Critical theory has two foundations that function both individually and in tandem within the Humanities: social theories and literary theories. Max Horkheimer, of The Frankfurt School, described a theory as critical insofar as it seeks “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them.” This description is not only a strong foundation for social theory, more specifically Marxism, but also for literary critical theory. Literary criticism is not so different in that critical analysis of literature seeks meaning from art, or otherwise stated, it allows readers and communities to connect with text as both reflective and influential. One might suggest further that the seeking of connection and meaning from literary text derives from the desire to be released, to liberate one’s self from isolation through a cathartic release. This idea of liberation then becomes the connective thread between social and literary criticism.
Critical Theory Timeline
Optional Writing Assignment
Choose a critical theory from the above list. Use this critical theory as a tool for breaking down a chosen scene, analyzing the different pieces—character, setting, texture, etc.—and put the scene back together with the added information and insights you were able to glean from the critical theory focus.
For example: Let’s quickly explore the opening scene of Their Eyes Were Watching God through Psychoanalytic Theory, specifically Lacanian Criticism:
Language as expressing absence. You use a word to represent an absent object but you cannot make it present. The word, then, like the unconscious desire, is something that cannot be fulfilled. Language, reaching out with one word after the other, striving for but never reaching its object, is the arena of desire. (The Norton Introduction to Literature)
In the opening scene, Janie narrates the women of Eatonville: “Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.” In this narration, Janie specifically challenges Lacanian Criticism as a gender paradox. Lacanianism suggests that word/signifier=desire. Janie suggests that a woman’s memory of word/signifier=dream/desire=truth.
Lacanian | word/signifier=desire
Janie | memory of word/signifier=truth
If a woman’s memory is truth, it would be human for her memory to suit her desired truth. The women of Eatonville remember Janie as the “mayor’s wife” and they remember Tea Cake, Janie’s lover, as “good for nothing.” When in reality, Janie never felt like a “mayor’s wife” and she loved Tea Cake in a way that transcended money and position. Still, Janie’s memory of Tea Cake is also biased and minimizes his gambling.
Furthermore, if we were to consider Tea Cake, the word, a “tea cake” is a decadent item. A lady’s delicacy. Did Janie desire a lady’s delicacy? Or perhaps, “Tea Cake,” is Janie’s specific perfection of delicacy. He plays the piano, he runs in the “muck,” he lives each day as if it’s his last. Further, is Tea Cake what any of the women, including Janie, remember him to be, or does he signify what each of the women desire most of him and in his memory does he signify each of the women’s truths for themselves, if memory is a reflection of self and desire?
In Their Eyes, the positions of women are stark and pointed in relationship to men—married, widowed, disgraced…. The women form their own truths about the men and themselves in how they regard the men. The men are signifiers. The signified—success, disgrace, liberation, acceptance…—is more about how the women see themselves in relationship to the men than how the men see the women. Joe sees Janie as an item to be held and put on a pedestal, not heard, much like the piano he buys for their house. In this, the piano is a metaphor for Janie’s position in Eatonville and Joe’s world. Both the piano and Janie have their own music, but they sit quietly when Joe is around. However, when Tea Cake comes to town, both the piano and Janie sing. Could the piano and Janie play their music before Tea Cake arrived in Eatonville? Of course. But Tea Cake becomes their signifier and liberator. As much as the other women want to blame Tea Cake for Janie’s downfall, the reader connects to Janie’s view of Tea Cake.
Max Horkheimer, of The Frankfurt School, described a theory as critical insofar as it seeks “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them.” How does Janie’s “truth” of Tea Cake liberate her? How do the other women’s “truths” of Tea Cake liberate them? As we consider both Janie’s and the Eatonville women’s “truths” of Tea Cake, how does our understanding help to liberate us individually? If we are to understand that all women, all individuals, see truth where they must see truth, it helps us transcend the shackles of “community gossip,” just as janie dismisses the women’s jibes and sympathies upon her return to Eatonville as being more about the women seeing their own truths for themselves than seeing the “real” truth as it relates to Janie.
Remember, as writers, we are using critical theory to liberate, open and connect to the questions. We are not looking for absolutes or “answers.” In exploring Janie from a Lacanian critical viewpoint, it is our writer’s intention to study her multiple “tendrils” rather than to categorize her. Where literary criticisms are often used by readers and critics as a way to pinpoint, categorize and prove theses, as writers, we use literary criticism as an ongoing creative process by which to explore humanity. If our readers are to invest themselves within our narratives, we must give them room to create their own truths and explorations as well. For this reason, proving the “thesis” must take a step back and allow the questions themselves to remain as primary in the creative narrative context.