Discussion Forum Main Post – 1 – A+ Work Required

DB 1:

After watching this week’s presentation and completing the readings, write a 550-600 word explanation of the benefits and challenges of studying literary theory. Consider especially what Muhlestein’s article advises as special considerations for those like us at a faith-based institution. In what ways might you expect our faith commitments to conflict with assumptions and principles of (at least some) literary theory? How (and why) can we engage with this material redemptively?

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Submit your original thread of 550–600 words in response to this prompt; this thread must demonstrate course-related knowledge and evidence engagement with course readings, so you should have at least two citations.

 

Textbook Readings (e-Books Attached)

  • Bertens: Introduction
  • Tyson: Chapter 1
  • Tyson: Appendices A-E
  • Article: “Teaching Contemporary Literary Theory at a Church-Sponsored University” by Daniel Muhlestein
  • Attached Files: Teaching Contemporary Literary Theory

Keep in Mind

Remember that these discussion boards, while serving to generate class engagement and interaction with your colleagues, are still formal writing assignments. Be sure you have a strong central claim, develop that argument well with support from the readings, organize your ideas in a manner easy to follow, demonstrate clarity of thought and understanding of the course readings, and communicate clearly. Check out the discussion board rubric (under Course Content, Course Guides and Assignment Instructions) for some guidance here. 

Also, do be sure to stay within the word-count range (550-600 words) and to cite from course readings (Book Attached) (2 citations required for original post). 

As you write your discussion board posts, it might be best to complete the work in a Word document and save the file to your computer. That way you can ensure your post doesn’t get lost in transmission. Feel free to upload that post as a Word attachment to the discussion board or simply copy and paste it into the text box. 

Regarding citations, if you’re using material (quotes/ideas) drawn from course material, there’s no need to include a works cited entry. Just indicate clearly in the body of your post where the quote or idea came from. If you’re using outside sources (in addition to the two required citations from the class materials), do please include a works cited entry or at least a footnote. Oh, and keep in mind that for ENGL 603, we will be using MLA format. If you need a refresher, check out the Purdue Owl pages here:

Basic In-Text Citation help

and

Works Cited Requirements

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In addition to this original thread, you are required to reply to 2 other classmates’ threads, including at least one citation from course readings in each. Each reply must be 250-300 words and must extend the discussion in some way, rather than merely cover the same ground as the original post. Some possibilities include the following: evaluating the original post, discussing implications of points raised, contrasting an idea with something else relevant to the class, connecting ideas to course material, or providing additional examples.

USING
CRITICAL
THEORY
How to Read and Write About Literature
S E C O N D E D I T I O N
L O I S T Y S O N

Using Critical Theory
“I know of no other book on critical theory for beginning and intermediate
students that offers the same depth and breath. It offers thorough and clear
applications of each theory while its rhetorical tone puts students at ease as they
attempt to think about the world in new and different ways … [this] is the
perfect text for students new to critical theory and stands in a league of its own.”
Gretchen Cline, Muskegon Community College, USA
Explaining both why theory is important and how to use it, Lois Tyson introduces
beginning students of literature to this often daunting area in a friendly and
approachable style. The new edition of this textbook is clearly structured with
chapters based on major theories that students are expected to cover in their studies.
Key features include:
� coverage of all major theories including psychoanalysis, Marxism, feminism,
lesbian/gay/queer theories, postcolonial theory, African American theory,
and a new chapter on New Criticism (formalism)
� practical demonstrations of how to use these theories on short literary
works selected from canonical authors including William Faulkner and
Alice Walker
� a new chapter on reader-response theory that shows students how to use
their personal responses to literature while avoiding typical pitfalls
� new sections on cultural criticism for each chapter
� new “further practice” and “further reading” sections for each chapter
� a useful “next-step” appendix that suggests additional literary examples for
extra practice.
Comprehensive, easy to use, and fully updated throughout, Using Critical
Theory is the ideal first step for students beginning degrees in literature,
composition, and cultural studies.
Lois Tyson is Professor of English at Grand Valley State University, USA.
She is the author of Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide (2nd edition,
Routledge, 2006).

Using Critical Theory
How to read and write about literature
Second edition
Lois Tyson

First edition published as Learning for a Diverse World 2001
by Routledge
This edition published as Using Critical Theory 2011
by Routledge
2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4RN
Simultaneously published in the USA and Canada
by Routledge
711 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017
Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business
© 2001, 2011 Lois Tyson
The right of Lois Tyson to be identified as author of this work has been
asserted by her in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright,
Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or
utilized in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now
known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any
information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from
the publishers.
Trademark notice: Product or corporate names may be trademarks or
registered trademarks, and are used only for identification and explanation
without intent to infringe.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data
Tyson, Lois, 1950-
Using critical theory: how to read and write about literature / Lois Tyson.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
1. Criticism. 2. Critical theory. I. Title.
PN98.S6T973 2011
801’.95 – dc22
2011008274
ISBN: 978-0-415-61616-4 (hbk)
ISBN: 978-0-415-61617-1 (pbk)
ISBN: 978-0-203-80509-1 (ebk)
Typeset in Bembo
by Taylor & Francis Books

For Mac Davis and the late Stephen Lacey,
who both know that a good teacher is one
who remains a good student.

Contents
Preface for instructors xiv
Acknowledgments xviii
Permissions xix
1 Critical theory and you 1
What does critical theory have to do with me? 1
What will I learn about critical theory from this book? 3
Critical theory and cultural criticism 6
Three questions about interpretation most students ask 9
My interpretation is my opinion, so how can it be wrong? 9
Do authors deliberately use concepts from critical theories when
they write literary works? 10
How can we interpret a literary work without knowing what
the author intended the work to mean? 11
Why feeling confused can be a good sign 11
2 Using concepts from reader-response theory
to understand our own literary
interpretations 13
Why should we learn about reader-response theory? 13
Response vehicles 15
Personal identification 15
The familiar character 15
The familiar plot event 15
The familiar setting 15
Response exercises 16
Personal-identification exercise 16
Familiar-character exercise 18
Familiar-plot-event exercise 21
Familiar-setting exercise 23

How our personal responses can help or hinder interpretation 26
The “symbolic leap” 27
The difference between representing and endorsing
human behavior 28
Using our personal responses to generate paper topics 29
Food for further thought 31
Thinking it over 31
Reader-response theory and cultural criticism 32
Taking the next step 35
Exercises for further practice 35
Suggestions for further reading 36
3 Using concepts from New Critical theory to
understand literature 38
Why should we learn about New Critical theory? 38
Basic concepts 41
Theme 41
Formal elements 41
Unity 43
Close reading and textual evidence 44
Interpretation exercises 45
Appreciating the importance of tradition: Interpreting
“Everyday Use” 45
Recognizing the presence of death: Interpreting “A Rose
for Emily” 51
Understanding the power of alienation: Interpreting
“The Battle Royal” 57
Respecting the importance of nonconformity: Interpreting
“Don’t Explain” 63
Responding to the challenge of the unknown: Interpreting
“I started Early—Took my Dog” 69
Food for further thought 74
Thinking it over 74
New Critical theory and cultural criticism 76
Taking the next step 78
Questions for further practice 78
Suggestions for further reading 80
4 Using concepts from psychoanalytic theory to
understand literature 81
Why should we learn about psychoanalytic theory? 81
Basic concepts 83
viii Contents

The family 83
Repression and the unconscious 83
The defenses 83
Core issues 84
Dream symbolism 85
Interpretation exercises 86
Analyzing characters’ dysfunctional behavior: Interpreting
“Everyday Use” 86
Exploring a character’s insanity: Interpreting “A Rose
for Emily” 91
Understanding dream images in literature: Interpreting
“I started Early—Took my Dog” 95
Recognizing a character’s self-healing: Interpreting “Don’t
Explain” 99
Using psychoanalytic concepts in service of other theories:
Interpreting “The Battle Royal” 103
Food for further thought 104
Thinking it over 104
Psychoanalytic theory and cultural criticism 106
Taking the next step 108
Questions for further practice 108
Suggestions for further reading 109
5 Using concepts from Marxist theory to understand
literature 110
Why should we learn about Marxist theory? 110
Basic concepts 112
Classism 112
Capitalism 113
Capitalist ideologies 114
The role of religion 116
Interpretation exercises 116
Understanding the operations of capitalism: Interpreting
“Everyday use” 116
Recognizing the operations of the American Dream: Interpreting
“The Battle Royal” 119
Analyzing the operations of classism: Interpreting “A Rose
for Emily” 124
Resisting classism: Interpreting “Don’t Explain” 128
Learning when not to use Marxist concepts: Resisting the
temptation to interpret “I started Early—Took
my Dog” 131
Contents ix

Food for further thought 133
Thinking it over 133
Marxist theory and cultural criticism 134
Taking the next step 137
Questions for further practice 137
Suggestions for further reading 138
6 Using concepts from feminist theory to understand literature 139
Why should we learn about feminist theory? 139
Basic concepts 141
Patriarchy 141
Traditional gender roles 142
The objectification of women 142
Sexism 143
The “cult of ‘true womanhood’” 143
Interpretation exercises 144
Rejecting the objectification of women: Interpreting
“The Battle Royal” 144
Resisting patriarchal ideology: Interpreting “Don’t Explain” 147
Recognizing a conflicted attitude toward patriarchy:
Interpreting “Everyday Use” 151
Analyzing a sexist text: Interpreting “A Rose for Emily” 155
Understanding patriarchy’s psychological oppression
of women: Interpreting “I started Early—Took my Dog” 162
Food for further thought 166
Thinking it over 166
Feminist theory and cultural criticism 167
Taking the next step 169
Questions for further practice 169
Suggestions for further reading 170
7 Using concepts from lesbian, gay, and queer theories
to understand literature 172
Why should we learn about lesbian, gay, and queer
theories? 172
Basic concepts 175
Heterosexism 175
Homophobia 175
Homosocial activities 176
The woman-identified woman 176
Homoerotic imagery 177
Queer theory 177
x Contents

Interpretation exercises 178
Rejecting lesbian stereotypes: Interpreting “Don’t
Explain” 178
Analyzing homophobia: Interpreting “The Battle
Royal” 182
Recognizing the woman-identified woman in a heterosexual text:
Interpreting “Everyday Use” 185
Using queer theory: Interpreting “A Rose for Emily” 191
Drawing upon context: Interpreting “I started Early—Took
my Dog” 194
Food for further thought 198
Thinking it over 198
Lesbian, gay, and queer theories and cultural criticism 200
Taking the next step 202
Questions for further practice 202
Suggestions for further reading 204
8 Using concepts from African American theory to
understand literature 206
Why should we learn about African American theory? 206
Basic concepts 209
African American culture and literature 209
Racism 211
Forms of racism 211
Double consciousness 213
Interpretation exercises 213
Analyzing the overt operations of institutionalized racism: Interpreting
“The Battle Royal” 213
Recognizing the “less visible” operations of institutionalized racism:
Interpreting “Don’t Explain” 217
Understanding the operations of internalized racism: Interpreting
“Everyday Use” 222
Exploring the function of black characters in white literature:
Interpreting “A Rose for Emily” 228
Learning when not to use African American concepts:
Resisting the temptation to interpret “I started Early—Took
my Dog” 234
Food for further thought 237
Thinking it over 237
African American theory and cultural criticism 239
Taking the next step 242
Questions for further practice 242
Suggestions for further reading 244
Contents xi

9 Using concepts from postcolonial theory to
understand literature 245
Why should we learn about postcolonial theory? 245
Basic concepts 248
Colonialist ideology 248
The colonial subject 249
Anticolonialist resistance 250
Interpretation exercises 251
Understanding colonialist ideology: Interpreting “The Battle
Royal” 251
Analyzing the colonial subject: Interpreting “Everyday Use” 257
Exploring the influence of cultural categories: Interpreting “A Rose for
Emily” 264
Appreciating anticolonialist resistance: Interpreting “Don’t
Explain” 268
Recognizing the othering of nature: Interpreting “I started
Early—Took my Dog” 273
Food for further thought 277
Thinking it over 277
Postcolonial theory and cultural criticism 279
Taking the next step 282
Questions for further practice 282
Suggestions for further reading 284
10 Holding on to what you’ve learned 285
A shorthand overview of our eight critical theories 285
A shorthand overview of our literary interpretation exercises 286
“Everyday Use” 287
“The Battle Royal” 288
“A Rose for Emily” 290
“Don’t Explain” 291
“I started Early—Took my Dog” 292
A shorthand overview of the range of perspectives offered by each
theory 293
Critical theory and cultural criticism revisited 297
Critical theory and an ethics for a diverse world 300
Appendices
Appendix A: “I started Early—Took my Dog” (Emily Dickinson,
c. 1862) 302
Appendix B: “A Rose for Emily” (William Faulkner, 1931) 303
xii Contents

Appendix C: “The Battle Royal” (Ralph Ellison, 1952) 311
Appendix D: “Everyday Use” (Alice Walker, 1973) 323
Appendix E: “Don’t Explain” (Jewelle Gomez, 1987) 330
Appendix F: Additional literary works for further practice 338
Index 344
Contents xiii

Preface for instructors
If you’re planning to use this book in your undergraduate classroom, then you
know that critical theory is no longer considered an abstract discipline for a select
group of graduate students, as it was fifteen or twenty years ago. Personally,
I don’t think critical theory should ever have been limited to that mode of
thinking or to that audience. In its most concrete and, I think, most meaningful
form, critical theory supplies us with a remarkable collection of pedagogical
tools to help students, regardless of their educational background, develop
their ability to reason logically; to formulate an argument; to grasp divergent
points of view; to make connections among literature, history, the society in
which they live, and their personal experience; and of special importance on
our shrinking planet, to explore human diversity in its most profound and
personal sense: as diverse ways of defining oneself and one’s world. From this
perspective, critical theory is an appropriate pedagogical resource not only for
advanced literature courses, but for the kinds of meat-and-potatoes courses that
many of us teach: foundation-level literature courses; introduction-to-literary-
studies courses; diversity courses; and composition courses that stress critical
thinking, social issues, or cultural diversity.
Creating pedagogical options
For most of us who see the pedagogical potential of critical theory, the question
then becomes: “How can I adapt critical frameworks to make them useful to
students new to the study of literature and to the social issues literature raises?”
That is precisely the question Using Critical Theory attempts to answer by
offering you: (1) a reader-response chapter to help students recognize and make
interpretive use of their personal responses to literature; (2) seven carefully
selected theoretical approaches to literary interpretation—introducing the
fundamentals of New Critical, psychoanalytic, feminist, lesbian/gay/queer, African
American, and postcolonial theories—from which to choose; and (3) five
different ways to use each of these approaches through the vehicle of our
“Interpretation exercises,” the step-by-step development of sample inter-
pretations of the five literary works reprinted at the end of this book. Now,

the key word here is choice. I think we do our best teaching when we adapt
our materials to our own pedagogical goals and teaching styles. For example,
you can employ Using Critical Theory to structure an entire course, to create a
unit or units on specific theoretical approaches, or to supplement the teaching
of specific literary works with an increased repertoire of possible interpreta-
tions. To provide maximum flexibility, each chapter is written to stand on its
own, so you can choose which of the selected theoretical frameworks you
want to use. Each interpretation exercise is also written to stand on its own, so
you can choose which of the selected literary works you want to use.
I hope the structure of these chapters will facilitate your own creation of
classroom activities and homework assignments. For example, students can work
in small groups to find the textual data required by a given interpretation
exercise, and that activity can be organized in a number of ways. Each group
can work on a different section of the same interpretation exercise, thereby each
contributing a piece of the puzzle to a single interpretation. Or each group can
work on a different interpretation exercise from a single chapter, thereby using
concepts from the same theory to complete interpretation exercises for dif-
ferent literary works. Or if students feel they fully understand a given inter-
pretation exercise, you might invite them to develop one of the alternative
interpretations suggested in the “Focusing your essay” section at the end of
each interpretation exercise or to develop an interpretation of their own.
Finally, once the class has become acquainted with a few different theories,
different groups of students can use different theoretical approaches to collect
textual data from the same literary work, thereby getting an immediate sense
of the ways in which concepts from different critical theories can foreground
different aspects of the same literary work or foreground the same aspect of a
literary work for different purposes.
Similarly, the “Basic concepts” sections of Chapters 3 through 9 can be used
to generate activities by having students apply these concepts to short literary
works other than those used in this book. For example, students can be
given—singly, in pairs, or in small groups—one of the basic concepts of a
single theory and asked to find all the ways in which that concept is illustrated
in or relevant to any literary work you assign. Or you might allow students to
select one of the basic concepts of a theory the class is studying and explain to
their classmates how an understanding of that concept helps illuminate the
lyrics of a song of their own choosing, a magazine advertisement, a video
game, or some other production of popular culture.
To whatever uses you put this book, I think you’ll find that the seven
theoretical approaches it introduces, taken in any combination, provide a
comparative experience, a sense of how our perceptions can change when we
change the lens through which we’re looking. In this way, these theories, all
of which are in current academic use, can help students develop a concrete,
productive understanding of the diverse world in which we live. Our five
literary works—Emily Dickinson’s “I started Early—Took my Dog” (c. 1862),
Preface for instructors xv

William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” (1931), Ralph Ellison’s “The Battle
Royal” (1952), Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” (1973), and Jewelle Gomez’s
“Don’t Explain” (1987)—were chosen because each lends itself to our selected
theories in ways that are accessible to novices and that are typical of the kinds
of perspectives on literature each theory offers us. Thus, each interpretation
exercise serves as a template for future literary analysis. In addition, our five
literary works are heavily weighted in favor of fiction because I have found that
most novices respond most readily to stories and, indeed, most of the drama
and much of the poetry we offer our introductory-level literature and compo-
sition students have a perceptible narrative dimension. Thus, the interpretive
skills and strategies students learn here will carry over to the interpretation of
works from other literary genres, genres which are represented in each chapter’s
“Questions for further practice” and in the “Literary works for further practice”
provided in Appendix F.
Responding to pedagogical challenges
Of course, Using Critical Theory is not intended as a complete introduction-to-
literature textbook: for example, it does not define such basic literary vocabulary
as plot, character, setting, stage directions, rhyme, or meter. Nevertheless, the book
addresses several common problems encountered by students new to the study
of literature, problems which I suspect you’ve encountered in the classroom
many times. For example, Chapter 1, “Critical theory and you,” explains,
among other things, the difference between an opinion and a thesis, the purpose
of a literary interpretation, and how we can analyze the meaning of a literary
work without knowing what the author intended. Chapter 2, “Using
concepts from reader-response theory to understand our own literary inter-
pretations,” includes an explanation of the difference between a symbolic
interpretation justified by the literary work and a symbolic interpretation
arbitrarily imposed by a reader’s personal response to the work. This same
chapter also explains the difference between a text’s representation of human
behavior and its endorsement of that behavior, which students’ personal
responses to a literary work often lead them to confuse. Chapter 3, “Using
concepts from New Critical theory to understand literature,” aims to solidify
students’ understanding of thesis-and-support argumentation, which remains
an area of pedagogical frustration for many of us. Moreover, the interpretation
exercises provided in Chapters 4 through 9, in addition to their primary
function as sample literary applications of our remaining selected theories, are
all lessons in close reading, for each exercise guides students through the process
of collecting textual evidence to support the interpretation at hand. Students
are thus encouraged to see the equal importance of two aspects of current
critical practice that they often mistakenly believe are mutually exclusive: (1)
that there is more than one valid interpretation of a literary text; and (2) that
every interpretation requires adequate textual support. The goal here is to
xvi Preface for instructors

correct a misconception you’ve probably encountered in the classroom all too
often: once students have accepted that there is no single correct interpretation of
a literary work, they frequently conclude that their own interpretations do not
need to be supported with textual evidence. Finally, Chapter 10, “Holding on
to what you’ve learned,” in addition to its other functions, brings students
back to the kind of personal connection that opens Chapter 1: how their
study of critical theory can help them understand, develop, and articulate their
personal values within the context of the changing world in which they live.
Perhaps you will find, as I have, that this last connection—between students’
sense of themselves as individuals and the cultures that shape them—is the
most valuable connection the study of critical theory can help students make.
For it is a connection that has the capacity to spark imaginative inquiry in
every domain of their education. And it seems to me that few things motivate
students more thoroughly—if we can just find the keys that open those
doors—than their own imaginations.
Preface for instructors xvii

Acknowledgments
My sincere gratitude goes to the following friends and colleagues for their
many and varied acts of kindness during the writing of this book: the late
Forrest Armstrong, Kathleen Blumreich, Brent Chesley, Patricia Clark, Dianne
Griffin Crowder, Michelle DeRose, Milt Ford, Roger Gilles, Chance Guyette,
Michael Hartnett, Avis Hewitt, Rick Iadonisi, Regina Salmi, Christopher
Shinn, Gary Stark, Veta Tucker, and Brian White.
Special thanks also go to Dean Frederick Antczak; to Grand Valley State
University for its generous financial support of this project; and to my editors
at Routledge, Emma Nugent and Polly Dodson.
Finally, the deepest appreciation is expressed to Hannah Berkowitz, Jeremy
Franceschi, Gretchen Cline, and, especially, Mac Davis for service above and
beyond the call of friendship—and to Lenny Briscoe for his untiring and
invaluable support.

Permissions
“I started early—took my dog” by Emily Dickinson – Reprinted by permission
of the publishers and the Trustees of Amherst College from The Poems of Emily
Dickinson, Thomas H. Johnson, ed., Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of
Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1951, 1955, 1979, 1983 by the President
and Fellows of Harvard College.
“A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner – Reproduced with permission of
Curtis Brown Group Ltd, London on behalf of The Estate of William Faulkner,
Copyright © William Faulkner 1931.
“Rose for Emily”, copyright © 1930 and renewed 1958 byWilliam Faulkner,
fromCollected Stories of William Faulkner byWilliam Faulkner. Used by permission
of Random House, Inc.
“A Rose for Emily”. Copyright 1930 & renewed 1958 by William Faulkner,
fromCollected Stories of William Faulkner byWilliam Faulkner. Used by permission
of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
“Battle Royal”, copyright © 1948 by Ralph Ellison, from Invisible Man by
Ralph Ellison. Used by permission of Random House, Inc.
“Everyday Use” from In Love & Trouble: Stories of Black Women, copyright
© 1973 by Alice Walker, reprinted by permission of Harcourt, Inc.
Every effort has been made to trace and contact copyright holders. The
publishers would be pleased to hear from any copyright holders not acknowl-
edged here, so that this acknowledgements page may be amended at the earliest
opportunity.

Chapter 1
Critical theory and you
If you’re reading this textbook, then you’ve probably got a lot on your plate
right now. You might be preparing to enter college. Or you might be in your
first or second year of undergraduate studies. Perhaps you’re taking your first
literature course. If you’re specializing in literary studies, at this point you
might be a bit concerned about what you’ve gotten yourself into. If you’re
not specializing in literary studies, you might be wondering if you can get
away with skipping this part of the course or putting forth a minimal effort.
After all, you might be thinking, “What does critical theory have to do with
me?” As I hope this book will show you, critical theory has everything to do
with you, no matter what your educational or career plans might be.
What does critical theory have to do with me?
First, most of my students find that the study of critical theory increases their
ability to think creatively and to reason logically, and that’s a powerful com-
bination of vocational skills. You will see, for example, how the skills fostered
by studying critical theory would be useful to lawyers in arguing their cases
and to teachers in managing the interpersonal dynamics that play out in their
classrooms. In fact, as you read the following chapters I think you will find
that critical theory develops your ability to see any given problem from a
variety of points of view, which is a skill worth having no matter what career
you pursue.
As important, if not more important, than your future role on the job
market is your future role as a member of the global community. Many
people are coming to realize that the numerous and diverse cultures inhabiting
planet Earth each has its own history of struggle and achievement as well as its
own part to play on the modern stage of national and world events. However,
while each culture has its own unique heritage, we share the need to learn to
live together, to learn to work with and for one another, if we want our
planet to survive. And the issue becomes more complex when we realize that
cultures don’t occupy tidy bins determined by race or ethnicity alone. In
reality, cultures consist of patchworks of overlapping groups that define

themselves in terms of many factors, including race, ethnicity, religion, gender,
sexual orientation, and socioeconomic class.
It’s easy for each of us to think ourselves tolerant of cultural groups other
than our own, to believe that we are unbiased, without prejudice. But it’s not
meaningful to say that we are tolerant of groups about which we know little
or nothing. For as soon as our tolerance is tested we might find that the tol-
erance we thought we had doesn’t really exist. For example, take a minute
to think about the schools you attended before you entered college. Didn’t
the student population of at least one of those schools, if not all of them,
divide itself into social groups based largely on the kinds of cultural factors
listed above? If your school had a diverse student body, didn’t students tend to
form close bonds only with members of their own race? Didn’t students from
wealthy, socially prominent families tend to stick together? Didn’t students
from poorer neighborhoods tend to stick together as well? Didn’t students
with strong religious ties tend to be close friends with students of the same
religion? If your school environment was safe enough for gay students to
identify themselves, wasn’t there a social group based on gay sexual orientation,
which may have been subdivided into two more groups: gay male and gay
female students? You can see the strength of these cultural ties if your school
had athletic teams made up of students from diverse backgrounds. The athletes
may have bonded with their teammates at school, but how many of them
formed close out-of-school friendships with athletes of a different race, class, or
sexual orientation?
Of course, it seems natural for us to form close ties with people who share
our cultural background because we have so much in common. The unfor-
tunate thing is that we tend to form only superficial relationships, or none at
all, with people from other cultural groups. And worse, we tend to classify
other groups according to misleading stereotypes that prevent us from getting
to know one another as individuals. We might even find ourselves looking at
members of another group as if they were creatures from another planet,
“not like us” and therefore not as good, not as trustworthy, and in worst-case
scenarios, not as human. One solution to this problem is to begin to under-
stand one another by learning to see the world from diverse points of view, by
learning what it might be like to “walk a mile in another person’s moccasins.”
And though it might sound like a big claim, that is precisely what critical
theory can help us learn because it teaches us to see the world from multiple
perspectives.
Naturally, critical theory has specific benefits for students of literature. For
example, critical theory can increase your understanding of literary texts by
helping you see more in them than you’ve seen before. And by giving you
more to see in literature, critical theory can make literature more interesting to
read. As you’ll see in the following chapters, critical theory can also provide
you with multiple interpretations of the same literary work, which will
increase the possibility of finding interesting essay topics for your literature
2 Using critical theory

classes. Finally, a practice that is increasing in popularity in literary studies is
the application of critical theory to cultural productions other than literature—
for example, to movies, song lyrics, and television shows—and even to your
own personal experience, which will help you see more and understand more
of the world in which you live.
What will I learn about critical theory from this book?
So now that I’ve been trying to convince you of the value of critical theory
for the last several paragraphs, perhaps it’s time to explain in some detail what
critical theory is. If you’ve looked at the table of contents of this textbook,
you’ve probably discovered that what is commonly called critical theory actually
consists of several critical theories. And what is most interesting, each theory
focuses our attention on a different area of human experience—and therefore
on a different aspect of literature—and gives us its own set of concepts with
which to understand the world in which we live and the literature that is part
and parcel of our world. Think of each theory as a different lens or a different
pair of eyeglasses through which we see a different picture of the world and a
different view of any literary text we read. To help you get a feel for how
each critical theory changes what we see in a literary work, here’s a brief
overview of the theories from which we’ll draw in this book.
Reader-response theory focuses on how readers make meaning—on what
happens to us as we read a particular literary work. It asks us to analyze how,
exactly, we interact with a given text as we read and interpret it. In Chapter 2
we’ll use concepts from this theory to help you understand some of the per-
sonal sources of your own individual interpretations of literature—that is, to
help you understand why each of us tends to interpret particular literary texts
the way we do. For this reason, Chapter 2 won’t show you how to analyze
literary texts; instead, it will help you understand the ways in which we bring
our own beliefs and experiences to our literary interpretations. In addition,
Chapter 2 will offer you ways of dealing with the personal, subjective nature
of interpretation. Once you’re in touch with the personal factors influencing
your interpretations, you’ll be ready to bring that awareness to subsequent
chapters in which we use concepts from different critical theories to analyze
literary works.
Whereas reader-response theory focuses on the experiences of the reader
during the act of reading, New Critical theory focuses exclusively on the ways
in which language operates in a literary text to make meaning. Chapter 3 will
provide concepts from New Critical theory to help you interpret literature
thematically—that is, in terms of a literary text’s meaning as a whole con-
cerning general topics about human experience, such as love and hate, tradition
and change, the initiation into adulthood, conformity and rebellion, and the
like. And in order to help you analyze how a text’s meaning is linked to its
language, this chapter will help increase your understanding of such literary
Critical theory and you 3

devices as, for example, setting, characterization, point of view, ambiguity,
imagery, symbol, and metaphor. Many of you will be familiar with this
approach because it resembles the way we are usually taught to interpret lit-
erary works in high-school or preparatory-school literature classes. In addition,
Chapter 3 will help you improve and expand your ability to generate a thesis
(a debatable opinion that forms the main point of your interpretation) and to
support your thesis with evidence from the literary work you are interpreting.
Taken together, then, Chapters 2 and 3 should help you develop both the
self-awareness and interpretive skills that will serve you well as you move on
to the critical theories offered in the following chapters.
Chapters 4 through 9 introduce you to a range of critical theories that
I believe you will find very interesting as well as very helpful to your study of
literature. In Chapter 4, we’ll use concepts from psychoanalytic theory to interpret
literature. Psychoanalytic theory asks us to examine the emotional causes of
the characters’ behavior and to view a given story, poem, or play as the
unfolding of the characters’ personal psychological dramas. In contrast, Marxist
theory, as we’ll see in Chapter 5, asks us to look at the ways in which characters’
behavior and plot events are influenced by the socioeconomic conditions of
the time and place in which the characters live. From a Marxist perspective, all
human experiences, including personal psychology, are products of the socio-
economic system—which is usually some sort of class system—in which
human beings live. In Chapter 6, we’ll see how feminist theory asks us to look
at the ways in which traditional gender roles, which cast men as naturally
dominant and women as naturally submissive, affect characters’ behavior and
plot events. Lesbian, gay, and queer theories, as Chapter 7 demonstrates, ask us to
examine the ways in which literary works reveal human sexuality as a complex
phenomenon that cannot be fully understood in terms of what is currently
defined as heterosexual experience. In Chapter 8, we’ll see how African
American theory focuses our attention on the many different ways in which race
and racial issues operate in literary texts. Postcolonial theory, as we’ll see in
Chapter 9, asks us to look at the ways in which literature offers us a view of
human experience as the product of a combination of cultural factors, including
race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and cultural beliefs and customs.
Finally, Chapter 10, “Holding on to what you’ve learned,” offers shorthand
overviews both of the critical theories you encountered in Chapters 2 through
9 and of the interpretation exercises provided to help you learn to use these
theories. In addition, Chapter 10 revisits the relationship between critical theory
and cultural criticism discussed later in this chapter. Chapter 10 closes by
examining a question implied by our use of reader-response concepts in
Chapter 2, which is also a question raised whenever any critical theory
attempts to promote cultural understanding and the appreciation of cultural
difference: How can critical theory help us understand, develop, and give
voice to our personal values, particularly as those values affect and are affected
by the values of others?
4 Using critical theory

Of course, there are many more critical theories than those introduced here.
For example, in addition to the theories we draw upon in this book, courses
in critical theory may include units on structuralism, deconstruction, new
historicism, rhetorical criticism, or Jungian theory, among others. The theories
I’ve chosen for you were selected because I believe you will find them most
helpful as you develop your understanding of literature and most relevant to
your life. And these theories will lay a strong foundation for further study in
critical theory, should you choose to pursue your education in that direction.
Analogously, the five literary texts that appear at the end of this book
(Appendices A–E) and are used for our interpretation exercises were chosen
for specific reasons. Each text shows you something useful about our selected
theories. And collectively, these literary works offer a range of authorial voices
in terms of race, gender, and sexual orientation. These works include Emily
Dickinson’s poem #520, “I started Early—Took my Dog” (c. 1862); William
Faulkner’s story “A Rose for Emily” (1931); Ralph Ellison’s “The Battle
Royal,” which is the first chapter of his well-known novel Invisible Man
(1952); a story by Alice Walker entitled “Everyday Use” (1973); and Jewelle
Gomez’s story “Don’t Explain” (1987). Although, as you can see, we focus
primarily on fiction, our theories can be used to interpret any genre of literature.
For like short stories and novels, most plays and poems contain a narrative
element—they tell a story—and stories usually offer us the best starting places
for learning to use concepts from critical theory.
One secret for developing a good initial relationship to critical theory is to
not expect of yourself more than you should at this stage of the game. For
example, although you should be able to understand the interpretation exercises
I offer you in each chapter—or be able to ask questions about those exercises
that will allow your instructor to help you—you should not expect yourself,
at first, to come up with similar interpretations completely on your own. At
this point in your acquaintance with theory, it is quite natural that you should
need some guidelines to help you develop your own theoretical interpretations.
The “Interpretation exercises” found in Chapters 3 through 9 offer those
guidelines: each interpretation exercise demonstrates a different aspect of the
theory at hand and thus serves as a model for analyzing literature on your own.
In addition, to help insure that you take one step at a time, each chapter
presents only the basic concepts of the theory it addresses. This will help you
get a firm grasp of the theory at hand without overwhelming you with the
kind of full-blown explanations of each theory you would need in a course
devoted exclusively to critical theory. If you want to learn more about a
particular theory, I suggest you try “Taking the next step” at the end of any
chapter that especially interests you. There you will find “Questions for further
practice,” to help you gain experience using the theoretical concepts you’ve
learned in that chapter by applying them to additional literary works, and a
selected bibliography, “Suggestions for further reading,” to guide you to additional
discussions of the critical theory at hand. Finally, Appendix F, “Additional
Critical theory and you 5

literary works for further practice,” recommends a range of specific titles that
lend themselves readily to our selected critical theories.
To customize Using Critical Theory for your own purposes, you can study
just those theories that interest you or that your instructor selects for you.
Each chapter is written to stand on its own and will make sense without
requiring you to read other chapters. Once you have read the chapters you’ve
selected, it might also be useful to “read across” those chapters, so to speak, by
rereading the different interpretations of the same literary work offered in
different chapters. See what happens, for example, as Alice Walker’s “Everyday
Use” is interpreted through the successive lenses of the theories you’ve studied.
You will notice, especially if you look at all of the interpretation exercises
offered for any one of our literary pieces, that some theories work better than
others for analyzing a particular text. Indeed, literary works tend to lend them-
selves more readily to interpretation through some theoretical frameworks
than through others. For this reason, our interpretation exercises analyze our
sample literary works in the order in which those works are most accessible to
the theory being used in that chapter.
Clearly, the ability to pick the appropriate theory for a literary work you want
to interpret, or to pick an appropriate literary work for a theory you want to
use, is a skill worth developing. For most of us, it’s a question of trial and
error. We experimentally apply different theories to a piece of literature we
want to analyze until we find one that yields the most interesting and perhaps
the most thorough interpretation. Of course, the ability to use any given
theory to analyze any given text differs from person to person, so the key is to
find the combination of theory and literary text that works for you. In fact, you
might see some of the ways in which different readers can use the same theory
to come up with different readings of the same literary work if you or your
instructor interprets any of our five literary texts in ways that differ from the
interpretation exercises I offer you.
Critical theory and cultural criticism
One of the most eye-opening and enjoyable features of critical theory is the
way it can be used to practice cultural criticism. Contrary to what you might
be thinking, cultural criticism does not refer to the evaluation of works of “high”
culture, such as opera, ballet, symphonic music, or Renaissance painting. Rather,
cultural criticism sees works of “high” and “popular” culture as equally important
expressions of the societies that produce them. Indeed, cultural criticism often
crosses the line between the two, for instance, by analyzing a work of “high”
culture alongside a popular version of that work in order to see what similarities
and differences the two can reveal about the societies from which they emerged.
Think, for example, of Shakespeare’sRomeo and Juliet (c. 1595) andWest Side Story
(directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, 1961), a musical film adaptation
of Shakespeare’s play set amidst New York City gang rivalry in the late 1950s.
6 Using critical theory

Cultural criticism focuses primarily, however, on works of popular culture,
on productions intended for popular consumption, such as movies, television
and radio shows, song lyrics, “pulp” fiction, cartoons, games, toys, television and
magazine ads, fairy tales, urban legends, children’s books and curriculum materials,
self-help books, beauty contests, professional sports, state fairs, and the like. And
as this list indicates, cultural criticism also crosses the line between forms of
entertainment and information. So let’s think of cultural criticism as any analysis
of any production of popular culture that seeks to understand what that production
is “saying” to members of the culture that produced it. Let me explain.
As you develop your ability to interpret literature using concepts from different
critical theories, you’ll probably catch yourself noticing new things—related to
one or more of these concepts—about your favorite television program, about
a movie you’ve recently seen, or even about a comic strip in the newspaper or
a magazine ad. That is, you’ll probably start practicing cultural criticism with-
out realizing that you’re doing so. For as we’ve just seen, television shows,
movies, comic strips, advertisements, and just about any other cultural production
intended for the general public are all examples of popular culture. They all
grow out of a particular set of customs and values generally shared by a par-
ticular population. Therefore, they all reveal something about the culture that
creates them, whether they intend to do so or not.
One way to discover what popular-culture productions reveal about the
culture that creates them—that is, one way to practice cultural criticism—is to
analyze the cultural “messages” these productions send to the members of that
culture or, as cultural critics put it, the cultural work these productions perform
in reflecting, reinforcing, or transforming the values, beliefs, and perceptions
of the culture that produces them. And concepts from the critical theories
we’ll study in this book can help us do just that. For as we’ll see shortly, in
addition to sharpening our interpretive skills, concepts from each critical theory
provide a foundation for asking specific questions about cultural productions,
questions that will help us “decode,” so to speak, the cultural messages being
sent by those productions. Let me offer you two brief examples of cultural
criticism suggested by my students. Although you may be familiar with these
examples, you may not have thought of them as instances of cultural criticism.
Suppose I want to analyze the availability of a certain doll intended for pre-teen
American girls; offered with a variety of hair colors, eye colors, and apparel;
and extremely popular nationwide: the “doll of the year,” so to speak, which
every girl owns or wants to own. If I pay particular attention to the dolls’
physical features in terms of their apparent race or ethnicity, I can use concepts
from African American, postcolonial, and psychoanalytic theories to help me
answer questions like the following. Do most or all of these dolls have white
skin and Anglo-European facial features? Do most of them have blond or
light-brown hair and blue or light-colored eyes? If the toy company that
makes these dolls has produced a version intended as an African American
doll, does that version have tan rather than medium-brown or dark-brown
Critical theory and you 7

skin? Does that version have the same Anglo-European features as the white
dolls? Can the African American version of the doll be found as readily in
stores—especially in stores located in racially integrated regions—as the white
versions? Can Latina, Asian American, or Native American versions of the doll
be found readily in stores located where these Americans live and shop? How does
a parent of color decide, when there are no ethnic versions of the coveted doll
available locally, whether or not to give his or her child a white version of the
doll? What does it mean if a young girl of color prefers a white version or
would reject a medium- or dark-brown version of the doll?
In short, what cultural message does the racially based limited availability of
these dolls send to the doll-purchasing and doll-receiving members of the
community concerning the value of certain kinds of dolls? And what message
is being sent concerning the value of certain kinds of little girls? What dangers
to children’s self-image and self-esteem are inherent in racially or ethnically
biased marketing? Ideally, of course, children of all races and ethnicities would
want to play with dolls of all races and ethnicities. How does the limited
availability of anything but white dolls discourage this ideal? Can you find a
brand of doll, or of any kind of children’s plaything, that offers more equitable
multicultural representation and availability? It might be interesting to analyze
the cultural messages sent by two such different toys. For, as noted earlier,
although productions of popular culture often reflect and reinforce the values,
beliefs, and perceptions of the culture that creates them, those productions also
can transform the values, beliefs, and perceptions of the culture that creates them.
Similarly, I can use concepts from postcolonial and Marxist theories to help
me examine video games intended for teenaged boys and marketed in many
countries. I might analyze, for instance, video games in which players try to
accumulate some form of wealth or social rank by shooting as many as possi-
ble of the enemy figures that appear on the screen. The following questions
might help me discover the cultural messages being sent by such games. What
do the enemy figures look like? Do their physical features or apparel make them
look less than or other than human? In other words, is the enemy dehumanized
in some way? Why are the accumulation of great wealth and the acquisition
of high social rank such motivating rewards? Why is competition against other
players often an important part of the game? People who are not interested in
cultural criticism would probably respond to these questions by saying, “It’s
human nature to dehumanize our enemies, to be strongly motivated by the
prospect of accumulating great wealth and acquiring high social rank, and to
enjoy competition.” If you are interested in cultural criticism, however, you
will want to know how concepts from postcolonial and Marxist theories can
offer you ways of responding to these questions quite differently by showing
you the connections between the rules governing a given video game and the
values supporting the culture that creates and plays that game.
To approach this kind of video game from a different perspective, we might use
concepts from feminist theory and from gay, lesbian, and queer theories to analyze
8 Using critical theory

the definition of masculinity—and perhaps the definition of femininity—
promoted by these games. What masculine qualities does a player need in
order to play the game successfully? What masculine qualities seem to be
valued in the world created by the game? What personal qualities are devalued
or seem to be irrelevant? Are female figures present in the game? What do
they look like, and how are they dressed? What kinds of behavior do they
exhibit? How do male and female figures relate to figures of the opposite sex?
How do they relate to figures of the same sex? What seems to be the role of
the female figures in the game?
The issue here isn’t whether or not we play any particular kind of video
game or whether we approve or disapprove of any particular kind of video
game. Rather, the issue here is our ability to notice and interpret the messages
we receive every day from video games and from all the other modes of
popular entertainment and information that are so much a part of our culture
that we may not give them a second thought.
These examples might seem, at this point, rather simple. As you become
acquainted with concepts from our critical theories, however, you’ll see how
the everyday products and practices we take for granted are, in fact, much
more complex and interesting than most of us realize. To that end, each
chapter’s “Food for further thought” section includes an extended example of
the ways in which cultural criticism relates to the critical theory addressed in
that chapter. You will also find, included in the list of “Questions for further
practice” that closes each chapter, an opportunity to apply the theory at hand
to a production of popular culture in addition to the literary works to which
these questions primarily apply. Chapter 10, the final chapter, offers further
discussion of the relationship between critical theory and cultural criticism and
includes guidelines for a cultural analysis of an episode from an old television
series still popular today. When you reach the final chapter, I think you’ll be
in a position to appreciate that the cultural analysis suggested there is somewhat
more complicated than it might appear to the uninitiated eye.
Three questions about interpretation most students ask
By this point, I hope I’ve answered most of the questions you have about our
reasons for studying critical theory and the ways in which this book can help
you get started. However, there are three questions that seem to come up
whenever students interpret literature and especially when they begin to use
critical theories to help them develop their interpretations. So let’s take a brief
look at those questions now.
My interpretation is my opinion, so how can it be wrong?
Yes, your interpretation is your opinion. That’s what it’s supposed to be. In
fact, the definition of the word thesis is debatable opinion, and your thesis is the
Critical theory and you 9

main point of your argument when you write a paper that offers an inter-
pretation of a literary work. But notice the word debatable in the definition of
the word thesis. When you’re giving your interpretation of a literary work,
you’re not saying “I like this work” or “I don’t like this work.” True, “I like
this work” and “I don’t like this work” are opinions that can’t be wrong.
(Your instructor can’t tell you that you’re wrong unless your instructor wants
to suggest that you’re lying about your opinion!) But that kind of opinion is
not an interpretation. It’s not a thesis because it’s not debatable.
A reader’s interpretation doesn’t tell us whether or not he or she likes a
given literary work. An interpretation tells us what the reader thinks the literary
work means. An interpretation is thus an opinion that is debatable. Your
interpretation, therefore, can be judged right or wrong by other readers, just
as you can judge their interpretations right or wrong. So the point in offering
an interpretation is not just to state what you think the literary work means—not
just to give your opinion—but to use evidence from the literary work to
explain why you think your interpretation is valid. Interpreting a literary
work, then, is like being both a detective and a lawyer: first you have to figure
out what you think the work means; then you have to “make a case” for your
opinion that will be as convincing to others as you can make it.
Do authors deliberately use concepts from critical theories
when they write literary works?
Once students begin to use critical theories to interpret literature, they often see
so many theoretical concepts in literary works that they think the authors must
have put those concepts there on purpose. How else, many students wonder,
could these critical theories show us so much about literature? The truth is, how-
ever, that authors may or may not deliberately use concepts from critical theories
when they write literary works. Let’s use psychoanalytic theory as an example.
We are told that D.H. Lawrence knew some of Freud’s theories and
deliberately used psychoanalytic concepts when he wrote Sons and Lovers, a
novel that focuses on a young man’s rather consuming and self-destructive
oedipal attachment to his mother. But many authors were unfamiliar with
psychoanalysis—or with any of the critical theories we use today—when they
wrote literary works. Shakespeare, for example, lived and died long before
Sigmund Freud developed his psychoanalytic approach to understanding human
behavior. Yet we can use psychoanalytic concepts to interpret Shakespeare’s
plays and sonnets, for instance, to understand his characters’ motivations or to
gain insight into some of the psychological forces operating in the society
represented in his work. For Freud didn’t invent the psychological forces that
motivate human beings. As he himself stated, Freud simply observed those
psychological forces and gave them names. That is, Freud discovered some-
thing that had always existed and that would continue to exist whether or not
anyone ever discovered it: the human psyche.
10 Using critical theory

Shakespeare, therefore, didn’t need psychoanalytic theory to create his
emotionally complex and psychologically conflicted characters. All he had to do
was represent human behavior accurately: his characterizations automatically
included the operations of the human psyche. However, while Shakespeare
didn’t need psychoanalytic theory to create his masterpieces, psychoanalytic
theorists believe that psychoanalytic concepts can help us understand the work
of Shakespeare and other writers more profoundly than we might be able to
do without those concepts. And indeed, all schools of critical theory, including
those upon which we draw in this book, make the same kinds of arguments
for the usefulness of their approaches to literary interpretation.
How can we interpret a literary work without knowing what
the author intended the work to mean?
When we interpret a literary work we assume that it may contain more meanings
or fewer meanings or different meanings from those the author intended it to
have. After all, writers are human beings. Sometimes what they produce goes
beyond their expectations, beyond what is called authorial intention. On the
other hand, sometimes a literary work doesn’t live up to what its author
intended it to mean: sometimes authors fail to achieve their intentions. And even
if literature were nothing more than the embodiment of authors’ intended
meanings, we usually don’t know, or can’t be certain, what an author intended
a particular work to mean. Many authors whose works we read are long
dead, and there is no record of their intended meaning.
Some authors, however, wrote essays in which they explained what they
wanted their work to mean, and, of course, many authors are alive and can
tell us what they intended their work to mean. Yet even then, we still have to
face the problem of whether a given literary work achieves the author’s
intention, fails to achieve the author’s intention, or is even richer and more
complex than the author expected it to be. All we really have to go on is the
literary work itself, even when we know the author’s intention. So that’s what
we go on: the literary work itself. Our interpretation can draw on historical
elements relevant to the author’s life and times, but our interpretation must be
supported by adequate evidence—elements of plot, characterization, dialogue,
setting, imagery, and so forth—from the literary text. Therefore, even when
we feel that our interpretation must be what the author intended the work to
mean, we generally say “the text seems to intend” or “the text implies” rather
than “the author seems to intend” or “the author implies.”
Why feeling confused can be a good sign
Perhaps one of the most unfortunate things about formal education is that it
trains us to fear failure to such a degree that we become afraid to take risks. At
the first feeling of confusion we often become terrified. When confronted
Critical theory and you 11

with a new subject or even a new idea, the first time we silently say the words
“I don’t get it”—the first time we feel confused—we usually experience any
number of negative reactions that generally involve giving up without a fight:
“Why should I waste my time when I’m not going to understand this
anyway?” That is, we assume that our confusion is a sign of probable, if not
inevitable, failure.
Confusion, however, can mean just the opposite when we’re learning
something new. It can mean that we’ve let go of an old, comfortable way
of seeing things in order to see something new. Because we’re trying to see
something new, however, we can’t quite get a firm grasp of it immediately.
It’s like crossing a river: we’re temporarily stuck in the middle. We’ve let go
of the riverbank on which we were comfortably seated, but we’ve not yet
reached the bank on the other side. This experience is especially common
when we’re learning critical theory because critical theory requires that we
temporarily let go of old ways of seeing things—old ways of seeing literature,
society, ourselves—in order to see them in new ways.
So whatever your experience as you work your way through this textbook,
remember that it’s natural to feel confused at times. In fact, I think you should
honor your confusion because it means that you’ve been courageous enough
to let go of your usual way of understanding things in order to try a new
way that you haven’t quite grasped yet. You’ve let go of the riverbank in order
to cross to the other side of the river. Although it may take a little while to get
to that other side, you can’t even begin the journey if you don’t let go of
solid ground. And no matter how you look at it, that’s a brave and a very
worthwhile act.
12 Using critical theory

Chapter 2
Using concepts from reader-response
theory to understand our own
literary interpretations
Why should we learn about reader-response theory?
Most of us are intrigued, I think, by the prospect of learning something
interesting or useful about ourselves. That’s precisely what reader-response theory
offers us, and perhaps that’s why it has become a popular framework for the
study of literature.
There are, however, several different kinds of reader-response theory, and
they aren’t all interested in the same kinds of self-knowledge. Some reader-
response approaches examine the ways in which our literary interpretations are
influenced by social factors: for example, by the social or cultural group with
which we identify, by the system of education that tells us what literary works
are important and how they should be interpreted, or even by the classmates
whose opinions influence our responses as we read literary works together.
Other reader-response approaches analyze literary works themselves in order
to determine how our responses are guided by the way a work is written: for
instance, the amount of information provided about characters and plot, the
order in which that information is provided, and the attitude of the narrator
that provides it. Finally, some reader-response approaches try to determine
how our responses to literary works are influenced by our personal experiences,
by the emotional or psychological dimension of our daily lives: for example,
our likes and dislikes, our loves, our fears, our desires, and our memories.
It is this last kind of reader-response theory that we are interested in here.
For despite their differences, all reader-response theories have one important
thing in common. They all believe that readers play an active role in making
meaning when they read. So let’s begin at this common point by focusing, in
this chapter, on the following question: how does each of us make meaning
when we read a literary work? And to find answers to this question, let’s use a
reader-response approach that helps us examine the emotional events that
occur within us as we read. For although we might believe that our literary
interpretations are completely objective and based solely upon “what happens”
in a story, poem, or play, in fact a good deal of what we think happens in a
literary text, and what we think the text means, comes from the history of our

personal experiences, which acts as a kind of emotional filter through which we
perceive the literary work. It seems reasonable, then, to see if we can improve our
ability to understand and enjoy literature by improving our ability to understand
the role that our personal responses play in our literary interpretations.
One well-known framework for exploring the personal dimension of our
individual reading processes is offered by Norman Holland,1 who suggests that
we respond to literary texts in much the same way that we respond to
experiences in our daily lives. Holland believes that each of us has what he
calls an identity theme, which is the pattern of our emotional challenges and
coping strategies by which we respond to people and events on an everyday
basis. To offer a simple example, if I don’t trust people who remind me of my
emotionally manipulative Aunt Betty, then I won’t trust literary characters
who remind me of her. And if I deal with my negative feelings about my
Aunt Betty by refusing to see anything good in her at all—by reducing her to
her character flaw so that I don’t have to deal with her emotionally—then
I will deal in the same way with literary characters that remind me of her: by
refusing to see anything good in them at all.
In short, the same kinds of people, places, and events that create anxiety and
activate my defenses in my everyday life will create anxiety and activate my
defenses when I see representations of those kinds of people, places, and events
in—or project them onto—a literary work. For obvious reasons, Holland calls
this reading experience, which can occur for different reasons at multiple
points throughout our reading of a literary work, the defense mode. To go back
to the example of Aunt Betty, I will go into defense mode as soon as I spot a
literary character that reminds me of her because, although I’m probably not
aware of it, this reminder makes me anxious. My defenses are activated because
I feel in need of some emotional protection.
When we are in defense mode, we will interpret what we are reading, not
in a manner that reflects the actual words on the page, but in a manner that
reduces our anxiety. In other words, we will imagine that the troubling passage
means whatever our defenses require it to mean at that point in time. Holland
calls this part of the reading process the fantasy mode. For example, my defenses
having been raised by encountering a literary character that reminds me of my
Aunt Betty, I will see only the negative side of the portrayal even if the
character is portrayed positively in some respects. Most probably without rea-
lizing it, I will view this character in a very limited way so that—just as I do in
my relationship with my Aunt Betty—I can avoid dealing with the emotions
it will otherwise create in me.
For many of us, however, it is rather difficult to know when we are in
defense mode or fantasy mode. For these two modes occur in order to keep us
from knowing something we don’t want to know about ourselves and,
therefore, about the literary work we are reading. How, then, can we use
Holland’s ideas to help us discover how our personal reading responses operate
to influence our interpretation of literature?
14 Using critical theory

Perhaps the following common reading experiences can serve as vehicles for
the kinds of responses described by Holland. That is, they can provide us with
a hands-on, “up-close-and-personal” method to get in touch with and put
into words the specific ways in which we are responding to a given literary
work. In order to do so, these “response vehicles” focus on some of the very
specific kinds of relationships that can occur between ourselves and various
elements of a literary work.
Response vehicles
Personal identification
Personal identification is the experience of seeing ourselves in a literary character,
often without knowing that we are doing so. We feel that we understand how
this character feels and what motivates his or her behavior because we believe that
the character feels as we would feel in his or her circumstances and is influenced
by the same motivations that would influence us in a similar situation.
The familiar character
Sometimes a literary character seems familiar to us because that character
reminds us of someone we know, often someone important in our lives in the
past or in the present, although we may not realize that this “recognition” is
taking place. A character may remind us of a friend, family member, spouse,
former sweetheart, teacher, roommate, classmate, or anyone else we’ve known
at any point in our lives. Perhaps a character physically resembles, shares some
personality traits with, or behaves like someone we know or used to know.
The familiar plot event
A plot event can be as brief and/or simple as a character’s picking up a pen or
as long and/or complex as a son discovering his father in a hotel room with a
strange woman. Sometimes a plot event seems familiar to us because, whether
we realize it or not, the event reminds us of something we’ve seen or experi-
enced ourselves. Unless asked to do so, we may not notice that we are relating
personally to a particular plot event because plot events are generally numerous,
and our attention is often focused on the plot events that are, according to our
teacher or textbook, central to the meaning of the literary work.
The familiar setting
Sometimes a literary setting seems familiar to us because its geographic location
or physical appearance evokes memories of a place with which we associate
important experiences that occurred there or with which we associate an
Using concepts from reader-response theory 15

important time in our life, although we may not realize that we are making
this kind of connection. Personal responses to a literary setting are often more
subtle than other kinds of personal responses to literature because many readers
regard setting as a backdrop that doesn’t require attention in its own right.
Response exercises
Given our focus, in this chapter, on learning to understand the personal sources
of our own literary interpretations rather than to analyze literary works, we
won’t do the kinds of interpretation exercises you will find in subsequent
chapters, chapters that focus on different ways to understand literature. Instead
of exercises that analyze each of the five sample literary works included at the
end of this book, we’ll use our response vehicles and one of our sample literary
works—Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” (1973; see Appendix D)—to generate
response exercises you can use whenever you want to explore the role played
by your personal responses in your interpretation of a literary work. The
sample responses that follow each exercise are intended to illustrate the wide
variety of responses that can be elicited by these exercises as well as the fact
that different exercises can elicit similar responses. Later in the chapter, we’ll
examine the ways in which your personal responses can either help or hinder
your ability to interpret literature. Finally, we’ll explore the ways in which your
personal responses can be used to help you generate topics for interpreting
literature that are meaningful to others as well as to yourself.
In order to perform the exercises below, you first need to read Alice Walker’s
story “Everyday Use,” which appears at the end of this book. If you’ve not
already read this story, please do so now. Then take a sheet of paper and try the
following exercises. For each exercise, give whatever answers accurately reflect
your feelings, even if you sometimes give the same answer to more than one
question.
Personal-identification exercise
1 Which character do you like most?
2 Which character do you dislike most?
3 For which character do you feel most sorry?
4 Which character do you admire most?
5 To which of the above four questions did you have the strongest emotional
response? (It doesn’t matter what kind of emotion you experienced. Just
pick the question that caused the strongest feeling in you.) Write down
again here the character you named in answering that question.
6 How do you see yourself in the character you named in question 5? List
all the things you have in common with this character. (You may have
things in common with this character that don’t come immediately to
mind. Think about it.) Your job in question 6 is to describe as
16 Using critical theory

completely as possible all the ways in which you personally identify with
this character.
7 This is the crucial, final step. Now that you know some of the ways in
which you personally identify with this character, how might that iden-
tification have influenced your interpretation of the story? For example,
might your personal bond with this character have influenced your inter-
pretation of this character, of another character, or of a particular event in
the story? Write down your answer in as much detail as possible. (Try
your best to answer this question thoroughly, but don’t worry if, at this
point in time, you’re unable to do so as fully as you’d like.)
Our answer to question 7 is the key to understanding an important aspect of
our emotional relationship to the story and, therefore, an important source of our
interpretation of it. Let’s see how my interpretation of “Everyday Use” might
change according to which character I identify with most strongly.
Suppose, for instance, I identify most strongly with Maggie because, like her,
I’m a quiet, shy person or had a sibling whom I felt was given more advantages
or attention than I was. In that case, I might interpret Dee (Wangero)—
because of her insensitivity to Maggie—in a wholly negative manner as a shallow,
selfish, insensitive person, and I’d probably make light of the few positive
qualities the text clearly gives her. I might even suspect that Dee started the
fire that burned down the family’s former home, although the story provides
no clear evidence to support such a suspicion. In addition, I might argue that
Mrs. Johnson (Mama) has been a less-than-perfect mother in favoring Dee
over Maggie or in underestimating Maggie’s talents. And I might dislike Hakim
because of his apparent insensitivity to, and even dismissal of, Maggie.
In contrast, what if, instead, I identify with Dee? For example, suppose that,
like Dee, I chose a path different from that of my family or have felt mis-
understood by my family. In that case, I would probably interpret Dee more
positively, as a character with understandably conflicted feelings toward her
mother and sister and an understandable desire to live her own life. Although
I would have to admit that Dee has some unfortunate traits, I would probably be
more aware of her good points—including her less obvious good points—than
would other readers. I might focus, for instance, on her remarkable achievements
despite the biases of race, class, and gender that have stood in her way. And I
might notice the textual evidence that suggests her desire to be appreciated by
her mother and sister rather than treated as an outsider. In addition, I might
argue that Mrs. Johnson has been a less-than-perfect mother in favoring
Maggie over Dee or in failing to bridge the emotional distance between herself
and Dee that has existed since Dee’s childhood. Indeed, even my interpretation
of Hakim’s behavior toward Mrs. Johnson and Maggie will be influenced by
whether or not I think him “good enough” for Dee.
Now what if, instead of identifying with either sister, I identify with
Mrs. Johnson? Suppose, for example, I have children of my own and can
Using concepts from reader-response theory 17

understand what a difficult job it must have been for Mrs. Johnson to raise two
daughters by herself on a low income. In that case, I might interpret Dee nega-
tively based largely on her failure to appreciate all her mother has done for
her. And I might argue further that it would be unfair of readers to blame
Mrs. Johnson in any way for Dee’s problems because I would be aware of all
the ways in which Mrs. Johnson is a hardworking, devoted mother who loves
Dee and who wishes she could please her successful daughter (just look at
Mrs. Johnson’s dream about appearing on television) despite Dee’s insensitive
air of superiority. In addition, I might find Maggie sympathetic, not just
because she is shy and has suffered many serious hardships, but because Maggie
clearly loves her mother, and the two are very close. And I might dislike Hakim
because I think he is condescending and insensitive to Mrs. Johnson.
Finally, let’s consider what might happen if, instead, I identify with Hakim,
Dee’s boyfriend. For instance, suppose that, like Hakim, I am attracted to a
religious culture different from that of the older generation in my community
or that, like him, I am not considered classically handsome. In either case, I might
find vicarious satisfaction in Hakim’s having won himself a beautiful girlfriend
who shares his values. From this perspective, I might interpret Dee positively,
in a manner that is especially sympathetic to her desire for a more affluent life
and to her ambivalent feelings toward Mrs. Johnson and Maggie, who would
probably seem to me unnecessarily rude to Hakim. But if I am put off by
what I feel is Dee’s lack of attention to Hakim—after all, she doesn’t seem to
interact with him any more than do her mother and sister—I might end up
with a negative interpretation of all three female characters.
Remember, these are just examples of the ways in which our literary
interpretations can be influenced by our personal identification with a character.
Your experience with this exercise might lead you in a very different direction.
Perhaps, for instance, you will find that your identification with a literary
character is based on a trait that you don’t like or about which you feel con-
flicted. In that case, the exercise might offer you the opportunity for helpful
self-reflection. Whatever you discover, the goal here is to use your discovery
to help you understand the personal sources of your literary interpretation.
Familiar-character exercise
When a character reminds us of someone we know or knew in the past, we
may have responses similar to those elicited when we identify with a character.
Which of these two exercises puts us more closely in touch with the sources of
our literary interpretation will depend, of course, on the relationship between
our personal history and the literary text in question.
1 Write down the names of all the characters in the literary work that you
are able to remember. If you can’t remember some characters’ names, use
some other way of identifying them.
18 Using critical theory

2 Of the characters you’ve just listed, write down the names of those that
seem somehow familiar to you. Perhaps they remind you, a great deal or
just a little bit, of someone you know or someone you knew in the past.
“Try each character on,” so to speak, in your imagination. (Maybe you’re
not immediately sure why some characters seem familiar. Think about it.)
Then list as many characters as you can that seem in any way familiar to you.
3 List again, vertically, the names of all the characters you identified in
question 2. Beside each character’s name, write the name of the person
of whom that character reminds you.
4 To which of the pairs of names you listed in question 3 did you have the
strongest emotional response? (It doesn’t matter what kind of emotion
you experienced. Just pick the pair of names that caused the strongest
feeling in you.) Write down here that pair of names.
5 Think about the connection between the two names in the pair you
wrote down in question 4. List all the things they have in common. Do
they have some sort of physical resemblance? Do they share one or more
personality traits? Do they, in some way, behave similarly? (They may
have things in common that don’t come immediately to mind. Think
about it.) Your job in question 5 is to describe as completely as possible
all the similarities you can find between the two.
6 This is the crucial, final step. Now that you know some of the ways this
character reminds you of someone you know or used to know, how
might that personal connection have influenced your interpretation of
the story? For example, might a similarity between this character and
someone you know or used to know have influenced your interpretation
of this character, of another character, or of a particular event in the
story? Write down your answer in as much detail as possible. (Try your
best to answer this question thoroughly, but don’t worry if, at this point
in time, you’re unable to do so as fully as you’d like.)
Our answer to question 6 is the key to understanding an important aspect of
our emotional relationship to the story and, therefore, an important source of our
interpretation of it. Let’s see how my interpretation of “Everyday Use” might
change depending on my responses to the character I find most familiar.
For instance, suppose I find Maggie most familiar because she reminds me of
a quiet, shy classmate I had in grammar school. Suppose, too, this classmate’s
great hesitancy to speak irritated the teacher repeatedly and made our classmates
impatient, thereby making me nervous and impatient. In that case, I might
feel impatient, even irritated, with Maggie, and I might see her as her own
worst enemy: she wouldn’t be so overlooked by Dee, and by everyone else, if
she weren’t such a scared little mouse. Although many readers find Maggie
extremely sympathetic, I might blame her for her own problems in order to
get some emotional distance from her because, whether or not I realize it, she
makes me feel guilty. She reminds me of my shy grammar-school classmate
Using concepts from reader-response theory 19

and, looking back, I feel I should have been kinder to her. Such a reaction to
Maggie might lead me to interpret Mrs. Johnson as unfairly biased in Maggie’s
favor and/or inept as a mother. (After all, Mrs. Johnson should have taught
Maggie to stand up for herself.) In addition, I might interpret Dee and Hakim
sympathetically because Dee’s impatience with Maggie, and Hakim’s indifference
to her, reminds me of my own insensitivity toward my shy young classmate.
Or just as possibly, my guilty feelings about my classmate might make me want
to prove to myself that I am not insensitive. In that event, I might interpret
Dee and Hakim very negatively in order to show myself that I am not like
them, that I strongly disapprove of insensitive people.
Suppose, instead, that Mrs. Johnson feels most familiar to me because she
reminds me of one of my parents. If I was especially close to that parent, this
similarity could increase my tendency to sympathize with Mrs. Johnson and trust
her perceptions of the events she narrates, seeing in her only a hardworking
mother devoted to both her daughters and severely underappreciated, even
mistreated, by Dee and Hakim. Indeed, Mrs. Johnson is frequently interpreted
in just such a positive manner. What if, however, Mrs. Johnson somehow
reminds me of a parent who has a tendency to be passive-aggressive. (A passive-
aggressive person will not admit to having negative feelings but nevertheless
reveals those feelings in subtle ways so that people who are subjected to them
cannot easily defend themselves.) In that case, whereas other readers might
find Mrs. Johnson amusing or insightful in some of her humorous responses to
Dee and Hakim, I might see her as passive-aggressive in a way that somewhat
undercuts, for me, what many consider her very positive portrayal. I might see
Mrs. Johnson’s passive-aggressive behavior, for example, in her alleged inabil-
ity to understand Dee’s reason for calling herself Wangero and in her attempt
to trivialize her daughter’s new name by saying to Dee, “Ream it [your new
name] out again.” And I might see her passive-aggressive attitude in her repeated
internal references to Hakim as “Asalamalakim” and “the barber” and in her
silent conjecture that Hakim might not know how to shake hands. Such a
response to Mrs. Johnson might lead me to a more sympathetic reading of
Dee and Hakim. Indeed, I might even conclude that Maggie’s shyness and
uncertainty are, in part, the result of her mother’s passive-aggression.
Similarly, my interpretation of Dee and Hakim will change depending on
whether of not I find them familiar, individually or as a couple, and depending
on how I feel about the person or persons in my own life of whom they
remind me. For example, suppose Dee and Hakim remind me of a couple
I admire because of their determination to have a better life and their success
in achieving it or because their shared values make them seem to me enviably
compatible. In this case, I might see Dee and Hakim as a successful young
couple frustrated by the apparent refusal of Mrs. Johnson and Maggie to try to
achieve a better life. Or I might deem the couple’s attitude toward Mrs. Johnson
and Maggie as the understandable product of youthful impatience with any-
thing old-fashioned. In contrast, if Dee and Hakim put me in mind of a
20 Using critical theory

couple I dislike, then of course I will interpret the characters’ relationship
negatively. Perhaps I will find it superficial, a relationship of convenience
based on nothing more meaningful than a mutual desire for display.
Remember, these are just examples of the ways in which our literary
interpretations can be influenced by our personal connection to a familiar
character. Your experience with this exercise might lead you in a very different
direction. In fact, you may find that this exercise produces responses similar to
those described in the personal identification exercise, for these two exercises
can operate as two different routes to the same destination. Whatever you
discover, the goal here is to use your discovery to help you understand the
personal source of your literary interpretation.
Familiar-plot-event exercise
1 Which plot event did you find most satisfying or enjoyable?
2 Which plot event did you find most disturbing?
3 Which plot event did you find most surprising?
4 Which plot event did you find least important? That is, which plot event
do you feel the story probably could do without?
5 To which of the above four questions did you have the strongest emotional
response? (It doesn’t matter what kind of emotion you experienced. Just
pick the question that caused the strongest feeling in you.) Write down
again here the plot event you named in answering that question.
6 What is your personal relationship to the plot event you named in
question 5? List everything about this plot event that seems familiar to
you. (There may be familiar elements in this plot event that don’t come
immediately to mind. Think about it.) Your job in question 6 is to
describe as completely as possible all the ways in which you feel personally
connected to this plot event.
7 This is the crucial, final step. Now that you know some of the ways in
which you feel personally connected to this plot event, how might this
connection have influenced your interpretation of the story? For example,
might your personal connection to this plot event have influenced your
interpretation of this event, of another plot event, or of a particular character
in the story? Write down your answer in as much detail as possible. (Try
your best to answer this question thoroughly, but don’t worry if, at this
point in time, you’re unable to do so as fully as you’d like.)
Our answer to question 7 is the key to understanding an important aspect of
our emotional relationship to the story and, therefore, an important source of our
interpretation of it. Let’s see how my interpretation of “Everyday Use” might
change according to the plot event with which I most connect.
Suppose, for example, Mrs. Johnson’s opening comment that she and
Maggie cleaned the yard yesterday afternoon and made it so pleasant—or one
Using concepts from reader-response theory 21

of the other little events that show the closeness between Mama and Maggie—
reminds me of the closeness between my mother and my sister, a closeness
that I don’t feel I really share. In that case, my feeling of uncertainty about my
bond with my mother and sister, or my rivalry with my sister for my mother’s
love, might lead me to focus so strongly on the evidence of Mama’s bond
with Maggie that I don’t pay close attention to much else in the story. As a
result, I might feel that “Everyday Use” is primarily about Dee’s emotional
exclusion from her family. In fact, I might see all of Dee’s achievements as
efforts to impress her mother and thereby win her love. Hakim might therefore
appear to me to be Dee’s attempt to prove, both to her family and herself, that
someone loves her, that she is worthy of love. From this perspective, I would
probably find Mrs. Johnson and Maggie insensitive, even selfish: they’re too
focused on each other, on their common interests and shared experiences, to
be aware of Dee’s loneliness in the past or in the present.
In contrast, what if the arrival of Dee and Hakim reminds me of the “I’m-
more-successful-than-you parade” that occurs every time my brother-in-law
arrives to visit me with his high-end car, his designer clothes, and his latest
high-tech “toy”? I might feel so put off by the “performance” Dee and
Hakim put on before Mrs. Johnson and Maggie—their less privileged, coun-
trified “audience”—that I don’t remember in great detail what happened
beyond that point in the story. Perhaps the only feeling of certainty I will
have about the story is that Dee and Hakim are a superficial, selfish, insensitive
young couple who visit Dee’s very nice family for no other reason than to
show off what they believe is their superiority.
Finally, suppose I recently inherited my mother’s family heirlooms, which
I plan to treat very carefully so that I will be able to pass them on to my own
children? Perhaps, as a result, I won’t like the fact that Mrs. Johnson gives the
family’s heirloom quilts to Maggie to “spoil.” I might think Mrs. Johnson’s
impulsive decision to do so is a terrible mistake. Therefore, I might not find
Mrs. Johnson as wise nor Dee as selfish nor Maggie as sympathetic as I might
otherwise have found them. Indeed, I might understand quite well Dee’s
desire to have a few of the small domestic items—such as the butter-churn lid
and dasher—that were made by family members who have passed away. Thus
what many readers view as Dee’s superficial attitude toward her mother’s
possessions—she wants them just for display because such homemade items have
become fashionable—might seem to me to be Dee’s sincere appreciation for
their sentimental and historical significance.
Remember, these are just examples of the ways in which our literary
interpretations can be influenced by our personal connection to a plot event. Your
experience with this exercise might lead you in a very different direction. Perhaps,
for instance, you will find that your personal connection to a particular plot
event is based on something that you yourself did in the past and about which
you feel especially proud or especially embarrassed. In that case, the exercise
might offer you an opportunity for self-reflection that might help you better
22 Using critical theory

appreciate your achievement or understand your embarrassment. Whatever
you discover, the goal here is to use your discovery to help you understand
the personal sources of your literary interpretation.
Familiar-setting exercise
For many of us, setting may seem less influential than character and plot in
eliciting our personal responses to a literary work. Although our reactions to
setting are often subtle, they can nevertheless affect our reading experience in
important ways.
1 Try to identify the region, country, or part of the world in which it
seems to you the literary work is set. (Is the setting urban, suburban, rural,
wilderness, or something else? Is the climate or the weather described? If
so, what’s it like, to the best of your recollection?)
2 What is the time period in which the literary work seems to you to be
set? Be as general or specific as you think appropriate.
3 Is the setting characterized by architecture, landscaping, furnishings, or
consumer products that you associate with wealth, poverty, middle-class
life, or something else?
4 Is there some element in the work that gives you a sense of place
(a feeling of “being there,” in a specific locale, as you read) although you
don’t actually see that element or it’s not always considered an aspect of
setting? For example, are you struck by the way characters speak (their
accent, use of regional vernacular, or use of formal speech); by the way
they dress; or by references to an important element of community life,
such as a company that employs most members of the community or a
popular place of religious worship?
5 To which of the above four questions did you have the strongest emotional
response? (It doesn’t matter what kind of emotion you experienced. Just
pick the question that caused the strongest feeling in you.) Write down
again here your answer to that question.
6 What is your relationship to the aspect of setting you named in answer to
question 5? List everything about this aspect of setting that seems familiar
to you. (There may be familiar elements in this aspect of setting that
don’t come immediately to mind. Think about it.) Your job in question 6
is to describe as completely as possible all the ways in which you feel
personally connected to this aspect of setting.
7 This is the crucial, final step. Now that you know some of the ways in
which you feel personally connected to this aspect of setting, how might
that connection have influenced your interpretation of the story? For
example, might your connection to this aspect of setting have influenced
your interpretation of the setting as a whole, of a character, or of a par-
ticular event in the story? Write down your answer in as much detail as
Using concepts from reader-response theory 23

possible. (Try your best to answer this question thoroughly, but don’t worry
if, at this point in time, you’re unable to do so as fully as you’d like.)
Our answer to question 7 is the key to understanding an important element in
our emotional relationship to the story and, therefore, an important source of our
interpretation of it. Let’s see how my interpretation of “Everyday Use” might
change according to the way I feel connected to some aspect of its setting.
Suppose, for example, I miss my childhood days growing up on a farm or
have happy memories associated with any kind of rural location. In that case,
I might consider the Johnson home a very happy place and Mrs. Johnson and
Maggie—because they have remained there—very happy people. Mama and
Maggie have their home, and they have each other. Maggie is marrying a
local, country-bred youth like herself, so she and John Thomas will surely set
up housekeeping near Mrs. Johnson. My belief that the simple life is the best
life might lead me to overlook or underestimate the hardships Maggie and her
mother have endured and the insecure future they face due to their lack of
education and economic opportunities. In fact, if my nostalgia for the coun-
tryside is strong enough, I might not readily see Maggie’s scarred body and poor
vision, nor the low self-esteem to which these physical challenges have con-
tributed, as important drawbacks. Analogously, I might feel sorry for Dee and
Hakim because, having lived city lives for so long, they are beyond the reach
of such genuine happiness. Or I might think that Dee is not nearly as smart as
she thinks she is—or that she’s smart in the wrong way—because she never
valued the country life into which she was born.
In contrast, suppose I felt trapped in the rural community of my youth. Or
suppose I have always lived in a city with plenty to do and can’t imagine
enjoying, or even enduring, what seems to me the dead-end boredom of rural life.
In either case, I would not envy Mrs. Johnson and Maggie their country life.
Perhaps I might share Dee’s impatience with them for accepting without a
murmur a life that seems to me so much less than it could be. If my relief at
escaping my own limited upbringing is strong enough, I might even feel that
Mama’s giving the quilts to Maggie is a mistake typical of her lack of adequate
concern about the future. For, as Dee rightly observes, Maggie will not save
these heirlooms but ruin them by using them as bedcovers. On the other
hand, I might sympathize with Mrs. Johnson and Maggie because they “got
stuck” in an environment that I can think of only in negative terms. If I feel sorry
for them, I might think that Dee should use her success to help her family. She
hated rural life enough to go to great lengths to escape it, so she should know
the severe limitations with which her mother and sister live. How can she be
so selfish and uncaring? Of course, if I feel guilty for having been the only
member of my family to “get away,” I might either defend Dee (in order to
defend myself) or attack her (in order to prove to myself that I’m not like her).
Finally, what if, instead of responding primarily to the physical aspects of
setting, I respond most strongly to the emotional atmosphere—the spiritual
24 Using critical theory

setting—I feel is created in “Everyday Use” by the story’s references to the
church? Perhaps the importance of Christianity in my own life leads me to
notice with particular interest the economic and psychological support the
church provides, as seen in the money it raised to send Dee to college and in
Mama’s mention of singing hymns. In this case, I will most probably interpret
Mrs. Johnson and Maggie, and the life they lead together, in very positive
terms because I will see these two characters as people, like myself, in whose
lives the church plays an important role. I might see their hardships as
important factors in their lives, not because their hard times reveal the social
and economic oppression Mrs. Johnson and Maggie have suffered, but because
these hardships are the trials that have purified and enlightened the two
women. And from this perspective, I might view Dee and Hakim either with
disdain, as two unrepentant sinners who have rejected their Christian roots, or
with sympathy, as two lost sheep adrift in a materialistic world and in great
need of spiritual guidance.
Remember, these are just examples of the ways in which our literary
interpretations can be influenced by our personal connection to an aspect of
setting. Your experience with this exercise might lead you in a very different
direction. Perhaps, for instance, you will find that your personal response to an
aspect of setting is neither wholly positive nor wholly negative, but a mixture
of both. In that case, your response to certain characters or plot events also
might be mixed. Or you might have more trouble than some of your classmates
in making up your mind about the story. Whatever you discover, the goal
here is to use your discovery to help you understand the personal sources of
your literary interpretation.
Of course, your responses to the characters, plot events, and setting of
“Everyday Use” might resemble some of the responses described above or be
entirely different. And keep in mind that our personal responses don’t always
involve emotional relationships to characters, plot events, or settings. Sometimes
an image represented in a literary work will trigger a pleasant or unpleasant
memory that will influence our reading experience and, therefore, our inter-
pretation of the work. For instance, the image of Maggie standing shyly in the
doorway of her house might trigger an important memory that will influence
the way we interpret Maggie, another character, or the story as a whole. At other
times our belief systems, or ideologies, will agree or clash with those represented
in the text. For example, some readers might share Hakim’s religious sympathies;
others might share Mrs. Johnson’s. Some readers might be especially appalled
by the racism that robbed Mrs. Johnson of her rightful education; others might
not consider racism a particularly important problem. Naturally, when our
beliefs agree or clash with those represented in the text, this experience, too,
often produces an emotional response. We may feel personally affirmed or
even elated when our beliefs are in harmony with those represented in the text.
Analogously, we may feel personally undermined or angry when our beliefs
conflict with those represented in the text. And our interpretation of the text
Using concepts from reader-response theory 25

will probably change accordingly. In any case, the big question is this: what
should we do about the significant role our personal responses play in our
interpretation of literature?
How our personal responses can help or hinder
interpretation
I think most instructors would agree that there is a role our personal responses
should play in our interpretation of literature and a role they shouldn’t. We
should let our personal responses work for us by allowing them to engage us
as much as possible in what we read. After all, if we have no personal response
whatsoever to a literary work, we will probably find it boring, though in some
instances a lack of personal response might be a way of avoiding a text that, if
we let ourselves respond to it, would be too troubling or emotionally threa-
tening. For example, if “Everyday Use” reminds me too much of a painful
conflict I have with a member or members of my own family, I might be unable
to concentrate on the story, rush through it, or leave it unfinished, without
realizing that there is a personal reason why I couldn’t “get into” the story.
However, it is well worth the effort sometimes required to connect with a
literary work because a personal connection to the text can increase our
motivation to reread it, to pay attention to descriptive details that might help
us understand it, and to work hard on developing an argument in support of
our interpretation of it, which is what most literature-class-writing assignments
ask us to do. As we’ve seen, all of the interpretive possibilities described in the
previous section result from personal responses to “Everyday Use.” Indeed, a
personal relationship to the text can often lead us to develop more profound
interpretations than we thought we could produce.
While our personal responses can thus play a very positive role in our
understanding of literature, it’s not unusual for a personal response to cause us
to misunderstand a literary work in part or as a whole. As you probably know,
there can be many different interpretations of a piece of literature. There is no
one correct interpretation that we are all supposed to find. For most literary
texts have enough ambiguities—things that can be interpreted in more than
one way—to allow numerous readings that would be considered legitimate by
most instructors. However, what makes an interpretation strong is usually the
evidence we supply from the literary text to support it: characters’ physical
appearance, dialogue, and behavior; plot events; details of setting; imagery;
and so forth. But a personal response to a text can also interfere with our
perception of the evidence the text supplies. For example, if the physical
description of Hakim, in “Everyday Use,” reminds me of someone I dislike
intensely, I might conclude that he has caused the rift between Dee and her
family that he is a manipulative young man up to no good, although it’s
probably safe to say that the text offers no evidence to support such an inter-
pretation. We must therefore try to remain open to the possibility that we
26 Using critical theory

have missed or misinterpreted something in any work we read. We can do
this by keeping an open mind when our instructor or our classmates offer
opinions that differ from our own. And when someone else’s viewpoint
challenges our own, we can go back to the text to check our initial perception
and try to find evidence that will either correct or justify that perception.
The “symbolic leap”
One fairly reliable sign that our personal response to a literary work is inter-
fering with our understanding of that work is what I would call the “symbolic
leap.” A symbolic leap occurs when you decide, without any support from the
text, that some image you find in the text is a symbol, and then you develop
an interpretation based on that symbol. In fact, once you make one symbolic
leap in your reading of a text, you are very liable to make others in order to
try to justify your first. For example, let’s look again at the misreading of
Hakim just mentioned. If that character’s similarity to a person I dislike leads
me to see Hakim as “trouble without a cause” and blame him for Dee’s
estrangement from her family, I will have difficulty finding textual evidence to
back me up. But my negative personal response to Hakim will probably lead
me to feel that everything associated with that character has some negative
meaning, and that feeling will lead me straight into a symbolic leap.
I might, for example, decide that the long, thin hair hanging from the end
of Hakim’s chin, which Mrs. Johnson compares to a mule’s tail, is a symbol of
evil because it is, at least to me, serpent-like and because when Maggie sees it
she makes the kind of sound you make, says Mrs. Johnson, when you suddenly
see a wriggling snake in your path. This symbolic leap would make me very
happy because I could use it to develop a reading of the story in which Hakim
represents the biblical serpent in the Garden of Eden. Then, to back up my
serpent-in-the-Garden-of-Eden interpretation, I would make other symbolic
leaps. For example, I would see the Johnson farm as a symbol of the human
condition before its fall from grace—that is, as the Garden of Eden before Eve
took the apple offered by the serpent. Dee, then, would become for me the
symbol of the fallen Eve, who can never return to live in the paradise repre-
sented by the Johnson farm. And so forth. At this point, I could probably find
textual evidence that would seem to support my argument: in many ways,
Mrs. Johnson and Maggie are both content with their life on the farm, where
they apparently lead traditional Christian lives, whereas Dee seems restless, is
worldly, and, as far as her mother knows, is “living in sin” with Hakim.
Such textual evidence, however, can’t really help me because I haven’t justified
my initial symbolic leap: my initial claim that Hakim’s beard is a symbol of evil.
And I can’t justify that claim because it’s based not on the story but on my
desire to see Hakim as a bad person because of the bad person of whom he
reminds me. In fact, my blaming Hakim for Dee’s family problems ignores,
among other things, the fact that Dee was at odds with her family even when
Using concepts from reader-response theory 27

she was a young girl, long before she met Hakim. In other words, in this
example I haven’t been interpreting Hakim. I’ve been interpreting someone
in real life whom I dislike and then ascribing those characteristics to Hakim.
This kind of misinterpretation can be valuable, if you can figure out why it
happened, because it can help you understand something about yourself. But
in general, it probably won’t help you understand the story.
The difference between representing and endorsing human behavior
Another way in which our personal response to a literary work can cause us to
misunderstand that work occurs when we confuse a text’s representation of a
particular human behavior with the text’s endorsement of that behavior. For
example, a literary work might depict child abuse, but that doesn’t mean the
work endorses child abuse. In fact, many literary texts depict cruelty, injustice, and
other destructive behaviors in order to expose them, in order to show readers
that such behaviors deserve our disapproval or even our active resistance. Let’s
take an example from a text with an especially clear attitude toward one of the
negative behaviors it represents: Ralph Ellison’s “The Battle Royal” (1952),
which appears at the end of this book (see Appendix C). As you’ll see, “The
Battle Royal” portrays a social gathering of white civic leaders who have
invited a group of young black men to entertain them by fighting one another
in a grotesquely punishing, group “boxing” match. Clearly, the text depicts very
racist behavior. However, “The Battle Royal” does not endorse the racism it
depicts. On the contrary, we know that the text’s attitude is critical of racism
because the racist civic leaders are very negatively portrayed and because the
outcomes of their racist behavior are so harmful.
Sometimes, however, the fear, anger, or outrage we may feel in response to
the behavior portrayed in a literary text can make us forget to examine the text’s
own attitude toward that behavior. If we’re not careful, we might assume that
a work is racist because it depicts racist behavior, that it is sexist because it
depicts sexist behavior, and so forth. As the example of “The Battle Royal”
illustrates, one way to learn a text’s attitude toward the behavior it represents is
to examine whether the characters performing that behavior are sympathetically
or unsympathetically portrayed and whether the outcomes of their behavior
are depicted as constructive or destructive. In other words, in order to fully
understand the purpose of a literary work, we must determine if the work is
asking us to approve or disapprove of the characters and events it represents.
Perhaps more important, however, we need to be aware that our judgment of
a text’s attitude toward such issues as race, class, gender, and sexual orientation
will probably be influenced strongly by our own evolving attitudes toward these
issues, just as we saw earlier that our interpretation of a literary work will
probably be influenced by our personal feelings toward one of its characters,
plot events, or some aspect of its setting. The problem of how to know when
we’re analyzing the text and when we’re responding, instead, only to a
28 Using critical theory

personal belief or experience that we’ve projected onto the text is not a pro-
blem we can solve once and for all. It’s a problem that continually recurs for
all readers. So think of it as an ongoing challenge, and your skill at spotting
the strengths and weaknesses in your own literary interpretations will develop
over time.
Using our personal responses to generate paper topics
Although our personal responses to literature can lead us astray, they are also,
as we saw earlier, frequently the source of our deepest insights. In addition,
exploring your personal response to a literary work can help you come up
with paper topics that are especially interesting to you, and when your topic
interests you, you’re more likely to write a strong paper that will interest your
readers, as well. Let’s see what kinds of topics might be generated by some of
the examples of personal responses to “Everyday Use” provided earlier. Let’s
consider, for instance, what paper topics might result from a positive personal
response to one of the characters. A popular category of topic that comes
immediately to mind is called character analysis. For a character analysis, you
would interpret a single character: the meaning of that character’s behavior, its
motives, its relationship to other characters, the purpose it serves in the story,
and so forth. For example, a positive response to Maggie might lead to a paper
entitled “Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover: An Analysis of Maggie in Alice
Walker’s ‘Everyday Use,’” in which you would present all the textual evidence
you could find to show that Maggie has more going for her than her sister or
even her mother realizes. You would cite, for example, her excellent memory,
her knowledge of family history, her ability to quilt, her willingness to help
her mother with household tasks, and the ample evidence of her good nature.
You might also argue that Maggie’s engagement to John Thomas, despite
Mrs. Johnson’s apparent belief that the young man has little to offer, is no
small achievement given Maggie’s shyness, her feelings about her appearance,
her family’s rather low opinion of her abilities, and the way in which both her
mother and the church community seem to have overlooked her needs (such
as her medical needs as a result of the fire) in their efforts to fulfill Dee’s.
Analogously, a positive response to Dee might result in a paper entitled “She’s
Not as Bad as She Seems: An Analysis of Dee in Alice Walker’s ‘Everyday
Use,’” in which you would defend Dee by presenting all the textual evidence
you could find to show that she does care about her family and that she must
have a good deal of intelligence and internal fortitude to have accomplished what
she has accomplished, given that her race, class, and gender must have presented
many obstacles to her success. Of course, you would have to acknowledge
Dee’s negative qualities, for they are her most obvious qualities, but you
would argue that there is also an admirable side to Dee that we shouldn’t
overlook. You might also research the Black Pride Movement of the late
1960s and early 1970s, the time in which the story is set, in order to argue that
Using concepts from reader-response theory 29

Dee’s attempt to reclaim her African roots is a legitimate one that should be
respected, though you might agree with the point the story seems to make
that Dee should better appreciate her family and be sensitive to the obstacles
that have kept Mrs. Johnson and Maggie from achieving the kind of financial
success she has achieved.
Certainly, you could find similar ways to write about Mrs. Johnson and
Hakim, though Hakim would be a more difficult subject because we know so
little about him. But let’s take a moment, instead, to discuss briefly another
popular topic-category—called thematic analysis—that you might find useful
for interpreting “Everyday Use” in terms of your personal response to the
story. For a thematic analysis, you would interpret the story in terms of a
specific theme, or the point the story seems to make about a particular topic.
In “Everyday Use,” we see such topics as parenting, family relations, success,
independence, heritage, and non-conformity. A positive or negative response
to a character, plot event, or an aspect of setting could lead you to write a
thematic analysis of heritage. For the definition of heritage seems to be the crux
of the Johnson family’s disagreement, a disagreement embodied in the differences
among family members’ clothing, lifestyle, and attitude toward the Johnsons’
homemade furniture and quilts. On the one hand, Mrs. Johnson and Maggie
believe that one’s real heritage resides in one’s family history; on the other
hand, Dee believes that African Americans’ real heritage lies in their African
roots. Such a paper might be entitled “A Battle of Self-Perceptions: Defining
One’s Heritage in Alice Walker’s ‘Everyday Use’” and might address such
questions as why these characters define heritage so differently, which definition
the story supports, and whether or not you agree with the story’s position on
this topic.
Another thematic analysis, which could result from a positive or negative
response to Dee, might address the point you think the story makes about the
topic of non-conformity. Dee is an American, and the United States prides
itself on its history of non-conformity, for example, its break with old-world
European traditions. Indeed, non-conformity is generally considered a virtue
in America. Yet Dee, who has struck out on her own path and accomplished
a good deal against heavy odds, is rather negatively portrayed. Such a paper,
which might be entitled “The Price Was High: Non-Conformity in Alice
Walker’s ‘Everyday Use,’” would analyze the story’s message about non-
conformity. Is “Everyday Use” suggesting that non-conformity sometimes
requires a certain amount of self-centered behavior, that an individual’s leap
forward necessarily leaves someone behind? Or is the story telling us that non-
conformity should not always be a source of pride, that one’s personal progress
should not be achieved at the expense of one’s family ties? Or finally, is
the story suggesting that what we take to be non-conformity might be, in
reality, simply conformity to the standards of a different group of people? Just
as you would do in a character analysis, you would have to support your
claims in a thematic analysis with textual evidence.
30 Using critical theory

Food for further thought
Thinking it over
If you’ve worked through all of the interpretation exercises offered in this
chapter, you should feel quite familiar with the basic approaches to discovering
your personal responses to literary works and understanding how those responses
operate as the sources of your literary interpretations. We’ve seen how your
own reader responses can be explored by examining
1 Your personal identification with a literary character.
2 Your relationship to a literary character that reminds you of someone
important in your life.
3 Your relationship to a plot event that reminds you of something important
that occurred in your life or in the life of someone close to you.
4 Your relationship to a literary setting that reminds you of someplace
important in your life.
We also discussed how such discoveries as these can occur concerning other
aspects of literary representation, such as images that we find striking and
ideologies about which we have an opinion or to which we have an emo-
tional response. Indeed, an important benefit of our response exercises in this
chapter is that they focus our attention on and show us the significance of
literary elements that we otherwise might not have noticed: for example,
descriptive details concerning characters’ physical appearance, body language,
and behavior; brief, subtle plot events; and aspects of setting that otherwise
might have faded into the background. So let your personal response be your
guide in expanding the repertoire of literary elements you are able to recog-
nize, to which you are able to articulate your response, and as a result, with
which you are able to produce more thorough and personally satisfying literary
interpretations.
Moreover, you might try contrasting one of your completed response
exercises with that of another reader. For the ways in which our personal
responses differ from someone else’s can offer us additional insights into
our own reading processes and into the literary work to which we’re both
responding. How did my reactions to specific items from the response exercise
differ from those of another reader? Did I overlook some aspect of the literary
work, or see something that another missed, because of my personal response?
If I contrast my responses from more than one response exercise with those of
other readers, will I find a pattern in the way I react to certain kinds of char-
acters, plot events, or settings? Perhaps, for example, I tend to trust uncritically
characters who in some way fit the “wise-old-man” type and, for this reason,
have difficulty seeing when that type of character is, in fact, manipulative,
selfish, dangerous, or characterized negatively in any other way. Or perhaps
Using concepts from reader-response theory 31

I tend to overlook descriptive details because I’m so focused on “what happens
next,” and thus miss out on the emotional response—and the information that
would help guide my interpretation of the work—those details can provide.
Because we all have different reader responses, we all have different strengths
and challenges when it comes to literary interpretation. Knowing, as best we
can, where our strengths and challenges lie can go a long way in helping us
respond to literature with more emotional depth and use our responses more
productively to interpret literary works.
Reader-response theory and cultural criticism
Consider, also, the productions of popular culture you can examine in an
attempt to discover something new about your own response mechanisms.
For all our response exercises can be used to explore our responses to and
interpretations of such productions of popular culture as movies, television
shows, television and magazine ads, video and board games, comic books, and
even the packaging of some consumer products. Is a person or persons
depicted in the magazine ad or video game? Is a plot, however brief, given or
implied? Is a setting of some sort depicted? In short, if a cultural production
has a character or characters, a plot, and/or a setting, then our response exer-
cises should prove helpful in understanding how we relate to that production.
Indeed, our response exercises can help us explore the ways in which such
cultural productions operate to influence or even manipulate our responses to
them. In this way, our response exercises can help us begin to try our hand at
cultural criticism, which, as we saw in Chapter 1, attempts to analyze the pro-
ductions of popular culture in order to discover the cultural “messages” they
send, or the cultural work they perform, whether deliberately or not. These
cultural messages can have a strong influence on how we see ourselves,
other people, and the world in which we live, all without our realizing their
effect.
Television commercials for Hallmark greeting cards, for example, generally
market their product by telling a “mini-story” to which, presumably, most
viewers can relate. One of my favorites is called “Brother of the Bride”
(directed by Joe Pytka, 2008).2 In this ad, we see a young man, probably in his
early twenties, at his sister’s wedding reception. It is immediately evident that
Brother—rather pudgy, sweet-looking but not classically handsome—has a gift
for saying the wrong thing. First, he offends a young woman he’s trying to
compliment when he tells her, “You look like you’ve lost a ton of weight!”
Next, his attempt at a little male bonding fails miserably when he remarks that
a good-looking young woman across the room is “high maintenance,” and the
young man to whom he is speaking answers resentfully, “That’s my fiancée.”
Finally, Brother’s effort to exchange a friendly greeting with Barbara, his
father’s third wife, backfires when he addresses her as Kate, which is the name of
Dad’s second wife. So when our blundering protagonist stands up at the
32 Using critical theory

bride’s table to toast his sister, many of the wedding guests, as well as the bride
and groom, clearly expect the worst. However, the toast is perfectly worded
and quite moving. Everyone can now see Brother’s good heart, and their
smiling faces bespeak their warm approval. The camera zooms in to show us
that Brother has read his toast from a Hallmark card as he finishes up by
saying, “I didn’t actually write those words, but I do mean them.” The bride
hugs Brother as the wedding guests applaud. Now that the guests have seen
this side of Brother, their goodwill towards him does not diminish as the
commercial closes on his final gaffe: “Eat up, everyone. My mom paid, like,
two grand for that cake.”
Now, I know this commercial is telling us, more or less, “When you’re
looking for the perfect words, you’ll find them in a Hallmark card.” However,
let’s consider the commercial in terms of the emotional responses viewers might
experience, for I suspect that most viewers would experience some kind of
emotional response to this commercial. Most of us probably experience some
degree of social anxiety when “mingling,” know someone like Brother, or at
least have attended weddings or other large social gatherings. I know that
when I mingle with others socially, I always worry that, like Brother, I’ll say
the wrong thing and inadvertently annoy or even hurt someone. So I used
our “personal identification exercise,” described earlier in this chapter, and
found that I do, in fact, identify with Brother. That’s why I felt so anxious as I
watched Brother’s social ineptitude alienate the people with whom he sought
positive interactions. And that’s why I was very relieved when his toast turned
out so well. Yes, when I saw that he’d read his toast from a Hallmark card, I
laughed and said, “Give me a break.” And no, I didn’t run right out and buy a
Hallmark card. But when I think about it, I’m sure that, on some level, I now
associate Hallmark cards with a feeling of relief, of emotional pressure removed,
and that fact could influence my greeting-card purchases in the future both in
terms of the brand of cards I buy and the frequency with which I buy them.
For our purposes here, I used my personal response to this commercial to
help me find the cultural messages that had pushed my emotional buttons, so
to speak. In other words, I used my personal response to see if I could dis-
cover some of the cultural work “Brother of the Bride” performs, whether it
does so deliberately—in order to sell Hallmark cards—or not. To begin, why
did Brother’s social failures trigger my own anxiety? Well, like him, I want
very much to have positive interactions with people I encounter in social
situations, and I fear that, as it is in his case, my good intentions might not be
enough. Wait a minute. Now that I think back, it occurs to me that Brother’s
behavior isn’t really that bad. I think I based my judgment of him on the cold,
rather hostile responses he receives for relatively minor social blunders because
those are the responses I fear I’ll receive during social interactions. Can’t
the wedding guests with whom he speaks recognize a friendly face when they
see one? Are people so easily offended that they can’t see Brother’s sincere
desire to please? Why do they appreciate him only after he gives his wonderful
Using concepts from reader-response theory 33

toast? Maybe I’m right to be anxious in social situations: it’s so easy to alienate
people. Okay, I can see that the most important effect this commercial has had
on me is to increase my fear that I won’t find the right words during social
interactions, that I’ll inadvertently alienate people. Does this mean I’ll buy
more Hallmark cards? I don’t know. But now I have an idea about the cultural
message this commercial might be sending.
If my personal response is, in fact, based on the content of the commercial,
then the commercial is probably sending the following cultural message: People
will overlook our shortcomings but only if we can find the right words to show them that our
good qualities make up for our failings. So the right words are essential to social success,
even if we have to get those words from a greeting card. Indeed, unless we’re really sure
of ourselves, it’s probably prudent to have some mistrust of our own words. With this
hypothesis as my starting point, I should be able to use concepts from psycho-
analytic and Marxist theories to analyze the ways in which this commercial
encourages social anxiety in the viewer in order to sell greeting cards, which the
commercial suggests is a safer, more effective, and easier way to express my feel-
ings than trying to express them in my own words. Yes, I’m suggesting that once
you become familiar with Chapter 4’s concepts from psychoanalytic theory and
with concepts from the social theories addressed in subsequent chapters, you’ll be
in a position to analyze the productions of popular culture with greater insight
and understanding. However, as I hope my own response to “Brother of the
Bride”—and this chapter as a whole—has demonstrated, a clear grasp of your
own response mechanisms will provide you with an excellent place to start.
***
Of course, before you can do anything with your personal response to a lit-
erary work, to a production of popular culture, or to anything else, you need to
know what that response is. So it might be a good idea to practice analyzing
your own responses by using our response exercises to discover your personal
responses to some of the literary texts that appear at the end of this book.
These exercises should work especially well with a literary work to which you
have a particularly strong emotional reaction. But you might be pleasantly
surprised to find that they can also help you become more interested in a literary
work that you don’t like at first or that you think had no effect on you at all.
So don’t be too quick to dismiss a literary work because your first response to
it is not a positive one. For in attempting to write conscientious answers to the
questions posed in our interpretation exercises, you might learn that you had a
more meaningful response to the work than you realized. The effort to think
carefully and write a detailed account of what was going on for you as you read
a literary work can bring to the front of your mind feelings and ideas about
the work that you didn’t even realize you were having. In addition, it can
spark creativity in you that you didn’t know was there. And that’s one of the
best responses any of us can have to literature—to let an author’s creativity
spark our own.
34 Using critical theory

Taking the next step
Exercises for further practice
1 Write a journal entry or an essay describing, in as much detail as possible,
a productive experience you had using one of our response exercises to
explore your personal response to a literary work. Include the personal
connection to the work that you discovered in doing the exercise, and
explain how this connection influenced your interpretation of some ele-
ment in the work. Did your exploration lead you to see something new
in the work or in yourself as a reader? Was your response to or opinion
of some element in the work changed or confirmed by your exploration?
Explain.
2 Select a literary work that you read recently and didn’t like very much.
(Perhaps the characters didn’t interest you, or perhaps you disliked one or
more of them. Or perhaps the plot seemed boring or meaningless to
you.) Using all four of our response exercises, try to discover a personal
connection you have to this work to help you explore the source of your
dislike or lack of interest. Did one or more of our response exercises lead
you to a better understanding than you originally had of some element of
the work? Explain.
3 When given the choice of two or more literary works for an essay
assignment, it can be difficult to know which one to choose. In order to
help you decide, list together the names of the characters you remember
most vividly from both, or all three, works. Drawing on this list, use the
personal-identification and familiar-character exercises to help you dis-
cover which of the works elicits your strongest personal response. This is
probably the work you should consider choosing for your essay assignment.
To gather more ideas for your interpretation of this work, use the familiar-
plot-event and familiar-setting exercises to help you find additional elements
in the work you might otherwise overlook.
4 Partner with another reader. Contrast one of your completed personal-
identification exercises with one of your partner’s. Choose an exercise in
which you both responded to the same literary work but identified with
different characters. In what specific ways does your interpretation of the
work differ from that of your partner? How might you attribute some or
all of these differences in interpretation to your personal identifications
with different characters? More importantly, did you overlook some
aspect of the literary work, or see something that your partner missed,
because of your personal response? Repeat this process three more times,
each time with a different reading partner, a different literary work, and a
different response exercise. Your goal is to learn as much as you can
about your reading strengths on which you can build, and the reading
challenges on which you need to work.
Using concepts from reader-response theory 35

5 As we saw earlier in this chapter, cultural criticism cannot depend on
reader-response concepts alone. However, your personal response to a
production of popular culture can often serve as a useful first step in that
direction. For example, what is your favorite movie—one you’ve seen
many times and remember vividly? Try all four of our response exercises
to help you discover what it is about this movie that keeps you coming
back, though by now you know “what’s going to happen next” and can
probably talk along with much of the dialogue. Specifically, how does
this movie in some way tell your story, perhaps not your whole story, but
an important part of it, an important part of yourself of which you may
or may not be fully aware? What elements in the movie seemed to “push
your emotional buttons,” so to speak? In short, see if our response exercises
can help you discover something you don’t know about the meaningful
connection between you and your favorite movie. Depending on what
you discover about the movie during this process, you might consider it a
candidate, as you read subsequent chapters, for cultural criticism from a
psychoanalytic; Marxist; feminist; gay, lesbian, or queer; African American;
or postcolonial perspective.
Suggestions for further reading
Booth, Wayne C. “General Rules, IV: Emotions, Beliefs, and the Reader’s Objectivity.”
The Rhetoric of Fiction. University of Chicago Press, 1961. 119–47.
Fish, Stanley. Is There a Text in this Class?: The Authority of Interpretive Communities.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980. (See, especially, “Literature in the
Reader: Affective Stylistics,” 22–67; and “How to Recognize a Poem When You See
One,” 322–37.)
Holland, Norman. “Unity Identity Text Self.” PLMA 90 (1975): 813–22. Rpt. in Reader-
Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism, ed. Jane P. Tompkins. Baltimore:
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980. 118–33.
——. 5 Readers Reading. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975. (See, especially, “The
Answer: Four Principles of Literary Experience,” 113–29.)
Rosenblatt, Louise. The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary
Work. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978. (See, especially, “The Poem
as Event,” 6–21; and “Efferent and Aesthetic Reading,” 22–47.)
Tompkins, Jane P. “The Reader in History: The Changing Shape of Literary Response.”
Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins
University Press, 1980. 201–32.
Tyson, Lois. “Reader-Response Criticism.” Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide.
2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2006. 169–207.
Notes
1 Holland’s theory of reading—variously referred to as transactive, subjective, and psycholo-
gical reader-response theory—is explained in his “Unity Identity Text Self.” PLMA 90
(1975): 813–22. Rpt. in Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism,
36 Using critical theory

ed. Jane P. Tompkins. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980. 118–33.
Holland also discusses his theory in “The Answer: Four Principles of Literary Experi-
ence.” 5 Readers Reading. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975. 113–29.
2 “Brother of the Bride” is available online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7
ZdIjnkDpMo.
Using concepts from reader-response theory 37

Chapter 3
Using concepts from New Critical
theory to understand literature
Why should we learn about New Critical theory?
Have you ever taken a literature course in which you were asked to write an
essay explaining what a literary work means? And were you required to provide
examples from the literary work to back up your interpretation? If so, you
were probably using concepts from New Critical theory to write your paper,
although you might not have known it at the time.
New Criticism isn’t new anymore: its heyday lasted from the late 1940s until
the late 1960s. It was rightly considered “new” then because it offered a way
of understanding literature that was radically different from the interpretive
approaches it replaced. But you’ll still see New Criticism discussed in literature
and theory anthologies (sometimes under the name formalism) because its
method of literary analysis is still used today. The basic concepts you’ll see
later in this chapter are still used to teach high-school and college students
how to interpret and support, or defend, their interpretations of literature. In
fact, New Critical interpretative tools have become such a fundamental part of
our introduction to literary studies that we’re often told simply that this method is
the correct or accepted way to analyze literature without reference to the New
Critical theory on which it is based.
Before “The New Criticism” (as it was called) arrived on the post-World-
War-II scene, the study of literature usually meant one of two things: (1) the
attempt by a literary critic or historian to determine authorial intention—what
did the author intend the work to mean?—by studying the author’s life and
times; or (2) the attempt by a gifted, educated reader to express in an interesting and
engaging manner his or her personal impressions of the work. Thus, a literary
work meant only what the author intended it to mean or what a “professional”
reader felt it meant.
How can we be sure, however, what the author intended the work to mean?
And even if we could be sure, what if the author inadvertently created
something other than what he or she intended? Because we can’t know the
answers to these questions, New Critics called the use of authorial intention to

determine the meaning of a literary work the intentional fallacy, or the false
belief in an author’s intended meaning.
Similarly, how can we know that a given reader’s impressions—even the
impressions of a gifted, educated reader—can be counted on to reveal the
meaning of a literary work? Aren’t impressions guided by emotions? What if
the reader’s impressions are based on an emotional response rather than a
response to the actual content of the literary work? Because we can’t know the
answers to these questions, New Critics called the use of a reader’s impressions
to determine the meaning of a literary work the affective fallacy, or the false
belief in a reader’s emotional response.
In short, neither the study of authorial intention nor the provision of a
talented reader’s impressions focuses on the literary work, or the text itself,
as New Critics called it. And for New Criticism, the text itself is the only
place we can look to find its meaning. Exactly where in the literary text
should we look for its meaning? According to New Criticism, we should look
at the ways in which a text’s literary language operates to create a complex
meaning that can stand on its own as an object of art. Does this idea seem
rather abstract? Don’t worry. It’s not as difficult as it might sound. Let me
explain.
Just as a great painting is a complex art object made of a unique combination
of paints on canvas and a great symphony is a complex art object made of a
unique combination of musical sounds, a literary text is a complex art object
made of language. In order to understand a literary text, then, we need to
understand the complex workings of the unique combination of words—and
other literary devices, or techniques—of which it is made. So any claim about
what a text means must have textual support, or evidence that backs up the
claim that is based on the words found in the text itself. Sound familiar? Most
of us are taught to analyze literature by backing up our opinion of the text’s
meaning with textual support: evidence of characters’ speech, actions, and
physical appearance; descriptions of plot events and setting; and so forth.
Indeed, we can begin to use New Critical theory to understand literature
by asking the following two questions about the literary text we want to
interpret: (1) What does the text mean? (What is the message communicated
by the text as a whole?); and (2) How can I support my claim about the text’s
meaning with textual evidence? So gaining a more thorough knowledge of
how to analyze textual evidence—of how to analyze the language of which
a literary text is made—is an effective way to deepen our appreciation of
literature and improve our ability to interpret it.
As New Criticism observed, literary language is different from other kinds of
language. For example, scientific language and most everyday language are
used to communicate practical matters as clearly as possible: What changes
have scientists reported in the fish population of the Ohio River over the last
decade? When was the last time I went fishing on the Ohio River? As these
two questions illustrate, scientific and everyday language depend on the literal,
Using concepts from New Critical theory 39

or actual, meaning of words. If I refer to a river literally, as I did in the two
questions above, I am referring to a physical body of water of substantial
length that flows in one direction and contains aquatic life forms. In contrast,
literary language frequently employs such literary devices as figurative language,
or language that implies something more than or other than itself. For
instance, if I refer to a river figuratively, I might be using the word river to
invoke the idea of a journey, nature, life, or anything that a river can reasonably
“figure,” or “stand for.” Being “sent up the river” is thus a figurative phrase
for being sent on a journey to prison. And “crossing the river” is a figurative
phrase for crossing from one phase of life to another or for crossing over from
life to death. Even when a literary work uses language for its literal meaning,
that language is usually chosen for its ability to produce associations with other
words. For example, the word mother literally means female parent; however,
the word mother produces associations such as nurture, affection, and comfort. And
as we’ll see later in the chapter, there are many more literary devices that
contribute to the unique quality of literary language.
New Criticism has been replaced by the kinds of interpretive approaches
discussed in the other chapters of this book, not because of its methodology—
its attention to the operations of literary language—but because of its narrow
definition of great literature and great literary interpretation and its dismissal of
reader response as an important factor in literary analysis. We no longer
believe, as New Critics did, that all great literature derives from the European
male literary tradition (which they saw as universally meaningful) and that there
is only one “best” interpretation of every literary work. Nor do we believe it
is possible for readers to put aside their personal responses and interpret lit-
erature with complete objectivity. However, New Criticism’s focus on the
text itself has remained a foundational element of literary studies. In fact, New
Criticism’s insistence on textual evidence to support our literary interpretations
is shared by all the interpretive approaches we’ll use in the following chapters.
Although it’s important that you read through the “Basic concepts” section
that follows, don’t be too concerned if you don’t feel you thoroughly
understand every one. You’ll begin to understand these concepts much better
when we use them later in this chapter to help us interpret the literary texts
that appear at the end of this book. And you’ll see that these fundamental
New Critical concepts can help us understand other works of literature,
as well.
Remember, too, that I’m offering you my own literary analyses in the
interpretation exercises provided later in this chapter. You might use the
same New Critical concepts I use but come up with different interpretations
of your own. If you disagree with any of the analyses I offer in these
exercises, don’t be afraid to look in the literary text in question for evidence
that will support your viewpoint. A literary text can support a number of
different interpretations, even when readers are using concepts from the same
theory.
40 Using critical theory

Basic concepts
Theme
Every literary text can address any number of topics, such as love, the family,
the effects of social pressure on the individual, the conflict between good and
evil, the initiation into adulthood, and the like. Although the terms topic and
theme are often used interchangeably, strictly speaking a theme is what a literary
text says about a given topic. For example, while “family conflict” is a topic,
“the family can be a source of painful emotional conflict as well as a source of
emotional support” and “family conflict can sometimes result in a deeper,
more meaningful family harmony” are themes. A literary text’s theme is the
overall meaning, or message, the text communicates, and New Critics believed
that a great literary work has a theme that contributes to our understanding of
what it means to be human. Of course, today we realize that a literary text can
support more than one theme, but we still use New Critical strategies to
support our interpretation.
Formal elements
While theme refers to the content of a literary work—what the work means—
form refers to the literary devices and language, or formal elements, used to get
that meaning across. Literary devices include the kinds of literary “tools” with
which you are probably familiar: among many others, plot, narrator, char-
acterization, and setting. How should the plot, or the events of the story, be
laid out? Who should narrate, or tell, the story? How many and what kinds of
characters should be employed? Where should the story take place? What
should be the narrator’s attitude toward the story’s characters, events, and
setting? The answers to these questions help give each literary work its unique
form. The following literary devices are additional examples of the many kinds
of formal elements important to our understanding of how a literary work
communicates its theme.
Tension—In a literary text, tension is created by the interplay between two
opposing concepts, such as conformity and rebellion, belonging and alie-
nation, harmony and conflict, or tradition and change. The central, or most
important tension in a literary text is generated by the two opposing concepts
that most reflect the meaning of the text as a whole. A text’s central tension
is thus the clearest signpost to its theme. For instance, the tension between
the opposing concepts tradition and change might generate a theme like one
of the following: “The uncritical desire for change can result in a wholesale
abandonment of traditions that are still meaningful”; “Change can be a dif-
ficult but necessary remedy for outmoded traditions that do more harm than
good”; or “Tradition and change are both necessary elements for the health
Using concepts from New Critical theory 41

of any human community.” As these three examples illustrate, the theme of a
literary text might “take sides” by favoring one concept in the opposition
over the other. Or the theme might consist of some combination of the two.
Ambiguity—A literary text exhibits ambiguity whenever a word, image, or plot
event can have two or more different meanings. For example, a young woman
rescuing her sister from a burning car might be seen as a representation of
the young woman’s love for her sister, of the bond between the two young
women, of the rescued sister’s helplessness (her need to be “rescued” in
general) or of the rescued sister’s strength (she’s a “survivor” in general). Or
this plot event might mean all of the above because plot events, like events
in human life, can have all of these meanings at the same time. In a literary
text, ambiguity is not considered a flaw, as it would be in scientific or
everyday language, because ambiguity enriches the text by contributing to
its depth and complexity.
Of course, not all possible interpretations of the meaning of a plot event,
or of any literary device, are appropriate. For instance, although the burning
car in the above example might have many possible meanings—fire, for
example, can be associated with destruction, hell, strong emotions, sexual
desire, and purification—this doesn’t mean that any or all of these associations
would be useful for a conscientious interpretation of this plot event. For in
order to be meaningful, our interpretation of any part of a literary text must
make sense in terms of our interpretation of the text as a whole: it must fit
with all the other formal elements in the text and with the text’s theme.
Imagery—Close your eyes and imagine a tall fir tree covered with snow and
sparkling in the winter sunshine. You’ve just experienced an image. An image
is a mental picture created by a word or words used to describe the physical
appearance of a person, place, object, or event. Imagery can also consist of
descriptive language related to the other four senses, but it’s usually visual.
A literary representation of our imaginary young woman rescuing her sister
from a burning car, discussed above, might include a number of images, such
as the image of flames reflected in flowing gasoline; of a young woman’s
arms reaching through a broken car window; or of two young women,
clothes torn and dirty, leaning against the solid trunk of a nearby tree.
Images often occur in symbols, metaphors, and similes, all three of which are
forms of comparison, and I will offer you a simple definition of each below.
Remember, however, that the ability to correctly identify an image by one of
these three labels isn’t nearly as important as the ability to analyze how an image
or a series of images operates in a text: how it is associated with certain ideas or
experiences; how it creates a particular mood; in short, how it helps us interpret
the meaning of a passage in a literary text or even the text as a whole.
Consider, for example, the different effects of the following three images:
(1) a white picket fence bordering a tidy green lawn; (2) a white picket
fence gathered in a bundle, tied together with wire, sitting among numer-
ous other bundles of fencing in a home-improvement store; and (3) a white
42 Using critical theory

picket fence fallen on its side, smudged heavily with dirt, a number of
pickets broken or missing, lying along one edge of a vacant lot strewn with
old bricks, rotting boards, weeds, and litter. These images are associated with
very different ideas and experiences, create very different moods, and would
help us interpret the, presumably, very different meanings of the literary
passages in which they appeared.
Symbol—“Most of us have to earn our bread.” This sentence means that most
of us have to work for a living because the word bread symbolizes life. As
this example illustrates, a symbol has both literal and figurative meaning.
Bread is, literally, a form of food made largely of flour and water that is
eaten by human beings. Figuratively, the word bread can be used to figure,
or stand for, ideas that have similar qualities. Bread sustains life, so it can
symbolize life. Or it can symbolize other things that sustain life, as when the
phrase I need more bread (or dough!) to pay my rent is used to mean that I need
more money. Money can sustain life because it can buy what we need to
sustain life. So the word bread can also be used to symbolize money.
Metaphor—“My grandmother is a treasure.” If I meant this statement literally,
I’d be claiming that my grandmother is a large amount of gold or precious
gems. But unlike a symbol, a metaphor has only figurative meaning. And it
links together two persons, things, or ideas that are, in a literal sense, not
similar. The figurative meaning of “My grandmother is a treasure” is that
my grandmother is a wonderful person, a person of great human value. So
while I can legitimately say that the word treasure is a metaphor for my
grandmother—that is, while I can use the word for its figurative meaning
alone—I can’t say that treasure is a symbol of my grandmother.
Simile—While “My grandmother is a treasure” is a metaphor, “My grand-
mother is like a treasure” or “My grandmother is as valuable as a treasure” is
a simile. Think of a simile as a metaphor that uses like or as. A metaphor can
be considered a more direct, and therefore stronger comparison. (Can you
see, for instance, that “The final exam was a nightmare” has more punch
than “The final exam was like a nightmare”?) I’m not suggesting that one
device is better than the other. Rather, the use of one device or the other
depends on the purpose for which it is used.
Unity
New Critics considered unity, or what they called organic unity, the most
important quality of a literary text. A text has unity when its theme and formal
elements work together as an inseparable whole. Put simply, when a text has
unity, what it means can’t be separated from how it means. In a unified text,
every character, every plot event, every image, every tension, every ambiguity—
in short, all the text’s formal elements—contribute to the representation of the
text’s theme. At various points in the text, there will certainly be contradictory
or conflicting meanings created by a particular plot event, ambiguity, image,
Using concepts from New Critical theory 43

or other formal element. But these conflicting meanings add to the richness
and depth of the text as long as they work together in a shared contribution to
the meaning of the text as a whole—that is, to the text’s theme.
Let’s consider an example. Conflicting meanings can be produced by the
combination of both very positive and very negative qualities in the repre-
sentation of a literary character. (For me, the Reverend Dimmesdale in
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s
Death of a Salesman come to mind.) At any given point in the text, and even after
we’ve finished reading it, we may very well feel conflicted in our response to
such characters because the text offers opposing elements in its portrayal of
them. However, this kind of characterization is considered complex rather
than self-contradictory if it contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole:
for instance, if the character’s duality helps explain certain plot events or jus-
tifies the mixed response to him of other characters. In addition, a character
composed of conflicting elements can contribute to the quality of the text by
being more believable and more interesting than a character who is all good
or all evil, or what is called a cardboard, or one-dimensional character.
Close reading and textual evidence
When we’re new to the study of literature we often focus most of our attention
on major plot events and characters’ behavior. “What happens?” and “How
do I feel about the characters?” are questions that form the basis of many a
new student’s understanding of a literary text. In contrast, close reading consists
of careful attention to every aspect of a literary work, including and especially
to the text’s formal elements, in order to accurately and meaningfully interpret
the text: to determine the text’s theme, as we see it, and to show how all the
characters, plot events, settings, images, and other formal elements contribute
to that theme. Close reading is how we provide thorough, detailed textual
evidence to support our interpretation of a literary text. How do characters’
behavior, physical appearance, and dialogue show that my interpretation
of the text is correct? How do the images used to describe the setting rein-
force the meaning I see in the text? How does the narrator’s attitude toward
the text’s characters and events (does the narrator seem approving, disapprov-
ing, or neutral?) support my ideas? My opinion of what a text means is
important to me and perhaps to those who agree with me. However, my
opinion of what a text means, when conscientiously backed up by the textual
evidence needed to support my opinion, becomes more convincing to those
with interpretations different from mine as well as more meaningful to myself
and to those who agree with me.
***
There are, of course, additional concepts used to interpret literature from a
New Critical perspective, but these are enough to get us started. The inter-
pretation exercises that follow will probably remind you of the thematic
44 Using critical theory

essays—interpretations of the text’s meaning—you may have written for a
literature class. In fact, the title of each exercise reflects the categories you’ll
see used in literature anthologies that are organized by theme. Like the rest of
this chapter, these exercises are intended to help you improve your ability to
identify a text’s theme and analyze how that theme is “carried” by the text’s
formal elements. Let’s begin our interpretation exercises by analyzing a story
that offers us several useful examples of our New Critical concepts: Alice
Walker’s “Everyday Use.”
Interpretation exercises
Appreciating the importance of tradition: Interpreting “Everyday Use”
Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” (1973; see Appendix D) consists almost entirely
of the interactions among family members—Mrs. Johnson and her daughters
Dee and Maggie—during a single afternoon. And those interactions consist
almost entirely of differences that split the family in two: differences between
Dee, who has been away at a big-city college and learned new ways of relating to
herself and her world, and her mother and sister, who have remained together
in their humble country home and in their adherence to family traditions. Thus,
although set in a specific place and time—rural Georgia during the Black
Pride movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s—“Everyday Use” focuses
on a topic relevant to almost any place and time. That topic is the eternal
tug-of-war between tradition and change.
Specifically, Dee has come home for a brief visit, presumably to introduce her
boyfriend Hakim to her mother and sister Maggie. Dee and Hakim are as
fashionably modern in their outlook as Mama and Maggie are traditionally old-
fashioned. Readers may differ in their opinions concerning the opposed view-
points expressed in “Everyday Use.” However, our task here is to discover the
viewpoint endorsed by the text and to explain how we know what that
viewpoint is. In other words, with our topic in mind, our task is to discover the
text’s theme, or meaning as a whole, and to support that discovery with formal
elements from the text itself. In order to fulfill this task, we must identify: (1) the
central, or most important tension operating in the story, which will guide us
to the story’s theme and help us lay the groundwork for our interpretation; (2) the
story’s theme; and (3) the formal elements in the story that support the theme
we have identified, thereby showing that our interpretation of the story is valid.
The text’s central tension
As our topic suggests, the central tension operating in “Everyday Use” seems
to be the tension between tradition and change represented by the differing
viewpoints of, on the one hand, Dee and Hakim, and on the other hand,
Mrs. Johnson and Maggie. To confirm that we’ve correctly identified the text’s
Using concepts from New Critical theory 45

central tension and lay our interpretive groundwork, it can help to brainstorm
a list of the oppositions related to our topic and embodied in plot events; in
characters’ behavior, attitudes, or physical appearance; and in the text’s imagery.
So let’s start by finding evidence in the story of the following oppositions.
1 The clothing and hairstyles of Dee andHakim vs. those ofMama andMaggie.
2 The ways in which Hakim greets Mama and Maggie vs. the ways in
which Mama and Maggie respond to his greetings.
3 Dee’s beliefs vs. Mama’s beliefs about family names.
4 Dee’s knowledge vs. Mama and Maggie’s knowledge of family history.
5 Dee’s attitude vs. Mama and Maggie’s attitude toward the family home.
6 Dee’s attitude vs. Mama and Maggie’s attitude toward the family’s
handcrafted furniture.
7 Dee’s attitude vs. Mama and Maggie’s attitude toward the family’s
handcrafted quilts.
8 Dee’s knowledge vs. Mama and Maggie’s knowledge of the craft of quilting.
As expected, all of these examples cluster around the tension between Dee
and Hakim’s abandonment of family traditions and Mama and Maggie’s loyalty
to those traditions. And as the textual data just gathered indicate, the lines of
disagreement among the characters are clearly drawn. Dee and Hakim believe
that their cultural heritage, their real roots, are African, and family traditions
are either outmoded—like quilting and furniture-making, the hand-me-down
results of which are lovely relics to be kept as mementoes—or offensive, such
as naming one’s children names that originally belonged to the families of
slave-owners. Mrs. Johnson and Maggie, in contrast, believe that their family
traditions are their cultural heritage and that those traditions are to be kept
alive by passing them down from one generation to the next.
The text’s theme
As we’ve just seen, the central tension in “Everyday Use” is the tension, or
opposition, between two contrasting attitudes toward family traditions. We will
discover the text’s theme by asking, Which side of this tension does the text
promote, or portray more favorably? Or does the text favor some combination
of both? I think most readers will readily feel that the story favors Mama and
Maggie’s loyalty to family traditions because most readers find Mama and
Maggie much more likeable than Dee and Hakim. And as we’ll see in the next
section, Mama and Maggie are portrayed much more sympathetically (that is,
their portrayals make it easier for readers to feel with them and for them) than
Dee and Hakim. Indeed, literary texts often show approval of a character by
portraying that character sympathetically, and conversely, disapproval is often
shown by means of an unsympathetic portrayal.
In the next section, moreover, we will do a close reading of the story in
search of additional formal elements supporting our thesis (our debatable opinion,
46 Using critical theory

which is the main point of our interpretation) that the text promotes loyalty
to family traditions. If we don’t find such textual evidence or don’t find
enough of it or find conflicting textual evidence that doesn’t fit our inter-
pretation, we will have to amend our thesis to fit the textual evidence we
find. However, at this point, we might reasonably argue that the text’s theme
can be stated as follows: The adoption of new ideas about cultural heritage should not
result in the abandonment of family traditions, for these traditions keep us connected to
our family history and contribute to the emotional bond among family members.
Textual evidence: Formal elements that support the text’s theme
Let’s take another look at our statement of the story’s theme in order to
determine the kind of textual evidence we need to support our claim that we have
correctly identified the theme. To make sure that we don’t miss anything,
we’ll divide our statement of the theme into its component parts.
Components of the theme
1 The adoption of new ideas about cultural heritage
2 should not result in the abandonment of family traditions,
3 for these traditions keep us connected to our family history
4 and contribute to the emotional bond among family members.
Now we can formulate the questions that will serve as guidelines in our search
for textual evidence to support our claim.
Questions to guide our search for textual support
1 In “Everyday Use,” what are the Johnsons’ family traditions?
2 What new ideas about cultural heritage are adopted by Dee and Hakim?
3 How does the text indicate that Mama and Maggie’s loyalty to family
traditions keeps the two women connected to their family history and
contributes to their close emotional bond?
4 How does the text indicate that Dee and, by association, Hakim are
mistaken to have abandoned family traditions?
5 How does the text’s portrayal of its main characters promote its theme
concerning the importance of family traditions? (Remember: literary
texts often show approval of a character by means of a sympathetic por-
trayal, and, conversely, disapproval is often shown by means of an
unsympathetic portrayal.)
If we can find the textual evidence—including such formal elements as char-
acterization, plot events, setting, imagery, ambiguity, and so forth—that answers
each of these questions, then we will be able to support our thesis. That is, we will
be able to show that our statement of the story’s theme is valid. So let’s translate
these questions into the specific textual evidence we need to find in the story.
Using concepts from New Critical theory 47

Finding our textual evidence
1 Find textual evidence that the Johnson family traditions include, for
example, the following:
a the knowledge of family names and relationships going back to before
the Civil War,
b keeping a particular name alive in the family by giving that name to
one child in each generation,
c the knowledge of family history concerning the crafting of household
furniture and other family items still used by Mama and Maggie,
d the ability to quilt,
e love of home, and
f the belief that family traditions should be part of everyday life, put to
“everyday use.”
2 Find textual evidence, including the following, that Dee and Hakim have
adopted new ideas about cultural heritage.
a How do Dee and Hakim express their new ideas about cultural
heritage through their new names, clothing, and hairstyles?
b How does Dee feel about the place Mama and Maggie call home?
c What does Dee plan to do with the family’s handcrafted household
items that she takes with her when she and Hakim leave—and with
the family’s handcrafted quilts that she wants to take?
3 Find textual evidence, including the following, that Mama and Maggie’s
loyalty to family traditions keeps them connected to their family history
and contributes to their close emotional bond.
a Identify the past family members whom Mama and Maggie remember
in association with family traditions.
b Although Maggie will put the handcrafted quilts Mama gives her to
“everyday use”—and they will eventually wear out—how will she be
able to ensure that the quilting tradition will live on in the family?
c Find the passages—especially the story’s opening and closing
paragraphs—that describe Mama and Maggie’s shared love of home.
What is the effect of the language used in these passages, for example,
such phrases as “swept clean as a floor,” “come and sit and look,”
“sat … enjoying,” and “the two of us”?
d Mama and Maggie’s love of home—and of each other—is also
implied in the passage describing Mama’s rescue of Maggie, long ago,
from the fire that consumed their former home. What is the effect of
the language used in this passage, including the following examples?
i What is the effect of the image conveyed when Mama says, “I can
still … feel Maggie’s arms sticking to me”?
48 Using critical theory

ii Find the ambiguities (the possible meanings) present in this image.
Consider, for example, that it can be seen as a metaphor for an
emotional bond, a mother’s emotional strength, a daughter’s
emotional weakness (she needs to be emotionally rescued), and a
daughter’s emotional strength (she’s an emotional survivor). Can
you think of additional meanings?
iii Which of the possible meanings associated with this image contribute
to our interpretation of Mama and Maggie’s relationship?
e Find the passage that describes Mama’s taking the handcrafted quilts—
which embody Johnson family history—from Dee and giving them to
Maggie.
i What is the effect of Mama’s reference to being touched by the
spirit of God?
ii What is the effect of Mama’s words, “hugged Maggie to me”
(rather than simply “hugged Maggie”)?
iii What is the effect of Mama’s words “snatched the quilts” (rather
than, say, “took the quilts”) and “Miss Wangero” (rather than just
“Wangero”)?
4 Find textual evidence, including the following, that Dee and, by
association, Hakim are mistaken to have abandoned family traditions.
a What is Dee missing out on in her relationship with her family?
b Find textual evidence that Dee, whether or not she realizes it, wants
her mother’s approval.
c Do we see any evidence that Mama and Dee lack the kind of bond
Mama and Maggie share?
d Does Dee have knowledge of the Johnson family history or traditional
skills that she can pass on to her children?
e Does Dee’s relationship with Hakim seem to offer her the kind of
bond that is missing between herself and her family?
5 Find evidence that the text’s portrayal of its main characters promotes its
theme concerning the importance of family traditions. Note that these
portrayals are presented through Mrs. Johnson’s eyes, from her point of
view, because she is the story’s first-person narrator. In this way, the text
“takes Mama’s side,” so to speak, and encourages the reader to trust
Mama’s perceptions.
a Find evidence that the text offers sympathetic portrayals of Mama and
Maggie, the representatives of family tradition, including, for example,
the following:
i the hard work Mama has done on the farm to support her
daughters and help send Dee to college;
Using concepts from New Critical theory 49

ii the obstacles Mama has faced throughout her life;
iii Mama’s appreciation of Dee’s new dress and willingness to learn
Dee’s new name;
iv Maggie’s willingness to help her mother, including Maggie’s
willingness to give up the quilts to Dee, and
v the obstacles Maggie has faced throughout her life.
b Find evidence that the text offers unsympathetic portrayals of Dee and
Hakim, who reject family tradition, including, for example, the following:
i Dee’s insensitive use of her camera, which reveals her attitude
toward Mama and Maggie’s home as an object of curiosity;
ii Hakim’s insensitivity to Maggie’s shyness;
iii Dee’s careless dismissal ofMaggie’s ability to remember family history;
iv Dee’s selfish appropriation of household items still being used
by Mama and Maggie, including Dee’s insensitive interaction with
Mama concerning the quilts already promised to Maggie, and
v Mama’s awareness—seen in her dream—that Dee doesn’t appreciate
or even accept her mother for who she is.
Focusing your essay
Given the textual evidence you’ve collected, I think you can feel confident
focusing your essay on the ways in which “Everyday Use” illustrates the
importance of family traditions. Specifically, you should be able to support your
thesis that the text’s theme is as follows: The adoption of new ideas about
cultural heritage should not result in the abandonment of family traditions, for
these traditions keep us connected to our family history and contribute to the
emotional bond among family members.
Although some of the textual evidence you’ve gathered paints rather
unflattering portraits of Dee and Hakim, it doesn’t suggest that their insensitive
behavior can be blamed on the Black Pride movement. For one thing, the
text provides abundant evidence of Dee’s insensitivity prior to the advent of
the movement. The point here is that newfound connections to our cultural
past—no matter how self-affirming and inspiring—should not lead us to
abandon thoughtlessly the traditions embraced by our family, for our family
may have an important cultural heritage of its own.
Of course, you don’t have to limit yourself to the analysis of the story I’ve
offered you. You might want, instead, to see what themes are revealed when the
text is explored through different topics. For example, given that various kinds of
aspirations are represented in the story, you might want to examine “Everyday
Use” in terms of the topic of personal success. Is there a single kind of personal
success illustrated in the story, or does the text illustrate more than one kind?
What seem to be the requirements for and/or consequences of personal success in
the story? From the answers to these questions, can we infer the text’s definition
50 Using critical theory

of what it means to be successful? Or perhaps, given the various kinds of hard-
ship portrayed in the story, you would like to examine the text’s representation
of human responses to the obstacles life can place in our path. Which characters
overcome significant obstacles in their lives? How and to what extent do they
do so? What can thereby be inferred concerning the text’s opinion of the
human capacity to endure hardship and to thrive? This topic might reveal the
ways in which Mama, Maggie, and Dee have a good deal in common.
Perhaps, rather than focusing on a thematic analysis, you would like to use
our New Critical concepts to analyze a particular character in the story. For a
conscientious character analysis can contribute a great deal to our understanding
of the text’s meaning as a whole. Of course, in this case, characterization,
rather than theme, would be the focus of your thesis. Nevertheless, you
would still use the same kinds of textual evidence for a character analysis that
you would use for a thematic analysis: characterization, plot events, setting,
imagery, tension, ambiguity, and so forth. Consider, for instance, the following
sample of the kinds of specific textual evidence you would need for a character
analysis of Mrs. Johnson. Among other things, you would need to examine
the tensions embodied in her relationship with Dee (such as the tensions
between tradition and change, self-doubt and self-confidence, rural life and urban
life, experience and youth, and the like) as well as the tensions embodied within
Mama’s own character (such as the tensions between her positive and negative
self-images, her positive and negative feelings about each of her daughters, and
the like). And you would need to pay special attention to images and ambiguities
associated with Mama, such as those you might find in her dream, her mem-
ories of the time when both her daughters lived with her, her memories of the
house fire that destroyed the family’s former home, and her experience in
giving Maggie the quilts coveted by Dee. What ideas or values does the
character of Mrs. Johnson represent? Does your character analysis bring to light
a topic that you otherwise might not have considered, such as the conflicts
inherent in parental love? In short, what does a thorough understanding of Mrs.
Johnson contribute to our understanding and appreciation of “Everyday Use”?
Whatever your interpretation, be sure you understand the New Critical
concepts you choose to employ, compose a clear statement of your thesis, and
support your interpretation with adequate textual evidence.
Recognizing the presence of death: Interpreting “A Rose for Emily”
Upon first reading William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” (1931; see
Appendix B), readers might feel a little overwhelmed by some of the story’s
unusual qualities, such as the span of decades covered by a plot lacking in
chronological order, the number of unanswered questions raised by the story
about which we are left to speculate, and the variety of topics—parental
cruelty, social isolation, the destructive power of gossip, conformity and
rebellion, among others—that emerge as we read.
Using concepts from New Critical theory 51

We might not notice, therefore, that “A Rose for Emily” opens and closes
with references to the death of main character Emily Grierson or that references
to and images of death occur throughout the text. Indeed, the presence of
death might be the one consistent thread woven through the story. Well, isn’t
that to be expected in a narrative about a woman who poisons her suitor and
sleeps with his dead body, which she keeps hidden in her bed until her own
death forty years later? Yes, Emily’s murder of Homer Barron, whose body
the town of Jefferson—and the reader—discover only at the end of the story,
can lead us to see “A Rose for Emily” as a sort of eerie murder mystery in
which an emotionally unstable woman kills the rascal who apparently planned to
abandon her. Striking as this aspect of the plot may be, however, the pervasive
presence of death throughout the text suggests that this topic exceeds the story of
Emily’s murder of Homer. For as Faulkner’s story illustrates, death isn’t just an
event that marks the end of a life. It can be a pervasive destructive presence
during the course of a life, as well. Any force that cuts us off from other
people, from productive self-expression, from honest self-reflection, from
meaningful occupation, from the enjoyment of living, or from any other life-
affirming experience can be considered a spirit-killing force, a force of death.
With the topic of death in mind, our task is to discover the story’s theme,
or meaning as a whole, and to support our discovery with formal elements
from the text itself. In order to fulfill this task, we must identify: (1) the central,
or most important, tension operating in the story, which will guide us to
the story’s theme and help us lay the groundwork for our interpretation; (2) the
story’s theme; and (3) the formal elements in the story that support the theme
we have identified, thereby showing that our interpretation of the story is valid.
The text’s central tension
In order to find the text’s central tension and lay our interpretive groundwork,
it can help to brainstorm a list of the oppositions related to our topic and
embodied in plot events; in characters’ behavior, attitudes, or physical appear-
ance; and in the text’s imagery. So let’s start by finding evidence in the story
of the following oppositions, each of which identifies an example of the presence
of death in the story and contrasts that example with its opposite.
1 The opening description of Emily’s house and neighborhood as they are
at the time of her death vs. the opening description of Emily’s house and
neighborhood as they were in the 1870s, when the house was built.
2 The description of Emily as she is seen by the aldermen who call on her
concerning her taxes vs. the description of Emily as a young woman,
pictured behind the figure of her angry father in the open doorway.
3 The various images of Emily sitting alone behind her window vs. the
descriptions of Emily being courted by Homer Barron on Sunday afternoons.
4 Emily’s purchase of arsenic, or “rat poison,” for Homer Barron vs. her
earlier purchase of handsome personal items, also for Homer.
52 Using critical theory

5 The description of Homer Barron’s dead body vs. the description of
Homer when he first comes to Jefferson.
6 Signs that Emily is living in the past vs. signs of the modernization that
comes to the town of Jefferson over the years.
7 The closing description of Emily’s bedroom in terms of its function as a
tomb vs. the closing description of Emily’s bedroom in terms of its
function as a bridal chamber (which we can only imagine because the
bridal ornaments are decayed and covered with dust).
As you can see, these examples cluster around the opposition between the
forces of life and the forces of death. Emily was once a young belle dressed in
virginal white, but that life force is thwarted by her father’s determination to
drive off suitors. Emily once had hopes of love and marriage, but that life
force is thwarted by the outcome of her relationship with Homer Barron. And
while the town of Jefferson moves toward modernization over the years,
Emily becomes a hermit living in the past.
The text’s theme
As we have just seen, the central tension in “A Rose for Emily” is the tension,
or opposition, between life and death. We will discover the text’s theme by
asking, Which side of this tension has a stronger presence in the story? Or does
the text suggest that they are equally strong forces in Emily’s life? Although we
often take it for granted that life is ultimately stronger than death, the oppositions
listed above show that Emily’s attempts to have some connection to others,
some connection to the life around her, are, in terms of her life as a whole, short-
lived. They are not enough to overcome the shadow of death that remains
the dominant presence in her life. In addition, these oppositions suggest that
the presence of death (in the form of isolation and stagnation as well as in the
form of literal death) is embodied in Emily’s desire to live in the past.
In the next section, we will do a close reading of the story in search of
additional formal elements supporting our thesis (our debatable opinion, which is
the main point of our interpretation) that the text promotes an understanding of
the ways in which death can be stronger than life. If we don’t find such textual
evidence or don’t find enough of it or find conflicting textual evidence that
doesn’t fit our interpretation, we will have to amend our thesis to fit the tex-
tual evidence we find. However, at this point, we might reasonably argue that
the text’s theme can be stated as follows: Death, as a presence that shadows and
depletes the life force, can be stronger than life and is embodied in the desire to live in the past.
Textual evidence: Formal elements that support the text’s theme
Let’s look again at our statement of the text’s theme so that we can determine
the kind of textual evidence we need to support our claim that we have correctly
Using concepts from New Critical theory 53

identified the theme. To make sure we don’t miss anything, let’s divide our
statement of the theme into its component parts.
Components of the theme
1 Death, as a presence that shadows and depletes the life force,
2 can be stronger than life
3 and is embodied by the desire to live in the past.
Now we can formulate the questions that will serve as guidelines in our search
for textual evidence to support our claim.
Questions to guide our search for textual support
1 How is death a literal presence in the text? (Which characters die over
the course of the story?)
2 In what ways is Emily cut off (or in what ways does she cut herself off)
from other people and, apparently, from the enjoyment of living?
3 In what ways does Emily desire to live in the past?
4 How is death a stronger metaphorical presence in the text than life?
(What images show that death—in the form of isolation, stagnation,
decay, and the like—is the dominant presence in Emily’s life?)
If we can find the textual evidence—including such formal elements as char-
acterization, plot events, setting, imagery, ambiguity, and so forth—that answers
each of these questions, then we will be able to support our thesis. That is, we will
be able to show that our statement of the story’s theme is valid. So let’s translate
these questions into the specific textual evidence we need to find in the story.
Finding our textual evidence
1 Find textual evidence that death is a literal presence in the text. Specifically, list
the five characters, all known to Emily, who die over the course of the story.
2 Find textual evidence, including the following, that Emily is cut off from
(or cuts herself off from) other people and from the enjoyment of living.
a How is the young Emily prevented from seeing suitors?
b What becomes of Emily’s relationship with Homer Barron?
c What becomes of Emily’s china-painting lessons?
d How do we know that Emily doesn’t converse with any of the
townsfolk and, apparently, not even with Tobe?
e How does the text indicate that Emily doesn’t leave the house during
the final decades of her life?
3 Find textual evidence, including the following, that Emily wants to live
in the past.
54 Using critical theory

a How does Emily react when her father dies?
b What does Emily do with Homer’s dead body?
c How does Emily react to the death of Colonel Sartoris?
d How does Emily react as the town of Jefferson moves into the future,
for example, when home mail-delivery comes to Jefferson and when
the new sheriff and alderman try to collect her taxes?
e Ask yourself: How does living as a hermit, which is addressed above
in item #2e, help Emily live in the past?
4 Find evidence that death is a stronger metaphorical presence in the text
than life.
a Find all the images of life and youth that you can—for example
i the opening description of the Grierson home and neighborhood
as they were in the 1870s, when the house was built;
ii the image of Emily as a young woman, pictured behind the
figure of her angry father in the open doorway;
iii the description of Homer Barron when he first comes to Jefferson;
iv the descriptions of Homer courting Emily, and
v the description of the handsome personal items Emily purchases
for Homer.
b Find the passages demonstrating that images of death—in the form of
isolation, stagnation, decay, and the like—are more numerous and
vivid than the story’s images of life and youth, thereby supporting the
claim that death is the dominant presence in Emily’s life. Paying
attention to the language used in each passage, find, for example
i the opening description of the Grierson home and neighborhood
as they are at the time of Emily’s death (note the ways in which
Emily’s decaying home can be seen as a metaphor for Emily
herself );
ii the description of Emily’s living room as it is seen by the aldermen
who call on her concerning her taxes;
iii the description of Emily as she is seen by the aldermen who call on
her concerning her taxes (note the simile comparing her to a corpse);
iv the description of Homer Barron’s dead body;
v the descriptions of the bottle of arsenic and of a man “sowing”
lime (used to neutralize the smell of death) around Emily’s home;
vi the various images of Emily sitting alone behind her window, and
vii the description of Emily’s bedroom as it is found at the story’s
close, in which bridal images, associated with life, are decayed
and covered with dust.
c The rose in “A Rose for Emily” is an ambiguous symbol. How might
it symbolize life, death, or both?
Using concepts from New Critical theory 55

Focusing your essay
You should be able to use the textual evidence you’ve gathered to focus your
essay on the ways in which “A Rose for Emily” illustrates the power of death
to overcome the forces of life. Specifically, you should be able to support your
thesis that the text’s theme is as follows: Death, as a presence that shadows and
depletes the life force, can be stronger than life and is embodied in the desire
to live in the past. Perhaps the most memorable symbol of the intimate con-
nection between the presence of death and the desire to live in the past occurs
in the description of Homer’s remains found in Emily’s bed. For it is evident
that his body “had apparently once lain in the attitude of an embrace,” and the
strand of long gray hair found on the indented pillow next to it reveals that
Emily has, literally, lain in that embrace over the course of the many years
since Homer’s murder, thereby living in a world in which Homer is still alive
and still loves her.
Indeed, Emily’s desire to live in the past lays her in death’s embrace fig-
uratively, as well: in her initial refusal to accept the loss of her father and
release his dead body, which foreshadows her refusal to accept the loss of
Homer; in her belief that the long-dead Colonel Sartoris is still alive; and in
her isolation from her fellow inhabitants of Jefferson and thus from the town’s
movement into the twentieth century. Even the china-painting lessons she
gives to the young girls of Jefferson before she isolates herself completely
suggest a desire to live in the past, for china-painting, as a sign of the accom-
plished young lady, is a rather old-fashioned feminine avocation even in
Emily’s time. In this context, the fact that Emily is the last of the Grierson line
is particularly significant. The Griersons are the only family in town whose
lineage goes back to wealthy, pre-Civil War plantation owners. So the death
of Emily marks the death of the Grierson line and, symbolically, the death of
the Old South.
Of course, you don’t have to limit yourself to the analysis of the story I’ve
offered you. You might want, instead, to see what themes are revealed when
the text is explored through different topics. For example, given the emo-
tionally conflicted relationships represented in the story, you might want to
examine “A Rose for Emily” in terms of the topic of love and hate. How can
we understand Emily’s feelings for her father and for Homer Barron in terms
of both love and hate? Might we not also examine the ambivalent feelings of
the townsfolk for Emily through this lens? What does “A Rose for Emily”
suggest about the conflicted relationship between these two emotions?
Rather than exploring the story thematically, you might prefer to use our
New Critical concepts to analyze the first-person-plural narrator, the disembodied
voice that tells the story and refers to itself as “we.” For the conscientious
examination of a narrator can contribute a great deal to our understanding of
the text’s meaning as a whole. Of course, in that case, the narrator, rather than
the story’s theme, would be the focus of your thesis. Nevertheless, in analyzing
56 Using critical theory

the narrator you would still use the same kinds of textual evidence that you
would use for a thematic analysis: characterization, plot events, setting, imagery,
tension, ambiguity, and so forth. Among the specific textual evidence required
for an analysis of Faulkner’s narrator, who is often thought to embody the town
of Jefferson, you would need to examine the tensions evident in the narrator’s
ambivalence toward Emily. In what ways does the narrator seem to respond to
her positively or feel sorry for her? In contrast, when does the narrator’s attitude
suggest disapproval or some other negative view of Emily’s conduct? Or is
the narrator non-judgmental, reporting the townsfolk’s occasional envy or
outrage without sharing it? And if the story’s title is a clue to the narrator’s
feelings about Emily, what might be the symbolic meaning of the ambiguous
rose? In short, what does an analysis of the narrator contribute to our appreciation
and understanding of “A Rose for Emily”?
Whatever your interpretation, be sure you understand the New Critical
concepts you choose to employ, compose a clear statement of your thesis, and
support your interpretation with adequate textual evidence.
Understanding the power of alienation: Interpreting
“The Battle Royal”
Set in 1950 in a small city in the American South, Ralph Ellison’s “The Battle
Royal” (1952; see Appendix C) offers a gripping representation of racist bru-
talization that occurs within the walls of a single room over the course of a
single evening. For the “entertainment” of a group of drunken white civic
leaders, ten African American young men, who have few opportunities to
make money, are paid five dollars each to compete against one another in a
horrifying group “boxing” match, a battle royal, and submit to other acts of
physical and psychological abuse.
The story is told by an unnamed first-person narrator—the valedictorian of
his high-school graduating class who participates in the battle royal before
giving his graduation speech to the assembled white leaders—so we see the
evening’s events from his point of view. Indeed, the story consists of the nar-
rator’s personal responses to his experiences at this gathering of civic leaders,
and his narrative of that evening is framed, or preceded and followed, by his
reflections on himself and his family.
“The Battle Royal” is also told from a “single window” in another way: the
narrator isn’t just alone in his own thoughts; he’s also alone in his complete
lack of emotional bonds with other human beings. It is striking that his
thoughts about others—including his family and the other young men who
participate in the battle royal—reveal an absence of personal connectedness
that leaves him profoundly isolated in his efforts to survive the racism rampant
in the American South of the 1950s. However their efforts to survive and
thrive don’t include the sacrifice of emotional ties. Indeed, the narrator’s
emotional isolation from others reflects his emotional disconnectedness from
Using concepts from New Critical theory 57

himself and suggests that alienation—which might be defined as the loss of
shared values and the absence of loyalty to and affection for one’s fellow
human beings—is an important topic in this story.
With the topic of alienation in mind, our task is to discover the story’s
theme, or meaning as a whole, and to support our discovery with formal
elements from the text itself. In order to fulfill this task, we must identify:
(1) the central, or most important tension operating in the story, which will
guide us to the story’s theme and help us lay the groundwork for our inter-
pretation; (2) the story’s theme; and (3) the formal elements in the story that
support the theme we have identified, thereby showing that our interpretation
of the story is valid.
The text’s central tension
In order to find the text’s central tension and lay our interpretive groundwork,
it can help to brainstorm a list of the oppositions related to our topic and
embodied in plot events; in characters’ behavior, attitudes, or physical
appearance; and in the text’s imagery. So let’s start by finding evidence in the
story of the following oppositions, each of which identifies an example of
alienation in the story and contrasts that example with its opposite.
1 The narrator’s alienation from the other young men participating in the
battle royal vs. the young men’s bond with one another.
2 The narrator’s position at the head of his graduating class due to his
grades vs. Tatlock’s position at the head of his group of friends due to
their loyalty to him.
3 The narrator’s focus on pleasing the white civic leaders vs. the other
young men’s focus on their collective purpose.
4 The narrator’s alienation from his family vs. his family’s bond with one
another.
5 The narrator’s belief that only the white civic leaders can understand and
help him vs. the white civic leaders’ belief that the narrator is merely a
pawn in their plan to maintain racial dominance.
6 The narrator’s alienation from himself vs. his grandfather’s self-understanding.
As you can see, these examples cluster around the opposition between ali-
enation and belonging. All of the African American characters suffer racist
oppression. However, Tatlock and his friends have one another for support,
and the narrator’s family members have ties to both family and community.
Only the narrator suffers the disadvantage of living in emotional isolation,
unable to relate to anyone. And we see the chilling effects of that isolation
in his tormented inner world, in which he seems unable to relate even to
himself.
58 Using critical theory

The text’s theme
As we have just seen, the central tension in “The Battle Royal” is the tension,
or opposition, between alienation and belonging. We will discover the text’s
theme by asking, Which side of this tension seems to have the stronger pre-
sence in the text? That is, which side of the tension does the text attempt to
explore and illuminate? Or does the text seem interested in some combination
of both? I think most readers will agree that the text’s representations of ali-
enation are the more sustained and vivid: The sense of belonging experienced
by Tatlock and his friends as well as by the narrator’s family is subtly portrayed
and forms a background against which we can better appreciate the extreme
nature of the narrator’s alienation.
In the next section, we will do a close reading of the story in search of
additional formal elements supporting our thesis (our debatable opinion, which is
the main point of our interpretation) that the text promotes an understanding of
the ways in which emotional isolation from our fellow human beings, although it
might seem the only way to survive in some situations, can rob us of the very
support we need for emotional survival. If we don’t find such textual evidence
or don’t find enough of it or find conflicting textual evidence that doesn’t fit
our interpretation, we will have to amend our thesis to fit the textual evidence
we find. However, at this point, we might reasonably argue that the text’s
theme can be stated as follows: A sense of belonging can help us in the worst of times,
and without it we risk becoming alienated not only from others but from ourselves, as well.
Textual evidence: Formal elements that support the text’s theme
Let’s take another look at our statement of the text’s theme so that we can
determine the kind of textual evidence we need to support our claim that we
have correctly identified the theme. To make sure we don’t miss anything,
let’s divide our statement of the theme into its component parts.
Components of the theme
1 A sense of belonging can help us in the worst of times,
2 and without it we risk becoming alienated not only from others
3 but from ourselves, as well.
Now we can formulate the questions that will serve as guidelines in our search
for textual evidence to support our claim.
Questions to guide our search for textual support
1 How does a sense of belonging help Tatlock and his friends on the evening
of the battle royal?
2 What bonds are shared by the narrator’s family?
3 In what ways is the narrator alienated from others?
Using concepts from New Critical theory 59

4 In what ways is the narrator alienated from himself?
5 How does the narrator’s alienation harm him?
If we can find the textual evidence—including such formal elements as char-
acterization, plot events, setting, imagery, ambiguity, and so forth—that answers
each of these questions, then we will be able to support our thesis. That is, we will
be able to show that our statement of the story’s theme is valid. So let’s translate
these questions into the specific textual evidence we need to find in the story.
Finding our textual evidence
1 How does a sense of belonging, including the following examples, help
Tatlock and his friends on the evening of the battle royal?
a Where do we see the bond among Tatlock and his friends?
b How do they work together, by plan, during the battle royal, and
how does that collective purpose help them?
c What image in the story do you think best represents their bond?
2 What bonds, including the following examples, are shared by the narrator’s
family?
a What are the family’s shared values?
b What are the family’s shared strategies for surviving racism?
c The family were deeply frightened by the grandfather’s dying
declaration—fearful of what might happen to them should the white
community learn that the old man had considered white people the
enemy and that his meekness had been just a strategy to ensure his safety.
i How do the family stick together in their response to the old
man’s last words?
ii What image in the story do you think best represents the family’s
shared response to the old man’s revelation?
3 In what ways, including the following examples, is the narrator alienated
from others?
a How is the narrator alienated from his family? That is, find textual
evidence that he shares neither their values, nor their strategies for
surviving racism, nor their response to his grandfather’s dying words.
b How is the narrator alienated from Tatlock and his friends, despite the
fact that they are fellow objects of the white men’s brutalization and
humiliation?
c How does the narrator feel about using the service elevator with them?
d What is his chief concern about participating in the battle royal?
e How does his exchange of words with Tatlock reveal the narrator’s
complete ignorance of his opponent’s viewpoint and, presumably, the
viewpoint of his opponent’s friends?
60 Using critical theory

f What image in the story do you think best represents the narrator’s
alienation from others?
4 In what ways is the narrator alienated from himself?
a Where do we see his self-alienation in terms of his relationship to
the white community?
i What does he think are the intentions of the civic leaders toward
him, and how is he wrong about them?
ii Find the ways in which his desire to please these men, and white
people in general, controls his thoughts, paralyzes him in indeci-
sion, and causes him to act against his own best interests.
iii How do the images of thick cigar smoke and blindfolds symbo-
lize the narrator’s inability to see the truth, despite the fact that,
ironically, his own blindfold gets pushed aside?
b How does the narrator’s description of the white dancer, also a fellow
object of “entertainment” for the white men, reflect his own feelings
of self-alienation?
i Note the dehumanizing elements in the narrator’s description of
the dancer, which resonate with the white leaders’ dehumanization
of the narrator.
ii Note all the ways in which his personal response to the dancer
consists of opposing impulses, which resonate with the opposing
impulses in his inner world.
c Where do we see the narrator’s self-alienation in terms of his dream
about his grandfather?
i What is this dream trying to tell him about the real motive
behind the scholarship given him by the white leaders?
ii What image from the dream do you think best reveals the
dream’s meaning?
iii What does the narrator’s inability to see the obvious meaning of
his dream—which he must understand on some level because the
dream emerges from his own sleeping mind—indicate about the
degree of his self-alienation?
d How does the fact that the narrator is unnamed contribute to our
sense that he is alienated from himself?
5 Drawing on the textual data you’ve gathered so far, list those items that
show how the narrator’s alienation harms him—for example
a how his alienation renders him less capable of understanding others,
b how it confuses him and either leads him to make unwise decisions or
renders him incapable of making any decision at all, and
Using concepts from New Critical theory 61

c how it makes him a stranger to himself, without self-knowledge or
self-confidence.
Focusing your essay
At this point, the textual evidence you’ve collected should allow you to focus
your essay on the ways in which “The Battle Royal” illustrates the destructive
power of alienation. Specifically, you should be able to support your thesis
that the text’s theme is as follows: A sense of belonging can help us in the
worst of times, and without it we risk becoming alienated not only from
others but from ourselves, as well. Although the story’s opening lines reveal
that the narrator will, at some point in the future, look back at the events he
describes and understand them, his narrative focuses on a period in his life
when he has no insight into the real meaning of his experiences and no
awareness of his own alienation.
It’s not surprising, in representations of oppression, to find the oppressed
characters alienated from their oppressors. Indeed, Tatlock and his friends
seem alienated, and rightly so, from the white civic leaders bent on intimidating
and humiliating them. They know that these men are not well-intentioned
toward them and that the only good to be gained from this evening of abuse
is the money they will earn by enduring it. And the narrator’s family, if not
completely alienated from their oppressors, are very much afraid of them
because they know all too well the dangers they face in a society that classes
them as much less important, and probably less human, than its white citizens.
Indeed, Tatlock and the narrator’s family offer a kind of fight-or-flight alter-
native for dealing with racism: Tatlock and his friends will behave as brutally
as their survival requires, and the narrator’s family will keep a low profile while
they try to rise within the limitations set for them by white society. In both cases,
however, the members of each group share emotional ties with one another.
They are not alone in their efforts to overcome their oppression. The narrator, in
contrast, lives in emotional isolation, outside the bonds of family and friends. And
the narrator, despite his success and the recognition he’s gained from both black
and white communities, is alone and lost, adrift in the only desire he seems to
have left: the desire to please the white people who see him as their inferior.
As you think about your essay, remember that it’s not a question of which
African American characters are right or wrong in their strategies for dealing
with a racist society. Nor is it a question of condemning the narrator for
emotionally rejecting his family and community. Rather, it’s a question of
understanding the narrator’s alienation as a self-destructive response to the
whirlwind of oppressive social forces into which he was born.
Of course, you don’t have to limit yourself to the analysis of the story I’ve
offered you. You might want, instead, to see what themes are revealed when
“The Battle Royal” is explored through different topics. Given, for example,
the story’s vivid images of dim light, obscured vision, and bright light that fails
62 Using critical theory

to “illuminate,” you might want to analyze the text in terms of the topic of
blindness and insight. How are most or all of the characters, black and white,
unable to “see,” or understand, something important about themselves or
others? Do any of the characters seem to have insight into the situation in
which they find themselves? Or is this primarily a story about human beings’
inability to adequately understand the complex social forces of which they,
themselves, are a part?
Perhaps, instead, if your attention was seized by the unrelenting inhumanity
depicted in the story, you might want to examine the text’s representation of
the corrupting influence of power. What does the civic leaders’ behavior—
their drunkenness, abusiveness, vulgarity, and the like—reveal concerning the
effects of unrestrained power on those who possess it? And what is the impact
of unrestrained power on those who are victimized by it? Specifically, how
does their relative powerlessness result in a need for whatever power or
superiority, real or imagined, they can get, as we see in the case of the narrator,
the exotic dancer, and Tatlock? How does the text link the exercise of power
with images of degradation? In short, how does “The Battle Royal” suggest
that unrestrained power is, fundamentally, a power to degrade others that
results in self-degradation, as well?
Whatever your interpretation, be sure you understand the New Critical
concepts you choose to employ, compose a clear statement of your thesis, and
support your interpretation with adequate textual evidence.
Respecting the importance of nonconformity: Interpreting
“Don’t Explain”
Jewelle Gomez’s “Don’t Explain” (1987; see Appendix E) is set in a place and
time associated with strict conformity to social norms: Boston in 1959. For at
that time Boston had long been known for its adherence to narrow standards
of propriety. Indeed, the phrase “banned in Boston” had come to refer to
novels, movies, paintings, or any other artistic productions that were slightly
risqué: not indecent enough to be prohibited elsewhere but too indecent to
be permitted in Boston. And, in 1959, the whole country was mired in Cold
War fears of communism and distrust of anything foreign or different. Women
were expected to conform to society’s definition of femininity—in their physical
appearance, in their chaste dependence on men, and in their single-minded
purpose to become wives and mothers—because that was considered the only
right and natural way for women to be. It is within this tableau that Gomez
places her characters.
Delia, her cousin Terry, and their friends, however, don’t conform to some
of society’s most imperative expectations of women at that time. They dress to
please themselves, they support themselves financially, they have no romantic
interest in men, and they won’t become wives and mothers. They are lesbians
who accept their sexual orientation, and because women were not allowed to
Using concepts from New Critical theory 63

marry other women in 1959, they have sexual relations outside of marriage. In
order to enjoy the freedom to be themselves and to live the private lives they
choose, these women must be willing to run some serious risks. For a woman’s
lack of romantic interest in men and unwillingness to marry, if known, would
surely raise suspicion. In fact, should the sexual orientation of Delia, Terry,
and their friends be discovered, they would be vulnerable to verbal harassment,
job termination, and sexual assault, which they could not report to the police
without fear of further abuse by the authorities. These are the risks that Letty,
the story’s main character, does not want to take.
Letty struggles to conform to society’s rules against same-sex love. But
while her efforts to conform have kept her physically and emotionally protected,
they have left her alone and unhappy. Since she came to work at the 411
Lounge seven years ago, Letty’s decision to conform has required her to forget
Maxine, her former lover; to avoid having such feelings for any woman ever
again; and to keep her acquaintances from getting close enough to discover
that she is “different.” Letty can’t even listen to the music of her favorite singer,
the recently deceased Billie Holiday, because Billie’s music reminds Letty of
Maxine and of her own sexual orientation. Clearly, the difficult choice between
conformity and nonconformity, each with its risks and rewards, is an important
topic in this interesting story.
With this topic in mind, our task is to discover the story’s theme, or meaning
as a whole, and to support our discovery with formal elements from the text
itself. In order to fulfill this task, we must identify: (1) the central, or most
important tension operating in the story, which will guide us to the story’s
theme and help us lay the groundwork for our interpretation; (2) the story’s
theme; and (3) the formal elements in the story that support the theme we
have identified, thereby showing that our interpretation of the story is valid.
The text’s central tension
As our topic suggests, the central tension operating in “Don’t Explain” seems to
be the tension between conformity and nonconformity. To confirm that we’ve
correctly identified the central tension and lay our interpretive groundwork, it
can help to brainstorm a list of the oppositions related to our topic and embo-
died in plot events; in characters’ behavior, attitudes, or physical appearance;
and in the text’s imagery. So let’s start by finding evidence in the story of the
following oppositions.
1 The conformity required of Letty and Delia at the 411 Lounge vs. the
individuality enjoyed among the women gathered at the home of Delia
and Terry.
2 Letty’s refusal to socialize with her acquaintances at the 411 for fear that
they will discover her difference from them vs. Letty’s acceptance of
Delia’s invitation to the gathering of friends at her home.
64 Using critical theory

3 Letty’s initial response to the realization that her new acquaintances are
lesbians vs. her “spitting” out, or refusing that negative reaction.
4 Letty’s unwillingness, since Billie Holiday’s death, to listen to the singer’s
music because it brings back frightening memories of her socially for-
bidden love for Maxine vs. Letty’s willingness to listen to “Don’t Explain”
with Maryalice.
5 The threat to her safety Letty feels in the presence of Tip, afraid lest he
discover her lack of romantic interest in men, vs. the comfort and safety
she begins to feel among her new acquaintances.
6 Letty’s habit of keeping “close to the chest,” of not letting others know
anything about her, vs. her acceptance of the women gathered at Delia
and Terry’s apartment, which means letting them know, and letting
herself accept, that she’s a lesbian.
As expected, all of these examples cluster around the tension between
Letty’s conformity and her movement toward the nonconformity embodied
in Delia, Terry, and their friends. In addition, these examples suggest the
tension between self-negation—the rejection of one’s true feelings, of one’s
true self—and self-acceptance. For conformity to society’s dictates can require
self-negation, as we see in Letty’s self-negating efforts, throughout most of
the story, to reject her sexual orientation—to banish all thought of it—because
her sexual orientation doesn’t conform to society’s expectations.
The text’s theme
As we have just seen, the central tension in “Don’t Explain” is the tension,
or opposition, between conformity and nonconformity. We will discover
the text’s theme by asking, Which side of this tension does the text promote, or
portray more favorably? Or does the text favor some combination of both? I
think most readers will agree that the text promotes nonconformity—the
embracing of one’s individuality—because it portrays Letty’s unhappiness as
the result of her conformity to the social norms of the day, a conformity that
requires her self-negation. In contrast, Letty’s nonconformity, and the self-
acceptance that accompanies it, bring her the relief and comfort she needs.
In the next section, we will do a close reading of the story in search
of additional formal elements supporting our thesis (our debatable opinion,
which is the main point of our interpretation) that the text depicts the
danger of conforming to social expectations that require self-negation and
reveals the ways in which nonconformity can be the key to self-acceptance.
If we don’t find such textual evidence or don’t find enough of it or find con-
flicting textual evidence that doesn’t fit our interpretation, we will have to
amend our thesis to fit the textual evidence we find. However, at this point,
we might reasonably argue that the text’s theme can be stated as follows:
When conformity requires self-negation, then self-acceptance requires nonconformity.
Using concepts from New Critical theory 65

Textual evidence: Formal elements that support the text’s theme
Let’s take another look at our statement of the text’s theme so that we can
determine the kind of textual evidence we need to support our claim that we
have correctly identified the theme. To make sure we don’t miss anything,
let’s divide our statement of the theme into its component parts.
Components of the theme
1 When conformity requires self-negation,
2 then self-acceptance requires nonconformity.
Now we can formulate the questions that will serve as guidelines in our search
for textual evidence to support our claim.
Questions to guide our search for textual support
1 In what ways does Letty try to conform to the expectations of society?
2 In what ways does her conformity require her self-negation?
3 In what ways are Delia, Terry, and their friends nonconformists?
4 How does their nonconformity improve the quality of their lives?
5 In what ways does Letty risk herself beyond the boundaries of conformity?
6 How does Letty’s nonconformity encourage her self-acceptance?
7 How does Billie Holiday symbolize the power of nonconformity in this story?
If we can find the textual evidence—including such formal elements as char-
acterization, plot events, setting, imagery, ambiguity, and so forth—that answers
each of these questions, then we will be able to support our thesis. That is, we will
be able to show that our statement of the story’s theme is valid. So let’s translate
these questions into the specific textual evidence we need to find in the story.
Finding our textual evidence
1 In what ways does Letty try to conform to society’s expectations, and
how does her conformity require self-negation?
a Find the textual evidence that reveals the price Letty must pay for her
conformity.
i What strategies does Letty use to avoid socializing with her
acquaintances at the 411 Lounge so that she doesn’t risk their
becoming suspicious about her “difference”?
ii Find the textual evidence that, in order to conform, Letty rejects
her own thoughts and feelings.
b What image in the story do you think best represents the self-negation
that Letty’s conformity requires?
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2 Delia, Terry, and their friends are clearly nonconformists in terms of their
lesbian sexual orientation: they embrace their feelings instead of succumbing
to the intense social pressure to suppress them. In what additional ways are
these women all individuals, and how does their individuality benefit them?
a In the 1950s, most women conformed to the dictates of feminine
fashion: dresses or skirts and blouses; high heels; makeup; and medium-
length hair, softly waved or worn up. They also tended to conform
even more closely to the clothing and hairstyles of the women with
whom they regularly socialized. In what ways are Delia, Terry, and
their friends individuals in terms of their clothing and hairstyles?
b In the 1950s, it was common for people of color to socialize not only
with people of their own race, but with people of their own—lighter
or darker—skin color. How do we know that Delia, Terry, and their
friends don’t conform to this practice?
c In literary representations, party guests that the reader does not get to
know are rarely given names. Note how the name given to each of Delia
and Terry’s friends increases our sense of their individuality. (They are not
presented to the reader as a group, “lumped” together, but as individuals.)
3 In what ways does the nonconformity of Delia, Terry, and their friends
seem to improve the quality of their lives?
a One way to find this textual evidence is to note the ways in which
their lives are different from Letty’s life.
b Be sure to include Delia and Terry’s openheartedness, which we see,
for example, in their invitation to Letty despite the danger to them-
selves: what if they are mistaken about Letty’s being a lesbian? Find
the passage that reveals Delia’s anxiety about Letty’s visit so that we
can appreciate the cousins’ willingness to share their good fortune.
c What image in the story do you think best represents the individuality
of Delia, Terry, and their friends?
4 In what ways does Letty risk herself beyond the boundaries of conformity,
and how does her nonconformity encourage her self-acceptance?
a What actions, on Letty’s part, allow a subtle bond of trust to grow
between herself and Delia, thereby opening herself to the risk of being
known?
b At Delia and Terry’s apartment, in what specific ways does Letty
begin to reject society’s strictures against same-sex love and begin to
accept her own feelings?
c What image in the story do you think best represents the link
between Letty’s nonconformity and her self-acceptance?
5 How does Billie Holiday symbolize the power of nonconformity in this
story?
Using concepts from New Critical theory 67

a In Letty’s thoughts about Billie Holiday, how does the singer stand
alone, literally and figuratively, and how does she triumph in the face
of society’s readiness to see her fail?
b In Letty’s memories of the singer’s visit to the 411 Lounge, in what
ways is Billie’s individuality positively portrayed?
i Although she’s a big star, where does the singer sit?
ii How does she reject the social requirement that women must have
small appetites, especially when dining in public?
iii How does she treat the people “beneath her” who work at the 411?
c Whose song is playing when Letty, finally embracing her true self, sits
down with Maryalice?
Focusing your essay
At this point, the textual evidence you’ve collected should allow you to focus
your essay on the ways in which “Don’t Explain” illustrates the role nonconformity
can play in the attainment of self-acceptance. Specifically, you should be able to
support your thesis that the text’s theme is as follows: When conformity requires
self-negation, then self-acceptance requires nonconformity. For if Letty
weren’t finally able to reject, as her new friends have rejected, the conformity
required by the society in which she lives, she might never have learned to accept
herself, and self-acceptance is her first step to a more meaningful life, a life that
includes real friendship and, possibly, love. Perhaps the most powerful reward
Letty receives for venturing beyond the boundaries of conformity is the freeing of
her inner world, of her thoughts and feelings. She no longer needs continually to
monitor herself in an effort to erase memories that should be precious, not
poisonous, and hopes that should gladden her heart, not strike it with fear.
Of course, you don’t have to limit yourself to the analysis of the story I’ve
offered you. You might want, instead, to see what themes are revealed when
“Don’t Explain” is explored through different topics. Perhaps, for example,
you are interested in the unequal power relations depicted in “Don’t
Explain.” In that case, you might want to examine the various kinds of power
dynamics operating among the characters in the story: those between employer
and employees at the 411 Lounge, which is based both on the financial difference
between owner and workers and on racial difference; those between men and
women; and those between heterosexuals and lesbians. In short, how does
“Don’t Explain” explore the inequities of unequal power relations as well as
the strategies people employ to deal with them? Or maybe, instead, you are
struck by the images of isolation and loneliness that dot the commonplace,
workaday landscape of this story: for example, the image of Letty alone in her
booth at the 411 and, again, alone at night in her apartment; of Ari alone at
the end of the bar, sitting in his own special seat; of Tip, in his sharkskin suit,
eating dinner alone; of Maryalice alone at a gathering of friends; and of Billie
68 Using critical theory

Holiday, as Letty thinks of her, alone onstage before an unfriendly audience.
What do these images suggest about the loneliness of everyday living? Does
the story offer a remedy? Or does the strength of these images, taken together,
suggest that loneliness must play a role in every life? Whatever your interpretation,
be sure you understand the New Critical concepts you choose to employ,
compose a clear statement of your thesis, and support your interpretation with
adequate textural evidence.
Responding to the challenge of the unknown: Interpreting
“I started Early—Took my Dog”
The first thing most readers are able to say, with some degree of certainty, about
Emily Dickinson’s “I started Early—Took my Dog” (c. 1862; see Appendix A)
is that the poem depicts a young woman, the poem’s speaker, who walks down
to the sea and then, with the sea in close pursuit, runs back to the safety of
the “Solid Town.” From what is she really running and why? That is,
what frightening force does the sea symbolize in this poem, and how does the
speaker feel about it? This question is usually a source of disagreement among
readers because the meaning of the text as a whole—a text that clearly
represents a fantasy, a product of the speaker’s vivid imagination—rests largely
on the symbolic meaning of the sea. Yet the poem’s portrayal of the sea is
ambiguous: it has more than one possible meaning. Readers might reasonably
regard Dickinson’s sea as a symbol of, for example, life, death, emotion, or
sexual desire, for the sea in this poem has fundamental qualities in common with
each of these elements.
If we limit ourselves to just one of these interpretive options, however, we
will probably neglect some important dimension of the poem’s meaning as a
whole. So let’s see what happens if we seek a broader symbolic meaning for
the sea, and for the poem as a whole, that will account for the sea’s ambiguity,
for the speaker’s response to the sea, and for the rest of the poem’s formal
elements. Specifically, what do the various possible meanings of the sea—
which, in Dickinson’s poem, both attracts and frightens the speaker—have in
common? I think most readers will agree that, in each case, the sea is both
inviting and frightening because it symbolizes the unknown, whether we
think of the unknown in terms of the mysteries of life, of death, of the human
heart, of sexual desire, or of any other area of complex human experience.
With the unknown as our topic, then, our task is to discover the poem’s
theme, or meaning as a whole, and to support our discovery with formal ele-
ments from the text itself. In order to fulfill this task, we must identify: (1) the
central, or most important tension operating in the poem, which will guide us
to the poem’s theme and help us lay the groundwork for our interpretation;
(2) the poem’s theme; and (3) the formal elements in the poem that support
the theme we have identified, thereby showing that our interpretation of the
poem is valid.
Using concepts from New Critical theory 69

The text’s central tension
In order to discover the text’s central tension and lay our interpretive
groundwork, it can help to brainstorm a list of the oppositions related to our
topic and embodied in the text’s formal elements. Because the text we’re
attempting to interpret is a poem, we will consider such formal elements as
the behavior, attitude, and physical appearance of the speaker (the voice that
“tells” the poem) and of other characters that may be in the poem; the events
that occur in the poem; the poem’s imagery; and the nature of the poem’s
rhyme and meter. Given that our topic is the unknown, we could list these
oppositions in terms of the unknown and the known, thereby contrasting the
sea with the town, the mermaids with the fully clothed speaker, and so forth.
However, the poem as a whole is focused on the relationship between the
speaker and the sea—that is, on the speaker’s response to the unknown, a
response that changes over the course of the poem. So let’s start by finding
evidence in the poem of the following oppositions, each of which reveals
some aspect of the speaker’s conflicted response to the unknown.
1 The speaker’s desire to be alone with the sea vs. her desire for protection
from it (her voluntary visit to the sea at a time—early morning—when
no one else is likely to be there vs. the presence of her dog, an emblem
of domesticity and protection).
2 The exotic appeal of the sea vs. the comfort and safety of the speaker’s
ordinary life (the appeal of exotic lands and the adventure of sea voyages
suggested by the appearance of mermaids and frigates—wooden sailing
ships—with extended hempen ropes that invite the speaker to climb
aboard vs. the speaker’s everyday clothing and the “Solid Town” to
which she flees).
3 The speaker’s fear of the sea vs. her sensitivity to its beauty and majesty
(her terror of the enormity of the sea, which she feels is about to consume
her as if she were as small as a drop of dew upon the petal of a dandelion vs.
her references to “silver” and “pearl” in her description of the pursuing
tide of sea foam as well as her description of the sea as a stern but majestic
gentleman “bowing—with a Mighty look” as he takes leave of her).
4 The use of images that are ambiguous in ways that reflect the speaker’s
conflicted feelings, for example, the image of mermaids (lovely creatures
that betoken exotic lands vs. dangerous creatures that lure sailors to their
deaths), the image of ropes (helpful devices for climbing aboard frigates vs.
deadly devices used to bind or hang people), and the image of the “Solid
Town” (a safe, reliable refuge vs. a place of unchanging, confining customs).
5 The sudden changes in the action of the poem vs. the consistent quality
of the poem’s meter, or rhythm, and rhyme (sudden changes in the
behavior of the sea and of the speaker vs. the poem’s steady meter and
regular rhyme scheme).
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As expected, all of these examples cluster around the tension between the
speaker’s attraction to and fear of the unknown. She begins with a “visi[t]” to
the sea—perhaps to become acquainted, or better acquainted, with it, as the
word visit implies—but ends by fleeing from the sea in terror. And throughout
the poem, the speaker’s descriptions of the sea include images of the fear it
inspires in her as well as images of its beauty.
The text’s theme
As we have just seen, the central tension in “I started Early—Took my Dog”
is the tension, or opposition, between attraction to and fear of the unknown.
We will discover the text’s theme by asking, Which side of this tension has
the strongest, or most vivid presence in the poem? Or does the text favor
some combination of both? I think most readers will agree that the text’s
representation of the sea suggests that both attraction and fear contribute to
the speaker’s response to the unknown. Indeed, perhaps the sea would not
seem so dangerous to her if she didn’t find it so inviting: it’s the speaker’s
attraction to the sea’s awesome power that makes her feel so vulnerable to it.
In the next section, we will do a close reading of the poem in search
of additional formal elements supporting our thesis (our debatable opinion,
which is the main point of our interpretation) that the text depicts the com-
plex nature of human beings’ response to the unknown, which we find
simultaneously inviting and terrifying. If we don’t find such textual evi-
dence or don’t find enough of it or find conflicting textual evidence that
doesn’t fit our interpretation, we will have to amend our thesis to fit the
textual evidence we find. However, at this point, we might reasonably argue
that the text’s theme can be stated as follows: We fear the unknown largely
because we are attracted to it, for our attraction to the unknown makes us feel our
vulnerability to it.
Textual evidence: Formal elements that support the text’s theme
Let’s take another look at our statement of the poem’s theme so that we can
determine the kind of textual evidence we need to support our claim that we
have correctly identified the theme. To make sure we don’t miss anything,
let’s divide our statement of the theme into its component parts.
Components of the theme
1 We fear the unknown
2 largely because we are attracted to it,
3 for our attraction to the unknown makes us feel our vulnerability to it.
Now we can formulate the questions that will serve as guidelines in our search
for textual evidence to support our claim.
Using concepts from New Critical theory 71

Questions to guide our search for textual support
1 In what ways does the speaker reveal her fear of the unknown?
2 In what ways does the speaker reveal her attraction to the unknown?
3 How, specifically, does the speaker communicate her feeling of vulnerability?
4 What ambiguous images can you find that, because they can be inter-
preted in both positive and negative terms, reflect the speaker’s conflicted
response to the unknown?
5 How do the poem’s meter and rhyme contrast—or conflict—with the
poem’s action, thereby reflecting the speaker’s conflicted response to the
unknown?
If we can find the textual evidence—including such formal elements as the
portrayal of the speaker and of other characters that may be present in the poem,
the events that occur in the poem, the poem’s imagery, and the nature of the
poem’s rhyme and meter—that answers each of these questions, then we will
be able to support our thesis. That is, we will be able to show that our statement
of the poem’s theme is valid. So let’s translate these questions into the specific
textual evidence we need to find in the poem.
Finding our textual evidence
1 In what ways, including the following examples, does the speaker reveal
her fear of the unknown?
a What source of protection does she bring with her when she visits the sea?
b How do her detailed descriptions of the sea’s behavior toward her
reveal her fear? Be specific.
c What does the speaker do in response to the sea’s behavior toward
her, and why is it significant that she seeks refuge in the town?
2 In what ways, including the following examples, does the speaker reveal
her attraction to the unknown?
a At what time of day does she visit the sea? How might this choice
reveal her attraction to the sea?
b What images in the poem suggest the appeal of exotic lands and the
adventure of sea voyages?
c What makes her feel she is being invited aboard the frigates?
d Even as she flees the pursuing sea in terror, what beautiful images
does she use to describe it?
e At the poem’s end, how does her description of the sea suggest that she
imagines it in rather intriguing, perhaps even somewhat appealing terms?
3 In addition to fleeing from the sea, how, specifically, does the speaker
communicate her feeling of vulnerability?
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a How does her small size, in contrast to the sea’s enormity, reveal her
feeling of vulnerability? For example, to what two very small things
does the speaker compare herself?
b How do the word aground and the disappearance of the speaker’s dog
after the poem’s opening line indicate her feeling of vulnerability?
c How does her description of her clothing suggest her feeling of
vulnerability?
4 Explain how the following images, because of their ambiguity, reflect the
speaker’s conflicted response to the unknown. Specifically, note the
opposing—positive and negative—meanings that can be associated with
a The mermaids.
b The ropes (the frigates’ “Hempen Hands”).
c The “Solid Town” (note the opposing meanings associated with solid).
d The tide’s “Silver Heel” (note the positive meaning of silver vs. the
negative meaning of heel as a part of the shoe used for its power to crush
or kick).
e Additional ambiguous images you find in the poem that reflect the
speaker’s conflicted response to the unknown.
5 How does the consistent quality of the poem’s steady meter and regular
rhyme scheme contrast—or conflict—with the unpredictable nature of
the sea and thus reflect the speaker’s conflicted response to the unknown?
a Find textual evidence that the poem’s meter, in each stanza, has the
following pattern: 8–6–8–6, which means that the first and third lines
each have eight beats, while the second and fourth lines each have six
beats. (Note that the word basement in the first stanza can be considered
to have three syllables.)
b Find textual evidence that the poem’s rhyme scheme, in each stanza,
is A-B-C-B, which means that the second and fourth lines rhyme.
c Note that the consistent pattern of meter and rhyme operates like a
steady drumbeat, reliable as a metronome.
d Observe the contrast—or conflict—between, on the one hand, the
consistent drumbeat of the poem’s meter and rhyme and, on the
other hand, the sudden changes in the behavior of the sea. Note that
this contrast reflects the speaker’s conflicted response to the unknown.
Focusing your essay
At this point, the textual evidence you’ve collected should allow you to focus
your essay on the ways in which “I started Early—Took my Dog” illustrates
human beings’ conflicted response to the unknown, which we find both
inviting and frightening. Specifically, you should be able to support your thesis
that the text’s theme is as follows: We fear the unknown largely because
Using concepts from New Critical theory 73

we are attracted to it, for our attraction to the unknown makes us feel our
vulnerability to it. Indeed, it seems that the speaker’s attraction to the
unknown is what makes her feel so extremely vulnerable to it, for she ima-
gines the sea as a dangerous adversary, even as a predator, at the same time
that she imagines it as a source of beauty and adventure. It is interesting to
note that the sea’s ambiguity is the source both of the interpretive problem
posed by the poem and of the poem’s richness. For it is difficult to be insen-
sitive to the various possible symbolic meanings of Dickinson’s sea even as we
pursue our own interpretation. Although an awareness of alternative interpreta-
tions can be, at times, unsettling, it can also give us an appreciation for the
complexity of a literary work that, at first glance, might seem disarmingly simple.
Of course, you don’t have to limit yourself to the analysis of the poem I’ve
offered you. You might want, instead, to see what themes are revealed when
“I started Early—Took my Dog” is explored through different topics. Let’s
take a look, for example, at two of the topics mentioned in the opening of
this interpretation exercise: life and death. If we regarded the sea in this poem
as a symbol of life—for it sustains the existence of the myriad life forms within
it and of the earth as a whole—then we would examine the speaker’s actions
throughout the poem in terms of her feelings about life. Does she begin and
end the poem with both her everyday clothing and her reliance on the “Solid
Town” intact because she fears life, because she fears to venture out on her
own? How does the poem’s imagery, especially, support this interpretation?
Analogously, if we viewed the sea as a symbol of death—a force of nature that
has taken millions of human lives—then we would examine the speaker’s
actions throughout the poem in terms of her feelings about death. Is her fear
of the sea actually a fear of death, a fear of being overwhelmed by death, a fear
of having her body become nothing more than a dispersal of atoms like the
dewdrops dispersed atop dandelions? Is her fear of death such that she can’t
face it directly but must express it only in symbolic terms? Whatever your
interpretation, be sure you understand the New Critical concepts you choose
to employ, compose a clear statement of your thesis, and support your
interpretation with adequate textual evidence.
Food For further thought
Thinking it over
If you’ve worked through all of the interpretation exercises offered in this
chapter, you should feel quite familiar with the basic approaches to under-
standing literature provided by concepts from New Critical theory. We’ve
seen how New Critical concepts can be used to interpret a literary text by
determining its theme, or meaning as a whole, and examining how the text’s
formal elements support that theme. Specifically, we’ve seen how New Critical
concepts can be used to interpret:
74 Using critical theory

1 literary texts that address the topic of tradition and change (our example:
“Everyday Use”; the text’s theme: the adoption of new ideas about cul-
tural heritage should not result in the abandonment of family traditions,
for these traditions keep us connected to our family history and contribute
to the emotional bond among family members),
2 literary texts that address the topic of death (our example: “A Rose for
Emily”; the text’s theme: Death, as a presence that shadows and depletes
the life force, can be stronger than life and is embodied in the desire to live
in the past),
3 literary texts that address the topic of alienation (our example: “The
Battle Royal”; the text’s theme: A sense of belonging can help us in the
worst of times, and without it we risk becoming alienated not only from
others but from ourselves, as well),
4 literary texts that address the topic of conformity and nonconformity (our
example: “Don’t Explain”; the text’s theme: When conformity requires
self-negation, then self-acceptance requires nonconformity), and
5 literary texts that address the topic of the unknown (our example:
“I started Early—Took my Dog”; the text’s theme: We fear the unknown
largely because we are attracted to it, for our attraction to the unknown
makes us feel our vulnerability to it).
You might notice that, in keeping with a New Critical approach, all of the
topics and themes listed above are rather general in nature, of the sort that
might be considered, as New Criticism puts it, “universal,” or applicable to all
humankind. For those are the kinds of topics and themes that New Critics
valued and believed to be present in great literature. Thus, whereas Marxist
concepts might help us understand the role of consumerism and the American
dream in “Everyday Use,” and psychoanalytic concepts might help us under-
stand the psychological conflicts of the main character in “Don’t Explain,”
New Criticism explores what it considers more general topics, seeks what it
considers more general themes, and focuses on the text’s formal properties
rather than on its social or psychological dimension.
Sometimes, however, a literary text can compel our emotional attention so
effectively—as we see, for example, in the vivid and horrifying details pro-
vided by the narrator of “The Battle Royal”—that it may be difficult to think
about themes, formal elements, or anything else associated with New Critical
theory. Indeed, New Criticism’s interest in how the formal elements of a text
work together to support its theme might seem too far removed from the
realities portrayed in the text to be meaningful. For although a New Critical
analysis wouldn’t ignore a literary text’s representation of, for example, social
oppression or psychological dysfunction, a New Critical analysis would “the-
matize” these aspects of human experience. That is, a literary representation of
social oppression or psychological dysfunction would be seen only in terms of
its role in producing the text’s larger, more inclusive theme. Thus, the social and
Using concepts from New Critical theory 75

psychological issues represented in, for instance, “A Rose for Emily” became,
in our New Critical reading of the text, the aspects of setting, characterization,
and imagery we examined in order to understand the text’s representation of death.
Nevertheless, New Criticism’s attention to formal elements can contribute a
good deal to our understanding even of a literary work we choose to interpret
through a Marxist, African American, or any other theoretical lens. As you’ll
see in the following chapters, whatever approach we take to interpret a literary
work, a convincing interpretation will have strong textual support, and a good
deal of that support will rely on our ability to notice and interpret the text’s
formal elements. So an understanding of New Critical concepts can help us
to not only read literature through a New Critical lens, but to gather valid
evidence to support other kinds of interpretations, as well.
The more we learn about formal elements, then, the better. And there
certainly are many more kinds of formal elements in literature than those that
have gotten us started here. Your instructor may choose to introduce you to
such additional formal elements as, for example, foreshadowing, flashback,
stream of consciousness, irony, alliteration, authorial intrusion, and dozens
more. We don’t need to be acquainted with each and every one, but the more
we increase our literary vocabulary, the more we will be able to recognize,
analyze, and enjoy in our reading of literature.
New Critical theory and cultural criticism
We can also use concepts from New Critical theory to help us analyze cultural
productions other than literature, including such productions of “high” culture
as opera, painting, and sculpture and such productions of popular culture as
movies, song lyrics, and television ads. For New Critical concepts can be used
to help us interpret any cultural production whose overall meaning we want
to explore in relation to its formal elements: for example, in relation to its
arrangement of words, musical notes, brush strokes, camera angles, colors, or
shapes. However, New Critical concepts cannot be used by themselves to
practice cultural criticism. Even if used to interpret a production of popular
culture, which is cultural criticism’s primary area of interest, New Criticism’s
purpose in doing so would be to analyze the relationship between the meaning
of that production and its formal elements whereas cultural criticism, in contrast,
wants to discover the relationship between the meaning of that production
and the specific culture that created it.
Consider, for example, the television commercial for Hallmark greeting
cards—“Brother of the Bride” (directed by Joe Pytka, 2008)1—which we
examined for the purposes of cultural criticism using concepts from reader-response
theory (see Chapter 2). In this ad, as you may recall, we see a young man,
probably in his early twenties, at his sister’s wedding reception. It is immediately
evident that Brother—rather pudgy, sweet-looking but not classically handsome—
has a gift for saying the wrong thing. First, he offends a young woman he’s
76 Using critical theory

trying to compliment when he tells her, “You look like you’ve lost a ton
of weight!” Next, his attempt at a little male bonding fails miserably when
he remarks that a good-looking young woman across the room is “high
maintenance,” and the young man to whom he is speaking answers resentfully,
“That’s my fiancée.” Finally, Brother’s effort to exchange a friendly greeting
with Barbara, his father’s third wife, backfires when he addresses her as Kate,
which is the name of Dad’s second wife. So when our blundering protagonist
stands up at the bride’s table to toast his sister, many of the wedding guests, as
well as the bride and groom, clearly expect the worst. However, the toast is
perfectly worded and quite moving. Everyone can now see Brother’s good
heart, and their smiling faces bespeak their warm approval. The camera zooms
in to show us that Brother has read his toast from a Hallmark card as he finishes
up by saying, “I didn’t actually write those words, but I do mean them.” The
bride hugs Brother as the wedding guests applaud. Now that the guests have
seen this side of Brother, their goodwill towards him does not diminish as
the commercial closes on his final gaffe: “Eat up, everyone. My mom paid,
like, two grand for that cake.”
Using my personal reader-response to “Brother of the Bride” as a first step
in my cultural analysis of the commercial in the previous chapter, I hypothesized
that the ad sends, whether deliberately or not, the following cultural message.
People will overlook our shortcomings but only if we can find the right words to show
them that our good qualities make up for our failings. So the right words are essential to
social success, even if we have to get those words from a greeting card. Indeed, unless
we’re really sure of ourselves, it’s probably prudent to have some mistrust of our own
words. With this hypothesis as my starting point, I knew I would be able to use
the concepts from psychoanalytic and Marxist theories provided in Chapters 4
and 5 to analyze the ways in which this commercial encourages social anxiety
in the viewer in order to sell greeting cards, which the commercial suggests is
a safer, more effective, and easier way to express my feelings than trying to
express them in my own words.
A New Critical approach to the commercial, in contrast, would seek a
more objective interpretation, and it would start by establishing the commer-
cial’s theme, or overall meaning. Given that Brother’s good heart, which is
clearly revealed during the commercial’s closing scene, remains hidden, until
then, behind his off-putting attempts at conversation, we might argue that
the commercial’s theme is Don’t judge a book by its cover. And we could find
support for this theme by noting, among others, the following formal
elements, which show the contrast between Brother’s “cover,” or exterior, and
his “book,” or interior: the contrast between the unfortunate results of his
brief interactions with three different wedding guests and his good intentions
in initiating these interactions; the contrast between the superficiality of
his social blunders and the heartfelt quality of his toast to the bride; and the
contrast between Brother’s somewhat nerd-like physical appearance and his
gallant heart.
Using concepts from New Critical theory 77

If we were to claim, however, that the commercial’s cultural message is
simply its New Critical theme—Don’t judge a book by its cover—we would, in
effect, be ignoring the psychological and ideological complexity of the cultural
work performed by the ad. For New Critical concepts would not incline us to
question the psychological motives of the wedding guests, or the ideological
motives of the commercial itself, unless those motives could be used as evi-
dence to support the commercial’s theme. And even if we try to sidestep this
problem by choosing a theme that includes the commercial’s psychological
and ideological aspects—for example, Fears about our own self-image often keep us
from revealing our own, or perceiving another’s, true self—our New Critical purpose
in so doing would be only to find the formal elements supporting that theme,
not to examine the cultural work the theme performs.
Nevertheless, though we can’t employ concepts from New Critical theory
alone for the purposes of cultural criticism, we should remember that the attention
to formal details New Criticism teaches us can strengthen our interpretations
of popular culture—just as it can strengthen our interpretations of literary
works—even when we rely on concepts from other critical theories to guide
our analyses. And perhaps most important, New Critical concepts are invaluable
for reminding us that no cultural production, of any sort, can be fully appre-
ciated without valuing the ways in which its meaning is related to its form, to
the arrangement of the elements of which it is made.
* * *
Remember, it’s natural to feel a little uncertain when we encounter a new theory
of literary interpretation, even if the concepts from that theory are somewhat
familiar to us, as the concepts from New Critical theory may be. Uncertainty
is an unavoidable part of learning and growing. Keep in mind, too, that others
may disagree with your opinions. Readers often disagree in their interpretations
of literature, even when drawing upon the same New Critical concepts for
their analyses. The keys to a good interpretation—besides intellectual curiosity
and an open mind—are a clear understanding of the New Critical concepts
you’ve chosen to use and strong textual evidence to support your analysis.
Taking the next step
Questions for further practice
1 The many differences between Miss Oceola Jones and Mrs. Dora Ellsworth
in Langston Hughes’ short story “The Blues I’m Playing” (1934) suggest
that the story’s central tension lies in some important difference between
the attitudes, values, or beliefs embodied in the two characters. For example,
find textual evidence that the story’s central tension is that between
Mrs. Ellsworth’s beliefs and those of Oceola concerning the role of art in
the life of an artist. Which beliefs does the text support by portraying them,
78 Using critical theory

and the character who holds them, more favorably? What, then, do you
think is the story’s theme?
2 Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) can be viewed as the story of pro-
tagonist Edna Pontellier’s efforts to escape the narrow confines of con-
ventional society in order to find personal freedom. We might therefore
argue that the novel’s central tension is the tension between freedom and
entrapment, which is reflected in the novel’s vivid nature imagery:
among other images, the caged birds that open the novel, the tall Ken-
tucky grass through which Edna wanders as a girl, the numerous images
of the sea, the bird with a broken wing, and the smell of flowers at the
novel’s end. Find as many nature images relevant to the topic of freedom
and entrapment as you can, note where these images occur in the novel,
and explain how they help us interpret the text in terms of this topic.
Based on your findings, what do you think is the novel’s theme?
3 The topic of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949) seems to be the
plight of the “common man” in an increasingly fast-paced and impersonal
society. How does the setting contribute to the play’s development of this
topic? As the play opens, for example, how do the colored lighting, the
sounds the audience hears, and the size and location of the Loman home
suggest that Willy Loman is the victim of a harsh and overwhelming
modern world? In addition to other uses of setting, how is the Loman
home employed to alert us to the changes in time-period that occur
during Willy’s recurring flashbacks to happier days? Given its topic and
use of setting, what do you think is the play’s theme?
4 Louise Erdrich’s “Dear John Wayne” (1984) conveys its topic—profound
loss—by means of a number of different formal elements that build in
intensity over the course of the poem. Consider, for example, the
description of the mosquitoes in the first stanza; the reference to sunset in
the second stanza; the comparison of the enlarged, big-screen image of
John Wayne’s face, in the fourth stanza, with the face of the land that was
stolen from Native Americans; the actions of the Native American viewers
who fall and slip in the fifth stanza; and the vivid, implied reference, in
the poem’s final two lines, to the cancer that took John Wayne’s life.
How does each of these elements convey the poem’s topic? Using these
formal elements to guide your interpretation of the poem as a whole,
what do you think is the poem’s theme?
5 As we saw earlier in this chapter, New Critical concepts cannot be used
alone to engage in cultural criticism. However, you can use New Critical
concepts to do New Critical readings of narratives that occur in pro-
ductions of popular culture—for example, in movies—as long as the
production in question has an important theme, a theme that contributes
to our understanding of what it means to be human. For example, do
you have a favorite movie—whether it’s comedy, drama, action/adventure,
science fiction, horror, or a movie intended for family viewing—that
Using concepts from New Critical theory 79

seems to you to have an important theme? Using the same New Critical
method we used to analyze literary works, what do you think is the
film’s central tension, main topic, and theme? Use formal elements from
the movie to support your thesis concerning its theme. Include elements
of characterization, plot, setting, dialogue, imagery, camera angles, use of
lighting, musical score, and any other formal elements you think will help
support your thesis.
Suggestions for further reading
Brooks, Cleanth. The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry. New York: Harcourt,
Brace and World, 1947. (See, especially, “What Does Poetry Communicate?,” 67–79.)
Brooks, Cleanth, and Robert Penn Warren. Understanding Fiction. 1943. 2nd ed. New York:
Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1959. (See, especially, “How Plot Reveals,” 77–187; “What
Character Reveals,” 168–271; and “What Theme Reveals,” 272–393.)
——. Understanding Poetry. 1938. 4th ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1976.
(See, especially, “Description: Images, Mood, and Attitudes,” 68–95; “Analogical
Language,” 196–219; and “Theme, Meaning, and Dramatic Structure,” 266–312.)
Davis, Garrick, ed. Praising It New: The Best of the New Criticism. Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press/
Ohio University Press, 2008. (See, especially, Allen Tate’s “Miss Emily and the Biblio-
grapher,” 39–48; Ivor Winters’ “Preliminary Problems,” 75–84; Cleanth Brooks’ “The
Formalist Critics,” 84–91; T.S. Eliot’s “Hamlet and His Problems,” 138–42; and Randall
Jarrell’s “Texts from Housman,” 161–69.)
Tyson, Lois. “NewCriticism.”Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. 2nd ed. New York:
Routledge, 2006. 135–67.
Wimsatt, Jr., W.K. The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry. Lexington: University of
Kentucky Press, 1954. (See, especially, “The Intentional Fallacy,” with Monroe
C. Beardsley, 3–18; and “The Affective Fallacy,” with Monroe C. Beardsley, 21–39.)
Note
1 “Brother of the Bride” is available online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7
ZdIjnkDpMo.
80 Using critical theory

Chapter 4
Using concepts from psychoanalytic
theory to understand literature
Why should we learn about psychoanalytic theory?
Life is filled with emotional ups and downs, and our hard times as well as our
happy times play an important role in our personal growth. As psychoanalytic
theory tells us, we all encounter life-events, as we grow up, that shape our
psychological development, and these early experiences tend to play out in
our adult lives. Most of us have experienced, for example, recurring episodes
of sibling rivalry or other kinds of jealousy, of self-doubt or insecurity, or of
loneliness or isolation. In other words, we all experience some sorts of psy-
chological problems over the course of our lives. We can see the signs of those
problems from time to time in what psychoanalytic theory calls dysfunctional
behavior: for example, all those little (or big) ways in which we put ourselves
unnecessarily at risk, get ourselves into trouble, or hurt the ones we love.
While psychological problems are a natural and unavoidable part of being
human, it is important to try to identify and understand them because,
according to psychoanalytic theory, that’s how we can begin to heal those
problems.
In fact, our lack of awareness of our own psychological problems is what
makes us so vulnerable to them. For the less we know about our problems, the
more we tend to “play them out” on other people without even realizing that
we’re doing so. And it’s this playing out that can make trouble for ourselves
and others. For example, have you ever had a co-worker who always seemed
to feel slighted by others; who was convinced, without reason, that he was not
receiving the recognition he deserved; or who took offense at things that were
not at all intended to offend him? Have you ever had a roommate who
habitually forgot to give you your telephone messages, who turned into a
super-flirt whenever a date came by to pick you up, or who frequently bor-
rowed your possessions and forgot to return them, or returned them soiled or
broken? Have you ever had a friend whose romantic relationships always
seemed to be with partners who were bad for her, partners who drank too
much or cheated on her, or routinely stood her up to go out with the
guys? Psychoanalytic theory would suggest that these individuals were playing

out psychological problems that they probably didn’t know they had, pro-
blems that were, nevertheless, the key to understanding their dysfunctional
behavior.
You’re probably familiar with the idea that we destructively play out on
ourselves and others such unresolved psychological problems as low self-esteem
and fear of commitment. And no doubt you’ve had the experience of realizing
that a family member or friend was in denial concerning a painful reality in his
or her life. For these and other psychoanalytic concepts have come more and
more into common use over the last several decades. Common use, however,
usually includes some degree of misconception and is too incomplete to give
us the full benefit of psychoanalytic theory. So I think you will find this
chapter useful even if you’ve already encountered much of the psychoanalytic
vocabulary used here. The concepts provided in this chapter come from the
pioneering work of Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), whose ideas about human
behavior are still very influential today in the field of psychoanalytic clinical
practice and in the analysis of literature. His work is based on the recurring
patterns of dysfunctional human behavior he observed during the many years
he spent treating patients with emotional problems.
It seems logical, then, that we can start to use psychoanalytic theory to
understand literature by asking the following question about any literary work
we want to interpret: Do any of the characters exhibit what might be con-
sidered dysfunctional behavior, and if so, what are the psychological motives
behind it? In other words, what emotional problems do the characters exhibit,
and how are their emotional problems responsible for what the characters do?
For a good deal of literature attempts to represent some aspect of human
experience—especially its darker, more tragic dimension—and psychoanalytic
theory, with its focus on the dysfunctional side of human behavior, seems a
likely way to help us analyze literary works.
So let’s start with a brief look at psychoanalytic theory’s most basic principles.
Although it’s important that you read through the “Basic concepts” section
that follows, don’t be too concerned if you don’t feel you thoroughly
understand every concept listed. You’ll begin to understand these concepts
much better when we use them, later in this chapter, to help us interpret the
literary texts that appear at the end of this book. And you’ll see that these
fundamental psychoanalytic concepts can help us understand other works of
literature, as well.
Remember, too, that I’m offering you my own literary analyses in the
interpretation exercises provided later in this chapter. You might use the same
psychoanalytic concepts I use but come up with different interpretations of
your own. If you disagree with any of the analyses I offer in these exercises,
don’t be afraid to look in the literary work in question for evidence that will
support your viewpoint. A literary work can often support a number of dif-
ferent interpretations, even when readers are using concepts from the same
theory.
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Basic concepts
The family
For psychoanalytic theory, our adult personality is the result of the emotional
experiences we had while growing up. And the family (which can be anything
from the traditional two-parent family to the experience of group-living in an
orphanage) is the most important source of our early emotional experiences—both
those that affirm our being and those that harm us psychologically—because it
is in the family that our sense of self and our way of relating to others are first
established. However, psychoanalytic theory is more interested in under-
standing the origin of psychological problems rather than the origin of psycho-
logical strengths because this theory wants to offer ways of overcoming
psychological problems. And it is important to remember that, for psycho-
analytic theory, we all have psychological problems of some sort because we
have all had some harmful emotional experiences growing up, regardless of how
loving our family might be. In other words, having psychological problems is
part of being human.
Repression and the unconscious
We might not know the specific source of our emotional problems—we
might not even know we have such problems—because we tend to repress
our most distressing experiences, push them into the unconscious, which is the
psychological storehouse of painful experiences we don’t want to remember.
Put simply, we all tend to push out of sight those experiences we feel we can’t
handle. The clearest sign that an emotional problem is being repressed is the
repetition of a self-destructive behavior, such as choosing unhealthy friends or
romantic partners, displaying inappropriate social behavior (for example,
habitually dominating conversations or throwing temper tantrums in response
to disagreements), engaging in unwarranted violent behavior, engaging in
substance abuse, and the like. Most of these destructive behaviors show up in
the way we relate to others, for psychoanalytic theory holds that we enact, or
play out, our psychological problems with other people. The recurrence of a
disturbing dream might also be a clue to the existence of an unconscious
problem, as might a tendency to behave in a defensive manner when certain
topics come up in conversation.
The defenses
The defenses are the means by which we keep ourselves from becoming
conscious of the experiences we’ve repressed. Many of our defenses develop
during our childhood as ways of protecting ourselves emotionally. However,
as we grow older our defenses become more destructive than helpful because
Using concepts from psychoanalytic theory 83

they keep us from understanding—and therefore from healing—our own
psychological wounds. The most common defenses include the following.
Denial—We are in denial when we believe that an emotionally painful situation
doesn’t exist or an emotionally painful event never occurred.
Avoidance—We are practicing avoidance when we stay away from people,
places, or situations that might stir up the memory of repressed experiences.
Displacement—We are displacing when we take out our negative feelings about
one person on someone else so that we can relieve our pain or anger
without becoming aware of the real cause of our repressed feelings.
Projection—We are projecting when we believe, without real cause, that
someone else feels the same way we feel, specifically that someone else has
the problem we want to deny that we, ourselves, have. Once we project
our problem onto someone else, we can then attack that person (in thought,
word, or deed) for having the problem in order to prove to ourselves that
we don’t have it.
Core issues
Whether or not we realize it, we all have at least one core issue (also called
core conflict). A core issue is a psychological problem that is the underlying cause
of some sort of recurring self-destructive behavior, whether that behavior is
something as seemingly mild as being habitually late for important appointments
(for example, job interviews!) or something as serious as being habitually
involved with abusive romantic partners. While most of us have experienced,
on occasion, the problems listed below, they are considered core issues only if
they are responsible for most or all of the emotional difficulties we have as
adults. Examples of core issues include, among others, the following.
Low self-esteem—Low self-esteem is the unwarranted belief that we are less
worthy than other human beings and, therefore, don’t deserve attention,
love, or any other form of life’s rewards. In fact, we often believe we
deserve to be punished by life in some way.
Insecure or unstable sense of self—Our sense of self is insecure or unstable if we
are unable to sustain a feeling of personal identity, unable to sustain a sense of
knowing ourselves. This core issue makes us very vulnerable to the influence—
for good or ill—of other people, and we may have a tendency to repeatedly
change the way we look (our clothing, hairstyle, and the like) or behave as
we become involved with different individuals or groups.
Fear of abandonment—Fear of abandonment is the unwarranted nagging belief
that our friends and loved ones are going to desert us (physical abandon-
ment) or don’t really care about us (emotional abandonment). Sometimes
fear of abandonment expresses itself as fear of betrayal, the unwarranted nagging
belief that our friends and loved ones can’t be trusted: for example, can’t be
84 Using critical theory

trusted not to laugh at us behind our backs or not to lie to us, or, in the case
of romantic partners, can’t be trusted not to cheat on us by dating others.
Fear of intimacy—Fear of intimacy is the unwarranted but unshakeable and
overpowering feeling that emotional closeness will seriously damage or
destroy us and that we must, therefore, protect ourselves by remaining at an
emotional distance from others. Fear of intimacy will probably not keep us
from making friends or falling in love, but it will keep us from enjoying the
kind of friendship and love that comes with the ability to trust our own,
and another’s, feelings.
Oedipal fixation—We all pass through a natural period of oedipal attachment to
a parent of the opposite sex during youth, but it is outgrown as we mature
emotionally. An oedipal fixation (or complex) is a dysfunctional bond with a
parent of the opposite sex that we don’t outgrow and that doesn’t permit us
to mature into adult relationships with others.
Dream symbolism
Unlike most other critical theories, psychoanalytic theory has its own system
of symbols that can be of use especially if we are interpreting a literary work as
if it were a dream (which we will do later in this chapter when we interpret
Emily Dickinson’s poem “I started Early—Took my Dog”). For psychoanalytic
theory, certain objects tend to have symbolic meaning for most human beings,
whether we are aware of this meaning or not, and these symbols often show
up in our dreams. The most common symbols include the following.
Water—Water can symbolize the unconscious, the emotions, and/or sexuality
(which may or may not include reproduction)—all of which are, like water,
fluid (without fixed form), often unpredictable, and frequently deeper than
we may realize.
Buildings—Usually, buildings symbolize the self, as if our body were the
“building” in which we lived.
Basements—Because buildings usually symbolize the self, basements are often
associated with the unconscious as the place where we repress unpleasant
memories. (Both basements and the unconscious keep things below the surface.)
Attics—Analogously, attics are often associated with the intellect or the con-
scious mind, though in some dreams (especially dreams in which there are
no basements), attics can, themselves, symbolize the unconscious as the
place where we repress unpleasant memories. (We store things out of sight
in attics just as we keep them below the surface in basements, in other
words, just as we repress unpleasant memories in the unconscious.)
Male imagery—Male imagery consists primarily of phallic symbols, for example,
towers, guns, serpents, swords, or anything that can be associated with the
penis. (If it stands upright, goes off, or has a serpentine form, it might be a
phallic symbol.)
Using concepts from psychoanalytic theory 85

Female imagery—Most frequently, female imagery consists of anything that can
be associated with the womb, for example, caves, walled-in gardens, or
containers.
Of course, there are so many factors affecting our emotional development at
any given point in our youth that different individuals can respond to similar
family situations in very different ways. Nevertheless, for psychoanalytic theory
the relationship among the basic concepts discussed earlier can be expressed in
a formula that goes something like this.
1 A distressing event or situation that occurs in our youth is repressed into
our unconscious because we don’t feel we can face it consciously.
2 We keep that repressed experience buried in our unconscious through
the use of the defenses.
3 If the experience buried in our unconscious affects us powerfully enough,
it will become a core issue—that is, a fundamental part of our personality
that determines many of our feelings and a good deal of our behavior.
4 Core issues, especially when we remain unaware of them, result in the
repetition of certain self-destructive behaviors and may show up in the
recurrence of disturbing dreams.
Let’s begin our interpretation exercises by analyzing a story that illustrates very
well the basic concepts just outlined: Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” (1973;
see Appendix D). This story is especially helpful, at this point, because it
includes a good deal of information about the family relationships and early
experiences of its main characters, information that we don’t get in every
literary work.
Interpretation exercises
Analyzing characters’ dysfunctional behavior: Interpreting
“Everyday Use”
Let’s go back to our opening psychoanalytic question and apply it to the main
characters in Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use”: Does Maggie, Dee (also called
Wangero), or Mama exhibit what might be considered dysfunctional behavior
and, if so, what are the psychological motives behind it? To help us answer
that question, we should look in the story for evidence of these characters’ core
issues, as psychoanalytic theory tells us that dysfunctional behavior is usually
the result of a core issue. Remember, however, that according to this theory
we all have core issues, so our examining these characters from this perspective
does not necessarily mean that we are judging them negatively. Rather, we
are trying to understand them in order to understand an important psychological
dimension of the story.
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It is also important to keep in mind that our psychoanalytic focus on the
family as the source of the Johnsons’ psychological problems does not mean that
the family is the only source of these problems. Obviously, given the story’s set-
ting (a poverty-level, African American community in the rural South during the
late 1960s and early 1970s), and the fact that Mama grew up in the same location
during the 1920s, the characters’ race, class, and gender are major factors (as
they would be even today) in forming their personalities and creating their psy-
chological problems. Nevertheless, psychoanalytic theory asks us to focus on the
family by assuming that such cultural factors as race, class, and gender operate
differently in each family, depending on the family’s psychological dynamic—that
is, on the role each member plays in relation to other family members.
To sum up, then, we’ll try to understand the story’s main characters by
understanding the motivation for what psychoanalysis would call their dys-
functional behavior. And we’ll accomplish this task by identifying: (1) their
core issues; (2) the defenses they use to keep their core issues repressed; and
(3) the ways in which the family is the source of their psychological problems.
Analyzing Maggie
1 Maggie’s core issues—I think many readers would agree that Maggie’s primary
core issue seems to be low self-esteem, which is evident in most of her
behavior until the very end of the story. Find all the evidence in the story
you can to support this claim. Note, for example,
a Maggie’s body language,
b Maggie’s interactions with others, and
c any additional information Mama gives us about Maggie.
2 Maggie’s defenses—Maggie’s primary defense seems to be avoidance: she
goes to great lengths to avoid people and situations that bring out her
low self-esteem. What evidence in the story supports this idea?
3 Maggie and her family—Like Maggie’s race, class, and gender, the house-
fire that scarred her body and damaged her eyesight is surely one of the
sources of Maggie’s core issue. But the key question for psychoanalytic
theory is this: What part does her family play in her low self-esteem? For
the ways in which we respond to traumatic events are influenced by the
role we play in the family dynamic. The part played by the family in
Maggie’s low self-esteem might be found in the following areas. See
what textual evidence you can find to support these ideas. (You may
have collected above some of the evidence you’ll need here.)
a Maggie probably feels inferior to her sister in many ways, a feeling
that can easily create low self-esteem.
b Maggie may feel that Mama has always given Dee preferential treat-
ment while Maggie has gotten the short end of the stick, a situation
that would make Maggie believe she’s inferior to Dee in Mama’s eyes
Using concepts from psychoanalytic theory 87

as well as in her own. And this is a situation that doesn’t change until
the very end of the story when Mama insists on reserving the quilts
for Maggie.
c If the story allows us to establish that Maggie feels personally inferior
to Dee and second-fiddle in terms of Mama’s efforts to help her
daughters, then we can argue that Maggie feels she’s on the losing
side of a sibling rivalry for Mama’s love, which would also contribute
to her low self-esteem.
Analyzing Dee
1 Dee’s core issues—Dee’s core issue seems to be fear of intimacy, which we
can see throughout her life in her emotionally distant relationships with
both family and friends and which I think is related, in her case, to fear of
abandonment. (Fear of abandonment often causes fear of intimacy: if we
feel somehow emotionally abandoned by our family and therefore fear
abandonment from others, we are liable to have trouble letting anyone
get too close to us emotionally. For if we’re not emotionally close to
others, we feel we have less to lose when they leave us.)
a Find textual evidence that Dee suffers from fear of intimacy. (Note all
the ways in which she keeps friends and family at an emotional distance.)
b Find textual evidence that Dee suffers from fear of abandonment.
(Note all the ways in which she may feel excluded from the things
Mama and Maggie have shared in the past and share now.)
2 Dee’s defenses—Dee seems to have two primary defenses: avoidance (she stays
away from her family for long periods of time and avoids close relationships
with friends and family; indeed she uses her superior attitude to drive people
away) and denial (Dee’s superior attitude—which she seems almost obsessed
with maintaining through the achievement of a fashionable lifestyle—also
helps her deny that she needs close relationships with others).
a Find textual evidence that Dee practices avoidance.
b Find textual evidence that Dee is in denial.
3 Dee and her family—What role does her family play in Dee’s fear of inti-
macy and fear of abandonment? Find textual evidence to support the
following answers to that question. (You may have collected above some
of the evidence you’ll need here.)
a Dee probably feels excluded from the bond that has always existed
between Mama and Maggie, and such exclusion, even if Dee wanted to
separate herself from her family, is liable to create feelings of abandonment.
i List all the things Mama and Maggie have in common with each
other and not with Dee.
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ii List all the activities Mama and Maggie have always shared in
which Dee has not been included.
b The absence of a father—whether through death, divorce, or desertion—
could also have contributed to Dee’s feeling of abandonment and, in
turn, fear of intimacy. Does the story mention that a father was ever
present in the household?
c Dee probably feels excluded, too, from the emotional tie created by
Mama’s saving Maggie from the fire. Find the specific images of Dee’s
isolation and of Mama’s bond with Maggie in that scene.
d If the story allows us to establish that Dee feels emotionally excluded
by her family, then we can argue that Dee feels she’s on the losing
side of a sibling rivalry for Mama’s love, which would also contribute
to her fear of abandonment and, in turn, her fear of intimacy.
Analyzing Mama
1 Mama’s core issues—Despite her many abilities and impressive physical
strength, Mama’s primary core issue seems to be low self-esteem. Can
you find the numerous examples the text offers of Mama’s self-doubts
and low self-image? Include, among other things,
a Mama’s mixed feelings about her physical appearance,
b the insights we gain into Mama through her recurring dream, and
c the amount of formal education Mama received and how this could
affect her self-esteem.
2 Mama’s defenses—Mama’s primary defense might be hard for you to see
on your own, but I think there’s a good deal of textual evidence to
suggest that it’s projection. Specifically, Mama projects her low self-esteem
onto each daughter in a different way.
a Find textual evidence that Mama projects onto Dee her own desire
for recognition, approval, and all the opportunities that were denied
her due to her race, class, and gender.
i What do we learn from Mama’s recurring dream?
ii Find all the textual evidence you can that shows Mama’s pride in
Dee, despite the negative things Mama says about this daughter.
b Find textual evidence that Mama projects onto Maggie her own
insecurities and vulnerabilities.
i How do Mama and Maggie resemble each other?
ii Why might Mama see Maggie as a version of herself?
iii Can you find any ways in which Mama may be unconsciously
holding Maggie back?
Using concepts from psychoanalytic theory 89

3 Mama and her family—Of course, a good deal of this strong, capable
woman’s low self-esteem surely comes from being a poor, dark-skinned,
big-boned, African American woman with a second-grade education living
in a country that values wealthy, educated, slender, white women. But
what part does her family play in Mama’s low self-esteem? Find textual
evidence to support the following answers to that question. (You may
have collected above some of the evidence you’ll need here.)
a Mama might have felt somewhat inferior to her own sister Dee, whose
name is short for the name Dicie, a Johnson family name. (Look at
Mama’s explanation of the familial origin of her daughter Dee’s name and
the reference to Mama’s sister during the brief discussion of the Johnson
family history. What did Mama’s sister have that Mama didn’t have?)
b In terms of Mama’s relationship to her daughter Dee, that child’s light
skin, good figure, and quick mind might explain Mama’s projection
of her own desire for recognition and approval onto Dee, which
might have been one reason Mama managed to obtain for Dee the
opportunities she wishes she’d had for herself.
c In terms of Mama’s relationship to her daughter Maggie, that child’s
dark skin, unfashionable figure, and apparently slower mind might
explain Mama’s projection of her own insecurities and vulnerabilities
onto Maggie, which might be one reason she wants to keep Maggie
at home, or near home, safe from an inhospitable world.
Focusing your essay
So what do we do with all of these psychoanalytic insights into “Everyday Use”?
How do we make them hang together in a coherent essay? Well, you’ll probably
be relieved to hear that you don’t have to use all of them. You might choose to
write a paper analyzing just one of these three characters, in which case you’d
limit yourself to the kinds of claims made earlier about that character and the
textual evidence you found to support those claims. Given the information the
story provides about the family, even an analysis of one of the sisters would
automatically involve you in an explanation of that character in terms of her
relationship to her sister and mother. However, your focus would be narrower
and your paper probably shorter than if you chose to analyze, instead, both sisters
or the family as a whole. If you choose to analyze both Maggie and Dee, you
might organize your data in terms of their sibling rivalry. Or if you choose to
analyze the family as a whole, which would involve using all the information
gathered above, you might organize your findings in terms of the ways in which
parents’ core issues can help form the core issues of their children, in Mama’s case
by living vicariously, though in different ways, through both of her daughters.
This last approach would give you the most complete psychoanalytic
interpretation of the story. Specifically, you would argue that Mama projects
90 Using critical theory

her own low self-esteem onto Maggie, thus holding Maggie back and con-
tributing to Maggie’s low self-esteem. Analogously, Mama projects her own
unfulfilled desire for success onto Dee, thus pushing Dee away from the nest
and contributing to Dee’s fear of intimacy and fear of abandonment. Such a
view of Mama doesn’t mean that she doesn’t love her children or that she isn’t
a good mother. It just means that she’s human.
Remember, too, that you don’t have to limit yourself to the character
analyses I’ve offered you. For example, you might believe that Dee’s underlying
core issue is low self-esteem, not fear of abandonment. After all, Dee tries so
hard to impress people that she seems to be trying continually to boost her
own ego, which she wouldn’t need to do if she had enough self-esteem. Or
you might think that Maggie suffers from fear of intimacy as well as low self-
esteem. Do you think you can find adequate textual evidence to show that
Maggie is afraid of being hurt if she gets too close to others? Whatever
your interpretation, be sure you understand the psychoanalytic concepts you
choose to employ, compose a clear statement of your thesis, and support your
interpretation with adequate textual evidence.
Exploring a character’s insanity: Interpreting “A Rose for Emily”
The story of a woman who murders her suitor and sleeps with his corpse in
her bed, as Miss Emily Grierson does in William Faulkner’s “A Rose for
Emily” (1931; see Appendix B), seems a likely candidate for psychoanalytic
theory. For it would be an understatement to say that Emily, the story’s main
character, exhibits dysfunctional behavior. Indeed, Faulkner’s tale offers us a
portrait of a woman who goes insane. And Emily’s insanity, when contrasted
with the psychological problems of the Johnson family in Alice Walker’s
“Everyday Use,” discussed earlier, shows us that the difference between mental
health and mental illness is often a matter of degree. As we’ll see shortly, some
of the same core issues and defenses that appear in the characterization of the
Johnson women, whose relationships with one another have a good deal in
common with the relationships found in many average American families, also
appear in the characterization of Emily Grierson. However, Emily has these
core issues and defenses to a much more extreme degree and, therefore,
manifests them in much more extreme and unhealthy ways.
The first question many readers ask, once they realize that Emily poisons
Homer Barron with the arsenic she purchases from the druggist, is why Emily
commits this murder. And the answer many readers give is that Emily kills
Homer because he plans to leave her. She expects him to marry her—that’s
why she buys him the monogrammed, silver toilet articles (personal grooming
articles, such as hairbrushes) and arranges her bedroom like a bridal suite—so
it’s reasonable to conclude that he must have refused to marry her. Fine. That
explanation works. But what does it really tell us about Emily? Many people
have disappointments like hers without resorting to murder. And how do we
Using concepts from psychoanalytic theory 91

explain her keeping Homer’s body in her bed and, over the years, sleeping
with the corpse, as indicated in the closing description of Emily’s gray hair on
the indented pillow next to Homer’s head? Finally, how do we explain her
other unhealthy behavior, such as her determination to completely isolate
herself from the community and her desire to live in the past, a desire evident
in her reference to the long-dead Colonel Sartoris as if he were still alive and
in her refusal to allow her house to be numbered for home mail-delivery?
Again, there is a simple answer: Emily is crazy. After all, her great-aunt Wyatt
was crazy, and perhaps insanity runs in the Grierson family. But, again, that
answer tells us very little about Emily.
To understand Emily—her experience, her feelings, the reasons for all of
her unhealthy behavior—we need to understand the psychological motives
that drive her to commit murder, to sleep with the dead body, to isolate
herself from the entire community, and to live in the past. And psychoanalytic
concepts can help us understand those motives. While “A Rose for Emily”
doesn’t provide the kind of detailed information about family dynamics that
we get in “Everyday Use,” Faulkner’s story gives us ample clues to Emily’s
psychological experience in its descriptions of Emily’s behavior over the
course of her life and in the few hints the story offers about her relationship to
her father. We don’t need information about a character’s childhood or family
relationships in order to use psychoanalytic concepts to analyze that character.
All we need is adequate evidence of dysfunctional behavior. However, when
the text offers us information about a character’s family, no matter how little,
we should not ignore it.
Okay, so where do we start? Well, as we did earlier (in our interpretation of
“Everyday Use”), we can try to identify Emily’s core issue, which psycho-
analytic theory tells us is the source of dysfunctional behavior, and her defen-
ses, which keep her from facing her problems and thus keep her from dealing
with them in a healthy manner. The examples of core issues listed in the
“Basic concepts” section of this chapter include low self-esteem, an insecure
or unstable sense of self, fear of abandonment, fear of intimacy, and oedipal
fixation. Do any of these seem to you to belong to Emily Grierson? It seems
to me we could argue that Emily has any one of, at least, these last three core
issues. In fact, I think we could argue that she has all three. And I think we
could show how these issues are the source of all of her dysfunctional behavior.
So let’s collect the textual evidence that reveals: (1) Emily’s core issues; (2) the
defenses she uses to keep her core issues repressed; and (3) the family dynamics
responsible for Emily’s developing these core issues in the first place.
Emily’s core issues
1 Fear of abandonment—What happens to Emily that could give her such an
extreme fear of abandonment that she murders Homer and keeps his
body? Well, in addition to the fact that Emily apparently lost her mother
92 Using critical theory

at a young age, her father keeps her isolated (which must feel like being
abandoned by the whole town), and then he abandons her, himself, by dying.
a Find the evidence in the story that shows how Mr. Grierson keeps
Emily from forming ties
i with other family members,
ii with members of the community, and
iii with young men.
b Find the evidence in the story that shows how Emily’s fear of aban-
donment manifests itself right after her father’s death. What does she
do when the townsfolk come to take his body?
c Find the evidence in the story that shows how Emily’s fear of aban-
donment manifests itself during the year after her father’s death.
Consider, for example,
i her long illness,
ii her subsequent haircut, which makes her look like a little girl, and
iii the “crayon [chalk] portrait” of her father (where does she keep it?).
2 Fear of intimacy—Emily may or may not want to go out and mix with the
community while her father is alive, but it is clear that, after his death,
she doesn’t want to be with anyone except Homer Barron. In other
words, once her father’s death deprives her of the only person she knows,
she so fears abandonment that she is afraid to get close to anyone else
for fear that she will be abandoned again. This means that her fear of
abandonment contributes to her fear of intimacy.
a How does the story show us Emily’s fear of intimacy? List as many
examples as you can.
b How does Emily’s choice of Homer Barron also show that she fears
intimacy? How is Homer characterized as a person who avoids emotional
intimacy?
3 Oedipal fixation—How is Homer a stand-in for Emily’s father? Despite
their differences, the two men have a good deal in common that could
make them seem similar in Emily’s eyes.
a Find every example you can of the traits the two men share.
b Remember, too, that Emily doesn’t want the community to bury her
father; she wants to keep his body in the house with her. So how is
Homer, even after his death, a stand-in for her father?
Emily’s defenses
The defenses listed in the “Basic concepts” section of this chapter include
denial, avoidance, displacement, and projection. Which defenses do you see
Using concepts from psychoanalytic theory 93

operating in Emily? It seems to me that her primary defenses are denial and
avoidance.
1 Denial—Find in the story all the ways in which Emily is in denial, all the
ways in which she just says no to reality. Include, among other evidence,
a Emily’s refusal to release her father’s body,
b the ways in which Emily’s personality becomes a good deal like her
father’s because resembling her dead father is one way of keeping him
“alive,” of denying that he is dead, and
c Emily’s apparent refusal to see any difference between her social class
and that of Homer Barron.
2 Avoidance—Find in the story all the ways in which Emily practices
avoidance—that is, all the ways she finds to stay away from people,
places, and situations that might remind her of experiences she wants to
forget. Include all the ways in which Emily seems to be trying to live in
the past after her father is buried and after Homer’s death. For living in
the past helps Emily avoid an awareness of whatever current situation she
doesn’t want to face.
Emily and her family
By this point in our discussion of the story, the role of Emily’s father in the
creation of her core issues is probably fairly obvious to you. Find all the tex-
tual evidence you can to support the following claims, each of which relates
to all three of Emily’s core issues. (You may have collected above some of the
evidence you’ll need here.)
1 Emily’s father does everything he can to isolate her from everyone in her
family and in her community.
2 Mr. Grierson puts Emily on a pedestal (no one is good enough for her)
and behaves toward her in an overprotective, even jealous manner.
3 Because Emily has no one but her father, she cannot handle his death.
She experiences his death as an overwhelming abandonment.
4 Mr. Grierson appears to have a selfish, authoritarian, violent disposition.
Textual evidence to support this claim will allow us to speculate that his
relationship with his daughter is neither warm nor open and that she
therefore feels emotionally abandoned by him even while he is alive.
Focusing your essay
Given the textual evidence you’ve collected, I think you might focus your essay
on the ways in which “A Rose for Emily” illustrates the following well-known
psychoanalytic premise: adults tend to model their romantic relationships on
94 Using critical theory

the relationship they had with a parent of the opposite sex. (You’ve heard that
old song about men wanting to marry women that remind them of their
mothers, haven’t you? It begins, “I want a girl just like the girl that married
dear old Dad.”) But disastrous results can ensue when that parent–child rela-
tionship is seriously disordered, as is the relationship between Emily and her
father. From this perspective, you might argue that Emily’s oedipal attachment
to her father, which Mr. Grierson creates by putting his daughter on a pedestal
and making himself the only man in her life, is the underlying cause of a fear
of abandonment and of intimacy that become intense enough to drive Emily
to commit murder.
Remember, as always, that you don’t have to limit yourself to the analysis
of Emily I’ve offered you. For example, you might argue that Emily chooses
Homer not because he reminds her of her father but because he is the kind of
man her father would say isn’t good enough for her. From this point of view,
she goes out with Homer not because she has an oedipal fixation and needs
Homer as a stand-in for Dad, but because she is angry at her dead father for
ruining the first thirty years of her life and wants to punish him.
In contrast, if you think that Emily’s oedipal fixation on her father is strong
enough, you might argue that Emily doesn’t kill Homer because he is going
to leave her but because he wants to marry her. Does this idea surprise you?
Just think about it for a minute. If Emily’s oedipal attachment to her father is
strong enough, she might feel that marrying Homer would be a betrayal of
her love for her father. In other words, if she unconsciously feels “married” to
Dad, then sleeping with Homer would be like cheating on her father. But
neither could she refuse Homer’s marriage proposal and risk losing him: her
fear of abandonment is too great for that. And as Homer is an emotional
stand-in for her father, losing him would be like losing her father all over
again. Killing Homer and sharing her virginal bed with his dead body is thus
the perfect solution. She gets to keep Homer (which is like keeping her
father) without having to marry him (which means she can remain loyal to
her father).
Don’t be overwhelmed by all the possible interpretations this story offers. If
you like, focus on only one or two main ideas from among all those offered,
and develop those one or two ideas as fully as you can. For example, focus just
on Emily’s fear of abandonment, or focus just on her oedipal fixation. What-
ever your interpretation, be sure you understand the psychoanalytic concepts
you choose to employ, compose a clear statement of your thesis, and support
your interpretation with adequate textual evidence.
Understanding dream images in literature: Interpreting “I started
Early—Took my Dog”
As you may recall, I suggested at the beginning of this chapter that you can
bring psychoanalytic concepts to your understanding of a literary work by first
Using concepts from psychoanalytic theory 95

asking this question: Do any of the characters exhibit what might be con-
sidered dysfunctional behavior, and if so, what are the psychological motives
behind it? I hope our psychoanalytic explorations of “Everyday Use” and
“A Rose for Emily” illustrate for you how well this question often works in
developing your psychoanalytic understanding of literature. This is a good
question to start with because literature is filled with characters whose personal
problems are of a psychological nature, and those problems are usually responsible
for a good deal of what happens in a story, poem, or play. For it is often the
dark side of human experience that authors are trying to understand.
What should we do, however, if a text doesn’t seem to provide any illus-
trations of dysfunctional behavior? Does that mean the text does not have a
psychoanalytic dimension for us to explore? Not necessarily. Even in the
absence of self-destructive characters, a text often has an important psycho-
analytic component, as we can see in Emily Dickinson’s Poem 520, “I started
Early—Took my Dog” (c. 1862; see Appendix A). For like a good deal of
poetry—as well as poetic passages in stories and plays—Dickinson’s poem can
be analyzed as if it were a dream because of the dream-like, unreal quality of
many of its images, such as the mermaids emerging from beneath the sea to
look at the poem’s speaker, the ships along the shore beckoning to her, and
the sea pursuing her all the way to town. As we noted in the “Basic concepts”
section of this chapter, dreams can tell us a good deal about the dreamer’s
repressed fears, needs, and conflicts. So we can use the dream elements of
Dickinson’s poem to explore its psychoanalytic content. When we want to
read a literary work as if it were a dream, it often helps to take the following
steps: (1) summarize the work as if it were a dream; (2) use your summary to
help you draw some general conclusions about the meaning of the work viewed
as a dream; and (3) analyze the dream imagery to make your interpretation
more specific.
Summarizing the “dream”
As poetic language can sometimes be difficult to follow, especially for beginners,
your instructor might allow you to summarize the poem-as-dream in your
own words, in as much detail as you can provide, to be sure that you’ve
understood the events it describes. If a poem is written in simple, modern
English and is easy to follow, this step may be unnecessary. Our Dickinson
poem is easy to follow at some points but difficult at others, so why don’t you
summarize as much of the poem as you can? Then see if the following summary
agrees with yours.
Summary of Poem 520: The speaker, presumably a young woman, takes her
dog for an early morning walk by the sea when no one else is there. As she
arrives at the shore, mermaids come up from the “Basement” (l. 3)—that is,
from beneath the sea—to look at her. She also sees frigates, or wooden ships,
towering above her. The hemp ropes that secure these ships to land seem to
96 Using critical theory

her to be long hands inviting her to climb aboard the way mice used to climb
along such ropes to get aboard wooden ships. But no one disturbs her—
indeed, she is apparently the only human being present—until the tide sud-
denly rises so high that it covers her body, right up to her neck. In fact, the
sea, which is clearly male, rises so quickly that he seems about to swallow her
as if she were no larger than a drop of dew on the petal of a dandelion. The
prospect of being consumed by the sea seems to frighten her greatly, for she
flees the shore and runs toward town. However, the sea pursues her so closely
that she feels the edge of the tide (his “Silver Heel,” l. 18) upon her ankle, and
the bubbling foam of the sea (the “Pearl,” l. 20) overflows into her shoes as
she runs. This close pursuit continues until she reaches town, with which the
sea is unacquainted. Here, the sea ends his pursuit. He bows to her, gives her a
powerful look, and goes back from whence he came.
Drawing some general conclusions from your summary
Using your summary to guide you, go back to the poem and list what you
think are the most important things the “dream” tells us about the speaker.
The following five points are examples of the kinds of general conclusions
you can draw. Find all the evidence in the poem you can to support these
conclusions. If you’ve drawn different conclusions, find evidence that supports
your conclusions.
1 The speaker is extremely frightened by the sea.
2 The speaker also seems attracted to the sea, at least at some points in the poem.
3 The speaker runs to town to escape the sea.
4 All of these conclusions suggest that the speaker has a conflicted relationship
to the sea. That is, she has directly opposed feelings about the sea. Make sure
you have found all the evidence the poem offers to support this claim.
5 Especially in the first two stanzas, the speaker feels self-conscious: she
feels that she is an object of curiosity and that judgments of some sort are
being made about her. Given our claim that the speaker is both attracted
to and frightened by the sea—that is, she is attracted to something that
frightens her—her self-consciousness may mean she has some desire
about which she feels guilty, for we often imagine we are being watched
or judged when we want something we feel we shouldn’t want.
Analyzing the poem’s dream symbolism
In order to turn our general conclusions into an interpretation of the poem as
a dream, we need to interpret the dream imagery in a way that makes sense in
context of the poem as a whole. For example, earlier in this chapter, the
“Dream symbolism” section of “Basic concepts” told us that water—in this
case, the sea—can symbolize the unconscious, the emotions, and/or sexuality.
Using concepts from psychoanalytic theory 97

How can we determine which interpretation is most applicable here? Well,
we can look at how the sea behaves. Does this poem’s representation of the
sea seem as sexual to you as it does to me? If you think we can argue that the
speaker’s conflicted attitude toward the sea implies a conflicted attitude toward sex
(sex both attracts and frightens her), find all the textual evidence you can to
support the following claims about the poem’s dream symbolism. Keep in
mind that we’re not making the kind of unwarranted “symbolic leap” described
in Chapter 2: “Using concepts from reader-response theory to understand our
own interpretations.” For psychoanalytic theory provides us with the dream
symbols we’re using. However, we must be careful to use them in a way that
makes sense in terms of our interpretation of the poem as a whole.
1 The Sea—The sea seems to symbolize sex, specifically the sexual pursuit
of a woman by a man. (This sea is chasing her for a reason!)
2 The “Pearl” (l. 20)—If the sea symbolizes sex, then the “Pearl,” which is
literally sea-foam, works as a symbolic stand-in for semen. That is, the
sea, here, emits sexual fluid. Or, at the very least, we can say that the sea
is overflowing with sexuality.
3 The “Basement” (l. 3)—The “Basement,” which is, ordinarily, an under-
ground storage space and refers in the poem to the deeper water below
the sea’s surface, seems to symbolize the speaker’s unconscious, which
contains her own repressed sexuality. For this “Basement” is inhabited by
mermaids, and mermaids are at home in the sea (sexuality) and are often
portrayed as very sexually attractive to human males.
4 The Mermaids (l. 3)—Given the preceding discussion of the “Basement,”
it follows that the Mermaids symbolize the speaker’s own sexual desire.
5 The Frigates (l. 4)—Because the Frigates inhabit the “Upper Floor” (and
because the “Basement” has already taken the role of the unconscious),
the Frigates which float upon the surface of the sea probably symbolize the
speaker’s conscious mind. In that case, she must see herself, as the Frigates
do, as a helpless creature, like a mouse, in need of protection from the sea.
6 The Town—Given that the speaker flees to the “Solid Town” (l. 21) to
escape from the sea, the town must represent something directly opposite
the sexual freedom of the sea. In addition, any location in which a
community of people live in an orderly fashion and obey common laws
is generally associated with the repression of individual desire. Thus, the
town can be taken to symbolize the restraints placed on sexuality by laws
and customs.
Focusing Your essay
I think the work we’ve done on the poem suggests that you might focus your
paper on the topic of sexual repression. You might argue, for example, that
the speaker represses her sexual desire because she is afraid of its power.
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Because we’re reading the poem as a dream, however, it may occur to you to
wonder whose dream it is. Is it the author’s? Well, it may or may not be the
author’s dream, but we can’t make such a claim unless we’re prepared to back
it up with evidence from Dickinson’s life, letters, and other poems, a task that
few of us are prepared to undertake. So it’s best to argue simply that the
poem, read as a dream, represents the conflicted attitude human beings often
have toward their own sexual desire. Or you might make the equally valid
and perhaps more interesting claim that the poem, read as a dream, reflects the
kind of conflicted attitude toward sex that was prevalent during the nineteenth
century, when the poem was written.
Remember, too, that you don’t have to limit yourself to the analysis of the
poem I’ve offered you. For example, you might feel, instead, that this poem,
read as a dream, implies a fear of rape or the trauma of a woman who has
been raped, which is how some of my students have viewed the poem. After
all, there is a symbolic emission of semen (the overflowing “Pearl,” l. 20). And
at the end of the poem, the sea, “with a Mighty look” (l. 23)—implying a
threatening power—“withdrew” (l. 24), which in a sexual context can imply
the withdrawal of the penis after intercourse. In other words, the speaker may
flee to the town for safety, but she doesn’t arrive there in time to escape the
sexual aggression that threatened her.
In contrast, you might feel that this poem, read as a dream, implies the
indulgence of a guilty desire on the part of the speaker, as other of my students
have suggested. In this case, you would argue that symbolic sexual intercourse
does take place but that it does so with the guilt-ridden consent of the speaker.
In other words, the speaker believes that sex is wrong and tries to avoid it but
is overwhelmed by her own sexual desire. After the sexual act occurs and her
desire is satisfied, she feels the full force of her guilt. Thus, the speaker describes
the town as “Solid” (l. 21), not because it represents a safe refuge but because it
represents all the solid social institutions of the nineteenth century that con-
demned sexual pleasure. Whatever your interpretation, be sure you understand
the psychoanalytic concepts you choose to employ, compose a clear statement
of your thesis, and support your interpretation with adequate textual evidence.
Recognizing a character’s self-healing: Interpreting “Don’t Explain”
Perhaps the most obvious and surely the most important psychological
dimension of Jewelle Gomez’s “Don’t Explain” (1987; see Appendix E) is the
story’s depiction of the negative effects on the main character’s emotional
health of feeling isolated as a lesbian in a heterosexual world. Of course, this
aspect of Letty’s emotional life is included in the story to help us understand
lesbian experience. Therefore, you’ll find it discussed in the interpretation of
“Don’t Explain” offered in Chapter 7, “Using concepts from lesbian, gay, and
queer theories to understand literature.” Similarly, the chapters on Marxist,
Feminist, African American, and postcolonial theory include interpretations of
Using concepts from psychoanalytic theory 99

Gomez’s story that discuss, among other things, the ways in which Letty’s
class, gender, race, and cultural identity, respectively, affect her psychological
relationship to herself and her world.
So let’s focus here on a different dimension of Letty’s psychological makeup:
her feelings about the late Billie Holiday, one of America’s most famous jazz
singers, known especially for her moving renditions of songs about the pain of
being in love and the pain of losing love. As the story progresses, Letty’s
thoughts return again and again to Billie Holiday, whose famous recording of
the song “Don’t Explain” provides the story’s title. I’m not suggesting that
Letty’s feelings about Billie Holiday have nothing to do with the main character’s
class, gender, race, sexual orientation, or cultural identity. Of course these factors
play a large role in her emotional relationship to Billie. However, Letty also
feels a bond with Billie because of what she sees as the singer’s loneliness and
insecurity. And surely, loneliness and insecurity are relevant to the psychological
experience of us all, regardless of the social categories by which we are defined.
Because this focus on Letty’s emotional relationship with Billie Holiday is so
specific, it might produce a briefer analysis than did the previous psycho-
analytic discussions of literary works. But this narrower focus is nevertheless
valuable because it allows us to explore another aspect of literature to which
we can bring psychoanalytic tools: representations of emotional self-healing.
Although literary representations of self-destructive characters certainly seem
much more numerous than literary works that illustrate healthy forms of
coping with life’s problems, “Don’t Explain” is an excellent example of this
kind of literary text.
Over the course of the story we learn that Billie Holiday, also known as
Lady Day, has recently died. And since Billie’s death, Letty has not been able
to bring herself to play any of the singer’s records on the juke-box, which
Letty had been in the habit of doing during her breaks at the 411 Lounge
where she has worked for the past seven years. The depth of Letty’s mourning
for Billie Holiday, whom she has met only once, reveals the very important
and very personal meaning this singer holds for Letty. Our first task, then, is to
understand the bond Letty feels with Billie and how that bond helps heal the
main character’s psychological wounds, a healing process that begins to occur
at the end of the story when Letty is finally able to listen to a Billie Holiday
record. Even more impressive is the fact that Letty is able to share this
moment with another person: she is beginning to emerge from her shell.
Because we are arguing here that Letty has psychological wounds which her
bond with Billie Holiday helps to begin to heal, we must do three things:
(1) discover Letty’s psychological wounds; (2) determine why Letty identifies
with Billie Holiday (determine what Letty believes she has in common with
Lady Day, which convinces Letty that she knows how the singer feels); and
(3) determine why Letty admires Billie Holiday, an admiration that ultimately
helps Letty feel that she, herself, can begin to take the emotional risk of living
a fuller life than she has allowed herself to live so far.
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Letty’s psychological wounds
1 Letty’s lost love—Letty has lost someone she loves—Maxine—and she can’t
stop thinking about her. (We are not told exactly how Letty lost Maxine.
Evidently, they were a couple and then broke up. In any event, it is
Letty’s sense of loss that is important for our analysis.)
a Find the textual evidence showing that Letty tries to block the memory
of Maxine out of her mind because thinking about her makes Letty
very sad.
b Find the textual evidence showing that the reason Letty has recently
stopped listening to Billie Holiday records is that her sadness over
Billie’s death makes Letty feel more lonely for Maxine.
2 Letty’s fear of intimacy—Because of the pain Letty suffered over losing
Maxine, she has put herself in a shell. For Letty, fear of intimacy may or
may not be a core issue, but at least since the loss of Maxine seven years
ago, Letty has been afraid of putting her heart at risk again. (If it’s a core
issue—a permanent part of her personality due to unresolved psychological
wounds—then Letty will continue to fear intimacy even as she allows
herself to make new friends and even if she falls in love. We don’t know
what happens after the story ends, but we do know that Letty exhibits
fear of intimacy during most of the story.)
a Find the textual evidence showing that, until the very end of the
story, Letty doesn’t let herself get close to anyone.
b Find the textual evidence showing that Letty’s fear of intimacy is due
to her fear of getting hurt again.
Letty’s identification with Billie Holiday
Letty believes that she and Billie have a great deal in common and that she
therefore knows how Billie feels. Find textual evidence to support the fol-
lowing claims, and see if you can find evidence of any other qualities Letty
believes she and Billie have in common.
1 Letty believes that she and Billie have the same kind of loneliness.
2 Letty believes that she and Billie have many of the same insecurities.
3 Letty believes that, like her, Billie loves a woman and is keeping her love
a secret.
4 Though Letty may or may not realize it, she has many strengths in
common with Billie. For example, like Billie, Letty
a is very good at her job,
b has a generous spirit, and
c is kind to others.
Using concepts from psychoanalytic theory 101

Letty’s admiration of Billie Holiday
1 List all the things that Letty seems to admire about Billie Holiday.
2 Note, too, that Letty admires the singer not just because of Billie’s good
qualities, but because Letty sees that Billie has achieved success—has
become extremely good at her music and has become famous—despite
her setbacks and insecurities. In other words, Letty admires Billie’s
strength in the face of adversity. Find all the textual evidence you can to
support this claim.
Letty’s self-healing
“Hey, Billie is insecure just like I am! But she went out on stage even when
her audience knew she had a drug problem and came just to watch her fail.
And she didn’t fail—she sang so well that she won them over. If she can take a
risk like that, then so can I!”
1 Letty doesn’t say these words out loud, but how does the text show us
that something like this is what she must be feeling? In other words, what
risks does Letty’s admiration for Billie Holiday finally help her to take?
2 How do we know that Letty is feeling better at the end of the story?
Find as many lines as you can that show the improvement in Letty’s spirits.
Focusing your essay
As we’ve seen throughout our exploration of “Don’t Explain,” the story
illustrates how an individual can find a source of psychological strength in an
emotional identification with another person, even if that other person is a
relative stranger. For Letty doesn’t really know Billie Holiday: they’ve met
only once. And though that one meeting reinforced all of Letty’s positive
feelings about the singer, Letty’s real bond with Billie Holiday comes from her
emotional response to Billie’s music and from the public knowledge available
about Billie’s career and personal problems. So you might focus your essay on
the ways in which “Don’t Explain” illustrates the potential healing power of
the kind of positive emotional identification Letty has with Billie Holiday.
Or to put the matter another way, you might argue that we can’t fully
understand Letty if we don’t understand the psychological role Billie Holiday
plays in her life.
Remember, you don’t have to limit yourself to the analysis of Letty I’ve
offered you. For example, you might feel, instead, that Letty’s emotional
relationship with Billie Holiday, as we’ve described it here, is too narrow a
focus to give us an understanding of the main character’s healing process, in
which case you might want to combine what you’ve learned here with the
insights into Letty’s emotional experience offered in one or more subsequent
102 Using critical theory

chapters. For as we noted when we began our psychoanalytic interpretation of
“Don’t Explain,” although each of the other theories we will study has its
own unique focus on a particular aspect of human experience, those theories
can also draw on psychoanalytic concepts to help us understand our psycho-
logical experience in terms of our social class, gender, sexual orientation, race,
and cultural identity.
Or perhaps, instead, your instructor might allow you to do some research
on Billie Holiday’s life in order to write an essay that compares, more thor-
oughly than we have done, the singer’s experiences and problems with those of
Letty. Such an essay should also allow you to speculate about the accuracy of
Letty’s intuitions about Billie. A biography that you might find especially useful
for this purpose is Stuart Nicholson’s Billie Holiday (Northeastern University
Press, 1995), which includes a good deal of information about the singer’s
early years, her career, her success, the racial discrimination she suffered, and her
sexual orientation. Whatever your interpretation, be sure you understand the
psychoanalytic concepts you choose to employ, compose a clear statement of
your thesis, and support your interpretation with adequate textual evidence.
Using psychoanalytic concepts in service of other theories:
Interpreting “The Battle Royal”
As we saw in the opening and closing paragraphs of our discussion of “Don’t
Explain,” psychoanalytic concepts can be used to develop Marxist; feminist;
gay, lesbian, and queer; African American, and postcolonial readings of a literary
work because these theories include attention to the ways in which psycho-
logical damage is done to people who are oppressed for reasons of, respectively,
class, gender, sexual orientation, race, and cultural identity. “The Battle Royal,”
the first chapter of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man (1952; see Appendix C),
provides another excellent example of how theories can overlap, how one
theory can be used “in service” of another theory. For in reading “The Battle
Royal” we can use psychoanalytic concepts to develop Marxist, feminist, gay,
African American, and postcolonial interpretations of the story. In fact, we
have little choice, as the source of all the psychological content of “The Battle
Royal”—the characters’ dysfunctional or self-destructive behavior—is clearly
the enormous imbalance of power between the story’s middle-class white
Americans and working-class African Americans and, as a kind of subplot,
between the story’s middle-class white men and the white female exotic dancer.
Buried even deeper in the story—“in the closet,” we might say—there is also a
psychological dimension of the story related to the white male characters’ attitude
toward black male sexuality that can be developed in a gay reading of the story.
There is, however, no psychological experience represented in “The Battle
Royal” that can be viewed independently of the characters’ class, gender,
sexual orientation, race, or cultural identity. The only reference to any char-
acter’s emotional experience within the family is a description of the intense
Using concepts from psychoanalytic theory 103

fear, prevalent in the narrator’s family, of the absolute power of whites. But
the story’s description of that fear does not include a description of the family’s
psychological dynamics, in contrast to “Everyday Use,” for which we can
generate a separate psychoanalytic interpretation in addition to our Marxist,
feminist, gay, African American, and postcolonial readings of Walker’s story.
Neither does “The Battle Royal” illustrate a psychological experience that can
be explored as a kind of “universal” experience—one that can happen to
anyone from any background—like the emotional self-healing discussed in
our interpretation of “Don’t Explain.”
Obviously, when a literary work clearly ties the psychological experience of
its characters to the social categories by which their world defines them,
we must tie our interpretation of the characters’ psychological experience to
those same social categories. Therefore, the psychological dimension of “The
Battle Royal” appears in the interpretations of this story offered in subsequent
chapters. As we’re not going to develop a separate psychoanalytic reading of
the story here, let me just list for you the various uses to which psychoanalytic
concepts are put in those interpretations.
Our Marxist interpretation—Our Marxist interpretation of “The Battle Royal”
explores, among other things, the psychological effects of the protagonist’s
misplaced belief in the American Dream.
Our feminist interpretation—Our feminist reading of Ellison’s story implies that
the white civic leaders have psychologicalmotives in treating the exotic dancer as
a sex object and that their behavior toward her has negative psychological effects,
both on the dancer and on the African American youths forced to watch her.
Our gay interpretation—In our gay interpretation of “The Battle Royal,” we
examine the psychology of homophobia.
Our African American interpretation—Among other things, our African American
interpretation explores the psychological effects of racism.
Our postcolonial interpretation—Our postcolonial reading of this story analyzes,
among other things, the psychological oppression of the African American
characters and of the white exotic dancer, all of whom are treated as inferiors,
as outsiders, by the wealthy white dominant culture.
However you decide to use psychoanalytic concepts in developing your
interpretation of “The Battle Royal,” be sure you understand the theoretical
concepts you choose to employ, compose a clear statement of your thesis, and
support your interpretation with adequate textual evidence.
Food for further thought
Thinking it over
If you’ve worked through all of the interpretation exercises offered in this
chapter, you should feel quite familiar with the basic approaches to
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understanding literature provided by concepts from psychoanalytic theory.
Specifically, we’ve seen how psychoanalytic concepts can be used to interpret
1 literary works that illustrate the kind of “everyday” dysfunctional behavior
found, to varying degrees, in most families (our example: “Everyday Use”),
2 literary works that illustrate insanity (our example: “A Rose for Emily”),
3 literary works that consist largely of dream imagery (our example: “I started
Early—Took my Dog”),
4 literary works that illustrate psychological self-healing (our example:
“Don’t Explain”), and
5 literary works whose representations of psychological experience should
not be analyzed using psychoanalytic theory alone (our example: “The
Battle Royal”).
We also saw, in our discussions of “Don’t Explain” and “The Battle Royal,”
that psychoanalytic concepts can be employed in reading literature from
Marxist, feminist, gay and lesbian, African American, and postcolonial per-
spectives. The reason is fairly simple. Among other things, all the theories you’ll
read about in subsequent chapters oppose some form of oppression: oppression
due to social class, gender, sexual orientation, race, or culture, respectively.
And all of these forms of oppression include psychological oppression. Individuals
who belong to the “wrong,” or devalued, group in a given culture are usually
treated as if they were inferior human beings and, therefore, often come to
believe that they are inferior human beings. In other words, oppression fre-
quently creates low self-esteem and other forms of insecurity in those who are
oppressed, and when this happens it is called psychological oppression. So
while psychoanalytic concepts can help us understand the ways in which our
personalities are formed within the dynamics of the family in which we were
raised, they can also help us understand the ways in which our personalities are
formed within the everyday dynamics of the community in which we live.
Whatever our analysis of a given psychological problem—whether it’s a
problem exhibited by a literary character or one of our own—most students
new to psychoanalytic concepts want to know if such problems can ever be
overcome. If, for example, low self-esteem is one of my core issues, can I ever
be rid of it? The bad news is that, according to psychoanalytic theory, I can
never be completely rid of a core issue. Because I’ve developed aspects of my
personality in response to that issue, it will always be, in some way, a part of
me. However, the good news is that I can change my relationship to a core
issue. The more I learn about a given problem I have, the more I can develop
new ways to deal with it, to not let it push me into behavior that is destructive
to myself or to others. And I also have the benefit of knowing that, when
I backslide, when an old problem suddenly shows up again, I’m not back
where I first started. The recurrence of an old problem from time to time is
natural, unavoidable, because it’s “built into” my past and therefore “built into”
Using concepts from psychoanalytic theory 105

me. So occasional backsliding doesn’t mean I haven’t made good progress.
And we all, of course, have psychological problems simply because we’re
human beings. According to psychoanalytic theory, our psychological problems
are part of the hand we’re dealt by our life experience. It’s how we play that
hand that matters.
Psychoanalytic theory and cultural criticism
We can also use concepts from psychoanalytic theory for the purposes of
cultural criticism. That is, we can use psychoanalytic concepts to help us analyze
the cultural messages sent, whether deliberately or not, by the everyday pro-
ductions of the culture in which we live, such as movies, games, television
shows, song lyrics, toys, and other productions of popular culture discussed
in Chapter 1. In fact, any cultural production that in some way represents
human behavior—that has characters and a plot—can be analyzed using con-
cepts from psychoanalytic theory just as we use those concepts to analyze lit-
erary works. For example, an understanding of core issues and defenses can
offer us insights into the classic film romance Pretty Woman (directed by Garry
Marshall, 1990), in which good-hearted prostitute Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts)
and lonely, self-made corporate raider Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) find true
love and a happy future together.
Too busy to give adequate time and attention to his romantic relationships—
the most recent of which has just ended badly—Edward decides to hire the
lovely, free-spirited Vivian to be his “beck-and-call-girl” for one week in
order to ensure himself a trouble-free companion for the various social events
he must attend in pursuit of his latest corporate takeover. Over the course of
the film, Vivian gets Edward to loosen up, slow down, and smell the roses.
Instead of destroying his latest corporate target, the fatherly Mr. Morse (Ralph
Bellamy), Edward saves the man’s company and goes into business with him.
Analogously, Edward gets Vivian to broaden her horizons and have faith in
her ability to achieve a better life. By the end of the film, Vivian has decided
to quit her life on the street—she has even rejected Edward’s offer to keep her as
his mistress—and get her high-school-equivalency diploma. Luckily, Edward
catches up with Vivian before she leaves town and offers her the “happily ever
after” they both want.
As interesting and entertaining as Pretty Woman is at face value, it can
become even more so if we are familiar with psychoanalytic concepts. How
can we understand, for instance, Vivian’s self-destructive behavior in terms of
low self-esteem and denial? For example, how do we know that Vivian thinks
she doesn’t deserve much out of life? And how does Vivian reveal her state
of denial, during the film’s opening scenes, by her insistence that she’s
doing fine just as she is? Analogously, how can we understand Edward’s
self-destructive behavior—his inability to sustain a romantic relationship and
his heartless business practices—in terms of fear of intimacy? Specifically, how
106 Using critical theory

does he reveal his deep-seated fear of getting close to anyone at all? And how
do we know that his choice of business and his drive to succeed in that busi-
ness are really the displacement of his negative feelings toward his father onto
other corporate tycoons? This kind of analysis can help us understand the lives
led by Vivian and Edward before they meet early in the movie and
thus show us why they are drawn to each other for reasons beyond Vivian’s
beauty and Edward’s money. And such an analysis, while interesting and
worthwhile in itself, can serve as a first step to answering a question of
particular importance for psychoanalytic cultural criticism: How does a given
production of popular culture seem to define emotional health or normality?
In the case of Pretty Woman, in what ways do Vivian and Edward become
emotionally healthy by the end of the movie? In short, how does the film sug-
gest that, as the old sayings go, “Love cures all,” and “All you need is love”?
I believe most viewers would agree that Pretty Woman is a charming movie
with an engaging story, very sympathetic leading characters, and a satisfyingly
happy ending. That’s why so many of us, I think, take away such pleasant
feelings when the movie is over. But do we also take away—perhaps without
quite realizing it—something else? By suggesting that true love can heal, over
the course of one week, the kinds of psychological wounds that both Vivian
and Edward carry from their youth, Pretty Woman seems to overlook or even
trivialize the importance of the kind of psychological self-knowledge that
requires much more time and work. I’m not suggesting that the plot should
be changed to have Vivian and Edward sign up for pre-marital counseling.
Personally, I wouldn’t change the movie at all. I am suggesting that, from the
perspective of psychoanalytic cultural criticism, Pretty Woman sends a specific
cultural message, or as cultural critics would put it, Pretty Woman performs
specific cultural work. Whether or not it intends to do so, the movie reinforces
tendencies within American culture to favor “quick fixes” over sustained effort
and to believe that “love conquers all.” In particular, Pretty Woman gives us
permission, so to speak, to deny the importance of dealing with our own psy-
chological issues. In other words, part of our enjoyment of the movie is a kind
of indefinable feeling of freedom, a sense of relief, a reinforcement of our desire
to believe that any unhappiness we have can be turned around at any moment
by the good fortune, or happy fate, of falling in love with the right person.
***
Remember, it’s natural to feel a bit uncertain when we encounter a new
theory—a new way of looking at ourselves and our world—that may call into
question many of the beliefs that have been pressed upon us, and that we’ve
accepted uncritically, for most of our lives. Uncertainty is an unavoidable part
of learning and growing. Keep in mind, too, that others may disagree with your
opinions. Individuals often disagree in their interpretations of literature, popular
culture, or everyday experiences, even when drawing upon the same psycho-
analytic concepts for their analyses. The keys to a good interpretation—besides
Using concepts from psychoanalytic theory 107

intellectual curiosity and an open mind—are a clear understanding of the
psychoanalytic concepts you’ve chosen to use and strong evidence to support
your analysis.
Taking the next step
Questions for further practice
1 In Langston Hughes’ short story “The Blues I’m Playing” (1934), we see
a strong contrast between the psychological well-being of Miss Oceola
Jones and the psychological problems of Mrs. Dora Ellsworth. What
attitudes and behaviors does Oceola exhibit that show her psychological
health? In contrast, where do we see evidence that Mrs. Ellsworth lives
vicariously through her protégés in an attempt to fill the emotional void
in her own life; that she tries to control every aspect of her life in order
to avoid her own emotions (does Mrs. Ellsworth suffer from fear of
intimacy?); that she projects onto Oceola her own unhappy experience
of marriage; and that she is in denial about her psychological problems?
2 Edna Pontellier, the protagonist in Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening
(1899), goes through many changes over the course of her short life. One
consistent pattern of behavior, however, can be found in her relationships
with men. Edna is attracted to unattainable men: in addition to Robert
Lebrun, consider the unattainable men she falls for during her girlhood in
Kentucky. In addition, she doesn’t love the two men she does attain: her
husband Léonce and her lover Alcée Arobin. This pattern suggests that
Edna has a fear of intimacy. Find all the textual evidence you can to
support this claim, including her early experiences with her mother,
father, and sisters. (Were her early family experiences likely to create a
strong capacity for emotional intimacy?)
3 In many ways, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949) can be seen as a
psychological play about the emotional breakdown of protagonist Willy
Loman. Find as much textual evidence as you can to show that Willy’s
low self-esteem and fear of abandonment are responsible for most of his
self-destructive behavior. For example, how can we see his low self-
esteem in the lies he tells his wife, his sons, and others? Note, too, the
effects on Willy of being abandoned, as a young boy, by both his father
and his older brother. Or you might consider how Death of a Salesman
can be seen as a play about the power of denial. Gather all the textual
evidence you can showing the ways in which all four members of the
Loman family are in denial throughout the play.
4 In Janice Mirikitani’s “Breaking Tradition” (1978), the speaker’s mother
taught her to repress and deny her feelings, desires, and painful memories;
to never show defiance or passion; and to limit herself to a confining
world of housekeeping and childrearing. In short, the speaker was taught
108 Using critical theory

to be silent and to stay “in her room”—that is, within her self. How does
the poem illustrate the harmful effects of such behavior? Although the
speaker wants to communicate with her daughter as her own mother
never did with her, how do we see that this communication has not yet
occurred? And while the speaker wants a different life for her daughter,
in what ways is her daughter repressing her own feelings, remaining in
her own “room,” in her own state of denial?
5 Use concepts from psychoanalytic theory to help you interpret some
aspect of a movie, television show, song lyric, cartoon, video game, or
any other production of popular culture that you find interesting and that
seems to have a psychoanalytic dimension. For example, how are human
emotions and human relations represented? Are core issues or psycholo-
gical defenses represented in some way? What information, if any, is
provided concerning family relationships, romantic relationships, or
friendships that might be useful from a psychoanalytic perspective? Based
on your observations, what cultural work does your chosen cultural
production do relevant to psychoanalytic theory? Specifically, what defi-
nitions of normality or psychological well-being does it imply? Be sure to
offer evidence from your chosen production to support your ideas.
Suggestions for further reading
Berg, Henk de. Freud’s Theory and Its Use in Literary and Cultural Studies: An Introduction.
Rochester, New York: Camden House, 2003. (See, especially, “The Psychoanalysis of
Literature,” 73–108.)
Davis, Walter A. “The Drama of the Psychoanalytic Subject.” Inwardness and Existence:
Subjectivity in/and Hegel, Heidegger, Marx, and Freud. Madison: University of Wisconsin
Press, 1989. 232–313. (See, especially, “The Familial Genesis of the Psyche,” 242–50;
“Identity and Sexuality,” 296–307; and “Love Stories,” 307–13.)
Fanon, Frantz. “The Negro and Psychopathology.” Black Skin, White Masks. 1952. Trans.
Charles Lam Markman. New York: Grove Press, 1967. 141–209.
Gay, Peter, (ed.) The Freud Reader. 1989. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995. (See, espe-
cially, “On Dreams,” 142–72; “Creative Writers and Daydreaming,” 436–43; “The
Theme of the Three Caskets,” 514–22; “Mourning and Melancholia,” 584–89; and
“Civilization and Its Discontents,” 722–72.)
Loomba, Ania. “Psychoanalysis and Colonial Subjects.” Colonialism/Postcolonialism. 2nd ed.
New York: Routledge, 2005. 115–28.
Tyson, Lois. “Psychoanalytic Criticism.” Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. 2nd
ed. New York: Routledge, 2006. 11–52.
Wright, Elizabeth. Psychoanalytic Criticism: A Reappraisal. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge,
1998. (See, especially, “Classical Psychoanalysis: Freud,” 9–32, and “Classical Freudian
Criticism: Id-Psychology,” 33–47.)
Using concepts from psychoanalytic theory 109

Chapter 5
Using concepts from Marxist theory
to understand literature
Why should we learn about Marxist theory?
Most of us realize that a country’s socioeconomic system determines who has
the most power in that country. For example, in medieval Europe’s feudal
system, the most power belonged to those who controlled the most land, and
a powerful class system developed that kept the descendants of those land-
owning families in power. In the capitalist systems operating in most Western
nations today, the most power belongs to those who control the most
money—the word capital means money—and that control may or may not
change hands at any given time.
For Marxist theory, however, the socioeconomic system in which we live
does much more than determine who has the most power. It also determines,
among other things, how we are educated, and it influences our religious
beliefs, which together control to a great degree how we perceive ourselves
and our world. For if a socioeconomic system is to survive, the people who
live within it must be convinced that it is the right system. For a rigid class
system to survive, then, its people must be convinced of the natural superiority
of those born into the upper class. Analogously, for American capitalism’s
American Dream to survive, Americans must be convinced of the natural
superiority of those who manage to rise from the bottom to the top of the
financial heap. And it is our education and our religious beliefs that do much
of the convincing by determining how we perceive ourselves and our world.
Let me develop this point further. To understand the kind of influence a
socioeconomic system exerts over its members, let’s take a minute to look a
bit more closely at the ways in which those of us born and bred in the United
States have been influenced by ours. To succeed in the US, we must compete
against other Americans for financial prosperity. So we must believe in the virtues
of both competition and financial prosperity. Now consider that the American
educational system teaches us, from the earliest grades, to compete, each of us
alone against the rest of the class, for prizes in spelling bees, essay contests,
talent contests, and the like. Consider, too, that Puritan culture in colonial
North America, from which much of our national culture developed, included

the belief that certain individuals are “elected” before birth to be among God’s
chosen and that the signs of one’s “election” included financial prosperity.
Thus, in the United States, financial success became associated with moral
virtue. This belief persists today in the American Dream, which celebrates as a
virtue the individual’s rise to the highest plateau of financial achievement of
which he or she is capable. In other words, both America’s educational phi-
losophy and religious history foster the spirit of individual competition and the
desire for financial prosperity that are the basis of its capitalist socioeconomic
system. This is just one example of the ways in which a nation’s socio-
economic system influences how its members perceive themselves and their
world. Marxism, therefore, is concerned with how the socioeconomic system
in which we live shapes our personal identity.
The goal of Marxism is to achieve a worldwide classless society by exposing
the oppressive ideologies (belief systems) that keep the nations of this planet
bound within socioeconomic systems in which a relatively small number of
people are extremely wealthy while most people are struggling, or even failing
to get by. For example, while the top executive officers of international cor-
porations often have personal financial holdings in the hundred millions, the
vast majority of people on this planet are lucky if they can feed, clothe, and
shelter themselves and their children, let alone afford such “luxuries” as ade-
quate healthcare and educational opportunities. And too many families—even
in such a prosperous country as the United States—are unable to do that. So
we can start to use Marxist theory to understand literature by asking the fol-
lowing two questions about any literary work we want to interpret. (1) What
oppressive socioeconomic ideologies influence the characters’ behavior?
(2) Does the literary work combat those ideologies by clearly illustrating the
damage they do? If the literary text does not combat those ideologies, then, for
Marxist theory, that text is considered part of the problem—because it blinds
us to the problem—rather than part of the solution. The most common
oppressive socioeconomic ideologies are defined in the “Basic concepts” section
that follows. Although it’s important that you read through this list of con-
cepts, don’t be too concerned if you don’t feel you thoroughly understand
every one. You’ll begin to understand these concepts much better when we
use them, later on in this chapter, to help us interpret the literary texts that
appear at the end of this book. And you’ll see that these fundamental Marxist
concepts can help us understand other works of literature, as well.
Remember, too, that I’m offering you my own literary analyses in the
interpretation exercises provided later in this chapter. You might use the same
Marxist concepts I use but come up with different interpretations of your
own. If you disagree with any of the analyses I offer in these exercises,
don’t be afraid to look in the literary work in question for evidence that will
support your viewpoint. A literary work can often support a number of dif-
ferent interpretations, even when readers are using concepts from the same
theory.
Using concepts from Marxist theory 111

Basic concepts
Note that the basic concepts listed below are all examples of socioeconomic
ideologies that have existed for centuries and in which many people believe
today. Marxism didn’t invent these ideologies. Rather, Marxism opposes
them. For according to Marxist theory, each of these ideologies fosters a
socioeconomic hierarchy that grants enormous wealth and power to a relatively
small number of people at the top of the socioeconomic ladder, prevents a
large number of people from escaping the poverty in which they are trapped
at the bottom of the ladder, and keeps those on the middle rungs—if there are
any middle rungs—at the financial mercy of such unpredictable occurrences as
increased taxes and the rising costs of heathcare, education, and housing.
Therefore, the definition of each socioeconomic ideology listed below is followed
by a Marxist description of that ideology’s flaws.
You’ll notice many references to the United States in the following para-
graphs because American culture, I think, illustrates with particular clarity the
ability of socioeconomic ideologies in general, and of capitalist ideologies in
particular, to customize themselves to fit the self-image of any society in
which they have taken hold. Indeed, two of the capitalist ideologies defined
below—the American Dream and rugged individualism—have American origins,
though they now exert their influence globally.
Classism
Classism is the belief that our value as human beings is directly related to the
social class to which we belong: the higher our social class, the higher our
natural, or inborn superiority. It is only right and proper, classists believe, that
those in the highest class should assume leadership roles, for they are, by birth,
more intelligent, honorable, energetic, and dependable than those beneath
them on the social scale. Analogously, classist ideology tells us that people
born into the lowest class have, by birth, a greater tendency to be slow-witted,
dishonorable, lazy, and undependable. In traditional classist societies, social
class is determined by birth and cannot be changed by the accumulation or
loss of wealth because class superiority or inferiority is believed to be “in the
blood”—that is, determined by the class to which our parents belong.
Marxist theory, in contrast, rejects the idea that the social class into which
we are born determines our superiority or inferiority as human beings. All our
class standing determines is whether we’ll be socially advantaged or dis-
advantaged. In other words, Marxist theory considers classism unfair and unwise
because it grants privileges to a small segment of the population and withholds
privileges from a large segment of the population without regard for individual
merit. And unfortunately, classist ideology is hard to defeat.
The United States, for example, tried to eliminate classism by creating a
society in which one’s social class can change with the accumulation or loss of
112 Using critical theory

wealth. This method, it was thought, would allow individuals of merit to rise
to the top. However, Marxist theory points out that the accumulation of
wealth, especially of enormous wealth, isn’t necessarily a sign of merit. All too
often it’s a sign of questionable ethics. Indeed, as history has shown us, the
accumulation of great wealth, or even the maintenance of great inherited
wealth, depends upon such unethical practices as the exploitation of cheap
labor, the production and sale of such dubious commodities as alcohol and
drugs, the exorbitant pricing of such necessities as healthcare and prescription
drugs, and the destruction of the environment. In addition, classism exists in
the United States, despite the fact that Americans can change the social class
into which they were born, because those who occupy the upper class at any
given point in time usually expect to be treated, and usually are treated, as if
they were superior to those below them on the socioeconomic ladder. And
members of the American upper class usually have the same kind of political
clout as upper-class people in traditional classist societies. Analogously, those
who get trapped in the lower class in the US, due to limited educational and
occupational opportunities, are treated as if they were inferior, as if it were
their fault that there aren’t enough high-paying jobs to go around.
Capitalism
As we saw earlier, the word capital means money. So capitalism is a system in
which everything—every object, every activity, every person—can be defined
in terms of its worth in money, its “going rate” on a specific market. Because
the market (the availability of and demand for a given product) is considered the
best regulator of a product’s monetary worth, capitalist governments tend to
avoid regulating business profits. Industries are therefore left in private hands.
Marxist theory suggests, however, that unregulated business profits tend to
promote what might be called an ethics of greed, according to which the only
virtue, or the only virtue anyone really wants to cultivate, is the virtue of
making the most money. For only an ethics of greed could permit the kinds
of huge profits enjoyed, for example, by the large American pharmaceutical
companies, which have resulted in the inability of most Americans who
become ill, especially who become chronically ill, to pay for their medication
without prescription insurance, which most Americans don’t yet have. Marxist
theory can point to many examples of the destructive nature of capitalism’s
promotion of greed, including the squeezing out, by large chain-stores, of the
small, independent businesses that used to be so numerous in the United States
and the rapidly rising cost of many necessities, in addition to prescription drugs,
beyond the easy reach of many people in the United States and throughout
the world: hospitalization and other healthcare services and products; decent
housing; education; safe, accessible transportation; and even adequate food.
Despite its flaws, however, it seems to many of us who live in capitalist
societies that capitalism is, if not perfect, unavoidable. After all, isn’t it human
Using concepts from Marxist theory 113

nature to want more money? That’s the kind of ideology capitalism promotes
in order to keep us from questioning it. And that’s why, to give you just one
striking example, Americans have long believed the myth that the island of
Manhattan, on which New York City is now located, was sold to white settlers
for beads and trinkets valued at about twenty-four dollars. The fact is that the
island of Manhattan was not for sale. The Native Americans who allegedly
“sold” it didn’t believe that land could be bought and sold (just as air can’t be
bought and sold). The island was so rich in wildlife that all Native Americans,
even tribes engaged in hostilities, were allowed to hunt there in peace. When
the white settlers offered beads and trinkets to the locals, the native hunters
simply believed it was an offering of friendship made in gratitude for being
allowed to hunt on the island! Clearly, it is not human nature to want more
money because not all human cultures share this desire. Nevertheless, the settlers
moved in and defended their new “purchase” with guns, believing, or choosing
to believe, that the island now belonged to them.
Capitalist ideologies
Competition—Capitalism believes that competition among individuals—
competition for jobs, for pay raises, for customers, for loans, for awards, and
so forth—is the best way to promote a strong society because competition
ensures that the most capable, most intelligent people will rise to the top.
In contrast, Marxist theory suggests that unrestrained competition is
oppressive because it tends to ensure that the most selfish, unethical people
will rise to the top, as they’re the ones willing to do whatever it takes to
win. The result is that the needs of the community as a whole are usually
overlooked, and the needs of those least willing or able to compete are
usually sacrificed entirely. That is, competition emphasizes the importance
of the individual—“me, me, me”—instead of the group. In addition, it’s
difficult to confine the spirit of competition to the school or the workplace.
We tend to bring it home with us and become competitive in our personal
lives, as well, getting unduly upset if we don’t win the Scrabble game or if
our child doesn’t win the spelling contest or if our furniture isn’t as new as
our neighbor’s.
Commodification—A commodity is anything that has a price tag. Because
capitalism defines everything in terms of its monetary worth, it encourages
commodification. That is, it encourages us to relate to things and people as
commodities. We commodify something when we relate to it in terms of
how much money it’s worth, or put another way, how much money it can
be exchanged for (its exchange value). When we buy something with a high
price tag, we acquire social status, so we also commodify something when
we relate to it in terms of the social status its ownership gives us (its sign-
exchange value). For example, I commodify the man I’m dating if I go out
with him because he spends a great deal of money on me, in which case
114 Using critical theory

I’m dating him for his exchange value. Also, I commodify him if I go
out with him to impress my friends, in which case I’m dating him for his
sign-exchange value.
You probably don’t need Marxist theory to show you the dangers
involved in this capitalist ideology. We all know that it’s not good to date
someone for shallow, selfish reasons. However, we see this kind of behavior
so often that it seems almost “natural,” and it seems to many of us, even if
we don’t admire it, relatively harmless. So let me offer you a more striking,
though less visible example. The commodification of human beings is such
an accepted part of big business in the United States that the price-tag
placed on human life is frequently the chief motive determining whether or
not a given airline company will upgrade its airplanes for safety. The cost of
the upgrade is weighed against the cost—for example, the cost in terms of
lawsuits and bad publicity—of however many lives are liable to be lost,
according to statistical analysis, if the upgrade is not done. If the cost of the
upgrade is sufficiently higher than the cost of the loss of human life, the
upgrade is not done.
The American Dream—The American Dream is a capitalist ideology associated
specifically with American history and culture. According to the ideology of
the American Dream, anyone who has the determination to work hard
enough and the persistence to work long enough can rise from “rags to
riches” because America is the land of equal opportunity for all.
Marxist theory points out, however, that our belief in the American
Dream blinds us to the reality that a vast number of people have not had
and do not have equal opportunity in education, employment, or housing
due to such factors as, for example, their gender, race, religion, sexual
orientation, and socioeconomic class. And worse, the American Dream
leads us to believe that poor people who are unable to significantly improve
their financial status must be shiftless and lazy or in some other way undeserv-
ing of decent living conditions. After all, the American Dream tells us that
all it takes to make it in America is hard work and determination, and that
those who don’t make it have only themselves to blame.
Rugged individualism—The American Dream has fostered the ideology of
rugged individualism, which holds up for our admiration the example of
the individual who strikes out alone in pursuit of a goal not easily achieved,
for example, the goal of undertaking an untried, high-risk line of business,
in which attempt one could lose all one’s money, or rushing for gold on the
American frontier, in which attempt one could lose one’s life.
Marxist theory suggests, however, that the rugged individualist has been
greatly romanticized by American folklore while, in reality, rugged indivi-
dualism generally requires putting self-interest above the needs of the
community and a commitment to the belief that “nice guys finish last.” The
rugged individualist—who generally believes that his first duty is to himself
and his first goal is to win whatever competition he’s entered—isn’t the
Using concepts from Marxist theory 115

person most likely to stop and share his canteen of water with a thirsty
straggler who has lost his way to the gold-fields.
The role of religion
For many people, religion is a source of spiritual strength and moral guidance. And
Martin Luther King has shown us that the church can function as a powerful
force against political oppression when parishioners organize for that purpose.
Marxist theory observes, however, that religion too often plays a role in
oppressing the poor. One of the best-known Marxist sayings is that “religion
is the opiate of the masses.” This means that religion acts as a kind of drug that
keeps poor people quiet. Belief in God is not the issue here. Rather, the issue
is what is done in the name of organized religion to keep the poor oppressed.
For example, white plantation owners in the pre-Civil-War American south
used the Bible to justify slavery. And religious belief has long been used to
keep poor people satisfied in the knowledge that they’ll get their reward in
heaven, thus keeping the poor from rebelling against those who oppress them.
There are, of course, additional oppressive ideologies that Marxism opposes, but
these are enough to get us started using Marxist theory to interpret literature.
Let’s begin our interpretation exercises by analyzing a story that illustrates very
well several of the concepts just outlined: Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use.”
Interpretation exercises
Understanding the operations of capitalism: Interpreting
“Everyday Use”
Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” (1973; see Appendix D) is set in the rural
south of the late 1960s and early 1970s and tells the story of the Johnsons, an
African American family consisting of a mother and her two grown daughters.
Although the college-educated Dee Johnson has escaped the poverty into
which she was born, Mama and Maggie Johnson have not. And it is the
story’s portrayal of the economically successful Dee, especially when con-
trasted with its portrayal of Mama and Maggie, that makes “Everyday Use” a
promising candidate for a Marxist interpretation. Indeed, the depiction of Dee
illustrates the operations of all the capitalist ideologies listed in the “Basic
concepts” section of this chapter: (1) competition; (2) commodification; (3) the
American Dream; and (4) rugged individualism. So let’s take a look at each of
these capitalist values in turn and try to see the role it plays in Walker’s tale.
To the extent that these ideologies play a positive role in the characters’ lives,
the story is pro-capitalist—it shows capitalism in a good light—which means, in
Marxist terms, that the story promotes capitalist oppression. To the extent that
these ideologies play a negative role in the characters’ lives, the story is anti-
capitalist—it reveals the evils of capitalism—which means, in Marxist terms, that
116 Using critical theory

the story combats capitalist oppression. Of course, from a Marxist perspective, a
story that combats capitalist oppression performs a very important task.
Competition
I think most readers would agree that Dee is the most competitive character in
the story. From the time we see her as a young girl to her current visit with
Mama and Maggie, almost everything she does reveals her need to compete
with other people: to show that she is more intelligent, wittier, better dressed,
more successful, and more sophisticated than anyone else. She even competes
with her mother and sister as she has done with her friends, despite the fact
that Mama and Maggie don’t compete with her at all.
1 Find all the evidence you can that Dee has internalized this capitalist
ideology.
2 How has competition damaged her relationships with other people?
Commodification
One thing you probably noticed right away is that Dee’s first priority is social
status. She commodifies almost everything and everyone. Specifically, she relates
to the ownership of objects and to relationships with people in terms of the social
status they give her (in terms of their sign-exchange value). Even the Black Pride
Movement seems important to this character mainly for its sign-exchange value.
As a result, she relates to the people and things in her life in a superficial manner.
1 Find the numerous examples offered in the story that Dee has internalized
this capitalist ideology.
2 How has commodification damaged her relationships with other people?
3 How does Mama’s decision about the quilts, at the end of the story,
reveal her opinion of Dee’s value system?
The American Dream
1 Dee—Dee seems to view herself as an American-Dream success story. She
was born into poverty in the rural south, a poverty made more difficult
to escape, we can assume, by the sub-standard schooling available in the
working-class community in which she grew up as well as by her race
and gender. Yet through determination and many years of hard school
work, Dee has raised herself to a successful, urban, middle-class lifestyle.
And she blames Mama and Maggie for not having achieved what she
has achieved, as if anyone could do what she did if they just had enough
get-up-and-go. In other words, she has bought into the ideology of the
American Dream.
Using concepts from Marxist theory 117

a Find evidence in the story that Dee has the kind of determination
associated with the attainment of the American Dream and that she has,
in fact, achieved that Dream: that she has achieved a level of financial
success and social status much higher than that into which she was born.
b Find evidence in the story that Dee’s belief in the ideology of the
American Dream has damaged her relationship with her family.
2 Mama and Maggie—Mama’s failure to get her piece of the American pie
reveals that the American Dream does not offer equal opportunity to
everyone. Mama has worked hard her whole life and shown a good deal
of determination in raising her daughters alone, supporting her family
alone, and finding the financial help she needed to send Dee to college.
Despite her extraordinary efforts, however, Mama has not achieved the
American Dream. She and Maggie still live in relative poverty. Mama’s
fantasy about being on television shows that she would like to have
succeeded more, but she was unable to do so. Maggie has always been a
hard worker, too, but it seems highly unlikely that she will be able to raise
herself beyond the poverty level, even after she marries John Thomas.
a Find the textual evidence that shows the many ways in which Mama
and Maggie work hard.
b Find all the textual evidence you can to show that the American
Dream is not available to Mama and Maggie, though it claims to be
available to everyone.
i How are Mama and Maggie held back by the limited availability
of educational opportunities for people of color, poor people, and
disabled people (note Maggie’s impaired vision)?
ii Given the story’s setting, why is it safe to assume that Mama and
Maggie have limited job opportunities?
3 In addition to the data you just collected about Mama and Maggie, find
all the textual evidence you can to show that the story portrays these two
characters positively, in other words, that the text wants us to like Mama
and Maggie and not blame them for their poverty, as Dee does.
Rugged individualism
Dee seems to have forgotten that she wouldn’t have had the chance to
become financially successful without the help of Mama and her community.
She acts as if she did it all on her own. And she doesn’t seem inclined to lift a
finger now to help Mama and Maggie improve their lot.
1 Find evidence in the story that supports these claims about Dee’s selfish
attitude.
2 Explain how Dee’s ingratitude toward and neglect of her family is
encouraged by the ideology of rugged individualism.
118 Using critical theory

Focusing your essay
As we’ve just seen, all of the capitalist ideologies represented in the story
damage the character who embraces them: Dee. And the story portrays Dee in
a way that makes it difficult for most readers to like her. In contrast, the
characters who seem to reject capitalist ideology—Mama and Maggie—are
sympathetically portrayed. So it seems reasonable to focus your essay on the ways
in which “Everyday Use” is anticapitalist, the ways in which the story invites us
to reject the capitalist ideologies it illustrates, which, from a Marxist perspective,
is a very good thing for a story to do.
As always, remember that you don’t have to limit yourself to the analysis of
the story I’ve offered you. For example, while you might agree that the story’s
portrayal of Dee shows the damaging effects of capitalism on personal values
and family solidarity, you might argue that Mama and Maggie’s situation
doesn’t offer us an inviting alternative to capitalism. If the choice of lifestyle
offered in “Everyday Use” is between that afforded by Dee’s financial stability
and the undereducated poverty of Mama and Maggie, many readers, at least
unconsciously, will probably be drawn to Dee’s capitalist lifestyle despite
whatever personal dislike they might feel for her. From a Marxist perspective,
this would be a flaw in the story.
You might also argue that the story’s Marxist critique of capitalism isn’t as
thorough as it might be. For Marxist theory doesn’t want the poor to be
content with their poverty, as Mama and Maggie seem to be. Rather, Marxism
wants the poor to work against their own victimization, for example, by
joining together in community, state, national, and international groups to
organize efforts to change laws and policies that discriminate against the poor.
Whatever your interpretation, be sure you understand the Marxist concepts
you choose to employ, compose a clear statement of your thesis, and support
your interpretation with adequate textual evidence.
Recognizing the operations of the American Dream: Interpreting
“The Battle Royal”
Sometimes a literary work illustrates the operations of one capitalist ideology
in particular, as we see in Ralph Ellison’s “The Battle Royal” (1952; see
Appendix C). In this story, the nameless narrator takes us back to his youth.
As a young man who has just graduated from high school, the narrator seems
fixed on one idea: he wants to “get ahead.” Through hard work and deter-
mination, he wants to become a financial success and raise himself out of the
poverty in which most of the members of his African American community
are stuck. In other words, he wants to achieve the American Dream. And
because he knows that the local white civic leaders hold the key to his success,
the narrator knows he must please them if he is to have any chance at all of
achieving that Dream. In fact, he is so focused on his own desire for success
Using concepts from Marxist theory 119

that he is unable to understand the meaning of the bizarre events that occur in
the hotel ballroom on the evening he is to give a speech before the town’s
leading white men. For his attention to the scene around him is repeatedly
interrupted by his concern over what the white civic leaders might be thinking
about him.
So there’s our start: the story portrays a young man’s belief in the American
Dream. Now in order to determine whether the story is defending or attacking
this capitalist ideology, we must examine whether the American Dream is
portrayed positively or negatively. In other words, are the effects of the narrator’s
devotion to the American Dream positive or negative? To answer that question,
note what is going on in the story each time the young man’s thoughts dart to
his concern about the civic leaders’ opinion of him, a concern that often takes
the form of worrying about his speech. I think you’ll observe that each time
this happens, the narrator’s desire to know what the white men are thinking—
which is a desire for his own success, for his own chance at the American
Dream—blinds him to the reality of what is going on in that hotel ballroom
and in his life. Specifically, I think you’ll find that the narrator’s belief in the
American Dream blinds him to five important things: (1) the real intentions of
the white civic leaders he tries so hard to please; (2) the significance of his
alienation from the other young men from his community; (3) the significance
of the white exotic dancer the civic leaders parade before the young black
men; (4) the meaning of the battle royal in which the narrator participates;
and (5) the meaning of the narrator’s dream about his grandfather. Let’s take a
look at each one in turn.
The real intentions of the white civic leaders
The white civic leaders have invited the narrator to their smoker to give a
speech, a speech the young man believes will open for him the path to the
American Dream. And the narrator does, in fact, give a speech, after which he
is presented with a briefcase and a scholarship to a state college for black
youth. Nevertheless, it seems rather clear that these leaders—who represent
such public institutions as the government, the church, and the schools—do
not intend that the narrator will do anything more in the future than serve the
white power structure by helping to keep his people “in their place.” These
men have no intention of helping him achieve the American Dream, unless it
is in the form of an unofficial pay-off for services rendered: the narrator may
be permitted to achieve a slightly higher degree of financial success than the
rest of the black community, but that success will come at the cost of helping
the white power structure keep his people down. Yet this black youth is
unable to see how these powerful white men feel about him.
1 Find all the evidence in the story you can to show the real intentions of
the white civic leaders toward the narrator.
120 Using critical theory

a Find the lines that show why the white men like the narrator’s
graduation speech.
b Find the lines that reveal why the white men are sending the narrator
to college.
2 Find the textual evidence that shows how the narrator’s focus on the
American Dream keeps him from seeing the white men’s intentions, and
keeps him in denial about the realities of his situation.
a In the narrator’s opinion, who are the only people capable of judging
his worth?
b What does the narrator hope his speech will do for him?
The narrator’s alienation from his community
The narrator’s negative reaction to the young men with whom he is to par-
ticipate in the battle royal might be considered an example of classism: he feels
he doesn’t belong with them because he believes himself socially superior to
them. However, notice that he is mainly concerned that the white civic leaders
will associate him with these less successful and presumably less deserving young
men and that this will lessen his chance of being aided by the white community
in his quest to achieve the American Dream.
1 Find the textual evidence that shows us how the narrator’s devotion to
the American Dream alienates him from the young men in his own
community.
a Find the lines that show how the narrator feels about the other black
youths.
b Find the lines that show how these black youths feel about the narrator.
2 Find the textual evidence showing that the narrator isn’t even able to
fully realize how the other young men feel about him. (His encounter, in
the ring, with Tatlock is especially revealing.)
The significance of the exotic dancer
From the perspective of Marxist theory, the exotic dancer is a commodity for
the white men who have hired her, a token of their social status, and their
social status is the source and mirror of their social power. In fact, as a sign of
white men’s prestige and power, the exotic dancer represents white women in
general. Such tokens have little meaning if they are not displayed for others to
see. This is why the civic leaders insist on displaying her before the young
black men. They want these young men to desire her. The white men are
telling the black youths, in effect, “You want white women, but you can’t
have them because they are our property, a sign of our social status, a sign that
we are superior to you.”
Using concepts from Marxist theory 121

1 Find all the evidence in the story you can to support this claim.
2 Find the textual evidence that shows the narrator’s inability to see this
aspect of the white men’s relationship to the exotic dancer.
a Does it ever occur to the narrator that the white men are displaying
their power in this scene?
b Instead of getting angry at the white men, where does the narrator
direct his anger?
The meaning of the battle royal
Of course, the battle royal is a chilling example of racist brutality, and it is the
degradation of young black males in their prime that the white men apparently
find so “entertaining.” However, from the perspective of Marxist theory, the
battle royal also mirrors one of the ways in which the socioeconomically
oppressed are kept down by those in power. They are kept fighting among
themselves, forced to compete with one another for the limited amount of
money thrown their way. In the story, the young men must compete for the
limited amount of money thrown on the electrified rug. In the real world, the
socioeconomically oppressed must compete for the limited number of jobs
available to them. Do you see the parallel? And as long as the oppressed are
kept battling one another, they won’t join forces and turn against their
oppressors. In fact, this is why the white men want the narrator to participate
in the battle: he, too, must be kept down where he “belongs.”
1 Find the evidence the story provides to support the claim that the battle
royal represents this kind of keep-them-fighting-among-themselves strategy.
a What do the white men say to the fighters before the battle?
b What do the white men yell at the fighters during the battle?
c What do the white men do when they think that a fighter is trying to
escape from the ring?
2 Find the textual evidence that shows us how the narrator’s focus on the
American Dream blinds him to this meaning of the battle royal.
a Note how often the narrator’s thoughts drift to his speech, on which
he has pinned his hopes of future success.
b Note exactly what is happening each time the narrator’s thoughts drift
to his speech.
3 In this context, explain the significance of the fact that the fighters in the
battle royal are blindfolded.
The meaning of the narrator’s dream about his grandfather
Toward the end of the story, the narrator is finally allowed to give his speech,
and he receives a scholarship to the state college for black youth. That night
122 Using critical theory

he dreams about his grandfather, who horrified the family years ago by telling
them, on his death bed, that his life of meekness and humility had been just a
disguise to fool white folks, whom he considered the enemy of his people.
Look closely at this dream. As we learned in the previous chapter on psy-
choanalytic theory, dreams sometimes reveal a truth that we have buried in
our unconscious—that is, a truth we are afraid to face because we fear we
can’t handle it.
1 What truth is revealed in the narrator’s dream about his grandfather? In
other words, what does the narrator unconsciously know about his
position as a black person in a racist society dominated by whites?
2 How does the American Dream help him close his eyes to this truth?
Focusing your essay
It should be a fairly simple task to focus your essay based on the evidence
you’ve collected above because all of that data point to one idea: the story
suggests that the American Dream is not only a false ideology—it doesn’t keep
its promise—but a dangerous ideology. The narrator is so blinded by his belief
in the American Dream that he can’t see the obvious reality of his own
situation. And if he can’t see the problem, then he can’t even begin to try to
solve it. In the same way that religion is referred to by Marxist theory as “the
opiate of the masses,” Ellison’s tale shows us how the American Dream can
operate as a drug in its own right. For the narrator, the American Dream is a
religion, and his unquestioning belief in it blinds him to the reality that sur-
rounds him, keeping all his hopes and all his attention focused on some
indefinite future when he believes he will be rewarded for proper conduct by
being allowed to achieve his piece of the American pie. However, the narrator’s
hard work and determination, not to mention the chilling sacrifices of personal
safety and dignity he makes to please the white civic leaders portrayed in the
story, do not ensure that he will be offered his rightful opportunity to attain
the American Dream. Rather, it is quite clear that he will be kept running in
pursuit of an American Dream he will never be allowed to earn. And he will
be kept running because his belief in the Dream doesn’t permit him to realize
how completely the deck is stacked against him.
It’s probably easier to see why people who have succeeded in climbing the
socioeconomic ladder believe in the American Dream than to understand why
those whom it excludes remain committed to it. But an essay based on the
evidence you’ve collected above will show the power of the American Dream
to blind even the poorest Americans to the fact that the Dream is not equally
accessible to all. You may be thinking, “Well, it’s still good for the poor to
have something to hope for even if they can’t get it.” But a hope that blinds
you to the reality of your circumstances is dangerous because, without a clear
understanding of the situation you’re in, you can’t help but be victimized by
Using concepts from Marxist theory 123

it. In such a case, your hope is like the hope of a person addicted to gambling:
because addicted gamblers believe they can win—that is, they have hope—
they can’t quit gambling. As long as the narrator in “The Battle Royal” clings to
the American Dream, which is a dream of coming out on top, of beating the
competition, he will not be able to realize what Marxist theory would
have him realize: that his only real hope lies in uniting with other oppressed
people and working to change the laws and attitudes that created and sustain
socioeconomic oppression.
Of course, you don’t have to limit yourself to the analysis of the story I’ve
offered you. For example, you might focus, instead, on the ways in which the
white civic leaders commodify everyone in the story: the narrator, the group
of young black men they bring in for the battle royal, and the exotic dancer.
For these white men relate to those beneath them on the socioeconomic
ladder as tokens of their own sign-exchange value, of their own social status.
Such an analysis would include a discussion of the negative effects of com-
modification on the white men’s moral character. In other words, you’d be
showing how “The Battle Royal” reveals the harmful effects of capitalist
ideology even on those it privileges.
If you would prefer, instead, to focus your essay on the ways in which the
story illustrates the damaging effects of classism, keep one thing in mind. The
classist behavior you see in the story—the white men’s belief in their class
superiority and the narrator’s belief that he “outclasses” the young men from
his community—is based on skin color. The underlying assumption is that
white people are superior to black people and that light-skinned blacks are
superior to those with darker skin. So in “The Battle Royal,” classism is based
on racism, a subject explored in depth in Chapter 8, “Using concepts from
African American theory to understand literature.” Whatever your inter-
pretation of this story, be sure you understand the Marxist concepts you
choose to employ, compose a clear statement of your thesis, and support your
interpretation with adequate textual evidence.
Analyzing the operations of classism: Interpreting “A Rose for Emily”
America was founded on the belief that human beings should not be bound
by a class system that keeps sons and daughters chained to the same profession,
and therefore the same socioeconomic class, as their parents. Nevertheless, at
different times and places in American history, the traditional class system—
according to which one’s family name, one’s ancestry, is one’s defining
characteristic—has been the factor that determines one’s social class and
therefore one’s social standing in the community. We see the remnants of this
kind of traditional class system operating in William Faulkner’s “A Rose for
Emily” (1931; see Appendix B). The death of Mr. Grierson reveals that he has
lost his fortune and that his daughter Emily, the story’s main character, will
not inherit the money the family once had. Nevertheless, the town of Jefferson
124 Using critical theory

still considers Emily a member of the upper class because, as a Grierson, she
can trace her lineage back to one of the big plantation families who ruled the
South before the Civil War. In order to determine how the story wants us to
respond to the classism it portrays—in order to determine if the story promotes
or attacks classist ideology—we must determine the story’s attitude toward that
ideology. So: (1) let’s take a look at each example of classist behavior portrayed
in the story and see whether the effects of that behavior are positive or nega-
tive; and (2) given that classism is an ideology that promotes the belief in the
superiority of members of the upper class, we will also check to see if the text
paints a positive or negative portrait of its upper-class characters.
Examples of classist behavior
1 Mr. Grierson’s classism—The Grierson family belongs to the upper stratum
of southern society occupied by the wealthy plantation owners before
the Civil War, from whom they are descended. In contrast, the rest of
the town belongs to the middle and lower classes. Mr. Grierson’s classism
is visible in his refusal to let Emily mingle with those he considers her
social inferiors: because the only young people available are “beneath
her,” he doesn’t allow her to have boyfriends or friends of any kind.
Also, it is logical to assume that another reason for his keeping Emily
isolated is that he doesn’t want anyone to know that he has lost his
fortune. If Emily mixed in the social life of the town, she would need a
wardrobe befitting her station. If she married, a dowry and wedding
finery would be required. Mr. Grierson cannot afford such expenditures,
but his classism has fostered a personal pride that won’t let him reveal the
truth of his circumstance to those beneath him. Because he believes in
the superiority of the upper class, he needs to maintain the illusion that
he still has the fortune appropriate to his rank in society.
a Find the evidence in the story that reveals Mr. Grierson’s classism.
b Find the textual evidence that shows all the harmful effects his classism
has on his daughter.
2 Colonel Sartoris’s classism—After Mr. Grierson’s death, Colonel Sartoris,
the mayor of Jefferson, keeps Emily from losing her home and protects
her pride by making up a story to justify her not having to pay muni-
cipal taxes. Surely, there are many needy people in town. Why does
Colonel Sartoris go to such lengths to protect Emily Grierson, an adult,
able-bodied woman? It’s reasonable to assume that he does so because
he’s a classist. Presumably, Sartoris was an officer in the Confederate
Army during the Civil War. Therefore, it is highly probable that he shares
his peers’ classist belief in the superiority of the plantation owners and
that his own social rank is not far below that of the Griersons. So it is his
job to protect a “lady,” a woman of rank, in distress.
Using concepts from Marxist theory 125

a Find all the textual evidence you can of Colonel Sartoris’s classism.
b Find textual evidence that the Colonel’s classism is part and parcel of
his racism, that he equates what he sees as inferiority of race with
inferiority of class.
3 Emily’s classism—As the young Emily is growing up, she may or may not
share her father’s belief that she is too good for the town. By the time he
dies, however, it seems clear that she has internalized his classist ideology.
a Find all the evidence you can in the story to illustrate Emily’s classism.
Include, for example,
i the ways in which she acts like a member of a “superior” class
(for instance, “china-painting”—painting designs on china dishes—
was considered a pastime of refined young ladies), and
ii her snobbish contempt for almost everyone in town, including
the town’s leading citizens.
b Why would a classist like Emily allow Homer Barron, a man from a
lower social class, to court her? Might she think that her social rank
requires an escort and, having no social experience whatsoever, might
Emily feel more comfortable with a man to whom she feels superior?
The text doesn’t give us explicit evidence with which to answer this
question. Can you come up with a reasonable speculation related to
social class that doesn’t contradict textual data?
c What evidence is there in the story that Emily believes she can give
Homer the appearance of being from a higher class than the one to
which he belongs?
d If Emily thought Homer was going to leave her, how would her
classism motivate her to murder him?
4 Homer Barron’s classism—Homer is not a one-woman man. He is described
as the fun-loving, rough-and-ready type. He is probably capable of courting
Emily for her money or her beauty, but everyone knows she doesn’t
have much of either. How can we, then, account for his choice of
Emily? It’s reasonable to argue that her social rank is the attraction
because it’s apparently the only attraction she has. As a man who likes to
be the center of attention, and having no social rank of his own because
he’s a northerner and a laborer, it stands to reason that he doesn’t like
being considered inferior to the town’s middle-class population. Thus, it
is likely that Homer wants to raise his social status by associating with a
woman from the upper class. In other words, Homer is a classist: he
believes in the importance of social rank.
a Find all the evidence in the story you can to show that Homer is
motivated by classist ideology. For example, how is he trying to fit
into Emily’s class? Note, for instance:
126 Using critical theory

i any mention of his appearance when he is with Emily,
ii the principal activity in which they publicly engage, and
iii the quality of the horse and buggy Homer rents.
b If elevating his class status were Homer’s only goal in courting Emily,
how might his classism contribute to the couple’s unhappiness if they
married?
c How might Emily’s classism also contribute to the couple’s unhappiness
if they married?
5 The community’s classism—The white community in which Emily lives
apparently consists of middle-class and working-class people. Their attitude
toward Emily is conflicted: at times they respect her social rank or sym-
pathize with her situation; at times they seem jealous and are glad to see
her brought down a peg or two. But both their favorable and unfavor-
able feelings about Emily result from their classism, from their belief that she
is somehow superior to them because she is a member of the upper class.
a Find all the evidence in the story you can to illustrate the community’s
classism.
b Find textual evidence to show that their classist attitude, though based
on a belief in the Griersons’ social superiority, actually does Emily harm.
The portrayal of the upper class
A story that gives us Mr. Grierson, Emily Grierson, Emily’s cousins from
Alabama, and old lady Wyatt and her heirs as its only representatives of the upper
class is not painting an attractive portrait of that class. These very negative
characterizations—which make the ordinary townsfolk seem fairly harmless
by comparison—insure that the story is not endorsing the classism it illustrates.
List all the negative traits “ARose for Emily” ascribes to the following upper-class
characters:
1 Mr. Grierson,
2 Emily Grierson,
3 Emily’s cousins from Alabama, and
4 old lady Wyatt and her heirs.
Focusing your essay
Based on the work we’ve done so far, I think you might safely focus your
essay on the ways in which “A Rose for Emily” illustrates the damaging effects
of classism. For it seems we can reasonably argue that classist ideology harms
all of the story’s main characters. Classism isolates both Mr. Grierson and
Emily from the rest of the community. Classism deprives Emily of the chance
Using concepts from Marxist theory 127

to develop the interpersonal skills she needs to make a life for herself after her
father’s death. In fact, we might say that, given the extreme degree of Emily’s
isolation, classism helps drive her mad. Classism very probably plays a role in
Homer Barron’s death, both because it is probably his classist attitude toward
social rank that inspired him to court her and because Emily’s classist pride is
probably a factor in her decision to kill him rather than let him humiliate her
by deserting her.
Remember, as always, that you don’t have to limit yourself to the analysis
of the story I’ve offered you. For example, you might feel that Emily’s classism
is responsible for Homer’s murder in a different way. Perhaps it isn’t Homer’s
desertion she can’t face but, rather, his desire to marry her. That is, when push
comes to shove, maybe she can’t bring herself to marry beneath her rank. Yet
if she doesn’t marry Homer he will leave her. The solution: she murders him
and keeps his body in her bed so that she can still be with him without
degrading herself by “marrying down.” Or perhaps you might want to focus
your essay, instead, on the community as a whole, in which case you might
try to map the changes that occur over the course of the many decades during
which the story unfolds. Does there seem to be less classism in Jefferson as
time goes on, or does classism merely take different forms with the passage of
time? Whatever your interpretation, be sure you understand the Marxist
concepts you choose to employ, compose a clear statement of your thesis, and
support your interpretation with adequate textual evidence.
Resisting classism: Interpreting “Don’t Explain”
Jewelle Gomez’s “Don’t Explain” (1987; see Appendix E) is set in Boston in
1959, a period of relative prosperity for the white middle and upper classes,
but a period of continued struggle for the working class, especially for working-
class people of color, who worked hard for low wages and with little hope of
finding better paying jobs. They are represented in the story by Letty, Delia,
and the other African American women who work at the 411 Lounge, and by
Terry and her friends, who clean office buildings at night.
We determined that the stories discussed earlier in this chapter are anti-
capitalist or anticlassist because they show the evils of capitalism or classism and
thereby encourage readers to reject those oppressive ideologies. “Don’t Explain”
encourages readers to reject classism, but you might have noticed that it does
so in a different way. Instead of portraying the evils of classism, the story
illustrates the virtues of an anticlassist attitude. Specifically, the tale: (1) gives us
positive images of the oppressed, positive portrayals that work against stereotypes
of the lower classes as lazy, undependable, unintelligent, and dishonorable;
(2) gives us a main character, Letty, who herself displays anticlassist behavior,
which serves as a positive model for us to follow; and (3) illustrates the
importance of solidarity—of unity and mutual support—among members of
the working class. Let’s look at each of these elements in turn.
128 Using critical theory

Positive portrayals of the working class
1 Letty—List all the textual evidence you can find that Letty has, among
others, the following positive qualities.
a She is a very capable worker and knows her job very well.
b She is intelligent, as evidenced by her insights into her customers and
the people with whom she works.
c She is kind-hearted and caring.
2 Delia—List all the textual evidence you can find that Delia has, among
others, the following positive qualities.
a Although she has worked at the 411 Lounge for just a year, she has
learned how to handle her job very well.
b There are potential dangers in working at the 411, but she has learned
how to avoid them.
c She is sensitive to others and doesn’t want to make anyone feel
uncomfortable or hurt anyone’s feelings.
3 Terry—List all the textual evidence you can find that Terry has, among
others, the following positive qualities.
a She is kind-hearted.
b She is sensitive to the needs of others.
4 Billie Holiday—Billie Holiday grew up in an economically impoverished
African American neighborhood. Despite her rise to fame and fortune,
she was often treated as a second-class citizen because of her race. For
example, in segregated areas of the country, Billie wasn’t allowed to stay in
the same hotels, eat in the same restaurants, or use the same public facilities
as her white band members. As Letty recalls, however, neither Billie’s
fame nor the personal insecurity created by her painful experiences made
the great singer deny her working-class roots.
a Find textual evidence that Billie still identifies with the working class.
b Find evidence that the story invites us to like this aspect of her personality.
Letty’s anticlassist behavior
Because Letty is near the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, we might
expect that she would be tempted to look down on those who could be
considered below her in some way, for example, the pimps and prostitutes (or
“business” girls, as they’re called in the story) who frequent the 411 Lounge. It
is not unusual for the members of any socioeconomic class to try to boost
their own self-importance by believing themselves superior to those they feel
are below them. We might even say that classism feeds on people’s need to
feel superior. But Letty does not seem to have this need. She thinks well or ill
of people based on their personal qualities, not on their social rank.
Using concepts from Marxist theory 129

1 Find all the evidence in the story you can to support this claim.
2 Find textual evidence that the story invites us to share Letty’s anticlassist
attitude by portraying this attitude in a positive light.
The importance of working-class solidarity
One of the reasons why Marxist theory wants us to reject socioeconomic
ideologies that pit individual against individual is that people at the bottom of
the socioeconomic ladder suffer the most damage from those ideologies. The
bank accounts of the very wealthy are not endangered by capitalist ideologies
that emphasize the importance of “me” instead of “us,” as competition,
commodification, the American Dream, and rugged individualism do. Neither
are the bank accounts of the very wealthy endangered by classism, even when
it excludes from the “best” society those who’ve acquired a large bank balance
only recently. Rather, it is the lower classes who are harmed by socio-
economic ideologies that work against their members uniting together in a
common cause. For any ideology that tells the lower classes it is right and
natural to compete against one another for limited jobs and limited opportu-
nities, any ideology that tells them to look down on those who fall slightly
below them in social rank, is an ideology that helps keep the lower classes
from working together to change the system and make it more just and
equitable for those at the bottom.
From a Marxist perspective, then, the depiction of working-class solidarity
in “Don’t Explain” is an important part of the tale. Find the passages in the
story that describe the following examples of working-class solidarity (some of
which you may already have found in gathering textual evidence required
earlier), and explain how the story encourages us to see these images of
working-class solidarity in a positive light:
1 Letty’s efforts to help Delia, rather than compete with her,
2 the respect and kindness Delia returns to Letty,
3 Letty’s anticlassist attitude toward customers that some people would
look down upon,
4 Billie Holiday’s warmth toward the employees of the 411 Lounge,
5 Terry’s desire to include Letty in her group, and
6 the gathering of working-class women at the home of Terry and Delia at
the end of the story.
Focusing your essay
As we’ve seen throughout our exploration of “Don’t Explain,” the story
rejects classist ideology and invites readers to do the same. If you draw on the
textual evidence you’ve gathered above, you can focus your essay on the ways in
which the story accomplishes this task. And the practice you gain here will help
you recognize this kind of anticlassist text when you encounter it elsewhere.
130 Using critical theory

Remember, as always, that you don’t have to limit yourself to the analysis
of the story I’ve offered you. For example, you might want to expand your
argument to include a discussion of the attitude of Ari (Aristotle), the owner
of the 411 Lounge, toward his employees; the vulnerability of the waitresses
(who don’t want to lose their jobs) to customers like Tip; and any other aspect
of the story relevant to the waitresses’ grace under pressure. For any element
of “Don’t Explain” that invites us to sympathize with its working-class char-
acters or appreciate their positive qualities is part of the story’s rejection of
classist ideology. Whatever your interpretation, be sure you understand the
Marxist concepts you choose to employ, compose a clear statement of your
thesis, and support your interpretation with adequate textual evidence.
Learning when not to use Marxist concepts: Resisting the temptation
to interpret “I started Early—Took my Dog”
Recognizing the absence of illustrations of capitalism
Emily Dickinson’s “I started Early—Took my Dog” (c. 1862; see Appendix A)
seems to offer us very little material that lends itself to a Marxist interpretation.
We don’t see any illustrations of capitalist ideology in the poem: there are no
representations of competition, consumerism, or commodification, and no one
seems to be pursing the American Dream. We might be inclined to say that the
poem illustrates rugged individualism because the speaker is somewhat adven-
turesome. She’s a woman alone who goes to a deserted spot with no protection
beyond a dog that disappears from the poem after the first line, and she survives
what seems to be a dangerous encounter with nature. However, I think the
speaker’s visit to the sea is better defined as an example of nonconformity, which
is not the same as rugged individualism. For one thing, although she deliberately
walks the beach alone, her dangerous encounter with nature is accidental and
not goal-oriented. As we saw in the “Basic concepts” section of this chapter, to
qualify as rugged individualism, one’s nonconformity has to involve the delib-
erate pursuit of a goal not easily achieved, such as undertaking an untried,
high-risk line of business or the rush for gold on the American frontier.
If Dickinson’s speaker has a goal in mind, she is certainly not conscious of it.
Recognizing the absence of illustrations of classism
Just as there are no illustrations of capitalism in Dickinson’s poem, there do
not seem to be any illustrations of classism either. In fact, we can’t even be sure
to what socioeconomic class the speaker belongs. That she’s wearing an apron
and a “simple Shoe” (l. 10) and is walking out of doors without an escort
might indicate, in a literary work written in the mid-nineteenth century as this
one was, that the speaker is not a member of the upper class. First, she’s
wearing common, unadorned clothing. Second, during this period it was deemed
Using concepts from Marxist theory 131

inappropriate, at the very least, for a lady of high social rank to venture out-
side to a lonely spot without a proper companion, such as a female friend, a
relative, a friend of the family, or some other chaperone. (Her dog would not
have been considered an adequate chaperone!) Yet we can’t build an inter-
pretation of the poem simply on the likelihood that the speaker is not a
member of the upper class. For none of the action of the poem seems directly
related to her socioeconomic class, whatever that class might be.
Resisting the temptation of large/small or high/low imagery
Despite the absence of capitalist and classist illustrations in “I started Early—
Took my Dog,” many students want to use Marxist concepts to read the
poem as an illustration of the upper class’s oppression of the lower class. And
they derive this interpretation from the fact that the frigates in the poem,
which are described as occupying “the Upper Floor” (l. 5), tower over the
speaker, whom the frigates “[p]resum[e] … to be a Mouse” (l. 7)—that is, a
much smaller, dependent creature who is located low to the ground. Did you
have that impulse, too? It’s a common response among students new to
Marxist theory to view the juxtaposition of a large object with a small object,
or an object raised up high with an object placed down low, as a symbolic
representation of the relationship between the upper class and the lower class.
However, unless there’s something specific in the poem, or in the theory
we’re using, to justify such a symbolic interpretation, we’re making a symbolic
leap, an unjustified symbolic connection, which we discussed in Chapter 2,
“Using concepts from reader-response theory to understand our own literary
interpretations.” That is, we’re arguing for a symbolic interpretation without
enough evidence that the symbolic connection we think exists actually does
exist. I can just as easily argue, for example, that the big ships and the little
mouse symbolize the triumph of good (the ships) over evil (the mouse), the
triumph of the country girl (the mouse) in resisting the temptations of the big
city (the ships), the eternal David-and-Goliath battle between the underdog
(the mouse) and the odds-on winner (the ships), or any other big/little, high/
low symbolic opposition that occurs to me. In short, there is nothing in the
poem or in our Marxist concepts to justify choosing one of these symbolic
interpretations of the frigates and the mouse over another, which means we
are not justified in choosing any of them.
Choosing a different poem
If you want to use Marxist concepts to interpret a Dickinson poem, you’ll
have to find a poem that allows you to do so. If you want to examine the
attitudes about class and social rank that are clearly expressed elsewhere in
Dickinson’s work, you might analyze Poem 401, “What soft Cherubic Creatures”
(c. 1862). This poem criticizes the hypocrisy and superficiality of the high-
ranking gentlewomen of Dickinson’s time and thus lends itself well to a Marxist
132 Using critical theory

interpretation. Or you might analyze Poem 457. “Sweet—safe—Houses”
(c. 1862), which criticizes wealthy people who use their money to insulate
themselves from life’s most fundamental realities. Or instead, you might ana-
lyze what seems to be the anticapitalist attitude expressed in Poem 709,
“Publication—is the Auction” (c. 1863). This poem can be read as an argu-
ment against commodification, which is a fundamental capitalist ideology.
Whatever Dickinson poem you interpret, be sure you understand the Marxist
concepts you choose to employ, compose a clear statement of your thesis, and
support your interpretation with adequate textual evidence.
Food for further thought
Thinking it over
If you’ve worked through all of the interpretation exercises offered in this
chapter, you should feel quite familiar with the basic approaches to under-
standing literature provided by concepts from Marxist theory. Specifically,
we’ve seen how Marxist concepts can be used to analyze
1 literary works that are anticapitalist in that they illustrate the harmful
effects of capitalist ideologies (our example: “Everyday Use”),
2 literary works that are anticapitalist in that they illustrate the harmful
effects of one particular capitalist ideology, for example, the American
Dream (our example: “The Battle Royal”),
3 literary works that are anticlassist in that they illustrate the harmful effects
of classism (our example: “A Rose for Emily”),
4 literary works that are anticlassist in that they provide positive images of
working-class people, images that operate against lower-class stereotypes,
and/or admirable characters who, themselves, display anticlassist behavior
(our example: “Don’t Explain”), and
5 literary works whose juxtaposition of large/small or high/low images will
tempt us to misinterpret them by imposing a Marxist framework that the lit-
erary work does not justify (our example: “I started Early—Took my Dog”).
At this point, you may be wondering if some literary works illustrate capitalist
or classist ideologies without revealing their harmful effects. In other words,
don’t some literary works reinforce capitalist or classist ideologies by depicting
them as harmless or even beneficial? Yes, there are literary works that,
whether they intend to or not, reinforce capitalist or classist ideologies in just
this way. And in such cases, we would use concepts from Marxist theory to
expose this flaw in the work in question, for from a Marxist perspective this
aspect of the literary text would be a flaw.
The promotion of capitalist or classist ideologies in a literary work, how-
ever, is often rather difficult to spot because, in these cases, the socioeconomic
system depicted usually forms little more than a distant backdrop to give
Using concepts from Marxist theory 133

historical color to a tale of action or romance or tragedy. For example, in
Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein (1818), the tragic experiences of protagonist
Victor Frankenstein, the young scientist who creates the monster, occur
against the backdrop of a class system that the novel reinforces by depicting the
upper-class characters as intelligent, honorable, and generous. Characters from
classes beneath them are portrayed in a positive light only to the extent that
they believe in the class system and admire those above them. However, many
readers don’t even notice the classism the novel reinforces because their
attention is so taken by Victor’s personal trials and tribulations.
Perhaps an additional example will help. Given the emphasis Marxist theory
places on our being able to see when oppressive socioeconomic ideologies are
operating in a literary work, we might argue that Faulkner’s “A Rose for
Emily” is also flawed, though to a much lesser degree than Frankenstein. Certainly,
“A Rose for Emily” doesn’t hide the classism it illustrates. The characters’
classism does not merely form a backdrop to the story but is clearly responsible
for most of the story’s action. Nevertheless, we might argue that this dimension
of the tale is overshadowed by the drama of Emily’s descent into madness and
the mystery of Homer’s disappearance. And for a student of Marxist theory,
anything that seriously interferes with readers’ perceptions of the oppressive
socioeconomic ideologies illustrated in a literary work is a flaw in that work.
Generally speaking, then, at least in the case of literature that was written in
the last few hundred years and that we’re likely to find in most classrooms,
when a literary work seems to deliberately draw our attention to capitalist or
classist ideologies, its purpose is usually to show how these ideologies harm the
characters portrayed. In other words, one of the purposes of such a literary
text is to criticize the oppressive socioeconomic ideologies it represents. And
only in texts like these is it relatively easy for students new to Marxist theory
to spot these ideologies at work. That’s why our study of Marxist concepts in this
book focuses on literature in which the socioeconomic ideologies represented
are not buried in the background.
Finally, Marxist concepts can be used in service of the theoretical approaches
discussed in the following chapters of this book. For example, Marxist concepts
can be helpful when we want to understand how classism, the American Dream,
or any of the other ideologies described in this chapter oppresses members of a
particular group—a political minority—by denying them equal access to
education, employment, housing, and other sources of socioeconomic power.
So a Marxist understanding of socioeconomic oppression can be helpful even
when our primary goal is to use feminist; lesbian, gay, or queer; African
American; or postcolonial concepts to understand a literary work.
Marxist theory and cultural criticism
We can also use concepts from Marxist theory for the purposes of cultural
criticism. That is, we can use Marxist concepts to help us analyze the cultural
134 Using critical theory

messages sent, whether deliberately or not, by the everyday productions of the
culture in which we live, such as movies, games, television shows, song lyrics,
toys, and other productions of popular culture discussed in Chapter 1. Indeed,
those cultural productions that in some way represent human behavior—that
have characters and a plot—can be analyzed using concepts from Marxist
theory just as we use those concepts to analyze literary works. An under-
standing of classism, consumerism, and the American Dream, for example, can
offer us insights into the classic “rags-to-riches” film romance Pretty Woman
(directed by Garry Marshall, 1990), in which good-hearted prostitute Vivian
Ward (Julia Roberts) and lonely, self-made corporate raider Edward Lewis
(Richard Gere) find true love and a happy future together.
Too busy to give adequate time and attention to his romantic relation-
ships—the most recent of which has just ended badly—Edward decides to hire
the lovely, free-spirited Vivian to be his “beck-and-call-girl” for one week in
order to ensure himself a trouble-free companion for the various social events
he must attend in pursuit of his latest corporate takeover. Over the course of
the film, Vivian gets Edward to loosen up, slow down, and smell the roses.
Instead of destroying his latest corporate target, the fatherly Mr. Morse (Ralph
Bellamy), Edward saves the man’s company and goes into business with him.
Analogously, Edward gets Vivian to broaden her horizons and have faith in
her ability to achieve a better life. By the end of the film, Vivian has decided
to quit her life on the street—she has even rejected Edward’s offer to keep her
as his mistress—and get her high school equivalency diploma. Luckily, Edward
catches up with Vivian before she leaves town and offers her the “happily ever
after” they both want.
Part of the charm of this engaging movie lies in the anticlassist cultural work
it performs—in this case, its negative depiction of classism—which it accom-
plishes largely through its negative portrayals of classist characters who get
what’s coming to them: for example, the two rude saleswomen who mistreat
Vivian, the snobbish women at the polo match, and Edward’s obnoxious
lawyer, Phil Stuckey (Jason Alexander). A clear anticlassist message like this
one becomes even more powerful when accompanied by the positive por-
trayal the movie offers of lower-class characters—specifically of Vivian and Kit
De Luca (Laura San Giocomo), Vivian’s roommate, best friend, and fellow
prostitute—and of characters like hotel manager Mr. Thompson (Hector Eli-
zando) and Edward himself, who become increasingly sympathetic as they
become increasingly appreciative of Vivian. Equally helpful in sending an
anticlassist message is, of course, Edward’s willingness to ignore class lines and
marry for love. It means nothing to him that others will think he has married
“beneath him,” and the characterization of Vivian encourages us to realize that
he will not be marrying “beneath him” in any meaningful way. From a
Marxist perspective, so far, so good.
What cultural messages does Pretty Woman send, however, in terms of
consumerism and the American Dream, two destructive capitalist ideologies
Using concepts from Marxist theory 135

represented in the movie? Concerning consumerism, I think the answer is
easy to find if you think of the movie’s humorous and seductive depiction
of the fun of shopping for expensive clothing with a rich man’s credit card
in your pocket and of the romantic purposes served by Vivian’s gorgeous
new designer wardrobe. Indeed, during Vivian’s memorable shopping
spree—which is among the most entertaining scenes in the film—consumerism
appears to be an innocent good time had by all or, at worst, harmless.
In fact, at the end of her shopping spree, dressed in her new makeover
apparel, we see yet another pay-off of purchasing power: Vivian’s face-to-face
triumph over the two rude saleswomen is so satisfying that it risks making
their classism seem unimportant, just a backdrop for Vivian’s consumerist
enjoyment.
As for the American Dream, the movie’s cultural message certainly seems to
be that the Dream is beneficial and equally available to everyone. Look what
it did for the self-made Edward Lewis, whose business acumen and deter-
mination took him from an impoverished childhood to the lifestyle of the rich
and famous. And isn’t Vivian living her own version of the American Dream,
a spin-off of the traditional female version of the Dream? For she will become
Edward’s wife as a result of her refusal to become his kept woman, as a result, that
is, of her determination to hold out for, as she says, “the fairy tale.” Finally, look
what the American Dream does even for Kit: one shot of the Dream and Kit De
Luca actively pursues vocational training as a beautician, a trade that will
provide her with a reliable income, geographic mobility, and respectability.
A Marxist cultural critic might argue, then, that Pretty Woman’s cultural
message is mixed: the movie sends an effective anticlassist message, but it also
sends destructive pro-capitalist messages. And the probability that most viewers
will not recognize the film’s pro-capitalist messages as destructive, or even as
pro-capitalist, makes those messages more harmful. For the feeling that we’re
being entertained, that there’s nothing we need to guard against, allows Pretty
Woman to easily reinforce, whether it intends to do so or not, what most
viewers already believe: the American Dream is just wonderful, and buying
“lots of stuff”—especially lots of expensive stuff—is just fun.
***
Remember, it’s natural to feel a bit uncertain when we encounter a new
theory—a new way of looking at ourselves and our world—that may call into
question many of the beliefs that have been pressed upon us, and that we’ve
accepted uncritically, for most of our lives. Uncertainty is an unavoidable part
of learning and growing. Keep in mind, too, that others may disagree with
your opinions. Individuals often disagree in their interpretations of literature,
popular culture, or everyday experiences, even when drawing upon the same
Marxist concepts for their analyses. The keys to a good interpretation—besides
intellectual curiosity and an open mind—are a clear understanding of the Marxist
concepts you’ve chosen to use and strong evidence to support your analysis.
136 Using critical theory

Taking the next step
Questions for further practice
1 How might we argue that Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman (1949)
is anticapitalist in that it portrays how the “little man,” embodied in
protagonist Willy Loman, is crushed by the destructive forces of American
capitalism? For example, after working for the same firm his whole life,
how is Willy mistreated by his employer? What role does the employer’s
unquestioning endorsement of competition and commodification play in
his attitude toward Willy? How does Willy’s unquestioning admiration
for rugged individualism keep him from realizing that his brother Ben
acquired his wealth through, almost certainly, unethical means? Especially
important, how does Willy’s unquestioning belief in the American
Dream contribute to his failures?
2 Mrs. Dora Ellsworth, in Langston Hughes’ short story “The Blues I’m
Playing” (1934), has everything money can buy. The one thing she
wants that she can’t buy is artistic or musical talent. How does the story
show that, in financially aiding Miss Oceola Jones and other young artists
and musicians, Mrs. Ellsworth is really making a kind of purchase—that
she is commodifying art, music, and the young people who create it? For
example, how do we know that Mrs. Ellsworth wants the sign-exchange
value associated with being a patroness of the arts? Indeed, how does
the story suggest that her commodification of art, music, and her
young protégés is related to her emotional “disconnect” from them? Or
you might consider how the story is anticlassist through its positive
portrayal of Oceola’s anticlassist behavior and its negative portrayal of
Mrs. Ellsworth’s classism.
3 In Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening (1899), protagonist Edna Pontel-
lier goes to great lengths to create a life for herself beyond the conven-
tions imposed by society in general and by her husband Léonce in
particular. How might we argue that Edna, though she wouldn’t use
these words, is seeking an alternative to capitalism? In other words, how
is she seeking a less money-oriented life in which she is not commodified
(can you find the ways in which Léonce commodifies her?) and in which
she is not obligated by social convention to commodify possessions and
people as Léonce and his circle do? Note, too, how Edna’s refusal to
commodify people includes a refusal to choose her friends based on their
social standing, so she is also turning her back on classism.
4 How does Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Lullaby” (1974) illustrate the eco-
nomic exploitation of the working poor through its portrayal of Chato,
Ayah, and their children? Consider, for example, the ways in which
Chato has been exploited by the rancher who employs him, the abject
poverty in which the family must live, and the indifference of the
Using concepts from Marxist theory 137

authorities (among others, the officials who take Danny and Ella away
from their parents) to the family’s plight. In addition, consider the fact
that Jimmie, the older son, lost his life fighting for a nation that allows
the capitalist exploitation of families like his to persist.
5 Use concepts from Marxist theory to help you interpret some aspect of a
movie, television show, song lyric, cartoon, video game, or any other
production of popular culture that you find interesting and that you think
might lend itself to a Marxist interpretation. For example, are stereotypes
of or negative references to individuals from the lower classes included in
this cultural production? Is the upper class idealized in some manner?
(Both of these questions refer to ways in which your chosen cultural
production might illustrate classism.) Is the American Dream, commodi-
fication, competition, rugged individualism, or any other capitalist ideology
idealized in some way? Or does this cultural production seem to offer
alternatives to classism and capitalism? Based on your observations, what
cultural work does your chosen cultural production do relevant to
Marxist theory? Specifically, does it seem to be telling us that classism is
natural or acceptable? Does it seem to be telling us that destructive
capitalist ideologies are natural or acceptable? Or does it seem to illustrate
the harmful qualities of these values, values to which Marxism is opposed?
Be sure to offer evidence from your chosen production to support your ideas.
Suggestions for further reading
Bender, Frederic L., ed. Karl Marx: The Essential Writings. 2nd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview
Press, 1986. (See, especially, “Essentials of the Theory,” 164–207; “The Commodity,”
327–34; “Exchange and Money,” 346–48; and “The General Formula for Capital,”
349–54.)
Eagleton, Terry. Marxism and Literary Criticism. Berkeley: University of California Press,
1976. (See, especially, “Preface,” vi–viii; and “Literature and History,” 1–19.)
hooks, bell. Where We Stand: Class Matters. New York: Routledge, 2000.
Tyson, Lois. “Marxist Criticism.” Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. 2nd ed.
New York: Routledge, 2006. 53–81.
Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions. 1899.
New York: Viking, 1965. (See, especially, “Conspicuous Leisure,” 35–67; “Conspicuous
Consumption,” 68–101; and “Dress as an Expression of the Pecuniary Culture,” 167–87.)
Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. 1904–5. Trans. Talcott Parsons.
New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958. (See, especially, “The Spirit of Capitalism,”
47–78; and “Asceticism and the Spirit of Capitalism,” 155–83.)
138 Using critical theory

Chapter 6
Using concepts from feminist theory
to understand literature
Why should we learn about feminist theory?
As we saw in Chapter 4, psychoanalytic theory asks us to examine the ways in
which our personal identity is formed by our early emotional experience
within the family. In Chapter 5 we saw that Marxist theory asks us to examine
the ways in which our personal identity is formed by the socioeconomic
system in which we live. Feminist theory asks us to examine, instead, the ways
in which our personal identity is formed by our culture’s definitions of what it
means to be a man or a woman. For from a feminist perspective, our experi-
ence of both the family and the socioeconomic system in which we live
depends to a large extent on our sex: on the ways in which men and women
are treated differently and on the way men are socialized to be masculine and
women are socialized to be feminine.
Specifically, in most cultures men occupy most or all positions of power,
which is why those cultures are called patriarchies or patriarchal cultures. For
the word patriarchy, broadly defined, refers to any society in which men hold all
or most of the power. In a patriarchy, women suffer varying degrees of
oppression depending on, among other things, their race, ethnicity, socio-
economic class, religion, sexual orientation, and the country or region in
which they live. Feminism, therefore, seeks to understand the ways in which
women are oppressed—socially, economically, politically, and psychologi-
cally—in order to reduce, if not eliminate their oppression. Ideally, feminism
would like to achieve a society in which women and men are encouraged to
fulfill their full potential as human beings regardless of the extent to which
their abilities and inclinations differ from traditional (patriarchal) definitions of
femininity and masculinity.
Of course, patriarchal ideology (the patriarchal system of beliefs and
assumptions) is difficult for most of us to recognize clearly and consistently
because our everyday experience is so saturated with it. We have become so
accustomed to patriarchal ideology that it often seems invisible. However, its
invisibility makes this ideology all the more dangerous: it’s easier to address a
problem we can see than a problem that pretends it does not exist. In

addition, the word feminist—which, for many years, was a target of ridicule by
patriarchal leaders in politics, the media, and other social institutions—remains
an unpopular term among many people today. The result is that many anti-
patriarchal women and men still feel uncomfortable identifying themselves as
feminists or might not even recognize that they are feminists.
This unfortunate state of affairs should not surprise us, however, given the
amount of misinformation about feminism still in circulation. To cite just one
example, it is still generally assumed that feminism is directly opposed to
family values. The fact is, however, that feminists continue to lead the struggle
for better family policies, such as nutrition and healthcare for mothers and
children; parental leave; high-quality, affordable daycare; the provision of
shelters for battered women and their children; and the like. So if you need
help, as many of us still do, adjusting to the idea that you’re a feminist, you
can start by thinking of feminism as a form of human-rights activism, which it
certainly is.
We can start to use feminist theory to understand literature by asking the
following question about whatever literary work we want to interpret: Do
the characters conform to patriarchal gender roles? To choose the simplest
example, is the role of the strong, rational protector given to a male character
while the role of the submissive, emotional nurturer is given to a female char-
acter? Or to put the question another way, are the female characters depicted
according to patriarchal stereotypes of women? These include, for example,
virginal angels and selfless caregivers (which are patriarchal stereotypes of
women who conform to traditional gender role) as well as nags, gossips,
seductresses, and “bitches” (which are patriarchal stereotypes of women who
violate the traditional gender role).
When a literary text portrays characters who conform to patriarchal gender
roles or depicts female characters as patriarchal stereotypes, we say that the text
illustrates patriarchal ideology. That is, the text shows us what patriarchal
ideology “looks like,” so to speak. Now, sometimes a literary text illustrates
patriarchal ideology because it approves of that ideology. For example, a story
or a play might positively portray characters who conform to traditional
gender roles and negatively portray characters who violate those roles. Such a
literary work would be considered a patriarchal text, which, from a feminist
perspective, means that it promotes damaging beliefs about women and men.
But keep in mind that a literary work can illustrate patriarchal ideology in
order to show us what’s wrong with that ideology. For example, a novel or a
poem might show us that the characters who conform to traditional gender
roles are harmed by those roles, or it might show us the negative effects of
patriarchal stereotyping. In both these cases, the literary work would be con-
sidered an antipatriarchal text, which, from a feminist perspective, means that
it promotes accurate perceptions of women and men. Another, though less
common kind of antipatriarchal text is one that offers positive portrayals of
characters who violate traditional gender roles, for example, female characters
140 Using critical theory

who are independent, who think and act for themselves in admirable ways, or
male characters who are admirably sensitive and nurturing. Our interpretation
exercises, which follow the “Basic concepts” section later, include examples of
these various kinds of patriarchal and antipatriarchal texts.
It’s often difficult, however, to tell for sure what a literary work wants us to
think about the gender roles its characters embody. Does the text want us to
admire or reject its patriarchal characters? Does the text want us to admire or
reject its antipatriarchal characters? Even experienced readers often disagree
about a text’s attitude toward its characters’ gender roles. So don’t be upset if
you find it difficult to figure out whether a literary work is patriarchal or
antipatriarchal. At this point, you may have to be content, at times, with
determining what patriarchal or antipatriarchal ideology the text illustrates,
without being certain whether or not the text endorses that ideology. So let’s
start with a brief look at the patriarchal ideologies that feminist theory considers
most fundamental to our understanding of patriarchal oppression. Although
it’s important that you read through the “Basic concepts” section that follows,
don’t be too concerned if you don’t feel you thoroughly understand every
one. You’ll begin to understand these concepts much better when we use
them, later in this chapter, to help us interpret the literary texts that appear at
the end of this book. And you’ll see that these fundamental feminist concepts
can help us understand other works of literature as well.
Remember, too, that I’m offering you my own literary analyses in the
interpretation exercises provided later in this chapter. You might use the same
feminist concepts I use but come up with different interpretations of your
own. If you disagree with any of the analyses I offer in these exercises, don’t be
afraid to look in the literary work in question for evidence that will support
your viewpoint. A literary work can often support a number of different
interpretations even when readers are using concepts from the same theory.
Basic concepts
Note that the basic concepts listed here are all examples of patriarchal ideologies
that have existed for centuries and that are considered right and proper by
many people. Feminism didn’t invent these ideologies. Rather, feminism
opposes them. For according to feminist theory, these ideologies are responsible
for the oppression of women throughout the world and for the failure of most
women and men to live up to their full human potential. Therefore, the
definition of each patriarchal ideology is followed by feminist theory’s argument
against it.
Patriarchy
As we saw earlier, a patriarchy is any society in which men hold all or most of
the power. Usually, a patriarchy gives men power by promoting traditional
Using concepts from feminist theory 141

gender roles. Patriarchal men and women believe that anyone who violates
traditional gender roles is in some way unnatural, unhealthy, or even immoral.
For example, in the United States, the patriarchal belief that assertiveness in a
woman is unattractive, even unnatural, makes it difficult for many Americans
to feel comfortable with women in leadership roles of any kind—from a woman
taking charge of the White House to a woman asking a man out on the first date.
In contrast, feminist theory tells us that socializing women and men to
conform to traditional gender roles means limiting people’s options, denying
them the choice to follow the path that best fulfills their potential. Therefore,
patriarchal programming is unnatural, unhealthy, and unethical.
Traditional gender roles
According to traditional gender roles, men are naturally rational, strong, pro-
tective, and decisive. In contrast, traditional gender roles define women as
naturally emotional (which, in a patriarchy, usually means irrational), weak,
nurturing, and submissive.
Feminist theory points out, however, that these gender roles are produced
by patriarchy rather than by nature. And they have been used to justify many
inequities, which still occur today. For example, women today are still excluded
from equal access to leadership and decision-making positions in the family as
well as in the world of business and politics. Men still tend to receive higher
wages than women for doing the same job. And traditional gender roles still
tell women, among other things, that they are not cut out for careers in areas such
as mathematics and engineering and that, regardless of the job a wife holds
outside the home, she has primary responsibility for the children and for
domestic chores.
The objectification of women
From a patriarchal perspective, women who adhere to traditional gender roles
are considered “good girls.” They are put on pedestals and idealized as pure,
angelic creatures whose sense of self consists mainly or entirely of their use-
fulness to their husbands, fathers, or brothers. In contrast, women who violate
traditional gender roles are thought of as “bad girls,” especially if they violate
the rules of sexual conduct for patriarchal women, such as dressing or behaving
in a manner that could be considered sexually provocative. Patriarchal men
sleep with and then discard “bad girls”—who are relegated to the role of sex
objects—but they marry “good girls” because only a “good girl” is considered
worthy of bearing a man’s name and children.
Feminist theory points out, however, that both “good girls” and “bad girls”
are objectified by patriarchy. That is, they are not viewed as independent human
beings with their own goals, needs, and desires. Rather, they are evaluated
only in terms of their usefulness to patriarchal men. They are viewed only as
patriarchal objects. If you consider again the examples of patriarchal stereotypes
142 Using critical theory

listed earlier, you’ll see that they all fall under the “good girl”/“bad girl”
categorization of women. Virginal angels and selfless nurturers are examples of
patriarchal “good girls”; nags, gossips, seductresses, and “bitches” are examples
of patriarchal “bad girls.” So even those patriarchal stereotypes that appear to
be “positive,” such as virginal angels and selfless nurturers, are damaging
because they reduce women to their roles as patriarchal objects and suggest
that “good” women aspire to nothing else.
Sexism
Patriarchy is based on sexism, which is the belief that women are innately (that
is, by nature) inferior to men: less intelligent, less rational, less courageous, and
so forth. For this reason, sexist individuals believe that traditional gender roles—
which cast men as decision-makers and women as dutiful followers—are right
and natural because men’s innate superiority dictates that they should be in charge,
not only in the family but in business, politics, and all other important social
institutions. Although in everyday language the term sexist is usually reserved
for a person who expresses his or her patriarchal beliefs with particular arrogance,
self-righteousness, or anger, the term really applies to any person who holds
sexist beliefs as well as to any practice, policy, or custom that disadvantages
women only because they are women. Thus the terms patriarchal and sexist are
more or less synonymous, although the term sexist is usually considered insulting
while, at least for patriarchal men and women, the term patriarchal is not.
In order to oppose sexism, many feminist thinkers differentiate between our sex,
which is our biological makeup as female or male (for example, our sex organs
and body chemistry), and our gender, which is our cultural programming as
feminine or masculine (for example, our behaving as “sweet little things” or
“macho-men”). Feminism argues that while we may be born female or male,
we are not born feminine or masculine. Rather, it is society that decides which
behaviors are considered feminine, and therefore appropriate only to females,
and which behaviors are considered masculine, and therefore appropriate only
to males. As Simone de Beauvoir argues in her groundbreaking book, The
Second Sex (1949), “One is not born a woman; one becomes one.” In short,
women wear pointy shoes with high heels not because they have pointy feet
and need help reaching the top shelf of the cupboard, but because patriarchy
tells them such footwear is feminine. And such footwear is considered feminine
because, among other things, it makes women less mobile than men and
therefore, in appearance at least, less able to compete.
The “cult of ‘true womanhood’”
In the nineteenth century, Victorian patriarchy promoted the “cult of ‘true
womanhood,’” which idealized what it called the “true woman,” a concept
that still influences patriarchal thinking today. The “true woman,” who fulfilled
her patriarchal gender role in every way, was defined as fragile, submissive,
Using concepts from feminist theory 143

and sexually pure. Her proper sphere was the home; she would not venture
beyond that sphere because to do so would be considered unwomanly.
Women who had these characteristics were idealized and considered worthy
of every form of masculine protection and gallantry. Today, this feminine
ideal survives in, for example, various versions of the “helpless female,” whose
abilities are limited to such “womanly” domains as the cultivation of personal
beauty, cooking, and home fashions and who makes men feel, in contrast,
capable, powerful, and in control.
As African American feminists have pointed out, however, the Victorian
definition of the “true woman” excluded African American women and poor
women of all races whose survival required hard physical labor and who,
because their jobs took them out of the home, were vulnerable to rape and to
sexual exploitation in the workplace. In other words, a woman whose racial
or economic situation forced her to perform physical labor and made her the
victim of sexual predators was considered unwomanly and therefore unworthy
of protection from those who exploited her. Also, because the “cult of ‘true
womanhood’” originated as a white cultural ideal, women of color, no matter
how feminine their attire or behavior, were generally devalued, if not entirely
excluded from the definition, on racial grounds. Today, the survival of this
kind of feminine ideal excludes poor women of all races whose survival requires
them to be tough, assertive, or in any way “unfeminine.” Such women are
often stereotyped as loud, brassy, promiscuous, and unattractive to men except
as sexual objects. And the devaluation of women of color has persisted wherever
the definition of feminine beauty has been based on an Anglo-Saxon ideal.
There are, of course, additional patriarchal ideologies that feminism exposes
and additional concepts that feminism offers to counteract patriarchal thinking.
However, these are enough to get us started using feminist theory to interpret
literature. Let’s begin our interpretation exercises by analyzing Ralph Ellison’s
“The Battle Royal,” a story that gives us a straightforward illustration of a
form of patriarchal ideology that most readers find objectionable and that the
story itself clearly finds objectionable as well.
Interpretation exercises
Rejecting the objectification of women: Interpreting
“The Battle Royal”
Although Ralph Ellison’s “The Battle Royal” (1952; see Appendix C) is
concerned primarily with racial issues in the post-World-War-II south, in
which the story is set, there is one passage in the text that lends itself readily to
a feminist analysis: the passage that revolves around the exotic dancer hired
to entertain the white civic leaders. Though brief, this passage illustrates
patriarchal ideology so clearly, so negatively, and with such emotional intensity
that it’s well worth our attention.
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Because feminist concepts help us develop the habit of noticing how char-
acters behave in terms of traditional gender roles, you might have observed
that the whole scene in the hotel ballroom is one in which the white civic
leaders display symbols of their male power through their indulgence in what
patriarchy calls “masculine” pleasures. It is through the story’s negative portrayal
of these pleasures that we can see the text’s rejection of patriarchal ideology.
And as the white men’s enjoyment of the exotic dancer is depicted as the most
objectionable of their pleasures, we can see that the patriarchal ideology most
under attack in this story is the objectification of women. In order to see how
“The Battle Royal” achieves this effect, we’ll need to examine: (1) its repre-
sentation of “masculine” pleasures in general; (2) its depiction of the white
leaders’ behavior toward the exotic dancer; (3) its portrayal of the dancer herself;
and (4) its depiction of the reaction of the young black men to the dancer.
The portrayal of “masculine” pleasures
The party in the hotel ballroom is referred to in the story as a “smoker,”
which means a men-only gathering for the purpose of pursuing pleasures that
wives and sweethearts wouldn’t enjoy and that men wouldn’t want them to
see. At this particular smoker, the men indulge in a number of patriarchal-male
pleasures. Find the specific textual evidence that shows us how each of the
pleasures listed below is portrayed.
1 Smoking is a traditional masculine pleasure.
a What do the men smoke?
b What are the effects of the smoke on the air in the room?
c What kind of emotional atmosphere does the smoke create?
2 Drinking is a traditional masculine pleasure.
a What are the men drinking?
b How much are they drinking?
c What effect does their consumption of alcohol have on them?
3 Watching a fight is also a traditional masculine pleasure. How does the
battle royal show us the darkest side possible of this form of entertainment?
4 How is each of these pleasures—including the fact that the party is held
in the ballroom of the best hotel in town—a symbol of masculine power
for these white men?
The white leaders’ behavior toward the exotic dancer
Of all the patriarchal-male pleasures represented in the story, the one that is
most often associated with a smoker—and most often associated with male
power and privilege—is the exotic dancer, the stripper who, by the time the
reader sees her, has already taken off every stitch of clothing and is about to
Using concepts from feminist theory 145

begin to dance. Note that she is not even wearing the usual minimal covering
associated with strippers: the “pasties” and “g-string.”
1 How does the dancer’s complete nudity heighten our sense of her
vulnerability and the white men’s sense of their own power?
2 How do most of the white men behave toward her? Find specific textual
evidence.
3 How is their parading her before the young black men a form of male
competition, and how does it show that they consider her a symbol of
their male power?
4 How does all of this data show us that the white men have objectified
the dancer, that they do not see her as a human being?
5 How does this depiction of the white leaders invite us to reject the
patriarchal ideology they represent?
The portrayal of the exotic dancer
Note how the dancer is described: her hair, her makeup, her frozen smile, and
the expression in her eyes as she begins to dance and later as the men toss her
in the air.
1 Does the dancer like her job? How do we know that she doesn’t?
2 How is she trying to insulate herself emotionally from what she is doing
and from the men who have hired her? Find specific textual evidence.
3 If she doesn’t like this kind of work, why might she be doing it? (Consider
the limited educational and occupational opportunities available to women
in the time and place in which the story is set. How might a beautiful
woman in need of money be drawn into such a situation?)
4 How does this depiction of the dancer invite us to feel sorry for her
rather than blame her? (Keep in mind that, even if the dancer liked her
work, patriarchal ideology would still be responsible because it is patri-
archal ideology that tells women their value lies in their physical beauty,
as defined by patriarchy, and in their appeal to men.)
The reaction of the young black men to the exotic dancer
Look closely at the scene in which the black youths brought in for the battle
royal are forced to look at the exotic dancer. Find the specific textual evidence
that answers the following questions.
1 How do the young black men react to seeing this naked white woman?
2 How do we know that the young men are well aware of the danger they are
in if they show their desire? In other words, how do we know that they are
well aware of the dancer’s role as the white men’s sex object and possession?
3 In addition, note the complex reaction of the narrator when he sees the exotic
dancer. Describe his conflicted response (his opposing impulses toward her).
146 Using critical theory

4 Explain how the narrator’s responses can be understood if we realize that
he is experiencing the dancer in terms of the two reactions to women
patriarchy allows men to have:
a men are supposed to protect women, but
b if the woman in question is a “bad girl,” patriarchal ideology invites
men to use her as a sex object and hold her in contempt.
Focusing your essay
Given the textual data you’ve collected, you should be able to focus your essay
on the ways in which the story invites us to reject patriarchal ideology—that is,
on the ways in which “The Battle Royal” is an antipatriarchal text. Specifi-
cally, the story attacks the patriarchal ideology that it is natural, and therefore
acceptable, for men to use women as sex objects, as tokens of their male
power. The dancer’s numb state, followed by her fear and the obvious danger
of rape; the very negative portrayal of the white men who hired her and who
objectify her; and the confusion, fear, and anger of the young black men who
are forced to look at her all testify to the story’s rejection of the patriarchal
ideology it illustrates. It’s as if the text were saying, “Look at this! Isn’t it ter-
rible?” And because “The Battle Royal” does not describe the erotic dancer in
a sustained sensual manner, the story does not run too great a risk of creating
in its readers the very attitude it seeks to condemn, as some depictions of
women as sex objects unintentionally do.
Remember, of course, that you do not have to limit yourself to the analysis
of the story I’ve offered you. You might, for example, include a discussion of
the self-contradictions in patriarchal ideology that are revealed in the story.
After all, the white men are all leading citizens—doctors, lawyers, bankers,
judges, teachers, and the like—in the post-World-War-II south, in which the
story is set, and such men were expected to uphold the patriarchal values of
hearth and home. The kinds of men these characters represent would have
wives and children and would hold in their hands the welfare of the town as
well as the welfare of their families. Yet the same patriarchal ideology that
demands they be strong, rational decision-makers also justifies their behaving
like sex-crazed brutes. For it is a patriarchal belief that men are born with
more sex-drive than women and that it is acceptable to sexually exploit “bad
girls” because “bad girls” don’t deserve to be treated with consideration.
Whatever your interpretation, be sure you understand the feminist concepts
you choose to employ, compose a clear statement of your thesis, and support
your interpretation with adequate textual evidence.
Resisting patriarchal ideology: Interpreting “Don’t Explain”
As we just saw, “The Battle Royal” is antipatriarchal in that it illustrates
patriarchal ideology in a way that invites us to reject that ideology. Jewelle
Using concepts from feminist theory 147

Gomez’s story “Don’t Explain” (1987; see Appendix E) is antipatriarchal in a
different way: it illustrates resistance to patriarchal ideology in a manner
that endorses such resistance. The story accomplishes this task by providing us
with positive portrayals of women who do not conform to traditional
gender roles and who do not fit the white patriarchal definition of the “true
woman.”
“Don’t Explain” is set in Boston in 1959, a time when the pressure to
conform to patriarchal gender roles was quite strong and few people saw
anything wrong with that. It was also a time when the patriarchal feminine
ideal—the 1950s’ version of the “true woman”—was limited to white women
who had Anglo-Saxon features and were completely fulfilled by being stay-at-
home wives and mothers. Women who conformed to this ideal would never
appear in public without the appropriate feminine attire of the period: a dress
or skirt and blouse, stockings, feminine shoes (usually high heels), makeup,
and a feminine hair-do. And of course, the “true woman” of the 1950s was
married to a man who could afford to have her stay home. So strong was this
feminine ideal that many women of color and poor white women tried to
conform to it, despite the fact that racial bias and economic necessity would
never allow them to fully “measure up” to the ideal. After all, coming as close
to the ideal as possible was considered better than abandoning it altogether,
and many women therefore made an effort to conform in whatever ways they
could, even if they were able to make that effort only in the areas of feminine
attire and feminine behavior.
So what did patriarchal America think of women whose race, socioeconomic
class, and/or sexual orientation meant they had to fend for themselves in a
workplace that exploited women by confining them to low-paying, insecure
jobs where they were vulnerable to sexual harassment? Well, if patriarchal
America thought of these women at all, it certainly didn’t think of them as
examples of the feminine ideal. Therefore, it was taken for granted that such
women didn’t merit recognition or even protection from the economic and
physical abuse to which they were so vulnerable. Even when a woman’s
enormous talent brought her well-earned fame, as Billie Holiday’s talent did,
she was judged in terms of her conformity to patriarchal expectations. Patriarchal
men and women might have bought Lady Day’s records, but is it not likely that
they were sympathetic to her unconventional lifestyle and “bad-girl” image.
“Don’t Explain,” then, looks back to that era and shows us the merits of
those women who struggled and survived the patriarchal ideology that devalued
them, women like Letty, Delia, Terry, and Terry’s friends. The story encourages
us to resist patriarchal ideology by encouraging us to admire characters who do
not conform to its expectations. Specifically, let’s explore how “Don’t
Explain” (1) illustrates the violation of patriarchal gender roles, including the
“cult of ‘true womanhood,’” and (2) provides positive portrayals of the char-
acters who violate those roles, portrayals that combat patriarchal stereotypes of
women.
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The violation of patriarchal gender roles and the “cult of ‘true womanhood’”
1 Letty
a Find the passages in the story that show the ways in which Letty’s
behavior violates patriarchal gender roles, including the “cult of ‘true
womanhood,’” for example,
i her capacity to hold down a job and perform physical labor,
ii her ability to handle dangerous men,
iii her ability to survive in a work environment in which a “lady”
(that is, a “true woman”) wouldn’t even be seen,
iv her emotional strength,
v her single lifestyle,
vi her lesbian orientation, and
vii her hero-worship of “bad-girl” Billie Holiday.
b Find the passages that show the ways in which Letty’s physical appearance
violates patriarchal gender roles and the “cult of ‘true womanhood,’”
for example,
i her size,
ii her clothing, and
iii her race.
2 Delia—Examine Delia’s characterization just as you did Letty’s. Find the
evidence in the story that shows the ways in which Delia’s behavior and
physical appearance violate patriarchal gender roles and the “cult of ‘true
womanhood.’”
3 Terry and her friends—Again, find the evidence in the story that shows the ways
in which the behavior and physical appearance of Terry and her friends
violate patriarchal gender roles and the “cult of ‘true womanhood.’”
Positive portrayals of non-patriarchal women
Now that we’ve examined the ways in which Letty, Delia, Terry, and Terry’s
friends are non-patriarchal women, let’s see how the story promotes resistance
to patriarchal ideology by portraying these characters positively.
1 Letty—Find the ways in which the story portrays Letty positively, for
example, the ways in which she is
a loyal,
b protective,
c helpful, and
d generous.
2 Delia—Find the ways in which the story portrays Delia positively, for
example, the ways in which she is
Using concepts from feminist theory 149

a outgoing,
b thoughtful,
c sensitive, and
d kind.
3 Terry and her friends
a Find the ways in which the story portrays Terry positively, for example,
the ways in which Terry is
i protective,
ii insightful, and
iii kind.
b Find the ways in which the text positively portrays Terry’s friends,
who, though guarded in their behavior toward a newcomer, are
i supportive of one another, and
ii already beginning to accept Letty’s presence among them.
4 Counteracting patriarchal stereotypes of women—As we saw earlier in this
chapter, patriarchal ideology asserts that women who violate traditional
gender roles, especially by failing to conform to the ideal of the “true
woman,” fit some sort of unappealing stereotype: they are nags, gossips,
seductresses, or “bitches.” As seductresses and “bitches,” they are stereo-
typed as loud, brassy, promiscuous, and unattractive to men except as
sexual objects. In “Don’t Explain,” however, the female characters who
violate traditional gender roles and fail to conform to the ideal of the
“true woman” fit none of these stereotypes. In fact, they represent a
range of different physical and personality types. List the variety Gomez
gives us in her portrayal of these characters, including the variety of
a clothing,
b voices,
c physical appearance (for example, body types and complexions), and
d personality traits.
Focusing your essay
Drawing on the textual data you’ve gathered, it should be a fairly simple
task to focus your essay on the story’s resistance to patriarchal ideology. For
as we’ve just seen, “Don’t Explain” encourages us to resist the patriarchal
ideology that says women like Letty, Delia, Terry, and Terry’s female friends
are less important, less valuable, less deserving than women who fit more
closely the feminine patriarchal ideal. In fact, “Don’t Explain” challenges
patriarchal definitions of femininity and masculinity by showing us that
we don’t have to be “feminine” to be nurturing and sensitive, and we
don’t have to be “masculine” to be strong and protective. We can just be
150 Using critical theory

whoever we are, for human beings should be judged by such qualities as
kindness and generosity, not by the extent to which we fulfill patriarchal
gender roles.
Remember, as always, that you don’t have to limit yourself to the analysis
of the story I’ve offered you. For example, you might extend your essay to
include a discussion of the hardships patriarchy imposes on the women in
the story: none of them are in positions of authority in the workplace; because
they have so little power, they have to learn to avoid incurring the displeasure
of Tip, an unsavory customer, and Ari, who owns the 411 Lounge in which
Letty and Delia work; and because they have opted against marriage, they
have little or no economic security. You might also want to include an ana-
lysis of the story’s characterization of Billie Holiday, for instance, the ways
in which she, too, violated patriarchal ideology and the ways in which
patriarchy’s oppression of women contributed to her emotional insecurity.
Whatever your interpretation, be sure you understand the feminist concepts
you choose to employ, compose a clear statement of your thesis, and support
your interpretation with adequate textual evidence.
Recognizing a conflicted attitude toward patriarchy: Interpreting
“Everyday Use”
Sometimes we’ll read a literary work and find ourselves feeling, at some
moments, that the text is attacking patriarchy and, at other moments, that the
text is supporting patriarchy. This experience could be the result of our own
uncertainty about feminist concepts, or as we discussed in the opening of this
chapter, it could be caused by the text’s failure to clarify its own position
toward the human behavior it illustrates. Because patriarchal ideology is such a
common, and often invisible force in our culture, most literary works embody
some form of this ideology without knowing that they do so, and that’s
why it’s often difficult to discern how the text feels about the patriarchal or
antipatriarchal behavior of its characters.
Sometimes, however, we may have difficulty deciding if a work is patriarchal
or antipatriarchal because our perception that the text both attacks and sup-
ports patriarchal ideology is a correct perception. For many literary works,
though they may not realize it, do both. In such a situation we can argue that
the text, itself, has a conflicted attitude toward patriarchal ideology. I think we
can argue that this is the case in Alice Walker’s story “Everyday Use” (1973;
see Appendix D).
The story’s main concern, which we’ll discuss at greater length in our African
American and postcolonial readings of the work, is to show the importance of
solidarity to the well-being of the African American family and community
during America’s Black Pride Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
This period, during which the story was written and is set, was a time when
emotionally charged disagreements—disagreements over how to define African
Using concepts from feminist theory 151

American heritage and achieve social equality in a country whose white majority
population seemed determined to maintain its racist domination—divided black
families as well as the black community as a whole. Understandably, then,
“Everyday Use” wants to show the flaws in any attitude or behavior—such as
the attitude and behavior of Dee toward her mother and sister—that threatens
the solidarity of the African American family or community.
This praiseworthy enterprise, however, seems to result in the story’s sending
mixed messages about patriarchal ideology. For the tale’s concern with gender
issues, while significant, takes a back seat to its focus on racial issues that were
of primary importance during the Black Pride Movement and that remain of
great importance today. “Everyday Use” thus illustrates a problem that African
American women writers, and African American women in general, fre-
quently face: how to be true to the precepts of feminism, which is often
perceived by patriarchal men and women as a threat to the black family and
community, as well as to the precepts of racial equality, which seem to focus
more on the rights of black men than of black women.
In order to see the conflicted attitude toward patriarchal ideology in “Everyday
Use,” we’ll need to examine both the story’s antipatriarchal and patriarchal
aspects. Specifically, (1) we’ll look at the tale’s two primary antipatriarchal
elements—its positive portrayal of Mama’s violation of patriarchal gender roles and
its sympathetic depiction of Mama andMaggie’s victimization by patriarchy—and
(2) we’ll also look at the story’s primary patriarchal element: its negative
portrayal of Dee’s violation of patriarchal gender roles.
The story’s antipatriarchal elements
1 Mama’s violation of patriarchal gender roles—Patriarchal ideology tells us that
the only good woman is a patriarchal, or traditional woman. So one
effective way for a story to fight against patriarchal ideology is to give us
positive portrayals of non-traditional women—that is, women who do
not conform to patriarchal gender roles.
a List all the ways in which Mama violates patriarchal gender roles.
Include, for example, textual evidence concerning
i her physical strength,
ii the type of work she does out of doors,
iii her tolerance for cold weather and for physical activities that are
supposed to revolt women,
iv the pride she takes in her physical capabilities,
v her courage, and
vi her emotional strength.
b Find textual evidence that Mama is positively portrayed, that the story
invites us to like her, even to admire her. (Include the ways in which
152 Using critical theory

Mama’s violation of traditional gender roles does not make her a bad
mother, as patriarchy would have us believe is the case for such
women; on the contrary, note all the ways in which Mama is a
devoted mother.)
2 Mama and Maggie’s patriarchal oppression—Another effective way for a text to
fight against patriarchal ideology is to draw attention to the ways in which
sympathetic female characters are oppressed by patriarchy economically,
socially, politically, and/or psychologically.
a Find as much textual evidence as you can to show the various ways in
which Mama is oppressed by patriarchy.
i How is Mama economically disadvantaged because she is a
woman? That is, how does patriarchy limit her options?
ii How does her failure to fit the definition of the “true woman”
result in psychological oppression through the creation of low
self-esteem? (See, among other evidence, Mama’s recurring
dream about being on television.)
iii Can you find additional examples of Mama’s oppression by
patriarchy?
b Find as much textual evidence as you can to show the various ways in
which Maggie is oppressed by patriarchy.
i How does Maggie fail to fit the definition of the “true woman,”
and how does this failure result in psychological oppression
through its contribution to Maggie’s low self-esteem?
ii Given the fact that Dee’s lighter skin and more “womanly” figure
surely increased her opportunities to get what she wanted out of life,
how does Maggie’s failure to fit the definition of the “true woman”
also help limit her career options to marriage with John Thomas?
iii Can you find additional examples of Maggie’s oppression by
patriarchy?
c Find textual evidence that the plight of Mama and Maggie is sym-
pathetically portrayed. That is, find the ways in which the text shows
us that these two women are doing their best under circumstances
beyond their control and thereby encourages us to sympathize with
them. (Just for your own information, notice the contrast with
“A Rose for Emily,” which is discussed next and which seems to
invite us to dislike Emily and blame her for her problems though she,
too, is a victim of patriarchy.)
The story’s patriarchal element
One very effective way for a story to promote patriarchal ideology, which
it may do unintentionally, is to give us a negative portrayal of a woman
Using concepts from feminist theory 153

who violates patriarchal gender roles. Such a portrayal seems to say, “See what a
bad person a woman becomes when she violates traditional gender roles?”
1 Dee’s violation of patriarchal gender roles—Find the textual evidence of Dee’s
numerous violations of traditional gender roles. Include, for example,
a her independence from her family as she was growing up,
b the various ways in which she has struck out on her own,
c her independence from her family now that she is an adult, and
d the independent way she relates to Hakim.
2 Dee’s negative portrayal—Find the numerous ways in which the story
portrays Dee negatively, which limits our sympathy for this character and
even invites us to dislike her. Include examples of
a her self-centeredness,
b her insensitivity to the needs and feelings of her mother and sister, and
c her tendency to “show off” in any way she can, a tendency she has
had all her life.
Focusing your essay
Given the textual data we’ve already collected, you should be able to focus
your essay on the conflicted attitude toward patriarchal ideology evident in
“Everyday Use.”As we have seen, while the story gives us a strong, non-traditional
woman to admire and clearly depicts the patriarchal victimization of two
sympathetic female characters, it also gives us a very negative portrayal of an
intelligent, assertive, self-motivated young woman. In fact, in many ways, Dee
fulfills the patriarchal stereotype of the “bitch,” and her characterization risks
being interpreted as a kind of patriarchal warning: we mustn’t let young girls
ignore patriarchal gender roles or they will become selfish, self-centered, self-
indulgent women who don’t care what becomes of their families as long as they
get what they want. Indeed, Dee’s negative portrayal makes Maggie, who is in
many ways a patriarchal “good girl,” seem infinitely superior—even a better role
model—in contrast. And one of the last things feminist theory would want to
see is yet another example of the patriarchal “good girl” put forward as an ideal.
Keep in mind, as always, that you don’t have to limit yourself to the analysis
of the story I’ve offered you. For example, you might want to focus your
essay more thoroughly, or even exclusively, on the role played in the story by
the “cult of ‘true womanhood.’” In that case, you would analyze the ways in
which the three main characters’ opportunities in life, relationships with
others, and self-esteem are directly related to the extent to which they fit the
definition of the “true woman.” By showing that “Everyday Use” illustrates
the damaging effects of this patriarchal ideal, you would be arguing that the
story is, in this way, an antipatriarchal text.
Perhaps, instead, you might want to focus your essay entirely on Maggie, a
character that is very sympathetically portrayed and has a good deal of
154 Using critical theory

emotional impact on many readers. For example, you might examine the
problem her characterization poses for a feminist interpretation. Although her
physical appearance and manner do not fit the definition of the “true
woman,” much of her behavior does: her natural sphere of activity is clearly
the home, we do not see her performing hard physical labor, and she is
apparently sexually “pure” (in contrast to Dee, Maggie is apparently saving
herself for marriage). Analogously, although she violates traditional gender
roles in at least one way—like Mama, she chews tobacco, or “snuff”—she
nevertheless fulfills almost all the requirements of the patriarchal “good girl.”
Finally, although we can see that she is victimized by patriarchal ideology, her
close bond with Mama and her marriage to John Thomas seem to offer her
more happiness than Dee has found thus far in life. What should we make of all
this data about Maggie? Do you think the characterization of Maggie we’ve just
outlined combats patriarchal ideology, reinforces patriarchal ideology, or is
conflicted in its attitude toward patriarchal ideology? Whatever your inter-
pretation, be sure you understand the feminist concepts you choose to employ,
compose a clear statement of your thesis, and support your interpretation with
adequate textual evidence.
Analyzing a sexist text: Interpreting “A Rose for Emily”
In “The Battle Royal” we saw an example of a literary work that illustrates
patriarchal ideology in a way which clearly invites us to reject that ideology. As
we noted in the beginning of this chapter, however, not all texts that illustrate
patriarchal ideology invite us to reject it. William Faulkner’s “A Rose for
Emily” (1931: see Appendix B) is a case in point. While I think that we can
quickly learn to see how Faulkner’s story illustrates patriarchal ideology, it is more
difficult for many of us to figure out whether the story wants us to accept or
reject that ideology. So let’s look at “A Rose for Emily” in two separate steps:
(1) we’ll examine the ways in which the story illustrates patriarchal ideology;
then (2) we’ll take the harder step—we’ll look at the ways in which the story
fails to reject the patriarchal ideology it illustrates. In fact, we’ll see that the
story endorses the sexist attitudes it portrays. We’ll see that “A Rose for Emily”
is, therefore, an example of a sexist text.
Don’t worry if you find this second step difficult to grasp at first. Just do
your best. Collect the evidence from the story you’re asked to collect. And
trust that future practice using feminist concepts to interpret literature will
help you know when a literary work illustrates patriarchy in order to show its
flaws—as we saw so clearly in “The Battle Royal”—and when a literary work
accepts the patriarchal ideology it illustrates, as we’ll see in “A Rose for Emily.”
How “A Rose for Emily” illustrates patriarchal ideology
“A Rose for Emily” is set in the town of Jefferson during the decades preceding
and following the turn of the twentieth century, and illustrations of Emily
Using concepts from feminist theory 155

Grierson’s victimization by patriarchy abound. For example, the patriarchal
society depicted in the story dictates that the only acceptable way a young
woman like Emily can escape from a selfish, domineering father is through
marriage, and there is nothing the town can do about the fact that Mr. Grierson
forbids Emily that escape. In fact, apparently no one in Jefferson even thinks
about doing something. Because Jefferson’s patriarchal culture also holds that a
woman of Emily’s rank must not work for a living, Emily wouldn’t be able to
survive financially if she left her father’s house without a husband to take care
of her. In addition, much of the gossip and speculation about Emily, which
contributes to her isolation, reveals the town’s steadfast belief that the only
acceptable behavior for a woman is behavior that accords with traditional
gender roles. And surely patriarchal ideology contributes to Emily’s apparent
desperation to have a husband, any husband, and to do anything to keep him.
So you could write an essay in which you argued that “A Rose for Emily”
illustrates the ways in which patriarchal gender roles victimize women, even to
the point of driving them crazy. And that might be a good exercise for you to
do at this point. So let’s collect the kind of textual evidence described earlier,
which you would need in order to write such an essay: (1) Mr. Grierson’s
patriarchal domination of Emily; (2) the limited options available to Emily due
to patriarchal ideology; (3) the ways in which Emily is oppressed by the
patriarchal attitudes of the townspeople; and (4) the patriarchal aspects of
Emily’s relationship with Homer Barron.
Mr. Grierson’s patriarchal domination of Emily
Find every example you can of Mr. Grierson’s patriarchal domination of his
daughter and its negative effects on her. Keep in mind that a father’s patri-
archal domination of his offspring goes beyond the kind of decisions a parent
must make in order to protect and educate a youngster. So you’ll be looking
for the ways in which Mr. Grierson’s decisions about Emily are
1 motivated by his own patriarchal beliefs concerning proper behavior for a
young woman,
2 motivated by his desire to maintain complete control, for a patriarchal
man believes it is his right and duty to control the females in his family,
3 destructive to Emily’s ability to develop social skills, and
4 destructive to Emily’s emotional well-being.
Keep in mind that Mr. Grierson’s domination of Emily continues well into
her adulthood: she is around thirty years old when he dies.
Emily’s limited options
What kinds of patriarchal limitations would probably be encountered by an
impoverished upper-class white woman living in a small town in the American
156 Using critical theory

south during the decades preceding and following the turn of the twentieth
century? Many of these limitations are illustrated or implied in the story, and these
limitations would exist even if Emily were not under her father’s thumb. List the
ways in which Emily’s options are limited in terms of the following categories:
1 Choice of vocation (ways of earning a living).
2 Choice of hobbies or leisure activities.
3 Choice of friends.
4 Marital options (the option of remaining unmarried as well as the option
of choosing whatever kind of husband she wants).
The patriarchal attitudes of the townspeople
Find as many examples as you can of the townspeople’s patriarchal attitudes,
especially those attitudes that adversely affect Emily.
1 Find those places in the story where the townsfolk talk about Emily in terms
of her marriageability (for example, her prospects of finding a husband
and the reasons for her failure to find one by a “reasonable” age), which
the townsfolk apparently consider a woman’s most important quality.
2 Find references in the story to Emily’s attitude toward housekeeping and
hospitality, two other feminine domains in which she fails to fulfill her
traditional role, as the townspeople are well aware.
3 Find as much evidence as you can that the townspeople seem obsessed
with the ups and downs of Homer’s courtship of Emily, especially with
Emily’s failure to conform to the traditional behavior expected of an
unmarried lady, which failure includes her assumed descent to the status
of “fallen woman” (a woman who has sexual relations before marriage).
4 How might the townsfolk’s firm belief in traditional gender roles be
responsible for their inability to see the rather obvious connection among
Emily’s purchase of arsenic, the unexpected disappearance of Homer, and
the horrible smell coming from her house shortly thereafter?
The patriarchal aspects of Emily’s relationship with Homer Barron
1 How is Homer a patriarchal man? (Don’t ignore the imagery available
to you.)
2 Who drives the carriage in which the couple take their Sunday drives?
3 What does Homer hold in his gloved hand?
4 What aspects of Homer’s behavior can be seen as rather “macho”? (See,
for example, his behavior as foreman.)
5 After Emily’s death, what evidence is found that she expected Homer to
marry her?
6 How, then, might Emily’s relationship with Homer be seen as her attempt
to fulfill her traditional gender role?
Using concepts from feminist theory 157

Focusing your essay
The evidence you’ve just collected will allow you to write an essay explaining
the ways in which “A Rose for Emily” illustrates patriarchal ideology. Speci-
fically, you can show how the story illustrates a particularly severe kind of
patriarchal system operating in the small-town American south, as Faulkner
envisioned it, in the decades before and after the turn of the twentieth century.
In fact, the textual evidence you’ve gathered will allow you to argue that the
story illustrates how patriarchal ideology can drive a woman insane.
Because you’re studying feminist concepts, you may feel that the evils of
patriarchy are obvious in this story, and you may therefore conclude that the
story is antipatriarchal. However, your ability to see the injustice of the patri-
archal ideology illustrated in the story doesn’t necessarily mean that the story is
aware of that injustice. Perhaps you are able to see the patriarchal injustice in
the text because of the feminist tools you’re using and not because the story is
inviting you to see it. Without further analysis, we can’t say whether or not
this text rejects or endorses the ideology it illustrates. So let’s undertake that
further analysis now.
How “A Rose for Emily” endorses patriarchal ideology
As we’ve just seen, “A Rose for Emily” illustrates the patriarchal victimization
of main character Emily Grierson. However, I don’t think we can argue that the
story invites us to reject the patriarchal ideology that victimizes Emily because,
for one thing, the text doesn’t seem consistently sympathetic toward Emily,
despite its sympathetic title. On the contrary, after her father’s death, Emily is
portrayed as such a rude and arrogant woman that it’s difficult for many
readers not to be put off by her. And the closing scene makes it difficult for
many of us not to be revolted by her. Some of my students, when they learn
that Emily has poisoned Homer and has slept with his decaying body, say
things like “Gross!” and “Oh, that’s disgusting!”, and even “This story is
whacked out!”
The story’s outrageously negative characterization of Emily thus distracts
our attention from her experience of patriarchal victimization and does not
invite us to sympathize with her. That is, the text does not invite us to reject
the patriarchal ideology it illustrates. And when a text illustrates patriarchal
ideology without rejecting it, the effect is often the same as if the text
endorsed patriarchal ideology, whether or not the text is aware it is doing so.
Therefore, the unsympathetic characterization of Emily Grierson—the
increasingly negative portrayal of the main character in the years following her
father’s death—should be enough to make us wonder if “A Rose for Emily”
endorses patriarchal ideology in other ways as well. For example: (1) How is
Emily portrayed before her father’s death? (2) If she is portrayed differently
before and after Mr. Grierson’s demise, what seems to be responsible for the
158 Using critical theory

change? (3) Are the other female characters all negatively depicted as well?
(4) If so, are the male characters positively depicted (which, by providing a
contrast, would reinforce the negative portrayal of the female characters)?
Finally, (5) if the answers to these questions reveal a sexist bias, does that bias
reflect merely the opinion of the story’s narrator, or does the text share that
bias? Let’s address these questions one at a time and see what we learn.
The portrayal of Emily before her father’s death
We can see that Emily conforms to patriarchal gender roles as long as her
father is alive, which is, roughly, the first thirty years of her life.
1 Whenever she is described during this period, she is portrayed as a “good
girl” and depicted in a manner that elicits our sympathy. Find all the
textual evidence you can to support this claim. Note, for example,
a the color clothing she generally wears during this time,
b her bodyweight,
c the image of her father in the doorway and how helpless she looks
standing behind him,
d her bond to her father right after his death, and
e her distress during the year that follows her father’s death.
2 How do all of these textual elements encourage us to have positive
feelings for Emily in her role as the patriarchal “good girl”?
The change in Emily’s portrayal
About a year after Mr. Grierson’s demise, during which time she has been ill,
Emily starts keeping company with Homer Barron, in defiance of social tra-
dition and public opinion. From this time forward, until the end of her life,
she violates patriarchal gender roles in a variety of ways.
1 With the exception of the sympathetic image of Emily giving lessons in
china-painting, a traditional feminine pastime, how is she described
during this period? Find all the textual data you can. Note, for example,
a the severe clothing she generally wears during this period,
b her skin color,
c her bodyweight,
d her masculine appearance, and
e her behavior toward the druggist, the Baptist minister, the Aldermen,
and others.
2 Take a close look at the description of the corpse, the room, and the bed
in the closing scene. What details suggest that:
Using concepts from feminist theory 159

a Emily considers Homer’s dead body her bridegroom,
b she has slept in his dead embrace, and
c she has shared her bed with him, not just immediately after his death,
but even after she has grown to be an old woman?
3 How do all of these textual elements encourage us to have negative
feelings for Emily once she ceases to be a patriarchal “good girl”?
Descriptions of the female townsfolk
From the opening description of Emily Grierson’s funeral, every time the
narrator mentions the women of Jefferson—the minor female characters—he
says or implies something negative about them.
1 Go through the story and find as many examples as you can of the narrator’s
references to the female townsfolk. List the qualities he ascribes to them.
2 What patriarchal stereotypes do we see operating here? Name as many as
you can.
3 Does the narrator seem to believe that these qualities are characteristic of
women in general? How do you know he feels this way?
Descriptions of the male townsfolk
From the opening description of Emily Grierson’s funeral, every time the
narrator mentions the men of Jefferson—the minor male characters—he says
or implies something positive about them. In fact, the narrator often describes
the male and female characters’ responses to the same situation, contrasting
some positive quality in the menfolk’s behavior with some negative quality in
the behavior of the womenfolk.
1 Go through the story and find as many examples as you can of the nar-
rator’s references to the male townsfolk. List the qualities he ascribes to
them, noting how the men’s admirable characteristics make the women
look even worse by comparison.
2 Does the narrator seem to believe that the qualities he ascribes to Jefferson’s
menfolk are characteristic of men in general? How do you know he feels
this way?
The portrayal of the narrator
The narrator’s biased description of Jefferson’s women and men reveals his
sexism. You might even feel that the narrator’s sexism is also responsible for
the negative portrayal of Emily once she stops conforming to patriarchal
gender roles. However, a sexist narrator, by itself, wouldn’t allow us to con-
clude that we were reading a sexist story. For the story might invite us to
160 Using critical theory

reject the narrator’s viewpoint by showing him in a bad light, for example, by
portraying him as ridiculous, vindictive, or obnoxious. “A Rose for Emily,”
though, doesn’t offer us this invitation. On the contrary, the narrator is por-
trayed as intelligent, knowledgeable, well educated, and objective (not overly
emotional about the events he narrates and therefore able to be impartial).
Such a narrator tends to inspire trust in the reader, and that trust influences us
to accept his point of view without giving it too much thought. So unless a
feminist perspective prepared us to be on the watch for his negative attitude
toward women, we might very well not have noticed it. We would probably
have accepted the narrator’s viewpoint uncritically. Because the text thus
promotes our acceptance of the narrator’s sexism, we can argue that the text
shares that sexism. Find all the textual evidence you can to show the ways in
which the narrator is portrayed in a positive manner.
1 What parts of the story, or what aspects of his language, suggest that the
narrator is intelligent and well educated?
2 How do we know he is knowledgeable about the people and events he
describes?
3 What textual elements give the feeling that he has maintained an objective
viewpoint?
Let me pause for a moment to answer a question you might have at this point:
Why do we refer to the text’s sexism and not the author’s? While we might
be able to establish that a text has a sexist viewpoint, we can’t be sure this
viewpoint is shared by the author. For example, the author might have written
the story to mock sexism or to vent his frustration at the sexist attitudes of
others or even to “test” the sexist attitudes of his readers. We might not be
able to perceive this intention, however, because the author was unwilling or
unable to clarify his own viewpoint in the story or because the way we
respond to the story today is different from what the author expected of his
audience when he wrote it. In any event, it’s best to make only those claims
we can support with textual evidence, which is why, unless we’ve undertaken
to write a study of an author’s life and work, we tend to avoid referring to the
author’s biases and refer, instead, to those of a character, a narrator, and/or a text.
Focusing your essay
As we’ve just seen, “A Rose for Emily” portrays Emily Grierson in positive
terms when she’s a patriarchal “good girl” and in negative terms when she
violates traditional gender roles. In addition, the story offers a positive portrayal
of a narrator whose sexism can be seen in his biased descriptions of the female
and male citizens of Jefferson. You might, therefore, focus your essay on the
sexist ideology promoted by Faulkner’s tale. In fact, I think we can safely go
so far as to say that the characterizations of Jefferson’s womenfolk are blatant
Using concepts from feminist theory 161

examples of patriarchal stereotyping, and so is the characterization of Emily. In
fact, the text seems to make a connection between Emily’s gender-role vio-
lation and her descent into insanity, as if a woman’s failure to conform to
traditional gender roles is, itself, a form of insanity. In keeping with this idea,
you might note that Emily isn’t characterized as just a mentally ill person, nor
even as “just” a murderess. She is portrayed as grotesque, monstrous, unnatural,
as if the story were implying that when a woman violates traditional gender
roles, she becomes what patriarchy fears women will become if they embrace
feminism: crazed man-killers.
As always, remember that you don’t have to limit yourself to the analysis of
the story I’ve offered you, although, in this case, the evidence you’ve been
asked to collect provides you with at least two different feminist approaches to
“A Rose for Emily.” (1) You can write an essay simply showing the numerous
ways in which the story illustrates patriarchal ideology, even if you agree with
me that this aspect of the story is overshadowed by the text’s sexism. Or (2)
you can write an essay showing the ways in which the story endorses the
patriarchal ideology it illustrates. Of course, you or your instructor might
come up with an entirely different feminist reading of the story, perhaps one
which disagrees with the claim that “A Rose for Emily” is a sexist story.
Whatever your interpretation, be sure you understand the feminist concepts
you choose to employ, compose a clear statement of your thesis, and support
your interpretation with adequate textual evidence.
Understanding patriarchy’s psychological oppression of women:
Interpreting “I started Early—Took my Dog”
At the beginning of this chapter I offered you a question you can ask that will
help you interpret a literary work using feminist concepts: Do the characters
conform to traditional gender roles? Or to put the question another way, are
the female characters depicted according to patriarchal stereotypes of women?
As we have seen in the literary works already analyzed, this question usually
works quite well because so many texts contain characters whose experience is
represented in terms of their gender roles. In other words, a great deal of
literature promotes, or at least illustrates, some form of patriarchal or anti-
patriarchal ideology. Given that most characters, as well as the authors who create
them, live in a patriarchal society, it would be strange if this were not the case.
What can we do, however, if a literary work contains no obvious examples
of patriarchal or antipatriarchal ideology, such as the kinds we see in the other
literary works interpreted in this chapter, and yet we feel that something patri-
archal is going on in the text? Subtle literary representations of the patriarchal
oppression of women, which may be difficult to see at first, often take the
form of psychological oppression. Now, not all literary representations of
the psychological oppression of women are subtle. Some are quite clear and
straightforward, for example, the low self-esteem Mrs. Johnson suffers in
162 Using critical theory

“Everyday Use” because she does not fit the patriarchal ideal of feminine
beauty. However, when a literary representation of patriarchal oppression is
subtle, chances are that the oppression is psychological. And when subtle
representations of psychological oppression are not accompanied by repre-
sentations of other forms of patriarchal oppression, we may be at a loss for
how to produce a feminist interpretation of that literary work.
So here’s what we can do: we can do a psychoanalytic interpretation of the
literary work in question that shows the ways in which patriarchal ideology—
rather than the causes usually named by psychoanalytic theory—is responsible for
the psychological problems illustrated in the work. And that’s just what we will do
with Emily Dickinson’s poem “I started Early—Took my Dog” (c. 1862; see
Appendix A). We’ll (1) summarize the psychoanalytic reading we did of the poem
in Chapter 4; (2) go back to the poem and examine the elements that make it a
work specific to the experience of women in a patriarchy; (3) see if step 2 implies
that the speaker has any psychological problems our psychoanalytic reading did
not pick up; and (4) see if the poem suggests that patriarchy is responsible for the
psychological experience of the speaker. This method allows us to draw on
psychoanalytic concepts while still doing a feminist interpretation of the poem.
Summarizing our psychoanalytic interpretation of the poem
In Chapter 4 we followed a series of steps that allowed us to produce a psy-
choanalytic interpretation of “I started Early—Took my Dog” by analyzing
the poem’s dream imagery. Why don’t you go back to that interpretation and
summarize it in your own words? Then see if the following summary agrees
with yours.
Summary of our psychoanalytic interpretation—Our psychoanalytic reading of the
poem-as-dream suggested that the speaker is sexually repressed or has a
conflicted attitude toward her own sexual desire. For the sea, which oper-
ates in the poem as a dream symbol of sexuality and, more specifically, as a
dream symbol of the male sexual pursuit of the female. And the speaker
flees in terror from this pursuit, which she perceives as frightening, threaten-
ing, and overpowering. Nevertheless, the speaker apparently has sexual
desire, for there are “Mermaids in the Basement” (l. 3)—that is, in the
speaker’s unconscious—and mermaids are, traditionally, at home in the sea
(sexuality) and are often portrayed as very sexually attractive to human
males. Finally, in running to the “Solid Town” (l. 21) for safety, the speaker
is seeking protection, from the sea and presumably from herself as well, in
the restraints placed on sexuality by laws and customs.
Finding textual elements specific to the experience of women in a patriarchy
Go through the poem and find every reference you can that seems to be
specific to the experience of women in a patriarchy.
Using concepts from feminist theory 163

1 Note the way in which the speaker is compared to an animal.
a Is the animal large or small?
b Is the animal powerful or weak?
2 Note all references to women’s clothing.
a How is the speaker dressed?
b Does her clothing encourage us to think that there is anything special
about her? (Does she appear to be especially powerful or intelligent or
courageous? Or is she dressed like an ordinary woman who does
women’s chores?)
3 Note the way in which the speaker is compared to a flower.
a What kind of flower is this?
b Is it generally considered of great value or beauty?
c What is its role on the dinner menu of a rural home?
4 Beginning with line 3, which is the point in the poem immediately after
the first appearance of the word Sea, note that the few verbs that relate to
the speaker cast her in a passive or a reactive role: actions are performed
on her, or she reacts to the actions of another, but she does not initiate
action. Locate the pertinent phrases.
Finding additional psychological problems implied in the poem
In our psychoanalytic interpretation of Dickinson’s poem as if it were a dream,
we argued that the poem’s imagery strongly implies sexual repression: the
speaker’s terror of the sea is, in reality, a fear of her own sexual desire, and her
flight from the sea therefore means that she represses her desire. However, all the
data you’ve just collected concerning the poem’s characterization of the speaker
as a woman in a patriarchal society (the attention to her female attire, the com-
parisons of the speaker to a mouse and to a dandelion, and the casting of the
speaker in a passive or a reactive role in twenty-two of the poem’s twenty-four
lines) suggest an additional psychological problem. Can you identify it?
1 Does the speaker seem confident?
2 Does the imagery used to describe her suggest that she has a positive
self-image?
3 How do the data you’ve collected indicate that the speaker has low
self-esteem?
Arguing that patriarchal ideology is the cause of the speaker’s
psychological problems
How is patriarchal ideology the cause of the speaker’s sexual repression and
low self-esteem? That’s the question we need to answer if we are to use the
164 Using critical theory

psychoanalytic data we’ve collected to produce a feminist interpretation of the
poem. In order to answer this question, first recall that, in order to be considered
a “true woman” at the time this poem was written, a female had to be sexually
pure. If unmarried, she must not even think about sex. If married, she must
not enjoy sex, for a woman who enjoyed sex was deemed sick, evil, or both.
Indeed, a woman’s sexual purity was “protected” by, among other restrictions,
forbidding her to go walking without an appropriate chaperone, especially if,
like the speaker in Dickinson’s poem, she wanted to walk in such a lonely
place as a deserted seashore. Then recall that patriarchal gender roles define
women as inferior to men: much less rational, less courageous, less decisive,
and not at all assertive. Now combine your recollections with the textual
evidence required below.
1 How does the speaker’s response to the sea illustrate the ways in which
patriarchal ideology promotes women’s sexual repression?
2 How does the speaker’s poor self-image, suggested by the manner in
which she describes herself, illustrate the ways in which patriarchal
ideology promotes women’s low self-esteem?
Focusing your essay
By this point, you can probably see that the evidence you’ve collected will
allow you to focus your essay on the negative effects of patriarchal ideology
on the speaker. For whether or not the poem is aware that it is doing so,
through the lens of feminist theory Emily Dickinson’s “I started Early—Took
my Dog” illustrates the ways in which patriarchy promotes in women both
sexual repression and low self-esteem.
As always, remember that you don’t have to limit yourself to the analysis of
the poem I’ve offered you. For example, you could develop feminist inter-
pretations of the poem that draw on the alternative psychoanalytic readings
of the speaker offered in Chapter 4 in the section “Focusing your essay.”
If you prefer the psychoanalytic reading of the poem as an illustration of
the fear of rape or the trauma of a woman who has been raped, then you
might develop a feminist interpretation by arguing that the poem illustrates
the ways in which the speaker is symbolically violated by patriarchy’s dama-
ging effects on her sexuality and her self-esteem. Or if you prefer, instead,
the psychoanalytic reading of the poem as an illustration of the indulgence
of a guilty desire—that is, symbolic sexual intercourse does take place,
but it does so with the guilt-ridden consent of the speaker—then you might
develop a feminist interpretation by arguing that the poem illustrates the way
in which patriarchy psychologically punishes women for having sexual
desire. Whatever your interpretation, be sure you understand the feminist (and
psychoanalytic) concepts you choose to employ, compose a clear statement
of your thesis, and support your interpretation with adequate textual evidence.
Using concepts from feminist theory 165

Food for further thought
Thinking it over
If you’ve worked through all of the interpretation exercises offered in this
chapter, you should feel quite familiar with the basic approaches to under-
standing literature provided by concepts from feminist theory. Specifically,
we’ve seen how feminist concepts can be used to help us analyze
1 literary works that are antipatriarchal in that their negative representations
of patriarchal ideology encourage us to reject that ideology (our example:
“The Battle Royal”),
2 literary works that are antipatriarchal in that their positive representations
of characters who violate traditional gender roles encourage us to resist
patriarchal ideology (our example: “Don’t Explain”),
3 literary works that have a conflicted response to patriarchy in that they
both combat and promote patriarchal ideology, for instance, by providing
both positive and negative images of characters who violate traditional
gender roles (our example: “Everyday Use”),
4 literary works that are patriarchal in that they encourage us to accept
patriarchal ideology, for instance, by providing negative images of
women who violate traditional gender roles and/or patriarchal stereo-
types of women (our example: “A Rose for Emily”), and
5 literary works whose psychoanalytic elements can be used to produce a
feminist interpretation by illustrating patriarchy’s psychological oppression
of women (our example: “I started Early—Took my Dog”).
In addition, an understanding of feminist concepts can help us use other
theories more productively. As we saw in Chapters 4 and 5, psychoanalytic
and Marxist concepts can help us understand the psychological and socio-
economic oppression suffered by the politically marginalized groups addressed
in subsequent chapters: women; LGBTQ people; African Americans; and post-
colonial populations, or peoples dealing with the loss of native languages and
cultures due to colonialist oppression. Similarly, feminist concepts remind us
that, among those who suffer discrimination due to their socioeconomic class,
sexual orientation, race, or cultural affiliation, female members of those groups
face the additional burden of sexism.
Perhaps of greatest importance, feminist concepts can help us see the ways
in which patriarchal ideology persists today where we most need to be aware
of it: in our everyday lives. Think of your own experience as a student, of
your dating experience, of your experience as a spouse or a parent, or of your
experience on the job market or in the workplace. You might, for example,
ask yourself the following questions. Can a girl in her early teens opt to take a
course in woodshop—or a boy in his early teens opt to take a course in home
166 Using critical theory

economics—without, at the very least, being teased about it? Is it acceptable
for a man (young or old) to cry when his feelings are hurt? Is it acceptable for
a woman (young or old) to ask a man out on a date? In a romantic relation-
ship, who is expected to “make the first move”—that is, to express physical
affection that could be interpreted in a sexual manner? Does a man who
“sleeps around” risk creating the same kind of gossip a woman would create if
she engaged in the same behavior? Generally speaking, who is expected to pay
the bills when a man and a woman go out on a date? When both father and
mother are employed outside the home, which parent is usually expected to
be the children’s primary caregiver? Which working parent is usually expected
to do the lion’s share of such household tasks as meal preparation, laundry, and
house cleaning? Can men and women expect to be treated fairly and with
respect when they seek or take jobs traditionally assigned to members of the
opposite sex? You or your instructor can probably come up with other ques-
tions of this kind, but these few should help you begin to develop your own
insights about the degree to which patriarchal ideology plays a role in your life
and in the lives of those around you.
Feminist theory and cultural criticism
We can also use concepts from feminist theory for the purposes of cultural
criticism. That is, we can use feminist concepts to help us analyze the cultural
messages sent, whether deliberately or not, by the everyday productions of the
culture in which we live, such as movies, games, television shows, song lyrics,
toys, and other productions of popular culture discussed in Chapter 1. Indeed,
those cultural productions that in some way represent human behavior—that
have characters and a plot—can be analyzed using concepts from feminist
theory just as we use those concepts to analyze literary works. For example, an
understanding of traditional gender roles and “good-girl”/”bad-girl” ideology
can offer us insights into Pretty Woman (directed by Garry Marshall, 1990), a
classic film modernization of the Cinderella story in which kind-hearted
prostitute Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts) and lonely, self-made corporate raider
Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) find true love and a happy future together.
Too busy to give adequate time and attention to his romantic relation-
ships—the most recent of which has just ended badly—Edward decides to hire
the lovely, free-spirited Vivian to be his “beck-and-call-girl” for one week in
order to ensure himself a trouble-free companion for the various social events
he must attend in pursuit of his latest corporate takeover. Over the course of
the film, Vivian gets Edward to loosen up, slow down, and smell the roses.
Instead of destroying his latest corporate target, the fatherly Mr. Morse (Ralph
Bellamy), Edward saves the man’s company and goes into business with him.
Analogously, Edward gets Vivian to broaden her horizons and have faith in
her ability to achieve a better life. By the end of the film, Vivian has decided
to quit her life on the street—she has even rejected Edward’s offer to keep her
Using concepts from feminist theory 167

as his mistress—and get her high school equivalency diploma. Luckily, Edward
catches up with Vivian before she leaves town and offers her the “happily ever
after” they both want.
Part of the charm of this engaging movie lies in what seems to be its
abandonment of patriarchal gender roles in favor of a romantic relationship in
which the male and female participant each has strengths and weaknesses not
associated with traditional masculinity and femininity. Vivian knows a great
deal about cars and handles the Lotus like a race-car driver; Edward knows
nothing about cars and can’t handle the Lotus at all. Edward suffers from a fear
of heights; Vivian apparently has no phobias whatsoever. Because she’s
worked as a prostitute, Vivian is presumably more sexually experienced than
Edward, and Edward doesn’t mind. Both are intelligent and sexually tender.
Under the other’s influence, each is able to make significant changes for the
better. When Edward rescues Vivian—symbolically, by climbing the fire
escape to her apartment and, literally, by deciding to offer her marriage in lieu
of the condo-with-expense-account arrangement that she has refused—Vivian
says that a damsel rescued by a prince “rescues him right back,” which indeed
she has already done. Clearly, then, the cultural work performed by these
aspects of Pretty Woman is antipatriarchal: the film suggests that we should be
free to learn and grow without worrying whether or not our behavior is
conventionally masculine or feminine, and a woman’s patriarchal “good-girl”
or “bad-girl” status tells us nothing about the kind of person she is.
What cultural message does Pretty Woman send, however, when we think of
the movie along the following lines? Edward has the real power in this rela-
tionship. He has everything Vivian lacks: money, refinement, connections, and
a broad knowledge of the world into which he brings her. Edward must
overcome his emotional problems in order to sustain a relationship with Vivian,
but Vivian must be made over entirely in order to sustain a relationship with
Edward. Somewhat like Eliza Doolittle in the film My Fair Lady (directed by
George Cukor, 1964), she must learn to dress differently and speak differently;
she must improve her posture and her table manners; and she must learn to
behave like a lady. In fact, like Eliza, over the course of the movie Vivian is
transformed, by a take-control man, from an undereducated, underbred
member of the underclass into a lady. And in Vivian’s case, her profession—
despite all her redeeming personal qualities—means that her transformation is
also one from “bad girl” to “good girl.” The cultural work performed by
these aspects of the movie is certainly patriarchal: the man is, as patriarchy
deems he should be, ultimately in control of his relationship with a woman,
and a woman’s patriarchal “good-girl”/”bad-girl” status is very important to
the successful future of a romantic relationship.
I believe it’s the combination of these two opposing strands of the movie—its
reinforcement of both antipatriarchal and patriarchal ideologies—that makes
Pretty Woman such an interesting source of debate from a feminist perspective.
Indeed, a feminist cultural critic might reasonably argue that Pretty Woman’s
168 Using critical theory

cultural message opposes patriarchal thinking, that it supports patriarchal thinking,
or that it confuses the two in a way that is rather difficult to untangle. I think
the third option offers the most thorough and compelling understanding of
the movie from a feminist perspective because it draws our attention to the
ways in which antipatriarchal and patriarchal ideologies work together in this
film. Specifically, Pretty Woman’s engaging antipatriarchal elements—the couple’s
complementary strengths and mutual helpfulness—run the risk of merely
sugarcoating the film’s patriarchal ideology, thereby making it all the more
easy to swallow.
***
Remember, it’s natural to feel a bit uncertain when we encounter a new
theory—a new way of looking at ourselves and our world—that may call into
question many of the beliefs that have been pressed upon us, and that we’ve
accepted uncritically, for most of our lives. Uncertainty is an unavoidable part
of learning and growing. Keep in mind, too, that others may disagree with
your opinions. Individuals often disagree in their interpretations of literature,
popular culture, or everyday experiences, even when drawing upon the same
feminist concepts for their analyses. The keys to a good interpretation—besides
intellectual curiosity and an open mind—are a clear understanding of the
feminist concepts you’ve chosen to use and strong evidence to support your
analysis.
Taking the next step
Questions for further practice
1 Find the textual evidence to show the ways in which Kate Chopin’s The
Awakening (1899) is antipatriarchal. For example, how does the novel
suggest that the traditional duties of wife and mother, while fulfilling for
some women, should not be the only option for all women? Also, how
does the novel counter the patriarchal myth, prevalent in nineteenth-
century America, that women don’t require, and don’t even want, ful-
filling sex lives? Do you think that, in some ways, the novel falls short of
its antipatriarchal project? Explain.
2 Appreciation for women’s emotional strength is an important dimension
of feminist thinking, and we see such appreciation in Leslie Marmon
Silko’s “Lullaby” (1974). Although it is a painfully moving story of
unconscionable loss, “Lullaby” is also a heroic story of a woman’s strength
in the face of overwhelming adversity. Note all the hardships and emotional
traumas Ayah has experienced during her life. Find the textual evidence
showing that, even as Ayah feels the pain of these memories, she has
sustained her strength through her intimate emotional bond with nature
and with the Native American women’s traditions of her childhood.
Using concepts from feminist theory 169

3 A literary text can contain both antipatriarchal and patriarchal elements.
How is Langston Hughes’ short story “The Blues I’m Playing” (1934)
antipatriarchal in its characterization of Miss Oceola Jones? Consider, for
example, her financial independence; her musical talent, which places her
among the best, throughout the world, in her field; and her pre-marital
living arrangements with Pete. In contrast, how is the story patriarchal on
the topic of marriage and children? Consider, for example, its portrayal
of Oceola’s thoughts on this subject, and note how the text hints that
Mrs. Dora Ellsworth’s unhappiness is due largely to her childlessness. Which
seems stronger to you: the text’s antipatriarchal or patriarchal dimension?
4 In what ways does Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman (1949) illus-
trate patriarchal ideology? For example, how do Willy, Biff, and Happy
Loman treat women as sex objects and tokens of male status? How
is Linda Loman a patriarchal woman? Does Death of a Salesman seem
to promote the patriarchal ideology it illustrates by means of its sympa-
thetic portrayal of Willy and its apparent approval of Linda’s support for
Willy’s patriarchal attitude (in which case we would say the play is
patriarchal)? Or does the play, instead, invite us to criticize the patriarchal
behavior it illustrates (in which case we would say that the play is anti-
patriarchal)? In 1949, when the play was first produced, viewers would
have tended to see Willy as a sympathetic character and Linda as a good
woman and a good wife. It is doubtful that ordinary viewers would have
objected to the play’s patriarchal ideology. From a feminist perspective
today, however, how might modern viewers have some difficulty seeing
these two characters in a wholly positive light?
5 Use concepts from feminist theory to help you interpret some aspect of a
movie, television show, song lyric, cartoon, video game, or any other
production of popular culture that you find interesting and that seems to
lend itself to a feminist interpretation. For example, are patriarchal gender
roles illustrated in some way? Are they idealized as the only normal,
healthy roles for women and men? Do we see any “good-girl”/”bad-girl”
ideology at work in this cultural production? Are women represented in
a way that objectifies them? If mothering or fathering is portrayed, what
does this production seem to be saying about these roles? Based on your
observations, what cultural work does your chosen cultural production
do relevant to feminist theory? Specifically, what definitions of femininity
and masculinity does it promote, and how does it seem to define the
“good” woman? Be sure to offer evidence from your chosen production
to support your ideas.
Suggestions for further reading
Christian, Barbara. New Black Feminist Criticism, 1985–2000. Eds. Gloria Bowles, M. Giulia
Fabi, and Arlene R. Keizer. Urbana: University of Chicago Press, 2007.
170 Using critical theory

hooks, bell. Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. Cambridge, MA: South End Press,
2000.
Oliver, Kelly, (ed.) French Feminism Reader. London: Rowan and Littlefield, 2000. (See,
especially, Simone de Beauvoir’s “Introduction to The Second Sex,” 6–20; “The
Mother,” 20–27; and “The Woman in Love,” 27–34.)
Robbins, Ruth. Literary Feminisms. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. (See, especially,
“Images of Women Criticism,” 50–69; “Psychoanalysis and/or Feminism?” 105–18;
“Reading the Boys’ Own Stories: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Picture
of Dorian Gray, and Heart of Darkness,” 217–41; “Reading the Writing on the Wall:
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wall-paper,’” 242–58; and “Afterword: The
Mark on the Wall—Marking Differences, Marking Time,” 259–56.)
Stavans, Ilan, ed. Latina Writers. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2008. (See, especially,
Phillipa Kafka’s “Saddling La Gringa: Major Themes in the Works of Latina Writers,” 3–
15; and Debra A. Castillo’s “Chicana Feminist Criticism,” 16–37.)
Tyson, Lois. “Feminist Criticism.” Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. 2nd ed.
New York: Routledge, 2006, 83–133.
Warhol, Robin R., and Diane Price Herndl, (eds.) Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary
Theory and Criticism. Revised ed. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997.
(See, especially, Bonnie Zimmerman’s “What Has Never Been: An Overview of Lesbian
Feminist Literary Criticism,” 76–96; Cordelia Chávez Candelaria’s “The ‘Wild Zone’:
Thesis as Gloss in Chicana Literary Study,” 248–56; bell hooks’ “Male Heroes and
Female Sex Objects: Sexism in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X,” 555–58; Judith Fetterly’s
“Introduction: On the Politics of Literature,” 564–73; Paula Gunn Allen’s “Kochinnenako
in Academe: Three Approaches to Interpreting a Keres Indian Tale,” 746–64; and Amy
Ling’s “I’m Here: An Asian American Woman’s Response,” 776–83.)
Using concepts from feminist theory 171

Chapter 7
Using concepts from lesbian,
gay, and queer theories to
understand literature
Why should we learn about lesbian, gay, and queer
theories?
How can we understand human identity without understanding human
sexuality? Our capacity to be kind, generous, tender, and understanding; our
capacity to experience pleasure; the ways in which we define pleasure—all of these
personality traits tell us about our sexuality. And they also tell us about the
kind of person we are in our everyday lives: working at our jobs, shopping for
groceries, playing basketball, or watching a movie. So whether or not we are
sexually active, our sexuality is part of who we are, for our sexuality is related
to most or all of the other characteristics by which we define ourselves.
Yet at every level of education, classes in the humanities—that broad field
of study which includes literature, history, and philosophy and which explores
the various experiences by which we define our humanity—rarely discuss in
any depth the topics of sex and sexuality. Even if a class is reading a literary
work in which, say, an adulterous affair plays a key role in the story, the affair
is usually treated as an event in the plot rather than as a dimension of the character’s
sexuality or a dimension of the work as a whole that requires close analysis. In
fact, if we look at the degree to which the topics of sex and sexuality have
been omitted from the humanities, we may reasonably wonder how an academic
discipline that claims to study human experience has managed to overlook, or at
least under-represent, one of the most important dimensions of that experience.
Surely, part of the reason for this marked omission is the discomfort teachers
and students often experience in discussing topics related to sexuality, especially
LGBTQ sexuality: lesbian, gay, bi, transgender, or queer sexuality.1 You
might be experiencing some discomfort yourself at this moment. If you are,
I hope you won’t let it worry you—or prevent you from reading this chapter.
Keep in mind that, whatever your personal feelings about sexuality in general
and LGBTQ sexuality in particular, it’s not unusual to feel a bit uncomfor-
table, at first, discussing in a classroom setting topics that have rarely, if ever,
come up in the classroom, topics that most of us have been raised to believe are
strictly private, if not downright transgressive. But whether you’re accustomed

to the subject or not, I think you’ll find this chapter interesting as well as
informative because lesbian, gay, and queer theorists have not only helped draw
our attention to human sexuality as a serious aspect of studies in the humanities,
but they have done so in ways that are meaningful to all of us, regardless of
our sexual orientation. For they raise questions that are important to any
understanding of human sexuality and how it relates to human identity and
culture. Let me give you a few examples.
Lesbian theorists have raised important questions about what it means to
define oneself as a lesbian. For instance, if identifying oneself as a lesbian
requires sexual relations with another woman, then shouldn’t identifying oneself
as a heterosexual woman require sexual relations with a man? If so, how can
heterosexual virgins claim to be heterosexual? Furthermore, what “counts” as
sexual relations? Must genital contact be involved in order for an encounter to
be categorized as sexual? With these questions in mind, how should we define
lesbian orientation? In fact, with these questions in mind, how should we define
any sexual orientation?
Gay theorists have reminded us that definitions of heterosexuality and
homosexuality can differ from culture to culture. For example, in the United
States today, sexual relations with, or even sexual desire for, a same-sex partner
define a man as gay. However, in white working-class American culture at the
turn of the twentieth century, as well as in some South American cultures, a
man who has sex with another man is still defined as a heterosexual as long as
he assumes the masculine role: as long as he penetrates but is never penetrated
by his partner and as long as he behaves in a dominant, aggressive, traditionally
masculine manner. In contrast, citizens of ancient Athens didn’t choose sexual
partners based on sex or gender behavior; they chose them in terms of social caste.
A male member of the Athenian elite class could have legitimate sexual rela-
tions with anyone beneath him in social rank: women and girls of any class or
age, boys of his own class who were past puberty but had not yet attained the
age of manhood, and all slaves and foreigners. As these examples suggest,
definitions of sexual orientation and of legitimate sexual relations depend on
cultural attitudes toward sexuality.
Finally, queer theory, which is an outgrowth of lesbian and gay theories,
rejects definitions of sexuality that depend upon the sex of one’s partner. As
we’ll see in the “Basic concepts” section of this chapter, queer theorists believe
that the biological sex of the people to whom we are sexually drawn tells us
nothing other than the biological sex of the people to whom we are sexually
drawn. That is, queer theorists find human sexuality much too complex,
ambiguous, and dynamic to be understood by this single biological fact:
many more personal factors must be taken into account in order to begin to
understand human sexuality.
Lesbian, gay, and queer theorists are also interested in questions involving issues
of social justice. For example, why does the dominant culture in the United
States, among other cultures around the world, tend to define LGBTQ
Using concepts from lesbian, gay, and queer theories 173

sexuality as deviant, even dangerous, while some cultures define it as natural,
even admirable? What is the best way to change American laws, practices, and
attitudes that still discriminate against LGBTQ individuals, as if they were not
deserving of the same civil rights other Americans enjoy, despite our growing
awareness of the enormous contribution of LGBTQ people throughout
American history to all areas of American life? (To cite just a few well-known
literary examples, consider the work of Walt Whitman, Sarah Orne Jewett, Willa
Cather, Hart Crane, Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, Tennessee
Williams, James Baldwin, Allen Ginsberg, Carson McCullers, Edward Albee,
Adrienne Rich, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, Mark Doty, and David Sedaris.)
For discrimination against LGBTQ individuals persists in the United States,
not only in the violent hate crimes that still occur, but also in the availability
of jobs and housing, in the use of public facilities such as hotels and taverns, in
areas of family law such as the right to retain custody of one’s children, as
victims of police harassment, and in AIDS-related discrimination.
Additional questions raised by lesbian, gay, and queer theorists concern the
origin of our sexual orientation, as sexual orientation is traditionally defined in
the West today. Is our orientation toward same-sex or opposite-sex romantic
partners the result of our genes? (This view is called biological essentialism
because it tells us that our sexual orientation is an essential, or inborn part of
our biological makeup.) Or is our sexual orientation the result of our individual
experience? (This view is called social constructionism because it tells us that our
sexual orientation is constructed by our experience in society.) Or might
genetics be the source of sexual orientation for some people while experience
is the source of sexual orientation for others? Or might the answer lie in some
combination of our genetic makeup and our experience? A related question
involves the issue of choice: if LGBTQ sexuality is simply a matter of personal
choice, as some people believe, then when and by what process do individuals
choose to be heterosexual?
Although we won’t discuss here the numerous issues addressed by lesbian,
gay, and queer theorists, I think it’s important to be aware of them so that you
can see what an important and diverse field of inquiry lesbian, gay, and queer
concepts open up for our understanding of human sexuality and its relationship
to human identity and culture. And as we’ll see later, in our interpretation
exercises, these concepts also open up literary texts to new and interesting
readings. For now, though, let’s concentrate on the foundation-level under-
standing of lesbian, gay, and queer theories offered in the “Basic concepts”
section that follows. Although it’s important that you read through this list of
concepts, don’t be too concerned if you don’t feel you thoroughly understand
every one. You’ll begin to understand these concepts much better when we
use them, later on in this chapter, to help us interpret the literary texts that
appear at the end of this book. And you’ll see that these fundamental lesbian,
gay, and queer concepts can help us understand other works of literature
as well.
174 Using critical theories

Keep in mind that I’m offering you my own literary analyses in the inter-
pretation exercises provided later in this chapter. You might use the same
concepts I use but come up with different interpretations of your own. If you
disagree with any of the analyses I offer in these exercises, don’t be afraid to
look in the literary work in question for evidence that will support your
viewpoint. A literary work can support a number of different interpretations,
even when readers are using concepts from the same theory.
Basic concepts
All of the concepts defined below can be employed to produce lesbian, gay,
or queer interpretations of literature, with the following qualifications. As you
would expect, the concept of the woman-identified woman is not generally
employed from a gay perspective, and the term queer theory signals the use of
the theoretical approach by that name described below.
Heterosexism
Heterosexism is institutionalized discrimination against LGBTQ people. It is
discrimination that is “built into” such social institutions as the family, education,
religion, and the law enforcement system. And it is based on the belief that
heterosexuality is the only right or natural sexual orientation. A heterosexist
society—for example, most of heterosexual American culture—permits or
encourages discrimination against LGBTQ individuals through its laws, customs,
and common practices. The examples of discrimination against LGBTQ people
listed earlier are thus examples of heterosexism. In fact, the pressure to be
heterosexual placed on young people is so enormous that lesbian poet and
theorist Adrienne Rich refers to that pressure as compulsory heterosexuality.2 In
other words, our heterosexist society teaches us that we must be heterosexual
regardless of how we feel about it.
Homophobia
Homophobia is the intense fear and loathing of homosexuality. Psychologists
tell us that homophobes (homophobic people) hate LGBTQ people because
homophobes are uncertain about their own sexuality and are trying to prove
to themselves that they are heterosexual. From this perspective, homophobia is
a product of compulsory heterosexuality: if there weren’t so much pressure on
people to be heterosexual, they wouldn’t be so terrified of the possibility that
they might not be heterosexual. Homophobia is, of course, responsible for
hate crimes against LGBTQ individuals. And I think we should also see the
ways in which homophobia is responsible for heterosexism, for surely the kind
of heterosexist discrimination described earlier is based on the collective, if
sometimes unconscious homophobia promoted by traditional heterosexual
Using concepts from lesbian, gay, and queer theories 175

culture, or what feminism calls patriarchy. Internalized homophobia refers to the
self-hatred some LGBTQ people experience because, in their growth through
adolescence into adulthood, they’ve internalized (taken into themselves, or
“bought into”) the homophobia pressed upon them by heterosexist culture.
Homosocial activities
Homosocial activities are simply same-sex bonding activities. Going to the
movies, playing cards, fixing the car, preparing a meal, or any other shared
leisure or work project is a homosocial activity if it is performed by two or
more members of the same sex. The sexual orientation of the participants is
irrelevant in homosocial bonding. What is important is the sharing of experiences
that makes one feel closer to—“at home” with—members of one’s own sex.
Homosocial relationships (same-sex friendships) deserve our attention here
because, although such relationships contribute to the development and main-
tenance of a healthy sense of self, many of us limit or even avoid them because we
(consciously or unconsciously) fear that we will be perceived as LGBTQ or that
we actually are LGBTQ. In other words, homophobia shuts down homosocial
bonding and thereby shuts down an important part of human experience.
The woman-identified woman
Throughout much of Western history, compulsory heterosexuality—which
included barring women from opportunities to achieve financial independence
so that they would have to marry to survive—has caused many women to
marry who would have preferred to share their lives with women. In addition,
patriarchy (any society in which men hold all or most of the power) tells us
that sexual drive of any kind is much more natural in men than in women, a
belief that has caused many women, especially in the past, to deny or be
unable to recognize their sexual attraction to other women. For these reasons,
a strict focus on what we would define today as sexual activity or sexual desire
runs the risk of ignoring an important dimension of women’s lives—the
homosocial dimension—that might best be understood fully from a lesbian
perspective. Many lesbian theorists believe, therefore, that lesbian identity is
not restricted to the sexual domain but also can consist of directing the bulk of
one’s attention and emotional energy to other women and having other women
as one’s primary source of emotional sustenance and psychological support.
From this perspective, a lesbian is a woman-identified woman: a woman who
identifies exclusively with women and whose primary relationships (which
may or may not be sexual) are with women.3 Thus, just as a woman who has
never had sexual relations with a man can still consider herself heterosexual, a
woman who has never had sexual relations with a woman can still consider
herself a lesbian. (In contrast, most gay male theorists today assume that gay
male identity is defined by sexual activity, or even just sexual desire, between
176 Using critical theories

men.) It is also important to note that many lesbian thinkers consider woman-
identification essential to a woman’s development of her personhood—of a
healthy sense of herself as an independent being—for every woman regardless
of her sexual orientation.
Homoerotic imagery
Homoerotic imagery consists of erotic (though not necessarily overtly sexual)
visual images that imply same-sex attraction or that might appeal sexually to a
same-sex reader. For example, a lush, sensual depiction of a group of women
helping one another undress or of nude men bathing in a beautiful pond
would be considered homoerotic. We can find many homoerotic images in
literature as well as in, for instance, painting, sculpture, film, and photography.
Queer theory
Some LGBT people have adopted the word queer to refer to themselves for a
number of reasons. Referring to themselves positively with a word that has
been used to insult them is a way of taking power away from heterosexist
society, a way of saying “We’re proud that we’re different, and we’re not
going to be intimidated by heterosexism.” In addition, the word queer is used
positively as a broad, inclusive category that acknowledges the shared political
and social experience of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and all people who
consider themselves, for whatever reasons, not heterosexual. Hence, LGBT
has evolved, for many, into LGBTQ. Finally, and most important for our
interpretation of literature, the word queer is used to indicate a specific theoretical
perspective—called queer theory—which we will use later, in our interpretation
exercises, to analyze Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.”
Queer theory argues that human sexuality cannot be understood by such
simple opposed categories as homosexual and heterosexual, which define our
sexuality by the sex of our partner and nothing more. Human sexuality consists
of a host of important factors that are not related to the sex of our partner. For
example, what is our sexual “personality”? Are we kind? Cruel? Generous?
Selfish? Assertive? Timid? Are we drawn to a particular physical type, or “look”?
Do we tend to be drawn to older or younger partners? Do we tend to be
monogamous, or do we prefer a variety of partners? Do we prefer certain
sexual acts or certain kinds of locations for sexual encounters? Do we like to
role play sometimes? Always? If so, what are our favorite roles? Do we prefer a
particular kind of lighting? Does our sexual behavior fit traditional definitions
of masculinity or femininity, or do we have traits associated with both or
neither? The answers to questions like these are among the many qualities that
reveal important aspects of our sexuality not revealed by the current definition
of sexual orientation. Furthermore, for queer theory, our sexuality is wholly
determined neither by genetics nor environment, neither by nature nor nurture,
Using concepts from lesbian, gay, and queer theories 177

because the sources of each individual’s sexuality can be many and varied. In
addition, our sexuality, depending on how we choose to define it, may be
different at different times during our lives or even at different times during
the week. Thus, human sexuality is a dynamic, fluid force: it’s always changing
and growing, and its boundaries are not permanently rooted in any one rigid
definition or in any single category.
Of course, there are additional concepts used to interpret literature from a
lesbian, gay, or queer perspective, but these are enough to get us started. Let’s
begin our interpretation exercises by analyzing “Don’t Explain,” a story by
lesbian author Jewelle Gomez that gives us positive images of lesbians and a
realistic portrayal of some of the hardships they face in a heterosexist world.
Interpretation exercises
Rejecting lesbian stereotypes: Interpreting “Don’t Explain”
Set in Boston in 1959, Jewelle Gomez’s “Don’t Explain” (1987; see Appendix E)
gives us a glimpse into the lives of lesbian characters a decade before the Gay
Liberation Movement, which began in 1969, initiated organized political activity
to obtain civil rights for gay people in the United States. While the story thus
gives us an idea of lesbian experience at a time when lesbians were afforded
few or no civil rights—for example, lesbians could be beaten and raped with little
if any chance of protection from the police or the judicial system—the issues
the story raises are still relevant to life in America today. For American law still
does not offer LGBTQ individuals the same civil rights it offers heterosexuals,
such as the right to form families legally recognized as such. And even in those
situations where every American’s rights are protected by law—such as the
right to be protected from physical assault and the right to fair housing and
employment—heterosexist individuals still often deny LGBTQ people those
rights without having to worry too much about the law stepping in to stop them.
“Don’t Explain,” then, offers us, in addition to an interesting story, an
affirmative portrayal of lesbians—represented by Letty, Delia, Terry, Terry’s
friends, and Billie Holiday4—living in a heterosexist world. In order to see
how Gomez’s story accomplishes this task, we’ll examine: (1) its depiction of
lesbian isolation in a heterosexist world; (2) its positive portrayals of lesbian
characters; and (3) its focus on the importance of lesbian community for the
provision of emotional support.
Lesbian isolation in a heterosexist world
We see the events in the story through the eyes of Letty, the main character.
Although she’s been working at the 411 Lounge for seven years, she doesn’t seem
to have any close friends, despite the fact that she works with women she likes and
with whom she has a good deal in common. Collect the following textual evidence
to show that heterosexism and homophobia are responsible for Letty’s isolation.
178 Using critical theories

1 Find all the textual data you can to show that Letty feels conflicted about
her sexual orientation, that she thinks she should not have the sexual
feelings she has. In other words, find the textual evidence that Letty
suffers from internalized homophobia.
2 Given Letty’s internalized homophobia, she has reason to fear women she
thinks might be lesbians, for they might bring to the surface her own sexual
feelings, which she is trying to control. Or they might recognize her sexual
orientation, which she is trying to hide. In addition, she has reason to
fear straight people because they will probably reject her if they discover her
secret, and she could lose her job as well. So whether Letty thinks another
woman is a lesbian or a heterosexual, she has reason to be on her guard.
a Find all the places in the story where we see Letty’s interest in:
i Delia
ii Terry, and
iii Billie Holiday, whom she met one night when the singer visited
the 411 with her band.
b Find all the places in the story where we see Letty holding back,
keeping to herself, keeping quiet about her feelings.
3 Given Letty’s sexual orientation, her fear of Tip, the pimp who is her
regular customer, takes on added weight. If he discovers Letty’s secret,
she’ll be in danger of his physical abuse. Find the line that shows Letty’s
awareness that Tip likes to hurt people.
4 Given the heterosexist world in which they live, Delia and Terry have to
be careful about revealing their sexual orientation. Therefore, though
they evidently believe that Letty is a lesbian—that’s why Terry asks Delia
to invite Letty to meet their friends—they also have reason to be nervous
about allowing Letty in on their secret. This is probably why they didn’t
invite Letty over sooner. Find the places in the story where we see
Delia’s nervousness about inviting Letty to the get-together she and
Terry are having at their apartment.
Positive portrayals of lesbian characters
Negative myths about lesbians that used to be generally accepted as truth and
that still exert some influence today include the false belief that lesbians are
sick or evil or both, that they hate all men, that they look like men and want
to be men, and that their chief goal in life is to prey on other women sexually.
The textual data required below ask you to see how the story’s portrayals of its
lesbian characters—Letty, Delia, Terry, Terry’s friends, and Billie Holiday—
combat these stereotypes.
1 Positive qualities of lesbian characters—Do any of the portrayals of the story’s
lesbian characters imply that they are sick or evil? Or does the text, instead,
Using concepts from lesbian, gay, and queer theories 179

combat this stereotype by giving us lesbian characters whose positive
qualities don’t allow us to consider them as sick or evil? List all of the
positive qualities you can find that the text ascribes to its lesbian characters,
including those that we see in such areas as
a attitude toward others,
b personal interaction with others,
c attitude toward work, and
d job capability.
2 Lesbian characters’ attitudes toward men—Except for the women’s get-
together at Terry and Delia’s apartment at the end of the tale, most of
the story’s action takes place in the 411 Lounge, where we see Letty’s—
and to a lesser extent Delia’s—interactions with and thoughts about
men. Look at all of the passages that refer to men. Do Letty and
Delia seem to be man-haters? Which lines in particular show us that
Letty—the character about whom we learn the most—is not biased
against men?
3 Physical appearance of lesbian characters—Look at all of the physical descriptions
of the story’s lesbian characters. List their personal traits in terms of body
types, clothing, voices, and any other traits that can be described in terms
of traditional masculinity and femininity. Do all or most of the lesbian
characters look alike, as the stereotype suggests? Do they seem to want to
be men? Or do we see a variety of individual differences in the way they
a look,
b dress, and
c speak?
4 Are the lesbian characters sexual predators?—Look again at the data you’ve
already collected under the heading “Positive qualities of lesbian characters.”
Does the information you gathered under that heading, or the information
available anywhere else in the story, suggest that the chief goal of these
characters is to sexually prey on one another or on heterosexual women?
Sexual predators are not known for their sincere acts of kindness, for their
genuine sensitivity to the needs of others, or for their ability to be a good,
non-manipulative friend—at least not when it comes to their potential
prey. So all the acts of true kindness, sensitivity, and friendship toward
women we see performed by Letty, Delia, Terry, Terry’s friends, and
Billie Holiday present an image of lesbians that offers a striking contrast
to the image perpetrated by the myth that lesbians are sexual predators.
Find as many examples as you can of these characters’
a kindness,
b sensitivity, and
c acts of friendship toward women.
180 Using critical theories

The importance of lesbian community
Letty, Delia, and Terry all moved from the American south to the north, from
the country to the city. (Can you find the lines in the story that tell us so?)
One reason for such a move was surely the increased employment northern cities
usually offered working-class women of color. Another reason was probably
the women’s lesbian orientation: the relative anonymity of city life would
allow them to live as they chose—as long as they did so quietly—without being
the object of gossip, ridicule, or worse; and the larger, more diverse population
increased the possibility of finding other lesbians with whom they could be
friends. Find the textual evidence required below to show the important role
lesbian community plays for these characters.
1 How many women do Terry and Delia have at their home the evening
that Letty joins them? How does the story let us know that these women
get together often and know one another well?
2 The clearest evidence of the importance of lesbian community in “Don’t
Explain” is the dramatic and positive change we see in Letty once she
realizes—and accepts—that all of the women in Terry and Delia’s apartment
are lesbians. Find all the lines that show us this change for the better in Letty.
3 Although Letty meets her only once, Billie Holiday is an important
source of strength for Letty because of the emotional bond Letty feels
with the singer. Although it was generally assumed, at the time, that
Billie Holiday was heterosexual, Letty believes her to be a lesbian, which
is why Billie can be viewed as part of Letty’s lesbian community. Can
you find textual evidence of Letty’s belief?
a How does the song “Don’t Explain” become an emblem of lesbian
community at the end of the story?
b How can the lyrics of the song, provided in the story, be seen as an
emblem of lesbian community?
c How does the song help forge a bond between two of the women at
Terry and Delia’s home?
d Given the story’s focus on lesbian experience, why is it significant that
“Don’t Explain” is a Billie Holiday song?
Focusing your essay
Given the textual data you’ve just collected, you should have little trouble
focusing your essay on the ways in which “Don’t Explain” combats negative
stereotypes of lesbians through its positive portrayals of lesbian characters.
Letty, Delia, Terry, and Terry’s friends have overcome great odds in order to
survive and thrive. And they must continue to overcome those odds if they
are to go on surviving and thriving in a world that oppresses them not just in
terms of their race, class, and gender but in terms of their sexual orientation as
Using concepts from lesbian, gay, and queer theories 181

well. Surely, the support they’ve found in one another as a group will
continue to help them in that endeavor.
Even the character of Billie Holiday—who suffered much unhappiness in
real life as in the story—has a positive impact on the other characters, both
lesbian and straight. And like the other lesbian characters in “Don’t Explain,”
Billie Holiday had an uphill struggle not just against racism, classism, and
sexism, but against heterosexism as well. Yet it is the emotional strength Letty
gets from Billie’s music, and from seeing Billie’s kindness to everyone at
the 411 Lounge the night the singer stopped in with her band, that helps
Letty feel less alone in the world. Indeed, as we see at the end of the story,
Billie continues to help others through her music—this time Letty and her
new friend Maryalice—even after the singer is dead.
Remember, of course, that you don’t have to limit yourself to the analysis
of the story I’ve offered you. For example, you might find additional ways in
which “Don’t Explain” illustrates the hardships faced by lesbians, offers positive
images of lesbians, or corrects stereotypes. Or you might expand your discus-
sion to include some historical research to see what you can learn about the
specific forms of discrimination suffered by lesbians during the period in which
the story is set so that we can better understand the characters’ need both for
group support and secrecy. For this purpose, you might consult a history of
lesbian and gay experience in the United States, such as The Gay and Lesbian
Liberation Movement by Margaret Cruickshank (New York: Routledge, 1992),
which includes information about the kinds of discrimination practiced against
gays and lesbians in the decades leading up to the movement’s initiation in
1969. Whatever your interpretation of “Don’t Explain,” be sure you under-
stand the concepts from gay, lesbian, or queer theory you choose to employ,
compose a clear statement of your thesis, and support your interpretation with
adequate textual evidence.
Analyzing homophobia: Interpreting “The Battle Royal”
Ralph Ellison’s “The Battle Royal” (1952; see Appendix C) plunges readers
into a dark, smoky underworld of white male privilege, power, and lust. Set
in the post-World-War-II American south, Ellison’s tale depicts a group of
upper-middle-class white men—the town’s civic leaders—abusing their power
over women, in the form of a blond exotic dancer they’ve hired, and abusing
their power over people of color, in the form of a group of African American
young men they’ve brought in to perform in the battle royal, a bizarre and
unusually violent “boxing” match. In terms of its sexual content, “The Battle
Royal” is overtly, even classically, heterosexual. As one of my students said of
the text’s sexual dimension, “It’s about a bunch of guys drooling over a naked
blond and watching a fight—two things most guys like to do.”
From a gay perspective, however, we can see that these white leaders,
though they don’t realize it, are also fascinated by the black youths, and this is
182 Using critical theories

one of the reasons for their violent behavior toward the young men. For in
addition to the violence fueled by the white men’s racial hatred, the white
men’s violent behavior toward the young black men is fueled by their curiosity
about the sexual prowess of black males. As you may know, especially in
decades past, many white people believed the racist myth that black men are
better sexually endowed (have larger male organs) and more sexually pro-
miscuous than white men. (The myth is racist because it is born of the belief
that black people are animal-like.)
“Well,” you may wonder, “Isn’t that just jealousy? Aren’t the white leaders
behaving badly toward the young black men because they’re jealous of them?”
Yes, but as we shall see, the white men’s jealousy is itself a sign of their inse-
curity about their own masculinity and, therefore, about their own sexuality.
For heterosexist men, insecurity about one’s masculinity means insecurity about
one’s sexuality because such men believe that heterosexual men are naturally
masculine and homosexual men are naturally feminine, despite the existence
of many masculine gay men.
Of course, as lesbian, gay, and queer theorists know, insecurity about one’s
own sexuality is at the root of homophobia, the fear and loathing of homo-
sexuality, which often results in aggressive and even violent behavior. Thus,
“The Battle Royal” illustrates the workings of homophobia: it shows us how
homophobia operates within the homophobic individual as a response to his
own sexual insecurity. In other words, as we see in the story, homophobia
reveals the sexual psychology of the homophobe, not of the people to whom
the homophobe is reacting, for the people to whom the white men in the story
are reacting—the black youths—are heterosexual. To see how “The Battle
Royal” accomplishes this task, we’ll examine: (1) the white men’s curiosity
about black male sexuality; (2) the white men’s treatment of the black youths
as, in a sense, sex objects; and (3) the white men’s sexual insecurity.
The white men’s curiosity about black male sexuality
Although the white men don’t admit that they are curious about black male
sexuality, the story shows that they are, for this is one of the reasons they
deliberately parade the exotic dancer before the young men: they want to see
how the young men respond. Collect the following textual evidence to support
this claim.
1 How do we know that the black youths are forced, against their will, to
look at the exotic dancer? List as many examples as you can find of the
young men’s negative reaction to this situation.
2 How do we know that the white leaders have conflicted feelings about
their own curiosity? For example, what two contradictory threats do the
white men yell at the black youths as they display the exotic dancer
before the youngsters?
Using concepts from lesbian, gay, and queer theories 183

The white men’s treatment of the black youths as “sex objects”
In traditional heterosexual culture, women are often treated as sex objects for
men. This means that their role is to provide sexual pleasure for men with no
concern for their own feelings. Two important features of the treatment of
women as sex objects are that women provide visual entertainment for
men (they are “eye candy” or, to use more theoretical language, “objects of
the male gaze”), and they are submissive to men. Find the textual evidence
required below to support the claim that the white men’s treatment of the
black youths is similar to their treatment of women as sex objects.
1 How are the black youths “objects of the (white) male gaze”?
a How do they provide visual entertainment for the white men?
i What are these young men wearing?
ii What are they required to do?
iii What emotions do they feel during these activities, emotions that
are clearly visible?
b How is this entertainment similar to the entertainment provided by
the exotic dancer?
2 How do the white leaders force the young black men to be submissive to
their will? List all the ways in which the white men control these
youngsters. (The data you find in answering question 2 may overlap with
the data you found in answering question 1 because both of these questions
ask us to analyze the white men’s abuse of power.)
The white men’s sexual insecurity
Of course, the white men’s curiosity about black male sexuality and their
treatment of the black youths as “sex objects” are both signs that the white
men are insecure about their own sexuality. If they were secure in their
sexuality, their curiosity about the young black men wouldn’t take such an
aggressive form: they wouldn’t need to humiliate them and render them
helpless. In addition, there are other signs in the story that the white men are
insecure about their own sexuality. Find the additional evidence listed below
to support this claim.
1 Like their aggression toward the black youths, the white leaders’ aggres-
sion toward the exotic dancer is an ego boost, an attempt to prove to
themselves that they are powerful men. Find evidence of their aggression
toward her.
2 Their sexual display for one another—as if to show how much they like
sex—is an attempt by the white leaders to prove to themselves, by
proving to others, that they are “real” men. Find the descriptions of their
sexual “acting out.”
184 Using critical theories

Focusing your essay
Having gathered the textual data required, you should be able to write an
essay showing how “The Battle Royal” provides a useful illustration of the
operations of homophobia. As the story shows, the white men’s insecurity
about their own masculinity, which for them means insecurity about their
own sexuality, is at least partly responsible for their violent hatred of the black
youths. Indeed, as we have seen, the white leaders’ aggression toward these
young men has a good deal in common with their aggression toward the
exotic dancer because they want to control both in order to feel sexually
secure. They want to reassure themselves that they’re “real men,” which they
wouldn’t need to do if they weren’t insecure.
Remember, of course, that you don’t have to limit yourself to the analysis
of the story I’ve offered you. For example, in addition to the argument
already outlined, you might want to discuss further the parallel between the
white men’s treatment of the black youths and their treatment of the exotic
dancer, a parallel that is sustained in the similarity between the response of the
black youths and that of the exotic dancer to the white men’s brutal behavior.
In fact, the similarity between the white leaders’ aggression toward the young
men and toward the exotic dancer may lead you to consider another aspect of
homophobia to which the story points: that the homophobia aimed at gay
men is, at bottom, a hatred of the feminine—that is, a hatred of women. This
idea would help explain why homophobes tend to characterize all gay men as
feminine, despite the large number of gay men who exhibit masculine beha-
vior, and why homophobes tend to refer to gay men with such feminine
words, used disparagingly, as fairy and queen. It would also help explain why a
homophobic man’s insecurity about his masculinity can cause such violent acting
out: he’s terrified of the possibility that he might have any feminine qualities
because he believes that feminine qualities are inferior to masculine qualities.
Whatever your interpretation of “The Battle Royal,” be sure you understand
the concepts from gay, lesbian, or queer theory you choose to employ, compose
a clear statement of your thesis, and support your interpretation with adequate
textual evidence.
Recognizing the woman-identified woman in a heterosexual text:
Interpreting “Everyday Use”
Sometimes a literary work can have a lesbian, gay, or queer dimension that is
very subtle, very quiet, and barely noticeable (if noticeable at all) to a reader not
acquainted with lesbian, gay, or queer theory. This dimension lies “beneath”
the literary work, beneath the text, which is why it’s called a subtext, but it can
nevertheless have something important to tell us. Such is the case with what
might be seen as the subtle lesbian dimension of Alice Walker’s “Everyday
Use” (1973; see Appendix D), a story of women’s emotional strength and
Using concepts from lesbian, gay, and queer theories 185

survival set in America’s rural south during the Black Pride Movement of the
late 1960s and early 1970s.
Clearly, “Everyday Use” is a tale about women who consider themselves
heterosexual, and we have no reason to doubt them. Mrs. Johnson is apparently
a widow and has two daughters, Maggie and Dee (also called Wangero).
Maggie will marry John Thomas, and Dee has arrived home for a visit with
Hakim, the man with whom she lives, in tow. However, despite the fact that
the Johnson women confine their sexual relationships to the heterosexual
domain, I think we can argue that Mama and Maggie are woman-identified
women. Specifically, the story suggests that one can be a woman-identified
woman even if one’s sexual activities are confined to the heterosexual domain. In
other words, “Everyday Use” illustrates the ways in which woman-identification
is an emotional orientation that can play an important role in any woman’s life,
regardless of her sexual orientation. In the case of Mama and Maggie, this
emotional orientation contributes to the inner strength that helps them live
productive, satisfying lives despite the socioeconomic limitations imposed on
them due to their race, class, and gender.
Just as the concept of the woman-identified woman might be considered a
subtle dimension of lesbian theory—a concept that allows us to see lesbianism as
an emotional orientation that may or may not involve lesbian sexual activity—
so the presence of the woman-identified woman in Walker’s story might be
considered a subtle dimension, or a subtext, of that story. This presence may
seem to you as quiet as a whisper, but if you listen you can hear the voice of
the woman-identified woman speaking softly behind the story’s more audible,
more obvious heterosexual dimension. In order to hear what that voice has to
tell us, we’ll examine: (1) the lack of a fully developed, traditional masculine
presence in the story; and, in contrast, the way the story portrays (2) the
power of female presence; and (3) the importance of female bonding.
The lack of a fully developed, traditiontal masculine presence
Interestingly, the lack of a fully developed, traditional masculine presence in
“Everyday Use” isn’t due entirely to a lack of male characters. Hakim plays a
role in the story, and a number of minor male characters are mentioned,
though we don’t actually meet them: Mr. Johnson, John Thomas, Jimmy T,
Uncle Buddy, Stash, Grandpa Jarrell, and Great Grandpa Ezra. Yet, as the
textual data you collect to answer the following questions will reveal, the male
characters don’t exert much force in the story—don’t have a strong emotional
presence—especially when contrasted with that of the female characters.
1 Hakim
a How much do we learn about Hakim, the one male character we
actually meet in the story?
b Does Dee seem strongly attached to Hakim?
186 Using critical theories

c What do you think has drawn the two together?
d How do we know that Hakim remains an emotional outsider to the
three women during this visit?
e How do Mama and Maggie react to him?
f On whom is the bulk of Dee’s attention focused?
2 Mr. Johnson
a How much do we learn about Mr. Johnson, Dee and Maggie’s father,
whom we never meet?
b How often does Mama mention Mr. Johnson?
c How often do Dee and Maggie mention him?
3 John Thomas
a What do we learn about John Thomas, whom we never meet?
b How often does Maggie mention John Thomas?
c Does anyone mention his name to Dee?
4 The other minor male characters—Although we don’t meet them, what do
we learn about each of the other minor male characters mentioned in the
story?
The power of female presence
In strong contrast to the lack of a fully developed, traditional masculine pre-
sence in the story, we are given an extremely powerful female presence in the
form of Mama, Dee, and Maggie. As you will see when you gather the textual
data to answer the following questions, because of the Johnson women’s
circumstances—especially the ways in which they have had to survive on their
own—all three characters have developed traits that are associated with both
traditional (patriarchal) femininity and masculinity. In other words, in a very
real sense, the depictions of Mama, Dee, and Maggie, taken together, provide
both the feminine and the masculine presence in the story. (To see this
aspect of the story clearly, be sure to collect all the textual data you can find
about their physical appearance, personalities, skills, and experiences.) Even
the minor female characters, whom we don’t meet—Aunt Dee (also called
Dice and Big Dee) and Grandma Dee—have a more solid presence in the
story, because we learn more about them, than the more numerous minor
male characters. The point here is that the depictions of the female characters
are so powerful, and the female world those characters create is so complete, that
the absence of a fully developed, traditional masculine presence seems natural.
Indeed, we might say that “Everyday Use” is a woman-identified story.
1 Mama
a In what ways does Mama fit the traditional definition of femininity?
b In what ways does Mama fit the traditional definition of masculinity?
Using concepts from lesbian, gay, and queer theories 187

2 Dee
a In what ways does Dee fit the traditional definition of femininity?
b In what ways does Dee fit the traditional definition of masculinity?
3 Maggie
a In what ways does Maggie fit the traditional definition of femininity?
b In what ways does Maggie fit the traditional definition of masculinity?
4 Aunt Dee and Grandma Dee—Although we don’t meet them, what do we
learn about these two minor characters?
The importance of female bonding
In addition to being mother and daughter, Mama and Maggie seem, in many
ways, like friends. And the importance of this kind of friendship is illustrated
not only in the emotional support it provides these two characters, but in the
need for emotional support evident in Dee, who does not share their bond.
For the story suggests that Dee’s desire for closer ties with her mother and
sister is much stronger than she might realize. In fact, the homosocial bonds
that structure the story exist between generations—Mama and Maggie feel
strongly connected to their female forebears—as well as within the generation
of women we meet in the story. And these female bonds have more emotional
force, for both the three main characters and the reader, than the male–female
ties portrayed. Indeed, these homosocial bonds are represented by the story’s
inanimate “main characters”—the quilts—which were made by women working
together and passed down through the female line. To see how the story
shows us the importance of homosocial bonding, collect the textual evidence
required below.
1 Mama and Maggie—What are the various ways in which the story shows
us the bond that exists between Mama and Maggie?
a What traits do Mama and Maggie have in common? Include the two
women’s similarities in
i physical appearance,
ii personality traits, and
iii values.
b What kind of work do Mama and Maggie do?
c What other things do Mama and Maggie do together?
d Look at the image used to describe the two when Mama saves Maggie
from the fire. How is this an image of bonding?
e What does it mean, in this context, that Mama gives Maggie the
quilts at the end of the story?
188 Using critical theories

2 Dee’s desire for a stronger bond with Mama and Maggie—How does the story
show us that Dee, whether she realizes it or not, wants more from her
relationship with Mama and Maggie?
a Why has Dee come home for a visit?
i In what ways might she be looking for Mama andMaggie’s approval?
ii How is she trying to impress them?
b Although Dee might not realize it, how can her taking the family’s
butter-churn dasher and lid be viewed as a desire to be closer to
Mama and Maggie?
c How might Dee’s intense desire for the quilts be viewed as a desire to
be closer to Mama and Maggie and to connect, as they connect, to
the family’s female line?
d How does the story indicate that Dee lack’s Mama and Maggie’s
emotional grounding, their emotional connection to and contentment
with themselves and others?
e How do we know that Dee was discontented when she was in high
school?
f How does Dee seem discontented even now that she has achieved
the financial success she wanted?
g How did Dee relate to her mother and sister when she was in high school?
h How does Dee relate to her mother and sister now?
i How did Dee relate to the few friends she had in high school,
including Jimmy T?
j How does Dee relate to Hakim?
3 Male–female bonds—How does the story indicate that the male–female
bonds between characters are less important (less necessary, less emo-
tionally sustaining) than the female–female bonds? To answer this ques-
tion, you can use the data you have already collected under the headings
“The lack of a fully developed, traditional masculine presence” and “The
importance of female bonding.”
4 The importance of the quilts—How do the quilts function as a symbol of
female bonding in the story?
a Who made the quilts?
b To whom did those women teach the art of quilting?
c When she becomes a mother, to which of her children will Maggie,
in turn, probably teach quilting?
d In the Johnson family, are the quilts passed down to subsequent
generations through the male or the female line?
e How does quilting make the Johnson women the keepers of family
history, and how does this role, itself, increase the importance of
female bonding in the Johnson family?
Using concepts from lesbian, gay, and queer theories 189

Focusing your essay
Taken together, the textual data you’ve collected should allow you to focus your
essay on the role of the woman-identified woman in “Everyday Use.” Specifi-
cally, the story suggests that heterosexual women, as well as lesbians, can be
woman-identified. For being woman-identified is an emotional orientation that can
play an important role in any woman’s life, regardless of her sexual orientation.
This argument does not mean to imply that men don’t play an important
role in the Johnson family or that the Johnson women don’t care about their
men. However, it does suggest that the emotional ties the Johnson women
share with men aren’t as important as their emotional ties with women, both
between the generations and within the current generation. For the Johnson
women receive their most important and sustaining emotional support from
one another. And it is reasonable to assume that it is this support that has
allowed Mama and Maggie to survive, even flourish, on their own in a world
that is hostile to poor women of color.
In this context, it is not surprising that the beautiful, financially successful Dee
seems less happy, less contented than the unattractive, financially unsuccessful
Maggie. Dee’s ties to her mother and sister—as well as her ties to Aunt Dee
and Grandma Dee—are not as strong as the ties that connect Maggie to Mama
and to her female forebears. Maggie, not Dee, was taught to quilt by her
female relatives. Maggie, not Dee, knows the family history. Maggie, not Dee,
has the homosocial support she needs. And no amount of beauty or financial
success can compensate Dee for the lack of that support.
Yes, you can develop a reading like this one strictly within a heterosexual
framework: emotionally supportive ties to their female family members have
contributed a great deal to Mama and Maggie’s inner strength and satisfying
lives, while Dee’s lack of such an emotional foundation has deprived her of
the same kind of fulfillment. Such an interpretation, however, would risk
underplaying the importance of Mama and Maggie’s non-traditional gender
behavior in allowing them the full emotional lives they lead. Of course, one
could reasonably argue that Mama, at least, has had no choice in terms of her
gender behavior: for example, she has had to do traditionally male farm chores,
as well as “women’s work,” because she has had no man to do them for her
and her daughters. However, Mrs. Johnson is very capable and proud of doing
“men’s work,” which is the work she prefers. Although “having a man
around the farm” would have lightened the load for all three main characters,
a fully developed, traditional masculine presence in their lives would surely
have limited the degree to which they have felt free to adopt whatever gender
behavior they wished. In addition, the use of lesbian concepts encourages us
to consider the interesting idea that “Everyday Use” is a woman-identified
story: the emotional force of the narrative is carried by the three female main
characters and their female forebears, and the story is set in a female world
where the fecundity of nature is required to sustain life. Finally, interpreting
190 Using critical theories

the story from a lesbian perspective allows us to see more clearly that the
concept of the woman-identified woman creates common ground between
lesbian and straight women and thus encourages sisterhood.
As always, remember that you don’t have to limit yourself to the analysis of
“Everyday Use” I’ve offered you. For example, it might be interesting to
consider Mama, Maggie, and Dee in the context of the woman-identified
women portrayed in Alice Walker’s other literary works. How do Mama,
Maggie, and Dee compare and contrast with, for instance, Celie, Nettie, and
Shug Avery in Walker’s well-known novel The Color Purple (1982)? For Celie,
Nettie, and Shug, although they all seem to be woman-identified women,
each has a different sexual orientation. Whatever your interpretation, be sure you
understand the concepts from gay, lesbian, or queer theory you choose
to employ, compose a clear statement of your thesis, and support your
interpretation with adequate textual evidence.
Using queer theory: Interpreting “A Rose for Emily”
William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” (1931; see Appendix B) is a story
about Emily Grierson and the man she plans to marry, Homer Barron. That is,
it’s a tale about a heterosexual couple whose relationship ends in murder,
presumably because Homer intends to desert Emily, and she decides to poison
him and sleep with his dead body rather than sleep alone. Many students,
when they first read Faulkner’s story, believe that Homer Barron is gay, which
they cite as one of the reasons he doesn’t marry Emily. After all, as many
readers note, the text tells us that Homer is not the marrying kind, that
he likes the company of men and enjoys drinking with the younger men in
the town of Jefferson. The problem with using this textual evidence to argue
that Homer is gay, however, is that it is extremely unlikely that Homer could
be openly gay in the location in which the story is set: a small town in the
American south around the turn of the twentieth century. If the people of
Jefferson knew Homer was gay, they would, at the very least, run him out
of town. Therefore, we must assume that the townsfolk, including the narra-
tor, interpret Homer’s preference for male activities and his opposition to
marriage as signs that he is a fun-loving womanizer, that he doesn’t want to
be tied down to one woman or trade his bachelor freedom for the responsi-
bilities of a family man, which is what the description of Homer would
have implied, at least to most straight readers, when the story was published
in 1931. As we shall see, however, it is Homer’s womanizing that, along
with other textual evidence, can support the claim that Homer is gay, whether or
not he is aware of it. And Homer’s possible gay orientation is only one aspect of
the queer dimension of “A Rose for Emily” that our reading will explore.
Our interpretation of Faulkner’s tale will be queer in the inclusive sense of
the term because it will analyze more than one kind of sexuality represented
in the story. And our reading will be queer in the theoretical sense (it will
Using concepts from lesbian, gay, and queer theories 191

draw on queer theory) because it will show that the story illustrates the ways
in which the terms heterosexual and homosexual, the traditional categories by
which our sexuality is defined, are inadequate for understanding the com-
plexities of human sexuality. In order to understand how “A Rose for Emily”
illustrates this idea, we’ll examine: (1) Emily’s lack of a fixed gender identity
(the fact that she is described as very feminine and very masculine at different
points in the story); (2) Homer Barron’s ambiguous sexual orientation; and
(3) Homer and Emily as, symbolically speaking, a “gay” couple.
Emily’s lack of a fixed gender identity
Find all the descriptions of Emily that relate to her gender identity, to the
ways in which she seems to be traditionally feminine at some points in the story
and traditionally masculine at others. Remember that femininity and masculinity
are defined by the society in which we live, and Emily lives in a very patriarchal
southern town during the decades preceding and following the turn of the
twentieth century. This is a society that expects its women, especially
unmarried women from the upper class, to be “ladies”: gracious; soft-spoken;
gratefully dependent upon others; submissive; devoted to hearth and home; as
physically attractive as possible; and attired in pleasing, ladylike clothing at all
times. So her femininity or masculinity would be defined by such characteristics
as her gracious behavior toward others; her melodious voice; her ladylike
dependence upon others; her submission to the dictates of custom and public
opinion; her engagement in traditional feminine activities in the home; her
housekeeping standards; her hospitality; her physical appearance, including her
clothing; and the like.
1 List all of the characteristics of physical appearance and behavior that
depict Emily as traditionally feminine.
2 List all of the characteristics of physical appearance and behavior that
depict Emily as traditionally masculine.
Homer’s ambiguous sexual orientation
Homer has many of the characteristics of physical appearance and behavior
that heterosexist culture associates with heterosexual men. However, he also has
many of the characteristics often seen in men practicing macho overcompensation,
in men who have the desire to prove to themselves and to others that they are
“real” men—that is, staunch heterosexuals. Macho overcompensation tends to
be displayed when a traditional heterosexual man is insecure about his sexu-
ality—that is, when he’s afraid he’s not masculine enough and worried that
there might be something “wrong” with him; when a gay man is in denial about
being gay; or when a gay man who knows he is gay is trying to hide his sexual
orientation from heterosexist society. Homer’s characterization, then, is
192 Using critical theories

ambiguous in terms of sexual orientation: it raises questions about his sexuality
but doesn’t allow us to draw a conclusion with certainty. To see the ambi-
guity of this aspect of Homer’s characterization, collect the textual data
required below.
1 List all of the characteristics of physical appearance and behavior that
depict Homer as a traditional heterosexual man.
2 List all of the ways in which Homer seems to be practicing macho
overcompensation. Does the story give any indication which of the
motives listed above is responsible for this behavior?
Homer and Emily as a “gay” couple
Although the text depicts Emily’s gender identity, traditionally defined, as
feminine at some points in the story and masculine at others, much of the
aggressive, defiant behavior traditionally associated with men is ascribed to
Emily during Homer’s courtship of her. One implication is that Emily does
not assume the traditional feminine, submissive role in her relationship with
Homer. Another implication is that Homer finds her masculine behavior
attractive. That is, given the possibility that Homer is either a gay man in denial
or a gay man in the closet, his attraction to Emily at this point in the story
carries some symbolic weight. And Emily continues, for the most part, to
display traditional masculine behavior over the years during which she con-
tinues to sleep with Homer’s dead body, thus increasing the evidence that she
plays a masculine role in their relationship. So although Homer and Emily are
a heterosexual couple in terms of their biological sex, we might argue that, in
terms of traditional gender behavior, they are, symbolically speaking, a “gay”
couple: both “men.”
1 Find the descriptions of Emily that indicate her gender identity at the
time Homer courts her. (Don’t forget that Emily kills Homer, which is,
to say the least, an unfeminine, aggressive act.)
2 Find the descriptions of Emily that indicate her gender identity during
the years she sleeps with Homer’s dead body.
Focusing your essay
At this point, the textual data you’ve gathered should make it fairly easy to
focus your essay on the queer dimension of Faulkner’s story. For as we’ve just
seen, the characterizations of Emily and Homer cannot be fully understood in
terms of the traditional definition of sexuality as either heterosexual or
homosexual. Emily’s physical appearance and gender behavior cross back and
forth between the masculine and the feminine. Homer’s sexual orientation is
ambiguous, but he seems to be either a gay man in the closet or a gay man in
Using concepts from lesbian, gay, and queer theories 193

denial about his sexual orientation. In terms of their biological sex, Homer
and Emily are, of course, a heterosexual couple. In terms of their gender behavior,
however, they are more like a gay couple: at the time of their courtship, they
are both described in masculine terms, and Emily exhibits traditional masculine
traits both when she kills Homer and over the years that she continues to sleep
with his dead body. Thus, although “A Rose for Emily” is presumably a story
about heterosexual passion and transgression, it is also (or more so) a queer
text that reveals the limits of the traditional definition of sexual orientation.
Of course, you don’t have to limit yourself to the analysis of the story
I’ve offered you. For example, you might, instead, examine the ways in which
“A Rose for Emily” is a homophobic text. As we saw in our interpretation of
Ralph Ellison’s “The Battle Royal,” a literary work can illustrate homophobia
by depicting homophobic characters through which we can learn something
about how homophobia operates. Of course, Ellison’s tale doesn’t endorse the
homophobia it illustrates. Indeed, its homophobic characters are portrayed so
unsympathetically that readers are not liable to approve of anything those
characters do. In contrast, “A Rose for Emily” does not depict homophobic
characters. Rather, whether it intends to do so or not, it portrays Emily’s
sexuality as a form of psychological illness, and in so doing it endorses a
homophobic view of sexuality. In order to reveal this homophobic dimension
of the text, you would need to argue that the story presents Emily’s gender-
bending (her masculine appearance and behavior) as one of the symptoms of
the madness that results in her murder of Homer, a madness that has its origin
in her father’s barring suitors, or as the narrator puts it, “thwart[ing] her
“woman’s life.” Whatever your interpretation, be sure you understand the
concepts from gay, lesbian, or queer theory you choose to employ, compose a
clear statement of your thesis, and support your interpretation with adequate
textual evidence.
Drawing upon context: Interpreting “I started Early—Took my Dog”
There may be times when you read a literary work that seems to have a gay
or lesbian dimension, but that dimension emerges only in one or two images
or one or two lines. You may feel strongly that that image or those lines are
meaningful—that they’re trying to tell you something—but the literary text
doesn’t provide enough data for you to work with. In such a case, you might
consider taking a look at other literary works by the author, and perhaps you
might also browse through biographical materials such as letters, journals, or
biographies, in order to learn whether or not there is some justification for
your feeling that the piece you’re reading has a lesbian, gay, or queer dimen-
sion. In fact, you might find that more than a single work by this author is
necessary to allow you to use concepts from gay, lesbian, or queer theory
productively. In other words, instead of doing a gay, lesbian, or queer reading
of one of the author’s works, you may wind up arguing that a gay, lesbian, or
194 Using critical theories

queer dimension recurs throughout the author’s corpus (all of the author’s
literary work, taken as a whole) and that you will show how this aspect of the
author’s work operates in two or three different pieces. That’s how we’ll
develop a lesbian interpretation of Emily Dickinson’s “I started Early—Took
my Dog” (c. 1862; see Appendix A), a short, dream-like poem about a
woman who is pursued by the sea from the shoreline where she’d been walking
all the way to the edge of the town to which she presumably flees for safety.
First, of course, we have to identify the elements of Dickinson’s poem that
suggest the possibility of a lesbian reading. Before we go any further, why
don’t you take a few minutes to read through the poem and see what images
or lines you think might lend themselves to a lesbian interpretation? Then, as
you read through the rest of this exercise, keep in mind that it offers you steps
you can follow to interpret other literary works that have only a small quantity
of gay, lesbian, or queer content which you nevertheless feel is significant:
(1) identify what seem to you to be the work’s gay, lesbian, or queer elements;
(2) find the gay, lesbian, or queer elements, if there are any, in other literary
works by that author; and (3) find evidence of the author’s LGBTQ sexual
orientation, if there is any, in biographies or in the author’s letters or journals.
The poem’s lesbian elements
Most readers tend to see two elements in the poem that might allow a lesbian
reading: the mermaids in the first stanza and the fact that the dangerous sexual
presence in the poem—the sea—is characterized as male. Let’s consider the
speaker’s representation of the sea first because its presence is felt throughout
the poem and is probably, therefore, the more important element.
1 The Sea—From the perspective of lesbian theory, it is significant that the
male sexuality in the poem—the sea, whose “overflow” of “Pearl” in
stanza five (l. 20) is a fairly apparent reference to semen—is represented as
threatening, dangerous, even carnivorous (as we see in stanzas two and
three, the sea apparently wants to consume the speaker entirely). And it is
significant, too, that the speaker runs from it. In this way, the poem
seems to reject heterosexuality. In fact, we might say that the poem
“denaturalizes” the sea: it portrays the sea, a part of nature, as something
unnatural, something that violates the laws of nature by rising out of the
ocean floor and pursuing the speaker inland to the edge of town. Thus,
the poem might also be seen as implying that heterosexuality isn’t
necessarily natural or isn’t natural for all people.
2 The Mermaids—Given the rejection of heterosexuality implied by the
poem’s portrayal of the threatening male sea and of the speaker’s negative
response to it, it seems reasonable that we should give some weight to
the speaker’s brief mention of the only other female presence in the
poem besides herself: the mermaids in the first stanza (l. 3). What are
Using concepts from lesbian, gay, and queer theories 195

mermaids and how might they suggest a lesbian presence in the poem?
Well, mermaids are female. They apparently live with other mermaids, so
they constitute a female community. And though human males consider
them sexually attractive, men also consider mermaids a threat to human
life—legend has it that mermaids sometimes lured sailors from their ships
and to their death—just as heterosexist people believe the myth that lesbians
are a threat to human life because they lure women from their proper
reproductive roles as the wives of men. From the perspective of lesbian
theory, it is interesting to note that the mermaids are the first creatures
the speaker sees at the shore, that they have come out from their home
in the ocean’s depths just to look at her, and that whatever interaction
she might have had with them is prevented by the aggressive sexual
advances of the male sea.
Lesbian elements in other Dickinson poems
If the portrayal of the sea and the mermaids seems to you to suggest that the
poem has a lesbian dimension, you might want to check other Dickinson
poems for similar elements—for example, other threatening male images and
other images of female sexuality—especially if you feel that, by themselves,
the depictions of the sea and the mermaids don’t provide enough material for
you to work with.
1 Threatening male images—Like the aggressive, dangerous sea in “I started
Early—Took my Dog,”we see other male images in Dickinson’s poetry that
also seem to pose a sexual threat. Probably the most obvious one is found
in “In Winter in my Room” (poem 1670). In this poem, the speaker is
disturbed by the presence of a “Worm— / Pink, lank, and warm.”
“Worms presume,” says the speaker, and so she doesn’t feel “quite … at
home” with him. In fact, she ties him to something nearby, just to be safe.
Now, if you suspect that this worm might be a phallic symbol, an image of
male sexuality, your suspicion will be confirmed when the worm trans-
forms itself into “A snake … ringed with power.” And how does
the snake behave? Like the sea in “I Started early—Took my Dog,” the
snake is a threatening presence who “project[s]” himself toward her. And
like the speaker in that poem, this speaker flees in terror, “Nor ever ceased
to run / Till in a distant Town / Towns on from mine / I set me down.”
2 Erotic images of female sexuality—As Paula Bennett observes, in an essay she
wrote for Lesbian Texts and Contexts (New York University Press, 1990),
Dickinson’s poetry links female sexual imagery—specifically, images
associated with the clitoris and vaginal lips—with the pleasures of paradise.
These images are usually very lush and oral in nature. For example, in
“All the letters I can write” (poem 334), the speaker calls upon a lover to
“Play it … / … just sipped” her “Depths of Ruby, undrained, / Hid,
196 Using critical theories

Lip, for Thee,” which is an image of oral sex performed on female
anatomy. And this lover is represented by the tiny form of a humming-
bird—hardly a male image—whose gender is referred to, ambiguously, as
“it.” Similarly, “I tend my flowers for thee” (poem 339) includes such
female sexual images as “My Fuchsia’s Coral Seams / Rip—while the
Sower—dreams” and “My Cactus—splits her Beard / To show her throat.”
As Bennett points out, the focus in such poems as these is on female
sexuality and strongly suggests same-sex attraction.
The lesbian dimension of Dickinson’s life
Biographical data about the author is not required to argue that a literary work
has a lesbian, gay, or queer dimension. After all, the lesbian, gay, or queer
elements in a literary work could have been placed there unconsciously by an
author who was in denial about his or her sexual orientation or by an author who
successfully hid his or her sexual orientation. In both these cases, biographical
data might offer us little or nothing of value. However, when biographical
data is available about an author’s LGBTQ orientation, it can be helpful to
make use of it because, in our heterosexist society, many readers still resist gay,
lesbian, and queer interpretations of literature. In Dickinson’s case, it seems
clear that, at the very least, the poet was a woman-identified woman, that her
emotional bonds were primarily with women, and that women were the
primary source of her emotional support. In addition, you will find increasing
acknowledgement, in biographical studies, of the probability of her lesbian
orientation—of her sexual attraction to the female body—though no one
knows whether that attraction ever expressed itself in a sexual relationship
with another woman or remained at the level of sexual fantasy. Specific
reference is often made to her lifelong friendship with Susan Gilbert, who
married Dickinson’s brother and lived, with her husband, next door to the
poet. Dickinson’s letters to Gilbert, which contain exuberant expressions of
passionate love, suggest that the poet’s relationship with Gilbert was the most
important emotional bond in Dickinson’s life.
Focusing your essay
What I’ve offered you above is an outline you can follow in writing about a
gay, lesbian, or queer dimension of an author’s writing when, as frequently
happens, a single work by that author won’t allow you to make a convincing
argument for a gay, lesbian, or queer interpretation. If you’d like to try this
method with the Dickinson poems we used, first get copies of poems 1670,
334, and 339. (“I started Early—Took my Dog” appears, of course, at the end
of this book.) Poems 1670, 334, and 339 can be found in various collections
of Dickinson’s poetry, including The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited
by Thomas H. Johnson (Little Brown). Having the complete poems before
Using concepts from lesbian, gay, and queer theories 197

you will allow you to do more thorough readings of them. That is, you will
be able to find more textual evidence and analyze that evidence further.
I think you will be able to argue convincingly that the lesbian dimension of
Dickinson’s work is evident in its rejection of heterosexuality (the female
speaker who flees from a threatening male sexual advance) and, more impor-
tantly, in its lush, erotic images of female sexuality. In addition, if you choose
to do some research, you will find some biographical support for a lesbian
interpretation of Dickinson’s poetry in Chapter 3 of Judith Farr’s The Passion of
Emily Dickinson (Harvard University Press, 1992) and in Chapter 5 of Paula
Bennett’s Emily Dickinson: Woman Poet (University of Iowa Press, 1990).
Of course, you can try this approach with the work of other authors. For
example, you might examine the homoerotic imagery in the poetry of T.S. Eliot;
the queer dimension of Shakespeare’s plays, as seen, for instance, in the frequent
cross-dressing and mistaking of men for women and women for men; or the
ways in which the problems encountered by Willa Cather’s male, presumably
heterosexual main characters mirror the problems encountered by lesbians in a
heterosexist society. However you apply this method, be sure you understand
the concepts from gay, lesbian, or queer theory you choose to employ, com-
pose a clear statement of your thesis, and provide adequate textual evidence to
support your interpretation.
Food for further thought
Thinking it over
If you’ve worked through all of the interpretation exercises offered in this
chapter, you should feel quite familiar with the basic approaches to under-
standing literature provided by concepts from lesbian, gay, and queer theories.
Specifically, we’ve seen how concepts from lesbian, gay, and queer theories
can be used to analyze
1 literary works that provide positive images of LGBTQ people (our
example: “Don’t Explain”),
2 literary works that illustrate the operations of homophobia (our example:
“The Battle Royal”),
3 literary works with a lesbian, gay, or queer subtext that contributes a
subtle but important element to the lives of heterosexual characters (our
example: “Everyday Use”),
4 literary works that illustrate the first principle of queer theory: that the
opposition of the categories heterosexual and homosexual is inadequate for
understanding the complexities of human sexuality (our example: “A Rose
for Emily”), and
5 literary works whose lesbian, gay, or queer dimension can be understood
best when analyzed in the context of other works by the author, perhaps
198 Using critical theories

with some support from biographical materials (our example: “I started
Early—Took my Dog”).
For many students new to the concepts provided by lesbian, gay, and queer
theories, the interpretation exercises in this chapter might seem vague or
flimsy or even confusing. Keep in mind that any initial difficulty we might
have in using these concepts will be due largely to the fact that we’ve been
trained by heterosexist society not to be able to see the lesbian, gay, or queer
dimension of literary works, despite the large number of LGBTQ authors in
the canon of Western literature. And we’ve been fed so many myths about
LGBTQ people for so long that we think our heterosexist biases—in our literary
analyses as in other areas of our lives—are not biases but reasonable responses
to accurate information.
Probably the most destructive myth about LGBTQ people, which heterosexist
culture promotes in order to justify its anti-LGBTQ sentiments, is the myth
that LGBTQ individuals are sick or evil. However, if some sexualities are sick
or evil, surely they are those involving such behaviors as rape, the sexual abuse
of children, or any other form of cruelty inflicted on an unwilling partner.
Such behaviors aren’t related to whether an individual is straight, lesbian, gay,
bisexual, transgender, or queer. These behaviors appear in individuals regardless
of their sexual orientation. Remember, then, that our sexual orientation indicates
only one thing about us: it indicates whether we’re romantically drawn to
people of the opposite sex, people of the same sex, or people of both sexes.
Our opposite-sex or same-sex orientation is not an indication of our capacity
for kindness, generosity, sensitivity, honesty, or any other quality that we
generally use to define human goodness or health. Nevertheless, arguments
that LGBTQ people are sick or evil still abound, so I think you might find it
helpful to be acquainted both with some of the assumptions on which these
arguments are based and with some of the counterarguments generally offered
in response. Let me summarize them for you now.
The argument that LGBTQ people are sick is based on the assumption that
LGBTQ sexual activity goes against nature, that nature intended sexual relations
to occur only between males and females. However, this argument ignores
two important facts about nature. First, queer sexual activity occurs among
healthy animals as well as among human beings. That is, multiple forms of
sexual activity occur naturally. For example, in addition to male–female sexual
activity, animals are also known to engage in same-sex sexual activity and
masturbation. Second, if sexual activity in human beings were governed by
nature, then human females would not have sexual desire unless they were “in
heat” (ovulating), and infertile human males (for example, those with vasec-
tomies or with low sperm counts) would not have sexual desire at all. In fact,
if sexual activity in human beings were governed by nature, the current global
population crisis would have produced a natural decline in heterosexual
activity and, therefore, in reproduction, for a decline in heterosexual activity is
Using concepts from lesbian, gay, and queer theories 199

one of nature’s methods of avoiding overpopulation among animals. Yet Earth’s
human population continues to increase at an alarming rate.
The argument that LGBTQ people are evil is usually based on the
assumption that the biblical ban against sodomy (anal intercourse) means that
the Bible is anti-gay. However, this argument generally ignores the fact that the
Bible forbids all forms of non-procreative sex—that is, all forms of sex that
cannot result in conception. Therefore, if we believe that LGBTQ sexual activity
is evil because the Bible forbids it, we must also believe that all forms of non-
procreative sexual activity are evil, including, for example, masturbation,
Onanism (sexual intercourse that is not completed because semen is spilled
outside, rather than inside the body of the female), oral sex, and all forms of
birth control, including the use of condoms. Thus the argument that homo-
sexuality is evil because the Bible forbids it should, by rights, include an attack
on such common activities as masturbation and the use of condoms, both of
which practices American culture, among many others, generally deems healthy.
An argument that rejects some forms of non-procreative sex but not others
cannot rest on the authority of the Bible.
Lesbian, gay, and queer theories and cultural criticism
We can also use concepts from lesbian, gay, and queer theories for the purposes
of cultural criticism. That is, we can use lesbian, gay, and queer concepts to
help us analyze the cultural messages sent, whether deliberately or not, by the
everyday productions of the culture in which we live, such as movies, games,
television shows, song lyrics, toys, and other productions of popular culture
discussed in Chapter 1. Indeed, those cultural productions that in some way
represent human behavior—that have characters and a plot—can be analyzed using
concepts from lesbian, gay, and queer theories just as we use those concepts to
analyze literary works. For example, an understanding of homophobia and
heterosexism can provide us with a gay perspective on the groundbreaking,
star-studded Hollywood film drama Philadelphia (directed by Jonathan
Demme, 1993), in which brilliant young legal eagle and all-American good
guy Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) is suddenly fired on trumped-up charges
of incompetence because the homophobic partners in charge of the law firm
for which Andrew works—Charles Wheeler (Jason Robards) and Walter
Kenton (Robert Ridgely)—have discovered that he has AIDS, for which they
can’t legally fire him.
The movie owes much of its great appeal to its sympathetic portrayal of
Andy, whose relationships with his large family and his long-time companion
Miguel (Antonio Banderas) are models of love, commitment, and unconditional
support. Andy is so positively portrayed, in fact, that the film must give him a
single flaw in order to humanize him: he cheated on Miguel once, several
years ago, which he deeply regrets. Arrayed against Andy are the wealthy,
powerful men who fired him and whom Andy courageously decides to sue
200 Using critical theories

for wrongful termination; a justice system that needs to be educated about
the realities of gay life in a heterosexist culture; and a heterosexist public, whose
homophobic comments we overhear in the neighborhood tavern, in the anti-
gay protest outside the courthouse during the trial, and in other public locales.
In fact, Andy is unable to find a single lawyer willing to handle his lawsuit. He
must therefore handle it himself until Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), a gifted
but not particularly successful lawyer, finally agrees to represent him. Joe
shows the jury, and us, that the real reason for Andy’s termination was neither
incompetence nor AIDS; it was the partners’ virulent homophobia. And it
becomes evident during the trial that the partners’ homophobia is the result of
their insecurity about their own manhood, their own self-image.
JoeMiller functions, in many ways, as the straight audience’s heterosexual guide
through the complexities of their own feelings, for he himself is misinformed
about gay issues and harbors anti-gay biases about which he is in denial and
with which he comes to terms over the course of the film. In fact, the genuine
friendship that is gradually established between Joe and Andy issues in many
positive personal outcomes for Joe: he and his wife form a meaningful bond
with Andy and Miguel; he forms a meaningful bond with Andy’s family; and
he overcomes his own homophobia in his fight to defend the rights of a gay
man. The social outcomes of Joe and Andy’s gutsy stand are also very positive:
although Andy doesn’t live to see it, Joe wins what has become a very public
lawsuit, and the law firm must pay millions of dollars in fines.
From a gay perspective, the cultural messages apparent in this summary of
Philadelphia are numerous and educational: (1) like most straight men, gay men
are human beings whose happiness depends largely on a loving, committed
relationship with a life partner, on family support, and on productive, satisfying
work; (2) even when the law opposes discrimination on the basis of sexual
orientation, that discrimination is still practiced covertly; (3) an individual can
overcome his or her own homophobia; (4) heterosexism relies largely on
misinformation and indifference, homophobia on willful ignorance and insecurity
about one’s own manhood; and last but not least, (5) AIDS has a human
face—it is not just an anonymous statistic about people who have nothing to
do with mainstream America. Indeed, to everyone in the audience who
doesn’t have a gay friend, the movie gives us one in the character of Andy
Beckett. In addition, I think we can argue that the film reveals the ways in
which heterosexism and homophobia, while they are defined differently,
actually overlap. For how can a society’s majority membership persevere,
whether overtly or covertly, in groundless institutionalized anti-gay discrimina-
tion (heterosexism) without some kind of personal psychological investment,
whether conscious or unconscious, against gays (homophobia)? In short, the
movie performs cultural work that is anti-heterosexist, anti-homophobic, and
that strongly supports gay rights.
Of course, you may notice that Andy seems almost too good to be true.
Why is he so perfect: so handsome, so brilliant, so kind, so wise, so courageous,
Using concepts from lesbian, gay, and queer theories 201

so unreservedly beloved by his family, and so committed to Miguel, whom
Andy’s loving family embrace so thoroughly as one of their own? Come to
think of it, why are the portrayals of gay affection in the movie so brief and so
chaste? Why do we see so little camp self-expression among Andy and
Miguel’s gay friends at their party? Evidently, the filmmakers felt they would
lose their audience—or at least their straight audience—if they did otherwise.
That is, the narrative choices made during the production of Philadelphia
tell us something about the mainstream American movie-going audience in
1993: it was too homophobic to be counted on to spend money at the box
office for anything less non-threatening. And given the period during which the
film was produced, surely the filmmakers wanted to avoid the negative gay ste-
reotypes that had been so common in the film industry up to that point in time,
for example, the stereotype of the oversexed, promiscuous, or exhibitionist gay
man. It is apparent that great care was taken in the production of Philadelphia
in an effort to ensure that its important cultural work would not be lost.
***
Remember, it’s natural to feel a bit uncertain when we encounter a new
theory—a new way of looking at ourselves and our world—that may call into
question many of the beliefs that have been pressed upon us, and that we’ve
accepted uncritically, for most of our lives. Uncertainty is an unavoidable part
of learning and growing. Keep in mind, too, that others may disagree with
your opinions. Individuals often disagree in their interpretations of literature,
popular culture, or everyday experiences, even when drawing upon the
same lesbian, gay, or queer concepts. for their analyses. The keys to a good
interpretation—besides intellectual curiosity and an open mind—are a clear
understanding of the lesbian, gay, or queer concepts you’ve chosen to use and
strong evidence to support your analysis.
Taking the next step
Questions for further practice
1 David Sedaris’ short story “I Like Guys” (1974) offers numerous illustrations
of heterosexism, homophobia, and internalized homophobia. Find as
many examples of these concepts in the story as you can. How do these
illustrations show us the destructive effects of such anti-gay attitudes,
especially on young people? Be specific.
2 In Kitty Tsui’s poem “A Chinese Banquet” (1983)5 the speaker is eating
dinner at a large family gathering to which the woman she loves is not
invited. How do we know that the speaker is serious about the woman
she loves and very happy with their relationship? Why did the speaker
confide in her mother about this part of her life? How would you char-
acterize the mother’s response to her daughter’s sexual orientation, both
202 Using critical theories

when she first learned of it and now when she speaks to her daughter at
the family gathering? A family banquet is, both literally and figuratively, a
form of nourishing. How does the poem communicate these positive
aspects of the banquet and, in contrast, the speaker’s feelings of alienation
from her family? How does the poem show us that heterosexism, at the
level of the family, will cost the family its gay child?
3 Certainly, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) is a novel about hetero-
sexual love and marriage. Protagonist Edna Pontellier is a wife and mother;
she falls in love with a man, Robert Lebrun; and she has a sexual relationship
with a man, Alcée Arobin. Nevertheless, an awareness of the ways in which
Edna’s portrayal is not limited to the heterosexual domain can enrich our
understanding of the complexity of her characterization. For example,
find textual evidence showing the homoerotic dimension of Edna’s response
to Adèle Ratignolle’s voluptuous beauty. How is a homoerotic atmosphere
created by Mademoiselle Reisz’s behavior toward Edna—including the way
the older woman addresses the protagonist—during the latter’s visits to
the pianist’s tiny apartment? Note, too, how descriptions of Edna’s
beauty give it a masculine quality, especially when contrasted with Adèle’s
traditional femininity. Finally, find textual evidence showing the ways in
which Edna’s behavior—for instance, the way she goes where she plea-
ses, with or without companions; talks about race-horses; drinks brandy;
and tolerates Arobin for sexual purposes only—places her beyond the rigid
confines of traditional heterosexual womanhood depicted in the novel.
4 Explore the ways in which the speaker in Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”
(1855) eroticizes almost everything he sees: for example, the bodies of young
men and women; the venerability of old men and women; the strength and
serenity of animals; the magnificent beauty of the mountains, the sea, and
other elements of nature; the bustling energy of cities; and almost every
part of his own body. How does this aspect of the poem illustrate the primary
premise of queer theory: that human sexuality is too complex to fit tradi-
tional categories of sexual orientation—heterosexuality, homosexuality,
and bisexuality—based solely on the biological sex of our partner?6
5 Use concepts from lesbian, gay, or queer theory to help you interpret
some aspect of a movie, television show, song lyric, cartoon, video game,
or any other production of popular culture that you find interesting and that
seems to lend itself to a lesbian, gay, or queer interpretation. For example,
do gay or lesbian stereotypes or negative references to LGBTQ individuals
appear in this cultural production? Is heterosexism, homophobia, or
internalized homophobia represented in some way? If so, what does this
production seem to be saying about these values? Based on your obser-
vations, what cultural work does your chosen cultural production do relevant
to lesbian, gay, or queer theory? Specifically, what definitions of “normal”
masculinity, “normal” femininity, and “normal” sexuality does it imply? Be
sure to offer evidence from your chosen production to support your ideas.
Using concepts from lesbian, gay, and queer theories 203

Suggestions for further reading
Abelove, Henry, Michèle Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin, (eds.) The Lesbian and Gay
Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 1993. (See, especially, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s
“Epistemology of the Closet,” 45–61; Marilyn Frye’s “Some Reflections on Separatism
and Power,” 91–98; Barbara Smith’s “Homophobia: Why Bring It Up?,” 99–102;
Phillip Brian Napier’s “Eloquence and Epitaph: Black Nationalism and the Homophobic
Impulse in Responses to the Death of Max Robison,” 159–75; Adrienne Rich’s
“Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Experience,” 227–54; Audre Lorde’s “The Uses
of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” 339–43; Henry Abelove’s “Freud, Male Homo-
sexuality, and the Americans,” 381–93; and David M. Halperin’s “Is There a History of
Sexuality?” 416–31.)
Jay, Karla, and Joanne Glasgow, (eds.) Lesbian Texts and Contexts: Radical Revisions. New
York: New York University Press, 1990. (See, especially, Paula Bennett’s “The Pea That
Duty Locks: Lesbian and Feminist-Heterosexual Readings of Emily Dickinson’s Poetry,”
104–25; Judith Fetterly’s “My Antonia, Jim Burden, and the Dilemma of the Lesbian
Writer,” 145–63; and Diane A. Bogus’ “The ‘Queen B’ Figure in Black Literature,”
275–90.)
Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1984.
(See, especially, “Scratching the Surface: Some Notes on Barriers to Women and
Loving,” 45–52; “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” 53–59; “An Open Letter to
Mary Daly,” 66–71; “Man Child: A Black Lesbian Feminist’s Response,” 72–80; and
“The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” 110–13.)
Radicalesbians. “The Woman-Identified Woman.” Pittsburgh: Know, Inc., 1970. (Full
text available online at http://scriptorium.lib.duke.edu/wlm/womid/)
Richardson, Diane, and Steven Seidman, (eds.) Handbook of Lesbian and Gay Studies.
London: Sage, 2002. (See, especially, Barry D. Adam’s “From Liberation to Transgres-
sion and Beyond: Gay, Lesbian, and Queer Studies at the Turn of the Twenty-first Cen-
tury,” 15–26; Dawne Moon’s “Religious Views of Homosexuality,” 313–28; and
Stephen Engel’s “Making a Minority: Understanding the Formation of the Gay and
Lesbian Movement in the United States,” 377–402.)
Tyson, Lois. “Lesbian, Gay, and Queer Criticism.” Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly
Guide. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2006. 317–57.
Woods, Gregory. A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition. New Haven, CT: Yale
University Press, 1998.
Notes
1 A transgender person’s gender (masculine or feminine) doesn’t match his or her biological
sex (male or female). For example, a transgender woman has the anatomy of a female
but knows that, inside, she is a man: her biological sex is female, but her gender is
masculine. Furthermore, her transgender status doesn’t indicate her sexual orientation.
Finally, a transgender individual who has undergone the process of sex change is no
longer transgender (for sex and gender now match) but transsexual.
The word queer, as you’ll see in the “Basic concepts” section of this chapter, can be
used in different ways. For example, queer theory refers to a framework for understanding
human sexuality that is not based on the biological sex of the people to whom we are
sexually attracted. The word queer is also often used as a positive, inclusive term referring
to LGBT (or GLBT) individuals and to anyone who is, in whatever way, not strictly
204 Using critical theories

http://scriptorium.lib.duke.edu/wlm/womid

heterosexual. The inclusive acronym, therefore, is LGBTQ (or GLBTQ). However,
many people use the Q in LGBTQ to refer to the word questioning—that is, to refer to
people who are uncertain of their sexual orientation—or to refer to both queer and
questioning.
2 See Adrienne Rich’s “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Signs 5.4
(1980): 631–60. Rpt. in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, eds. Henry Abelove,
Michèle Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin (New York: Routledge, 1993), 227–54.
3 See “The Woman-Identified Woman,” Radicalesbians (Pittsburgh: Know, Inc., 1970).
Full text available online at http://scriptorium.lib.duke.edu/wlm/womid/.
4 See Stuart Nicholson’s biography, Billie Holiday (Boston, MA: Northeastern University
Press, 1995). During her lifetime, the general public assumed that Billie Holiday was a
heterosexual, for outside the circle of her musician friends, she could not freely admit
her bisexuality. In the context of “Don’t Explain,” however, Billie Holiday functions as
a lesbian character because that’s how Letty sees her, and it is from Letty’s point of view
that Billie has importance in the story.
5 Kitty Tsui’s “A Chinese Banquet” is included in her collection of poetry and prose, The
Words of a Woman Who Breathes Fire (Iowa City: Women’s Press, 1983), 12–13.
6 For a similar approach to “Song of Myself,” see Lois Tyson’s “Lesbian, Gay, and Queer
Criticism,” Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge,
2006), 337–38.
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Chapter 8
Using concepts from African American
theory to understand literature
Why should we learn about African American theory?
Having seen, in previous chapters, how a knowledge of issues concerning class,
gender, and sexual orientation can help deepen our understanding of literary
works, it should not be surprising to learn that an understanding of racial issues
can also increase our ability to appreciate and analyze literature. Indeed, like
many nations, the United States consists of people of many different races, all
of whom have contributed to our country’s literary production as well as to its
history. However, Americans of African descent, whose presence in the New
World is as old as the presence of the first European settlers, have developed
not only a very large body of internationally acclaimed literature but, as the title
of this chapter indicates, a collection of widely used critical tools with which
to analyze literature, as well. It makes sense, then, to use an African American
perspective as our source, in this chapter, of concepts concerning race.
Despite, however, the enormous role played by African Americans in the
history and cultural development of the United States, my recurring experience
in the classroom has been one of surprise and alarm at how few opportunities
my students have had in school to learn about African American history, culture,
and literature or to learn to recognize and understand the enormous gulf that
still separates white and black Americans.
For example, I’ve had many fine students, of all races, who have never
heard of or are only slightly aware of the important role played by black
Americans in such areas as the development of American art, film, literature,
science, education, philosophy, law, medicine, theater, dance, and music.
Have you ever seen a film by pioneer filmmaker Oscar Michaux? Are you
aware of the role played in the history of American theater, music, and politics
by Paul Robeson? What do you know about Harriet Tubman and the
Underground Railroad or about the work of Sojourner Truth in the struggle
for racial and gender equality? How familiar are you with the philosophical
debate between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois concerning the
relationship between education and the attainment of political equality? How
much do you know about the outpouring of African American literature, art,

and music during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s or during the Black
Arts movement of the 1960s? Are you aware of the number and importance
of the pioneering advances made both in agricultural science and in industrial
uses for agricultural products by scientist and inventor George Washington
Carver? Have you heard of the work of political activist and journalist Ida
B. Wells? Are you familiar with the painting and collage of Romare Bearden?
The influential work of countless black Americans such as these has helped
produce the American life we live today. Their efforts have contributed both
to the development of African American culture and to the development of
our national culture. Yet these Americans are too often overlooked or
underrepresented in our classrooms, and students have few if any opportunities
to get a real sense of just how beautifully black are many of the deepest roots
of American culture.
Similarly, I’ve known many fine white students who were so ill-informed
concerning the realities of race in America that they believed racism ended
with the Civil War—or at least with the turn of the twentieth century—or
that the only racists left in the United States today are the members of the Ku
Klux Klan. So when we read William Faulkner’s story “That Evening Sun”
(1931), which portrays the racist attitudes that separate a white family from the
black people who work in their home during a period several decades after
the Civil War, a number of students nevertheless assumed that the black
characters are slaves. “After all,” these students said, “the kind of economic
oppression and racial prejudice we see depicted in the story occurred only
during slavery.” Because they themselves hadn’t observed—or perhaps more
accurately, hadn’t recognized—racial prejudice, they assumed that racism was,
for the most part, a thing of the past.
Unfortunately, though, 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. To cite just one
striking example, until President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act in
August 2010, possession of only five grams of crack cocaine (used predominantly
by black Americans) triggered a mandatory prison sentence of five years, while
the possession of five hundred grams of powder cocaine (used predominantly by
white Americans) was required to trigger the same five-year mandatory prison
sentence. And even now, though lessened, there is still a marked sentencing
disparity for users of these two forms of cocaine: although now the possession
of twenty-eight grams of crack cocaine is required to trigger the minimum
five-year mandatory prison sentence, the mandatory trigger for powder cocaine
remains five hundred grams.1 Such discriminatory laws spotlight drug activity
in poor black neighborhoods and have resulted in increased police surveillance
in these areas, while drug activity in middle- and upper-class white neigh-
borhoods is largely ignored. In fact, although the majority of drug users of all
kinds in the United States are white, the majority of inmates serving prison
sentences for drug-related offenses are black. As a result of this kind of racial
Using concepts from African American theory 207

bias, our prisons contain a disproportionate number of African American
inmates, which perpetuates the racist myth that black Americans are “born
criminals.” That myth, in turn, justifies the laws that disproportionately target
and penalize African Americans. Do you see why this is called a “circular”
problem? Here’s the circle.
Point 1—Racist beliefs tell us that black Americans are inferior to white
Americans.
Point 2—These beliefs put black Americans in situations that are inferior to
those of white Americans (for example, inferior housing, inferior schools,
inferior jobs, and as we just saw, inferior legal status).
Point 1 (again)—The inferior situations of black Americans are used to justify
racist beliefs.
To be sure that you have a firm grasp of “circular” thinking, let’s briefly
examine one more specific example of the “circular logic” (or more accurately,
“circular illogic”) of racist beliefs: the practice of denying job opportunities to
African Americans and then arguing that the absence of black Americans in
certain occupations is evidence of their inferiority. As recently as the 1950s,
the only work readily available to people of color in the United States was
menial labor. African Americans were hired as farm hands in rural areas, and in
the cities they worked as maids, custodians, waiters, cooks, baggage handlers,
and in other “service” occupations. In other words, the only jobs that were
easily obtainable were similar to the work people of color performed under
slavery. Then, because the majority of African Americans performed menial
labor, it was argued that they were incapable of any other kind of work. The
fact that other occupations were closed to them wasn’t recognized as the cause
of the problem but was seen, instead, as the result of the “limited capacity” of
people of color.
Even when the judicial system protects people of color, as does the equal-
opportunity law that now prohibits racial discrimination in the workplace,
discrimination still occurs. For example, many white employers still discriminate
against African Americans by hiring the minimum number of African Americans
possible and by denying them access to leadership positions or meaningful
promotions of any kind. Similarly, although the fair-housing law now prohibits
racial discrimination in the sale and rental of dwellings, white real-estate agents
and landlords often ignore the law and lie to prospective black clients about
the availability of housing in order to keep them out of white neighborhoods.
While there are many additional examples I could offer of the persistence of racism
in the United States today, my point is simply that the failure of our educational
system to acknowledge these realities has left many non-black students ignorant
of the kinds of racial injustice that still exist in the United States.
Of course, a single, introductory-level chapter on African American critical
theory can’t even begin to fill in the gaps in your knowledge left by our
208 Using critical theory

educational system. However, it can at least alert you to the existence of those
gaps and try to interest you in filling them in yourself. You can begin to
accomplish this task by reading books and watching television programs that
focus on African American history and culture. Perhaps Denise Dennis’s Black
History for Beginners (Writers and Readers Publishing, 1984); James and Lois
Horton’s A History of the African American People (Wayne State University
Press, 1995); and the television series Africans in America (Public Broadcasting
System, 2000), with its accompanying book of the same title, might be a good
place to start. You can also learn a good deal by reading literary works by and
about black Americans, for a culture’s literary production is also a kind of
historical record in that it represents the lived experience of its people. Finally,
if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to take courses in African American literature,
culture, and history at your college.
In any event, this chapter can help you understand some of the key con-
cepts you’ll need in order to get the most out of these educational resources,
and it can give you some practice in using concepts from African American
theory to interpret works of African American literature. In addition, because
many literary works by white authors have African American characters or
represent racial issues in some way, these concepts can be used to interpret
works by white writers as well. And while the histories and cultures of all
ethnic American political minority groups are unique—as are the specific
kinds of racism leveled against them—I think you’ll find that many of the
concepts from African American theory offered in this chapter will provide a
useful starting point for the appreciation of literary works by, for example,
Native American, Latino/a, and Asian American writers.
Although it’s important that you read through the “Basic concepts” section
that follows, don’t be too concerned if you don’t feel you thoroughly under-
stand every one. You’ll begin to understand these concepts much better when we
use them, later in this chapter, to help us interpret the literary texts that appear
at the end of this book. Keep in mind, too, that I’m offering you my own
literary analyses in our “Interpretation exercises.” You might use the same
African American concepts I use but come up with different interpretations
of your own. If you disagree with any of the analyses I offer in these exercises,
don’t be afraid to look in the literary work in question for evidence that will sup-
port your viewpoint. A literary work can often support a number of different
interpretations, even when readers are using concepts from the same theory.
Basic concepts
African American culture and literature
African American culture is rich and varied and grows, of course, out of black
American history and experience. African American culture includes, among
many other characteristics, the following elements:
Using concepts from African American theory 209

1 oral history (the passing down of knowledge about personal family, and
community life by word of mouth), which has contributed to the
importance, in African American literature, of
2 orality (the sound of the spoken voice produced by the printed word,
often achieved by writing in African American Vernacular English,
AAVE, which is also called Black Vernacular English, BVE),
3 African American music, specifically jazz, blues, gospel, and hip hop
4 African American cuisine,
5 folk crafts, such as quilting and woodcarving,
6 the importance of people’s names and nicknames as a means of connecting
them to their culture and to the past, and
7 a value system that emphasizes the importance of the family, community,
and church in the effort: (a) to survive the harsh realities of racism; (b) to
seek the positive, often spiritual, aspects of life; and (c) to insure that every
black American has the opportunity to achieve his or her full human
potential.
These elements of black American culture are often represented in African
American literature and have created an African American literary tradition that
you’ll come to recognize as you increase your reading of African American
authors. Of course, many aspects of African American culture have influenced
American culture as a whole, the best-known examples of which are probably
jazz, blues, and hip hop music.
Given that some form of racial discrimination is a daily experience for most
African Americans, racial issues have greatly influenced African American culture.
Therefore, racial issues—for example, the economic, social, and psychological
problems caused by racism; the difficulties faced by biracial individuals in
America, including the temptation to pass for white; and the attempt to reclaim
the African past of lost ancestors—are frequently portrayed in African American
literature. African American authors have also focused a good deal of attention
on such historical topics as the horrors of the Middle Passage (the transportation of
captive Africans across the Atlantic from the west coast of Africa to the east
coast of the United States, South America, and the Caribbean Islands), the
horrific ordeal of slavery, the struggle for emancipation, the Civil War, life in
the segregated south, and the attempt to find a better life in the north.
Of course, white authors have created African American characters and written
about issues of race, too, and we can use concepts from African American theory
to analyze their work, as well. However, it’s important to keep in mind that,
while some white authors have been actively antiracist in their portrayals of
African Americans and their depictions of racial issues, many other white
authors have reinforced racist stereotypes and racist thinking, whether or not
they realized they were doing so. In other words, it’s not the portrayal of
African American characters or the depiction of racial issues that makes a literary
text racist or antiracist. A text’s racial politics (whether the text reinforces racism
210 Using critical theory

or attacks racism) depends on the way in which it portrays those characters
and depicts those issues.
Racism is an unpleasant topic, to say the least. As you can see, however, it’s an
important topic, too, and is central to an understanding of African American
theory. So let’s take a closer look at racism and the various forms racism takes.
Racism
Racism is the economic, political, social, or psychological oppression of indi-
viduals or groups based on their race. Racism is fueled by the myth that the
oppressed race is inferior to the “dominant” race—that is, to the race holding
the power in a given society. For example, white racism is fueled by the myths
that people of color are less intelligent, less “civilized,” less moral, and even
less attractive than white people. Racist stereotypes about African Americans
include, among others, the following clusters of characteristics: lazy, unambitious,
slow-moving, and dim-witted; violent, brutal, and criminally inclined; and
sexually promiscuous, hard-drinking, and fond of drugs of any kind. Consider
the following example of how racist stereotypes limit our perceptions of our
fellow human beings in our everyday lives. A white shopper, having been
given poor service by a white sales clerk, thinks, “What a lazy person that sales
clerk is!” That same white shopper, having been given poor service by a black
sales clerk, thinks, “Black people are so lazy!” Only in the second case is the
white shopper stereotyping along racial lines, or ascribing a trait observed in
one person to all people of the same race.
While the damaging effects of these negative stereotypes are obvious, even
“positive” racial stereotypes are damaging: for example, the stereotypes that
African Americans are “born” athletes, “naturally” good dancers (because they
have “natural” rhythm), and devoted servants to white families. These so-called
“positive” stereotypes are damaging because, like negative stereotypes, they
suggest that all African Americans are alike and have no important individual
qualities beyond the stereotype to which they “belong.” In addition, both negative
and “positive” stereotypes serve a racist desire to view African Americans only
in ways that boost white importance. Negative stereotypes depict people of
color as clearly inferior to whites, and racist thinking links such “positive”
stereotypes as the “born” athlete or the “natural” dancer to what it sees as a
“primitive,” tribal heritage, while it links such “positive” stereotypes as the
devoted servant to black Americans’ “rightful” sense of their own inferiority to
whites. In short, all stereotypes deprive stereotyped persons of their individuality
and, too often, of their humanity.
Forms of racism
Institutionalized racism—In order for racism to have any real force in a society,
it must be supported in some way by that society’s institutions, for example,
Using concepts from African American theory 211

by the educational system, the judicial system, the entertainment and fashion
industries, law enforcement policies, labor practices (such as the accepted
attitudes that govern hiring new employees, determining their salaries, and
promoting or firing them), and housing regulations. Three examples of
institutionalized racism were described earlier: the enormous difference
between mandatory prison sentences for users of crack cocaine (who are
predominantly black) and users of powder cocaine (who are predominantly
white), the persistence of racial discrimination in the workplace, and the
frequent tendency of real-estate agents and landlords to successfully sidestep
the fair-housing law. We also discussed earlier the failure of most American
schools to include adequate coverage of the historically significant work of
African Americans in all fields of endeavor, thereby blinding students to the
fact that American history and culture have significant black roots as well as
white roots, and this failure is also an example of institutionalized racism.
Other examples of institutionalized racism include, for instance, the inadequate
resources available to public schools in black neighborhoods; the continued
use of racially biased textbooks and achievement tests; the inadequate
representation of African American authors (who now hold top international
honors) on college syllabi in American literature courses; the inadequate
response of national agencies to African American health problems; the
disproportionate number of municipal incinerators in black neighborhoods,
which pose a serious health threat to local residents; and even such relatively
routine occurrences as the disproportionate number of black motorists
pulled over by law enforcement officers.
Internalized racism—Some people of color suffer from varying degrees of
internalized racism, which is the acceptance of the belief pressed upon them
by racist America that they are inferior to whites, less worthy, less capable,
less intelligent, or less attractive. Victims of internalized racism often wish
they were white or that they looked more white. Obviously, internalized
racism is very damaging to self-esteem: it is difficult to maintain a positive
self-image when one has been programmed to believe that one is inferior
simply because of one’s race.
Intraracial racism—Internalized racism often results in intraracial racism. Intraracial
racism is discrimination, within the black community, against those with
darker skin and more African features, such as hair texture and the shape of
the lips and nose. Intraracial racism is operating when African Americans
believe, for example, that light-skinned black people are more beautiful or
more intelligent than darker skinned black Americans. Of course, a person
who suffers from internalized racism will probably practice intraracial racism
because both forms of racism “buy into” the white racist attitude summed
up in the frightening old saying, “If you’re white, you’re alright; if you’re
brown, stick around; if your black, get back!” Finally, when a literary work
depicts intraracial racism or internalized racism, we can assume that institu-
tionalized racism is implied as well—perhaps as part of the current reality in
212 Using critical theory

which the characters live, perhaps as part of the history of the society in
which they live, or perhaps as both—even if it is not depicted. For as we
have already seen, institutionalized racism is the force behind the persistence
of all forms of racism.
Double consciousness
Double consciousness, first described by W.E.B. DuBois in The Souls of Black
Folk (1903), is the awareness of belonging to two conflicting cultures: the black
culture, which grew from African roots and developed in response to a history
of racist oppression, and the European culture imposed by white America. For
many African Americans, double consciousness results from living in two very
different worlds—the world at home and the white-dominated world outside
the home, such as the school, the workplace, and even the shopping mall—
where two different sets of expectations, or cultural “rules,” are operating, and
sometimes two different languages are spoken.
There are, of course, additional concepts offered by African American
theory, but these are enough to get us started using this theory to interpret
literature. Let’s begin our interpretation exercises by analyzing Ralph Ellison’s
“The Battle Royal,” a story that is unmistakably antiracist because of the great
clarity with which it illustrates the horrors of racism, specifically, the institution-
alized racism of the segregated south at a time when the judicial system offered
black Americans little or no protection from the excesses of white power.
Interpretation exercises
Analyzing the overt operations of institutionalized racism:
Interpreting “The Battle Royal”
One of the first things to which many of my students react when they read
Ralph Ellison’s “The Battle Royal” (1952; see Appendix C) is the horrifying
behavior of the white men at the “smoker,” the private party held by the
town’s leading citizens for the purpose, it would seem, of abusing their power.
Unlike other examples of racist behavior we might see in the news today, this
is not a gang of white teenaged boys gathered in some out-of-the-way place
where they can beat up a black youth without being caught by the police.
Neither is this a meeting of hooded white men concealing themselves beneath
sheets so that they can threaten and harm black Americans without revealing
their identities to the forces of law and order. Rather, this is a gathering of
civic leaders at the town’s best hotel. Although these white men engage in phy-
sically violent, racist behavior toward a group of low-income black youths paid to
endure their abuse, these white leaders feel no need to hide their evening’s
“entertainment” from the law. Indeed, representatives of the judicial system—
lawyers and judges—are present. Present, also, are other leading citizens—doctors,
Using concepts from African American theory 213

teachers, bankers, fire chiefs, merchants, the local superintendent of schools,
and even a pastor—whom we would expect to condemn the very behavior in
which they themselves are engaged.
These white men seem to have little or no sense that what they are doing is
wrong, and apparently little or no fear of discovery, because their racist activities are
condoned by the institutions these characters represent. That is, in the place and
time in which “The Battle Royal” is set, the American south of the late
1940s, racism is widely institutionalized: it is practiced or tolerated by white
institutions such as the law, the educational system, the medical profession,
the banking profession, local businesses, civic organizations, and the white
church as a way of keeping African Americans “in their place.” In this context,
the battle royal in which the black youths engage is considered a harmless
entertainment justified by the monetary rewards offered to the young men in
return for their participation. The events that occur in Ellison’s story are thus
examples of the overt—the open and flagrant—operations of institutionalized
racism, which, because it is built into the laws and practices by which a society
operates, offers white Americans unrestrained power over black Americans.
As a depiction of the overt operations of institutionalized racism, “The Battle
Royal” provides insight into the dehumanizing effects of systematic oppression
both on the white characters who wield racial power and, especially, on the
black characters trying to survive the overwhelming injustice institutionalized
racism forces upon them. In other words, among other things, Ellison’s tale
addresses two important questions about the history of institutionalized racism
in the United States: (1) What happens to people who have unrestrained
power over the lives of other human beings?; and (2) How do human beings
victimized by that unrestrained power attempt to survive? Let’s see how the
story answers these questions.
The effects of unrestrained power on the white civic leaders
Because the white men in “The Battle Royal” are civic leaders and hold
important professional positions, we know that they are very well educated
and enjoy the privileges of wealth and social position. Given their financial
and social status, they probably have wives and children, too. So it is a testi-
monial to the corrupting influence of unrestrained power that men with so
much going for them, with so many sources of pride and fulfillment, should
degrade themselves the way they do at the smoker. For their treatment of
those over whom they hold power degrades themselves even more than it
degrades their victims. Collect the following textual evidence to show how
corrupted by power the white men at the smoker are.
1 Find all the negative images of the white leaders you can. Given that
almost everything they do in the story involves their abuse of power, all
negative images of these characters will serve as evidence that they have been
corrupted by power. Include, for example, descriptions of the white men’s
214 Using critical theory

a cruel behavior,
b physical appearance, and
c drunkenness.
2 List all of the racist language used by the white men—the language they
use to address or refer to the narrator and the other black youths—for
this language reminds us both that racism is, itself, an attempt to wield
power over others by asserting one’s own racial “superiority” and that
racism can be enacted through language.
3 Find as many examples as you can of the white men’s racist stereotyping
of African Americans. Like racist language, racist stereotyping is an attempt
to wield power over others by asserting one’s own racial “superiority.”
a Find the lines revealing that the white men stereotype black Americans
as unintelligent (for example, the lines that portray the men’s amusement
at the narrator’s large vocabulary).
b Find the passage revealing that the white men stereotype black men as
uncontrollably sexually drawn to white women.
c How do we know that the white men stereotype black men as
less-than-human brutes, as “animals” or “savages”?
The black characters’ survival strategies
Given that institutionalized racism gives free rein to white citizens’ overt
abuses of racial power, the story’s black characters have little, if anything, to
protect them from white domination and persecution. The day-to-day terror
of living under such conditions produces, on the part of the story’s African
American characters, a variety of survival strategies: attitudes toward life that
individuals develop in order to survive an intolerable situation with the spirit, as
well as the body, intact. Of course, no attitude, no way of being, can guarantee a
person’s physical or emotional safety. And the variety of strategies illustrated in
the story, by spotlighting this unfortunate fact, increase our awareness of the
horrors of institutionalized racism. Let’s examine those survival strategies now.
1 The narrator’s family—The narrator’s family are obviously terrified that some
harm will come to them from the racist world in which they live.
a What are the family’s hopes?
b What are their fears?
c What do they believe they have to do to survive?
2 The narrator’s grandfather—The narrator’s grandfather lived a long life and
headed a large family that has never gotten in trouble with the white
power structure.
a What did the grandfather do to survive racism?
Using concepts from African American theory 215

b Although his behavior was apparently similar to that of the rest of his
family, how was the grandfather’s attitude different?
c In what ways was he right to compare the race relations of his time
and place to a war in which white folks were the enemy?
3 The narrator—In Invisible Man, the novel from which “The Battle Royal”
is taken, the unnamed narrator grows up to learn that his grandfather was
right and that, in terms of race relations, too little has changed since his
grandfather’s time. The events of “The Battle Royal” take place, how-
ever, when the narrator has just graduated from high school, and he has
yet to learn all he needs to learn about race relations in the United States.
How does he believe he can survive racism and even prosper, despite his
position as a black man in a country dominated by whites? Be sure to
examine the following elements:
a his recurring thoughts about the white men’s approval,
b his recurring thoughts about his speech,
c his attitude toward the black youths from his community with whom
he fights the battle royal, and
d his feelings when he receives the briefcase and the scholarship he finds
inside it.
4 The black youths—What attitudes and behaviors have the black youths
developed in order to survive the racist world in which they live? Find the
passages in the story that reveal, at least, the following survival strategies:
a sticking with, and sticking up for, their own small group of friends,
b physical and emotional endurance,
c taking whatever opportunities to earn money the white men offer
them because they have few or no other options, and
d guarding their behavior around white women (history tells us, and the
black youths certainly know, that black males have been lynched for
looking at or speaking to a white woman).
Focusing your essay
Given the textual data you’ve just gathered, it should be a fairly simple task to
write an essay explaining the antiracist project of “The Battle Royal,” the ways
in which the story illustrates the evils of institutionalized racism. As the story
shows, institutionalized racism creates an environment in which unrestrained
power reduces the white characters to little more than brutes and forces the
black characters to scramble for any means of survival they can find, even
when those survival strategies provide no guarantee of safety and are personally
degrading. For one of the most chilling effects of institutionalized racism on
the story’s black characters is the negative effect on their emotional or psycho-
logical well-being. For example, the narrator’s family were so nerve-wracked by
216 Using critical theory

their understandable fear of white retribution should Grandfather’s death bed
statement become known outside the family that they were more upset by the
old man’s dying words than they were by his death. Similarly, the narrator is
so focused on pleasing the white community that he seems to have little or no
sense of himself or feeling for his own family or community.
Although “The Battle Royal” is set many decades in the past, I hope you’ll
be able to see that the story is still relevant to Americans today. As we saw in
the opening paragraphs of this chapter, though institutionalized racism has been
reduced in the United States, it has not been eliminated. And many of the
racist attitudes that still persist today have their roots in the racism that ruled
American thinking when racial segregation and discrimination were legal,
though they’re now against the law.
Of course, you don’t have to limit yourself to the analysis of the story I’ve
offered you. For example, you might want to provide some historical context
for the argument already outlined by including some historical data about
institutionalized racism in the time and place in which “The Battle Royal” is set.
Or you might want to write a research paper focused entirely on the historical
realities of institutionalized racism on which the story draws. For example, you
might research the laws governing such areas as interracial marriage, racial
discrimination in jobs and housing, or racial segregation in such public facilities
as schools, hotels, restaurants, movie houses, and even drinking fountains.
Perhaps, instead, you might want to focus your essay exclusively on an
analysis of the narrator because he’s the point-of-view character and the one
about whom we learn the most. In that case, in addition to the textual data
you’ve already collected about this character, you might want to analyze the
narrator’s attitude toward his grandfather and toward the rest of his family (do
you think it’s significant that he tells us so little about them?) as well as the
narrator’s relationship to himself. For example, how would you describe the
narrator’s self-image? Does he seem to have a healthy self-esteem? How in
touch does he seem to be with the “racial reality” around him, for instance,
with the white men’s attitude toward him or with Tatlock’s reasons for hating
him? In what ways is the racism the narrator has been subjected to all his life
responsible for his behavior in the story? Whatever your interpretation of
“The Battle Royal,” be sure you understand the concepts from African America
theory you choose to employ, compose a clear statement of your thesis, and
support your interpretation with adequate textual evidence.
Recognizing the “less visible” operations of institutionalized racism:
Interpreting “Don’t Explain”
In 1959, the year in which Jewelle Gomez’s “Don’t Explain” (1987; see
Appendix E) is set, the Civil Rights Movement, led by Dr. Martin Luther
King, was in progress. However, racial discrimination was still condoned by
law and common practice, and racist beliefs and attitudes were generally
Using concepts from African American theory 217

accepted among white Americans in the north as well as in the south. Just as
in every other American city and town, Boston, the city in which the story
takes place, permitted racial discrimination even in such fundamental areas of
human existence as the kind of work African Americans were allowed to do
(job discrimination) and the neighborhoods in which African Americans were
allowed to live (housing discrimination). This is the environment in which the
characters of “Don’t Explain” live and work. Unlike the black youths in
Ellison’s “The Battle Royal,” however, Gomez’s Letty, Delia, and Terry are
steadily employed at jobs that provide them with enough money to support
themselves. Although their race, class, gender, and sexual orientation make
these African American women vulnerable to violent attack, with little hope
of protection from the judicial system, the story doesn’t focus on this aspect of
their experience as women of color.
Instead, “Don’t Explain” finds another way to attack racial bigotry by
showing us that institutionalized racism isn’t limited to the kind of violent
behavior we see portrayed in “The Battle Royal.” It also operates in “less
visible” ways that, while they usually go unnoticed by white Americans who
don’t have to deal with them, are a part of daily reality for the people of color
who populate Gomez’s story. In addition, “Don’t Explain” is antiracist in its
positive characterizations of African Americans who survive these “less visible”
operations of institutionalized racism, characterizations that counteract racist
stereotypes. We’ll see how the story accomplishes its antiracist project by
examining: (1) its subtle depiction of the “less visible” operations of institu-
tionalized racism that the main characters deal with on a daily basis; and (2) its
positive, antistereotypical portrayals of African American characters.
“Less visible” operations of institutionalized racism
Although the “less visible” operations of institutionalized racism are only a
backdrop—a kind of stage setting—in “Don’t Explain,” they are nevertheless
important because they help us understand and appreciate the main characters.
Find the textual evidence the story offers to support the following statements.
1 Racial discrimination in housing is a factor in the lives of the story’s
African American characters.
2 Racial discrimination in the job market is a factor in the lives of these
characters.
a What do Letty and Delia do for a living?
b Is the place where they work a safe environment, given that a character
like Tip is welcome there? Is it reasonable to assume that Letty and
Delia would have better jobs—or at least work in safer restaurants—if
those jobs were available to them?
c What do Terry and her friends do for a living? Is it reasonable to assume
that they would have better jobs if those jobs were available to them?
218 Using critical theory

d What do we know about attitudes toward race in the 1950s—the
period in which the story is set—that allows us to assume that racial
discrimination limits these characters’ job opportunities, even if the
story doesn’t say so directly?
3 Racial discrimination in the workplace is a factor in the lives of these
characters.
a What is the race of the employees and customers at the 411 Lounge?
b What is the ethnic origin of the food sold at the 411 Lounge and of
the music on its juke-box?
c What is the race of the owner of the 411?
d What is the attitude of the Lounge owner—and, in Letty’s experience,
of all white employers—toward black employees?
4 The portrayal of Billie Holiday contributes to the story’s depiction of the
“less visible” operations of institutionalized racism. If you are unfamiliar with
her history, you can consult any biography of the singer (including television
biographies) to see how her presence in the tale functions as a reminder of
the constant emotional pressure exerted by institutionalized racism. You will
find that this character brings to the story, for example, the following facts.
a Billie Holiday grew up in a segregated, economically disadvantaged,
African American neighborhood.
b Despite her rise to fame and fortune, she was frequently discriminated
against because of her race. For example, in segregated areas of the
United States, Billie wasn’t allowed to stay in the same hotels, eat in the
same restaurants, or use the same public facilities as white musicians or
as the white people for whom she performed.
c When Billie sang with Arty Shaw’s band (the first white band to
employ a black singer), a white woman named Helen Forest took
Billie’s place when the band played in certain white clubs that would
not permit black artists to perform.
Positive portrayals of African American characters
Against this relatively subtle backdrop of institutionalized racism, Gomez gives
us positively portrayed African American characters who survive the forces of
racial discrimination—Letty, Delia, Terry, and Terry’s friends—and a moving
evocation of Billie Holiday, whose original interpretations of jazz have had a
major influence on the history of American music. In addition, the main
characters—and even the prostitutes, who are described by Letty—are portrayed
in ways that counteract racist stereotypes of black women.
Racist stereotypes of African American women—promoted by such insti-
tutions as the film and television industries—generally fall into two categories:
(1) the “mammy”; and (2) the oversexed “bad girl,” or “Jezebel.” The “mammy”
Using concepts from African American theory 219

stereotype—which is based on a misunderstanding of the complex position
occupied by the slave woman who ran the master’s household—casts black
women as motherly servants, loyally devoted to the white families that
employ them. “Mammy” always “knows her place,” takes excellent care of
the white home, and loves looking after white children, whom she prefers to
her own children, because she knows that white people are the superior race.
The black “Jezebel” stereotype casts African American women as oversexed
temptresses who lure white men into immoral relationships, have violent tem-
pers, and carry knives or razor blades, which they don’t hesitate to use. Both
stereotypes reveal the racist need to claim white female superiority. And the
black “Jezebel” stereotype—which originally arose from the slave-masters’ desire
to justify the rape of female slaves—attempts to justify the mistreatment of black
women. Collect the following textual evidence to see how Gomez’s portrayal
of the story’s African American characters serves the text’s antiracist project.
1 The main characters—Letty, Delia, Terry, and Terry’s friends hold jobs
typical of the jobs permitted to black women: Letty and Delia serve food
at, and clean, the 411 Lounge; Terry and her friends clean business offi-
ces. And given the period in which the story is set, the people who run
the business offices are undoubtedly white, just as the owner of the 411
Lounge is white. In other words, these characters do the work associated
with the “mammy” stereotype, the work of servants who take good care
of white people’s possessions. However, while Letty, Delia, Terry, and
Terry’s friends are certainly too kind, quiet, and “low profile” to be
considered “Jezebels,” collect the following textual evidence to show that
neither are they stereotyped as “mammies.”
a Are these characters devoted to their white employers? For example,
is Letty so devoted to Ari that she wouldn’t leave the 411 Lounge if a
better job came along? What does Letty think of Ari?
b Is there any indication in the story that these characters believe in
white superiority or suffer from low self-esteem because they’re
black? How does the story suggest that these characters do not judge a
person’s value in terms of skin color?
c Do the emotional lives of these characters in any way revolve around
the lives of white families? In contrast to the need for white approval
associated with the “mammy” stereotype, how does the story suggest
that Delia, Terry, and Terry’s friends have formed a kind of inde-
pendent social community? How does Letty’s behavior at the end
of the story indicate the positive quality of this group, to which,
presumably, Letty will soon belong?
2 The prostitutes—Although prostitutes are generally thought of as “bad
girls” because they make their living selling sex, the prostitutes in “Don’t
Explain” do not fit the black “Jezebel” stereotype. Letty’s opinion of the
220 Using critical theory

prostitutes and her reference to them as “business girls” lends these
characters respect and works against this negative stereotype. Find the lines
in the story that imply the following positive elements in the characterization
of the prostitutes who frequent the 411 Lounge. The prostitutes are
a generous,
b fun-loving, and
c friendly with the employees at the 411 Lounge without motives of
gain (that is, their friendliness isn’t based on an effort to secure more
customers for themselves).
3 Billie Holiday—The depiction of Billie Holiday contributes to the story’s
positive portrayals of African Americans. If you are unfamiliar with her
history, you can consult any biography of the singer (including television
biographies) to see how her presence in the story functions as a reminder
of the enormous contribution of African Americans to American culture.
For the presence of this character in the story reminds readers, for
example, that African Americans invented jazz, to which Billie Holiday
gave her own unique expression and helped popularize. In addition, find
the textual evidence that reveals the following positive elements in her
characterization. Billie Holiday is
a generous,
b friendly, and
c courageous.
Focusing your essay
You should be able to use the textual evidence you’ve gathered to focus your
essay on the antiracist project of “Don’t Explain”: its subtle illustration of the
“less visible” operations of institutionalized racism in American society and its
positive portrayals of the characters who must contend with these racist forces
in their daily lives. In case you’re wondering how to deal with Tip, the only
negatively portrayed African American character in the story, you can think of
him as one of the harsh realities with which Letty and Delia wouldn’t have to deal
if racial discrimination didn’t limit their job opportunities. Even if they stayed in
their current occupations as waitresses, the removal of racial barriers in the job
market would give them the opportunity to work in safer environments, in res-
taurants where overtly dangerous customers like Tip would not be welcome.
Furthermore, the presence of Tip’s undesirable character does not sabotage the
story’s antiracist project because the reader is encouraged to see him as just
one person and not as a representative of all African American men.
Although “Don’t Explain” is set in 1959, I hope you can see that the story
is relevant today because the “less visible” operations of institutionalized racism
it depicts are not entirely a thing of the past. Racial discrimination is now
against the law, and that is a monumental step forward for the United States.
Using concepts from African American theory 221

However, as we saw in the opening pages of this chapter, institutionalized
racism is still a widespread problem in this country, and much work remains
to be done if we are to significantly reduce its influence.
Remember, of course, that you do not have to limit yourself to the analysis
of the story I’ve offered you here. For example, you might want to examine
additional ways in which Gomez’s characters do not fit racist stereotypes of
African Americans. In that case, you might examine, for instance, the ways in
which the characterizations of Letty, Delia, and Terry work against the myth
that black Americans are less intelligent, less capable, and less hardworking
than white Americans. And you might note, too, the large size of Terry and
Delia’s apartment and other signs that they are financially responsible; in other
words, that they know how to earn, save, and wisely spend money. Or you might
want to provide additional historical context for your essay by researching the
racial climate in America in the 1940s and 1950s to learn, for example, some
of the reasons why Letty, Delia, Terry, and Tip—like so many African
Americans of that period—left their homes and families in the south to relocate
up north. Or you might research the legal status of black Americans in the
1950s to get a more concrete, vivid idea of the kinds of legalized racial dis-
crimination faced by the characters in “Don’t Explain.” Whatever your
interpretation of the story, be sure you understand the concepts from African
American theory you choose to employ, compose a clear statement of your
thesis, and support your interpretation with adequate textual evidence.
Understanding the operations of internalized racism: Interpreting
“Everyday Use”
The Black Pride Movement was a prominent force in African American culture
during the late 1960s and early 1970s, and its positive effects can still be seen
today in Americans’ growing recognition of the importance of African American
history and the creativity of African American culture. As an outgrowth of the
Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the Black Pride Movement
rejected the racist belief that people of color are less intelligent, capable, hard-
working, or attractive than whites. Because the forces of white racism in America
had long denied black Americans full participation as American citizens and full
recognition as human beings, the Black Pride Movement encouraged black
Americans to look to African cultures to define their heritage and their identity.
Like many of her generation who participated in the Black Pride Movement,
Dee Johnson, in Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” (1973; see Appendix D),
rejects her given name, the origin of which is a slave name, and adopts an
African name to replace it. Dee Johnson is now Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo.
She and her boyfriend Hakim-a-barber, who has presumably changed his name
for the same reason, have also adopted African-style clothing and phrases, and
Hakim has adopted some practices and phrases from the Muslim religion, a
religion not associated with white America. However, despite the importance
222 Using critical theory

of the Black Pride Movement as a social, political, and personal path to Afri-
can American self-assertion and self-esteem, “Everyday Use” suggests that
followers of the Black Pride Movement allowed their belief in the importance
of their African roots to blind them to the importance of their family’s stra-
tegies for surviving lifelong racism. For as the story shows, family heritage is a
vital source of personal strength that should not be belittled.
“Everyday Use,” then, can be seen as a kind of debate between two different
dimensions of African American culture, one of which glamorizes the African
origins of black American culture, the other of which promotes its American,
or family, tradition. And it’s a debate that, in the opinion of many readers,
Mama and Maggie apparently win. For Mrs. Johnson and Maggie, who, in
contrast toWangero, draw their strength from their family tradition, seem in many
ways stronger and more contented than Wangero. In addition, Mama and
Maggie are more sympathetically portrayed than the self-centered Wangero,
whom many readers dislike. Drawing on concepts from African American
theory, however, we can see that, despite their obvious differences, Mama and
Maggie share an important characteristic with Wangero that they might not rea-
lize they share, and it’s a characteristic that has helped form the identities of all
three women: internalized racism, or the belief that they are inferior because of
their race. Ironically, though internalized racism is something the Johnson
women share, it’s also something that has helped drive Wangero away from her
mother and sister. For as we’ll see in the textual evidence we collect later, all
three women have followed the paths they have followed in part in an
attempt to struggle against the personal insecurities to which internalized
racism has greatly contributed. In order to see the role played by internalized
racism in “Everyday Use,” let’s examine the role it plays in the characterizations
of the story’s three main characters: (1) Mama; (2) Maggie; and (3) Wangero.
Mama’s internalized racism
Mama has many sources of pride in her life. Yet she doesn’t seem to have
quite the self-esteem that she has surely earned, a situation that is due, in large
part, to her internalized racism, to the low self-image pressed upon her by
racist ideology. Explain this aspect of Mama’s characterization by collecting
the following textual data.
1 Mama’s sources of pride—List as many reasons as you can why Mama
should be proud of herself. Include, for example, her accomplishments as
a single mother who raised two daughters on a small income and her
accomplishments as the head of a rural homestead that requires of her a
great deal of farming knowledge and physical strength.
a What has Mama done for Maggie? What has she done for Wangero?
List as many examples as you can.
b List Mama’s skills and abilities as the head of a rural homestead.
Using concepts from African American theory 223

2 Mama’s low self-image—Despite Mama’s many sources of pride, she still
has the kind of low self-image that is a sign of internalized racism and
that is surely related, in large part, to the treatment she’s received over the
course of her life as a black woman.
a How was race a factor in Mama’s being deprived of an education?
b Given what we know about racism, explain how we can safely
assume that the racist world in which Mama grew up also limited her
job opportunities and gave her the message that she was not attractive,
though the text does not directly tell us so.
c Where in the story do we see Mama’s rather low estimate of her
intelligence?
d Describe Mama’s dissatisfaction with her physical appearance. How is
this dissatisfaction related to race?
3 Mama’s intraracial racism—As we saw in the “Basic concepts” section of this
chapter, internalized racism often results in intraracial racism, discrimination
within the black community against black Americans with darker skin
and more African features. We see this attitude in the way Mama con-
trasts Wangero’s and Maggie’s looks, a contrast that is based not just on
Maggie’s scars from the fire and her thin figure, but on differences in the
sisters’ physical appearance that are related solely to racial characteristics.
a How does Mama contrast her daughters in terms of skin color?
b How does Mama contrast her daughters in terms of their hair? (Keep
in mind that the phrase “nicer hair,” spoken by a woman of Mama’s
generation, usually meant longer, softer, straighter hair that could be
more easily styled the way white women styled their hair.)
4 Mama’s attempt to resist internalized racism—Mama’s attempt to resist inter-
nalized racism, to take pride in herself and in her heritage, seems to gain a
good deal of strength from the bond she feels with her family members,
both from her own generation and from preceding generations.
a Why does Mama give her first-born daughter the name Dee?
b How far back through the generations of her family is Mama able to
trace this name?
c What else does Mama know about her family history?
d Mama has always let Wangero have her way. Mama says “no” to her
for the first time when she gives the quilts Wangero wants to Maggie.
How does this act show Mama’s commitment to family heritage?
Maggie’s internalized racism
Although Maggie’s world is limited in terms of location and occupation—
she’ll probably never move far away from her mother, and she’ll probably
never work outside the home, even after she’s married—Maggie has sources
224 Using critical theory

of pride and contentment that Wangero may never have. Nevertheless, while
it’s understandable that Maggie’s scars make her self-conscious, her low self-
image seems to have its source not only in the fire that damaged her appearance,
but in internalized racism as well. Explain this aspect of Maggie’s characterization
by collecting the following textual data.
1 Maggie’s sources of pride—List as many reasons as you can why Maggie
should be proud of herself, including the following examples.
a What experience and skills does Maggie have that will make her an
excellent homemaker?
b What knowledge does Maggie have, which apparently surpasses even
that of her mother?
c What family craft was passed down to Maggie rather than to Wangero?
d It seems that Maggie’s shyness is not so overpowering as to prevent
her from finding a boyfriend. What big event is she looking forward
to in the near future?
e Maggie is a good daughter, and it shows in the bond she shares with her
mother. Describe this bond as thoroughly as you can, being sure to
include the ways in which Maggie is helpful to and thoughtful of Mama.
2 Maggie’s low self-image—As we mentioned earlier, some of the reasons for
Maggie’s low self-image are not related to race. However, Mama’s belief
that Wangero is more attractive than Maggie because she has lighter skin
and nicer (that is, less stubbornly African) hair reflects the racist standard
of beauty that dominated America and that the Black Pride Movement
tried to overthrow. It would be next to impossible for Maggie not to
have internalized the racism that dominated the world in which she grew
up. To be sure you have a full sense of Maggie’s low self-image, list as
many examples as you can of Maggie’s self-conscious, self-effacing (trying
to avoid drawing attention to herself) behavior, including
a her posture,
b her shyness in the presence of Wangero and Hakim,
c the infrequency with which she speaks, and
d the softness of her speaking voice.
3 Maggie’s attempt to resist internalized racism—Like Mama, Maggie tries to
overcome internalized racism through the strength she gets from her
knowledge of and pride in her family heritage. The few times she speaks
during the story is to share some fact about the Johnson family history.
a List as many examples as you can find of Maggie’s knowledge of
family history.
b Although Maggie would like to have the quilts that Wangero wants
to take, why does Maggie feel that she does not need to have them?
Using concepts from African American theory 225

Wangero’s internalized racism
At first glance, Wangero seems too confident to suffer from internalized racism.
Many readers assume that her physical appearance and all her accomplishments
mean that she must feel sure of herself, secure in the self-esteem that made her
determined to overcome any obstacle in her path in order to get an education
and move up in the world. Yet Wangero’s many achievements don’t seem to
have eliminated the need to overcompensate—to act as if she has something
to prove—that has been with her all her life. To explain this aspect of Wangero’s
characterization, collect the following textual evidence.
1 Wangero’s sources of pride—List the numerous reasons Wangero has to be
proud of herself, including evidence of
a her intelligence and education,
b her financial success,
c her attractive appearance, and
d her current social success.
2 Wangero’s low self-image—Evidence that Wangero’s racial self-image is not
as secure as it may appear can be found in the way she seems to look
down upon her mother and sister (who are darker skinned and would be
considered inferior by much of white America) and in the ways in which
she has always seemed to be trying too hard to prove herself superior to
her family origins, to be popular, and to be accepted by the fashionable
world beyond the black community in which she grew up.
a Find all the textual evidence you can to show that, when Wangero was
growing up, she looked down upon Mama and Maggie and that she still
looks down upon them now that she is an adult and living on her own.
b Find all the textual evidence you can to show that Wangero has
always tried too hard to prove herself superior to her family origins,
both as a young girl and even now that she is a successful woman.
3 Wangero’s attempt to resist internalized racism—While Mama and Maggie
embrace their family roots to increase their sense of security and belonging,
Wangero does just the opposite. Apparently, she associates her family heritage
with poverty, racial victimization, and the enslavement of her ancestors.
She has sought a way out of the negative self-image pressed upon her by
racism by trying to be as different from her family as possible.
a List as many examples as you can of the ways in which Wangero tried
to be different from her family when she was a young girl living at home.
b List as many examples as you can of the ways in which Wangero is
trying to be different from her family now that she is an adult.
c Wangero’s desire to escape internalized racism, to rid herself of the nega-
tive self-image pressed upon her by racist ideology, is surely one of the
reasons she is attracted to the Black Pride Movement: she is seeking a
226 Using critical theory

sense of self-worth in African values and heritage. Yet it seems that the
internalized racism the Black Pride Movement intended to eliminate is
too deeply embedded in Wangero to allow her to fully appreciate the
meaning of thatMovement. List the ways in whichWangero’s response to
the Black Pride Movement seems rather superficial, more like an attempt
to fit into a new fashionable world than a commitment to an organized
effort to help herself and her people feel the pride they deserve to feel.
Focusing your essay
Given the textual data you’ve collected, you should be able to focus your
essay on the antiracist project of “Everyday Use.” For the story attacks racism
in two effective ways. It illustrates the positive qualities of black women who,
in different ways, accomplish a great deal despite the obstacles placed in their
path by the racist world in which they live. In addition, the story illustrates the
negative effects of internalized racism both on individual self-esteem and on
family unity. For as we have seen, internalized racism is, in large part,
responsible for the low self-image with which all three Johnson women
struggle as well as for Wangero’s alienation from her family and from family
history and heritage. The fact that internalized racism can be a force in the
lives of characters who have so many sources of self-esteem demonstrates its
power to invade the self-image even of successful African Americans who are
still devalued, because of their race, by the nation they call home.
As always, remember that you don’t have to limit yourself to the analysis of
the story I’ve offered you here. You might, for example, research the Black
Pride Movement and write an essay in which you argue that Wangero is a
poor representative of the Movement because she seems to see it as a fashion
trend, or as a means of bettering her own socioeconomic status, and doesn’t
seem aware of its potential as a political movement.
In contrast, your research on the Black Pride Movement might lead you to
write an essay in which you argue that Wangero is a fairly typical representative of
the Movement’s exclusive concern with its people’s African roots, a concern that
neglected the importance of reclaiming theAmerican history of African Americans.
For in the late 1960s and early 1970s, most Americans, black and white alike, were
still unaware of the many sources of pride in the history of Africans in America,
such as those listed at the beginning of this chapter. And slavery was still viewed as
a history of humiliation for black Americans because little, if any, information was
readily available concerning the remarkable achievements of American slaves: for
example, the networks of communication, methods of resistance, and organized
means of escape they devised right under their masters’ noses.
Finally, you might prefer, instead, to write an essay about the ways in which
“Everyday Use” participates in the African American literary tradition. In that
case, you would focus on the story’s illustration of, among other things, such
themes as the importance of the family, church, and community in surviving
Using concepts from African American theory 227

the harsh realities of racism; the attempt to reclaim the African past of lost
ancestors; and the importance of remaining connected to the past through oral
history, folk crafts, and the naming of children. Whatever your interpretation,
be sure you understand the concepts from African American theory you
choose to employ, compose a clear statement of your thesis, and support your
interpretation with adequate textual evidence.
Exploring the function of black characters in white literature:
Interpreting “A Rose for Emily”
Although the primary purpose of African American theory is to help us analyze
the enormous body of literature written by African Americans, this theory can
also help us interpret literary works written by white authors because it enables
us to see the racial dimension of white literature that we otherwise might have
overlooked. For example, African American author and Nobel Prize winner
Toni Morrison analyzes white literature from an African American perspective
by examining, among other things, the various ways in which white authors
have often created black characters whose sole purpose is to make their white
protagonists look good. In Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not (1937),
for instance, Morrison argues that the black character Wesley, a crewman on the
fishing boat of white captain Harry Morgan, is portrayed as silent, submissive,
and cowardly in order to make Morgan appear, by contrast, more manly and
courageous (Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Vintage,
1993). Whether or not Hemingway had this purpose consciously in mind
when he created Wesley, that is how this character functions in the novel.
Of course, not all black characters are used in such an overtly racist fashion
in white literature. In fact, the work of many white authors is antiracist. William
Faulkner, for example, frequently depicted the evils of racism. And he created
some African American characters who play major roles in his fiction and whose
dignity and integrity far surpass those qualities in many of his white characters.
Whatever the role of black characters in a white literary work, however, an
analysis of their function in the text offers us a starting point for viewing the
work of white writers from an African American perspective because such an
analysis can often help us see the racial aspects of the work’s setting, or historical
context, and help us determine the text’s attitude toward racial issues.
We can see how this approach can open a white literary work to an African
American interpretation by using it to analyze William Faulkner’s “A Rose for
Emily” (1931; see Appendix B). “A Rose for Emily” is the story of a white
woman, Miss Emily Grierson, who lives in the southern town of Jefferson
during the decades preceding and following the turn of the twentieth century.
Principal among the story’s minor black characters, of course, is Tobe, an
African American man employed as Emily’s domestic servant. Although we’re
not told exactly when Tobe came to live and work in the Grierson home, we
know that he is taking care of household duties when Emily, at about thirty years
228 Using critical theory

of age, is left on her own by the death of her father. Although almost nothing
is left of the former Grierson fortune, Tobe remains with Emily—cooking,
gardening, shopping, and running errands, as Miss Grierson almost never
leaves the house—throughout the rest of Emily’s life. At the story’s close,
Tobe, an old man now, finally leaves the Grierson home, and presumably
flees the town of Jefferson as well, when Emily dies.
Certainly, an analysis of Tobe wouldn’t suggest that this character is negatively
portrayed in order to make Emily, or any other white character, look good by
contrast. On the contrary, the characterization of Emily Grierson as a snobbish
recluse who poisons her suitor and sleeps with his dead body tends to make other
characters, including Tobe, look good by contrast. Rather, I think we can use an
African American lens to examine the ways in which the characterization of
Tobe, and of the other minor black characters in the story, reveals an antiracist
dimension of the tale by drawing our attention to the evils of racism in the time
and place in which “A Rose for Emily” is set. Thus, although the main focus of
“A Rose for Emily” is white experience, I think our analysis can help us see the
text’s antiracist message. In addition, attention to the story’s portrayal of its
African American characters can also help us see some of the ways in which the
tale’s antiracist project doesn’t completely succeed. In order to understand
these aspects of “A Rose for Emily,” we’ll examine: (1) how the portrayal
of Tobe reveals the evils of racism; (2) how the portrayal of the story’s other
minor black characters reveals the evils of racism; and (3) how “A Rose for
Emily” doesn’t fully accomplish its antiracist project.
How the portrayal of Tobe reveals the evils of racism
Various aspects of Tobe’s behavior throughout the story raise questions that
can be answered only by considering the racist world in which he lives. In other
words, Tobe’s main function in the story is quietly to make us aware of the
historical realities of racism. To see how the characterization of Tobe works in
this way, consider the fact that the text offers us no data at all to explain
what appears to be rather illogical, even bizarre, behavior on Tobe’s part, thus
forcing us to remember the dangers faced by a black man living in a racist white
world, as the following questions and answers illustrate. To check your own
awareness of racist attitudes, you might try coming up with your own answers
to the following questions and then see if you agree with the ones I offer you.
1 Questions
a Why don’t the prudish citizens of Jefferson, who are always on the
lookout for juicy gossip, object to Emily’s living alone in the house
with a male servant?
b Why does Tobe remain in Emily’s employ, given that she can’t be
paying him much, if any money, and that, apparently, she rarely, if
ever speaks to him?
Using concepts from African American theory 229

c Why doesn’t Tobe report the death of Homer Barron, of which there
can be no doubt that he knows?
d Why does Tobe disappear immediately upon the entrance of Emily’s
neighbors after her death?
2 Answers
a During the period in which the story is set, racist stereotypes of African
American men characterized them as either: (1) “Sambos,” loyal,
rather sexless individuals whose capacity for devotion to white people
made them good servants despite their tendency to be rather slow-
moving and dim-witted; or (2) sex-crazed “savages” who would rape
white women at will if it weren’t for the vigilance of white men.
Both stereotypes deprive African American men of their dignity and
humanity, which we see in the narrator’s failure to refer to Tobe by
name. Only Emily calls him Tobe; the narrator refers to him as “the
Negro” or “the Negro man.” Apparently, the citizens of Jefferson have
stereotyped Tobe as a “Sambo”: he isn’t considered a threat to Emily
because he isn’t considered a “real”man. (Note that these black male ste-
reotypes correspond to the “mammy” and “Jezebel” racist stereotypes of
African American women discussed in our analysis of “Don’t Explain.”)
b Employment options were few for black men at that time—menial
labor was the best that most could expect—and unprovoked physical
attack by whites was always a danger. Short of moving to the north,
which involved its own difficulties for people of color with no money
or connections, staying with Emily is presumably Tobe’s best choice.
As her servant, he is physically “under her protection”—safe from
physical assault, a safety that is further insured by his quiet demeanor—and
he is also assured of room and board.
c Especially given the south’s idealization of white womanhood at that
point in time, Tobe would be in danger of being lynched for the
murder of Homer Barron if the town learned of Homer’s death, even
if the white citizens of Jefferson secretly suspected Emily of the murder.
d Again, even if the townsfolk didn’t accuse Tobe of killing Emily, they
might accuse him of killing Homer, whose body, Tobe knows, they
are now bound to find in Emily’s bedroom. The danger of being
lynched was too real for black men at that time, so Tobe probably
feels that his best bet is to take up residence elsewhere.
How the portrayal of other minor black characters reveals the evils of racism
Other than Tobe, black characters are mentioned in the story only three
times: the druggist’s “Negro delivery boy,” as he’s called in the story; the
African American laborers who have been hired to pave the sidewalks of
Jefferson; and the black women (whom we don’t actually meet in the story)
230 Using critical theory

referred to by Mayor Sartoris when he makes the rule that no black woman
would be allowed on the streets of Jefferson without an apron. To see how
these characters function in the story, consider the following historical realities
of which these characters remind us, and collect the textual data requested.
1 The “delivery boy”—Although the term delivery boy would be used to
designate any youngster hired to make deliveries, this character, like the other
black characters in the story, reminds us of the limited job opportunities
available to black men in towns like Jefferson. In fact, readers aware of
African American history would be reminded of the common racist use
of the word boy to refer to adult black males as well as to male youngsters
and might therefore wonder whether or not we can know that the
“Negro delivery boy” is, in fact, a boy.
2 The African American laborers—Again, the black men hired to pave Jefferson’s
sidewalks provide an illustration of the limited jobs available to black
men at that time in American history. In addition, the description of the
paving of the sidewalks offers other reminders of the overt racism common
during that period.
a What degrading word is used to refer to the black men hired by the
construction company?
b The laborers are black men, but what is the race of the man in
charge, the foreman?
c How does the foreman treat the laborers?
d In addition to the black laborers, what other two “items” are we told
the construction company brought with it to Jefferson? What is
implied about the African American laborers by including them on a
list with animals (especially this kind of animal) and machines?
3 The black women of Jefferson—We don’t meet any African American
women in “A Rose for Emily,” so they’re not really characters in the
usual sense of the word. However, black women characters are evoked—are
called into the reader’s imagination—by the text’s reference to Mayor
Sartoris’ rule that no black woman be seen in the streets of Jefferson without
an apron. And this single line in the story reveals a good deal about the
racial atmosphere in the town.
a In what role does the wearing of an apron cast black women?
b What does it tell us, then, that the Mayor of Jefferson enacts a town
law that no black woman be seen without one?
c Evidently, the white citizens of Jefferson see nothing wrong with this
racist law, as they apparently do nothing to oppose it. In other words,
the white townsfolk share the Mayor’s extreme need to keep black
folks “in their place.” What does this attitude suggest about the white
population of Jefferson?
Using concepts from African American theory 231

The story’s failure to fully accomplish Its antiracist project
As we have just seen, the function of the story’s black characters is quietly to
make us aware of the historical realities of racism. This is certainly a praiseworthy
antiracist effort on the text’s part. However, it may nevertheless be frustrating
for readers, especially for African American readers, to encounter yet another
white story that, even if it has a black character or two, tells us little or
nothing about them beyond what serves our knowledge of the text’s white
characters, in this case our knowledge of the white characters’ racism. This use
of black characters reduces them to historical “pointers,” or “signs,” and does not
permit us to experience them as human beings in their own right. The pro-
blem is increased by the fact that the few descriptions we do get of Tobe, the
black character of whom we see the most, are given primarily to reveal
something about Emily’s experience and behavior. Finally, the story’s attitude
toward the racism it represents is not always clear. These three problems
detract from the story’s antiracist message. To be sure you understand them,
collect the following textual data.
1 The lack of information about black characters—What personal information (for
example, information about physical appearance, family background, or
personal history), if any, are we given about the following characters?
Why would it be accurate to say that they are hardly characters at all but,
instead, part of the story’s setting? Consider
a Tobe,
b the druggist’s delivery boy,
c the black laborers, and
d the black women of Jefferson.
2 How Tobe is used to reveal Emily’s experience and behavior—Except for relatively
short periods of time (for example, when she is courted by Homer
Barron) Emily is a recluse.
a How does the description of Tobe, leaving and entering the Grierson
home with his basket to perform various household errands, add to
our awareness of Emily’s self-imposed seclusion?
b On the rare occasion that Tobe is heard to speak, what does the rusty
sound of his voice tell the townsfolk, and the reader, about the
thoroughness with which Emily has cut herself off from all human
contact?
3 The story’s attitude toward the racism it represents—As we saw earlier, the
story uses its African American characters to remind us of the evils of
racism. However, some readers might feel that the tale falls short of this
antiracist project in its portrayal of the white narrator. In general, the
narrator is positively portrayed, which encourages readers to like him and
to trust his judgment. Yet he uses the word nigger to refer to the black
232 Using critical theory

laborers paving Jefferson’s sidewalks. And the narrator’s continual refer-
ence to Tobe as “the Negro” or “the Negro man” (the narrator calls him
Tobe only once, when quoting Emily’s calling her servant by name)
shows that he sees Tobe only in terms of his race, not as a human being
first and foremost. First, to be sure you can see the ways in which the
story positively portrays the narrator, find the textual evidence you need
to answer the questions posed below about that character. Then choose
one of the two explanations offered subsequently for the text’s positive
depiction of its apparently racist narrator.
a What parts of the story, or what aspects of his language, suggest that
the narrator is intelligent and well educated?
b How do we know that the narrator is knowledgeable about the
people and events he describes?
c What textual elements give the feeling that the narrator has main-
tained an objective viewpoint (that he is not overly emotional about
the events he narrates and therefore able to be impartial)?
d Which of the following two explanations do you find the most con-
vincing? Why? Or do you think that both explanations are valid
because each explains a different aspect of the story? Discuss.
i The story is showing us that even the best-intentioned white
people harbor racist attitudes because racism is so ingrained in the
culture in which they live. This aspect of the text is thus consistent
with its antiracist message.
ii Even if the story has the antiracist intention just described, the use
of racist language by a character who is portrayed as intelligent,
well educated, knowledgeable, and objective risks reinforcing
readers’ racist attitudes, especially in 1931, when the story was
published and the acceptance of overt racism was widespread.
Focusing your essay
You should be able to use the textual data you’ve gathered to write an essay
explaining how the African American characters in “A Rose for Emily” promote
the story’s antiracist message by reminding us of the evils of racism. And
I hope you will also be able to show that even the best literary intentions can
fall short of their mark: because the story uses its African American characters
as “pointers,” so to speak, to draw our attention to the racism of the world
in which they live, the tale fails to give us any meaningful sense of their
personhood, of their individual humanity. In other words, in its effort to show
how America has deprived African Americans of their humanity, the story
inadvertently deprives its African American characters of their own humanity.
As always, you don’t have to limit yourself to the analysis of the story I’ve
offered you. For example, you might write an essay in which you argue that
Using concepts from African American theory 233

the story’s antiracist message fails completely, not just because it falls short of
its mark in the ways outlined earlier, but because that message is delivered
much too quietly. In this case, you would probably argue that the text’s
antiracist elements form a backdrop that most readers won’t notice in a story
with such a dramatic and suspenseful plot as this one has. In contrast, you
might want to write an essay in which you argue that “A Rose for Emily”
doesn’t fall short of its antiracist project at all. In this case, you might argue
that the use of undeveloped minor black characters is a small price to pay to
expose the evils of racism in a story about white experience.
Of course, you might prefer, instead, to research the history of African
Americans in the south during the period in which the story is set, a period in
which the enormous numbers of black Americans living in the south were, for
different reasons, a source of concern both for white supremacists and for
advocates of racial justice. Such an essay might address, among other things,
how we are to interpret the under-representation of black characters in a story
like “A Rose for Emily.” Is it a sign of the text’s own racist desire to ignore
the existence of African Americans? Or is the story, in contrast, merely
representing the racist desire of its white characters to ignore the existence
of African Americans? Other stories about the south by William Faulkner—
for example, “That Evening Sun” (1931), “Dry September” (1931), and
“Barn Burning” (1939)—might offer you food for further thought on this
topic.
Finally, you might consider comparing and contrasting “A Rose for Emily”
with “That Evening Sun”—or with any other story by a white writer that you
and your instructor consider appropriate—in terms of the racial issues addressed
in the two stories and in terms of their portrayals of black characters. Whatever
your interpretation of “A Rose for Emily,” be sure you understand the con-
cepts from African American theory you choose to employ, compose a clear
statement of your thesis, and support your interpretation with adequate textual
evidence.
Learning when not to use African American concepts: Resisting the
temptation to interpret “I started Early—Took my Dog”
Recognizing the absence of illustrations of race or racial issues
Emily Dickinson’s “I started Early—Took my Dog” (c. 1862; see Appendix A)
seems to offer us very little, if any, material that lends itself to an African
American interpretation. It contains no representations of African American
experience or culture. We see no illustrations of racism or of other racial
issues. And there are no references to African American history. In fact,
though the race of the female speaker is not directly stated, the fact that the poem
was written by a white woman and that it includes no references to race or racial
issues leads most readers reasonably to assume that the speaker is white.
234 Using critical theory

Resisting the temptation of large/small or high/low imagery
Despite the absence of material relevant to African American theory, however,
students sometimes want to interpret the poem as an illustration of racial
oppression. And they do so for the same reason that students using Marxist
concepts want to read the poem as an illustration of class oppression.
As we saw in Chapter 5, “Using concepts from Marxist theory to understand
literature,” students are often tempted to interpret “I started Early—Took my
Dog” as an illustration of upper-class oppression of the lower class because the
frigates in the poem, which are described as occupying “the Upper Floor”
(l. 5), tower over the speaker, whom the frigates “[p]resum[e] … to be a
Mouse” (l. 7)—that is, a much smaller, dependent creature who is located close
to the ground. In other words, because one of the characters in the poem
might be seen as an underdog, students using Marxist concepts are tempted to
argue that that character represents the lower class.
Similarly, students using concepts from African American theory are sometimes
tempted to argue that the frigates in the poem represent racism or white
society, while the speaker represents African Americans victimized by racism.
Or students new to African American theory might feel that the sea symbo-
lizes racism because it is portrayed as an aggressive entity that chases and
threatens the speaker, who would again be seen to symbolize African Americans.
Once you decide that the frigates, the sea, and the speaker are racial symbols,
you might even be tempted, given that this work was written in the mid-
nineteenth century, to interpret the poem as a symbolic representation of the
flight of an escaped slave to freedom in the north, which you would argue is
symbolized by the “Solid Town” (l. 21) in which the speaker finds a safe
haven.
However, just as we saw in Chapter 5, unless there’s something specific in
the poem, or in the theory we’re using, to justify such a symbolic interpretation,
we’re making a “symbolic leap,” an unjustified symbolic connection, which
we discussed in Chapter 2, “Using concepts from reader-response theory to
understand our own literary interpretations.” That is, we’re arguing for a
symbolic interpretation without enough evidence that the symbolic connec-
tion we think exists actually does exist. I can just as easily argue, for example,
that the large ships and the small mouse symbolize the triumph of good (the
ships) over evil (the mouse). Or I can argue that the big sea and the small
speaker (after all, she’s much smaller than the sea) symbolize the triumph of
the country girl (the speaker) in resisting the temptations of the big city
(the sea). In other words, I can argue that the image of the frigates vs. the
mouse or the sea vs. the speaker symbolizes any large/small or high/low
opposition that occurs to me. In short, there is nothing in the poem or in our
African American concepts to justify choosing one of these symbolic inter-
pretations over another, which means we are not justified in choosing any
of them.
Using concepts from African American theory 235

Choosing a different African American approach to Dickinson
If you want to use African American concepts to interpret a Dickinson poem,
the logical thing to do is to find a Dickinson poem that allows you to do so: a
Dickinson poem that addresses African American experience, culture, or his-
tory or a poem that addresses racism or other racial issues. Given the period in
which Dickinson lived (1830 to 1886), you might certainly expect to find a
poem or two about slavery. Other nineteenth-century white writers addressed
racial issues, including slavery; for example, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville,
and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Stories about life under slavery written by escaped
or freed slaves, including such notable examples as Frederick Douglass’ Narrative
of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), were well known in
the north. And New England, the region in which Dickinson was born and
lived her entire life, was a hotbed of abolitionist activity. Abolitionists, who
were opposed to slavery on moral grounds, aided escaped slaves, gave anti-
slavery speeches, wrote antislavery tracts, and lobbied to have the institution
of slavery abolished. In short, slavery was one of the big topics of the day and
a source of endless debate among intellectuals and common folk alike.
Dickinson, a well-educated, extremely well-read, brilliant young woman,
knew first-hand about the evils of oppression because she was oppressed as a
woman under nineteenth-century law and gender bias. And she was very
familiar with the work of, among other abolitionists, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Indeed, her friend of many years, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, was not
only a co-conspirator with John Brown (who was hung for attempting to
organize an armed rebellion against slavery in 1859) but also commanded the
first black regiment of soldiers to fight for the north in the Civil War. Surely,
Dickinson heard the evils of slavery discussed many times, as well as the
question of racial injustice that continued to be a source of concern after the
Civil War was over and the slaves were released.
Yet Dickinson evidently wrote no poems related to slavery. Although most
of her poetry focuses on philosophical and psychological topics, Dickinson
occasionally wrote poems about social issues in a general way, but these poems
are related to issues of class, religion, and gender, not race. Of course, we must
keep in mind that virtually none of Dickinson’s poetry includes clear refer-
ences to specific political issues of the day. So might some of her poems
address the evils of slavery in disguised forms—perhaps through references to
some sort of bondage, images of hunted or wounded animals, or references to
hope and despair—that could symbolically invoke the plight of Africans held
in slavery but that readers today might miss? Some of her poems do, in fact,
include such elements, but their symbolic meaning is “universalized.” That is,
the poems apply in some way to all people, including the speaker, rather than
to any specific group of people: Aren’t we all in some sort of bondage, per-
haps to social restrictions or to the conflicts of our own heart? Aren’t we all
“hunted” by the keepers of custom and tradition who would confine us to a
236 Using critical theory

limited sphere of activity or by regrets we thought we had expunged from our
minds? Aren’t we all wounded by love or by loss? Don’t we all have times of
hope and despair or times when we’ve gotten so used to despair that hope is
almost painful? Yes, you could analyze what might be taken as symbolic
references to slavery in Dickinson’s poetry if you did so in the context of her
life experience and the intellectual and political climate of the time in which
she lived. For example, do her letters reveal her feelings about the racial issues
of her time? What can be learned from biographies? Obviously, such an ana-
lysis of Dickinson’s poetry would be difficult and would involve a good deal
of research. Generally speaking, then, I wouldn’t recommend that a student
new to the study of literature or new to the study of African American theory
attempt such an essay. Nevertheless, I hope you will think about the question
raised here concerning Dickinson’s apparent poetic silence on racial issues.
I also hope you will keep in mind, for future reference, that this question
can be raised about other white writers as well. I’m not suggesting that white
writers should be expected to address racial issues or that white writers who
don’t do so are racist. However, it’s reasonable to ask why a particular white
writer—for example, a white writer who lived or worked among African
Americans, who wrote about the jazz-age culture of the 1920s or about the
American jazz culture of subsequent decades, or who, like Dickinson, occupied an
intellectual community inspired by the racial issues of its time—excluded
African American characters or racial issues from their writing.
Food for further thought
Thinking it over
If you’ve worked through all of the interpretation exercises offered in this
chapter, you should feel quite familiar with the basic approaches to understanding
literature provided by concepts from African American theory. Specifically,
we’ve seen how concepts from African American theory can be used to analyze
1 literary works that are antiracist in that they illustrate the harmful effects
of overt operations of institutionalized racism (our example: “The Battle
Royal”),
2 literary works that are antiracist in that they provide positive images of
African Americans—images that work against racist stereotypes—who
survive “less visible” operations of institutionalized racism (our example:
“Don’t Explain”),
3 literary works that are antiracist in that they illustrate the harmful effects
of internalized racism (our example: “Everyday Use”),
4 literary works by white authors writing about white experience whose
portrayal of black characters may be antiracist and/or racist in nature (our
example: “A Rose for Emily”), and
Using concepts from African American theory 237

5 literary works whose juxtaposition of large/small or high/low images will
tempt us to misinterpret them by imposing an African American framework
that the literary work does not justify (our example: “I started Early—Took
my Dog”).
Although many students new to concepts from African American theory find
them interesting and useful, discussions of racial issues can still be awkward.
The need felt by many white students to defend themselves—“I’m not racist!”—
and the feeling that it is unpatriotic to believe that America is still racist—
“Racism is a thing of the past!”—often combine to make learning and talking
about race in America difficult for white students. And while most African
American students are well aware that racism is not a thing of the past, some
want to believe it is in order to avoid a reality that is just too painful to live with on
a daily basis. In addition, the fact that most African American students know that
racism is alive and well in America today does not mean that they feel comfortable
talking about it with white students, especially if the class is predominantly
white and they are viewed as if they were speaking for their entire race.
So let’s start with one thing we probably all have in common: most of us,
whatever the color of our skin, don’t want to believe that we have prejudices
against our fellow human beings. We don’t want to believe that our thinking
is wrong and our behavior unfair. Our desire not to be prejudiced can thus
lead us to deny the possibility that we might be prejudiced in ways we can’t
see. And that denial, by blinding us to our own unexamined assumptions,
insures that we will not be able to change whatever racist views we’ve
unknowingly “inherited” from our families, from our school system, from the
movies, and so forth. Ironically, then, our desire not to be racist can result in
our being racist without our realizing it. This idea might sound a bit strange at
first, but if you think about it, it will probably make sense to you. I’ve found a
way to address this problem in my own life that seems to work for many of
my students, too. So let me pass it on to you. I hope my personal approach to
the problem of racism will make you more comfortable about discussing racial
issues, and it should at least give you some food for thought.
If I don’t want to be racist, then presumably I’ve eliminated in myself any
racially biased attitudes and behaviors of which I am aware. But what about the
racist attitudes and behaviors I might have of which I am not aware? We live
in a racist world, so we’re programmed, to varying degrees, to have racial
biases. We’re not responsible for that programming. The question is not “Am
I a racist?” I assume I am a racist in ways of which I’m unaware. The question
is “What am I going to do about it?” So I consider myself antiracist, not
because I’m certain that I don’t have any racial biases—I can’t be certain of
that—but because I’m committed to being open to learning new ways in
which I might be unintentionally racist. That way of viewing myself lets
me learn and grow without feeling that I continually have to defend myself.
My job, then, isn’t to prove that I’m not a racist but to commit myself to
238 Using critical theory

antiracism by remaining open to all I can learn about the operations of racism
and other racial issues.
Furthermore, to my mind at least, it’s not unpatriotic to say that American
culture is racist. It’s not unpatriotic to want our country to be even better than
it is. On the contrary, it’s unpatriotic to accept systematic injustice toward any
Americans, let alone toward such a large group of Americans who are an
integral part of American history and American culture. The United States has
a long, embedded history of racism, as do most countries, and that is not an
easy problem to eliminate, though many people, of all colors, have worked
hard and sacrificed much to try to eliminate it. We’ve made progress, but
continued progress depends upon our recognizing that we still have a long
road to travel. And African American theory—as an educational vehicle that
acknowledges a history of injustice, celebrates the human capacity to overcome
any obstacle, and pays tribute to the Americans on whose bloody shoulders
we, all of us, stand today—can help us make that journey.
African American theory and cultural criticism
We can also use concepts from African American theory for the purposes of
cultural criticism. That is, we can use African American concepts to help us
analyze the cultural messages sent, whether deliberately or not, by the everyday
productions of the culture in which we live, such as movies, games, television
shows, song lyrics, toys and other productions of popular culture discussed in
Chapter 1. Indeed, those cultural productions that in some way represent
human behavior—that have characters and a plot—can be analyzed using
concepts from African American theory just as we use those concepts to analyze
literary works. For example, an awareness of African American culture, racist
stereotypes, and internalized racism can offer us insights into the hit film
romance Waiting to Exhale (directed by Forest Whitaker, 1995), in which we
follow the diverse experiences of four thirty-something African American
women through a single year of their close friendship.
It’s a year of change for each of the four main characters. Career-minded
Savannah Jackson (Whitney Houston) has a new job producing television.
Full-time wife and mother Bernadine Harris (Angela Bassett) is being divorced
by her enormously wealthy husband. Beauty salon owner and single mother
Gloria Matthews (Loretta Devine) is dealing with her independent, sexually
active, seventeen-year-old son Tarik (Donald Adeosun Faison). And insurance
underwriter Robin Stokes (Lela Rochon) has once again ended her on-again/
off-again longtime affair with her unreliable married boyfriend. These women
aren’t perfect, but their problems make them engagingly human.
Indeed, it’s a shared problem that makes their emotional bond especially
strong: their relationships with men. Savannah and Robin keep trying to find
the “right” man but keep dating the wrong ones. Bernadine, in order to hold
a husband who has never reciprocated her willingness to make sacrifices for
Using concepts from African American theory 239

him, has spent the last eleven years putting John’s financial welfare and personal
convenience first, against her own best interests and those of her children. And
Gloria, who has raised a fine son, has used the responsibilities and rewards of
motherhood to avoid dating altogether. Nevertheless, through the strength of
their collective emotional support, each woman is able, over the course of the
movie, to grow beyond whatever self-destructive romantic fantasy has led her
to the romantic dead-end in which she finds herself as the film opens. As the
film closes, each is able to place herself, with or without a man by her side,
firmly on the path to her own fulfillment.
Part of the charm of this groundbreaking movie lies in the African American
world in which it is set. Yes, the movie portrays familiar scenes from middle- and
upper-class American life at home, at work, and at play. However, from the
perspective of cultural criticism, it is noteworthy that these scenes include
specific representations of African American culture and are populated by
African American people. The art on the walls of Savannah’s and Gloria’s
homes is African American. Robin’s large and varied doll collection is African
American. Gloria’s beauty salon specializes in hairstyles for African American
women. We hear mention of such popular African American magazines as
Upscale, Jet, Essence, and Ebony and of such popular African American television
shows as Good Times and Oprah. The music that issues from the radio, the
tape-deck, and the church choir is African American, and the people enjoying
some of that music during happy-hour at a local nightclub or at church on
Sunday are predominantly African American. I think it’s reasonable to speculate
that most African American viewers are familiar with this setting while most
American viewers of other races are not. In any case, because this world is
underrepresented on the big screen, seeing it there in Waiting to Exhale offers a
positive experience for all viewers.
Moreover, Waiting to Exhale combats a racist stereotype that has often
appeared in popular American movies by portraying four beautiful black
women who are not all light-skinned with European facial features and willowy
figures. Savannah, Bernadine, Gloria, and Robin are all beautiful, but they’re
all beautiful in different ways, with different skin colors, facial features, and
body types. And none of the four friends wishes for lighter skin or a more
European-looking face or body. Clearly, internalized racism is not the focal
point of the main characters’ psychological experience. Neither is intraracial
racism among their emotional baggage: the four women don’t relate to one
another—neither do they relate to the men they date—in terms of physical
characteristics associated with race.
There is, however, one character in the movie for whom internalized
racism is the major psychological focal point: Bernadine’s husband John
(Michael Beach). Waiting to Exhale reveals the destructive power of this problem
by showing its negative effects, both on John personally and on his family.
Like his enormous, neutral-colored, conservative wardrobe, John doesn’t have
much originality or personality. His attempts to repress his emotions make him
240 Using critical theory

seem, at times, like a robot. By John’s choice, the Harris family live in a
mansion-like home in a predominantly white, extremely wealthy neighborhood—
for John’s internalized racism seems inseparable from his desire for money and
class status—and in contrast to the homes of Savannah, Gloria, and Robin, the
only art displayed in the Harris household is European. In addition, the two
Harris children, despite Bernadine’s objections, attend a private school at
which they are two of the four black students enrolled, and John’s thirteen
employees, including his divorce lawyer, are all white. Finally, John has left his
wife and children for a white woman. Bernadine doesn’t use the words internalized
racism, but she knows it when she sees it: John tries to get rid of whatever he
can that reminds him he is black and adopt whatever he can—especially in terms
of wealthy white definitions of class status—that makes him feel he is white.
Waiting to Exhale, then, sends a number of antiracist cultural messages. While
we’re being entertained we’re also being reminded that the African American
population includes large middle and upper classes; that black women are as
capable and deserving of professional success, and of self-determination, as men;
that internalized racism is both self-destructive and destructive to one’s family;
and that feminine beauty is not limited to a European ideal.
Some viewers may wonder, however, what cultural message Waiting to
Exhale sends in terms of its portrayal of African American men. Does the film
succumb to the use of racist stereotypes for its black male characters? Six of the
ten male characters with whom Savannah, Bernadine, Gloria, and Robin are
in some way involved have negative qualities that frequently appear when
African American men are stereotyped: Troy (Mykelti Williamson) chronically
abuses cocaine and alcohol; apparently neither Troy nor Lionel (Jeffrey D. Sams)
is interested in gainful employment; Russell (Leon) lies to Robin, just as
Kenneth (Dennis Haysbert) lies to Savannah, about intending to leave his
wife; Gloria’s ex-husband David (Giancarlo Esposito) is an absentee father
who isn’t willing to put forth much effort to reconnect with his son; and
as we’ve seen, John has left Bernadine and their children for a white woman.
On the other hand, Kenneth seems genuinely to love his daughter and, like
John and David, is financially successful and drug-free. Furthermore, the other
four black male characters in the film are positively portrayed. Marvin King
(Gregory Hines) is fatherly toward Tarik, generous with his time and labor, an
excellent friend to Gloria, with whom he is in love, and financially indepen-
dent. James Wheeler is a successful civil rights attorney; faithful to his dying
wife, whom he dearly loves; and honest with Bernadine, with whom he has
fallen in love. And even Michael (Wendell Pierce), whose blissfully selfish
behavior as a lover makes him a comedic character early on in the movie, is
marriage minded and has a successful career. Finally, Tarik, though he has the
problems typical of a teenaged boy, clearly promises to be a good man.
It seems to me, then, that the cultural work performed by Waiting to Exhale
is ideologically mixed. The film sends a strong antiracist message—about
African American culture, African American women, and the destructiveness
Using concepts from African American theory 241

of internalized racism—but its message concerning African American men
includes racist stereotypes as well as very positive portrayals. Perhaps the most
important aspect of the film’s ambiguous depiction of African American men,
however, is the debate this issue invites, a debate that offers viewers much
useful food for thought about our own cultural experience, our own cultural
biases, and our own capacity for cultural insight.
***
Remember, it’s natural to feel a bit uncertain when we encounter a new
theory—a new way of looking at ourselves and our world—that may call into
question many of the beliefs that have been pressed upon us, and that we’ve
accepted uncritically, for most of our lives. Uncertainty is an unavoidable part
of learning and growing. Keep in mind, too, that others may disagree with your
opinions. Individuals often disagree in their interpretations of literature, popular
culture, or everyday experiences, even when drawing upon the same African
American concepts for their analyses. The keys to a good interpretation—
besides intellectual curiosity and an open mind—are a clear understanding of
the African American concepts you’ve chosen to use and strong evidence to
support your analysis.
Taking the next step
Questions for further practice
1 How does Langston Hughes’ short story “The Blues I’m Playing”
(1934) illustrate and celebrate African American culture through its
Harlem-Renaissance setting, its characterization of Miss Oceola Jones, its
descriptions of jazz and blues, and its use of AAVE? In addition,
how does the story promote antiracism through its positive portrayal
of Oceola’s antiracist attitude and its negative portrayal of Mrs. Dora
Ellsworth’s racism?
2 Audre Lorde’s “Power” (1978) was written in response to actual events.
How does the poem explain racial violence as a self-perpetuating cycle
that begins in institutionalized racism? Specifically, what is the connection
between: (a) the policeman’s being acquitted of his racially motivated
murder of a child; and (b) the eventual murder of an eighty-five-year-old
white woman? How is institutionalized racism involved in the black
juror’s capitulation to the verdict desired by her eleven white fellow
jurors? Finally, how does the poem’s intense and vivid imagery help
convey the speaker’s outrage? Be specific.
3 August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson (1987) dramatizes the experiences of an
African American family during the Great Depression. How does the
play illustrate the ways in which institutionalized racism increases the
242 Using critical theory

difficulty of financial survival for African Americans during periods of
economic crisis? Note, too, how the play portrays the challenges pro-
duced by internalized racism in its depiction of the relationship between
Berniece and her daughter Maretha. How, specifically, does The Piano
Lesson illustrate the importance of family—including the continuity of
family over generations—in meeting these challenges?
4 Although the African American presence in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening
(1899) is small, it illustrates the view of race held by the novel’s white
characters, particularly by its upper-class Creoles (privileged descendants
of the original French and Spanish settlers of Louisiana) living in New
Orleans at the end of the nineteenth century, such as Léonce Pontellier and
his circle. Find, for example, the passages referring to “the quadroon”
who takes care of the Pontellier children, the “mulatto” family from whom
Mademoiselle Reisz rents her room, the “black woman” who works
in the Lebrun household in New Orleans, the “mulatresse” who runs the
tiny eatery Edna visits on her walks around the suburbs of New Orleans,
the “Griffe” who attends Adèle Ratignolle during the birth of her latest
child, and the “little black girl” who works in Mrs. Lebrun’s household
on Grande Isle. In order to flesh out this important though barely visible
aspect of The Awakening, write a research paper in which you explain the
racial hierarchy operating in the novel, which is based on the degree of
an individual’s African ancestry. Be sure to define the racial terminology
used in the novel and any additional racial terminology you find during
your research. You might also include research concerning the history of
people of color living in New Orleans at the end of the nineteenth
century. What cultural groups of color were present at that time? Where
did they come from, and how and when did they arrive in New
Orleans? What kinds of work did they do? What were their cultural
beliefs, customs, and practices? Do they have descendants living in New
Orleans today?
5 Use concepts from African American theory to help you interpret some
aspect of a movie, television show, song lyric, cartoon, video game, or
any other production of popular culture that you find interesting and that
seems to lend itself to an African American interpretation. For example,
are people of color realistically portrayed in your chosen cultural pro-
duction? Are elements of black American culture accurately represented
and respected? Are racist stereotypes or negative references to people of
color involved in this production? Do white standards of beauty seem to
be operating in some way? Based on your observations, what cultural
work does your chosen cultural production do relevant to African
American theory? Specifically, what roles are played by race and racial
issues in this cultural production? Does it seem to have racist elements,
antiracist elements, or both? Be sure to offer evidence from your chosen
production to support your ideas.
Using concepts from African American theory 243

Suggestions for further reading
Delgado, Richard, and Jean Stefancic, (eds.) Critical Race Theory: An Introduction. New York:
New York University Press, 2001. (See, especially, “Introduction,” 1–14; “Hallmark
Critical Race Theory Themes,” 15–35; and “Power and the Shape of Knowledge,”
67–86.)
DuBois, W.E.B., The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. New York: Penguin, 1989. (See, especially,
“Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” 3–12; and “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others,”
36–50.)
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and K.A. Appiah, (eds.) Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Pre-
sent. New York: Amistad, 1993. (See, especially, Barbara Christian’s “The Contemporary
Fables of Toni Morrison”, 59–99; Roberta Rubenstein’s “Pariah’s and Community,”
126–58; and Susan Willis’s “Eruptions of Funk: Historicizing Toni Morrison,” 308–29.)
hooks, bell. Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. Boston, MA: South End Press,
1989.
Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York:
Vintage, 1993. (See, especially, Morrison’s definition of American Africanism, 6–17; and
“Disturbing Nurses and the Kindness of Sharks,” 61–91.)
Napier, Winston, (ed.) African American Literary Theory: A Reader. New York: New York
University Press, 2000. (See, especially, W.E.B. DuBois’ “Criteria of Negro Art,” 17–23;
Zora Neale Hurston’s “WhatWhite PublishersWon’t Print,” 54–57; Stephen E. Henderson’s
“Inside the Funk Shop: A Word on Black Words,” 97–101; and Barbara Smith’s
“Toward a Black Feminist Criticism,” 132–46.)
Tyson, Lois. “African American Criticism.” Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide.
2nd ed. New York: Routledge. 2006. 359–415.
Note
1 A full discussion of this issue is available online at The Sentencing Project, http://sentencing
project/CRACKREFORM/.
244 Using critical theory

http://sentencingproject/CRACKREFORM

http://sentencingproject/CRACKREFORM

Chapter 9
Using concepts from postcolonial
theory to understand literature
Why should we learn about postcolonial theory?
If you’ve read the preceding five chapters, you’ve seen some of the ways in
which concepts from psychoanalytic, Marxist, feminist, LGBTQ, and African
American theories focus our attention on different aspects of human experience.
Specifically, you’ve seen some of the ways in which our relationship to ourselves
and our world is formed by our psychological wounds, by the socioeconomic
class into which we were born and to which we now belong, by the capitalist
system within which we were raised, by traditional gender roles, by our sexual
orientation, and by our race. As we’ll see, postcolonial theory gives us tools to
explore how all of these factors—as well as ethnicity, religion, and other cul-
tural factors that influence human experience—work together in creating the
ways in which we view ourselves and our world. Thus, concepts from post-
colonial theory can help us understand human experience as a combination of
complex cultural forces operating in each of us.
Postcolonial theory developed the concepts we’ll study in this chapter
because, as its name implies, this theory emerged in an attempt to understand
people from different cultures in terms of an important experience they all
had in common: colonial domination by a superior European military force.
Europe’s invasions of non-European peoples began at the end of the fifteenth
century with the military competition among England, France, Spain, Portugal,
and the Netherlands to find new sources of wealth around the globe. By
the end of the nineteenth century, England had the largest colonial empire,
which covered a quarter of the earth’s surface and included India,
Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Ireland, as well as significant holdings
in Africa, the West Indies, South America, the Middle East, and Southeast
Asia. Probably the most damaging effects of colonial domination were
experienced by non-white populations, whose own cultures were completely
or almost completely destroyed as British government officials and British
settlers imposed their own language, religion, government, education, codes
of behavior, and definitions of intelligence and beauty on the conquered
peoples.

The British Empire is called a colonial empire because it gained new terri-
tories by the establishment of settler colonies—the sending of British settlers to
set up communities in the territories Britain wished to control—or invader
colonies, which were created by the colonization of the native populations
conquered by British military force. Even when colonization occurred with-
out the aid of military conquest, the white settlers themselves, in their desire
to expand their ownership of land and natural resources, eventually killed off,
drove away, or colonized the native peoples who stood in their way. The
colonization of native peoples was achieved by imposing English language,
religion, dress, and other cultural practices upon them and by forbidding them
their own native cultural practices.
Britain began to lose its colonial holdings after World War II, and British
military rule of territories outside the United Kingdom is, for the most part, at
an end. Nevertheless, the attempts of formerly colonized peoples to regain
their own cultures, re-establish their own language, run their own political
affairs, and develop a sense of national self-esteem have been difficult because
so much of their pre-colonial history, language, and culture were lost after a
century or more of British domination. In other words, the colonizers picked
up their guns and went home, but the devastating effects of their colonial rule
remain behind. Because conquered peoples were affected by British control
from the first moment British rule began, the word postcolonial refers to the
experience of conquered peoples from the initial point of British contact to
the present. Postcolonial concepts, therefore, are intended to help us analyze
the experience of being colonized, the experience of living under colonial rule,
and the experience of adjusting to national independence after colonial rule
has ended.
British postcolonial populations include not only those that had been con-
quered by the British military and ruled by British officials—such as the
populations of India and those of much of the West Indies, Africa, the Middle
East, and Southeast Asia—but also those native populations subjugated by
white settlers and governed today by the majority culture that surrounds them,
such as Australian Aboriginal peoples and Native Americans in the United
States and Canada. Finally, many postcolonial theorists believe that post-
colonial populations also include non-white peoples who have minority status
in Britain, Europe, and the United States—for example, in the US, African
Americans, Latinos/as, and Asian Americans—because, like colonized populations,
these peoples have been deprived of much or all of the culture, language, and
status they enjoyed in their homelands or have experienced the loss of cultural
traditions due to powerful socioeconomic pressures to conform to the dominant
culture.
Postcolonial concepts can also help us explore the ways in which multiple
forms of oppression—for example, classism, sexism, heterosexism, and racism—can
combine in the daily experience of members of political minorities; the ways
in which members of these groups have overcome these kinds of oppressive
246 Using critical theory

forces and worked together to build better lives for themselves and their
communities; and the ways in which such struggles are represented in litera-
ture. Postcolonial concepts will thus enable you to combine and expand what
you’ve learned from the critical theories you’ve used in preceding chapters. Don’t
be surprised, then, if you notice that some of the postcolonial interpretation
exercises we do later overlap with some of our interpretation exercises from
previous chapters. Although postcolonial concepts will often help us see a lit-
erary work from a perspective quite different from the perspectives offered by
the other theories we’ve studied, postcolonial concepts will sometimes com-
bine the insights offered by other theories in an effort to show us, for example,
all of the cultural factors influencing characters’ behavior or plot events.
The term postcolonial literature refers to literary works written both by members
of colonized or formerly colonized populations—for example, the works of
Salman Rushdie (India), Jamaica Kincaid (Antigua, West Indies), Chinua Achebe
(Nigeria), and Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Kenya)—and by members of the colo-
nizing (white) culture in colonized or formerly colonized nations, such as the
fiction of South Africa’s Nadine Gordimer, Andre Brink, and J. M. Coetzee.
And as we noted earlier, because the experience of such ethnic political
minorities as Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos/as, and Asian
Americans has much in common with the experience of formerly colonized
populations, postcolonial concepts can often help us interpret the work of
these writers, too. Finally, given that the primary purpose of postcolonial
concepts is to help us understand the complex experiences of being colonized
by a culture other than our own native culture and of resisting that coloniza-
tion, we can use postcolonial concepts to analyze the works of any author—
regardless of her or his time and place of birth—that we feel can help us
understand something about those experiences. For as we’ll see in the “Basic
concepts” section later in the chapter, our consciousness—our sense of self,
our sense of our own culture—can be colonized, can be “taken over,” by a
new culture without a single shot being fired. And the culture that colonizes
our consciousness doesn’t have to come from a foreign country. It can exist
right within the borders of our own nation.
Remember, although it’s important that you read through the following list
of concepts, don’t be too concerned if you don’t feel you thoroughly under-
stand every one. You’ll begin to understand these concepts much better when
we use them, later in this chapter, to help us interpret the literary texts that
appear at the end of this book. Remember, too, that I’m offering you my
own literary analyses in the interpretation exercises provided later in this
chapter. You might use the same postcolonial concepts I use but come up
with different interpretations of your own. If you disagree with any of the
analyses I offer in these exercises, don’t be afraid to look in the literary work
in question for evidence that will support your viewpoint. A literary work can
often support a number of different interpretations, even when readers are
using concepts from the same theory.
Using concepts from postcolonial theory 247

Basic concepts
Colonialist ideology
Colonialist ideology is based on the colonizers’ belief in their own superiority
over the colonized, who were usually the original inhabitants of the lands the
colonizers settled in or invaded. According to colonialist ideology, the colonizers
were civilized; the colonized were savages. Because their technology was more
highly advanced, the colonizers believed that their entire culture was more
highly advanced, and they ignored or swept aside the religions, customs, and codes
of behavior of the peoples they subjugated, often forbidding them to speak
their own language or to teach it to their children. Children in colonized nations
were taught the language, customs, and beliefs of the colonizers in schools set up
for that purpose. While colonization by military force is generally a thing of the
past, cultural colonization, often called cultural imperialism, has taken its place in
many countries around the globe. For example, American fashions, movies, music,
sports, fast food, and consumerism (or “shop-’til-you-dropism”) have dwarfed
other nations’ own cultural practices or turned them into little more than tourist
attractions, as is evident, for example, in parts of the Philippines, Japan, andMexico.
We can also see colonialist ideology operating within the borders of a single
country. In the United States, for example, many white middle- and upper-
class Americans believe the myth that people living in Appalachia are not only
poor but stupid, dirty, and untrustworthy; that the homeless are lazy and lack
willpower; and that Native Americans prefer welfare and petty thievery to
gainful employment.
Othering—One of the clearest symptoms of colonialist ideology is the practice
of othering: judging those who are different as inferior, as somehow less
than human. For example, the colonizers saw themselves as the embodi-
ment of what a human being should be, the proper “self”; the peoples they
conquered were different, “other,” and therefore inferior, subhuman.
Othering divides the world between “us”—the civilized, the moral, the
intelligent—and “them”: the “savages,” the immoral, the unintelligent.
The “savage” is usually considered evil (the demonic other). But sometimes the
“savage” is perceived as possessing a “primitive” beauty or nobility born of a
closeness to nature (the exotic other). In either case, however, the “savage” is
othered and, therefore, not considered fully human.
Within the borders of the United States, for example, African American
men are often treated as demonic others, who might “turn violent” without
much provocation. Similarly, gay men are often othered as unscrupulous
sexual predators. Americans who are sometimes treated as exotic others
include, for instance, beautiful Asian American women.
Subaltern—Colonialist ideology always creates a social hierarchy—a system of
social status—in which members of the colonizing culture occupy the top
248 Using critical theory

rungs of the ladder. Subalterns are those persons who occupy the bottom
rungs of the colonialist social ladder, whether their inferior status is based
on race, class, gender, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or any other
cultural factor. The word subaltern thus gives us a way to refer to any person
at the bottom of a society’s status system. Subalterns are othered by mem-
bers of the colonizing culture and are deprived both of equal opportunities
to better their lives and of equal justice under the law.
Subalterns include, for example, individuals othered by racism, classism,
sexism, heterosexism, and/or religious discrimination (such as anti-Semitism,
or the hatred of Jews, and Islamophobia, or the pathological fear and
loathing of Muslims). Among the most visible examples of subalterns in the
United States are the homeless of any race, Native Americans, and economically
distressed people of color.
The colonial subject
Because there is enormous pressure on subalterns to believe that they are
inferior, it should not be surprising that many of them wind up believing just
that. Subalterns who internalize, or “buy into” the colonialist belief that those
different from a society’s dominant culture are inferior are called colonial subjects—
they have a colonized consciousness—whether the dominant culture in question
is that of a foreign power or that of their own country. Examples of the latter
include women who believe they are, by nature, less intelligent or capable
than their male compatriots; people from any non-white race who believe their
race makes them less attractive, intelligent, or worthy than their white com-
patriots; LGBTQ people who believe their sexual orientation means they are
sick or evil in ways their heterosexual compatriots are not; and poor people
who believe, no matter how hard they work or how ethical they are, that their
poverty means they are less worthy as human beings than their financially
successful compatriots.
One can be oppressed by colonialist ideology economically, politically, and
socially without being a colonial subject as long as one maintains an awareness
that colonialist ideology is unjust and that people who belong to the dominant
culture are not naturally superior. In other words, one is a colonial subject
only when one’s consciousness is colonized. Colonial subjects usually practice
mimicry and experience unhomeliness.
Mimicry—Mimicry is the imitation, by a subaltern, of the dress, speech, beha-
vior, or lifestyle of members of the dominant culture. Mimicry is not
intended to mock members of the dominant culture. On the contrary, it
reveals a subaltern’s desire to belong to that culture. Mimicry thus results
from having a colonized consciousness, from believing that one is inferior
because one does not belong to the dominant culture. For example, during
Britain’s control of India, some Indians adopted British attire, hairstyles, and
Using concepts from postcolonial theory 249

the like because they wanted to be considered “as good as” their British
oppressors. Analogously, working-class and middle-class people in the
United States sometimes make purchases that endanger their financial
security because they want to resemble the upper-class members of their
own country, whom they consider superior to themselves. In contrast,
if one imitates members of the dominant culture without believing that one’s
own culture is inferior—for example, in order to keep one’s job—then one
is not practicing mimicry in the postcolonial sense of the word. Sadly,
mimicry often includes othering members of one’s own culture. That is, in
order to feel that one belongs to or has the approval of the dominant culture,
one adopts that culture’s prejudices against the members of one’s own culture.
Unhomeliness—Unhomeliness is the feeling of having no stable cultural identity—
no real home in any culture—that occurs to people who do not belong to
the dominant culture and have rejected their own culture as inferior. Thus,
unhomeliness, too, results from having a colonized consciousness. Being
unhomed is not the same as being homeless. Unhomeliness is an emotional
state: unhomed people don’t feel at home even in their own homes because
they don’t feel at home in any culture and, therefore, don’t feel at home in
themselves.
For example, unhomeliness can be experienced by individuals who feel torn
between the culture into which they were born and the culture in which
they live as adults. A person born in poverty who has become wealthy may
feel uncomfortable both with his wealthy friends and with his parents, of
whom he’s now ashamed, because he doesn’t feel he fits in either world.
Similar experiences of being unhomed can occur to individuals who grew
up in communities of working-class ethnic minorities—for example, in
Asian American, African American, or Chicano communities—but who now
live in, say, a suburban community most of whose members are upper-class or
upwardly mobile middle-class white people of Western European ancestry.
Anticolonialist resistance
Anticolonialist resistance—the effort to rid one’s land and/or one’s culture of
colonial domination—can take many forms. Anticolonialist resistance includes
such activities as the formation of underground (secret) groups who might
engage in armed raids, perform acts of sabotage, rescue individuals unjustly
imprisoned by the colonialist regime, attempt to gain the support of neutral
foreign powers, or raise international awareness of colonialist abuses. Of course,
anticolonialist resistance can take the form of an organized, armed rebellion
against a colonialist regime, such as occurred in Cuba when followers of Fidel
Castro ousted US-backed Fulgencio Batista in 1959. Or it can take the form
of organized, non-violent resistance to colonialist oppression, such as occurred
in India when followers of Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi ousted the British in
1947. However, even when political resistance is, for the most part, impossible
250 Using critical theory

because the forces of colonialist oppression are so overwhelming, anticolonialist
resistance can occur on the psychological level. That is, even when colonized
peoples have been completely subjugated to a foreign power over the course
of many generations and no longer have access to their own language or their
own cultural past, many oppressed individuals manage to keep their minds free of
the colonialist ideology that tells them they are inferior. This kind of anti-
colonialist resistance, which exists on the psychological level alone and might
be termed psychological resistance, is perhaps the most important kind of resis-
tance, for without it it is unlikely that other kinds of resistance would ever
occur.
Examples of anticolonialist resistance in the United States are numerous. To
cite just a few, there have been the Underground Railroad, which helped
slaves escape to the north before they were freed by the American Civil War;
the Women’s Suffrage Movement, which got women the vote in 1920; the
Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s; the efforts of Cesar Chavez
and the Farm Workers Organizing Committee to help Mexican American
migrant laborers; the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACTUP), which fought
the federal government’s refusal to fund AIDS research; and the American
Indian Movement (AIM), begun in 1968 to obtain civil rights and legal justice
for Native Americans.
There are, of course, additional postcolonial concepts, but these are enough to
get us started using this theory to interpret literature. Let’s begin our inter-
pretation exercises by analyzing a story that illustrates the evils of colonialist
ideology in chilling detail: Ralph Ellison’s “The Battle Royal.”
Interpretation exercises
Understanding colonialist ideology: Interpreting “The Battle Royal”
If you heard someone use the words colonialist oppression, probably the first
thought that would come to your mind would be that the speaker was talking
about a relationship between two countries. For colonialist oppression usually
occurs when a wealthier, technologically developed nation exploits a poorer,
technologically underdeveloped nation, justifying its aggression with the claim
that its culture—its laws, customs, beliefs, and so forth—is superior to that
of the exploited nation. Ralph Ellison’s “The Battle Royal” (1952; see
Appendix C), however, illustrates the ways in which colonialist oppression can
occur within the borders of a single country when the wealthier, more pow-
erful segment of the population exploits those with little money and limited
power, those whom it considers inferior due to race, class, gender, ethnicity,
religion, or some other cultural category. In other words, Ellison’s story shows
us that the relationship between America’s dominant culture and its subalterns
(those with the least political power) is much like the relationship between a
colonialist country and the peoples it subjugates on foreign shores.
Using concepts from postcolonial theory 251

Set in the post-World-War-II American south, “The Battle Royal” portrays
a group of leading citizens—the town’s wealthy white men, who are privileged
in terms of their race, class, and gender—gathered for an evening’s entertainment.
These men obviously represent the dominant culture—that is, the segment of
the population whose political, social, and economic power allows them to
“run the show,” so to speak. Indeed, the nature of the “show” they’ve
arranged for themselves on this particular evening makes it very clear that they
hold the power in this society and that they want those “beneath” them to
know it. For it seems that the desire to display their power is the men’s primary
purpose in engaging the services of the white exotic dancer; the African
American youths who fight in the battle royal; and the African American narrator,
who gives a speech after participating in the battle royal. Clearly, the white
men’s behavior during each of these “entertainments” is aggressive, hostile,
and intended to degrade the subaltern “entertainers,” whom these leading
citizens consider inferior to themselves. Ellison’s tale is thus anticolonialist: it
offers us an extremely negative portrait of colonialist ideology and suggests
that such ideology is operating against subaltern American citizens within the
borders of their own nation. We might even say that “The Battle Royal”
depicts a kind of colonialist microcosm (miniature world) the occupants of
which illustrate, as we’ll see, both the ways in which colonialist ideology
operates and some of the possibilities for anticolonialist resistance. To understand
how the story accomplishes this task, we’ll examine how Ellison’s tale portrays:
(1) the colonialist ideology of the dominant culture; (2) the subjugation of that
culture’s subalterns; and (3) the possibilities for anticolonialist resistance.
The colonialist ideology of the dominant culture
Although the civic leaders in “The Battle Royal” probably never heard the
phrase colonialist ideology, it is this ideology that influences most of their behavior
in the story. For the white men behave as if it were their right, as members of
the “superior” culture, to exploit subalterns in whatever ways serve their
purpose. And they try to justify their behavior by othering the subalterns they
abuse: the white men treat the “performers” they’ve hired as if they were less
than human and therefore not deserving of the respect and consideration
afforded “full” human beings. To see how the civic leaders’ colonialist ideo-
logy operates in the story, find the textual evidence required to answer the
following questions.
1 How do we know the white men belong to the dominant culture? That
is, what are the signs of their cultural privilege?
a What occupations do they hold?
b How do we know they have a good deal of money?
c Howdowe know they have power in the community—for example, that
they can do more or less what they please without fear of punishment?
252 Using critical theory

2 In what ways do the civic leaders other those relegated to the category of
subaltern?
a How do they other the narrator (a subaltern in terms of race and class)?
b How do they other Tatlock and his friends (subalterns in terms of
race and class), the young men brought in to fight the battle royal?
c How do they other the exotic dancer (a subaltern in terms of class
and gender)?
The subjugation of subalterns
As we have seen, the subalterns in “The Battle Royal” consist of the narrator,
Tatlock and his friends, and the white exotic dancer. Other subalterns in the
story include, of course, the narrator’s grandfather and the rest of his family. In
order to understand the ways in which the story illustrates the various kinds of
subjugation imposed upon subalterns by the dominant culture, find the textual
evidence required to answer the following questions.
1 How do we know that the subalterns in the story are economically
oppressed?
a How do we know that Tatlock and his friends are desperately in need
of money?
b Why is it reasonable to assume that the white exotic dancer, like the
black youths forced to watch her, also has limited means of earning a
living? (How do we know that she does not like her line of work?)
c How do we know that the narrator’s family can’t afford to send him
to college?
d How do we know that the narrator’s family have been economically
oppressed since their arrival, generations ago, in America?
2 How do we know that the subalterns in the story are socially oppressed?
a How do we know that, in the time and place in which the story is
set, the races are segregated?
i What college will the narrator’s scholarship allow him to attend?
ii Why is it safe to assume that the high school from which the
narrator has just graduated is for African American students only?
(Were high schools integrated in this place and time? Given the
story’s setting, would he have been allowed to give a graduation
speech in any but an all-black high school?)
iii Why is it safe to assume that the narrator lives in a segregated
community of African Americans?
b How do we know that the society represented in the story is segregated
according to class?
Using concepts from postcolonial theory 253

i What kind of elevator do the narrator and his schoolmates use in
the hotel at which the white men’s smoker is held?
ii How does the narrator feel about having to use this elevator?
iii Why is it safe to assume that none of the white men at the smoker
would marry, openly date, or even befriend the exotic dancer?
3 How do we know that the subalterns in the story are psychologically
oppressed?
a How do we know that the narrator’s family, with the exception of
his grandfather, are terrified of white people?
b How do we know that the exotic dancer is terrified of the white men
at the smoker?
c How is Tatlock’s response to the narrator in the final round of the battle
royal an example of the dominant culture’s success in emotionally dividing
members of the African American community from one another?
d How do we know that the narrator is unhomed, that he doesn’t feel
he belongs either to his community’s African American culture or to
the culture of the white men he is so eager to please?
i Does the narrator feel at home with the other young men from
his community? Explain.
ii Does the narrator feel at home with his family? Explain.
iii Does the narrator feel at home with the white men whose
approval he desires? Explain.
e In what ways does the narrator practice mimicry, or attempt to
resemble the dominant culture in order to be accepted by it? In other
words, in what ways does the narrator “buy into” the colonialist ideology
of the dominant culture that rejects him?
i Why does the narrator feel uncomfortable riding in the servants’
elevator with Tatlock and his friends? (In other words, how does
he respond to members of his own community in the same way
that the white men respond to them?)
ii In the narrator’s opinion, who are the only people truly capable
of judging his worth? Explain.
iii What are the narrator’s emotions upon receiving the briefcase
from the white men? Be specific.
The possibilities for anticolonialist resistance
For subalterns to practice anticolonialist resistance they must, first and foremost,
reject the colonialist ideology that tells them they are born inferior because
they were not born into the dominant culture. In other words, they must
know that their oppressors, though more politically and socially powerful, are
not superior to them as human beings. In short, subalterns who are likely to
254 Using critical theory

be capable of anticolonialist resistance do not admire their oppressors, though
they might have to pretend to admire them in order to survive. Although
anticolonialist resistance can include respect for the colonialist rulers as fellow
human beings, as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King taught, “The
Battle Royal” seems to suggest, in contrast, that the seeds of anticolonialist
resistance lie in the subalterns’ ability to see that colonialist oppressors forfeit
the right to be respected. To understand this aspect of the story, collect the textual
evidence required below to show that the possibilities for anticolonialist resis-
tance lie in the negative feelings about the dominant culture secretly harbored
by the exotic dancer, the narrator, and the narrator’s grandfather.
1 The exotic dancer
a How does the exotic dancer feel about the white men at the smoker?
b How does she try to remain emotionally detached from the men who hire
her? (Include attention to her makeup and her facial expression.)
2 The narrator—As we saw earlier, in some ways the narrator is already
becoming a colonial subject: he sometimes practices mimicry, and he’s
unhomed. On the other hand, he still has the capacity for anticolonialist
resistance because, in large part, the motive behind his behavior is eco-
nomic survival. At least some of the time, he sees the white men not as
superior human beings, but as his only source of financial aid.
a When is the narrator’s apparent mimicry not really mimicry? That is,
when is he deliberately faking compliance with white expectations in
order to get ahead rather than because he believes that the dominant
culture is superior?
b Find as many examples as you can of the narrator’s negative feelings
about the white men at the smoker.
c How does the narrator’s dream, at the end of the story, indicate that,
at least unconsciously, he is thoroughly aware of the dominant white
culture’s determination to completely subjugate him?
3 The narrator’s grandfather—The narrator tells us that his grandfather lived
his life very quietly. He never got into trouble with the colonialist power
structure within which he was a subaltern due to his race and class. And
until his dying moments, he never spoke against that power structure. At
the very end of his life, however, he revealed his real feelings about his
oppressors and the motives for his meek behavior, requesting that the
truth be told to the children.
a Why did the narrator’s grandfather have to pretend to be meek
throughout his life? In other words, why was psychological
resistance—which he calls fighting “the good fight”—the primary
form of anticolonialist resistance available to him?
Using concepts from postcolonial theory 255

b In what ways is the grandfather correct in believing that the
dominant culture represented in “The Battle Royal” is “at war”
against its subalterns?
c How do we know that the grandfather succeeded in passing on his
anticolonialist resistance to at least one descendant: the narrator?
Focusing your essay
The textual data you’ve already gathered should allow you to focus your essay
on the ways in which “The Battle Royal” depicts a kind of colonialist
microcosm, or a colonialist world in miniature. Although Ellison’s story is set in
a single town—in fact, most of the action of the story occurs in a single room—
the tale nevertheless offers a thorough portrayal of the operations of colonialist
ideology as well as some of the psychological possibilities for anticolonialist
resistance. For Ellison’s story shows us how American society mirrors, within
the confines of its own borders and against its own citizens, the kind of
colonialist subjugation usually associated with the colonial conquest of one
country by another. Because “The Battle Royal” provides such a negative
depiction of colonialist ideology, we can say that it is an anticolonialist story.
In your essay, you should probably pay particular attention to your analysis
of the narrator because, as we’ve seen, this character illustrates the complex
ways in which an individual can both resist colonialist ideology and “buy
into” that ideology. For while the narrator, in some ways, rejects the coloni-
alist injustice with which the dominant culture subjugates subalterns in
America, he also greatly desires the approval of the dominant culture. In short,
he knows that the white civic leaders are wrong to consider him inferior, yet
he wants the approval of these men because he believes that only they are
capable of judging his true ability! This is precisely the kind of psychological
contradiction that colonialist ideology frequently creates.
Of course, one important reason why the narrator finds it difficult to resist
colonialist ideology is that, when colonialist oppression is as thorough as it is in
“The Battle Royal,” resistance seems useless. Indeed, the narrator’s grand-
father, who practices the most anticolonialist resistance we see in the story,
practices that resistance almost exclusively on the psychological level: he is a
rebel only within himself. To modern readers, this may seem like a rather
small accomplishment. Yet the grandfather, too, is worthy of particular atten-
tion in your essay, for his psychological resistance is not a small achievement.
In order to appreciate this character’s accomplishment, however, the grand-
father has to be viewed in historical context—that is, in terms of the time and
place in which he lived. In the story’s setting, colonialist ideology offers sub-
alterns two options: they are expected either to (1) believe the colonialist
ideology that tells them they’re inferior; or (2) openly reject that ideology, in
which case the dominant culture will more or less eliminate them—for
example, by jailing them or lynching them. The grandfather, however, did
256 Using critical theory

neither. Instead, as many African American slaves had done, he pretended to
accept colonialist ideology while secretly rejecting it completely. He therefore
survived with his sense of self and his awareness of injustice intact, and he tried
to pass on the kind of resistance he practiced to his descendants, hoping that
they will, perhaps, have a better opportunity to carry that resistance further than
he was able to do.
Remember that you don’t have to limit yourself to the analysis of the story
I’ve offered you. For example, you might want to include in your essay a
discussion of the ways in which the white men’s colonialist ideology results
from their own insecurity. For colonialist ideology creates a social ladder with
so many rungs that even members of the dominant culture are in danger of
finding themselves falling to a lower level in one way or another: “Am I wealthy
enough?” “Do I live in the ‘right’ neighborhood?” “Did I graduate from the
‘right’ school?” “Are my children enrolled in the ‘right’ schools?” “Are my parents
from the ‘right’ social class?” “Am I attractive and fashionable enough?” “Is
my spouse attractive and fashionable enough?” “Is my last name too ethnic-
sounding?” “Do I belong to the ‘right’ religious faith?” “Is my occupation
prestigious enough?” “Do I belong to all the ‘right’ social organizations?” “Am
I a member of the ‘right’ political party?”
Obviously, the white men at the smoker can’t all be at the top of the social
ladder in every cultural category imaginable. Yet colonialist ideology tells
them that whatever ways in which they fall short of the top are the ways in
which they are inferior as human beings. Colonialist ideology thus breeds
constant insecurity. And people frequently try to hide their insecurity by abusing
their power in an attempt to convince themselves and others that they are super-
ior. You may have heard this behavior referred to as overcompensation, and I think
it’s clear that the extreme display of power by the white men in the story qualifies
as overcompensation. Whatever your interpretation, be sure you understand the
postcolonial concepts you choose to employ, compose a clear statement of your
thesis, and support your interpretation with adequate textual evidence.
Analyzing the colonial subject: Interpreting “Everyday Use”
Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” (1973; see Appendix D) raises a question of
great interest for postcolonial theory: How do individuals find a culture they
can call their own when the dominant culture of their nation defines them as
outsiders? In other words, how do human beings handle the cultural rejection
of being categorized as subalterns? Walker’s story is set in the rural south
during the late 1960s and early 1970s, and this is precisely the problem that
each of the story’s three main characters—Mama, Maggie, and Dee Johnson—
has to face. For Mama and Maggie are subalterns in terms of their race, class,
and gender. And although Dee has moved away from the Johnson family
homestead, obtained a college degree, and advanced a few rungs up the ladder
of social class, she is still a subaltern in terms of her race and gender.
Using concepts from postcolonial theory 257

Mama and Maggie’s subaltern status is responsible for their economic lim-
itations and certainly contributes to their low self-image. But the two women
nevertheless have a fulfilling cultural identity and a strong sense of belonging
because they embrace a cultural heritage other than that of the dominant culture
which rejects them. They have the culture provided by their family heritage.
However, this is the culture that Dee has, from her youth, rejected. And it is Dee
who is of primary interest to us here because she illustrates one of the story’s most
chilling postcolonial insights: that the experience of being a colonial subject,
which Dee became as a young girl, can be the kind of traumatic experience from
which people have great difficulty recovering. For colonial subjects are people who
believe in the superiority of the colonialist culture that defines them as sub-
altern—that is, they want the approval of the very group that considers them
inferior. By accepting the colonialist ideology that others them, they, in effect,
other themselves. And, surely, the dominant white culture during the period
in which “Everyday Use” is set is a colonialist culture because it defines itself
as the superior culture and judges other Americans “inferior” according to its
own biased definitions of such qualities as intelligence, success, and beauty.
Even when a new culture—the Black Pride Movement that emerged in the
late 1960s—offers Dee the opportunity to embrace a new cultural identity, a new
cultural home built on the foundation of her African origins, she is unable to
fully embrace this new identity. That is, although Dee has changed her name
to the African name Wangero, she relates to African culture the same way
she related to the white culture that categorized her as subaltern: she adopts
the “look,” the opinions, and the possessions that will allow her to feel that
she “fits in” with the cultural group to which she aspires to belong. For her,
the Black Pride Movement consists of fashion statements and status symbols,
which she acquires just as she had acquired the organdy dress, the black pumps,
and the other articles of clothing required by fashionable white culture when
she was in high school. And just as she was ashamed of her family for not
conforming to white cultural norms when she was in high school, she’s dis-
appointed in them now for not taking an interest in their African origins.
Similarly, although she now wants the family artifacts she once scorned—for
example, the homemade butter-churn dasher and quilts—she wants these
items for the purposes of display. It has become fashionable, among Wangero’s
set, to own such family antiques, but it’s clear that she does not value these
items because she wants to embrace her family heritage or cares to learn, as
Maggie has done, the traditional family crafts. For Wangero has as little faith
now in the usefulness of her family heritage to help her succeed in life as she
had when she was in high school, a situation which, “Everyday Use” implies,
the Black Pride Movement does little to improve.
In short, it seems that Dee may be a permanent colonial subject. She may
be forever unhomed. She will remain an outsider to all cultures as long as she
continues to define culture—as she learned to define it when she was a young
girl—as something material to be displayed rather than something within
258 Using critical theory

herself to be lived. If such remains her attitude, her behavior will remain a
form of mimicry. Whatever clothes she wears, whatever language she speaks,
and whatever name she calls herself will be an attempt to imitate the group
whose approval she desires—the group she believes can help her improve her
socioeconomic status—rather than a genuine expression of her membership in
a culture. For as “Everyday Use” illustrates, a culture consists of a way of
viewing the world and defining one’s place within it, a way of relating to
oneself and others, and a set of values that gives one a sense of self. Unfortunately,
this is the kind of cultural belonging it seems that Dee will never experience.
In order to see how Walker’s story illustrates the importance of having a sense
of cultural belonging and, conversely, the personal cost of being a colonial
subject, we’ll examine how the story portrays: (1) the ways in which the
Johnson family heritage provides Mama and Maggie with an alternative to
the values of the dominant white culture of the time; (2) the ways in which
Dee has remained a colonial subject despite her participation in the Black Pride
Movement; and (3) the ways in which the Black Pride Movement, itself, may
have failed to provide an adequate alternative to the dominant white culture
whose colonialist ideology it sought to expose and expunge.
The Johnson family heritage
1 In order to see how the Johnson family heritage provides an alternative to the
values of the dominant white culture of the time, we need to see examples of
that culture’s values. How does the story show, through Dee’s early adoption
of those values, that the dominant culture esteems, among other things
a financial success,
b the acquisition of material possessions,
c fashionable home furnishings,
d fashionable clothing and hairstyles, and
e self-confidence and assertiveness?
2 In contrast to the values you’ve already listed, what does the Johnson
family traditionally value? That is, of what does the Johnson family heritage
consist? Be sure to include specific examples of the following values:
a a broad knowledge of family history,
b the use of a family name through successive generations,
c the knowledge and skills required by traditional family crafts,
d farming knowledge and skills,
e the ability to prepare traditional African American cuisine, and
f a love of country life.
3 How does her family heritage give Mama a sense of cultural belonging?
a What abilities does Mama seem most proud to have?
b How far back can Mama trace the family name Dee?
Using concepts from postcolonial theory 259

c How do we know that Mama is a good traditional cook?
d How do we know that Mama enjoys her rural lifestyle?
4 How does her family heritage give Maggie a sense of cultural belonging?
a At what traditional family craft is Maggie adept?
b From whom did she learn this craft, and to whom is she likely to pass
it on?
c How knowledgeable is Maggie about Johnson family history? Give
specific examples. How do we know that Maggie, though very shy
and retiring, takes pride in her knowledge?
d How do we know that Maggie enjoys her rural lifestyle?
Dee as colonial subject
1 Dee’s unhomeliness
a As a youngster, how was Dee unhomed?
i How did she feel about the family home?
ii Did she want the homemade quilts Mama offered her when she
went away to college? Why not?
iii How did she feel about her mother and sister at that time? Did
Dee share a close bond with them? Was she critical of them? Why?
iv Did Dee have any real friends among the members of her
community?
b As an adult, how is Wangero unhomed?
i How does the story suggest that Wangero relates to the family
home (of which she takes photos), and to the items she takes
from home, as items for display rather than as mementoes with
emotional value?
ii How does Wangero feel about her mother and sister now? Does
she have much in common with them? Does she seem to have a
close bond with them? Is she sensitive to their needs?
iii Does Wangero seem to have a close relationship with Hakim?
iv Does she talk about African culture at all or seem in any way
seriously interested in it beyond her admiration of African-style
dress, hairstyles, and the like?
2 Dee’s mimicry
a As a youngster, how did Dee practice mimicry?
i What fashion trends did Dee follow in high school, and how
important was fashion to her?
ii In addition to her clothing and physical appearance, how did she
try to impress her schoolmates?
260 Using critical theory

iii What kinds of books does the story imply that Dee read to Mama
and Maggie? Given what we now know about the omission of
black history from American history books, the omission of black
literature from American literature classes, and so forth, what
might Mama have meant when she said that Dee read them
“lies” and “other folks’ habits”? (Note that this is an example of
the dominant culture’s use of the educational system to promote
its own biased viewpoints.)
iv How did Dee other Mama and Maggie? (Othering Mama and
Maggie because they didn’t conform to the norms of the dominant
culture is a form of mimicry because Dee othered her mother and
sister in the same way that the dominant culture othered them.)
b As an adult, how does Wangero practice mimicry?
i In what way is Wangero’s African style nothing more than style?
ii How does the story suggest that Hakim is Wangero’s fashionable
“trophy” boyfriend?
iii What suggests that Wangero still shares the dominant culture’s values
in believing that financial success and the attainment of material
possessions are more important than anything else, including family?
iv How does the story imply that Wangero’s pride is not so much
pride in her African origins as pride in her new class status?
v How does Wangero other Mama and Maggie now? (As we noted
earlier, othering one’s own people is a form of mimicry in that
one is copying the biases of the dominant culture.)
The Black Pride Movement
At the time in which “Everyday Use” is set, the dominant white culture
in America had been treating African Americans as subalterns rather than as full
American citizens and full human beings for over three hundred years. The
Black Pride Movement, therefore, encouraged black Americans to look to Africa
for their cultural origins. Interest grew in African history, religions, art, and music.
The adoption of African names, African-style clothing and hairstyles, African
forms of greeting, and African motifs in home décor became popular among
African Americans who wanted to reclaim their connection to African civili-
zations that white colonialist ideology told them were worthless. And “black is
beautiful!” was certainly a welcome change from the white colonialist belief
that non-white peoples are less than human and therefore physically unattractive.
However, some African Americans believe that the Black Pride Movement
suffered from a tendency to focus too heavily on the superficial aspects of
African culture—such as clothing and hairstyles—and to overlook too readily
the sources of black pride right here in America. White colonialist history
of the United States—which was virtually the only US history readily available
Using concepts from postcolonial theory 261

then—omitted or distorted the story of Africans in America, implying that
their past consisted of the humiliation of slavery followed by a history of
underachievement. As a result, members of the Black Pride Movement often
tended to reject a good deal of the history of Africans on American soil as little
more than a history of victimization. In so doing, it rejected a heritage of
which, in fact, black Americans had a right to be proud. But few Americans,
black or white, were aware at that time of the rich history of black courage
and achievement that dated back to the earliest African presence on American
soil and that included the history of African American enslavement. For even
under slavery, African Americans maintained their African tradition of oral
history, their knowledge of African agricultural and medical practices, their
African customs, and their African folk tales. At the risk of life and limb, they
secretly taught one another to read and write and developed networks of
secret communication by means of which they organized several rebellions
and countless escapes to freedom. And many escaped slaves and free blacks,
risking Confederate retaliation, worked with the abolitionist movement in the
north and fought with the Union Army during the Civil War.
In order to get a sense of the mixed attitude toward the Black Pride
Movement implied in “Everyday Use,” collect the following textual evidence.
1 Wangero and Hakim—Wangero and Hakim are the only representatives of
the Black Pride Movement the story provides. Therefore, it’s reasonable
to speculate that the strengths and shortcomings of these two characters
reveal the story’s view of some of the strengths and shortcomings of the
Black Pride Movement.
a What are Wangero’s and Hakim’s strengths?
i What have Wangero and Hakim accomplished in terms of their
education?
ii What have they accomplished in terms of financial success?
iii What have they accomplished in terms of developing their self-
confidence?
b What are Wangero’s and Hakim’s shortcomings?
i How do Wangero and Hakim show disrespect for or insensitivity
to Mama or Maggie during their visit?
ii Do they attempt to educate Mama and Maggie about the Black
Pride Movement or to help them in any way?
iii Do they ever mention any interest in helping other African
Americans better their living conditions or go to college as
Wangero has done?
iv How does the story suggest that the display of their financial and
social success might be one of the purposes of their visit to
Wangero’s family?
262 Using critical theory

2 Mama’s Muslim neighbors—A mile and a half down the road from Mama’s
home live a family of African Americans who have apparently joined the
Black Muslims, an American religious organization derived from the Muslim
religion but adapted to meet the needs of African Americans. The little we
learn of this family’s lifestyle provides a contrast to the apparent superficiality
of Wangero and Hakim’s lifestyle. For the Black Muslim family have appar-
ently embraced a religion and a culture, not as a fashion statement but as a
way of life, and this has given them the strength to succeed against great odds.
a What do Mama’s Muslim neighbors do for a living?
b How does the story let us know that they are successful?
c How do we know that their success is resented, presumably by local
racist forces, and what does the family do to protect itself?
d How do we know that Mama—who, as narrator, greatly influences
the reader’s opinion—probably admires these neighbors?
Focusing your essay
The textual evidence you’ve gathered should allow you to focus your essay on
the ways in which “Everyday Use” illustrates the importance of cultural
belonging and the personal cost of becoming a colonial subject. Certainly,
Mama and Maggie have internalized, or “bought into,” some colonialist
ideology: both have the kind of low self-esteem in terms of their physical
appearance and their intelligence that colonialist ideology tells them subalterns
deserve. Nevertheless, I think you can argue that the Johnson family heritage
provides Mama and Maggie with a fulfilling cultural identity and a strong
sense of belonging that makes the life they lead—without needing to be
fashionable or to compete for material success—a form of anticolonialist
resistance. In a very real sense, Mama and Maggie’s lifestyle is a rejection of
the dominant white culture.
In contrast, it seems unlikely that Dee’s mindset as a colonial subject will
ever change. It seems that she will always be trying, through mimicry, to win
the approval of whatever group has a cultural status to which she aspires. In a
sense, then, Dee’s good fortune in having the kind of physical appearance
defined as attractive by the dominant white culture isn’t good fortune at all.
For as a youngster, the approval she surely received from white people due to
her lighter skin, “nicer” hair, and more fashionable figure was probably
responsible for the temptation to accept the colonialist ideology that originally
unhomed her. And the Black Pride Movement, though it’s associated in the
story with self-confidence and financial success, is also represented as an
inadequate alternative to the dominant white culture it tried to replace.
Because Walker’s tale positively portrays the anticolonialist resistance of Mama
and Maggie and shows us the negative effects of colonialist ideology—especially
in terms of the losses suffered by the colonial subject—we can conclude that
“Everyday Use” is an anticolonialist story.
Using concepts from postcolonial theory 263

Of course, you don’t have to limit yourself to the analysis of the story I’ve
offered you. For example, you might want to argue that Mama and Maggie
are more conflicted in their relationship to colonialist ideology than our
interpretation suggests. Perhaps you feel that the low self-image produced by
their vulnerability to colonialist ideology is an important factor in their lives
and deserves more attention than we have given it. And even if you agree that
Dee is a colonial subject, you might feel she deserves more sympathy than
many readers allow her. Therefore, you might want to focus more attention
on the multiple forces that thrust colonialist ideology upon her. You might
argue, for example, that, given the combined forces of racism, classism, and
sexism to which women of color are vulnerable, it is no wonder that Dee
should be tempted to use any means available to her to try to escape these forms
of oppression, to try to rise to a socioeconomic position in which she would
wield at least some of the power that has been wielded against her. Finally,
you might want, instead, to write an essay in which you compare and contrast
Dee with the narrator in “The Battle Royal” in terms of their behavior as
colonial subjects; and you might want to compare and contrast, as well, the
two stories’ representations of the possibilities for anticolonialist resistance.
Whatever your interpretation, be sure you understand the postcolonial con-
cepts you choose to employ, compose a clear statement of your thesis, and
support your interpretation with adequate textual evidence.
Exploring the influence of cultural categories: Interpreting
“A Rose for Emily”
As we saw in the opening paragraphs of this chapter, one of the tasks post-
colonial concepts help us perform is to analyze the ways in which human
experience results from a combination of cultural factors that are not easy to
separate. For example, as we saw in Chapter 6, “Using concepts from feminist
theory to understand literature,” traditional gender roles can influence men’s
and women’s lives in various ways, depending on, for instance, their race,
class, sexual orientation, religion, and ethnicity. For our personalities develop
in response to a variety of cultural influences that interact together. It’s
important to understand how such cultural factors operate in helping to form
us because our cultural background strongly influences what we think and
how we behave. And an understanding of cultural influences in our lives helps
us see how complex individual identity is.
Too often, however, we forget the importance of understanding the com-
plexities of individual identity and tend to view people largely according to
the cultural categories by which society defines them. In other words, we
must remain aware of the complexity of individuals’ cultural makeup and be
careful not to start seeing people only as cultural categories—for example,
“poor white male factory worker,” “wealthy black male musician,” “unmarried
Chicana inner-city schoolteacher,” “black female fundamentalist preacher,”
264 Using critical theory

“middle-class white housewife,” and the like—rather than as human beings.
William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” (1931; see Appendix B) illustrates just
how thoroughly, and how negatively, an over-reliance on cultural categories
can influence human relations.
Set in the southern town of Jefferson during the decades before and after
the turn of the twentieth century, Faulkner’s tale tells the story of Emily
Grierson. Born to an upper-class white family and isolated from the rest of the
town by a dominating father, Emily learns, upon her father’s death, that most
of the family fortune has been lost. Although fallen into relative poverty, she
still keeps a black manservant and maintains her disdain for those beneath her
family’s social class. The one exception to her refusal to mix with “common”
folk is northerner Homer Barron, foreman of the work crew hired to pave
Jefferson’s sidewalks, whom Emily allows to court her. Presumably because
Homer refuses to marry her (the reader never really learns what goes wrong
between the couple), Emily poisons him and sleeps with his dead body, the
remains of which are discovered by the town only after Emily’s death.
Even this basic plot summary of “A Rose for Emily” indicates that cultural
categories play an important role in the story. As we’ll see in the text that
follows, without the cultural classifications upon which all of the characters
depend in deciding what to think and how to behave, we wouldn’t have a
story at all. Specifically, Faulkner’s tale illustrates the harmful effects of basing
our treatment of people on the cultural categories in which society places
them, which is why “A Rose for Emily” can be considered an anticolonialist
story. For colonialist ideology determines people’s worth based entirely on the
cultural categories by which the dominant culture defines human beings. To
see how the story accomplishes this task, we’ll examine the role played by
cultural categories: (1) in the treatment of Emily by her father, by Homer
Barron, and by the town of Jefferson; (2) in Emily’s perception of herself and
others; and (3) in the town’s response to its African American citizens.
The role of cultural categories in the treatment of Emily
Is young Emily afraid of her father? Would she like to date some of the boys
from Jefferson? Is the aging Emily lonely? Why does she allow Homer Barron,
a man whose lifestyle is so alien to her own, to court her? Apparently, questions
like these—questions about Emily’s thoughts, feelings, and hopes—do not
greatly influence people’s treatment of her. That is, Emily the human being is
not as important to the people of Jefferson as Emily the cultural category: an
unmarried upper-class white female who has lost her financial standing but
retains her status as the last representative of Jefferson’s “aristocracy,” the last of
those Jefferson families who had been wealthy plantation owners before the
Civil War. To see the influence of this cultural category on people’s treatment
of Emily, collect the textual evidence required to respond to the following
questions.
Using concepts from postcolonial theory 265

1 Mr. Grierson’s treatment of Emily
a How is Emily’s sex responsible for Mr. Grierson’s treatment of Emily?
i How is Emily’s virginity an issue in a way that it wouldn’t be if
she were a boy?
ii Why would it be easier for Emily to run away from home or
stand up to Mr. Grierson if she were a boy?
iii Who would have to provide a dowry and probably pay for the
wedding if Emily were to marry (problems that would not arise if
Emily were a boy)?
b How is the Griersons’ social class responsible for Mr. Grierson’s
treatment of Emily?
2 Homer Barron’s treatment of Emily
a Why is Emily’s social class probably an attraction for Homer Barron,
who is treated as a social inferior by many of Jefferson’s middle-class
citizens? (And Emily apparently has little else to offer him besides her
social class.)
b How does the fact that the Grierson fortune no longer exists probably
lead Homer to believe that Emily might accept his attentions?
3 The townsfolk’s treatment of Emily
a How are Mr. Grierson’s race, class, and gender responsible for the
townsfolk’s failure to intervene in the slightest way in what they
believe is his mistreatment of Emily? (Apparently, no one says a word
to Mr. Grierson; not even the minister offers a hint that perhaps such
complete isolation of a young girl is not good for her.)
b How are Emily’s race, class, and gender responsible for Colonel Sartoris’
decision to remit her taxes? Would he do the same for a white man, a
white working-class woman, or a man or woman of color?
c How is Emily’s social class responsible both for the permissive treatment
she receives in Jefferson (think, for example, of the druggist’s response
to her) and for the townsfolk’s resentment of her?
d How do the townsfolk’s objection to Homer’s courtship of Emily reveal
that they define the couple solely in terms of their cultural categories:
northern working-class man and southern upper-class woman?
The role of cultural categories in Emily’s perceptions of herself and others
Although we can’t be certain how Emily feels as a young girl about her father’s
isolating her from contact with the socially “inferior” town of Jefferson, by the
time Mr. Grierson dies, thirty-year-old Emily seems to share his contempt for
those beneath her social class. Despite her greatly reduced financial circum-
stances, she’s still a Grierson, and to her that means she is owed the respect
266 Using critical theory

due a white woman of her birth and breeding. To understand how thoroughly
Emily’s definition of her own cultural category isolates her from other people,
collect the textual evidence needed to respond to the following questions.
Note that the people she treats with contempt are those who do not show her
the special respect she believes is her due. The only two individuals to whom
she grants any respect are presumably the only two who treat her in the manner
she requires: Colonel Sartoris and Homer Barron.
1 How does Emily treat the Aldermen who come to her home to tell her
she owes taxes to the town of Jefferson?
2 How does she refer to the sheriffwho sent her the notice that she owes taxes?
3 How does she treat the minister who comes to her home to counsel her
against continuing her relationship with Homer Barron?
4 How does she treat the druggist who questions her about her purpose in
buying arsenic?
5 How does she refer to Colonel Sartoris, who is of a higher social class
than the rest of the townsfolk and who found a way to remit her taxes
without injuring her pride?
6 How does she treat Homer Barron, a handsome man who apparently
dresses well when he visits her and rents a top-of-the-line buggy and
horses to take her riding on Sunday afternoons?
The role of cultural categories in the town’s response to Its African American citizens
Given their concern about it, why do none of the white townsfolk in Jefferson
think to ask Tobe about the nature of Emily’s relationship with Homer Barron?
Why does no one consult Tobe about the reason for Homer’s disappearance,
about which everyone is so curious? Why does no one ask him about the
terrible smell that emanates from the Grierson house shortly after Homer dis-
appears? Apparently, it never occurs to the white folks in Jefferson to consult
Tobe about anything because Tobe doesn’t exist for them as a human being,
only as a Negro servant. That is, he exists for them only in terms of his race
and class, only as a cultural category. To see how Tobe and the story’s other
African American characters are treated as cultural categories by Jefferson’s white
characters, collect the textual evidence required to respond to the following
questions.
1 How is Tobe treated by his employer, Emily Grierson?
a Do Emily and Tobe converse together? (Note the narrator’s comment
about Tobe’s voice.)
b How does Emily speak to Tobe when she does address him?
c Why is it safe to assume that Emily expects Tobe to keep quiet about her
murdering Homer, a crime about which Tobe can’t help but know?
Using concepts from postcolonial theory 267

2 In a town as prone to gossip as Jefferson, why is it that we don’t hear a
single bit of personal information about Tobe? What does this suggest
about the separation of whites and blacks in this town?
3 How does Colonel Sartoris’s edict about African American women, to which
it seems that no white character objects, reveal that the dominant white
culture of Jefferson defines these women, not in terms of their humanity,
but in terms of the cultural categories of race, class, and gender?
4 How do Homer’s treatment of his African American crew and the narrator’s
matter-of-fact reference to the black crew members as “niggers” reveal
that these black characters are viewed primarily in terms of the cultural
categories of race and class, rather than just as human beings?
Focusing your essay
Given the textual data you’ve already collected, you should be able to
write an essay explaining the anticolonialist dimension of “A Rose for Emily.”
For the Griersons, Homer Barron, and the white townsfolk of Jefferson seem
to base their judgments of and behavior toward people on the cultural cate-
gories in which society places those people, and the results are disastrous.
In fact, it might be reasonable to argue that most of the characters in
the story relate to one another not as human beings but as cultural categories.
Emily Grierson and Homer Barron are not two people; they’re an upper-
class southern lady and a lower-class northern laborer. Tobe isn’t a human
being; he’s a Negro servant. The story provides numerous examples like these
and illustrates abundantly the negative effects of classifying people in this
manner.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to limit yourself to the analysis of the
story I’ve offered you. For example, you might expand your essay to argue that
the townsfolk’s adherence to the cultural categories illustrated in “A Rose for
Emily” reveals the ways in which they are colonial subjects. For most of the
standards of cultural classification to which they adhere date from the
pre-Civil-War south ruled by the wealthy plantation owners, standards by
which the townsfolk, themselves, are subalterns in terms of their social class.
Whatever your interpretation, be sure you understand the postcolonial con-
cepts you choose to employ, compose a clear statement of your thesis, and
support your interpretation with adequate textual evidence.
Appreciating anticolonialist resistance: Interpreting “Don’t Explain”
The stories we’ve analyzed so far in this chapter have all been anticolonialist in
their depictions of the harmful effects of some aspect of colonialist ideology.
“The Battle Royal” provided us with a rather thorough and chilling view
both of the colonialist ideology of America’s dominant white culture and of
the various ways in which that ideology subjugates subalterns. “Everyday Use”
268 Using critical theory

allowed us to focus our attention more specifically on the colonial subject,
which is one of the most disturbing creations of colonialist ideology because it
traps subalterns into cooperating in the dominant culture’s victimization of
them. And we saw how “A Rose for Emily” illustrates the ways in which
human relations are damaged by the colonialist practice of judging people
according to the cultural categories by which the dominant culture defines them.
We also found that “The Battle Royal” and “Everyday Use” are anticolonialist
in that they depict possibilities for anticolonialist resistance, but that topic is
not as prominent in these two literary works as it is in Jewelle Gomez’s
“Don’t Explain” (1987; see Appendix D).
Set in Boston in 1959, “Don’t Explain” provides a glimpse into the lives of
a small group of working-class African American women who must hide their
lesbian orientation for their own protection. In 1959, it was difficult enough
for working-class women of color to find adequate employment, housing,
and freedom from molestation. Openly acknowledging their lesbianism could
easily cost them their jobs, their homes, and their physical safety. It should
not be surprising then that Letty, the character through whose eyes we view the
events of the story, tries to “shut off” her lesbian sexuality. She is a subaltern in
terms of her race, class, and gender. So the last thing she wants is to acquire yet
another subaltern category. However, as the story progresses, we see Letty do just
that: she realizes that she can no longer deny her sexual orientation, and she finds
a group of women whose support offers her the kind of cultural and emotional
home she probably thought she would never find.
From a postcolonial perspective, then, “Don’t Explain” is a fascinating story
because it offers us characters who resist the colonialist ideology to which they
are so vulnerable. Letty, Delia, Terry, and Terry’s friends could easily have
become colonial subjects because they are subaltern in so many ways. Their
multiple subaltern status—because it increases the ways in which they are
othered by the dominant culture—increases their vulnerability to low self-
esteem, which is the key ingredient in creating colonial subjects. Yet these
women resist having their consciousness colonized by racism, which tells
them they’re less intelligent, less reliable, and less attractive than whites; by
classism, which tells them they’re less hard-working, less ambitious, and less
trustworthy than people from higher classes; and by sexism, which tells them
they’re less rational, less independent, and less capable than men. And at the end
of the story, Letty joins the other main characters in resisting the colonization of
her consciousness by heterosexism, which tells them they’re sick and/or evil.
These characters don’t believe they’re inferior to others because of their
race, class, gender, or sexual orientation, and they don’t judge others in terms
of those categories. How do they accomplish this rather remarkable feat? They
find sources of self-esteem and emotional strength in their African American
culture, in the group support of other working-class lesbians of color, and in
their ability to survive economically in a world that has placed so many forms
of discrimination in their path. To see how “Don’t Explain” produces such a
Using concepts from postcolonial theory 269

thorough illustration of anticolonialist resistance, we’ll examine the story’s:
(1) non-stereotypical, positive characterizations of Letty, Delia, Terry, and
Terry’s friends; (2) portrayal of the anticolonialist attitudes of these characters;
and (3) depiction of the sources of these characters’ anticolonialist resistance.
Because our postcolonial reading of this story includes the kinds of oppres-
sion—and the kinds of resistance to oppression—discussed in our African
American, Marxist, feminist, and lesbian interpretations of this story, feel free
to consult the readings of “Don’t Explain” offered in those chapters to help
you understand and gather the textual evidence required for the following
postcolonial interpretation of the story.
The story’s non-stereotypical characterizations
Because colonialist ideology includes multiple forms of othering, it stereotypes
people according to such cultural categories as race, class, gender, and sexual
orientation. “Don’t Explain” opposes all of these forms of othering by positively
portraying characters—Letty, Delia, Terry, and Terry’s friends—who do not
fit cultural stereotypes. To see how thoroughly the story accomplishes this
task, collect the textual evidence requested below.
1 Antiracist characterizations—According to racist stereotypes operating in the
United States, people of color are less intelligent, less reliable, and less
attractive than whites. How does the story combat these stereotypes by
showing that Letty, Delia, Terry, and/or Terry’s friends are
a intelligent (which includes such abilities as learning a job quickly,
recognizing and knowing how to deal with a potential danger, and
recognizing the needs and feelings of other people),
b reliable (which includes, for example, behaving reliably in the
performance of one’s job, toward one’s co-workers, and toward one’s
friends), and
c attractive in a variety of ways that don’t conform to the biased standard
of “beauty” promoted by the dominant white culture (which includes,
for instance, body type, skin color, speaking voice, and clothing style)?
2 Anticlassist characterizations—According to classist stereotypes, people from
the lower classes are less hard-working, less ambitious, and less trustworthy
than people from the higher classes. How does the story combat these ste-
reotypes by showing that Letty, Delia, Terry, and/or Terry’s friends are
a hard-working (which includes working long hours or late shifts at
jobs that are physically or emotionally taxing),
b ambitious (which includes doing what it takes to keep one’s job, save
one’s money, and better one’s living conditions), and
c trustworthy (which includes being allowed to do one’s job without
the boss’s constant supervision and being trusted by co-workers)?
270 Using critical theory

3 Antisexist characterizations—According to sexist stereotypes, women are
less rational, less independent, and less capable than men. How does the
story combat these stereotypes by showing that Letty, Delia, Terry, and/or
Terry’s friends are:
a rational (which includes making sound judgments and handling one’s
emotions appropriately),
b independent (which includes making one’s own living and one’s own
decisions, even if those decisions don’t always conform to the norms
of the dominant culture), and
c capable (which includes doing one’s job well and surviving economically
even when one is put at a disadvantage by one’s subaltern status)?
4 Antiheterosexist characterizations—According to heterosexist stereotypes,
lesbians are sick and/or evil. As such, they’re considered, among other
things, sexual predators who care for nothing but the satisfaction of their
own desires and for whom other women are sexual objects. How does
the story combat these stereotypes by showing that Letty, Delia, Terry,
and/or Terry’s friends are, rather than sick and/or evil,
a kind,
b sensitive to others’ feelings, and
c capable of unselfish acts of friendship toward other women?
The portrayal of anticolonialist attitudes
Given the multiple forms of othering to which the race, class, gender, and sexual
orientation of Letty, Delia, Terry, and Terry’s friends make them vulnerable,
it would not be surprising if they were to try to boost their own self-esteem
by seizing any opportunity they could to look down on individuals they could
other, individuals who, though subalterns like themselves, have slightly lower
status. That is, it would not be surprising if the main characters had become
colonial subjects. To see how successfully, these women have, instead, resisted
colonialist ideology, collect the following textual evidence.
1 Letty could choose to other the prostitutes that frequent the 411 Lounge,
for they are well below her on the ladder of social status. How does Letty
feel about the prostitutes?
2 Letty and Delia, who are waitresses, could choose to other Terry and her
friends, who clean office buildings and thus hold somewhat less prestigious
jobs. How do Letty and Delia feel about Terry and her friends?
3 Delia and Terry, who live in a large apartment in a recently integrated
neighborhood, could choose to other those, like Letty, who live in
smaller apartments in less prestigious areas of the city. How do Delia and
Terry treat Letty?
Using concepts from postcolonial theory 271

4 The lighter-skinned African American women who gather in Delia and
Terry’s apartment could choose to other the darker-skinned women. Do
we see any evidence of this attitude anywhere in the story?
5 Because, as the story opens, Letty has renounced her lesbian orientation,
she could choose to other Billie Holiday, whom she believes is a lesbian,
as well as Delia, Terry, and Terry’s friends when she realizes, at the end
of the story, that they are lesbians. How does Letty feel about these
women?
The sources of anticolonialist resistance
Find as many examples as you can of the sources of anticolonialist resistance
demonstrated by Letty, Delia, Terry, and Terry’s friends. Include the following
sources of cultural belonging, which surely contribute to the self-esteem and
emotional strength required to resist colonialist ideology.
1 Find the passages relating to African American culture—for example, African
American cuisine, music, and such cultural icons as Billie Holiday—that
provide the main characters with a sense of cultural belonging.
2 Describe the instances of interpersonal support, including group support,
that the main characters provide for one another.
3 Describe the main characters’ ability to survive economically in a world
that discriminates against them in so many ways, and explain how you
think this accomplishment may contribute to their self-esteem.
Focusing your essay
Using the textual evidence you’ve gathered, you should be able to write an
essay analyzing how “Don’t Explain” illustrates the possibilities for anti-
colonialist resistance even on the part of subalterns who are othered in terms
of their race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. Letty, Delia, Terry, and
Terry’s friends work hard, enjoy one another’s company, and are doing well
in the world despite the social, economic, and psychological obstacles they
face on a daily basis due to the various kinds of discrimination to which they
are vulnerable. Although their subaltern status places them under a good deal
of psychological pressure to try to boost their self-esteem by othering those
below them in social status, they don’t do so. Even Billie Holiday, whom we
meet through Letty’s recollection of the famous singer’s visit to the 411
Lounge and who clearly had enormous self-esteem problems, is kind to
the employees of the 411 and seems to feel at home in this working-class
environment.
As always, you don’t have to limit yourself to the analysis of the story I’ve
offered you. For example, you might want to focus your essay only on Letty
and do a more thorough analysis of her than you would be inclined to do if
you analyzed all of the characters about whom you’ve collected textual data.
272 Using critical theory

After all, it is through Letty’s eyes that we see the events of the story, and she’s
the character who undergoes a kind of postcolonial transformation. For when
she accepts the friendship offered her by the women at Delia and Terry’s
apartment, she also accepts her lesbian orientation, which, in postcolonial
terms, means that she stops othering herself as a lesbian. Or perhaps you’d like
to write an essay in which you compare and contrast the kinds of anti-
colonialist resistance illustrated in “Don’t Explain” and “Everyday Use.” What
does Mama and Maggie’s anticolonialist lifestyle have in common with that of
the main characters in “Don’t Explain”? How do they differ? How would you
compare or contrast the sources of the characters’ anticolonialist attitudes in
the two stories? Might you compare and contrast the emotional difficulty
Letty has with her subaltern status as a lesbian with the emotional difficulty
Mama and Maggie have with their subaltern status as women of color?
Whatever your interpretation, be sure you understand the postcolonial concepts
you choose to employ, compose a clear statement of your thesis, and support
your interpretation with adequate textual evidence.
Recognizing the othering of nature: Interpreting “I started
Early—Took my Dog”
At first glance, Emily Dickinson’s “I started Early—Took my Dog” (c. 1862;
see Appendix A) might not seem like a very good candidate for a postcolonial
interpretation. The poem doesn’t provide enough information for us to know
whether or not the female speaker is subaltern in any way other than her
gender. And as we saw in Chapters 5 and 8—in which we used, respectively,
Marxist and African American concepts to interpret literature—we can’t just
decide on our own that the relationship between the big frigates and the little
mouse, or between the powerful sea and the frightened speaker, symbolizes
some theoretical concept, such as the oppression of the lower class by the
upper class (a Marxist concept), the racist oppression of black Americans (an
African American concept), or the oppression of subalterns by a colonialist
culture (a postcolonial concept). For there is nothing in the poem or in any of
these theories to justify this kind of symbolic interpretation. A reader could just
as easily claim, and with no better justification, that the relationship between
the ships and the mouse or between the sea and the speaker symbolizes good
versus evil, redemption versus damnation, society versus the nonconformist
individual, or any number of other symbolic relationships. Therefore, all of
these symbolic readings would rest on the kind of unjustified “symbolic leap”
discussed in Chapter 2, “Using concepts from reader-response theory to
understand our own literary interpretations.”
There is something in Dickinson’s poem, however, that might lend itself to
a postcolonial interpretation. It’s at least worth our giving it some thought and
seeing where it takes us. I’m referring to the fact that the speaker others
the sea. This might sound odd at first. How can something non-human be
Using concepts from postcolonial theory 273

othered when othering is the act of treating a human being as if he or she were
subhuman? However, othering isn’t a practice limited to human beings. Animals
can be othered, as they were in the past when cats were thought to be in the
employ of witches, and wolves were thought to be demonically possessed.
And nature as a whole can be othered, as it was when the early settlers in
New England believed that the wilderness surrounding their towns and villages
was Satan’s territory, filled with demons and devils and evil spirits of every
description. In other words, when we demonize non-human living things—a
species of animal, a wilderness area, a type of storm, or nature as a whole—we
are, in effect, othering them. We’re relating to them as if they were not
merely non-human but antihuman. In order to do this, we imagine that these
natural elements have the same kind of selfhood or will or consciousness that
humans do. That is, we personify them: we imagine that they are human-like,
capable of human feelings and behavior. And then we imagine that they are
consciously and deliberately “against us.”
We see this attitude frequently revealed in the language of Western
exploration, such as the English and European exploratory voyages to the
Americas and the American settlement of the frontier. In both cases, the military
language of conquest was used to describe human beings’ relationship to
nature: the famous explorers “conquered” the “savage” and frightening oceans just
as the American pioneers “tamed” and “civilized” the “savage” and frightening
frontier. In other words, the othering of nature is part and parcel of colonialist
ideology. Think about it. Colonialist ideology others that which is different and,
because it is different, frightening. And colonialist ideology others that which
it wants to treat unjustly or destroy. Well, just as colonialist cultures have
othered native peoples around the globe in order to justify exploiting or
destroying them, so colonialist cultures have othered nature in order to justify
exploiting or destroying it.
Given that the othering of nature is so built into the Anglo (English)-
European colonialist ideology to which America is heir, it shouldn’t be too
surprising to find examples of the othering of nature in our literary works,
even in works by authors who loved nature. Emily Dickinson’s numerous
nature poems, for example, express her deep appreciation of nature’s wonders.
Furthermore, she lived in New England at the time when famous writers,
such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, were promoting
the view that nature is the key to spiritual knowledge. Dickinson shared this
view. In her poem “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church” (c. 1860), for
example, the speaker argues that in viewing the beauty available to her in
nature, she worships God better than she could do by attending church. So in
suggesting that “I started Early—Took my Dog” reflects a colonialist othering
of nature, we’re assuming that the colonialist ideology expressed in the poem
was not embraced by the author. Rather, this interpretation of the poem
assumes either that the othering of nature is a part of our Anglo-European
colonialist heritage that can influence a writer’s literary production without
274 Using critical theory

her being aware of it or that the othering of the sea depicted in the poem is a
fictional representation that does not reflect the writer’s personal feelings
about nature. After all, the speaker of a poem is a literary device—as is the
narrator of a short story or novel—that may or may not reflect the writer’s
personal experience or philosophy. In either case, our task here is to find the
ways in which the poem’s characterization of nature, in the form of the sea, is
an example of othering.
In order to understand the poem’s othering of nature we’ll have to read it
literally—take it at face value—as a poem about the speaker’s terror of the sea,
which she personifies and others as a dangerous, threatening creature. To
accomplish this task, we’ll analyze the ways in which the poem: (1) others the sea
(that is, nature); and (2) positively portrays the products of human technology,
or that which is not nature. The essay this interpretation exercise produces may
not be as long as some of the others we’ve outlined in this chapter, but I
believe that the kind of thinking you will do in order to write it will be
valuable in helping you understand the variety of insights into literature, history,
and human behavior that postcolonial concepts can offer us.
The othering of the sea
Find all the textual evidence you can to show the ways in which the speaker
others the sea, which, given how much of the planet it covers and how much
animal and plant life it supports, can easily be taken to represent nature as a whole.
1 First, how does the speaker personify the sea? How does she describe it as
if it were a human being?
2 How is the personified sea described as dangerous, even life-threatening?
3 How does the presence of mermaids in the poem add to the feeling that
the sea is strange, unknown, and unpredictable?
4 How does the disappearance of the dog from the poem (it is mentioned in
the opening line only) add to the feeling that the sea is alien and dangerous?
(Keep in mind that the dog, as the speaker’s companion on her walk, is
an image of domesticity, of the world of familiar things, and of protection.)
5 How does the sea’s lack of acquaintance with anyone in the town add to the
feeling that the sea is alien, an outsider who doesn’t belong with human
beings?
6 Given the interpretation of the poem being developed in the preceding
five questions, how does the “Mighty look” the sea gives the speaker in
the final stanza seem like a kind of threat?
The positive portrayal of human technology
Find all the textual evidence you can to show that human technology—
“man-made” objects, the products of civilization—is positively portrayed in
the poem.
Using concepts from postcolonial theory 275

1 How are the frigates in the second stanza positively portrayed? (Note that
frigates were capable of crossing oceans; they were advanced examples of
the technology of the time.)
a How are the frigates trying to help the speaker?
b How would a frigate be able to protect her if the speaker boarded one?
2 How is the town in the final stanza positively portrayed?
3 In what ways does a town embody or consist of the products of human
technology and thus represent everything that is the opposite of nature?
4 How does the poem indicate that the sea knows it is beaten—this time?
5 Given that human technology is the only protection the speaker has in
the poem, how does the insufficiency of the speaker’s clothing to protect
her (for clothing is, after all, “man-made”) increase the frightening,
othered quality of the sea analyzed under the previous heading?
Focusing your essay
The textual data you’ve gathered should allow you to focus your essay on the
ways in which “I started Early—Took my Dog” others nature, whether or
not it intends to do so, and thus reinforces this aspect of colonialist ideology.
Given the poem’s frightening depiction of the sea, what we have here is
clearly an example of the demonic other, which, as we saw in the “Basic concepts”
section of this chapter, is considered not just savage but evil. As you may
recall, colonialist cultures define themselves as “civilized,” while they define the
cultures of the peoples they subjugate as “savage,” “primitive,” or “uncivilized.”
Similarly, the poem creates an opposition between the “civilized” town, which
is positively portrayed, and the “savage” sea, which is negatively depicted.
Remember, as always, that you don’t have to limit yourself to the analysis
of the poem I’ve offered. For example, with your instructor’s help, you might
want to expand your essay to include additional literary examples of the
othering of nature. In that case, you might want to consider reading Stephen
Crane’s “The Open Boat” (1897) or perhaps Jack London’s “To Build a Fire”
(1908), both of which stories depict attempts to survive the dangers of nature.
You might also want to include examples of the othering of nature that occur
in real life—for example, the ways in which most people misunderstand the
behavior of such animals as wolves, bats, and sharks, believing the horrifying
myths about them rather than learning the truth. Or you might want to
explain the connection between the othering of nature and the pollution of the
earth’s air, water, and soil; the destruction of the rain forests and other tim-
berland for commercial profit; or any other ecological threat to the well-being
of our planet that interests you. Whatever your interpretation of Dickinson’s
poem, or of any other literary work you analyze, be sure you understand the
postcolonial concepts you choose to employ, compose a clear statement of
your thesis, and support your interpretation with adequate textual evidence.
276 Using critical theory

Food for further thought
Thinking it over
If you’ve worked through all of the interpretation exercises offered in this
chapter, you should feel quite familiar with the basic approaches to under-
standing literature provided by concepts from postcolonial theory. Specifically,
we’ve seen how postcolonial concepts can be used to analyze
1 literary works that are anticolonialist in that they illustrate the harmful
effects of colonialist ideology (our example: “The Battle Royal”),
2 literary works that are anticolonialist in that they illustrate the emotional
losses suffered by the colonial subject, whose life is one of unhomeliness
and mimicry (our example: “Everyday Use”),
3 literary works that are anticolonialist in that they depict the harmful
effects of judging individuals according to the cultural categories by which
the dominant culture defines people (our example: “A Rose for Emily”),
4 literary works that are anticolonialist in that they positively portray
anticolonialist resistance (our example: “Don’t Explain”), and
5 literary works that engage, often unwittingly, in the othering of nature
that is part of the legacy of colonialist ideology (our example: “I started
Early—Took my Dog”).
It is interesting to note that the importance of anticolonialist resistance is some-
times a topic even in literary works with a different primary focus. “Don’t
Explain”—our only literary example in which anticolonialist resistance is the
primary focus—portrays subaltern characters whose bonds of friendship help
them embrace an alternative culture and reject the dominant culture’s colonialist
othering of subalterns. Yet as we saw earlier, “Everyday Use” also includes an
example of anticolonialist resistance: the story illustrates how anticolonialist
resistance can take the form of a family heritage that rejects the values of colo-
nialist culture, a family heritage strong enough to give emotional support to
those family members whose self-esteem has been damaged by their subaltern
status. And even “The Battle Royal,” in which the subaltern characters seem to
have no power whatsoever, depicts the potential for anticolonialist resistance
in subalterns who do not accept the dominant culture’s claim to superiority.
Of course, you probably noticed that postcolonial concepts can provide us
with literary interpretations that are very similar to, as well as very different
from, the literary interpretations provided by concepts from other theories. As
we noted in the opening paragraphs of this chapter, postcolonial concepts
provide us with ways of combining psychoanalytic, Marxist, feminist, LGBTQ,
and African American insights into human experience. We see a good deal of
this kind of combination of theoretical insights in our postcolonial reading of
“Don’t Explain.” Because our postcolonial interpretation of this story focuses
on the anticolonialist resistance of a group of characters who are subalterns
Using concepts from postcolonial theory 277

in terms of their race, class, gender, and sexual orientation, our interpretation
draws together a good deal of the textual data we gathered in our African
American, Marxist, feminist, and lesbian readings of that story.
In addition, a postcolonial reading of a literary work can overlap with a
different theoretical interpretation of that work. For example, our African
American and postcolonial readings of “Everyday Use” overlap in at least
three important ways. Both interpretations discuss at some length the Black
Pride Movement that Dee has joined. Both interpretations argue that Dee’s
participation in the Black Pride Movement is superficial. Finally, both interpreta-
tions show the ways in which Mama and Maggie derive a good deal of emo-
tional strength from their family heritage, a heritage that Dee doesn’t consider
to be of much use. However, these two readings are significantly different,
and the difference is one of focus. The African American reading of the story
focuses on the harmful effects of internalized racism, which Dee shares with Mama
and Maggie despite their other differences. In contrast, the postcolonial reading of
“Everyday Use” focuses on the ways in which Dee is a colonial subject—both in
terms of the dominant white culture she copied in high school and in terms of the
Black Pride Movement she follows as an adult—while Mama and Maggie are not.
A striking example of the difference between postcolonial interpretations of
literary works and the literary interpretations provided by other theoretical
concepts can be seen in the contrast between, on the one hand, our Marxist
and African American readings of “I started Early—Took my Dog” and, on
the other hand, our postcolonial reading of the poem. As you may recall, we saw
how both Marxist and African American concepts are liable to be misapplied to
Dickinson’s poem. In both cases, the large-versus-small or high-versus-low
imagery (for example, the images of the tall frigates and the small mouse)
tempt us to see the poem as a representation of the upper-class oppression of
the lower class or of the racist oppression of African Americans. Yet as we saw
in those chapters, there is nothing in the poem itself, or in our Marxist or
African American concepts, to justify such a “symbolic leap.” In fact, we were
unable to find any way to interpret the poem using Marxist or African American
concepts. Therefore, we discovered that we should resist the temptation to use
concepts from these two theories to analyze this literary work. In contrast,
we found that the poem lends itself well to a postcolonial reading as long as
we don’t make the “symbolic leap” of claiming that the large-versus-small or
high-versus-low imagery represents some postcolonial concept, such as the
oppression of subalterns by a colonialist culture. Instead, we saw that, by reading
the poem literally (at face value), we were able to use postcolonial concepts to
show the ways in which “I started Early—Took my Dog” provides us with a
vivid example of the othering of nature that is a legacy of Anglo-European
colonialist ideology.
As I hope our postcolonial interpretation exercises have illustrated, although
the exploitation of colonies by their “mother countries” is largely a thing of
the past, colonialist ideology is still alive and well. And this ideology becomes
278 Using critical theory

more and more dangerous as our planet “shrinks”—that is, as modern tech-
nology shortens the geographical distance between nations and as cultures
intermingle or merge through emigration. For colonialist ideology places
communication barriers between peoples from different cultures who, more
than ever before, need to communicate. In addition, colonialist ideology jus-
tifies the oppression of one culture by another, which continues to happen as
wealthier, more technologically advanced nations continue to exploit the
natural resources and cheap labor of poorer nations. Postcolonial concepts are
therefore as important as ever in helping us get a larger, more objective view
of world events and learn to appreciate some of the differences between our
own culture and the cultures of other countries as well as the cultural differences
among people living within our own borders.
Postcolonial theory and cultural criticism
We can also use concepts from postcolonial theory for the purposes of cultural
criticism. That is, we can use postcolonial concepts to help us analyze the
cultural messages sent, whether deliberately or not, by the everyday productions
of the culture in which we live, such as movies, games, television shows, song
lyrics, toys and other productions of popular culture discussed in Chapter 1.
Indeed, those cultural productions that in some way represent human beha-
vior—that have characters and a plot—can be analyzed using concepts from
postcolonial theory just as we use those concepts to analyze literary works. For
example, an understanding of colonialist ideology—particularly of the terms
subaltern, othering, and mimicry—can offer us insights into the hit film romance
Waiting to Exhale (directed by Forest Whitaker, 1995), in which we follow the
diverse experiences of four thirty-something African American women
through a single year of their close friendship.
Of particular interest for postcolonial cultural criticism, I think, are the black
characters’ multiple positions, or rankings, within the dominant white culture’s
hierarchy of power. For individuals who are subaltern in two or more areas
are especially vulnerable to multiple forms of othering, which is the hallmark
of colonialist ideology and oppression. Yes, the film portrays the world of
successful middle- and upper-class African American professionals at home, at
work, and at play. We don’t see, for example, acts of racist or classist oppression
in the film. In fact, we don’t see many white characters at all: the few there
are in the movie have very minor roles. However, viewers know that the
members of the upscale African American culture portrayed in the film never-
theless belong to a political minority and must deal with the institutionalized
biases of a dominant culture that is still largely racist. And it’s often the case
that subaltern individuals are liable to other themselves because they’ve been
programmed, despite any successes they may have achieved, to feel inferior.
Then, in an effort to identify with the dominant culture, such individuals
frequently other anyone who is in any way below them.
Using concepts from postcolonial theory 279

A great deal of the positive impact of Waiting to Exhale therefore lies in the
fact that the movie’s four main characters—who are themselves subaltern in
terms of race and gender—do not succumb to this destructive pattern of
behavior. In fact, their behavior toward themselves and others often serves as
an example of anticolonialist resistance. Television producer Savannah Jackson
(Whitney Houston), wealthy stay-at-home wife and mother Bernadine Harris
(Angela Bassett), beauty-salon owner and single mother Gloria Matthews
(Loretta Devine), and insurance underwriter Robin Stokes (Lela Rochon)
have different skin colors, facial features, and body types. However, none of the
four friends is concerned that her skin is “too dark” or that some feature of her
face or body is “too African.” They don’t relate to one another—nor do they
judge the men they date—in terms of physical characteristics related to race.
That is, they don’t other themselves or anyone else along racial lines.
The four main characters, moreover, do not other those whose subaltern
status in terms of class or sexual orientation makes them vulnerable targets.
Robin’s short-term boyfriend Troy (Mykelti Williamson) is subaltern in terms
of class. Gloria’s ex-husband David (Giancarlo Esposito) is subaltern in terms
of sexual orientation. And we might argue that Joseph (Lamont Johnson), one of
the hairdressers Gloria employs, is subaltern in terms of gender as well as sexual
orientation. For although he’s a man, Joseph’s gender behavior is feminine,
which means that heterosexist culture ties his gender to his subaltern sexual
orientation: in no way is he a “real” man, and this “deficit” makes him an easy
target of abuse and discrimination. Even Robin is a vulnerable target, in terms
of both her own self-esteem and her friends’ view of her, if we contrast her
economic status with that of Gloria, Savannah, and Bernadine. For Robin is the
only one of the group who lives in a small apartment in a less-than-affluent
neighborhood. Gloria owns her own ample home in a quiet middle-class
neighborhood; Savannah occupies a modern, upscale home in an upscale
location; and Bernadine lives in a mansion complete with extensive grounds
and expensive landscaping. Nevertheless, for the four main characters, these
differences make no difference.
These women do, however, invest a great deal of themselves in a patriarchal
ideology that plays an important role in colonialist ideology: sexism. For all
four friends have accepted patriarchy’s dictum that a woman who has no man
has nothing. Savannah and Robin keep trying to find the “right” man but
keep dating the wrong ones. Bernadine, in order to hold a husband who has
never reciprocated her willingness to make sacrifices for him, has spent the last
eleven years putting John’s financial welfare and personal convenience first,
against her own best interests and those of her two children. And Gloria, who
has raised a fine son, has used the responsibilities and rewards of motherhood
to avoid dating altogether. Nevertheless, through the strength of their collective
emotional support, each woman is able, over the course of the movie, to grow
beyond whatever self-destructive patriarchal fantasy has led her to the
romantic dead-end in which she finds herself as the film opens. As the film
280 Using critical theory

closes, each is able to place herself, with or without a man by her side, firmly
on the path to her own fulfillment.
Finally, in its portrayal of Bernadine’s husband John (Michael Beach),
Waiting to Exhale illustrates the destructive effects of colonialist ideology both
on the colonial subject who has internalized it and on his family. Like his
enormous, neutral-colored, conservative wardrobe, John doesn’t have much
originality or personality. His attempts to repress his emotions make him seem,
at times, like a robot. Apparently by John’s choice, the Harris family live in a
mansion-like home in an extremely upscale, predominantly white neighbor-
hood, and in contrast to the homes of Savannah, Gloria, and Robin, the
only art displayed is European. In addition, the two Harris children, despite
Bernadine’s objections, attend an expensive private school at which they are two
of the four black students enrolled. So we should not be surprised that the
company John has founded is strictly white collar or that John’s twelve
employees are all affluent-looking and all white. His divorce lawyer, too, is
white, male, and upscale. Finally, John has left his wife and children for a pretty,
conservative-looking white woman who is one of his corporate employees.
On some level, however, John must believe that he doesn’t really belong to
the dominant, wealthy white culture to which he aspires. For if he did feel at
home in that culture, his practice of mimicry wouldn’t have to be so thorough
or so vigilant: it wouldn’t have to take over every aspect of his life or be, at all
times, his emotional focal point. Bernadine doesn’t use the words colonial subject,
but she knows one when she sees one: John tries to get rid of whatever he can
that reminds him he is not an upper-crust member of the dominant white
culture, and he adopts whatever he can that makes him feel he is.
Waiting to Exhale, then, performs a great deal of anticolonialist cultural work.
The film’s four main characters don’t participate in the othering of individuals
based on race, class, or sexual orientation that is still all too common in American
society as a whole. In addition, they make great progress, over the course of
the film, in rejecting the self-defeating patriarchal ideology that has kept them
dissatisfied with their lives despite their legitimate reasons for happiness. By their
own antiracist, anticlassist, antihomophobic, and antisexist behavior, Savannah,
Bernadine, Gloria, and Robin demonstrate the virtues of these anticolonialist
attitudes and show us that life is happier and more harmonious without them.
And the characterization of John illustrates the negative effects of colonialist
ideology both on the man who internalizes it and on his family.
It is interesting to note, however, that while the main characters do not
other those individuals who are culturally different from them, the film itself
inadvertently others the poor, it seems to me, in its classist portrayal of Troy.
Troy occupies the bottom rung of the economic ladder depicted in the
movie, and given that he’s the only representative of that class offered in the
film, his characterization can easily be taken as representative of his class as a
whole. It is significant, therefore, that his characterization is a classist stereo-
type of the poor man, especially of the poor black man: what little money
Using concepts from postcolonial theory 281

Troy has apparently comes from drug dealing; he chronically abuses cocaine
and alcohol; he treats Robin like a sex object; he steals money from her, and
we can therefore assume that he steals from women whenever he can; he is
unrefined in speech, manners, and dress; and as his last scene with Robin
implies, he is apparently deficient in personal hygiene.
Does this one exception to its anticolonialist message undercut Waiting to
Exhale’s constructive cultural work? Yes, I think it does. But while the film’s
classist portrayal of Troy is disturbing, it’s also instructive because it shows us
that no cultural production, whatever its positive aims, is likely to be trans-
formative in every way. In many ways, cultural productions are like people. Try
as we might to do the right thing, some cultural bias is always liable to sneak in
just under our level of awareness. That’s one of the reasons why our effort to
practice cultural criticism is so important: it helps raise our level of awareness
concerning the cultural biases operating both in our society and in ourselves.
***
Remember, it’s natural to feel a bit uncertain when we encounter a new
theory—a new way of looking at ourselves and our world—that may call into
question many of the beliefs that have been pressed upon us, and that we’ve
accepted uncritically, for most of our lives. Uncertainty is an unavoidable part of
learning and growing. Keep in mind, too, that others may disagree with your
opinions. Individuals often disagree in their interpretations of literature, popular
culture, or everyday experiences, even when drawing upon the same postcolonial
concepts for their analyses. The keys to a good interpretation—besides intellec-
tual curiosity and an open mind—are a clear understanding of the postcolonial
concepts you’ve chosen to use and strong evidence to support your analysis.
Taking the next step
Questions for further practice
1 In Langston Hughes’ short story “The Blues I’m Playing” (1934), how
might Mrs. Dora Ellsworth be seen as a colonizing force attempting to
convince Miss Oceola Jones that the young woman’s own cultural heri-
tage is inferior to that of Mrs. Ellsworth? Specifically, what are the many
ways in which Mrs. Ellsworth tries to separate Oceola from her cultural
roots in the African American community and turn her into an exotic
other to be displayed before white “high society”? What are the many ways
in which Oceola refuses that colonization and shows that we don’t have
to reject our own cultural heritage in order to appreciate and participate
in others?
2 Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Lullaby” (1974), a short story written by and
about a Native American woman, illustrates the mistreatment of Native
Americans by the descendants of the colonialist invaders who took their
282 Using critical theory

lands. In order to show that this story is anticolonialist, find textual evidence
to support the following claims. (a) The story portrays the suffering
caused by the exploitation of subalterns (Ayah and Chato) by the domi-
nant culture (the rancher for whom Chato works). (b) The story depicts
the erasure of native culture (note the memories Ayah has of the native
culture of her childhood) by the dominant culture (the white authorities
who take away Danny and Ella). (c) Ayah and Chato are othered by
members of the dominant culture and, indeed, by anyone above them in
social rank. (d) Ayah, who is positively portrayed, has resisted the pressure
to believe herself and her culture inferior to white Americans and white
American culture.
3 What can David Sedaris’s short story “I Like Guts” (1974) teach us about
the postcolonial concept called othering? Collect as many examples as you
can of the ways in which the story’s subalterns—gay young men and
people of color—are othered. What does the story suggest are the psy-
chological or social motives of those who practice othering? More subtly,
how does the story indicate that sexism, in addition to being a form of
othering in itself, is also a factor in the othering of gay men? To
accomplish this last task, note the examples of homophobic othering that
involve attributing disparaged feminine qualities to gay men.
4 How might we say that the story of Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s
novel The Awakening (1899) is a story of unhomeliness? Does Edna feel
she belongs to any of the three cultures she has known in her life: the
Presbyterian, Kentucky blue-grass culture of her childhood; the Mississippi
plantation culture of her teenage years; or the upper-crust, Catholic Creole
culture of New Orleans into which she married? Is there any other culture
available to her to which she wants to belong? (If there were, we would
surely see her practicing mimicry in order to be accepted by the members
of that culture.) Find as many examples as you can of Edna’s unhomeliness.
Do you think her unhomed condition contributes to her suicide?
5 Use concepts from postcolonial theory to help you interpret some aspect
of a movie, television show, song lyric, cartoon, video game, or any
other production of popular culture that you find interesting and that
seems to lend itself to a postcolonial interpretation. For example, does
your chosen cultural production positively portray cultural diversity,
which includes diversity created by differences among individuals based
on a combination of such cultural factors as gender, social class, race,
ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, and the like? Are subalterns realis-
tically depicted, or are they stereotyped? Does this production represent,
in some way, mimicry, othering, or unhomeliness? Based on your
observations, what cultural work does your chosen cultural production
do relevant to postcolonial theory? Specifically, how does it encourage us
to respond to cultural diversity? Be sure to offer evidence from your
chosen production to support your ideas.
Using concepts from postcolonial theory 283

Suggestions for further reading
Achebe, Chinua. Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays. 1988. New York: Doubleday,
1990. (See, especially, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” 1–20;
and “Colonialist Criticism,” 68–90.)
Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, (eds.) The Post-Colonial Studies Reader.
New York: Routledge, 1995. (See, especially, Charles Larson’s “Heroic Ethnocentrism:
The Idea of Universality in Literature,” 62–65; Edward W. Said’s “Orientalism,” 87–91;
Frantz Fanon’s “National Culture,” 153–57; Mudrooroo’s “White Forms, Aboriginal
Content,” 228–31; and Philip G. Altbach’s “Education and Neocolonialism,” 452–56.)
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. 1952. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New York:
Grove Press, 1967. (See, especially, “The Negro and Language,” 17–40; “The Fact of
Blackness,” 109–40; and “The Negro and Psychopathology,” 141–209.)
Kincaid, Jamaica. A Small Place. New York: Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1988.
Loomba, Ania. Colonialism/Postcolonialism. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2005. (See,
especially, “Colonialism and Knowledge,” 53–62; “Colonialism and Literature,” 62–82;
and “Constructing Racial and Cultural Difference,” 91–106.)
Tyson, Lois. “Postcolonial Criticism.” Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. 2nd ed.
New York: Routledge, 2006. 418–49.
Wisker, Gina. Key Concepts in Postcolonial Literature. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
284 Using critical theory

Chapter 10
Holding on to what you’ve learned
If you’ve read the preceding chapters, you must be wondering, “How can
I keep these theories straight in my mind?” So let me help by starting this
chapter off with the following bird’s-eye view of (1) the eight theories
you’ve encountered in this book, (2) the interpretation exercises provided for
each of our five sample literary works, and (3) the range of different perspec-
tives on literary analysis offered by each theory, which our interpretation
exercises illustrated. This shorthand overview isn’t a substitute for reading the
chapters themselves. In fact, one of the best ways to learn to use the theore-
tical concepts we’ve employed is to go back and reread the chapters that
interested you the most (or that confused you the most!). Nevertheless, at this
point, a shorthand overview might give you a feeling of clarity that will
both reassure you about what you’ve learned so far and encourage you to
learn more.
A shorthand overview of our eight critical theories
One way to keep the critical theories we’ve studied straight in your mind is to
think of each of them as a question about human experience that focuses our
attention on a different aspect of our relationship to ourselves and our world.
Now, think about that phrase—our relationship to ourselves and our world—and
you’ll see that it includes such elements as our personality traits, our self-image,
our relationships with others, our beliefs, our likes and dislikes, our sense of
right and wrong, and the like. The only theory we’ve studied that doesn’t
address some aspect of our relationship to ourselves and our world is New
Criticism, which asks us to put aside such issues in order to focus exclusively
and objectively on discovering how the meaning of individual literary texts is
communicated by their formal elements, that is, by their language and literary
devices. Whether or not such objectivity can be attained is an interesting
problem to consider, and the attempt to discover and support your own opin-
ion concerning this problem might result in some useful self-reflection. So
each of the following short questions should give you a good deal to think
about.

Reader-response theory—How is our relationship to ourselves and our world
reflected in our literary interpretations?
New Critical theory—Putting aside our relationship to ourselves and our world,
what is the theme—the meaning as a whole—of a given literary text, and
how do the text’s formal elements support that theme?
Psychoanalytic theory—How is our relationship to ourselves and our world
formed by our psychological wounds and our psychological strengths?
Marxist theory—How is our relationship to ourselves and our world formed by
the socioeconomic system in which we live?
Feminist theory—How is our relationship to ourselves and our world formed by
traditional gender roles?
Lesbian, gay, and queer theories—How is our relationship to ourselves and our
world formed by our sexual orientation and by the way in which society
defines sexual orientation?
African American theory—How is our relationship to ourselves and our world
formed by our race and by the attitudes toward race of the society in which
we live?
Postcolonial theory—How is our relationship to ourselves and our world formed by
the interplay of all the cultural factors—race, class, gender, sexual orientation,
religion, ethnicity, and so forth—by which we define ourselves and others?
Let me emphasize that the role played in our lives by such factors as race,
traditional gender roles, sexual orientation, and the like depends upon the
society in which we live. For example, the role played in our lives by race in a
society that believes white people are naturally superior will be different from
the role played in our lives by race in a society that believes black people are
naturally superior. And the role played in our lives by race in a society that
believes no race is naturally superior will be different from both. Similarly, our
experience of traditional gender roles will differ depending on the attitude
toward these roles encouraged by our ethnic group or our religious faith.
Even our experience of our own sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, and
psychological wounds will be strongly influenced by our society’s ideas about
what is good or evil, natural or unnatural, superior or inferior, and normal or
abnormal. The more we learn about the critical theories we’ve used in this
book, 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.
A shorthand overview of our literary interpretation
exercises
Our goal here is to see the ways in which concepts from different critical
theories can sometimes provide very different and sometimes very similar
readings of the same literary works. The following shorthand overview simply
286 Using critical theories

lists, as briefly as possible, both the focus, or topic, and the thesis—the debatable
opinion that forms the main point of an argument—of each of the literary
interpretation exercises we did in the previous chapters. And as I did in the
previous chapters, I address the literary works below in the order in which, for
our present purpose, I think they will be most accessible to you. You’ll notice
that reader-response interpretations aren’t included here because the response
exercises provided in Chapter 2 are intended to help you analyze your personal
responses to literary works, not the literary works themselves. Don’t forget
that the interpretation exercises summarized in this overview are sample inter-
pretations intended to give you practice using a given theory’s basic concepts.
Many other interpretations are possible using the same theory, and as you may
recall, alternative interpretations were offered in the “Focusing your essay” section
that closes each of the interpretation exercises provided in the preceding chapters.
“Everyday Use”
Our New Critical interpretation
Our focus—The story’s representation of tradition and change.
Our thesis—The story suggests that the adoption of new ideas about cultural
heritage should not result in the abandonment of family traditions, for these
traditions keep us connected to our family history and contribute to the
emotional bond among family members.
Our psychoanalytic interpretation
Our focus—The story’s representation of dysfunctional behavior.
Our thesis—Although Mama is a loving parent, she unconsciously projects her
own low self-esteem onto Maggie and her own unfulfilled desire for success
onto Dee. As a result, Mama holds Maggie back and thus contributes to this
daughter’s low self-esteem, while Mama pushes Dee away from the nest
and thus contributes to this daughter’s fear of intimacy and abandonment.
Our Marxist interpretation
Our focus—The story’s representation of capitalism.
Our thesis—The story is anticapitalist. It depicts the negative effects of capitalism
on all three main characters, and it negatively portrays Dee, who embraces
capitalist ideology, while positively portraying Mama and Maggie, who
reject capitalist ideology.
Our feminist interpretation
Our focus—The story’s representation of patriarchal ideology.
Holding on to what you’ve learned 287

Our thesis—The story has a conflicted attitude toward patriarchal ideology. It
is antipatriarchal in its positive portrayal of Mama’s violation of traditional
gender roles and its sympathetic depiction of Mama and Maggie’s victimi-
zation by patriarchy. However, the story’s negative portrayal of Dee’s violation
of traditional gender roles supports patriarchal ideology.
Our lesbian interpretation
Our focus—The woman-identified woman beneath the story’s heterosexual plot.
Our thesis—By means of a quiet subtext beneath its heterosexual plot, the
story suggests that being a woman-identified woman is an emotional
orientation that plays an important role in women’s lives regardless of their
sexual orientation.
Our African American interpretation
Our focus—The story’s representation of internalized racism.
Our thesis—The story is antiracist. It illustrates the negative effects of inter-
nalized racism on individual self-esteem and family unity even among
African Americans who have, in different ways, accomplished a great deal
despite the obstacles placed in their paths by a racist world.
Our postcolonial interpretation
Our focus—The story’s representation of the colonial subject.
Our thesis—The story is anticolonialist. It depicts the emotional losses suffered
by the colonial subject, Dee, who has been unhomed (turned into a cultural
outsider) by the dominant culture and, as a result, practices mimicry: she views
culture as a lifestyle to be acquired rather than as a way of understanding the
world and defining her place within it.
“The Battle Royal”
Our New Critical interpretation
Our focus—The story’s representation of alienation.
Our thesis—The story suggests that a sense of belonging can help us in the
worst of times, and without it we risk becoming alienated not only from
others but from ourselves, as well.
Our psychoanalytic interpretation
Our focus—Using psychoanalytic concepts in service of other theories.
288 Using critical theories

Our thesis—There is no psychological experience represented in the story that
can be viewed independently of the characters’ socioeconomic class, gender,
sexual orientation, race, or cultural identity. If we want to use psychoanalytic
concepts to interpret the tale, we’ll have to put those concepts in service of
another theory. For example, we might analyze the story’s depiction of the
psychological effects on its characters of capitalism, sexism, heterosexism,
racism, or colonialist ideology, which would produce, respectively, a Marxist,
feminist, gay, African American, or postcolonial interpretation.
Our Marxist interpretation
Our focus—The story’s representation of the American Dream.
Our thesis—The story suggests that the American Dream is not only a false
ideology—it doesn’t keep its promise—but a dangerous ideology. The nar-
rator is so blinded by his belief in the American Dream that he can’t see the
obvious reality of his own situation.
Our feminist interpretation
Our focus—The story’s representation of the objectification of women.
Our thesis—The story is antipatriarchal. Its negative portrayal of the white men’s
treatment of the exotic dancer rejects the patriarchal belief that it is natural,
and therefore acceptable, for men to use women as sex objects and tokens
of male power.
Our gay interpretation
Our focus—The story’s representation of homophobia.
Our thesis—The story illustrates the ways in which men’s homophobia is caused
by their insecurity about their own masculinity and, therefore, about their
own sexuality.
Our African American interpretation
Our focus—The story’s representation of overt forms of institutionalized racism.
Our thesis—The story is antiracist. Is illustrates the evils of institutionalized racism,
which, the tale shows, creates an environment of unrestrained power that
reduces the white characters to little more than brutes and forces the black
characters to scramble for any means of survival—no matter how personally
degrading—they can find.
Our postcolonial interpretation
Our focus—The story’s representation of colonialist ideology.
Holding on to what you’ve learned 289

Our thesis—The story is anticolonialist. It illustrates the ways in which the
relationship between America’s dominant culture and its subalterns (those
with the least political power) is much like the relationship between a
colonialist country and the people it subjugates on foreign shores.
“A Rose for Emily”
Our New Critical interpretation
Our focus—The story’s representation of death.
Our thesis—The story suggests that death, as a presence that shadows and
depletes the life force, can be stronger than life and is embodied in the
desire to live in the past.
Our psychoanalytic interpretation
Our focus—The story’s representation of insanity.
Our thesis—Emily’s unresolved oedipal attachment to her father, which Mr.
Grierson creates by putting his daughter on a pedestal and isolating her from
others, is the underlying cause of a fear of abandonment and of intimacy
that becomes intense enough to drive Emily insane.
Our Marxist interpretation
Our focus—The story’s representation of classism.
Our thesis—The story is anticlassist. It illustrates the evils of classism by showing
the negative effects of classist ideology on all of the story’s main characters.
Our feminist interpretation
Our focus—The story’s representation of patriarchal ideology.
Our thesis—The story is sexist. It endorses the patriarchal ideology it illustrates by
portraying Emily more and more negatively as she increasingly violates tradi-
tional gender roles and by negatively stereotyping its minor female characters.
Our queer interpretation
Our focus—The story’s queer dimension.
Our thesis—The story illustrates the ways in which human sexuality is too
complex to be fully understood by the categories heterosexual and homosexual,
the traditional terms by which our sexuality is defined.
Our African American interpretation
Our focus—The function of black characters in a white story.
290 Using critical theories

Our thesis—The story has an antiracist project that doesn’t fully succeed. The
tale is antiracist in that its minor African American characters are used to
remind us of the evils of racism in the time and place in which the story is set.
However, these characters function as mere “pointers,” not as meaningful
characters, and we are thus deprived of any sense of their humanity.
Our postcolonial interpretation
Our focus—The story’s representation of cultural categories.
Our thesis—The story is anticolonialist. It illustrates the harmful effects of
judging individuals according to the cultural categories by which the
dominant culture defines people, categories that depend on such factors as
race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and religion.
“Don’t Explain”
Our New Critical interpretation
Our focus—The story’s representation of nonconformity.
Our thesis—The story suggests that when conformity requires self-negation,
then self-acceptance requires nonconformity.
Our psychoanalytic interpretation
Our focus—The story’s representation of psychological self-healing.
Our thesis—The story illustrates how emotional identification with another
person, even with a relative stranger, can be a source of psychological
strength. The story accomplishes this task by showing how Letty is helped
psychologically through her emotional identification with Billie Holiday.
Our Marxist interpretation
Our focus—The story’s representation of classism.
Our thesis—The story is anticlassist. It encourages readers to reject classism by
providing positive portrayals of working-class characters and by illustrating
the virtues of an anticlassist attitude.
Our feminist interpretation
Our focus—The story’s representation of patriarchal ideology.
Our thesis—The story is antipatriarchal. It encourages readers to resist patri-
archal ideology by positively portraying women who do not conform to
traditional gender roles and who do not fit the white patriarchal definition
of the “true woman.”
Holding on to what you’ve learned 291

Our lesbian interpretation
Our focus—The story’s representation of lesbian characters.
Our thesis—The story combats negative stereotypes of lesbians through its
positive portrayals of lesbian characters.
Our African American interpretation
Our focus—The story’s representation of “less visible” forms of institutionalized
racism.
Our thesis—The story is antiracist. It subtly illustrates the “less visible” forms of
institutionalized racism in American society and positively portrays African
American characters who must contend with these racist forces in their daily
lives.
Our postcolonial interpretation
Our focus—The story’s representation of anticolonialist resistance.
Our thesis—The story is anticolonialist. It illustrates the possibilities for anti-
colonialist resistance even on the part of subalterns who are othered in terms
of their race, class, gender, and sexual orientation.
“I started Early—Took my Dog”
Our New Critical interpretation
Our focus—The poem’s representation of the unknown.
Our thesis—The poem suggests that we fear the unknown largely because we
are attracted to it, for our attraction to the unknown makes us feel our
vulnerability to it.
Our psychoanalytic interpretation
Our focus—The poem’s dream imagery.
Our thesis—Using the psychoanalytic symbolism present in the poem to
interpret it as a dream, we can see the speaker’s sexual repression. Specifically,
she is afraid of her own sexual desire.
Our Marxist interpretation
Our focus—When not to use Marxist concepts to interpret a literary work.
Our thesis—The poem does not lend itself well to a Marxist interpretation. If
we want to use Marxist concepts to analyze Dickinson’s poetry, we will
have to choose one of her poems that will work for this purpose.
292 Using critical theories

Our feminist interpretation
Our focus—The poem’s representation of the psychological oppression of women.
Our thesis—The poem is antipatriarchal: it illustrates the ways in which patriarchal
ideology promotes in women both sexual repression and low self-esteem.
Our lesbian (or gay) interpretation
Our focus—When to draw upon context for a lesbian (or gay) reading.
Our thesis—The poem, on its own, doesn’t yield a convincing lesbian inter-
pretation. However, taken in the context of other poetry by Dickinson, the
poem helps show that the lesbian dimension of her work as a whole is
evident in its rejection of heterosexuality and in its lush, erotic images of
female sexuality. Biographical research can also provide a context to support
this interpretation.
Our African American interpretation
Our focus—When not to use African American concepts to interpret a literary
work.
Our thesis—The poem does not lend itself well to an African American inter-
pretation, and there don’t seem to be any other poems by Dickinson that
we can readily use instead. If we want to use African American concepts to
discuss Dickinson’s work, we will have to do biographical research in order
to speculate as to why there are no direct references to any of the promi-
nent racial issues of her day in Dickinson’s poetry, despite her intellectual
ties with antiracist thinkers.
Our postcolonial interpretation
Our focus—The poem’s representation of nature.
Our thesis—Unlike most of Dickinson’s other nature poetry, this poem’s
depiction of the sea others nature just as colonialist ideology others nature,
suggesting that America’s Anglo-European colonialist legacy can influence
writers without their being aware of it.
A shorthand overview of the range of perspectives offered
by each theory
In each of the “Food for further thought” sections found at the end of the
preceding chapters, I offered you a list summarizing the different perspectives
the theory at hand provided for our interpretation exercises or, in the case of
reader-response theory in Chapter 2, for our response exercises. The goal was
to give you a sense of the range of interpretation options offered by each
Holding on to what you’ve learned 293

theory. I think it might be helpful for you to see all of those lists laid out
before you, both as a review of what you’ve done and to reinforce your
awareness of the variety of interpretation possibilities made available by each
of our theories.
Reader-response concepts—Reader-response concepts can be used to analyze
1 your personal identification with a literary character,
2 your relationship to a literary character that reminds you of someone
important in your life,
3 your relationship to a plot event that reminds you of something impor-
tant that occurred in your life or in the life of someone close to you,
4 your relationship to a literary setting that reminds you of someplace
important in your life.
New Critical concepts—New Critical concepts can be used to analyze
1 literary texts that address the topic of tradition and change (our example:
“Everyday Use”),
2 literary texts that address the topic of death (our example: “A Rose for
Emily”),
3 literary texts that address the topic of alienation (our example: “The
Battle Royal”),
4 literary texts that address the topic of conformity and nonconformity (our
example: “Don’t Explain”), and
5 literary texts that address the topic of the unknown (our example: “I
started Early – Took my Dog”).
Psychoanalytic concepts—Psychoanalytic concepts can be used to analyze
1 literary works that illustrate the kind of “everyday” dysfunctional behavior
found, to varying degrees, in most families (our example: “Everyday Use”),
2 literary works that illustrate insanity (our example: “A Rose for Emily”),
3 literary works that consist largely of dream imagery (our example:
“I started Early—Took my Dog”),
4 literary works that illustrate psychological self-healing (our example:
“Don’t Explain”), and
5 literary works whose representations of psychological experience should
not be analyzed using psychoanalytic theory alone (our example: “The
Battle Royal”).
Marxist concepts—Marxist concepts can be used to analyze
1 literary works that are anticapitalist in that they illustrate the harmful
effects of capitalist ideologies (our example: “Everyday Use”),
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2 literary works that are anticapitalist in that they illustrate the harmful
effects of one particular capitalist ideology, for example, the American
Dream (our example, “The Battle Royal”),
3 literary works that are anticlassist in that they illustrate the harmful effects
of classism (our example: “A Rose for Emily”),
4 literary works that are anticlassist in that they provide positive images of
working-class people, images that operate against lower-class stereotypes,
and/or admirable characters who, themselves, display anticlassist behavior
(our example: “Don’t Explain”), and
5 literary works whose juxtaposition of large/small or high/low images will
tempt us to misinterpret them by imposing a Marxist framework that the
literary work does not justify (our example: “I started Early—Took my
Dog”).
Feminist concepts—Feminist concepts can be used to analyze
1 literary works that are antipatriarchal in that their negative representations
of patriarchal ideology encourage us to reject that ideology (our example:
“The Battle Royal”),
2 literary works that are antipatriarchal in that their positive representations
of characters who violate traditional gender roles encourage us to resist
patriarchal ideology (our example: “Don’t Explain”),
3 literary works that have a conflicted response to patriarchy in that they
both combat and promote patriarchal ideology, for instance, by providing
both positive and negative images of characters who violate traditional
gender roles (our example: “Everyday Use”),
4 literary works that are patriarchal in that they encourage us to accept
patriarchal ideology, for instance, by providing negative images of
women who violate traditional gender roles and/or patriarchal stereotypes
of women (our example: “A Rose for Emily”), and
5 literary works whose psychoanalytic elements can be used to produce a
feminist interpretation by illustrating patriarchy’s psychological oppression
of women (our example: “I started Early—Took my Dog”).
Lesbian, gay, and queer concepts—Lesbian, gay, and queer concepts can be used
to analyze
1 literary works that provide positive images of LGBTQ people (our
example: “Don’t Explain”),
2 literary works that illustrate the operations of homophobia (our example:
“The Battle Royal”),
3 literary works with a lesbian, gay, or queer subtext that contributes a
subtle but important element to the lives of heterosexual characters (our
example: “Everyday Use”),
Holding on to what you’ve learned 295

4 literary works that illustrate the first principle of queer theory: that the
opposition of the categories heterosexual and homosexual is inadequate
for understanding the complexities of human sexuality (our example:
“A Rose for Emily”), and
5 literary works whose lesbian or gay dimension can be understood best
when analyzed in the context of other works by the author and with
some support from biographical materials (our example: “I started
Early—Took my Dog”).
African American Concepts—African American concepts can be used to analyze
1 literary works that are antiracist in that they illustrate the harmful effects
of overt operations of institutionalized racism (our example: “The Battle
Royal”),
2 literary works that are antiracist in that they provide positive images of
African Americans—images that work against racist stereotypes—who
deal with “less visible” operations of institutionalized racism (our example:
“Don’t Explain”),
3 literary works that are antiracist in that they illustrate the harmful effects
of internalized racism (our example: “Everyday Use”),
4 literary works by white authors writing about white experience whose
portrayals of black characters are antiracist and/or racist in nature (our
example: “A Rose for Emily”), and
5 literary works whose juxtaposition of large/small or high/low images will
tempt us to misinterpret them by imposing an African American frame-
work that the literary work does not justify (our example: “I started
Early—Took my Dog”).
Postcolonial concepts—Postcolonial concepts can be used to analyze
1 literary works that are anticolonialist in that they illustrate the harmful
effects of colonialist ideology (our example: “The Battle Royal”),
2 literary works that are anticolonialist in that they illustrate the emotional
losses suffered by the colonial subject, whose life is one of unhomeliness
and mimicry (our example: “Everyday Use”),
3 literary works that are anticolonialist in that they depict the harmful
effects of judging individuals according to the cultural categories by which
the dominant culture defines people (our example: “A Rose for Emily”),
4 literary works that are anticolonialist in that they positively portray
anticolonialist resistance (our example: “Don’t Explain”), and
5 literary works that engage in the othering of nature that is part of the legacy
of colonialist ideology (our example: “I started Early—Took my Dog”).
Remember, this list is intended just to give you an idea of the range of per-
spectives on literary interpretation provided by each of our theories. The list is
296 Using critical theories

by no means complete because the possibilities are limited only by our imagination
and by our ability to gather textual evidence to support our interpretations.
Critical theory and cultural criticism revisited
As you may recall from our discussion of critical theory and cultural criticism
in Chapter 1, the next step in the study of critical theory actually occurs, for
many students, while they’re still taking their first step: they begin to notice
things in their everyday lives that they probably wouldn’t have noticed before.
Perhaps this has begun to happen to you, too. For example, you might have
begun to notice how people of different races, classes, cultures, and sexual
orientations are represented on television shows. Have you observed, for instance,
the race, gender, and apparent social class—or, at least, social “style”—of the
majority of contestants on various television game shows or reality shows, such
as Let’s Make a Deal, Minute to Win It, Deal or No Deal, Jeopardy! or Apprentice?
Or have concepts from our critical theories seemed to pop up in the song
lyrics you listen to as you drive to school or work? Perhaps you’ve found
yourself having new insights into a movie you had seen in the past, a movie in
which there was more to see than you realized at the time.
It makes sense that you would see these concepts illustrated rather frequently
in your daily life and in a variety of ways. After all, our theoretical concepts
weren’t invented out of thin air. They are based on observations of human
behavior and of the ways in which human behavior has been represented over
the centuries in mythology, folklore, and literature. Certainly, the originators
of that mythology and folklore and the writers of that literature may not have
intended to illustrate the concepts you are now able to see in them. But if the
material you’re reading, viewing, or hearing represents human experience in
some way, then it’s a safe bet that it will illustrate such concepts as psychological
repression, classism, the American Dream, traditional gender roles, heterosexism,
institutionalized racism, unhomeliness, and so forth. That’s why, as suggested in
Chapter 1, our concepts from critical theory are useful not only for the
interpretation of literary works, but also for the purposes of cultural criticism,
that is, for the purposes of analyzing popular culture in order to discover the
cultural work performed—the cultural messages sent, whether deliberately or
not—by movies, television shows, comic strips, song lyrics, advertisements,
radio talk-shows, toys, games, cartoons, and, well, just about any cultural
production intended for the general public.
Let’s consider, for example, the television shows mentioned above. Is there
a certain “kind” of contestant associated with each program? For instance,
what personal qualities or abilities are required of contestants in order to win?
How do contestants dress? How does the show’s moderator dress? How do
contestants show their enthusiasm for the game and for the prizes offered?
What, if anything, do contestants do to “get the audience going”? (Do they
address the audience directly? Do they share personal information? If so, what
Holding on to what you’ve learned 297

kind?) How do contestants show their happiness upon winning? Do the prizes
differ from one show to another depending on the “type” of contestant asso-
ciated with each show? Taken together, what do these game shows seem to be
saying, whether or not they realize it, about the differences among people based
on their race, class, gender, or any other cultural category that you can observe?
Keeping in mind that contestants’ clothing and behavior largely conforms to
the clothing and behavior suggested for them by program executives, do any
of these shows seem to promote stereotyping in terms of race, class, gender, or
any other cultural category? If you attempt to answer these questions, you’re
engaging in cultural criticism, and you’re probably drawing on concepts from
African American, Marxist, feminist, psychoanalytic, postcolonial, or gay, les-
bian, and queer theories to guide your analysis and to give you the confidence
to pursue it. For the study of these theories helps us notice racial, class, gender,
and other stereotypes much more readily; helps us analyze how, specifically,
those stereotypes are communicated; and helps us perceive the complex ways
in which media representations of human beings can sometimes dehumanize
those viewed by the camera and desensitize the viewer. In addition, concepts
from these same theories can help us understand how a production of popular
culture is trying to combat racial, class, gender, or other stereotypes—think,
for instance, of the television series Battlestar Galactica—for popular-culture
productions can also transform the values of the culture that creates them.
Of course, as we’ve seen in previous chapters, you can also use concepts from
a single critical theory to analyze a single cultural production. Let’s dip our
toes in one last time and do that again here. This time, we’ll take a look at a
cultural production that’s over forty years old. Maybe we will be able to see if
the cultural work it performed decades ago is still relevant today. I’m referring
to The Andy Griffith Show, a television series that originally aired in the United
States from 1960 to 1968, the reruns of which remain popular today under
the title Andy of Mayberry. Drawing on concepts from feminist theory, let’s
consider the season-seven opening episode, “Opie’s Girlfriend” (September
12, 1966), in which Andy Taylor’s (Andy Griffith) girlfriend Helen (Aneta
Corsaut) has a visit from her young niece.1
It seems that Helen’s niece Cynthia (Mary Anne Durkin) and Andy’s young
son Opie (Ronnie Howard) have been spending a good deal of time together,
engaging in running and jumping contests and the like. However, when
Cynthia intercepts a pass intended for Opie during a touch-football game that
includes some of his buddies, Opie dishonestly claims that Cynthia’s inter-
ception was a foul. He shoves her. She shoves back. The outcome is a black
eye for Opie and the end of his short-lived friendship with Cynthia. Upon
investigation, Helen learns that her niece has out-performed Opie at every
game. The good-natured young girl sees nothing wrong with this state of affairs
and doesn’t think less of Opie just because he’s not a great athlete. But she
doesn’t understand Opie’s negative response to her. Aha! Helen talks with
Cynthia—in a scene that plays like the girl’s rite of passage into adulthood—and
298 Using critical theories

tells her that men have been the breadwinners and the protectors of women
for centuries. So it’s natural for them to feel the need to be superior to
women in acts of physical prowess. Indeed, women need to help men feel
that they’re superior even when they’re not. In short, every woman has a
choice to make. She can outplay her man and risk losing him. Or she can
deliberately fumble the ball and pretend to need his help. She’ll lose the game,
but she’ll win her man! Needless to say, Cynthia chooses the second option,
and the episode closes with everyone in smiles.
Of course, you don’t need to study feminist critical theory to understand
what this episode is saying about boys and girls. But if you are acquainted with
the concepts from feminist theory we studied in Chapter 6, you’re probably
more likely to ask yourself such questions as those listed below and probably
more likely to be able to answer them. As we’ve seen before, and as I hope
this example makes especially clear, you can often generate ideas to help you
analyze a cultural production by brainstorming a list of questions about the
cultural messages sent by that production and about the culture in which that
production emerged. Here’s my list.
1 Given the time and place in which the story is set (small-town North
Carolina in the early 1960s), does Helen’s niece really have much of a
choice about whether or not to conform to patriarchal gender roles?
That is, are we watching a young girl making a choice, as Helen suggests
it is, or are we watching an act of patriarchal programming?
2 Given what we know today, is this kind of deception (on Cynthia’s part)
and self-deception (on Opie’s part) good for either youngster?
3 Isn’t Helen’s niece getting some unspoken messages here, such as “Boys
aren’t very bright, and it’s okay to manipulate them to get what you
want”; “Nothing is as important as having a boyfriend”; and “A female
shouldn’t have abilities in a field that society considers male-oriented”?
4 Do patriarchal gender roles require that men and women sometimes lie
to themselves and to one another?
5 Does the happy ending, including the niece’s satisfaction with her “choice,”
mean that this episode is influencing viewers to agree with Helen, whether
it intends to do so or not?
6 Come to think of it, wasn’t it unrealistic, in the mid-1960s, to portray an
adolescent girl who thinks she can beat a boy at every game and still be
liked by him? Had she been living in a cave prior to her visit with Aunt
Helen? Doesn’t the use of this rather ludicrous plot device mean that the
show’s producers deliberately wanted to send a patriarchal message to
their viewers?
7 What was happening in the United States during the mid-1960s to make
the show’s producers think that such a message was needed or (the more
likely motive) that such a message, even so transparently packaged,
would sell?
Holding on to what you’ve learned 299

8 Might not the women’s rights movement growing during this period
have been a factor in the production of this mini-”morality play” about
the importance of patriarchal gender roles for the happiness of both males
and females?
9 Do you think the cultural messages sent by this episode would still appeal
to some people today? If so, why?
10 Are cultural messages like these still being sent by the television and film
industries, though perhaps in a more subtle fashion? Can you give some
examples?
The issue here isn’t whether or not we believe in traditional gender roles or
which roles we accept or reject. Rather, the issue here is our ability to use
concepts from our critical theories to think creatively and productively about
the cultural messages we receive every day from even what seem to be the
least likely sources. The issue here is our power to know when a television
show, a toy, a movie, or a popular song is trying to influence our thinking
while pretending to merely entertain or inform us. For our thinking is most
easily influenced, unfortunately, when we believe we’re just being entertained
or informed.
Critical theory and an ethics for a diverse world
You may be beginning to notice, by this point, that most of the theoretical
approaches to literature you’ve encountered in this book are trying to help us
see something about human relations: the ways in which human relations are
influenced by individuals’ psychological wounds; by whatever socioeconomic
system controls the flow of money and power in a given nation; and by a
society’s attitudes toward race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and other
cultural factors. These critical theories, then, have ethical implications. This
simply means that part of their purpose is to help us better understand our-
selves, our world, and the variety of people who share this planet. It’s not just
a matter of being better informed about the issues that affect our world,
though increasing our knowledge is certainly a primary goal. Ideally, I think,
the theories we’ve studied help us develop not just our intellect, but our
ethical awareness. By trying to show us our world from a variety of vantage
points—by helping us experience the world as others experience it—these
theories also try to make us more insightful, compassionate human beings
whose presence in the world can help make it a better place, in our homes, on
our jobs, and in our communities.
Well, once it occurs to us that ethics are involved in learning critical theory,
many of us wonder, “If I don’t understand or don’t like a particular theory,
does that mean I will be considered a ‘bad person’?” Of course not. It simply
means that each theory offers us a number of opportunities to stretch our
understanding, to see old ideas in new ways, and, above all, to view our own
300 Using critical theories

personal values as “ways of seeing” that can mature and deepen as we mature
and deepen over the course of our lives. If you’ll pardon the metaphor, you
don’t have to like all the vegetables on the buffet table to benefit from the
variety of choices available. And as you’ll see if you continue to study critical
theory, there are many more theories you can “sample.” Some will appeal to
you more than others; some won’t appeal to you at all. In studying any
theory, you might find that you experience a complete reversal of an opinion
you’d previously held, or you might find that the new theory reinforces and
helps you define and defend your original opinion. Even if you find that you
object to a particular theory, or to some portions of that theory, your objections
will be more meaningful and more convincing to others if you understand the
theory to which you object.
I’m not suggesting that you should expect some life-changing revelation to
occur from studying critical theory, though I have heard students say that
critical theory has opened their eyes in some very interesting and important
ways. But I do think that the experience will not leave you exactly as it found
you. At the very least, you can expect some brain-training, so to speak. If
you’ve read the literary works provided in the appendices of this book and
have done your best to follow our interpretation exercises, you have probably
experienced some growth in your capacity as a thinker, which you may
notice, for example, in an increased awareness of the psychological and social
issues addressed in this book as they are represented in the literary works and
productions of popular culture you may encounter in the future. Or you may
just notice an increased ability to talk about these issues with your friends and
family, which is, I think, no small gain.
Indeed, the kinds of ideas critical theory offers us often require that we
change our thinking to some extent just in order to be able to fully understand
those ideas. I think, in fact, it’s safe to say that most education consists not of
acquiring information but of changing how we think. How can we grasp new
ideas if we don’t learn to think in new ways? Does this idea sound a bit
frightening? I think it should. Real change, real growth, real education are
somewhat frightening because we don’t always know what we’re going to
learn, not just about our subject matter but also about ourselves and our
world. So let me share with you an old saying that works for me when I get a
little nervous about learning something new: “People learn only what they’re
ready to learn.” Maybe, then, the best idea is to trust yourself. You’ll be able
to learn what you’re ready to learn. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from
studying critical theory, it’s that we’re usually able to learn a great deal more
than we first expect.
Note
1 You can view “Opie’s Girlfriend” online at http://youtube.com/watch?v=JU9nqOsk0Y.
Holding on to what you’ve learned 301

http://youtube.com/watch?v=JU9nqOsk0Y

Appendices
Appendix A: Poem 520
I started Early—Took my Dog
(c. 1862)
Emily Dickinson (1830–86)
1 I started Early—Took my Dog—
2 And visited the Sea—
3 The Mermaids in the Basement
4 Came out to look at me—
5 And Frigates—in the Upper Floor
6 Extended Hempen Hands—
7 Presuming Me to be a Mouse—
8 Aground—upon the Sands—
9 But no Man moved Me—till the Tide
10 Went past my simple Shoe—
11 And past my Apron—and my Belt
12 And past my Bodice—too—
13 And made as He would eat me up—
14 As wholly as a Dew
15 Upon a Dandelion’s Sleeve—
16 And then—I started—too—
17 And He—He followed—close behind—
18 I felt His Silver Heel
19 Upon My Ankle—Then my Shoes
20 Would overflow with Pearl—
21 Until We met the Solid Town—
22 No One He seemed to know—
23 And bowing—with a Mighty look—
24 At me—The Sea withdrew—
Reprinted by permission of the publishers and the Trustees
of Amherst College from The Poems of Emily Dickinson,
Ralph W. Franklin, ed., Cambridge, MA: The Belknap
Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1998 by the
President and Fellows of Harvard College.
Copyright 1951, 1955, 1979 by the President and
Fellows of Harvard College.

Appendix B: A Rose for Emily
(1931)
William Faulkner (1897–1962)
When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the
men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women
mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an
old man-servant—a combined gardener and cook—had seen in at least ten years.
It was a big, squarish frame house that had once been white, decorated with
cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies in the heavily lightsome style of the
seventies, set on what had once been our most select street. But garages and
cotton gins had encroached and obliterated even the august names of that
neighborhood; onlyMiss Emily’s house was left, lifting its stubborn and coquettish
decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps—an eyesore among
eyesores. And now Miss Emily had gone to join the representatives of those
august names where they lay in the cedarbemused cemetery among the
ranked and anonymous graves of Union and Confederate soldiers who fell at
the battle of Jefferson.
Alive, Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hered-
itary obligation upon the town, dating from that day in 1894 when Colonel
Sartoris, the mayor—he who fathered the edict that no Negro woman should
appear on the streets without an apron—remitted her taxes, the dispensation
dating from the death of her father on into perpetuity. Not that Miss Emily
would have accepted charity. Colonel Sartoris invented an involved tale to the
effect that Miss Emily’s father had loaned money to the town, which the town,
as a matter of business, preferred this way of repaying. Only a man of Colonel
Sartoris’ generation and thought could have invented it, and only a woman
could have believed it.
When the next generation, with its more modern ideas, became mayors and
aldermen, this arrangement created some little dissatisfaction. On the first of
the year they mailed her a tax notice. February came, and there was no reply.
They wrote her a formal letter, asking her to call at the sheriff’s office at her
convenience. A week later the mayor wrote her himself, offering to call or to
send his car for her, and received in reply a note on paper of an archaic shape,
in a thin, flowing calligraphy in faded ink, to the effect that she no longer
went out at all. The tax notice was also enclosed, without comment.

They called a special meeting of the Board of Aldermen. A deputation
waited upon her, knocked at the door through which no visitor had passed
since she ceased giving china-painting lessons eight or ten years earlier. They
were admitted by the old Negro into a dim hall from which a stairway
mounted into still more shadow. It smelled of dust and disuse—a close, dank
smell. The Negro led them into the parlor. It was furnished in heavy, leather-
covered furniture. When the Negro opened the blinds of one window,
they could see that the leather was cracked; and when they sat down, a faint
dust rose sluggishly about their thighs, spinning with slow motes in the single
sun-ray. On a tarnished gilt easel before the fireplace stood a crayon portrait of
Miss Emily’s father.
They rose when she entered—a small, fat woman in black, with a thin gold
chain descending to her waist and vanishing into her belt, leaning on an
ebony cane with a tarnished gold head. Her skeleton was small and spare;
perhaps that was why what would have been merely plumpness in another
was obesity in her. She looked bloated, like a body long submerged in
motionless water, and of that pallid hue. Her eyes, lost in the fatty ridges of
her face, looked like two small pieces of coal pressed into a lump of dough as
they moved from one face to another while the visitors stated their errand.
She did not ask them to sit. She just stood in the door and listened quietly
until the spokesman came to a stumbling halt. Then they could hear the
invisible watch ticking at the end of the gold chain.
Her voice was dry and cold. “I have no taxes in Jefferson. Colonel Sartoris
explained it to me. Perhaps one of you can gain access to the city records and
satisfy yourselves.”
“But we have. We are the city authorities, Miss Emily. Didn’t you get a
notice from the sheriff, signed by him?”
“I received a paper, yes,” Miss Emily said. “Perhaps he considers himself the
sheriff … I have no taxes in Jefferson.”
“But there is nothing on the books to show that, you see. We must go by
the—”
“See Colonel Sartoris. I have no taxes in Jefferson.”
“But, Miss Emily—”
“See Colonel Sartoris.” (Colonel Sartoris had been dead almost ten years.)
“I have no taxes in Jefferson. Tobe!”
The Negro appeared. “Show these gentlemen out.”
II
So she vanquished them, horse and foot, just as she had vanquished their
fathers thirty years before about the smell. That was two years after her father’s
death and a short time after her sweetheart—the one we believed would
marry her—had deserted her. After her father’s death she went out very little;
after her sweetheart went away, people hardly saw her at all. A few of the
304 A Rose for Emily

ladies had the temerity to call, but were not received, and the only sign of life
about the place was the Negro man—a young man then—going in and out
with a market basket.
“Just as if a man—any man—could keep a kitchen properly,” the ladies
said; so they were not surprised when the smell developed. It was another link
between the gross, teeming world and the high and mighty Griersons.
A neighbor, a woman, complained to the mayor, Judge Stevens, eighty
years old.
“But what will you have me do about it, madam?” he said.
“Why, send her word to stop it,” the woman said. “Isn’t there a law?”
“I’m sure that won’t be necessary,” Judge Stevens said. “It’s probably just a
snake or a rat that nigger of hers killed in the yard. I’ll speak to him about it.”
The next day he received two more complaints, one from a man who came
in diffident deprecation. “We really must do something about it, Judge. I’d be
the last one in the world to bother Miss Emily, but we’ve got to do something.”
That night the Board of Aldermen met—three graybeards and one younger
man, a member of the rising generation.
“It’s simple enough,” he said. “Send her word to have her place cleaned up.
Give her a certain time to do it in, and if she don’t … ”
“Dammit, sir,” Judge Stevens said, “will you accuse a lady to her face of
smelling bad?”
So the next night, after midnight, four men crossed Miss Emily’s lawn and
slunk about the house like burglars, sniffing along the base of the brickwork
and at the cellar openings while one of them performed a regular sowing
motion with his hand out of a sack slung from his shoulder. They broke open
the cellar door and sprinkled lime there, and in all the outbuildings. As they
recrossed the lawn, a window that had been dark was lighted and Miss Emily
sat in it, the light behind her, and her upright torso motionless as that of an
idol. They crept quietly across the lawn and into the shadow of the locusts
that lined the street. After a week or two the smell went away.
That was when people had begun to feel really sorry for her. People in our
town, remembering how old lady Wyatt, her great-aunt, had gone completely
crazy at last, believed that the Griersons held themselves a little too high for
what they really were. None of the young men were quite good enough for
Miss Emily and such. We had long thought of them as a tableau, Miss Emily a
slender figure in white in the background, her father a spraddled silhouette in the
foreground, his back to her and clutching a horsewhip, the two of them framed
by the back-flung front door. So when she got to be thirty and was still single, we
were not pleased exactly, but vindicated; even with insanity in the family she
wouldn’t have turned down all of her chances if they had really materialized.
When her father died, it got about that the house was all that was left to
her; and in a way, people were glad. At last they could pity Miss Emily. Being
left alone, and a pauper, she had become humanized. Now she too would
know the old thrill and the old despair of a penny more or less.
A Rose for Emily 305

The day after his death all the ladies prepared to call at the house and offer
condolence and aid, as is our custom. Miss Emily met them at the door,
dressed as usual and with no trace of grief on her face. She told them that her
father was not dead. She did that for three days, with the ministers calling on
her, and the doctors, trying to persuade her to let them dispose of the body.
Just as they were about to resort to law and force, she broke down, and they
buried her father quickly.
We did not say she was crazy then. We believed she had to do that. We
remembered all the young men her father had driven away, and we knew that
with nothing left, she would have to cling to that which had robbed her, as
people will.
III
She was sick for a long time. When we saw her again, her hair was cut short,
making her look like a girl, with a vague resemblance to those angels in
colored church windows—sort of tragic and serene.
The town had just let the contracts for paving the side-walks, and in the
summer after her father’s death they began the work. The construction company
came with niggers and mules and machinery, and a foreman named Homer
Barron, a Yankee—a big, dark, ready man, with a big voice and eyes lighter
than his face. The little boys would follow in groups to hear him cuss the
niggers, and the niggers singing in time to the rise and fall of picks. Pretty soon
he knew everybody in town. Whenever you heard a lot of laughing anywhere
about the square, Homer Barron would be in the center of the group. Presently
we began to see him and Miss Emily on Sunday afternoons driving in the
yellow-wheeled buggy and the matched team of bays from the livery stable.
At first we were glad that Miss Emily would have an interest, because the
ladies all said, “Of course a Grierson would not think seriously of a North-
erner, a day laborer:” But there were still others, older people, who said that
even grief could not cause a real lady to forget noblesse oblige—without calling
it noblesse oblige. They just said, “Poor Emily. Her kinsfolk should come to
her.” She had some kin in Alabama; but years ago her father had fallen out
with them over the estate of old lady Wyatt, the crazy woman, and there was no
communication between the two families. They had not even been represented
at the funeral.
And as soon as the old people said, “Poor Emily,” the whispering began.
“Do you suppose it’s really so?” they said to one another. “Of course it is.
What else could … ” This behind their hands; rustling of craned silk and satin
behind jalousies closed upon the sun of Sunday afternoon as the thin, swift
clop-clop-clop of the matched team passed: “Poor Emily.”
She carried her head high enough—even when we believed that she was
fallen. It was as if she demanded more than ever the recognition of her dignity
as the last Grierson; as if it had wanted that touch of earthiness to reaffirm her
306 A Rose for Emily

imperviousness. Like when she bought the rat poison, the arsenic. That was
over a year after they had begun to say “Poor Emily,” and while the two
female cousins were visiting her.
“I want some poison,” she said to the druggist. She was over thirty then,
still a slight woman, though thinner than usual, with cold, haughty black eyes
in a face the flesh of which was strained across the temples and about the eye-
sockets as you imagine a lighthouse-keeper’s face ought to look. “I want some
poison,” she said.
“Yes, Miss Emily. What kind? For rats and such? I’d recom—”
“I want the best you have. I don’t care what kind.”
The druggist named several. “They’ll kill anything up to an elephant. But
what you want is—”
“Arsenic,” Miss Emily said. “Is that a good one?”
“Is … arsenic? Yes, ma’am. But what you want—”
“I want arsenic.”
The druggist looked down at her. She looked back at him, erect, her face
like a strained flag. “Why, of course,” the druggist said. “If that’s what you
want. But the law requires you to tell what you are going to use it for.”
Miss Emily just stared at him, her head tilted back in order to look him eye
for eye, until he looked away and went and got the arsenic and wrapped it up.
The Negro delivery boy brought her the package; the druggist didn’t come
back. When she opened the package at home there was written on the box,
under the skull and bones: “For rats.”
IV
So the next day we all said, “She will kill herself”; and we said it would be the
best thing. When she had first begun to be seen with Homer Barron, we had
said, “She will marry him.” Then we said, “She will persuade him yet,”
because Homer himself had remarked—he liked men, and it was known that
he drank with the younger men in the Elks’ Club—that he was not a mar-
rying man. Later we said, “Poor Emily” behind the jalousies as they passed on
Sunday afternoon in the glittering buggy, Miss Emily with her head high and
Homer Barron with his hat cocked and a cigar in his teeth, reins and whip in
a yellow glove.
Then some of the ladies began to say that it was a disgrace to the town and
a bad example to the young people. The men did not want to interfere, but at last
the ladies forced the Baptist minister—Miss Emily’s people were Episcopal—
to call upon her. He would never divulge what happened during that interview,
but he refused to go back again. The next Sunday they again drove about the
streets, and the following day the minister’s wife wrote to Miss Emily’s relations
in Alabama.
So she had blood-kin under her roof again and we sat back to watch
developments. At first nothing happened. Then we were sure that they were
A Rose for Emily 307

to be married. We learned that Miss Emily had been to the jeweler’s and
ordered a man’s toilet set in silver, with the letters H. B. on each piece. Two
days later we learned that she had bought a complete outfit of men’s clothing,
including a nightshirt, and we said, “They are married.” We were really glad.
We were glad because the two female cousins were even more Grierson than
Miss Emily had ever been.
So we were not surprised when Homer Barron—the streets had been fin-
ished some time since—was gone. We were a little disappointed that there
was not a public blowing-off, but we believed that he had gone on to prepare
for Miss Emily’s coming, or to give her a chance to get rid of the cousins. (By
that time it was a cabal, and we were all Miss Emily’s allies to help circumvent
the cousins.) Sure enough, after another week they departed. And, as we had
expected all along, within three days Homer Barron was back in town. A
neighbor saw the Negro man admit him at the kitchen door at dusk one
evening.
And that was the last we saw of Homer Barron. And of Miss Emily for
some time. The Negro man went in and out with the market basket, but
the front door remained closed. Now and then we would see her at a window
for a moment, as the men did that night when they sprinkled the lime, but
for almost six months she did not appear on the streets. Then we knew that
this was to be expected too; as if that quality of her father which had
thwarted her woman’s life so many times had been too virulent and too
furious to die.
When we next saw Miss Emily, she had grown fat and her hair was turning
gray. During the next few years it grew grayer and grayer until it attained an
even pepper-and-salt iron-gray, when it ceased turning. Up to the day of her
death at seventy-four it was still that vigorous iron-gray, like the hair of an
active man.
From that time on her front door remained closed, save for a period of six
or seven years, when she was about forty, during which she gave lessons in
china-painting. She fitted up a studio in one of the downstairs rooms, where
the daughters and granddaughters of Colonel Sartoris’ contemporaries were
sent to her with the same regularity and in the same spirit that they were sent
to church on Sundays with a twenty-five-cent piece for the collection plate.
Meanwhile her taxes had been remitted.
Then the newer generation became the backbone and the spirit of the
town, and the painting pupils grew up and fell away and did not send their
children to her with boxes of color and tedious brushes and pictures cut from
the ladies’ magazines. The front door closed upon the last one and remained
closed for good. When the town got free postal delivery, Miss Emily alone
refused to let them fasten the metal numbers above her door and attach a
mailbox to it. She would not listen to them.
Daily, monthly, yearly we watched the Negro grow grayer and more
stooped, going in and out with the market basket. Each December we sent
308 A Rose for Emily

her a tax notice, which would be returned by the post office a week later,
unclaimed. Now and then we would see her in one of the downstairs win-
dows—she had evidently shut up the top floor of the house—like the carven
torso of an idol in a niche, looking or not looking at us, we could never tell
which. Thus she passed from generation to generation—dear, inescapable,
impervious, tranquil, and perverse.
And so she died. Fell ill in the house filled with dust and shadows, with
only a doddering Negro man to wait on her. We did not even know she was
sick; we had long since given up trying to get any information from the
Negro. He talked to no one, probably not even to her, for his voice had
grown harsh and rusty, as if from disuse.
She died in one of the downstairs rooms, in a heavy walnut bed with a
curtain, her gray head propped on a pillow yellow and moldy with age and
lack of sunlight.
V
The Negro met the first of the ladies at the front door and let them in, with
their hushed, sibilant voices and their quick, curious glances, and then he
disappeared. He walked right through the house and out the back and was not
seen again.
The two female cousins came at once. They held the funeral on the second
day, with the town coming to look at Miss Emily beneath a mass of bought
flowers, with the crayon face of her father musing profoundly above the bier
and the ladies sibilant and macabre; and the very old men—some in
their brushed Confederate uniforms—on the porch and the lawn, talking of
Miss Emily as if she had been a contemporary of theirs, believing that they had
danced with her and courted her perhaps, confusing time with its mathematical
progression, as the old do, to whom all the past is not a diminishing
road but, instead, a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches, divi-
ded from them now by the narrow bottle-neck of the most recent decade of
years.
Already we knew that there was one room in that region above stairs which
no one had seen in forty years, and which would have to be forced. They
waited until Miss Emily was decently in the ground before they opened it.
The violence of breaking down the door seemed to fill this room with
pervading dust. A thin, acrid pall as of the tomb seemed to lie everywhere
upon this room decked and furnished as for a bridal: upon the valance curtains
of faded rose color, upon the rose-shaded lights, upon the dressing table, upon
the delicate array of crystal and the man’s toilet things backed with tarnished
silver, silver so tarnished that the monogram was obscured. Among them lay a
collar and tie, as if they had just been removed, which, lifted, left upon the
surface a pale crescent in the dust. Upon a chair hung the suit, carefully
folded; beneath it the two mute shoes and the discarded socks.
A Rose for Emily 309

The man himself lay in the bed.
For a long while we just stood there, looking down at the profound and
fleshless grin. The body had apparently once lain in the attitude of an embrace,
but now the long sleep that outlasts love, that conquers even the grimace of
love, had cuckolded him. What was left of him, rotted beneath what was left
of the nightshirt, had become inextricable from the bed in which he lay; and
upon him and upon the pillow beside him lay that even coating of the patient
and biding dust.
Then we noticed that in the second pillow was the indentation of a head.
One of us lifted something from it, and leaning forward, that faint and invisible
dust dry and acrid in the nostrils, we saw a long strand of iron-gray hair.
From The Collected Stories of William Faulkner. Reprinted by permission of
Random House, Inc., and Curtis Brown, Ltd., London.
310 A Rose for Emily

Appendix C: The Battle Royal
(1952)
Ralph Ellison (1914–94)
It goes a long way back, some twenty years. All my life I had been looking for
something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was.
I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradiction and
even self-contradictory. I was naive. I was looking for myself and asking
everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer. It took
me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to
achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am
nobody but myself. But first I had to discover that I am an invisible man!
And yet I am no freak of nature, nor of history. I was in the cards, other
things having been equal (or unequal) eighty-five years ago. I am not ashamed
of my grandparents for having been slaves. I am only ashamed of myself for
having at one time been ashamed. About eighty-five years ago they were told
that they were free, united with others of our country in everything pertain-
ing to the common good, and, in everything social, separate like the fingers of
the hand. And they believed it. They exulted in it. They stayed in their place,
worked hard, and brought up my father to do the same. But my grandfather is
the one. He was an odd old guy, my grandfather, and I am told I take after
him. It was he who caused the trouble. On his deathbed he called my father
to him and said, “Son, after I’m gone I want you to keep up the good fight. I
never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days,
a spy in the enemy’s country ever since I give up my gun back in the
Reconstruction. Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to
overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and
destruction, let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.” They
thought the old man had gone out of his mind. He had been the meekest of
men. The younger children were rushed from the room, the shades drawn
and the flame of the lamp turned so low that it sputtered on the wick like the
old man’s breathing. “Learn it to the younguns,” he whispered fiercely; then
he died.
But my folks were more alarmed over his last words than over his dying. It
was as though he had not died at all, his words caused so much anxiety. I was
warned emphatically to forget what he had said and, indeed, this is the first

time it has been mentioned outside the family circle. It had a tremendous
effect upon me, however. I could never be sure of what he meant. Grand-
father had been a quiet old man who never made any trouble, yet on his
deathbed he had called himself a traitor and a spy, and he had spoken of his
meekness as a dangerous activity. It became a constant puzzle which lay
unanswered in the back of my mind. And whenever things went well for me I
remembered my grandfather and felt guilty and uncomfortable. It was as
though I was carrying out his advice in spite of myself. And to make it worse,
everyone loved me for it. I was praised by the most lily-white men of the
town. I was considered an example of desirable conduct—just as my grand-
father had been. And what puzzled me was that the old man had defined it as
treachery. When I was praised for my conduct I felt a guilt that in some way I
was doing something that was really against the wishes of the white folks, that
if they had understood they would have desired me to act just the opposite,
that I should have been sulky and mean, and that that really would have been
what they wanted, even though they were fooled and thought they wanted
me to act as I did. It made me afraid that some day they would look upon me
as a traitor and I would be lost. Still I was more afraid to act any other way
because they didn’t like that at all. The old man’s words were like a curse. On
my graduation day I delivered an oration in which I showed that humility was
the secret, indeed, the very essence of progress. (Not that I believed this—
how could I, remembering my grandfather?—I only believed that it worked.)
It was a great success. Everyone praised me and I was invited to give the
speech at a gathering of the town’s leading white citizens. It was triumph for
our whole community.
It was in the main ballroom of the leading hotel. When I got there I dis-
covered that it was on the occasion of a smoker, and I was told that since I was
to be there anyway I might as well take part in the battle royal to be fought
by some of my schoolmates as part of the entertainment. The battle royal
came first.
All of the town’s big shots were there in their tuxedoes, wolfing down the
buffet foods, drinking beer and whiskey and smoking black cigars. It was a
large room with a high ceiling. Chairs were arranged in neat rows around
three sides of a portable boxing ring. The fourth side was clear, revealing a
gleaming space of polished floor. I had some misgivings over the battle royal,
by the way. Not from a distaste for fighting, but because I didn’t care too
much for the other fellows who were to take part. They were tough guys
who seemed to have no grandfather’s curse worrying their minds. No one
could mistake their toughness. And besides, I suspected that fighting a battle
royal might detract from the dignity of my speech. In those pre-invisible days
I visualized myself as a potential Booker T. Washington. But the other fellows
didn’t care too much for me either, and there were nine of them. I felt
superior to them in my way, and I didn’t like the manner in which we were
all crowded together into the servants’ elevator. Nor did they like my being
312 The Battle Royal

there. In fact, as the warmly lighted floors flashed past the elevator we had
words over the fact that I, by taking part in the fight, had knocked one of
their friends out of a night’s work.
We were led out of the elevator through a rococo hall into an anteroom
and told to get into our fighting togs. Each of us was issued a pair of boxing
gloves and ushered out into the big mirrored hall, which we entered looking
cautiously about us and whispering, lest we might accidentally be heard above
the noise of the room. It was foggy with cigar smoke. And already the whis-
key was taking effect. I was shocked to see some of the most important men
of the town quite tipsy. They were all there—bankers, lawyers, judges, doc-
tors, fire chiefs, teachers, merchants. Even one of the more fashionable pastors.
Something we could not see was going on up front. A clarinet was vibrating
sensuously and the men were standing up and moving eagerly forward. We
were a small tight group, clustered together, our bare uppers touching and
shining with anticipatory sweat; while up front the big shots were becoming
increasingly excited over something we still could not see. Suddenly I heard
the school superintendent, who had told me to come, yell, “Bring up the
shines, gentlemen! Bring up the little shines!”
We were rushed up to the front of the ballroom, where it smelled even
more strongly of tobacco and whiskey. Then we were pushed into place.
I almost wet my pants. A sea of faces, some hostile, some amused, ringed
around us, and in the center, facing us, stood a magnificent blonde—stark
naked. There was dead silence. I felt a blast of cold air chill me. I tried to back
away, but they were behind me and around me. Some of the boys stood with
lowered heads, trembling. I felt a wave of irrational guilt and fear. My teeth
chattered, my skin turned to goose flesh, my knees knocked. Yet I was
strongly attracted and looked in spite of myself. Had the price of looking been
blindness, I would have looked. The hair was yellow like that of a circus
kewpie doll, the face heavily powdered and rouged, as though to form an
abstract mask, the eyes hollow and smeared a cool blue, the color of a
baboon’s butt. I felt a desire to spit upon her as my eyes brushed slowly over
her body. Her breasts were firm and round as the domes of East Indian temples,
and I stood so close as to see the fine skin texture and beads of pearly per-
spiration glistening like dew around the pink and erected buds of her nipples.
I wanted at one and the same time to run from the room, to sink through the
floor, or go to her and cover her from my eyes and the eyes of the others with
my body; to feel the soft thighs, to caress her and destroy her, to love her and
murder her, to hide from her, and yet to stroke where below the small
American flag tattooed upon her belly her thighs formed a capital V. I had a
notion that of all in the room she saw only me with her impersonal eyes.
And then she began to dance, a slow sensuous movement, the smoke of a
hundred cigars clinging to her like the thinnest of veils. She seemed like a fair
bird-girl girdled in veils calling to me from the angry surface of some gray and
threatening sea. I was transported. Then I became aware of the clarinet
The Battle Royal 313

playing and the big shots yelling at us. Some threatened us if we looked and
others if we did not. On my right I saw one boy faint. And now a man
grabbed a silver pitcher from a table and stepped close as he dashed ice water
upon him and stood him up and forced two of us to support him as his head
hung and moans issued from his thick bluish lips. Another boy began to plead
to go home. He was the largest of the group, wearing dark red fighting trunks
much too small to conceal the erection which projected from him as though
in answer to the insinuating low-registered moaning of the clarinet. He tried
to hide himself with his boxing gloves.
And all the while the blonde continued dancing, smiling faintly at the big
shots who watched her with fascination, and faintly smiling at our fear. I noticed
a certain merchant who followed her hungrily, his lips loose and droolin