English 4110/5110 Literary Criticism, Fall 2010

Section 01 (CRN 80023/80024): MW 2:00-3:15PM, Arts & Sciences 368

In Class Activities

1. Questions

Lois Tyson concludes her overview of psychoanalytic literary criticism by summarizing a series of question a typical psychoanalytic critic would ask a literary text. As a class, we will conclude our discussion of a particular article by turning the theorist's key concepts into an interpretive question.

2. Reading Theory

As many of you are noting in class discussion and article summaries, some of these theoretical articles are difficult to read. I advise that you actively read with a dictionary and encyclopedia in hand. Make notes and ask questions in the margins. After you read, summarize what you understand (write down a couple of sentences about the article's main idea), and come up with two questions regarding what you don't (write down a couple of questions).


Let's practice how to read theory by slowing down and focusing on the most difficult and the most clear sentences. For each article, Rose and Grosz, find a sentence or section that you can explain—and explain it by putting it in your own words in writing. Then, find a sentence or section that you can't explain, and the class will discuss it.

3. Psychoanalyzing Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian

After learning psychoanalytic theory and criticism for four weeks, we're going to practice psychoanalytic interpretation on a novel and poems. To prepare for our discussion, answer the questions of the theorist you're assigned by taking personal, informal notes before class. For instance, Brent will determine if Tyson's #1 question about how repression and the unconscious are at work in Blood Meridian as well as if McCarthy has an anxiety of influence that affects the writing and meaning of the novel. Note that some psychoanalytic questions will not apply to Blood Meridian. If you are assigned a theorist whose work does not help illuminate the text, simply say so!

4. Psychoanalyzing Ai's poetry

Now, let's look at Ai's poetry, available in GeorgiaVIEW, through the lens of psychoanalytic criticism. Groups will spend 15 minutes preparing a psychoanalytic interpretation of their assigned poems to share with the class.

5. Some Questions Existentialist Critics Ask about Literary Texts

In her critical overviews, Lois Tyson provides questions that psychoanalytic and reader-response critics ask about literary texts. Robert C. Solomon and Mikel Dufrenne, however, do not. Today, we'll speculate how to apply their existential overviews to literary interpretation. Break into groups and brainstorm questions existentialist critics ask about literary texts based on your group's assigned article.

6. Existentialism Soundtrack

To help us understand the methodology of existentialism, we as a class will build a soundtrack of existentialist songs. I've contributed The Violent Femmes' "Add It Up" and Nine Inch Nails' "The Becoming." This weekend, look through your music collection for songs that have existentialist themes as defined by Solomon, Dufrenne, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Kafka, and Camus. By Monday, October 4, email me an mp3 of one existentialist song, its lyrics, and a one sentence statement of its existentialist theme; then I'll compile a soundtrack for us.

7. Phenomenology: From Existentialism to Reader-Response Criticism

Phenomenology, like its sister philosophical method, is interested in consciousness. While existentialism focuses on how to live, act, and exist, phenomenology studies consciousness and the phenomena which occur in consciousness. Therefore, phenomonology can be considered a bridge between existentialism (a literary method examining the ethics of existence in a work of literature) and reader-response criticism (a literary method analyzing the relationship between (the consciousnesses of) author, text, and reader. To understand phenomenology, let's analyze five key passages in Robert R. Magliola's Phenomenology and Literature.

  1. Husserl: Consciousness for Husserl at this time is not a Cartesian knowing of knowledge by a real intercourse with the outside. Consciousness is an act wherein the subject intends (or directs himself toward the object), and the object is intended (or functions as a target for the intending act, though the object transcends this act). (4)
  2. Sartre: The intentional acts of an individual imply his unique way of "living" life; they constitute, in short, his "forward throw" or projet....only prose (according to Sartre) can produce a literature of social engagement. (11)
  3. Merleau-Ponty: All consciousness, according to Merleau-Ponty, is a unified subject-object relation. (13)
  4. Geneva School: The school's approach is much more sophisticated and focused only on that aspect of the author's consciousness which has transferred itself into the literary work, and indeed, is now and forever present in the work. Thus Geneva critics insist their approach is immanent and intrinsic. (10)
  5. Geneva School: Actually, the criticism of the Geneva School seems to involve two stages: first, a poetic and vicarious experience of the author's phenomenological ego (that is, the ego enverbalized in the literary work), and second, a description of this experience (so the description becomes the "interpretation" proper). (16)

8. Interpreting Sartre's Nausea

To interpret the variuous existential themes in Sartre's Nausea, we'll break into groups to discuss particular issues. Use the passages to begin your discussion, and feel free to find your own significant passages to help you explain the issue and analyze the novel's theme.

  1. Adventure
    • Something is beginning in order to end: adventure does not let itself be drawn out; it only makes sense when dead. I am drawn, irrevocably, towards this death which is perhaps mine as well. Each instant appears only as part of a sequence. I cling to each instant with all my heart: I know that it is unique, irreplaceable──and yet I would not raise a finger to stop it from being annihilated. (37-8)
    • This is what I thought: for the most banal even to become an adventure, you must (and this is enough) begin to recount it. This is what fools people: a man is always a teller of tales, he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his own life as if he were telling a story.
      But you have to choose: live or tell. (39)
  2. Nausea
    • Nothing seemed true; I felt surrounded by cardboard scenery which could quickly be removed. The world was waiting, holding its breath, making itself small──it was waiting for its convulsion, its Nausea, just like M. Achille the other day. (77)
    • People. You must love people. Men are admirable. I want to vomit──and suddenly, there it is: the Nausea. (122)
    • The truth is that I can't put down my pen: I think I'm going to have the Nausea and I feel as though I'm delaying it while writing. So I write whatever comes into my mind. (173)
  3. Existence
    • My existence began to worry me seriously. Was I not a simple spectre? (86)
    • My thought is me: that's why I can't stop. I exist because I think . . . and I can't stop myself from thinking. At this very moment──it's frightful──if I exist, it is because I am horrified at existing. I am the one who pulls myself from the nothingness to which I aspire: the hatred, the disgust of existing, there are as many ways to make myself exist, to thrust myself into existence. (99-100)
    • The essential thing is contingency. I mean that one cannot define existence as necessity. To exist is simply to be there; those who exist let themselves be encountered, but you can never deduce anything from them. (131)
    • But the images, forewarned, immediately leaped up and filled my closed eyes with existence: existence is a fullness which man can never abandon. (133)
  4. Absurdity
    • Once they have slept together they will have to find something else to veil the enormous absurdity of their existence. Still . . . is it absolutely necessary to lie? (111)
    • The word absurdity is coming to life under my pen; a little while ago, in the garden, I couldn't find it, but neither was I looking for it, I didn't need it: I thought without words, on things, with things. (129)
    • For no reason at all, out of defiance, to make the bare pink appear absurd on the tanned leather: to play with the absurdity of the world. (130)
  5. Consciousness
    • How long will this fascination last? I was the root of the chestnut tree. Or rather I was entirely conscious of its existence. Still detached from it──since I was conscious of it──yet lost in it, nothing but it. (131)
    • Yet I know that I exist, that I am here.
      Now when I say "I," it seems hollow to me. I can't manage to feel myself very well, I am so forgotten. The only real thing left in me is existence which feels it exists. I yawn, lengthily. No one. Antoine Roquentin exists for on [sic] one. That amuses me. And just what is Antoine Roquentin? An abstraction. A pale reflection of myself wavers in my consciousness. Antoine Roquentin . . . and suddenly the "I" pales, pales, and fades out. (170)
    • And the voice says: "There is the 'Railwaymen's Rendezvous'," and the I surges into the consciousness, it is I, Antoine Roquentin, I'm leaving for Paris shortly; I am going to say goodbye to the patronne. (171)
  6. Nothingness
    • Now I knew: things are entirely what they appear to be──and behind them . . . there is nothing. (96)
    • "I was just thinking," I tell him, laughing, "that here we sit, all of us, eating and drinking to preserve our precious existence and really there is nothing, nothing, absolutely no reason for existing." (112)
    • Existence is not something which lets itself be thought of from a distance: it must invade you suddenly, master you, weigh heavily on your heart like a great motionless beast──or else there is nothing more at all. (132)
  7. Art
    • And I too, wanted to be. That is all I wanted; this is the last word. At the bottom of all these attempts which seemed without bonds, I find the same desire again: to drive existence out of me, to rid the passing moments of their fat, to twist them, dry them, purify myself, harden myself, to give back at last the sharp, precise sound of a saxophone note. (175)
    • She sings. So two of them are saved: the Jew and the Negress. Maybe they thought they were lost irrevocably, drowned in existence. Yet no one could think of me as I think of them, with such gentleness. No one, not even Anny. They are a little like dead people for me, a little like the heroes of a novel; they have washed themselves of the sin of existing. Not completely, of course, but as much as any man can. This idea suddenly knocks me over, because I was not even hoping for that any more. I feel something brush against me lightly and I dare not move because I am afraid it will go away. Something I didn't know any more: a sort of joy.
    • Couldn't I try. . . . Naturally, it wouldn't be a question of a tune . . . but couldn't I, in another medium? . . . It would have to be a book: I don't know how to do anything else. But not a history book: history talks about what has existed──an existant can never justify the existence of another existant. My error, I wanted to resuscitate the Marquis de Rollebon. Another type of book. I don't quite know which kind──but you would have to guess, behind the printed words, behind the pages, at something which would not exist, which would be above existence. A story, for example, something that could never happen, an adventure. It would have to be beautiful and hard as steel and make people ashamed of their existence. (178)

9. Responding to Graham's "The Surface"

Before delving into the work of specific reader-response theorists, we're going to practice the five general kinds of reader-response criticism by breaking into groups of 2 or 3 and responding to Jorie Graham's poem "The Surface."

  1. Transactional Reader-Response Theory: How does the interaction of poem and reader create meaning? What does the printed text provide and how do you fill in the poem's gaps?
  2. Affective Stylistics: Do a close reading of the poem and analyze how the reading experience is controlled by the poem. What does the poem "do" to you, the reader; and how does this differ from what the poem "means"?
  3. Subjective Reader-Response Theory: Describe your emotions, mental associations, and memories as you experience the poem. What symbolic concepts do you create as you read the poem?
  4. Psychological Reader-Response Theory: Interpret the poem and then psychoanalyze your interpretation. What does your interpretation say about your unconscious fears and desires?
  5. Social Reader-Response Theory: Describe how you would plan to interpret the poem. Where did you learn your interpretive strategies? To what interpretive community or communities do you belong?

10. Responding to Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown": Readers, Narratees, and Structures

Divide into 3 groups of 3 or 4 to discuss the assigned theorist's method in regard to Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown." Here are the three theorists.

  1. Gibson, "Authors, Speakers, Readers, and Mock Readers" (Tompkins 1-6)
  2. Prince, "Introduction to the Study of the Narratee" (Tompkins 7-25)
  3. Riffaterre, "Describing Poetic Structures: Two Approaches to Baudelaire's 'Les Chats'" (Tompkins 26-40)

Here are your assigned tasks:

  1. What question(s) does your group's assigned theorist ask of a work literature?
  2. Answer the theorist's questions posed to Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown."

11. Responding to Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown": Affective Stylistics

Stanley Fish argues, "For me, reading (and comprehension in general) is an event, not part of which is to be discarded. In that event, which is the actualization of meaning, the deep structure plays an important role, but it is not everything; for we comprehend not in terms of the deep structure alone, but in terms of a relationship between the unfolding, in time, of the surface structure and a continual checking of it against our projection (always in terms of surface structure) of what the deep structure will reveal itself to be; and when the final discovery has been made and the deep structure is perceived, all the 'mistakes', the positing, on the basis of incomplete evidence, of deep structures that failed to materialize, will not be cancelled out." First, let's put Fish's quotation in our own words.


Next, what does the following passage from "Young Goodman Brown" do to the reader as it unfolds in time? Chart the evolving relationship between the surface structure (the sentence you're reading) to the deep structure (the underlying meaning you're projecting).

  1. "Welcome,'' repeated the fiend worshippers, in one cry of despair and triumph.
  2. And there they stood, the only pair, as it seemed, who were yet hesitating on the verge of wickedness in this dark world.
  3. A basin was hollowed, naturally, in the rock.
  4. Did it contain water, reddened by the lurid light? or was it blood? or, perchance, a liquid flame?
  5. Herein did the shape of evil dip his hand and prepare to lay the mark of baptism upon their foreheads, that they might be partakers of the mystery of sin, more conscious of the secret guilt of others, both in deed and thought, than they could now be of their own.
  6. The husband cast one look at his pale wife, and Faith at him.
  7. What polluted wretches would the next glance show them to each other, shuddering alike at what they disclosed and what they saw!
  8. "Faith! Faith!'' cried the husband, "look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one.''
  9. Whether Faith obeyed he knew not.
  10. Hardly had he spoken when he found himself amid calm night and solitude, listening to a roar of the wind which died heavily away through the forest.
  11. He staggered against the rock, and felt it chill and damp; while a hanging twig, that had been all on fire, besprinkled his cheek with the coldest dew.

12. Responding to A Reader Reading (A Novelist)

"Perchance to Dream" and "The Crown Prince" are two chapters excerpted from the draft of Walter A. Davis's manuscript entitled "The Last Catholic." The story, projected to consist of four volumes, follows the psychological, existential, and intellectual development of Michael Coight from childhood, adolescence, and college (volume one), through marriage and divorce (volume two), and beyond (volumes three and four). To prepare for Monday's discussion, answer the following study questions:

  1. How does reading Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams and Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury affect the protagonist's psyche and consciousness?
  2. What is Davis's/Coight's theory of reading? In other words, what does the author/protagonist think reading can or should do—psychologically and existentially? What traits does this method share with the reader-response, psychoanalytic, and existentialist critics we've been studying?
  3. Think about Davis's/Coight's reading process and your own significant reading experiences. What, if any, books have transformed your psyche and consciousness? How? Why? How would you describe the most important reading experiences in your life and how they impacted you?

13. Responding to a Reader Reading (A Poet)

"A Reading 7," "15," and "18" are taken from a four volume, 20 section book of poetry by Beverly Dahlen called A Reading. The poems examine the poet's relationship with language, with others, with reading and in so doing put the reading process on display. Let's determine what the poem means by breaking into groups to discuss how to read it.

  1. "A Reading 7": if necessary, focus on either page 104 or pages 120-1
    • Lois Tyson: How does the interaction of text and reader create meaning? How, exactly, does the text's indeterminacy function as a stimulus to interpretation? And how exactly does the text lead us to correct our interpretation as we read?
    • Wolfgang Iser: What is the role of indeterminacy in the work? How many gaps does the author leave for you the reader to fill and why?
    • Walter Benn Michaels: What values do you bring to your interpretation of the poem, and how do you guide the act of interpretation and control the interpretation itself?
  2. "A Reading 15": if necessary, focus on pages 61-2
    • Lois Tyson: What does a phrase-by-phrase analysis of a short literary text, or of key portions of a longer text, tell us about the reading experience prestructured by (built into) that text? How does this analysis of what the text does to the reader differ from what the text "says" or "means"?
    • Stanley Fish: What does a particular passage do to you the reader? What meaning does the temporal experience of line-by-line reading create?
  3. "A Reading 18": if necessary, focus on pages 12-4
    • Lois Tyson: How might we interpret a literary text to show that the reader's response is, or is analogous to, the topic of the story?
    • George Poulet: What kind of awareness and existence is created in you as you read the poem?
    • Norman O. Holland: What is the unified meaning (central theme) of the text and what is the identity of the self who reads the text? How does the identity of you the reader affect the unified theme of the text, and vice versa?

Undergraduate Assignments

Article Summaries

GeorgiaVIEW Post

Twice in the semester, you will summarize a particular theorist's essay and post your summary to our course discussion board at GeorgiaVIEW > Discussions > Article Summaries. The summary should

Informal Presentation

You will also be responsible for a brief, informal presentation which introduces the essay by defining key points andterms (without simply reading your written summary), articulating the interpretive question(s) that the theorist would ask a work of literature, and broaching issues for class discussion.

Due Dates

  1. Your written article summary will be due in GeorgiaVIEW > Discussions > Article Summaries on the Thursday before we discuss an essay in class. If you do not submit your written summary to Blackboard before the article is discussed in class, you will fail the assignment.
  2. Your brief, informal presentation will be due on the day we discuss the essay in class. This date is approximate for we sometimes fall a day behind.
  3. I will return your graded article summary to you in GeorgiaVIEW > Assignments > Summary 1 or Summary 2 the week after we discuss the article in class.
  4. For example, we are scheduled to discuss Kristeva on Wednesday, 9-1. Therefore, someone's summary will be due in GeorgiaVIEW by Wednesday, 8-25. In class on Wednesday, 9-1, that student will informally present the main ideas of Kristeva's essay. I will return the graded article summary to her the following week in GeorgiaVIEW > Assignments > Summary 1.

Note: As I wrote on the syllabus course schedule, we may have to slow down for certain theorists and theories. We will not be able to discuss each and every article in class. Thus, some articles may only be summarized on GeorgiaVIEW's Article Summaries discussion board and presented to the class by the person assigned to the article. Therefore, it is extremely important for each person to turn in the summaries on time and attend class for the presentation component. Summaries will be penalized one letter grade for each day, not class period, that they are turned in late. Failing to present the article to the class without providing a valid absence excuse will result in a one letter grade penalty.


Sign up for two article summaries: one in a Student 1-15 slot and one in a Student 16-30 slot.


GAV Due Date Presentation Due Date Reading Student
W, 8-11
M, 8-16


W, 8-18


W, 8-18
M, 8-23

Freud, "The Seduction and Its Immediate Consequences"

1 Brooke Woodard

Nicholls, "The Belated Postmodern: History, Phantoms and Toni Morrison"

2 Marlee McCampbell

W, 8-25

Johnson, "The Frame of Reference: Poe, Lacan, Derrida"

3 Chris McKenzie

Felman, "Turning the Screw of Interpretation"


W, 8-25
M, 8-30

Lacan, "The Meaning of the Phallus"

5 Ryan Vincent

Grosz, "The Penis and the Phallus"


W, 9-1

Kristeva, "Approaching Abjection"


Ali Duckworth

Moi, "Language, Femininity, Revolution"


W, 9-1
M, 9-6
W, 9-8

Irigaray, "Women, the Sacred and Money"

9 Marlee McCampbell

Doane, "Woman's Stake: Filming the Female Body"

10 Chelsea Thomas

W, 9-8
M, 9-13
W, 9-15
W, 9-15
M, 9-20
W, 9-22
W, 9-22
M, 9-27

Kierkegaard, "Truth Is Subjectivity" and/or "On Becoming a Chrisitian"

11 Sean Tadsen

Dostoevsky, from Notes from Underground and/or "The Grand Inquisitor"

12 Christina Riddle

W, 9-29

Nietzsche, from Thus Spoke Zarathustra, from Beyond Good and Evil and/or "On Truth"

13 Rob Tharpe

Camus, from The Myth of Sisyphus

14 Brent Cruce

W, 9-29
M, 10-4

Sartre, "The Origin of Nothingness," "Patterns of Bad Faith," and/or "Being-for-Others"

15 Matt Davidson

Sartre, "Why Write?"


W, 10-6

de Beauvoir, from The Ethics of Ambiguity and/or from The Second Sex

17 Mike Doran

Barnes (Solomon 308-18)

18 Ryan Vincent

W, 10-6
M, 10-11
W, 10-13

Barnes, "Possibilities"


Magliola, "Philosophical and Linguistic Background"


W, 10-13
M, 10-18
W, 10-20
W, 10-20
M, 10-25
W, 10-27

Prince, "Introduction to the Study of the Narratee"

21 Christina Riddle

Riffaterre, "Describing Poetic Structures: Two Approaches to Baudelaire's 'Les Chats'"


W, 10-27
M, 11-1

Poulet, "Criticism and the Experience of Interiority"

23 Chris McKenzie

Iser, "The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach"

24 Sean Tadsen

W, 11-3

Fish, "Literature in the Reader: Affective Stylistics"

25 Matt Davidson

Culler, "Literary Competence"

26 Brent Cruce

W, 11-3
M, 11-8

Holland, "Unity Identity Text Self"

27 Rob Tharpe

Fish, "Interpreting the Variorium"

28 Mike Doran

W, 11-10

Michaels, "The Interpreter's Self: Peirce on the Cartesian 'Subject'"

29 Brooke Woodard

Tompkins, "The Reader in History: The Changing Shape of Literary Response"

30 Chelsea Thomas

W, 11-10
M, 11-15
W, 11-17
W, 11-17
M, 11-22
W, 11-24
W, 11-24
M, 11-29
W, 12-1

Exam 1

You will write two essays, one theoretical and one interpretive. The first essay will test your general understanding of psychoanalytic theory as well as comprehension of specific theorists by defining and debating the key terms of how psychoanalysts see the world and literature. In the second essay, you will interpret a short story, some poems, or a film through the lens of pscyhoanalytic criticism by answering questions that particular theorists ask of literature.

Exam 2

You will write two essays, one theoretical and one interpretive. The first essay will test your general understanding of existentialist theory as well as comprehension of specific theorists by defining and debating the key terms of how existentialists see the world and literature. In the second essay, you will interpret a short story, some poems, or a film through the lens of existentialist criticism by answering questions that particular theorists ask of literature.

Exam 3

You will write two essays, one theoretical and one interpretive. The first essay will test your comparative understanding of reader response criticism and your choice of psychoanalysis or existentialism. In the second essay, you will interpret a work of literature of your choice using any two specific theorists to guide your reading.

Here is what the class has chosen to write about:


Student Literary Work Theorists
Brent Cruce Dexter (2006-present television series) Freud and Nicholls
Matt Davidson Bonjanowski, The Dog Fighter (2005 novel) Nietzsche and Sartre
Mike Doran Amis, The Rachel Papers (1992 novel) Freud and Gibson
Ali Duckworth* Morrison, "Recitatif" (1983) Freud and Moi
Marlee McCampbell Bukowski, "goodbye" and "the bluebird" (circa 1992 poems) Barnes and Holland
Chris McKenzie DeLillo, White Noise (1985 novel) Nicholls and Sartre
Christina Riddle Lost (2004-10 television series) Nietzsche and Sartre
Sean Tadsen Watchmen (2009 film) Iser and Kierkegaard
Rob Tharpe Supernatural (2005-present television series) Holland and Iser
Chelsea Thomas Vanity Fair (2004 film) Grosz and Iragaray
Ryan Vincent The Silence of the Lambs (1991 film) Freud and Nicholls
Brooke Woodard Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire (1947 play) Camus and Wilson

*graduate student interpretive paper

Graduate Assignments


You will spend 30 minutes first presenting a theorist's article to the class and then holding a question and answer session about it. Essentially, you will teach the essay's theoretical methodology to the class.


You will write two essays, one theoretical and one interpretive. The first essay will test your general understanding of psychoanalytic theory as well as comprehension of specific theorists by defining and debating the key terms of how psychoanalysts see the world and literature. In the second essay, you will interpret a short story, some poems, or a film through the lens of pscyhoanalytic criticism by answering questions that particular theorists ask of literature.

Theoretical Paper

While the exam required you to show your broad understanding of a psychoanalytical theory, psychoanalysis, the theoretical paper asks you to analyze an important term, theory, or issue in either psychoanalysis or existentialism discussing how at least three articles we've read in class conceive of the subject and two theoretical articles outside of class talk about the topic. After comparing how five different essays conceptualize a subject, what is your theoretical conclusion regarding the issue? For instance, you could analyze how Dostoevsky, Sartre, Nietzsche and two others conceptualize free will, then theorize what the term means for in your particular thinking. Or you could compare and contrast what Freud, Kristeva, Lacan and two others mean by the unconscious, then conclude what the unconscious means specifically for you.

Interpretive Research Paper

While the exam required you to show your broad understanding of psychoanalytical theory and the theoretical paper asked you to analyze an important issue in either psychoanalysis or existentilism, the final paper asks you to interpret a work of literature of your choice through the lens of two theorists that we've read (but not ones used in your first two assignments). Write a normal thesis-driven research paper of literary analysis that also answers the questions raised by the theories we've been reading about. Your paper should utilize not only the two articles read in class but also two additional essays or books written by the theorists (in other words, reference two works by two theorists). As a research paper, it should incorporate at least five works of scholarly criticism to support your interpretation.