Reading with Literary Theory
Nor dare she trust a larger lay, But rather loosens from the lip Short swallow-flights of song, that dip Their wings in tears, and skim away. Tennyson, In Memoriam
In this section, I have chosen a dozen texts to illustrate the way literary theories work. These analyses are intended to exemplify the kinds of questions that a particular theory might ask of a particular text. To each text I apply three of the theories discussed in “The Scope of Literary Theory” (though in two cases, the sections on Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Bronte's Jane Eyre, I have used four). My choice of texts is based on a combination of factors, including availability, the likelihood that a given text will be regularly taught, and my own teaching and writing experience. Were there world enough and time, I would have included readings of film, advertising, romance and detective novels - the whole “readable” landscape of modern culture. As it is, the task is already daunting, even when confronted with that most traditional of artistic productions, the literary text.
My readings in this section, though crafted in their present short form for pedagogical purposes, give a fair sense of the variety of approaches to a single text. I have tried whenever possible to give an indication of how theories are combined in critical practice. The reader is invited to argue different points and to arrive at different conclusions.
I have included all the major literary genres and have tried to pick theories that seemed to me to have an affinity for a particular text (Rushdie's Midnight’s Children and Postcolonial Studies, for example, or Woolf's To the Lighthouse and Feminism). It may seem whimsical to speak of “affinities” in this context, but it is very often just that sense of intuitive connection that makes a given theoretical approach seem like the best one available. The reader should bear in mind that it is quite common for critical writers to draw on more than one theory. It is equally common for critics to disagree on the value of a particular theory or on how that theory ought to be applied. Critical debate has served a salutary role in the history of theory, not least because it advances the general principle that theory is a valuable tool in the analysis of literary and cultural texts.
Students who are beginning to use theory in their analysis of literary and cultural texts are not usually expected to do the kind of archival research demanded by New Historicism or to have the background in philosophy that distinguishes so many theorists of Deconstruction and Poststructuralism. Nor are students expected to have mastered technical knowledge of Psychoanalysis or Structuralism. Rather they are expected to keep an open mind and to experiment with the tools that they have at their disposal. They can also be expected to use their own resources, garnered from work in the classroom and the library, to build on the research that theorists have done. What the student brings to her own analyses of literary texts is a degree of curiosity about how theory might open up avenues of interpretation and a willingness to acquire a modest background in the theory in question. The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory provides a starting point for this kind of work.