I just wanted to branch off from the discussion we ended class with yesterday where we were talking about Avery’s article, Fairy-tales for Pleasure. When I read Alice in Wonderland, I did not feel that the story was an attempt by Carroll to educate children on morals and life-lessons, rather I read the story from a psychoanalytic perspective. Alice’s experience in Wonderland took place in a dream and this made me perceive the story as Alice’s response to her schooling and education in real life. The characters she encounters, such as the Queen of Hearts or the Cheshire Cat, resembled authorial figures in her life, possibly a teacher or older classmate. I felt that Alice’s conversations with these characters were a way for her to unconsciously respond to how her teachers and classmates made her feel in reality. Therefore, I feel that Carroll only tells a story showing a child’s reactions to authority rather than trying to moralistically educate children.
I found reader-response theory to be one of the most interesting yet perplexing literary criticisms. The fact that a reader’s own, individual interpretation could have more credibility than authorial intention or the actual text on the page seemed almost sinful. However, this theory allows some flexibility in how one understands literature and texts. Taking this even further, Tyson states in her chapter that one’s analysis of the text is not the only aspect of reader-response criticism. After responding to a specific text, it is then the reader’s job to analyze their response. This analysis and re-analysis is then influenced by one’s interpretive community. Readers in the same interpretive community will approach literature in much the same way, using similar strategies and contexts to bring meaning to written works. For my applied theory post, I chose to analyze how two different interpretive communities bring meaning to the children’s book The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister.
Below is a video of Ernst Borgnine reading the story. (It’s a little cheesy, but cute.)
I analyzed The Rainbow Fish based on two different interpretive communities. The first community consists of young children, most likely between the ages of five and nine or ten. I will refer to this as the “child’s interpretation”. The second community consists of young adults, ranging from the ages of young teenagers to early twenties. I will refer to this as the “young adult interpretation”. Each group’s interpretation is vastly different because they each bring in unique strategies, experiences, and emotions to give meaning to the text.
Young children experience their world through an innocent lens. They are naïve to many pains and tragedies of life understood by adults, so when bringing meaning to certain texts they do not have many past experiences to relate that text to. As a child, when my parents read The Rainbow Fish to me I never perceived it as a deeply emotional novel. I could relate to the sadness of the rainbow fish or the jealousy of the other fish, but I did not see the story as having any strong implications towards my own life. In the simplest of forms, the short story taught me to share with others and be friendly and kind to all people. However, I probably would not have pulled that meaning out on my own without my parents to guide me through my understanding of the story. So in many ways, the “child’s interpretation” that I am referring to is greatly influenced by older, more experience individuals.
In contrast with the “child’s interpretation” is the “young adult” interpretation. Reading the story again, with many more years of experience since my childhood, I had a much different interpretation and a greater meaning. Events I experienced in middle school and high school suddenly came to mind as I reread the story of the rainbow fish. I was reminded of my own feelings of not fitting in and not being accepted by certain people or groups in my school. Drawing on the psychoanalytic branch of reader-response criticism, my interpretation of The Rainbow Fish became a means of coping with my own uncomfortable emotions. In a way, rereading the story was like a personal therapy session to release and understand my suppressed memories. On top of all this, the story was a great reminder to be kind to others, accepting of others, and generous with my gifts and talents. One thematic aspect that I did not pick up on as a child though was the rainbow fish’s happiness after sharing his sparkling scales with the other fish. This is proof of the stronger implications one can pick up on depending on past experience and context. A child would have great difficulty understanding that sharing and kindness can create an inward happiness, but as a young adult it is easy to understand because one has experienced this kind of event before.
In conclusion, each person or community of people brings a predisposed opinion of literature and their own strategies in creating meaning in literature. A child approaches The Rainbow Fish seeking a fun story that makes them smile and feel happy, while a young adult reads the story in context of their past or current experiences and then interprets based on how it relates to their individual context. Reader-response criticism allows both of these communities to hold a credible interpretation of the text and gives The Rainbow Fish a much greater influence.
For our class today on 9/10, we discussed the psychoanalytic criticism of literature. This form of criticism is often highly debated because of its opinions and stances regarding human development, specifically development in childhood. The two psychoanalytic theorists discussed in the chapter, Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, focus mainly on distinct and separate stages of childhood development and how our process through these stages shaped our current selves. Freud states that there are two stages, the pre-Oedipal and the Oedipal, while Lacan believes a child goes through three stages, Imaginary, Mirror, and Symbolic. Although dissimilar, they share a similar core belief of the mother-child connection and how a child then creates their sense of self once that connection is lost.
The most interesting topic discussed in the chapter that I feel can be found in nearly all pieces of literature, aside from the developmental theories, is the idea of the unconscious and repression. All characters have a past, though not always directly revealed in the story, and this past contains both good and bad memories that are being repressed from the conscious mind of that character. With this in mind, I began analyzing characters in other novels that I have read. I immediately thought of Dorian Gray in The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. Dorian represses his past which ultimately leads him to a “return of the repressed” memories in a violent and life-changing way.
Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray tells of a young man, Dorian Gray, who desires only the pleasurable things in life. The thought of growing weak and older frightens Dorian and he wishes to never grow older consequently causing a painting done of him by his friend Basil to age instead. Each time Dorian does something sinister or corrupted in his physical life, his expression in the painting is altered. Upon breaking his relationship with an actress named Sibyl Vane for selfish, self-centered reasons, Dorian notices that his face in the painting is sneering. After this point, Dorian hides the painting in his attic because each time he looks at it he is reminded of his corrupted past and actions. This is an example of repression according to Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. Dorian’s attempt to rid himself of the painting is a form a denial because he refuses to accept what he has done to himself and others. Dorian keeps this lifestyle up for nearly 20 years before his repressed memories return. Rumors spread and Dorian is confronted by friends of his actions. He is so haunted by his past that Dorian finally kills himself at the end of the novel. Dorian tried to repress his past memories and deny how truly evil and corrupted of a man he had become, but it eventually overcame him through his own suicide.
Are there any other examples in literature that you can think of where a character is affected by “the return of the repressed”? The Great Gatsby is a great example and I also thought of Jean Valjean from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.