A common technique for analyzing literature (by which we mean poetry, fiction, and essays) is to apply a theory developed by a scholar or other expert to the source text under scrutiny. The theory may or may not have been developed in the service literary scholarship. One may apply, say, a Marxist theory of historical materialism to a novel, or a Freudian theory of personality development to a poem. In the hands of an analyst, another’s theory (in parts or whole) acts as a conceptual lens that when brought to the material brings certain elements into focus. The theory magnifies aspects of the text according to its special interests. The term theory may sound rarified or abstract, but in reality a theory is simply an argument that attempts to explain something. Anytime you go to analyze literature—as you attempt to explain its meanings—you are applying theory, whether you recognize its exact dimensions or not. All analysis proceeds with certain interests, desires, and commitments (and not others) in mind. One way to define the theory—implicit or explicit—that you bring to a text is to ask yourself what assumptions (for instance, about how stories are told, about how language operates aesthetically, or about the quality of characters’ actions) guide your findings.
Let’s turn again to the insights about using theories to analyze literature provided in Joanna Wolfe’s and Laura Wilder’s Digging into Literature: Strategies for Reading, Analysis, and Writing (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016).
Here’s a brief example of a writer using a theoretical text as a lens for reading the primary text:
In her book, The Second Sex, the feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir describes how many mothers initially feel indifferent toward and estranged from their new infants, asserting that though “the woman would like to feel that the new baby is surely hers as is her own hand,. . . she does not recognize him because. . .she has experienced her pregnancy without him: she has no past in common with this little stranger” (507). Sylvia Plath’s “Morning Song” exemplifies the indifference and estrangement that de Beauvoir describes. However, where de Beauvoir asserts that “a whole complex of economical and sentimental considerations makes the baby seem either a hindrance or a jewel” (510), Plath’s poem illustrates how a child can simultaneously be both hindrance and jewel. Ultimately, “Morning Song” shows us how new mothers can overcome the conflicting emotions de Beauvoir describes.
Daniel DiGiacomo. From Mourning Song to “Morning Song”: The Maturation of a Maternal Bond.
Notice that in this brief passage, the writer fairly represents de Beauvoir’s theory about maternal feelings, then goes on to apply a portion of that theory to Plath’s poem, a focusing move that establishes the writer’s special interest in an aspect of Plath’s text. In this case, the application yields new insight about the non-universality of de Beauvoir’s theory, which Plath’s poem troubles. The theory magnifies a portion of the primary text, and its application puts pressure on the soundness of the theory.
Applying a Theoretical Lens: W.E.B. Du Bois Applied to Langston Hughes
Experienced literary critics are familiar with a wide range of theoretical texts they can use to interpret a primary text. As a less experienced student, your instructors will likely suggest pairings of theoretical and primary texts. We would like you to consider the writerly workings of the theory-primary text application by examining a student’s paper entitled “Double-consciousness in ‘Theme for English B,” an essay which uses W.E.B. Du Bois’s theory (of double-consciousness) to elucidate and interpret Langston Hughes’s poem (“Theme for English B”). W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) was an American sociologist, civil rights activist, author, and editor. Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was an American poet, activist, editor, and guiding member of the group of artists now known as the Harlem Renaissance.
But before you can make sense of that student’s essay, we ask that you read both a synopsis of the theoretical text and the primary text.
Using a Theoretical Lens to Write Persuasively
Applying a theoretical lens to poetry, fiction, plays, or essays is a standard academic move, but theories are also frequently applied to real-world cases, hypothetical cases, and other non-fiction texts in disciplines such as Philosophy, Sociology, Education, Anthropology, History, or Political Science. Sometimes, the theoretical lens analysis is called a reading, as in a “Kantian reading of an ethical dilemma,” or a “Marxist reading of an historical episode.” At other times, the application of a theory is known as an approach, as in a “Platonic approach to the question of beauty.”
The basic writerly moves to using a theoretical lens include:
- name and cite the theoretical text and accurately summarize this text’s argument. Usually this short summary appears in one or two paragraphs at the beginning of the essay. You will want to be sure your summary includes the key concepts you use in your paper to analyze the primary literary text.
- use the surface/depth strategy to show how deeper meanings in the primary text can be explained by concepts from the theoretical text. You might think about this as creating a “match argument” between the primary and theoretical text (or case under consideration). Take important points made in the theoretical argument and match them to particular events or descriptions in the primary text. For instance, you could argue Langston Hughes’s line So will my page be colored as I write? (27) matches Du Bois’s argument that the veil prevents Whites from seeing Black’s individuality. Such a match argument can form an organizing structure for the essay as you develop whole paragraphs to support different points of connection between the theoretical and primary texts. You may be able to devote an entire paragraph to the claim that Du Bois’s concept of “the veil” can help us understand Hughes’s description of the challenges his speaker faces in asking his instructor to see him on his own terms.
- support your surface/depth claims linking the primary and theoretical texts with textual evidence from the primary text. If you claim that a particular passage exemplifies a particular theory, you need to provide evidence in the form of quotations or paraphrases to support this interpretation. This evidence will most certainly need to be provided from the primary text you are analyzing but perhaps also occasionally from the theoretical text, too, especially if you connect the primary text to a small detail in the theoretical text or if the wording of the theoreticl text helps you explain something in the primary text. Use the patterns strategy to provide multiple examples from the primary text supporting your claims that it matches elements of the theoretical text.
- reveal something complex and unexpected about the primary text. The goal of the theoretical lens strategy—like all strategies of literary analysis—should be to show that the text you are analyzing is complex and can be understood on multiple levels.
- challenge, extend, or reevaluate the theoretical text (for more sophisticated analyses). The most sophisticated uses of the theoretical lens strategy not only help you better understand the primary text but also help you better understand—and reveal complexities in—the theoretical text. When you first start applying this strategy, it may be sufficient to argue how the theoretical text helps you understand the primary text, but as you advance, you should attempt the second part of this strategy and use the primary text to extend or challenge the theoretical argument. Such arguments may serve as starting points for you to contribute to literary (or philosophical, or sociological, or historical) theory as a theorist yourself. These arguments are often made in the concluding paragraphs of analyses using the theoretical lens strategy.
Common Words and Phrases Associated with Theoretical Lens
A Sample Student Essay
Title: Double-consciousness in “Theme for English B”
The post-slavery history of African-Americans in the United States has been one of struggle for recognition. This struggle continued through the civil rights movement in the 1970s and ’80s. W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the most influential African-American leaders of the early twentieth century, described the complicated effects racism had on African-American selfhood. In his treatise The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois introduces the term “double-consciousness” to describe African-Americans’s struggle for self-recognition. Double-consciousness is the sense of “always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others” (8). It means that an African-American “[e]ver feels his two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body” (8). According to Du Bois, double-consciousness means that African-Americas are always judging themselves through a veil of racism, experiencing how others judge and define them rather than how they might define and express themselves.
Langston Hughes’s poem “Theme for English B,” written nearly fifty years after Du Bois’s essay, depicts one African-American’s continued struggle with double-consciousness. However, where Du Bois sees double-consciousness as a painful condition he hopes will one day disappear, Hughes seems to have a more positive view, suggesting that mainstream Americans should also have an opportunity to experience this condition. Instead of eradicating double-consciousness, Hughes seeks to universalize it. His poem suggests that true equality will be possible when all cultures are able to experience and appreciate double-consciousness.
We see the poem’s speaker struggling with double-consciousness when he expresses difficulty articulating what is “true” for himself. Hughes writes:
It’s not easy to know what is true for you and me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear. Harlem, I hear you:
hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.) Me—who? (16-20)
In this passage, which concludes with a question about who he is, the speaker expresses a divided self. At first, he seems to identify with Harlem, an African-American neighborhood in New York, where he is currently sitting and writing. However, this identification becomes troubled by his acknowledgment that Harlem does not completely define him. When the speaker writes “hear you, hear me—we two” (19), he suggests that “you” (referring to Harlem) and “me” (referring to himself) are intimately related by not identical. They are two voices that, while both present in his poem, still “talk” (19) to one another. The fact that these voices converse, rather than speak as one, indicates they are not completely merged.
This sense of a divided self is further reinforced by the claim “(I hear New York, too.)” (20). This aside is interesting because it establishes Harlem as both separate from and connected to the larger city. This division reflects what Du Bois calls the “two-ness [of being] an Amercan [and] a Negro” (8). By placing New York in parentheses, the speaker may be suggesting that the American part of himself represented by New York plays a weaker role in his identity than the African-American self represented by Harlem. Like Du Bois, the speaker in “Theme for English B” experiences inner conflict when he tries to reconcile the different parts of himself.
We further see evidence of the speaker’s conflict when he writes that he likes “Bessie, bop, or Bach” (24). “Bessie” refrs to the popular blues singer Bessie Smith, an African-American woman who sang a very African-American style of music. At the other end of the spectrum is “Bach,” which refers to the classical European composer J.S. Bach and represents a traditionally White form of music. In the middle is “bop,” which refers to “bebop,” a form of jazz made popular in the 1940s that inspired a particular form of dance most practiced by White teenagers at the time. In saying that he likes all of these forms of music, the speaker indicates that he is a mix of both African and European identities—like Du Bois, he feels both traditional White and traditional African-American culture calling him.
The “page” that the poem’s speak has been asked to write likewise reflects the two-ness of being African-American. An essay can be thought of as black ink on white paper, which in the context of the poem represents Black identity articulated against a White background. The speaker refers to this conflict of identities when he writes, “So will my page be colored that I write? / Being me, it will not be white” (27-28). These lines suggest that the speaker is worried that his instructor will only see him as a representative Black student. It shows how the speaker is caught in a double bind: when the teacher asks the class to write something “true” (5), he will expect this particular student (who in the first stanza tells us he is the only Black student in the class) to write in a way consistent with his obvious Black heritage. But the student is aware that his White teacher doesn’t really know what it means to be Black. Thus, if he writes in a way that fulfills his instructor’s expectations, he will write a page that seems to a White teacher to be an authentic depiction of what it means to be Black—in other words, a White representation of Blackness. This dilemma illuminates what Du Bois refers to as “always looking at one’s self thorugh the eyes of others” (8). Because the speaker in the poem is so aware of what his instructor (and possibly the other students in the class) already thinks of him, he is having difficulty articulating just who he really is.
At the end of the poem, however, instead of calling for the eradication of double-consciousness as Du Bois does when he longs for the day that African-Americans will be able to “merge his double-self into a better and truer self” (9), Hughes seems to suggest that instead his instructor needs to feel the double-identity that he feels so strongly. Thus, he writes “You are white— / yet a part of me, as I am a part of you” (31-32) and “As I learn from you, / I guess you learn from me—” (36-37). These lines indicate that the White instructor needs to accept, African-American identity as part of his own culture, just as the speaker has needed to see both parts of his identity calling him. This ability to feel and be multiple perspectives, cultures, and backgrounds at once is labeled “American” in the second stanza. Hughes seems to be suggesting that even though the”two-ness” he feels is often difficult and painful, it needs to be seen as central to American—and not just African-American—identity. When he states at the end of the poem, “I guess you learn from me” (38), he is turning the tables on the teacher, and on Whites in general, by suggesting that they have as much to learn from exploring Black culture as Blacks have to learn by studying classic White culture.