868-1869), which has been read by generations of bookish girls, many of whom, citing the influence of Jo—the unconventional protagonist with ink-stained fingers and uncombed hair—have gone on to write novels of their own for children and for adults. In Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1959), for example, de Beauvoir wrote that as a girl, “[I] identified myself passionately with Jo” (Clark, p. 49). Responses like de Beauvoir’s, both popular and critical, are the focus of Clark’s The Afterlife of “Little Women.” Having edited Louisa May Alcott: The Contemporary Reviews (2004) and coedited “Little Women” and the Feminist Imagination: Criticism, Controversy, Personal Essays (1999), Clark has now contributed to the field a historically organized study of the ways in which Little Women has been received from its publication to the present by examining an extraordinary range of textual evidence including reviews, biographies, sales, library circulation figures, letters, diaries, illustrations, translations, fan fiction, and adaptations of every kind from operas to vampire novels, manga, and anime. This delightful work is of interest to both the reader just beginning to wade into the enormous volume of scholarship on Little Women as well as the expert. Clark sketches broad historical trends in reception as they illuminate shifts in popular interest and in scholarly fashion. She also discusses obscure and distant responses to the text, which are nevertheless significant to understanding its cultural importance.

Clark’s masterful analysis of the novel’s reception highlights those aspects of Little Women and the cultural contexts within which it has been read that have made it so astonishingly popular and beloved, even today. At the time of its publication, the novel was read widely not only by girls but also by women, men, and boys. Reviews of the novel reveal that, prior to 1893, the division between children’s and adult literature “was not yet sharply segmented”; the reading public was also less dramatically “gender segregated” than it subsequently became, in part because of changes in the way masculinity was defined and in part because religious values increasingly gave way to capitalist ones (pp. 34, 35). The recent popularity of crossover books like Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series (2005-2008) among girls and women and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (1997-2007) and Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games series (2008-2010) among both male and female readers of all ages compares interestingly to that of Little Women and suggests some areas within which their popularity might be investigated.

Especially prior to 1875, says Clark, Alcott’s novels were both popular and highly regarded by critics. After Alcott died in 1888, however, her critical reputation declined. Clark’s discussion of one of the earliest biographers, family friend Ednah Cheney, identifies some of the contributing factors, such as Cheney’s emphasis on the domestic and traditional qualities of Alcott and her work, attributes that did not earn inclusion in the canon of American literature during its formative stages. These factors led to different receptions depending on the audience in the first decades of the twentieth century, when the popularity of Little Women reached its highest levels while its critical reputation declined. Two events in 1912—the opening of Orchard House (the Alcott family home) and a Broadway production of Little Women—both indicate the popularity of the novel and contributed to it. Clark notes that the play and other contemporary adaptations emphasized romance and elided feminist aspects of the text, such as Marmee’s preference that her girls “be happy old maids [rather] than unhappy wives” (qtd. in Clark, p. 73); the same is true of a 1931 stage version (p. 119). While interpretations and adaptations “allowed some attention to women’s independence by the 1930s”—most notably in the 1933 George Cukor film starring Katharine Hepburn—by the 1949 film remake, the heightened pressure on women to return to domesticity after World War II resulted in a renewed foregrounding of romance and consumerism (p. 102).

The women’s movement of the late 1960s and the publication of Alcott’s “pseudonymous and anonymous thrillers,” beginning with Madeleine Stern’s 1975 edited collection Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott, led to a “galvanic shift in Alcott’s critical reputation” (p. 145). These texts complicated the ways in which Alcott was understood, enabling attention to the darker, less conventional aspects of her work. While feminist interest in “women’s traditions and their connections with other women” and a revaluation of sentimentality, spurred by Jane Tompkins’s 1985 Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860, has led to an explosion of scholarship on Little Women and adaptations exploring the lesbian erotic possibilities of the text, Clark notes what others, including me, have observed: a significant decline in knowledge of and affection for the novel in our students (p. 146). Clark speculates that recent musical versions of the text—”a more consciously artificial mode than most other dramatizations”—emerge from a sense that the manners of the novel are “dated, and hence artificial” (p. 198). As she argues, however, the emotive power of the novel continues to resonate, indicating the degree to which the central contradiction in the novel—”between an ideal of autonomy and an ideal of connectedness”—continues to be relevant (p. 147).

Alcott is a touchstone in Hamilton-Honey’s Turning the Pages of American Girlhood: The Evolution of Girls’ Series Fiction, 1865-1930. Hamilton-Honey’s examination begins with her own adolescent reading of Beverly Gray, Sophomore, published in 1934, which appealed to her because it focuses on a group of female friends’ collegiate and career experiences. As she read series books published for her own generation of girls, like The Baby-Sitters Club (1986-2000) and Sweet Valley High (1983-2003), however, she questioned why the focus on “college and careers” was replaced by “appearance, romance, and competition” (p. 1). Additional changes—paralleling the shift in girls’ diaries from an emphasis on internal to external self-improvement programs as described by historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg in The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls (1997)—became apparent as Hamilton-Honey expanded her reading to older series, including those by Alcott: “social activism and benevolence in the nineteenth century gave way to consumerism and careers in the twentieth” (p. 2). The first chapter examines factors that contributed to the significance of religion in postbellum series. While readers may be aware of Emily Dickinson’s rebellious refusal to convert, Hamilton-Honey usefully contextualizes the pressures upon girls to do so, explaining that conversion was “one of the major goals of female adolescence” (p. 25). Piety, one of the core components of “True Womanhood,” motivated female activism in organizations like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), which published “the largest women’s paper in the world,” along with periodicals for children, books, and millions of leaflets (pp. 2, 48). Thus, reading and religion overlapped and much series fiction in the late nineteenth century depicts girls like the March sisters who strive to model Christian behavior, including acts of benevolence. In some fiction, like Isabella Alden’s Chautauqua Girls series (1876-1913), characters’ conversions to religious faith leads to evangelistic and political activism within specific organizations, like the WCTU. Hamilton-Honey says this “open and acknowledged interplay between the real and the fictional . . . helped promote a more active and political True Womanhood in the postbellum period” (p. 50).

Within a short period, Hamilton-Honey argues, the religious values espoused in the Elsie Dinsmore series (1867-1905)—to which Hamilton-Honey devotes sustained attention—and others are abruptly replaced by “secular American ideas of democracy and economic mobility” (p. 118). These values inform the Patty Fairfield series (1901-1919), the Grace Harlowe series (1910-1924), and the Outdoor Girls series (1913-1933) in which protagonists define selfhood and achieve cultural power through consumption. The “girl heroines” in these novels, says Hamilton-Honey, “gained a considerable amount of individual autonomy, while they lost some community influence and some of their status as spiritual leaders” (pp. 5-6). Despite this statement, Hamilton-Honey’s treatment of this fiction is perhaps more descriptive than critical. When Patty wins a luxury car in a contest in the 1911 Patty’s Motor Car, for example, and then declares herself under no obligation to the car company, Hamilton-Honey says that the novel suggests that

female customers hold all the cards. Far from being excluded from the public world of capitalism, Patty ventures into it and uses it to her own advantage, securing an expensive motor car of her very own with a few weeks of mental effort and no money at all. While this is hardly a realistic scenario, it does serve to illustrate the way that women consumers could make the most of sales and promotions, securing more goods for themselves with less money. (p. 126)

This interpretation is problematic, particularly as fantasies of female power enabled by automobiles, motorboats, and airplanes in this and other series fiction are accompanied by the disavowal of overt political empowerment in works such as The Outdoor Girls of Deepdale (1913), in which the girls twice insist that they are not suffragists and in fact “[deny] being political at all” (p. 129). While Nancy Romalov says that series books like this one “set about negating, disrupting, or dismissing the radical possibilities that might have been realized,” Hamilton-Honey disputes this and argues that the girls’ independence and athleticism aligns them with the New Women of their period (qtd. p. 129). Given the overall argument that Hamilton-Honey is making here, however, and the illusory—or at least very partial—nature of the power provided by consumption within a capitalist society, this discussion should be more developed.

Hamilton-Honey argues that the Outdoor Girls, Ruth Fielding, Grace Harlowe, and Khaki Girls series (1918-1920), published and set in World War I, broke with representations of femininity typical of both earlier and later periods: “the heroines in these series do not reflect either the benevolent woman of the nineteenth century or the educated consumers of the turn of the century. They become, instead, fierce patriots devoted to serving the Allied cause” (p. 7). One such patriot is Ruth Fielding, the heroine of an unusually long-running series, beginning in 1913 and spanning twenty years in thirty volumes. Ruth’s exploits are discussed both in Hamilton-Honey’s chapter on World War I series fiction and in a chapter devoted to the Ruth Fielding series, which focuses on Ruth’s unique status as “perhaps” the first book series heroine with a professional career—she works in the budding film industry as an actress, screenwriter, producer, and executive (p. 8). Hamilton-Honey’s research shows that Ruth’s work for the fictional Alectrion Film Corporation paralleled the careers of women in the early film industry, which offered them opportunities as actresses, writers, and directors. Despite the opportunities for women within film, Ruth must confront sexist skeptics who doubt her abilities, and she observes in a 1926 volume that “there are good woman directors in the moving picture business . . . . But they have always had to work twice as hard to prove their ability as a man in the same position” (qtd. p. 210). Though Ruth does not marry till the twenty-fourth volume in the series, balancing work and love presents another challenge to her. With the support of her fiancé, and then husband, however, Ruth continues working after marrying and having a child. Hamilton-Honey concludes that Ruth is the “ideal heroine for the fully modern, twentieth-century girl” (p. 222).

In a brief conclusion, however, Hamilton-Honey persuasively shows that the realistic, historical conflicts experienced by heroines like Ruth disappear in the new era of series books ushered in with Nancy Drew in 1930. Nancy never makes the transition to adulthood, college, marriage, or a career, nor does she engage with the central “religious, political, and social questions” of her time as do so many previous series heroines (p. 229). Hamilton-Honey provides a good deal of useful and relevant historical context for the shifts she analyzes. However, linking these shifts to political-economic change as it impacted gender and gender relations would further illuminate them. Nevertheless, the contrasts that Hamilton-Honey highlights are provocative and significant, and her historical analysis of series books enables a more informed reading of contemporary fiction.

The highly personal, as opposed to social, orientation of contemporary girls’ fiction is the focus of Day’s Reading Like a Girl: Narrative Intimacy in Contemporary American Young Adult Literature, which examines intimate relationships between readers and the first-person narrators, which have become de rigueur in books for adolescent female readers. While other critics have discussed the prevalence of the first-person narrator (and the relative advantages and disadvantages it affords), Day makes significant contributions to this scholarship by illuminating the gendered social context that has shaped the use of this formal literary convention. Day situates the trend toward first-person narrators within the increasingly public nature of intimacy in American culture, which has been discussed by Lauren Berlant and others and is exemplified by “social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook” (p. 8). While the trend toward public self-disclosure is pervasive, Day notes that emotional intimacy has historically been associated with femininity. Thus, the dangers posed to female adolescents by intimate relationships, as well as their critical importance, is a significant theme in the raft of academic and popular writing on female adolescence, which seeks to address the concerns raised by Carol Gilligan’s influential assertion that loss of voice is definitive of female adolescence and by the work of Mary Pipher, the American Association of University Women, and others that have focused popular and scholarly attention on adolescence as a crisis point in female development.3 Day focuses on self-help books targeted at girls and their parents in chapters organized around the themes of friendship, love and desire, and sexual assault, and she shows the ways that the fiction she analyzes takes up the concerns of these nonfictional texts; she discusses the ways in which both nonfiction and fiction employ similar formal techniques to create narrative intimacy. In fiction, says Day, these techniques blur the boundary with reality. Drawing on reader-response theorists including Susan Lanser and Wolfgang Iser, Day argues that readers’ identifications with narrators allow them to experience “the realities of young adulthood vicariously through the narrators’ stories” (p. 18).

One of Day’s central arguments is that many of the novels that she analyzes, which thematize intimacy at the same time that they model it through the intimate relationships constructed between narrator and reader, present readers with a contradictory message. On the one hand, says Day, novels like Sarah Dessen’s Keeping the Moon (1999) and Natasha Friends’s Perfect (2004) instruct readers that self-disclosure is a critically important aspect of friendship. Others, however, like Siobhan Vivian’s A Little Friendly Advice (2008) and Lizabeth Zindel’s The Secret Rites of Social Butterflies (2008), reveal the ways that disclosure can lead to manipulation and betrayal, “simultaneously warning against disclosure while crafting a narrator-reader relationship that depends upon the narrator’s willingness to share thoughts, feelings, and—perhaps most importantly, in this case—secrets” (p. 56). Day argues that this contradiction parallels the conflicting cultural expectations of adolescent women and intimacy. One could, however, read The Secret Rites of Social Butterflies not as a warning against disclosure altogether but as a reminder to readers to choose their friends and those they trust carefully. Perhaps I am less perceptive than Day, but I find the dynamics she comments upon less truly contradictory and more a reflection of the complexities of intimacy.

Day sees a related contradiction in her analysis of novels by Laurie Halse Anderson, Deb Caletti, Sarah Dessen, Niki Burnham, Louisa Burnham, and Courtney Summers that focus on rape and sexual abuse. Day advances an interesting thesis that a kind of “reverse bibliotherapy” is reflected in these novels: the narrator who has experienced a violation withdraws from intimacy and regains it only through the implied reader who listens without judgement and without inflicting further injuries upon the traumatized narrator (p. 26). Day argues,

Although the process of reclaiming intimacy seems to empower the narrator and offer the reader a positive model of healing and strength, the narrators’ dependence upon the reader might in fact be seen as reinforcing adolescent women’s vulnerability and general lack of control over intimacy because the only truly safe space for what is figured as a necessary disclosure—one without which the narrator cannot begin to heal—is the impossible relationship with the reader. (p. 106)

The relationship between the narrator and reader is, of course, impossible since it is between a function of a narrative text and a human being. However, a relationship in which self-disclosure is met with support and acceptance is not. Thus, one might read the construction of such relationships as representing not only that self-disclosure is healing but also that particular responses to that self-disclosure are critically important. While her argument perhaps overreaches, asserting more theoretical significance than the texts will bear, Day provides readings of these novels that are original and frequently insightful.

Her final chapter, “Fan Fiction and the Reimagining of Narrative Intimacy,” is particularly instructive. The majority of fan fiction is written by female fans and emerges from fan communities within which authors frequently participate. These fan communities, says Day, “can also potentially mimic the ‘safe space’ of narrative intimacy modeled in the novels that adolescent women read and to which they respond” (p. 186). These safe spaces extend the narrator-reader’s relationship “into the ‘real world’” (p. 187). Fan fiction is a site in which reception can be assessed but also one in which the reader is able to wrest a degree of control from the author, as their creations frequently diverge from the original, “often as a means of privileging the reader’s desires over the intentions of the original texts,” with fascinating results (p. 191). For example, while Twilight is deeply heteronormative, Clark reports that in addition to fan fiction focused on the relationship between Bella and Edward, another popular variant, “femslash” (lesbian) fanfiction, develops a romance between Bella and Alice (p. 199). Day argues that the fan fiction writers’ sense of ownership over these texts and characters derives from the narrative intimacy that they have constructed.

Wood’s Praising Girls: The Rhetoric of Young Women, 1895-1930 employs a methodology that centers on the intersections of gender with race and class to investigate the relationships that authors strive to construct with readers. Wood analyzes the rhetoric of public writing—in newspapers, yearbooks, and magazines—by late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century girls from four high schools in the Kansas City area. One of these, Miss Barstow’s School, a private girls’ school founded in 1884, enrolled the white, privileged girls that are too often at the center of scholarly and popular work focusing on girls. In addition, however, Wood includes Haskell Institute, a government boarding school for Native Americans in Lawrence, Kansas; Lincoln High, “the only public secondary school for African Americans in Kansas City, Missouri” (pp. 88-89); and Central High School, the largest public secondary school in Kansas City, at which the white working and middle-class “student body was splintered into factions based on gender, academic class, literary societies, and athletic organizations” (pp. xx-xxi). Wood’s study is a necessary and critically important complement to scholarship like Hamilton-Honey’s on fiction addressed to and depicting white girls. As indicated by Rudine Sims Bishop’s Free Within Ourselves: The Development of African American Children’s Literature (2007)—a masterful history of African American children’s literature—series book fiction representing black children did not appear until the late twentieth-century. Thus, in order to “see” the discursive construction of gender by Native American, Latina, and black girls, we must look beyond the output of a racist publishing industry that continues to neglect the lives of children of color.

Wood “reconceptualizes epideictic rhetoric as a tool used by young women rather than a prerogative of powerful men giving speeches of praise or blame” (p. xi). Wood explains that the epideictic, as defined by Aristotle, is “persuasive speech in which ‘there is either praise [epainos] or blame [psogos]’” (p. 3). Drawing on George Kennedy and other contemporary rhetorical theorists, she expands the Aristotelean category to argue that “the persuasive discourse of young women can be interpreted as epideictic rhetoric that defined their collective identities, influenced public perceptions of their roles and rights, and altered a social order that excluded or dismissed them” (p. 5). More than a third of all girls took rhetoric in high school, and Wood is able to establish that girls in the high schools she studies took such courses.

Girls at each of the schools that Wood studies “used epideictic rhetoric to define themselves in an era that alternately infantilized, idealized, and demonized young women,” but the way in which they “forge and celebrate their collective identity” at each of the four schools is specific to the racial and class formations of the students there (pp. 2, xiii). The economically and racially privileged white girls at Miss Barstow’s School represented themselves in their yearbook as “active, vocal, and opinionated,” challenging the idea that such students were idle members of the ruling class destined for “marriage and motherhood” (pp. 1, 22). Their writing was influenced by the construction of the “new girl,” and in celebrating athletic achievement—including in the competitive contact sports of basketball and field hockey—they challenged “gender and class codes”; in 1911, Rebecca Gray urged her classmates: “Go at your work with a vim that will make your successors wish to follow in your footsteps; and in your sports win for your class and school such honors as will inspire others to keener competition” (pp. 23, 34, 22). Wood’s fascinating and insightful analysis of the rhetorical and ideological significance of this and other seemingly conventional and uninteresting passages is one of the many strengths of the book.

While Gray and her classmates rejected gender ideologies about wealthy, white femininity, the community they constructed maintained conservative ideologies related to class, nationality, and race: “they wrote short stories that mocked black and Irish figures, characterized Native Americans as noble savages, and chastised a poor boy who would rather return to his dirty hovel than remain in a sanitary charity hospital” (pp. 51-52). It was in relation to dominant ideologies like these that the less privileged girls in the Kansas City area were forced to situate their rhetoric. As Wood puts it, while Barstow girls defined themselves in contrast to “the Other,” girls at Haskell Institute “had to counter the notion that they are the Other” (p. 87). Wood notes that schools like Haskell were one outcome of the imperialist national project of the United States and were established to assimilate Native Americans to hegemonic cultural and economic practices. The literary productions authored by female students in the Indian Leader, a national newspaper that ran between 1897-1924, and Indian Legends (1914), an anthology of folklore, were intended by white school officials to demonstrate the accomplishment of these goals to white readers. Wood argues, however, that the Haskell girls wrote within a complex rhetorical situation in which they addressed not only white but also Native readers. Thus, the girls’ writing was also shaped by Native proponents of the pan-Indian movement, constructing a group identity founded not upon gender, as at Barstow, but upon race. In a vivid example of the rhetorically complex situation negotiated by the Haskell girls, Wood notes that when one of the girls, Nellie Wright, did not name individual tribes in her writing, she encouraged the “group identification” that “reflected the white campaign to destroy tribal identity,” but “her tactic also encourage[d] Indian solidarity” (p. 56).

The construction of racial solidarity was also a major project of girl rhetors at Lincoln High School. Lincoln opened in 1888, nineteen years after the high school for whites; by 1921, 750 students were enrolled in a building meant to accommodate 250, and Lincoln remained the only secondary school for blacks until 1936. In response to conditions like these, girls at Lincoln, influenced by the New Negro movement, promoted race pride, solidarity, and uplift in poetry and prose published in their newspaper and yearbook. Wood finds significant differences between these genres. In poetry, Wood says, girls “gloss over” historical realities. Hazel Hickum’s 1917 yearbook tribute, for example, begins:

In Lincoln High, with pen and ink
Our happiest days were spent,
The teachers trained our minds to think
And we were all content. (qtd. p. 96)

In this and similar works, Wood argues, “by choosing to remain silent on issues that could create despair and disunity . . . . these young Lincoln poets encouraged hope and unity” (p. 102). Prose writers, however, addressed racial inequality head on. Lucile Bluford, who went on to edit the Kansas City Call, published a 1926 editorial in the school newspaper titled “New Schools,” which contrasted the six high schools serving whites with the single facility for black students, which lacked desks for seventeen teachers as well as a “library, librarian, gymnasium, study hall, or art department” and at which six to eight classes were held on the stairs (p. 110). Bluford challenged the neglect of the needs of black students by celebrating the merit of Lincoln graduates: “Has not Lincoln as large a percentage of pupils attending college as any high school of the city? Are not two of Lincoln’s graduates on the University of Kansas Honor Roll?” (qtd. p. 110). Praising the achievements of her race and blaming those who deprive them of just treatment, Bluford contributed to the construction of a collective racial identity.

Girls at Central High School also sought to construct a collective identity, one that overcame the factionalism that split students in the largest public high school in the state. They did so by promoting consubstantiality, or a common identity, by “endorsing the image of a venerable institution, the attitude of inclusivity, and the sensation of school spirit” (p. 120). Gender was a major source of division at the high school. While girls were the majority of students and surpassed boys academically, boys dominated athletics and leadership positions, including class president and editor of the school yearbook. During the 1898-1899 school year, controversy ensued when the “male winners of a debate between two literary societies refused to face representatives of an all-girl literary society that was excluded from competition” (p. 116). Seeking to discourage such strife, Gwendolen Edwards looked back to a time prior to such conflict in “Central High School” (1899):

Launched in the pride of youth and of beauty.
Alike it was free from
Contention and frats, the vice of all schools.
Neither rival had it in the town nor in the country surrounding;
Clear was its title as heaven, to the best of all high schools.
There the youth of the city gleamed, and in gleaming gained knowledge. (qtd. p. 115)

By restoring what appears to be clichéd public writing to the historical context that generated it, Wood offers original and interesting readings of writing by Edwards and other girls from this era, showing the ways in which they claimed their ability and right to intervene in public debates about race, class, and gender. Rather than being passively defined, these girls actively engaged in the discourses that shaped their identities and the collective groups to which they belonged.

Each of these insightful and interesting critical studies focusing on texts by and about girls thematizes—at least to some degree—the interrelationship between texts and female subject formation. Clark’s reader reception study of Little Women begins with her own response to the book: “I felt empowered by [Jo] . . . . Little Women and its sequels made it possible for a girl growing up in the 1950s to dream of having it all—family and career—even though I didn’t know many actual women who did” (pp. 2-3). Clark shows that readers during Alcott’s lifetime related similarly to her work; Alcott wrote that many of her readers found her books “helps for themselves” (qtd. p. 13). This resulted in a deluge of letters, asking Alcott for “advice upon every subject from ‘Who shall I marry’ to ‘Ought I to wear a bustle?’” (p. 13). Such letters, Clark argues, “attempt to achieve intimacy with the author as a person,” whom they imagine as much like her character Jo (p. 13). While the majority of those who recorded their responses to Alcott were white, Clark’s research demonstrates that at least a few women of color identified with Jo; the African American novelist Ann Petry, for example, wrote that she “felt as though I was part of Jo and she was part of me” (p. 48). Unlike Clark and Day, Hamilton-Honey does not address reception, other than her own, but her analysis is motivated by her interest in the way the books she studies

reproduce and challenge our culture’s ideas about what it means to grow up female in the United States and elsewhere. They reflect our fears, hopes, and dreams for young women, as well as the strictures we place upon them and the paths to empowerment that are open to them. If we hope to understand how girls think about the world around them and how they are socialized into expectations for adulthood, there can be no better place to start than by searching their bookshelves for clues. (p. 230)

While Hamilton-Honey does not specify it in her conclusion, these “fears, hopes, and dreams” may be inflected by race. Her introduction, however, notes that like Alcott, the authors and protagonists of the series books produced during the period she examines are all white and targeted at a white audience. Hamilton-Honey reports that the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which published many of the series she analyzes, did not produce series with black protagonists until 1967. She does not address if other publishers did so, information that would have been useful.

Day reports readers’ deep identification with fictional characters—much like readers of Little Women—quoting, for example, a reader of Dessen who claims that “you can find a part of yourself [in] almost every single one of the characters” (qtd. p. 182). However, it is not clear the degree to which readers who are not white might identify with the characters in the novels she examines. Day states that she is “primarily concerned with the concept of the adolescent woman as white, middle class, and heterosexual” because of its prevalence both in fiction and non-fiction (p. 10). These privileged young women “generally concern themselves with the friendships and romances that are understood to be the foundations of social acceptance and markers of maturation into adulthood” (p. 11). Unlike Hamilton-Honey, Day could easily, one would think, have designed her study to include diverse protagonists and authors. While Day says that she believes that “literature about young women outside of the norm” might “help to illuminate the problematic nature of narrative intimacy,” she does not discuss novels that focus on protagonists that are “people of color, lesbian/bisexual/transexual/questioning teens, or working class” (pp. 11, 12). (nota bene: I think the term “transgender” would be preferable here.) She explains her focus by saying that she is interested in the “norm” about which and to whom much popular culture is presented. There is no question that the novels on the interpersonal topics that she addresses—friendship, romance and sexuality, rape and violence—by the nineteen popular, critically acclaimed white authors that she focuses on merit analysis. Surely, however, some attention to first-person narrators in young adult fiction by and about adolescent women of color would illuminate the ways in which, for example, “disclosure and discretion in constructions of friendship,” the focus of chapter two, might differ when the friendship is interracial, in for example, Jacqueline Woodson’s I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This (1994) (p. 29). One must acknowledge recent statistics from Lee and Low Books, based on data from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, which establish the dearth of children’s and young adult literature with “multicultural content”: while 37 percent of the United States population are people of color, only 10 percent of the children’s books published over the past twenty-one years include significant representation of people of color.4 Given these findings, it becomes even more important that in our work as feminist scholars we examine gender as it shapes and it is shaped by race, class, sexuality, ability, and global location. Only when such analyses have been conducted can we truly understand the role of the textual in the way that gender is constructed and experienced and that the female subject is formed. Future scholarship, utilizing the inclusive methodology found in Wood’s exemplary work, must further this project.

NOTES

1Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, ed. Candace Ward (Mineola, NY: Dover, 1996), 192.

2For a summary of feminist critics, such as Auerbach and Myers, who pioneered the recovery of women writers, see Lissa Paul, “Feminist Criticism: From Sex-Role Stereotyping to Subjectivity in International Companion Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature, ed. Peter Hunt (London: Routledge, 1996), 104.

3See Carol Gilligan, “Joining the Resistance: Psychology, Politics, Girls and Women,” Michigan Quarterly Review, 29 (1990), 501-36; and Mary Pipher, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (New York: Ballantine), 1994.

4Hannah Ehrlich, “The Diversity Gap in Children’s Publishing, 2015,” The Open Book: A Blog on Race, Diversity, Education, and Children’s Books, 5 March 2015, http://blog.leeandlow.com/2015/03/05/the-diversity-gap-in-childrens-publishing-2015; “Publishing Statistics on Children’s Books about People of Color and First/Native Nations and by People of Color and First/Native Nations Authors and Illustrators,” Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin, Madison, accessed 22 August 2017, http://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/pcstats.asp.

 

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