Skip to main content
main-content
Top

About this book

This invaluable guide by Todd F. Davis and Kenneth Womack offers an accessible introduction to two important movements in the history of twentieth-century literary theory. A complementary text to the Palgrave volume Postmodern Narrative Theory by Mark Currie, this new title addresses a host of theoretical concerns, as well as each field's principal figures and interpretive modes. As with other books in the Transitions series, Formalist Criticism and Reader-response Theory includes readings of a range of widely-studied texts, including Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, among others.

Transitions critically explores movements in literary theory. Guiding the reader through the poetics and politics of interpretative paradigms and schools of thought, Transitions helps direct the student's own acts of critical analysis. As well as transforming the critical developments of the past by interpreting them from the perspective of the present day, each study enacts transitional readings of a number of well-known literary texts.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Moving beyond the Politics of Interpretation

Introduction: Moving beyond the Politics of Interpretation

Abstract
In Professing Literature: An Institutional History (1987), Gerald Graff contends that ‘no text is an island’ (10). We might add that no form of theory or act of criticism is an island either. What critic or theorist can claim to lounge comfortably upon the unblemished sands of some uncharted isle sipping fresh guava juice, somehow untainted and untouched by the interpretive activity of past centuries? Indeed, all theory and criticism must claim its place in an ever-growing family tree. Over the course of the twentieth century — and sadly it appears to have continued into the twenty-first — critics and theorists alike have repeatedly ignored or done battle with their precursors, sometimes to the scholarly equivalent of death. How much richer and, perhaps, more valid might our reading strategies and the various readings they produce be if, instead of ridiculing our theoretical predecessors, we actually listen and examine how their legacy plays a role, albeit a subtle one, in our various acts of interpretation.
Todd F. Davis, Kenneth Womack

Formalist Criticism and Reader-Response Theory: A Critical Introduction

Frontmatter

1. Twentieth-Century Formalism: Convergence and Divergence

Abstract
Perhaps the most dominant and influential of all forms of criticism during the twentieth century, formalist thought likely remains the most misrepresented. While the far-reaching political and ideological force of Anglo-American formalism’s New Criticism cannot be denied, it is all too often caricatured as a monolithic reading strategy, one somehow devoid of any theoretical acumen. In Professing Literature: An Institutional History (1987), Gerald Graff contends that although contemporary ‘defenders of theory tend to equate the New Criticism itself with unreflective empiricism... in its time the movement stood for theoretical reflection against the primitive accumulation of data’ (247). Ransom’s decree that literary criticism need become ‘more scientific, or precise and systematic’ points away from a naïve perspective that reading and interpretation are somehow natural activities. Sadly, Ransom’s assertion includes a more elitist demand that such activity should occur behind the walls of universities and colleges. But we should not assume that Ransom’s desire to shift the power of reading and interpretation to the academy was shared by all New Critics.
Todd F. Davis, Kenneth Womack

2. Russian Formalism, Mikhail Bakhtin, Heteroglossia, and Carnival

Abstract
As with American and British variations of formalist criticism, the historical confluence of Russian Formalism, the Moscow Linguistics Circle, and the Prague Structuralists in the first three decades of the twentieth century acted as one of the most significant and formative influences upon the direction of literary theory and criticism during the latter half of the century. While it is difficult to pinpoint the precise impact of these movements upon American New Criticism or the advent of postmodernity, for example, their insights into narratology, linguistics, and literary interpretation provided later scholars with the intellectual foundations for the structuralism that would exist as the bedrock for an evolving theoretical project. Led by such figures as Victor Shklovsky, Boris Eichenbaum, Jan Mukarovsky, Yuri Tynyanov, and Roman Jakobson, among others, Russian Formalism resulted from the work of two groups of Russian literary critics and linguists, including the Moscow Linguistics Circle (founded in 1915) and the Society for the Study of Poetic Language (founded in St Petersburg in 1916). Russian formalists eschewed the notion that literature could best be understood in terms of such extra-literary matters as philosophy, history, sociology, biography, and autobiography.
Todd F. Davis, Kenneth Womack

3. Reader-Response Theory, the Theoretical Project, and Identity Politics

Abstract
Reader-response criticism devotes considerable attention to the act of reading itself, particularly in terms of the many different ways in which readers respond to literary texts. Reader-response criticism’s theoretical apotheosis during the last three decades of the twentieth century exists as a signal moment in poststructuralism that shared in the establishment of the self-referential foundations of various postmodern critical paradigms and, perhaps most importantly, cultural studies. As a theoretical paradigm, reader-response criticism explores three principal questions: do our various responses to literary works produce the same (or similar) readings?; can literary texts genuinely enjoy as many meanings as readers are able to create?; are some readings essentially more valid and justifiable than others? Reader-response criticism also provides us with models for understanding the reading process itself, as well as with mechanisms for exploring the ways in which the construction of literary works shares in the production of meaning. Although literary historians often suggest that reader-response theory’s critical heyday begins in the 1970s and continues in various formulations and reformulations into the present, the paradigm’s conception finds its roots well before the twentieth century in the ancient Greek and Roman cultures that viewed literature as a rhetorical device for manipulating a given audience’s reactions. The ancients intuitively recognized that a basic understanding of the rhetorical strategies inherent in literary works afforded them with the means for registering the impact of those texts upon their audience of ‘readers.’
Todd F. Davis, Kenneth Womack

4. Stanley Fish, Self-Consuming Artifacts, and the Professionalization of Literary Studies

Abstract
It is difficult to account for Stanley Fish’s allegedly significant influence upon reader-response theory in specific and literary criticism in general at this juncture. It is simply too early to ascertain precisely how literary historians may yet judge his impact upon letters during the last quarter of the twentieth century. For some, he exists as a kind of professor cum critical pioneer who shared in the theoretical project’s intellectual apotheosis, as well as being the progenitor of a form of academic professionalization that has reshaped the ways in which we view ourselves both as thinkers and as professorial commodities. For others, he represents a far more sinister force, literally embodying the character of Morris Zapp, that fictive paragon of self-interested poststructural-ism for whom Fish ostensibly serves as the model in the academic novels of David Lodge. A shrewd textual combination of killer zeal and knowing egotism, Zapp plans to embark upon an ambitious critical project in Lodge’s Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses (1975) that would treat each of Jane Austen’s novels from every conceivable hermeneutic perspective: ‘historical, biographical, rhetorical, mythical, Freudian, Jungian, existentialist, Marxist, structuralist, Christian-allegorical, ethical, exponential, linguistic, phenomenological, archetypal, you name it.’ In this way, Zapp plans to exhaust Austen’s canon of novels for future critical study. ‘There would be simply nothing further to say,’ Lodge writes, ‘periodicals would fall silent, famous English Departments [would] be left deserted like ghost towns’ (44–45).
Todd F. Davis, Kenneth Womack

Readings in Formalist Criticism and Reader-Response Theory

Frontmatter

5. Travelling through the Valley of Ashes: Symbolic Unity in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby

Abstract
As the subject of innumerable biographies,1 F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work may seem an unlikely choice for a formalist reading. Indeed, how does one hold at arm’s length the ever-present intrusion of readers who clamor for exposés about the emotional instability of Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda and their stormy relationship, about his soured friendship and competitive battles with Hemingway, about his own desperate attempts to stay afloat financially in order to put on a good front for the paparazzi of the East and West coast? Surely, no one should be surprised when The Great Gatsby is introduced by high school teachers and college professors alike as a novel that mirrors Fitzgerald’s own movement from innocence to experience. We live in an age when our desire for ‘real’ experience, for factual grounding, has surpassed our understanding of truth and its various manifestations, that the ‘truth’ found in fiction or poetry does not necessarily have to draw its strength from fleshly sources as its counterparts on reality television seemingly do. And so it is that The Great Gatsby stands as one of the truly superior examples of formal lyricism in the twentieth-century American novel, pointing toward the truth that fiction and the formal structure that undergirds its making may offer a far more enduring truth than any number of factual occurrences.
Todd F. Davis, Kenneth Womack

6. Charlotte Brontë and Frye’s Secular Scripture: The Structure of Romance in Jane Eyre

Abstract
As Kathleen Tillotson contends, Jane Eyre (1847) is ‘a love-story, a Cinderella fable, a Bluebeard mystery, an autobiography from forlorn childhood to happy marriage.’ Yet Tillotson ultimately argues for the novel’s greatness as an ‘appeal first and last to “the unchanging human heart”’ (258). While we do not wish to deny the fact that Charlotte Brontë does indeed appeal to the human heart — who can ignore Jane’s sorrow when she discovers the other woman locked in the attic or the power of the scene in which the blind Rochester at last finds love and forgiveness in the arms of Jane? — the question as to how Brontë appeals to the human heart, the manner in which she effectively moves us to the empathetic place where we commiserate with her characters, must be addressed. Surely, we have all read books that attempt to tug at our heart’s strings, but just as likely we have dismissed many such books as sentimental or nostalgic or melodramatic.1 How does one ‘earn’ the reader’s tears; how might the author move the reader in a way that more closely mirrors our emotional lives beyond the text, without in some way denigrating the experience?
Todd F. Davis, Kenneth Womack

7. ‘Telle us som myrie tale, by youre fey!’: Exploring the Reading Transaction and Narrative Structure in Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale and Troilus and Criseyde

Abstract
The deeply woven narrative textures inherent in Chaucer’s corpus afford us with useful exemplars for exploring the wide-ranging interpretive possibilities of reader-response theory, especially in terms of its potential for revealing the narratological elements that impinge upon the transactions that take place between writers and readers. In the Prologue to the Clerk’s Tale, the Host, Harry Bailly, encourages the Clerk to recite his tale for the pilgrims’ storytelling contest — not a tale that will ‘make us nat to slepe,’ but a tale of ‘som murie thyng of aventures’ with ‘youre termes, youre colours, and youre figures’ (14-16). In the tale that follows, the Clerk imbues his story with a variety of narratological figures and patterns, thus forging what John M. Ganim aptly describes as a ‘discourse marked by its grotesque, highly personalized, exuberant, and often satirical qualities’ (113). Chaucer’s fictionalized Clerk accomplishes such a discursive end by his careful appropriation of the rhetorical tropes that shape his narrative. A trained rhetorician and Oxford scholar, Chaucer’s Clerk would surely be cognizant of the fictive value of tropological patterns and narrative designs, and moreover, as Ganim notes, the Clerk ‘embodies one of the characteristic intellectual vices — the impulse to impose abstract order on experience’ (121). The Clerk’s authorial maneuvers in the tale indeed reveal such an ordered and intentional narrative structure, and a closer narratological reading of his tale divulges the manner in which these tropes operate together to produce the calculated and tightly woven poetic discourse that defines the Clerk’s Tale for centuries of readers.
Todd F. Davis, Kenneth Womack

8. Addressing Horizons of Readerly Expectation in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, or, How to Put the ‘Reader’ in ‘Reader Response’

Abstract
As one of early modernism’s most visible and fruitful collaborations, Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford’s literary relationship resulted in the publication of three, largely undistinguished novels, The Inheritors (1901), Romance (1903), and The Nature of a Crime (1909). More importantly, though, their decade-long collaboration completely altered the nature of each writer’s aesthetic by providing Conrad and Ford with an explicit model for tapping into their readership’s textual expectations.1 Their theories of the novel — most notably, their aspirations for honing a kind of ‘literary impressionism’ in their fictions — demonstrate each writer’s attempts at creating a mechanism for eliciting reader response. Simply put, Conrad and Ford fashion a series of self-conscious appeals in their novels to what Hans Robert Jauss describes as the reader’s ‘horizon of expectations,’ or the manner in which readers interact with and ultimately respond to literary works. Conrad’s and Ford’s literary impressionism, with its Expectations accent upon the reader’s experiences when encountering literary texts, attempts to exploit these horizons of expectation in order to produce new and eminently more complicated layers of meaning in contrast with their literary precursors.
Todd F. Davis, Kenneth Womack

Conclusion: Beyond Formalist Criticism and Reader-Response Theory

Abstract
Despite the increasing hegemony of new, often politically conscious forms of literary critique, the contemporary theoretical project clearly holds a revered place for formalist criticism and reader-response theory. Until recently, formalist and New Critical ideologies were dismissed almost universally in a derisory fashion as decidedly ‘old school’ ways of reading and thinking about literature. During the 1990s, though, formalist criticism began to enjoy a renaissance of sorts, particularly as a number of theorists sought to historicize the New Criticism’s place within critical theory’s relatively brief heritage. Steven Knapp, for example, has questioned the validity and value of contemporary literary theory’s denigration of formalism as a primitive interpretive methodology. As the title of his thoughtful volume suggests, in Literary Interest: The Limits of Anti-Formalism (1993) Knapp demonstrates the inherent limits of our collective rage against our theoretical precursors. As Knapp and others have revealed in their scholarship, the fundamental attributes of close reading continue to resound within the interpretive methodologies of the present.1 Aligned as they are with an overarching identity politics, our contemporary schools of criticism differentiate themselves almost exclusively in terms of their particular political imperatives. Yet the scholarly fruits of their inquiries inevitably find their origins in some form of close, formalistic readings of the texts that they choose to further their ideological aims.
Todd F. Davis, Kenneth Womack
Additional information