About James George

James is an undergraduate English major at Dickinson College located in Carlisle, PA. In his free time he collages, sings in vocal ensembles (Infernos a cappella and Collegium), and writes poetry. His perfect night would involve all three of those activities and a thanksgiving dinner where everything looks like food but is in fact candy.

Literary Theory Manifesto: James George

In our English 220 class we’ve discussed many different ways in which literature can be analyzed. We have applied this knowledge while reading the texts of Mrs. Dalloway, Othello, and various poems. We have also read and discussed many articles from the leading authorities on these literary theories such as Foucault’s “What is an Author?” and Wimsatt and Beardsley’s “The Intentional Fallacy.” Now the time has come for us to decide which of these theories (if any one) do we consider the best. This question can be daunting because there is such a wide variety of theories to choose from.

Every theory offers a unique and enlightening perspective on most literary texts, but I find Gender Theory particularly interesting. Of course my choice to use this theory would depend greatly on the evidence found in the text, but I feel that I can find a sufficient amount of evidence in most texts. The important question to consider when choosing a theory to analyze a text with is, “What evidence can I use to support this theory?” There are elements of almost all theories in almost all texts, but to make a truly convincing argument, there must be enough evidence to strongly support your thesis.

There is no right literary theory, but there are more convincing arguments. The choice of a theory by a literary critic depends on the text. Although having a great amount of evidence for a particular theory can be helpful, it may be more interesting to identify the way in which obscure theories apply to texts. Broadening the thematic implications of a text is the purpose of literary theory and applying obscure theories that would not be ordinarily applied to a text can make the reader read the text in a very different way.

In the future when I read literary works I will make sure to keep as many of these theories as possible in mind. Focusing on one theory can be limiting although it may be helpful when gathering evidence for a paper. Keeping a broad perspective on literature and not ignoring it’s many layers is important and I plan on considering as many theories as possible while reading literature. Exploring the application of these theories in the works I have previously read will also be helpful in understanding the different theories. The pursuit of understanding more theories is never ending, but I also plan on researching other theories that we did not discuss in class in order to gain a better understanding of the ever expanding breadth of literary theory.

Psychological Criticism and Dickinson’s Poetry

The psychological approach is a unique form of criticism in that it draws upon psychological theories in its interpretation of a text. Linking the psychological and literary worlds bring a kind of scientific aspect into literary criticism. The three branches of psychological criticism that we have discussed in class are Psychoanalytic criticism, trauma and Cognitive criticism.

The first approach that we have discussed was psychoanalytic criticism. According to our Dictionary of Critical Theory, psychoanalysis is, “1) a discipline founded on a procedure for the investigation of mental processes that are otherwise inaccessible because they are unconcious; 2) a therapeutic method for the treatment of neurotic disorders; and 3) a body of psychological data evovling into a new scientific discipline.” Freud believes that society sublimates, or channels its unconscious through the creative process. This is where literature come into play. When criticizing Emily Dickinson’s poetry a psychoanalytic approach can be utilized. Take for example Dickinson’s poem There’s a certain slant of light,:

There’s a certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons,
That oppresses, like the weight
Of cathedral tunes.

Heavenly hurt it gives us;
We can find no scar,
But internal difference
Where the meanings are.

None may teach it anything,
‘Tis the seal, despair,-
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the air.

When it comes, the landscape listens,
Shadows hold their breath;
When it goes, ‘t is like the distance
On the look of death.

The psychoanalytic critic would look of the unconscious desires sublimated by Dickinson in her poem. In the psychoanalyst’s mind everyone’s actions are governed by sexual/pleasure seeking motives. Dickinson would have these desires and since they cannot be expressed in society she must sublimate them in her creative outlet, poetry. For example, with Freud’s theories in mind, we might draw the conclusion that Dickinson got a sexual pleasure from pain.

The second approach of psychological criticism discussed in class is trauma. According to Caruth’s article Trauma and Experience: Introduction”, “…in trauma the greatest confrontation with reality may also occur as an absolute numbing to it, that immediacy, paradoxically enough, may take the form of belatedness.” The affects of trauma on an author can manifest itself in their writing. Say for instance we learned that Emily Dickinson’s mother had killed herself in front her, this traumatic experience would be influential on her writing and we could interpret her poems with this in mind. (Trauma does not stand so much on it’s own as it is linked to psychoanalysis. The unconscious desires, perhaps influenced by trauma, of an author are the true meanings underlying all of their work.)

The third approach of psychological criticism discussed in class is the Cognitive Approach. Whereas the psychoanalytic approach  focused on the author and why they wrote what they wrote, the cognitive approach focuses on the reader and how their mind works while reading literature. This approach explains why humans associate certain mindsets with situations. The process is scientific in nature and draws evidence such as evolutionary findings to support its claim. The cognitive critic would read Dickinson’s poem, There’s a certain slant of light, and focus on what mindsets the reader associates with each line and why they do so. Through an understanding of a cognitive approach on literary works such as Dickinson’s poetry the reader can reach a better understanding of the poem’s intellectual complexity and the logic behind how easily they can follow what is going on in the poems.



Dickinson’s poem: http://www.online-literature.com/dickinson/830/

Dictonary of Literary Theory by David Macey

Trauma and Experience: Introduction by Cathy Caruth


Stanza and Analysis


Humid vomit fills pores

Rushing moisture

Blazing Freezing

Piled putrid particles

Steaming stringy suds

Friday’s festivities fester

Weekend without wafting waste


Critical Analysis:

My stanza entitled “Bathroom,” is about the disgusting discovery of an alcohol induced vomit pile in the bathroom of my dorm and the feelings that coincide with a place of cleanliness smelling of rancor for the duration of a week. The stanza is in free verse in order to mirror the freedom with which college students enter into during their freshman year. The lack of organized meter communicates the lack of forethought when it comes to the consequences of last night. There is a great deal of Alliteration that focuses on hard and stabbing sounds in lines 4, 5 and 6. In lines 4 and 5 the alliteration of “S” and “F” produce a hard sound and these sounds remind the reader of frustration and heavy breathing. The image of the “rushing moisture” in line 2 can be taken as the literal interpretation of a shower head, or as the sweating of the alcohol-sickened vomit culprit. The same double meaning can be found in line 3, the words “Blazing Freezing” can be referring to either the temperature of the water or the body temperature fluctuations of an inebriated person. The alliteration of the “W” in line 7 produces a sigh-like quality, this communicates the floor’s attitude toward the inconvenience. The amount of lines in the stanza also is of significance. The abundance of alliteration also communicates the persistence of the smell.  With the omission of the final “Never” of line 8, there are 7 lines in this stanza. The 7 lines represent the days of the week and reinforce the persistence of the odor. This also suggests a cycle with which this behavior revolves around. The following weekend the incident reoccurred and the odor that was almost faded was revived and poignant once more. The last Word of the stanza, comprising all of line 8, is “Never.” The use of punctuation and brevity suggest a lack of hope on our floor that friendly fragrance will return.