Wednesday, September 11, 2013


The further along one goes in studying literature (and other subjects too, I'd imagine), the more it all becomes about theory. Not the kind of theory that is an intelligent guess or the best-we've-got, but the kind that takes something completely not-literature and applies that thing to literature to see what happens.


Sometimes what happens is really cool. Take feminism and Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew and put them together. What do you have? Well, on one level you have a man (Petruchio) who eventually teaches a strong-willed woman (Katherina) to submit, as the patriarchy prefers. That one isn't so hard - very few people living now watch the play and find themselves in agreement with Petruchio's methods, including withholding food and sleep. But there are other levels too: at the end of the play, Katherina delivers a speech about how wives should submit to their husbands. Put your feminist glasses on and you might wonder if she's being sarcastic. Maybe that she's acknowledging that the world is set against women, but using such hyperbole in her "submission" that it's obvious she's not about to be always sweet and obedient. Maybe she's just telling her husband what he wants to hear and does what she wants most of the rest of the time (recalling that husbands and wives wouldn't necessarily have spent all day together in Shakespeare's day).

And so, with an infusion of feminist theory, there are ways to leave the theater less uncomfortable after watching Taming of the Shrew. The same thing can be done with Marxism (class struggles), post-colonialism (effects of racism and imperialism), and so on.

The tough part here is reading all of the theory. Most of the original essays that began and continued these theories are long and complicated and mostly involve the author informing you that this word means something else for the purposes of the essay. I've read engaging articles and essays before, and theory writing is not the least bit engaging, at least not to me. But theory is also a really big deal in literary studies and when actually applied to a novel, it can show you a whole new angle. Often we read novels with something like theory in the backs of our heads because we've heard about feminism, class struggles, racism, and so forth. So we recognize aspects of the story that the author probably never intended and maybe never even considered.

At its best, theory elevates the reader and gives us a fresh view. And I really like that. But reading it? Quite the chore. That's today's project. Wish me luck.

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