Those who teach or research any kind of literature will, at some point, spend some time thinking about literary theory: about how we read, what we bring to the texts we read, and which approaches best suit our methodologies or modules. Whether your research interests are the Victorian novel or seventeenth-century poetry, theory is a crucial part of the discipline today, opening up new approaches and fresh fields of enquiry for literary scholars. Yet it sometimes seems to me that the multiple approaches offered by different critical methodologies are particularly appropriate for literature of the nineteenth century, perhaps because of the century’s own uncertainties and often ambivalent approaches – what Harold Bloom calls the ‘anxiety’ of ‘latecomers’ in the nineteenth century, haunted by their predecessors. And of course the Victorians were developing their own forms of literary critical theory, from Matthew Arnold’s ideas in Culture and Anarchy and his lectures at Oxford, to Ruskin’s early ‘moral’ approach to all art forms.
It was all these things and more which I have been thinking about over the last year or two, particularly as I teach a module on gender and literature. In this module, students generally seem to enjoy the fictional texts they study and engage well with them (ranging from The Yellow Wallpaper to Orlando to Angela Carter’s novels), and also find many interesting ideas in the feminist non-fiction and criticism on the module, which includes Mary Wollstonecraft, Helene Cixous, Toril Moi, Elaine Showalter and others. I have noticed, however, that it is the synthesis of the two approaches, the theoretical and the literary, which students sometimes struggle with in their essays. I empathise: I remember being very interested in Marxist theory as an undergraduate, but feeling hopelessly at sea when it came to using it to write my own critical work.
Consequently, I began to look into developing a website which would work as a teaching tool for undergraduate students learning about literary theory. I wanted to create something which would offer a range of succinct explanations of different theoretical approaches, combined with a bibliography, and then provide a brief but clear critical essay on a particular text as an example of how a methodology might interpret it. Moreover, I wanted to use the same text for each theory, in order to demonstrate the multiple interpretations that different approaches can give to one text. The text to use, I thought, was Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’, because students tend to enjoy reading it, but mainly because it is a poem which opens itself to a wide range of interpretations. It is intentionally ambiguous: like a fairy-tale in narrative structure and character, it also seems allegorical (despite Rossetti herself stating that it was just a fairy-tale and not a ‘moral apologue’). The poem has been read biographically, as a warning to women to suppress their desires, as an allegory of the Eucharist, a lesbian poem, and a tale of anorexia, to name but a few approaches. More recently, it has been ‘reclaimed’ by feminist scholars as an indication of Rossetti’s focus on women’s power.
With funding from the Higher Education Academy, support from my department at Birmingham City University and a great deal of help from some excellent academic colleagues and friends, the website has now been set up and was launched on August 5th 2013. It is called The Virtual Theorist, and we hope it will provide a way into literary theory for undergraduates just starting out in the maze which is literary research. We hope that The Virtual Theorist will inspire undergraduates to experiment with their reading and writing, and see where literary criticism can take them. The ‘Brief Introduction to Literary Theory’ on the website offers some simple advice to students:
This website aims to help readers to understand a range of literary theories, and to see how they work ‘in action’. Theory is not something to be ‘applied’ to a text: it must be an integral part of how one reads the text, so before you begin an analysis, you need to thoroughly understand the different aspects of a theoretical approach. Read the theory page on this site; look at the sample analysis offered, and then read some of the recommended books before reading and carefully re-reading the text you intend to discuss. By this stage, and incorporating other research you might need to do, such as historical context, you should be able to synthesize the theoretical approach with the text in a creative way, and perhaps offer a whole new perspective of your own.
All the work on the website has been peer-reviewed, and we have had some good feedback from students. The theories we have covered so far are: Gender and Feminism, Gender and Queer Theory, New Historicism, Literary Linguistics, Formalism, Poststructuralism, Psychoanalytic criticism, Prosody and poetic form, Ecocriticism, Genre and Posthumanism. We hope to expand this in the future, so if you are interested in contributing to The Virtual Theorist, please do get in touch using the contact form on the website.
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Serena Trowbridge is Lecturer in English Literature at Birmingham City University. Research interests include Victorian poetry and novels; nineteenth century cultures of faith; Pre-Raphaelitism and Gothic. Her book Christina Rossetti’s Gothic has just been published with Bloomsbury. She blogs at Culture and Anarchy and tweets @serena_t.