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Critical Theory in Practice Sian Evans (Knox Grammar School) Through the Literary Looking Glass.

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1 Critical Theory in Practice Sian Evans (Knox Grammar School) Through the Literary Looking Glass

2 Why literary theory? Social purpose: to make literature more applicable to a varied modern audience Academic purpose: to justify the academic value of studying literature by qualifying the theoretical process in a scientific manner

3 What theory means for teachers: An answer to the tough questions! “Why do we have to do this?” “What is the point of studying literature?” “Aren’t you making up stuff the author never intended?”

4 What theory means for students: They choose their own ways into texts They can offer a fresh and original view of a classic text Deeper literary analysis Broader connections across texts Meaningful application to their own lives

5 Approaching literature What is my own natural reading practice? What first made you decide to study literature? What did you hope to gain from it? Was that hope realised? What have your studies in literature taught you about life, human nature, or literature itself?

6 Traditional literary criticism Close Reading“Liberal Humanism” Reading the text largely in isolation  it contains everything we need Touches on plot, character, setting, style Focus on theme: author’s exploration of human nature, and a moral or didactic message on how we should live Liberal = not politically radical, non-committal on political issues Humanism = non-Marxist, non-feminist, non-theoretical Belief in “human nature” as a constant, which great literature expresses

7 Looking at literature in new ways ‘Our job is not to produce “readings” for our students but to give them the tools for producing their own. Our job is not to intimidate students with our own superior textual production; it is to show them the codes upon which all textual production depends, and to encourage their own textual practice.’ – Robert Scholes (Textual Power, 1986)

8 Applying Liberal Humanism: “Miss Brill” How would a traditional close reading approach to the story present itself? A comment on human nature A criticism of society A warning to the individual Focus on author’s didactic purpose

9 Freudian Psychoanalytic Criticism Psychoanalyses characters within a text (or an author by studying a range of their work), OR: Attempts to discover unconscious motivations and feelings of a character/author, OR: Demonstrates classic Freudian stages, conditions or processes within a text, OR: Analyses how great works of literature gain popularity through a psychological hold on society.

10 Freudian Criticism: Key Terms Developmental stages:Unconscious Processes: Oedipal complex Id, ego, superego Dream works: Displacement (= metonymy) Condensation (= metaphor) Repression Transference Projection Sublimation Parapraxis

11 Applying Freudian Criticism: “Miss Brill” The story is viewed as a case study in processes of unconscious repression Miss Brill represses both her desire for companionship and her knowledge of the sadness of her own life Sublimation: “not sad exactly – something gentle” Projection: “something funny about them” Transference of emotions to fox fur Dream work: deals with her desires through fantasy

12 Applying Freudian Criticism: “Miss Brill” Conclusion: Miss Brill has not successfully negotiated the Oedipus complex, and as a result has an unhealthy id/superego balance Story works as “good literature” because it resonates with readers: the process we see in Miss Brill is one we have all negotiated (with varying degrees of success)

13 Applying Freudian Criticism “Lord of the Flies” “Hamlet” “Great Expectations” Works of the Brontë sisters Select a text that you teach or know well and brainstorm a rough draft of a Freudian psychoanalytic reading.

14 Psychoanalytic Criticism Freudian Psychoanalysis Lacanian Psychoanalysis Unconscious processes  Repression  Sublimation  Transference  Projection  Parapraxis Resolution of the Oedipal complex: id  superego Dream analysis Development occurs in terms of relationship with language Resolution of the Oedipal complex = transition from the imaginary  symbolic  The mirror stage  Recognition of law  Discovery of language

15 Lacanian Psychoanalytic Criticism More likely to focus on psychoanalysing the text as a whole, rather than looking at individual themes or characters Sees the text as an enactment of Lacanian views on language and the unconscious Demonstrates broader Lacanian processes or ideas within the text

16 Lacanian Criticism: Key Concepts ImaginarySymbolic Infant Undefined sense of self Undefined relationship to exterior world (eg. Symbiotic & confused relationship with mother) Little ‘a’ (other) Adult Separation of own internal identity and perceived external identity Fits into pre-existing structures (language, social conventions) Big ‘A’ (Other)

17 Lacanian Criticism: Key Concepts Progression from Imaginary to Symbolic stages occurs through:  Mirror stage The understanding that there is an external concept of “me”, seen by others, which doesn’t correspond exactly to my own view of myself  Recognition of law External rules, networks and conventions pre-exist me, and I will have to conform to them rather than vice versa  Discovery of language Similarly, my thoughts and communication must conform to a pre-existing system

18 Applying Lacanian Criticism: “Miss Brill” The story sets up an immediate other/Other tension: we are seeing the world through Miss Brill’s eyes, but also seeing Miss Brill through the eyes of a third-person narrator Miss Brill is trapped in the Imaginary stage  Displays interest in surroundings without considering her own place in this world  Seems to think it exists only for her enjoyment (music changes to reflect her moods)

19 Applying Lacanian Criticism: “Miss Brill” She begins to recognise that she cannot control the world when a “little dog trot[s] on solemnly” Develops the fantasy of the play in an attempt to place herself (Other) in this pre-existing world Lacan’s mirror stage forced upon her through the notice of the young girl, and realises that her external Other is very different from her internal other Transfers comments to her fox fur, making this her Other  fails to come to terms with the Symbolic stage

20 Applying Lacanian Criticism Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen) Waiting for Godot (Samuel Beckett) Frankenstein (Mary Shelley) Fight Club (Chuck Palahniuk) The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan)

21 Stylistics Linguistics vs literary theory Super-close analysis of technical aspects of text  Lexical choice  Syntax  Grammatical forms  Literary devices Move from ‘sentence grammar’ to ‘text grammar’: how text works as a whole to achieve its overall purpose Existing readings vs new readings Applied to any text (literature, advertisements, discourse)

22 Stylistics vs close reading Relationship between literary & everyday language Analysable components vs ‘impenetrable essence’ Uses hard data to back up claims Scientific objectivity Specialised technical vocabulary Compare:  “Hemingway has a plain style which is very distinctive”  “73% of the verbs Hemingway uses in…are without adjectival or adverbial qualification”

23 Stylistic analysis: some common terminology Transitivity Different sentence patterns in which verbs can occur Under-lexicalisation Lack of adequate words to express a concept Collocation Expected co-occurrence of words Cohesion Lexical items used to bind grammatically separate sentences into a single utterance

24 Applying Stylistics: “Miss Brill” “ it was so the with spots of over the Jardins Publiques.” brilliantly fine blue sky gold and great light like white wine powdered splashed – – Although Miss Brill was glad that she had decided on her fur

25 Applying Stylistics: “Miss Brill” Language shifts from the (narrator’s) boldly creative to (Miss Brill’s) insipid and often negative Consider these connotations in the first paragraph:  chill  motionless  iced  box  moth powder  black

26 Applying Stylistics: “Miss Brill” Ambiguity and ‘woolliness’ about lexical choice which reflect Miss Brill’s lack of clear insight  “a faint chill”  “drifting”  “nowhere”  “dim”  “some black composition”  “not at all firm”  “seemed”  “something”  “somehow”

27 Applying Stylistics: “Miss Brill” Under-lexicalisation, hedging, lack of cohesion  “Now there came a little ‘flutey’ bit – very pretty! – a little chain of bright drops” Conditionals  “if he’d been dead she mightn’t have noticed for weeks” Questioning  “Was the conductor wearing a new coat?” Hedging conjunctions  but (x13)  though (x5)  if (x5)  yet (x3)

28 Applying Stylistics: “Miss Brill” Compare the language of the young girl: “No, not now.” “That stupid old thing” “at the end there.” “It’s exactly like fried whiting.” Followed by Miss Brill’s first use of precision and accuracy: “like a cupboard.”

29 Applying Stylistics Short texts cf. novels Poetry, speeches, short stories Close reading of studied or unfamiliar texts (AOS)  Start with a word cloud (eg.  Start with tone  Start with connotation  Move to syntactical and grammatical choices  do they back up your existing ‘liberal humanist’ reading?

30 Structuralism: background concepts Nothing can be understood in isolation; texts must always be viewed in terms of larger structures of which they form a part A concept, word or text can only be understood in how it relates to others of its kind There is no meaning contained inside a text (or word, or concept); meaning must attributed from outside No differentiation between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art

31 Structuralism Ignores moral or didactic implications of literature, and focuses solely on how it is constructed Relates texts to a larger containing structure (conventions, genre, universal narrative, complex pattern of motifs) Interprets literature in terms of underlying parallels in the structure of language Treats language and literature as a ‘system of signs’ to be decoded by the reader

32 Structuralism: Key Processes Literary CodesStructuralists look for: Proairetic: provides indications of action (story) Hermeneutic: poses questions to provide narrative suspense (plot) Cultural: contains references to ‘common knowledge’ beyond the text Semic: connotations inherent in word choices (style) Symbolic: basic binary polarities in the text (theme) Parallels in plot Echoes in structure Reflections/repetitions in character and motive Contrasts in situation or circumstance Patterns in language and theme

33 Applying Structuralism: “Miss Brill” Consider “Miss Brill” as a single utterance within the ‘language’ of Katherine Mansfield’s stories. Does it form part of any wider cycle? Is it similar to others in its structure and content? Do you note any binary polarities in terms of characters, setting or theme in the story? Stories concerned with Burnell and Sheridan families – reader gains understanding of each of these in terms of the others Similar to “Bliss” in that it conveys a huge shift of feeling in main character, during a single scene Male/female, youth/age, energy/lethargy, talking/silence, light/dark, companionship/loneliness

34 Applying Structuralism “Romeo and Juliet”: Structured around a series of binary oppositions – Montagues/Capulets, parents/children, love/hate, light/dark, Verona/Mantua, etc. Part of the wider structure of myth, love story, Shakespeare’s tragedies, etc. Can easily be analysed using Vladimir Propp’s seven spheres of actions (character types) and thirty-one functions (plot events)

35 Further Literary Theories: “Social” Theory“Technical” Theory New Historicist criticism Feminist criticism Lesbian/gay criticism Marxist criticism Postcolonial criticism Ecocriticism Cultural materialism Post-structuralism Deconstruction Postmodernism Narratology

36 Want to explore further? Your local university library or bookshop Terry Eagleton, Peter Barry, Green & LeBihan “Through the Literary Looking Glass” published by NZATE: Email me for geeky discussion:


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