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Responding to Literature

Responding to Literature

Author: Mark Branson

Too often, we are bought and sold on the idea that literature is the "well wrought urn," and we are obliged to tease out the perfections which make this "piece" "well-wrought."

However, the reality is that literature is a construct and that this construct is of human effort. Therefore there are a multitude of motives, goals, perspectives, and experiences that have led to this construct.

Our goal in this tutorial is to develop the skills that allow different, but equally valid, access to the construct of literature.

We will consider the following perspectives:

  • Feminist approach
  • Mythic approach
  • Marxist approach
  • Moral/intellectual approach
  • Psychoanalytic approach
  • Neo-historical approach
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A Quick Snapshot for You

My goal in this tutorial is simple: present to my students the baseline information that they need to make a "reading" from the perspective discussed here. When the come to class in a couple of days, I do the following:

  • Randomize the students into groups (e.g. who lives the closest to the college, alphabetize by first initial in middle name, etc)
  • Ask them to briefly discuss the "what" of the story or poem they'd read the night before (e.g. who are the characters, what is the setting, what conflicts are at play, how are these reconciled -- if at all, etc.)
  • I put this information up to the class based on the group's feedback. I want to make sure everyone was read the same story.
  • I then ask each group to make "meaning," e.g. answer the questions connected with "feminist" or "neo-historical."
  • Students report out and I ask: Which "meaning" is the right one? At this point, the class recognizes that any reading can be the "right" one.

A Brief Introduction to the Feminist Approach

Brief explanation of feminist approach and some questions the guide us to this type of reading:
• Is the author female? Are the lead characters female?
• How is gender constructed or deconstructed in this text?
• Is the view of the text gendered or sexist?
• What roles do women have in this text?
• How do women relate to one another?
• Are there obvious female images in the work: “witch,” “temptress,” “savior,” vessels or urns, etc.?

A Brief Introduction to Archetypes and the Mythic Approach to Literature

Consider these questions in leading to your "archetypal" or mythic reading of a text:
• What characters seem familiar to you (e.g. the “hero,” the “dark” woman, the “light” woman, the villain, a “femme fatale,” the “outsider,” and so on?
• What familiar motifs do you see: quest/journey, death/rebirth, trial, and so on?
• What images do you see that speak to you: light or dark, water or desert, height or depth, spring or winter?
• Are there images of coming of age, dawning love, search for success, tensions between father /son or mother/daughter, reconciliation of these tensions, age/wisdom?
• Is there some sort of initiation into a larger world—either thru ignoring a crime? Committed a crime? Exerting freedom and independence?

A Brief Introduction to the Marixst Approach: Part One

In this video, you get the basic premise of the Marxist approach. Be sure to see Part Two: A Marxist reading of Stoker's "Dracula"!

A Brief Introduction to the Marxist Approach: Applying the Approach to "Dracula" (Part Two)

For you to practice this approach, you may consider these questions:
• How are classes stratified/defined in this text?
• What does this text reflect in terms of an economic ideology?
• What is the attitude toward labor furthered by this text?
• What class is represented in this text? Why?
• What is the economic status of the major characters?
• What had happened to either create this situation OR how have the events in the narrative occurred because of this status?
• What are the other situations occurring due to the economic status (e.g. poor education or privileged? Poor nutrition or gluttony? Poor health or healthiness? Inadequate or limited opportunities or limitless opportunities?)
• How may this work be seen as UNsuccessful because it fails to address economic, political, social aspects of the narrative world created by the author?

A Brief Introduction to Moral/Intellectual Approach to Literature

This video does contain a few expletives, so please be cautioned. However, this video sets forth the important premise of the approach: to teach and delight. Keep in mind that these are some questions that may guide you to a "didactic" or "moral/intellectual" reading of a text:
• What ideas does the work contain?
• How strongly does the work bring forth its ideas?
• What application do the ideas have to the work’s characters and situations?
• How may the ideas be evaluated intellectually? Morally?
• Is there an obvious or implicit “lesson” or “moral” to the story? What is it?

A Brief Introduction of Psychoanalytic Approach to Literature

This brief video lays the foundation for approaching a text from the psychoanalytic perspective. These questions may guide you in the direction of this sort of reading:
• How does this text use or represent the unconscious mind: of the author, the characters, and the reader?
• What are some possible issues of mental distress or illness?
• How does this text make you “feel?
• What psychological theories may be seen in this text?
• How do you “feel” about these characters?
• What are the obvious or hidden motives that cause characters’ behaviors?
• What sort of background does the text reveal about the character (e.g. the character’s (e.g. a repressed childhood trauma, adolescent memories, sexual deviance, etc)?
• How useful is the information from the text concerning the character’s psychological condition?
• Was the author’s life happy? Miserable? Upsetting? Solitary? Social?
• Can the death of someone in the author’s life be associated with emotional aspects within the work?

Summary with a "Brief, very Brief" Introduction to New Historical Approach to Literature

This video summarizes the previous comments (read "existential and religious" as "intellectual/moral) about the approaches you have seen At the end, there is a brief reading of "Cinderella" from the New Historical perspective which should allow the generation of these sorts of questions about any text:
• How does the text embody a history of its time?
• Is this text a useful historical document?
• What are the prevailing ideas of the time? How does this text relate to those ideas?
• What cultural moods or mores seem to be working here?
• Does the work reflect the author’s historical time frame or a different one? How does the historical framework of the author impact the work?
• Are there clear facts about the time period communicated? How effective are these “facts” in your response to this work?
• Does your period impact the way you respond to this work? Why and how?