Using Critical Theory
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Using Critical Theory

How to Read and Write About Literature

Lois Tyson

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eBook - ePub

Using Critical Theory

How to Read and Write About Literature

Lois Tyson

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About This Book

Explaining both why theory is important and how to use it, Lois Tyson introduces beginning students of literature to this often daunting field in a friendly and readable style. The new edition of this textbook is clearly structured with chapters based on major theories frequently covered both in courses on literature and on critical theory.

Key features include:

• coverage of major theories including reader-response theory, New Criticism (formalism), psychoanalysis, Marxism, feminism, lesbian/gay/queer theories, African American theory, and postcolonial theory

• practical demonstrations of how to use these theories to interpret short literary works selected from canonical authors including William Faulkner and Alice Walker

• a chapter on reader-response theory that shows students how to use their personal responses to literature while avoiding typical pitfalls

• sections on cultural criticism for each chapter that use our selected theories to interpret productions of popular culture

This new edition also includes updated and expanded theoretical vocabulary, as well as "basic concepts" and "further study" sections, and an expanded "next-step" appendix that suggests additional literary works for extra practice. Comprehensive, easy to use, and fully updated throughout, Using Critical Theory is the ideal first step for students beginning degrees in literature, composition, and cultural studies.

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Chapter 1

Critical theory and you

If you’re reading this textbook, then you’ve probably got a lot on your plate right now. You might be preparing to enter college. Or you might be in your first or second year of undergraduate studies. Perhaps you’re taking your first literature course. If you’re specializing in literary studies, at this point you might be a bit concerned about what you’ve gotten yourself into. If you’re not specializing in literary studies, you might be wondering if you can get away with skipping this part of the course or putting forth a minimal effort. After all, you might be thinking, “What does critical theory have to do with me?” As I hope this book will show you, critical theory has everything to do with you, no matter what your educational or career plans might be.

What does critical theory have to do with me?

First, most of my students find that the study of critical theory increases their ability to think creatively and to reason logically, and that’s a powerful combination of vocational skills. You will see, for example, how the skills fostered by studying critical theory would be useful to lawyers in arguing their cases and to teachers in managing the interpersonal dynamics that play out in their classrooms. In fact, as you read the following chapters I think you will find that critical theory develops your ability to see any given problem from a variety of points of view, which is a skill worth having no matter what career you pursue.
As important, if not more important, than your future role on the job market is your future role as a member of the global community. Many people are coming to realize that the numerous and diverse cultures inhabiting planet Earth each has its own history of struggle and achievement as well as its own part to play on the modern stage of national and world events. However, while each culture has its own unique heritage, we share the need to learn to live together, to learn to work with and for one another, if we want our planet to survive. And the issue becomes more complex when we realize, as postcolonial theory will help us do, that cultures don’t occupy tidy bins determined by race or ethnicity or religion alone. In reality, cultures consist of patchworks of overlapping groups that define themselves in terms of many factors, including but not limited to race, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic class, sex, gender identification (our internal sense of our own gender, which may or may not match our apparent biological sex at birth), sexual orientation, education, disability, age, and geographical location.
It’s easy for each of us to think ourselves tolerant of cultural groups other than our own, to believe that we are unbiased, without prejudice. But it’s not meaningful to say that we are tolerant of groups about which we know little or nothing. For as soon as our tolerance is tested we might find that the tolerance we thought we had doesn’t really exist. For example, take a minute to think about the schools you attended before you entered college. Didn’t the student population of at least one of those schools, if not all of them, divide itself into social groups based largely on the kinds of cultural factors listed above? If your school had a diverse student body, didn’t students tend to form close bonds only with members of their own race? Didn’t students from wealthy, socially prominent families tend to stick together? Didn’t students from poorer neighborhoods tend to stick together as well? Didn’t students with strong religious ties tend to be close friends with students of the same religion? If your school environment was safe enough for gay students to identify themselves, wasn’t there a social group based on gay sexual orientation, which may have been subdivided into two more groups: gay male and gay female students? You can see the strength of these cultural ties if your school had athletic teams or cheerleading squads made up of students from diverse backgrounds. The athletes and cheerleaders may have bonded with their teammates and squadmates on the playing field, but how many of them formed close off-the-field friendships with teammates or squadmates of a different race, socioeconomic class, religion, gender identification, or sexual orientation?
Of course, it seems natural for us to form close ties with people who share our cultural background because we have so much in common. The unfortunate thing is that we tend to form only superficial relationships, or none at all, with people from other cultural groups. And worse, we tend to classify other groups according to misleading stereotypes that prevent us from getting to know one another as individuals. We might even find ourselves looking at members of another group as if they were creatures from another planet, “not like us” and therefore not as good, not as trustworthy, and in worst-case scenarios, not as human. One solution to this problem is to begin to understand one another by learning to see the world from diverse points of view, by learning what it might be like to “walk a mile in another person’s moccasins.” And though it might sound like a big claim, that is precisely what critical theory can help us learn because it teaches us to see the world from multiple perspectives.
Naturally, critical theory has specific benefits for students of literature. For example, critical theory can increase your understanding of literary texts by helping you see more in them than you’ve seen before. And by giving you more to see in literature, critical theory can make literature more interesting to read. As you’ll see in the following chapters, critical theory can also provide you with multiple interpretations of the same literary work, which will increase the possibility of finding interesting essay topics for your literature classes. Finally, a practice that is increasing in popularity in literary studies is the application of critical theory to cultural productions other than literature—for example, to movies, song lyrics, video games, advertisements, children’s toys, and television shows—and even to your own personal experience, which will help you see more and understand more of the world in which you live.

What will I learn about critical theory from this book?

So now that I’ve been trying to convince you of the value of critical theory for the last several paragraphs, perhaps it’s time to explain in some detail what critical theory is. If you’ve looked at the table of contents of this textbook, you’ve probably discovered that what is commonly called critical theory actually consists of several critical theories. And what is most interesting, each theory focuses our attention on a different area of human experience—and therefore on a different aspect of literature—and gives us its own set of concepts with which to understand the world in which we live and the literature that is part and parcel of our world. Think of each theory as a different lens or a different pair of eyeglasses through which we see a different picture of the world and a different view of any literary text we read. To help you get a feel for how each critical theory changes what we see in a literary work, here’s a brief overview of the theories from which we’ll draw in this book.
Reader-response theory focuses on how readers make meaning—on what happens to us as we read a particular literary work. It asks us to analyze how, exactly, we interact with a given text as we read and interpret it. In Chapter 2 we’ll use concepts from this theory to help you understand some of the personal sources of your own individual interpretations of literature—that is, to help you understand why each of us tends to interpret particular literary texts the way we do. For this reason, Chapter 2 won’t show you how to analyze literary texts; instead, it will help you understand the ways in which we bring our own beliefs and experiences to our literary interpretations. In addition, Chapter 2 will offer you ways of dealing with the personal, subjective nature of interpretation. Once you’re in touch with the personal factors influencing your interpretations, you’ll be ready to bring that awareness to subsequent chapters in which we use concepts from different critical theories to analyze literary works.
Whereas reader-response theory focuses on the experiences of the reader during the act of reading, New Critical theory focuses exclusively on the ways in which language operates in a literary text to make meaning. Chapter 3 will provide concepts from New Critical theory to help you interpret literature thematically—that is, in terms of a literary text’s meaning as a whole concerning general topics about human experience, such as love and hate, tradition and change, the initiation into adulthood, conformity and rebellion, death and dying, our relationship to nature, and the like. And in order to help you analyze how a text’s meaning is linked to its language, this chapter will help increase your understanding of such literary devices as, for example, setting, characterization, point of view, ambiguity, imagery, symbol, and metaphor. Many of you will be familiar with this approach because it resembles the way we are usually taught to interpret literary works in high-school or preparatory-school literature classes. In addition, Chapter 3 will help you improve and expand your ability to generate a thesis (a debatable opinion that forms the main point of your interpretation) and to support your thesis with evidence from the literary work you are interpreting. Taken together, then, Chapters 2 and 3 should help you develop both the self-awareness and interpretive skills that will serve you well as you move on to the critical theories offered in the following chapters.
Chapters 4 through 9 introduce you to a range of critical theories that I believe you will find very interesting as well as very helpful to your study of literature. In Chapter 4, we’ll use concepts from psychoanalytic theory to interpret literature. Psychoanalytic theory asks us to examine the emotional causes of the characters’ behavior and to view a given story, poem, or play as the unfolding of the characters’ personal psychological dramas. In contrast, Marxist theory, as we’ll see in Chapter 5, asks us to look at the ways in which characters’ behavior and plot events are influenced by the socioeconomic conditions of the time and place in which the characters live. From a Marxist perspective, all human experiences, including personal psychology, are products of the socioeconomic system—which is usually some sort of class system—in which human beings live. In Chapter 6, we’ll see how feminist theory asks us to look at the ways in which traditional gender roles, which cast men as naturally dominant and women as naturally submissive, affect characters’ behavior and plot events. Lesbian, gay, and queer theories, as Chapter 7 demonstrates, ask us to examine the ways in which literary works reveal human sexuality as a complex phenomenon that cannot be fully understood in terms of what is currently defined as heterosexual and cisgender (people whose gender identification matches their sex at birth) experience. In Chapter 8, we’ll see how African American theory focuses our attention on the many different ways in which race and racial issues operate in literary texts. Postcolonial theory, as we’ll see in Chapter 9, asks us to look at the ways in which literature offers us a view of human experience as the product of a combination of cultural factors—including, as we saw earlier, race, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic class, sex, gender identification, sexual orientation, education, and geographical location—sometimes working together, sometimes in conflict.
Finally, Chapter 10, “Holding on to what you’ve learned,” offers shorthand overviews of both the critical theories you encountered in Chapters 2 through 9 and of the interpretation exercises provided to help you learn to use these theories. In addition, Chapter 10 revisits the relationship between critical theory and cultural criticism discussed later in this chapter. Chapter 10 closes by examining a question implied by our use of reader-response concepts in Chapter 2, which is also a question raised whenever any critical theory attempts to promote cultural understanding and the appreciation of cultural difference: How can critical theory help us understand, develop, and give voice to our personal values, particularly as those values affect and are affected by the values of others?
Of course, there are many more critical theories than those introduced here. For example, in addition to the theories we draw upon in this book, courses in critical theory may include units on structuralism, deconstruction, new historicism, rhetorical criticism, or Jungian theory, among others. The theories I’ve chosen for you were selected because I believe you will find them most helpful as you develop your understanding of literature and most relevant to your life. And these theories will lay a strong foundation for further study in critical theory, should you choose to pursue your education in that direction.
Analogously, the five literary texts that appear at the end of this book (Appendices A–E) and are used for our interpretation exercises were chosen for specific reasons. Each text shows you something useful about our selected theories. And collectively, these literary works offer a range of authorial voices in terms of race, gender, and sexual orientation. These works include Emily Dickinson’s Poem 520, “I started Early—Took my Dog” (c. 1862); William Faulkner’s story “A Rose for Emily” (1931); Ralph Ellison’s “The Battle Royal,” which is the first chapter of his well-known novel Invisible Man (1952); a story by Alice Walker entitled “Everyday Use” (1973); and Jewelle Gomez’s story “Don’t Explain” (1987). Although, as you can see, we focus primarily on fiction, our theories can be used to interpret any genre of literature. For like short stories and novels, most plays and poems contain a narrative element—they tell a story—and stories usually offer us the best starting places for learning to use concepts from critical theory.
One secret for developing a good initial relationship to critical theory is to not expect of yourself more than you should at this stage of the game. For example, although you should be able to understand the interpretation exercises I offer you in each chapter—or be able to ask questions about those exercises that will allow your instructor to help you—you should not expect yourself, at first, to come up with similar interpretations completely on your own. At this point in your acquaintance with theory, it is quite natural that you should need some guidelines to help you develop your own theoretical interpretations. The “Interpretation exercises” found in Chapters 3 through 9 offer those guidelines: each interpretation exercise demonstrates a different aspect of the theory at hand and thus serves as a model for analyzing literature on your own.
In addition, to help ensure that you take one step at a time, each chapter presents only the basic concepts of the theory it addresses. This will help you get a firm grasp of the theory at hand without overwhelming you with the kind of full-blown explanations of each theory you would need in a course devoted exclusively to critical theory. If you want to learn more about a particular theory, I suggest you try “Taking the next step” at the end of any chapter that especially interests you. There you will find “Questions for further practice,” to help you gain experience using the theoretical concepts you’ve learned in that chapter by applying them to additional literary works, and a selected bibliography, “Suggestions for further study,” to guide you to additional discussions of the critical theory at hand. Finally, Appendix F, “Additional literary works for further practice,” recommends a range of specific titles that lend themselves readily to our selected critical theories.
To customize Using Critical Theory for your own purposes, you can study just those theories that interest you or that your instructor selects for you. Each chapter is written to stand on its own and will make sense without requiring you to read other chapters. Once you have read the chapters you’ve selected, it might also be useful to “read across” those chapters, so to speak, by rereading the different interpretations of the same literary work offered in different chapters. See what happens, for example, as Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” is interpreted through the successive lenses of the theories you’ve studied. You will notice, especially if you look at all of the interpretation exercises offered for any one of our literary pieces, that some theories work better than others for interpreting a particular text. Indeed, literary works tend to lend themselves more readily to interpretation through some theoretical frameworks than through others. For this reason, our interpretation exercises analyze our sample literary works in the order in which those works are most accessible to the theory being used in that chapter.
Clearly, the ability to pick the appropriate theory for a literary work you want to interpret, or to pick an appropriate literary work for a theory you want to use, is a skill worth developing. For most of us, it’s a question of trial and error. We experimentally apply different theories to a piece of literature we want to analyze until we find one that yields the most interesting and perhaps the most thorough interpretation. Of course, the ability to use any given theory to interpret any given text differs from person to person, so the key is to find the combination of theory and literary text that works for you. In fact, you might see some of the ways in which different readers can use the same theory to come up with different readings of the same literary work if you or your instructor interprets any of our five literary texts in ways that differ from the interpretation exercises I offer you.

Critical theory and cultural criticism

One of the most eye-opening and enjoyable features of critical theory is the way it can be used to practice cultural criticism. Contrary to what you might be thinking, cultural criticism does not refer to the evaluation of works of “high” culture, such as opera, ballet, symphonic music, or works of art found in museums. Rather, cultural criticism sees works of “high” and “popular” culture as equally important expressions of the societies that produce them. Indeed, cultural criticism often crosses the line between the two, for instance, b...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Using Critical Theory
APA 6 Citation
Tyson, L. (2020). Using Critical Theory (3rd ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2020)
Chicago Citation
Tyson, Lois. (2020) 2020. Using Critical Theory. 3rd ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Tyson, L. (2020) Using Critical Theory. 3rd edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Tyson, Lois. Using Critical Theory. 3rd ed. Taylor and Francis, 2020. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.