?English september 8, 2009 Literary Perspectives The following information was excerpted from The Bedford Introduction to Literature, 8th edition, 2079–2098 Formalist critics are primarily concerned with the language, structure, and tone of a work, otherwise known, as it’s “formal elements”. Formalists gravitate towards “intrinsic” matters in a piece of literature, in simpler terms, diction, irony, paradox, metaphor, and symbol. In a similar fashion, they emphasize larger elements, for instance, plot, characterization, and narrative technique, in order to derive meaning from a literary work.
The work must stand by itself, and any information that goes beyond the text, for example, biography, history, politics, and economics is considered “extrinsic” by formalists, and therefore far less important than what happens within the confines of the text itself. Poetry, in particular, as well as drama and fiction lend themselves well as genres to the “close reading” involved in the formalist technique. Formalists might approach Kate Chopin’s “ The Story of an Hour”(15) by analyzing the ironic ending of the story.
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Mallard suddenly dies of a heart attack, not because her husband has died in a horrific train crash but because she has learned that he is very much alive. The disparate nature between what is expected to transpire and what actually happens creates a complex irony which formalists value immensely over simple surprise tactics. Some formalist critics reject the use of the author’s biography as a tool for textual interpretation. From a biographical standpoint, however, knowledge of an author’s life and experience are central to a full and comprehensive understanding of his or her writing.
Relevant facts about the author’s personal existence will not necessarily enhance or detract from the quality of any given literary work, but such information is considered pivotal by biographers in the extent to which it exposes how personal experience drives the content of his or her writing. A biographical approach to literature can often enrich a reader’s interpretation of an author’s work; it can also complicate that appreciation as in the case of Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour”. One might expect from a biographical approach to unveil deep discontentment in Chopin’s own marriage reflective of Mrs.
Mallard’s malaise. By all accounts, Chopin appears to have been very happily married in reality, and biographers agree that Chopin’s marriage was not a source of oppression in her personal experience. While biographers speculate about a writer’s own motivations, psychological approaches explore the motivations of characters and the symbolic meanings of events- conscious or unconscious-in a literary work. Psychological criticism draws upon psychoanalytic theories, especially those of Sigmund Freud or Jacques Lacan to understand more fully the text, the writer, and the reader.
The existence of a human unconscious is central to any psychological strategy; Impulses, desires, and emotions that a person is oblivious to on a conscious level, but which nonetheless have a major impact on human emotion and behavior. A psychological reading of Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” certainly exposes Mrs. Mallard, upon learning of her husband’s alleged death, experiencing powerful unconscious desires for freedom that she had previously suppressed. Such analysis might lead to an interpretation of Mrs. Mallard’s life set firmly in the confines of the destructive nature of self-repressive tendencies.
Historical criticism moves beyond the facts of an author’s personal life (conscious or unconscious) and the text itself in an effort to examine the social and intellectual currents in which the author composed the work. A historical approach to literature emphasizes the link between the historic context of a work and a modern reader’s understanding and interpretation of the work. The 1960’s saw the development of “New Historicism” which places the text firmly in the period in which it was written, and examines that period from a political, economic, social, and aesthetic standpoint.
For example, a new historicist might examine Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” within the context of prevailing attitudes toward women at the time, as well as medical diagnoses of “nervousness” and “hysteria” as common, for women of that era, who led lives considered overly independent by their contemporaries. The doctors who diagnose Mrs. Mallard’s death as having been caused by “the joy that kills” are not delusional or ignorant; they represent a contrasting set of values that are historic and very much steeped in reality.
New historicists therefore sensitize us to the fact that the history on which we choose to concentrate is tainted by our examination of it from our own present “truth”; This reconstruction of the past undeniably affects the meaning we derive from a literary work. Mythological critics may specialize in history, classical literature, psychology, cultural history, and classical literature, but the chief emphasis is on the assumptions and values of various cultures. Mythological readings represent the broadest approach because they discuss the cultural and universal responses readers have to a work.
Mythological criticism seeks to identify what in a work creates deep, universal responses in readers, regardless of how, when, and, where they live. A cultural critic might approach Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour”, by reflecting on the dangers of train travel in the 1890’s. Or, he or she might focus on how physicians often misdiagnosed heart disease in Mrs. Mallard’s culture, or used it as a metaphor for a variety of emotional conditions. In this manner, the mythological approach attempts to create a wider and more informed understanding of the written word.
Drawing on the emphasis placed by mythological critics on cultural value systems, Gender criticism is an approach to literature that examines ideas about men and women, and in particular the social constructs which envelop notions of masculinity and femininity within particular cultures. Sexuality is examined as more complex than male or female, heterosexual or homosexual. Gender criticism, therefore, has come to include gay and lesbian criticism as well as feminist criticism. Feminist criticism seeks to supplement a traditionally male-dominated critical perspective with a feminist consciousness.
Feminist theories also attempt to understand representation from a woman’s point of view and to explain women’s writing strategies as specific to their social conditions. A feminist reading of Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” might point to the psychological stress created by the expectations that marriage places on Mrs. Mallard, expectations that ultimately lead to her demise. Gay and lesbian criticism focuses on how homosexuals are represented in literature, how they read literature, and whether sexuality, as well as gender, is innate or socially constructed.
A gay and lesbian reading of Mrs. Mallard’s ecstatic relief at the end of her marriage, brought on by the presumed death of her husband, might also indicate a rejection of her heterosexual identity. Of course, gay and lesbian readings often cause significant controversies among critics, but they have certainly opened up provocative discussions of seemingly familiar texts. In a sense, all critical approaches concern themselves with a reader’s response to literature, but the consciousness of the reader rather than the work itself is the only focus of Reader-response criticism.
The emphasis is on what goes on in the mind of the reader during the process of reading a text. In essence, we receive a reading of the reader, who comes to the work with certain expectations and assumptions, which are either met or not met. Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” illustrates how reader-response critical strategies read the reader. How the reader responds to Mrs. Mallard’s epiphany upon learning of her husband’s presumed death is never, from this perspective, entirely controlled by Chopin. A reader who has recently lost a spouse, might find Mrs.
Mallard’s “joy” certainly selfish and “monstrous”. On the other hand, someone whom has lived through repression of any nature, especially within the confines of the institution of marriage will undoubtedly gleam an entirely different message from Mrs. Mallard’s “joy” on this occasion. By imagining different readers, we can decipher a variety of responses to the story that are influenced by the readers’ own beliefs, memories, or experiences with marriage. In this manner, reader-response criticism opens up literary works to a bountiful number of interpretations.