Contemporary Literary Theory

 

 

William Carlos Williams “The Red Wheelbarrow” (1923)

so much depends

upon

a red wheel

barrow

glazed with rain

water

beside the white

chickens.

 

 

New Criticism & Formalism: Started in 1920s-1930s in reaction to extrinsic criticism. Insists on reading poem intrinsically as poem consists less of a series of referential and verifiable statements about the 'real' world beyond it, than of the presentation and sophisticated organization of a set of complex experiences in a verbal form. Views literary language as self-focused: its function is not to make extrinsic references, but to draw attention to its own ‘form’.

Major figures: I. A. Richards, T. S. Eliot, Cleanth Brooks, William Empson, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, F. R. Leavis, Robert Penn Warren, W. K. Wimsatt, R. P. Blackmur, Rene Wellek, Ausin Warren, and Ivor Winters, Roman Jakobson (YAH-keb-sen), Victor Schklovsky, Mikhail Bakhtin (bahk-TEEN)

Key terms: intentional fallacy, affective fallacy, close reading, defamiliarization, dialogism

Close reading: Seemingly random, it is actually structured (4 stanzas, 4 words each, 3-word line followed by 1-word line, 1-word line has 2 syllable words, most 3 word lines have 1 syllable words)

This shows richness in poetic language and thus the importance of wheelbarrow as it promotes such a poem.

 

 

Marxism:  Views works of art as products of historical forces that can be analyzed by looking at the material conditions in which they were formed. What we call world view is actually ideology of dominant class. Focuses on clash between dominant and repressed class.

Major figures: Karl Marx, Terry Eagleton, Fredric Jameson, Raymond Williams, Louis Althusser (ALT-whos-sair), Walter Benjamin (ben-yeh-MEEN), Antonio Gramsci (GRAWM-shee), Georg Lukacs (lou-KOTCH), and Friedrich Engels, Theordor Adorno, Edward Ahern, Gilles Deleuze (DAY-looz) and Felix Guattari (GUAT-eh-ree).

Key terms: commodification, dialectical materialism, superstructure, ideology, hegemony, proletariat, interpellation

This focus on the mundane material is seen as in indication of the primacy of material over ideal.

Its location on the farm also indicates the importance of production of food as a basic necessity.

Thus, that a lot depends on a wheelbarrow means a lot depends on the production of food (the base) which cannot be produced without the farmer. (the proletariat) Thus base (food) informs superstructure (poetry)

 

 

Psychoanalytic Criticism: May focus on the writer's psyche, the study of the creative process, the study of psychological types and principles present within works of literature, or the effects of literature upon its readers.

Major figures: Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, Shoshona Felman, Jane Gallop, Norman Holland, George Klein, Elizabeth Wright, Frederick Hoffman, and, Simon Lesser.

Key terms: unconscious, id, ego, superego, imaginary, symbolic, real

Dream works: red and white as dream world and real world. Red, like dreams, is glazed as not clear.

Red as color of repressed id or desire. White as the superego’s purity

 

 

Feminism: Seeks to establish feminist canon or redefine literature from a less patriarchal slant. Focuses on sexual differences and how society defines woman. Questions the essence of woman.

Major figures: Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan Kate Millet, Teresa de Lauretis, Annette Kolodny, Judith Fetterly, Elaine Showalter, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar.

Key terms: androgyny, essentialism, écriture feminine, jouissance, phallologocentrism, semiotic, patriarchy

Wheelbarrow as masculine versus the feminine chickens can be seen as indicative of male supremacy, of the power of the wheelbarrow (masculine) over the chickens (feminine)

 

 

Deconstruction: Works against seeing language as a stable, closed system. Sees literature as irreducibly plural, an endless play of signifiers which can never be finally nailed down to a single center, essence, or meaning. Search for reversal of meaning, instability of language, opposite interpretation.

Major figures: Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault (fou-KOH), Roland Barthes (bart), Jean Baudrillard (zhon boh-dree-YAHR), Helene Cixous (seek-sou), Paul de Man (de-MAHN), Jacques Lacan (lawk-KAWN), and Barbara Johnson.

Key terms: signifier, signified, logocentrism, difference, transcendental signified

If wheelbarrow is now useless then where is its importance? Wheelbarrow’s importance is then ironic.

Mocks poetic convention but with serious implications. If readers can be fooled into reading such simplicity as a poem simply because it’s written by a great writer, then entire tradition of poetry is questioned.

This being about a mundane object calls into questions those poems about bigger and more philosophical issues.

 

 

Compiled from: Booker, M. Keith. A Practical Introduction to Literary Theory and Criticism. NY: Longman, 1996.

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