Reader-Response Criticism is

Key Terms: Dialectic; Hermeneutics; Semiotics; Text & Intertextuality; Tone

Key TermsDefinitions
Incomplete Texta text that remains incomplete because it has not been interpreted by a reader
Opiniona view or judgment not necessarily based on facts
Interpretive Communitya term coined by Stanley Fish for describing a group of informed readers who share similar assumptions about language and literary conventions

The origins of reader-oriented criticism can be located in the United States with Louise Rosenblatt’s development of theories in the 1930s, though she further developed her theories in the late seventies (The Reader, the Text, the Poem 1978). American critic Stanley Fish has also significantly influenced Reader-Response theory. He conceived of “interpretive communities” that employ interpretive strategies to produce properties and meanings of literary texts (14-15). The thoughts, ideas, and experiences a reader brings to the text, combined with the text and experience of reading it, work together to create meaning. Reader + Text = Meaning.

Reader-response criticism, or reader-oriented criticism, focuses on the reading process. As Charles Bressler notes in Literary Criticism, the basic assumption of reader-oriented criticism is “Reader + Text = Meaning” (80). The thoughts, ideas, and experiences a reader brings to the text, combined with the text and experience of reading it, work together to create meaning. From this perspective, the text becomes a reflection of the reader. The association of the reader with a text differs from the premise of Formalist criticism, which argues for the autonomy of a text. Reader-response criticism does not suggest that anything goes, however, or that any interpretation is a sound one.

The origins of reader-oriented criticism can be located in the United States with Louise Rosenblatt’s development of theories in the 1930s (Literature as Exploration). Rosenblatt further developed her theories in the late seventies (The Reader, the Text, the Poem). American critic Stanley Fish has also significantly influenced reader-response theory. Fish conceived of “interpretive communities” that employ interpretive strategies to produce properties and meanings of literary texts (14-15).Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, a novel that critiques the dangers of a fictional utopian society, incorporates an intriguing exploration of reader-response criticism into its plot. John and Mustapha Mond both read texts written by Shakespeare, but they report very different responses to Shakespeare’s plays. For John, a noble savage born on a reservation in New Mexico, plays by Shakespeare represent a useful way to learn about the finest aspects of humanity and human values. In contrast, Mustapha Mond views literary works written by Shakespeare as useless high art. Mustapha Mond’s position as the Resident Controller for Western Europe influences his perspective as a reader as much as John’s encounter with Shakespeare on a Reservation in New Mexico does. Recognizing how John’s and Mustapha Mond’s experiences differ in the novel helps readers understand why these characters respond to Shakespeare in dissimilar ways.

Foundational Questions of Reader-Response Criticism

  • Who is the reader? Who is the implied reader?
  • What experiences, thoughts, or knowledge does the text evoke?
  • What aspects or characters of the text do you identify or disidentify with, and how does this process of identification affect your response to the text?
  • What is the difference between your general reaction to (e.g., like or dislike) and reader-oriented interpretation of the text?

Online Example: Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz”: A Reader’s Response

Discussion Questions and Activities: Reader-Response Criticism

  1. List and define two to three of the key terms you would consider to approach a text from a reader-response approach.
  2. Explain why a text that has not been interpreted by a reader is an “incomplete text.”
  3. Using the Folger Digital Texts from the Folger Shakespeare Library, interpret the soliloquy in act three, scene one, lines 64-98 of Hamlet from a reader-response approach. Consider the following questions as you construct your response: what previous experiences do you have with the drama or poetry of William Shakespeare, and how have those experiences shaped the way you currently approach his work? If you read this soliloquy in the past, has your view of it changed? Why?
  4. Differentiate between your general opinion of Hamlet’s soliloquy (your like or dislike of it) and your interpretation of it.
  5. In your view, what does Hamlet mean when he says, “To be or not to be—that is the question” (3.1.64)? Defend your interpretation.

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