My favourite module of this semester has been “Ways of Reading”. The title attempts to simplify the idea of literary theory, or theories, since there are so many, and sums up what literary theory/criticism is about which is essentially different ways of reading any text.
It’s also been the most frustrating module since, by and large, the lectures and tutorials have been less structured in their approach to teaching. In some ways it couldn’t have been any other way. Reading is a very subjective and often mysterious activity with as many perspectives on the text being read as there are readers. How you interpret Blackfeather, for instance, may be entirely different to what I intended to write and different again to any other reader’s interpretation.
Another complication is the fact that many theories originate from other disciplines- Marxism from politics, psychoanalysis from psychology and any number of philosophical approaches – each with its own technical language.
And what is literature anyway? This question hasn’t been answered satisfactorily on the course. Once upon a time it would only have included those texts deemed worthy of study – the Classics for instance – but ideas of literature and worthiness changes over time. In his day Dickens appealed to the masses with his serialised stories, now, I think, we would consider him if not literary at least part of the corpus of Victorian literature worth studying for historical purposes. Likewise, Conan-Doyle, who could come under genre theory of detective fiction, amongst others.
Taking any particular approach also poses problems. Feminist theory will look at a text from the perspective of gender, women writers, do female characters even have a voice, what do the actions of female characters say about the text, the author, history and so on. Psychoanalysis interprets a text from a Freudian perspective, looking at sexual imagery, suppressed sexual desires, dreams etc whilst ecocritiscism interprets the natural world and how it is portrayed, the landscape may mirror a character’s feelings for instance. In King Lear the wild stormy moors reflect Lear’s state of mind. The presence of a lake may signify the hidden depths of a character or secrets they are keeping.
These are just a few of the ‘isms’ associated with literary theory and even if you believe you are reading a text from say a feminist perspective there isn’t just one feminist perspective to use.
So, you begin to see my problem with the module – there is no black and white, no one set of rules to follow, but equally no right or wrong way to read.