Critical Literary Theory

This week, I am wrapping up one of the most challenging classes I’ve taken for my master’s program: Critical Literary Theory. I will admit, had it not been a required course, I would have skipped it altogether. I’ve been a full time college student for six years, since retiring from the army in 2014, and I have experienced that any class with the word “theory” in the title is notoriously more difficult than other classes. This class has reinforced that notion.

Before taking the course, my exposure to literary criticism was limited. Before another deployment in 2009, I discovered a website called Project Gutenberg (website here ), where books that are no longer under copyright are published and available to readers for free. I downloaded as many books as I could to my laptop so I’d have something to read during my down time. I got a lot of the classics, but I also discovered other books. Many of them were books that were critical of other books. My first thoughts were, “Why are they criticizing what someone else wrote? If they don’t like what was written, then they should write their own damn story!” I didn’t understand it then, and honestly, I still didn’t before starting this class.

The course introduced me to different critical theories that I’d never heard of: New Critical theory, psychoanalytic theory, and Marxist theory. While I was familiar with psychoanalysis from some of my undergraduate courses, I had never considered using it to interpret literature. The same is true with Marxism. I’d studied and read Marx and Engels in history courses, but again, had never considered interpreting literature with it. There were other theories that seemed straight forward, but they were remarkably difficult for me to learn. Some of them were the feminist theory, African American theory, and LBGTQ theory. And then, there were some that sounded absolutely foreign: post structuralism, new historicism, new materialism, post humanism, and post colonial criticism. While the professors admitted that they were unable to cover all of the possible theories of criticism, they did cover many of the main-stream ones, and even a few of the more abstract theories.

I did struggle with most of the theories presented and the many papers I wrote in sad attempts to employ them. The grades of those assignments represent my struggles! What I liked the most about the course was it mandated that I leave the paradigm under which I normally understood literature and embrace a new way of thinking about what I was reading. This was hard for me, as I can imagine it would be for most people who’ve never been exposed to literary criticism on this level. I considered myself an adept reader, but I soon realized how limited my capability to understand the human condition really was. After all, I’m a straight, white, Christian male, floating somewhere in the middle class. Would it be possible for me to understand literature from an African American or feminist perspective? Having grown up in a capitalistic society, would I be able to understand literature from a Marxist angle? I am pleased to say … kind of.

Reading history is the only way I will be exposed to tragedies from our past, like slavery, or the oppression of women. However, reading literature critically and applying these varied theories facilitates my understanding of human experiences and conditions on a more personal level. A more relatable level. In the following few paragraphs I want to cover a couple of these theories and explain what I learned. I may even ask a  question or two.

According to one of our textbooks, feminism opposes ideologies that “are responsible for the oppression of women throughout the world and for the failure of most men and women to live up to their full potential.” (Tyson, 2011) Feminism challenges the patriarchy, which is any society where men hold all or most of the power. It also tackles traditional gender rolls and makes the argument that these gender rolls are produced by patriarchy and not nature. The objectification of women is a huge tenet of the feminist theory, wherein it seeks to identify literature that assigns characters to “good girl/bad girl” roles. While we only spent a week covering this theory, I’ve started to understand what I’m reading from that perspective.

I know there was a time in our not too distant past where women were still fighting for the same rights as men. Things like voting, owning a business, or even publishing a manuscript were extremely difficult, if not impossible, for women of previous generations. Today, women vote, own businesses, and publish seemingly more books than men do. Are there other issues that fall under feminism? I’m given to understand that there is a gender wage gap in the US. Is that also world wide? If there is, I’ve not been exposed to that. In the military there are pay grades, and regardless of your gender, you get paid based on your rank. Shortly after I retired, the army began allowing female soldiers the opportunity to serve in combat roles that had been closed to them.

While studying African American theory, the textbook contained a passage that stunned me. It said that “the evils of slavery are still with us today in a heritage of racial bias that is so thoroughly built into American law, politics, and social behavior that many white Americans are unable to see it.” (Tyson) What?? Am I so blind that I can’t see the racial bias that Lois Tyson refers to? On what level is American law racist? These are questions I grappled with, and still do, throughout the course. The time we spent on this theory took the issue of racism and broke it down into more specific arenas.

Institutionalized racism elevates awareness of racism to the level of society’s institutions. From limiting the inclusion of literary works written by African American authors in schools and colleges, to the real estate industry side-stepping fair housing laws, these are just a couple of examples Tyson cites of racism at the institutional level. I’ve seen posts on social media begrudging a disproportionate number of arrests among African Americans over other races. Until I was exposed to this literary theory, I hadn’t considered race as a factor for those arrests. There are thousands of crimes committed each day in America, and they’re not limited to just one race; but I never looked at the proportions for those arrests, and had not considered that the law was biased.

Internalized racism explains that some people of color accept the belief that is “pressed upon them by racist America that they are inferior to whites, less worthy, less capable, less intelligent, or less attractive.”(Tyson) Forgive my naïveté, but is this a thing? Do African Americans feel inferior? If so, I find that utterly unacceptable! At this point, I’m starting to feel sheltered somehow. This, even after a career in the army, where I served alongside soldiers of every race, religion, and gender identity. I’ve had leaders and superiors of all races and never considered any of them inferior because of their skin color. If I lost respect for someone, it was because of their actions, not their race.

If you can imagine, this has been a difficult class for me. Not because of the myriad and intricate writing assignments, but because of these ideas and theories I’ve been exposed to. Discrimination because of gender? Because of race? I thought we had moved past all these things, but I’m starting to feel “blind”, as Tyson hinted before. What I’ve discovered over the past few months has bothered me. It will be hard for me to read anything from here forward without looking for any application of these literary theories.

Last week, I finished reading Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley, and I was bombarded with the examples of sexism, classism, and racism evidenced in the dystopian World State. I read the book decades ago, but I didn’t get any of that information the first time through it. After spending time trying, and at times failing, to properly analyze assigned texts based on these theories, I did start to see examples of these issues. It’s either that, or I have always noticed but didn’t have the vocabulary necessary to speak to what I was seeing. It could be a combination of both.

Toward the end of her text, Tyson sums it up thusly:

“The more we learn about the critical theories … the more we are able to see – in our own lives as well as in the literary works we read – the intriguing connections between an individual’s personal identity and the society in which that individual lives.”

After taking this course, I’m inclined to agree. However, I feel that since I struggled with this course, I should keep studying it. I once had a friend from high school who went to college and studied math. She then got an advanced degree in math. When I asked her why she wanted to study math, she replied, “Because I sucked at it. And now I don’t.” In that same spirit, I need to continue down this critical, literary path until it makes sense.

Have you ever had any exposure to these literary theories, or even the reality behind them? Can you help me better understand the issues I’ve struggled with in this college course? What can we do to move forward with eradicating inequality once and for all?

If you can contribute, please like, share, reblog, and comment below. Let’s start a conversation!

(Work Cited: Tyson, Lois. Using Critical Theory: How to Read and Write About Literature. 2011. ISBN: 978-0-415-61617-1.)

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