Since F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of my favorite writers, I took Tyson’s discussion on The Great Gatsby in chapter 5 to heart.  Tyson focuses largely on Gatsby’s longing for future fulfillment, but I believe that students can go deeper than this, because the novel is not just about Gatsby.  The novel was published in 1925 and certainly introduced love affairs, unhappiness, and longing to its readers.  However this was a year of great importance to Fitzgerald, who had been married for five years to Zelda Fitzgerald, or “Daisy”.  Zelda had just ended an affair with Edouard Jozen in France, and the couple had returned to America as an escape.  The Fitzgeralds drank heavily and partied to mask their problems, and Zelda was already exhibiting glimpses of mental illness.  They suffered financial strains and Fitzgerald’s hatred of the rich was masked further by his turbulent hypocritical lifestyle.  Zelda, however, thirsted for riches and demanded nothing less of her husband.

What would Tyson say about this angle in the New Critical Reading of Gatsby?  Aren’t we missing something?  I have always felt that Gatsby, like other works by Fitzgerald, is a memoir of his marriage and personal life.  When discussing the New Critical Reading of the novel, this must be taken into account.  If the text must focus on one single meaning and one single interpretation, the question I would ask my students in their search for this identification would be something like: “Is the universal theme of Gatsby unfulfilled longing?  If so, who is the main character in the novel who defines longing for the course of the story? Or, is longing ever marginalized by any other force in this novel, such as compulsion?  What do you think?”  I really don’t feel that unfulfilled longing as the one theme of the novel can be talked about without questioning Fitzgerald as the main character in the novel.  Also, I feel a little disappointed that Tyson did not take that into account in his discussion.  Finally, I do not think that the answer of “longing” can be arrived at without looking at and questioning the weight of other forces in the novel.

I hear Tyson’s appreciation of New Criticism as a replacement for biographical-historical criticism, which looks at the author’s life, but I disagree with it.  If we are to teach students that writing is intimate and highly depended upon an individual’s view of the world, how can we tell them that there is only one best accurate interpretation of the text, which does not take into account the experiences of the author himself?  I think text should be open to multiple interpretation that goes outside of the text, as well, because we can never truly know what our authors were thinking at the time they wrote their novels.  In order to journey into their heads, we should journey outside of just one question or one meaning, like universal longing.  There is more.  What about compulsion?  What about resentment?  What about fear?  -Sofia



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10 responses to “Tyson

  1. sunyprof

    Sofia, you say “If we are to teach students that writing is intimate and highly depended upon an individual’s view of the world, how can we tell them that there is only one best accurate interpretation of the text, which does not take into account the experiences of the author himself?”

    I wonder if that is what we are to teach students. Have you had an opportuntity or impetus to read Roland Barthes, a highly influential French literary critic? See what he says about the death of the author.

    Provocative? Esp. if you’re encountering this notion for the first time. KES

  2. sofiapenna

    I’ve read that wiki article about Barthes, and I really think this is a great area for debate. Should we remove the author from the work? Honestly, this is my first run-in with that question, in addition to the Tyson reading’s implications.

    I really need to think on this one, because some of my best experiences in college-level English classes were being able to tie the author to the text. Most of my professors taught that way, and I really grew to like that approach. I suppose I am open to Barthes, but it is new territory for me. -Sofia

  3. mandygrl101

    Sofia: I had similar experiences in most of my college English classes as well. Every time we began a new work, the teacher would introduce the author and briefly outline his or her life. This was almost always the first thing we did in class. We also usually talked about the author’s intent and purpose for writing, and how things in the text were applicable to the writer’s life. While I like this approach, I also find other theories useful and interesting as well. However, I don’t think it has to be an either or situation. Can’t we use all the theories? I appreciate the first line of this chapter where Tyson writes that, “New Criticism…has left a lasting imprint on how we read and write about literature” (135). Further, I admit that I had never heard of this theory until reading about it now through Tyson. How strange as an English major and English lover that I was completely unaware of this lens, and how often I subconsciously use it in my own reading. Further, I think it is still important to inform English classes/students/lovers about this theory, as Tyson emphasizes, it really was a foundation for many of the present theories. How can we look at one theory, which may be a rebuttal to this theory, and not even know what is being rejected?!

  4. jmdegan

    The problem I have with Barthes is that he assumes (as structuralists do) that the text contains its own ways of meaning. That is not the same thing as what the New Critics said; they believed that all meaning was contained in the text. Structuralism was essentially the beginnings of applying social theories of language to literary criticism, which in turn allowed reader-response theory to form around the way in which readers create meaning from the language structures texts provided.

    Then thinkers like Derrida came along and showed how those language structures were unstable because they implied oppositional structures (I’m not particularly a fan of Derrida). Then came thinkers like Foucault who suggest that language is not only a social act, but an ideological one. Here’s where I have to depart with Barthes: if the text were neutral (and Barthes himself wouldn’t believe that was true), then it could provide its own context for interpretation. However, to use a common phrase, these texts aren’t created in a vacuum. We need to confront THE GREAT GATSBY as a post-war novel, dealing with a complex historical moment where the American myth of regeneration was discovered to be just a myth, or among any of the ideological structures that informs it (gender, race, etc.).

    I’m not devaluing reader-response: it is the foundation of literary appreciation (if not criticism). But I do caution against placing it in a singular or primary place in our study of texts.

    J. Degan

  5. allison

    Sofia, Thank you for your musings on Gatsby. I found your biological background enlightening. It was all information that I learned back in high school but had since forgot.
    I completely agree with you that it is so essential to look at the author and the context in which a text was created. How incredibly limiting to say that “we must look only at this text and eliminate our knowledge of all other things The New Critics have given us a wonderful method for looking closely at a text and supporting argument with textual evidence. But I would feel incredibly cheated if this were the only way that people looked at literature. We would have no larger purpose for reading besides examining a “theme.” but what is the point of even looking at theme if there is no outside life/context to apply it.

  6. ll123

    One of New Criticism’s contributions to literary studies is replacing the practice of interpreting “a literary text by studying the author’s life and times to determine authorial intention…the meaning the author intended the text to have”(136). To me, it is just a natural thing to be curious about the author before I actually read that book, and it is the most impressing and effective way to understand the book from the angle of that individual( the author’s)—a human being’s worldview. In reading the information about the author, we feel more connected to the content that he/she writes about, instead of distancing ourselves as observers. Back in China, my high school teachers and college professors taught me to look at a poet’s life and make a connection with his/her poem. I found it was beneficial to my study no matter it’s Chinese or English. I still choose books based on my preferred author today, and maybe I should be open to different authors in order to appreciate variety of writing styles. Posted by L. L.

  7. sfarah19


    I encountered the issue of learning about the author’s past in my multi-cultural lit. class. Although, I am always curious and fascinated to learn about the person who wrote what I’m reading (especially if the book was one that impacted me as a reader) I wonder if there is also danger in doing this. In my lit. class, we too, always read a short bio. of the author before we discuss the text. Does reading about the author’s past influence the reader’s interpretation of the text? In my personal experience, it does. Reading about Roy’s political activism influenced my interpretation of Marxism in “The God of Small Things.” The problem is we associate the author with also being the point of view in the story. As we all know is problamatic and dangerous on many levels for both the reader and the author. This was a question I having been meaning to ask our class, and my lit. class.

    I agree with L.L. that it may have its benefits (more so in poetry I suppose) but I consider its risks (especially in fiction) to be a bit higher. Thoughts???


  8. sunyprof

    Suzanne, I don’t think we can completely erase the author’s biography in any reading we do–I don’t know why we would want to do that.

    Our focus on multiple critical perspectives though helps us recognize that what we may think of as authorial intention is always a product of the particular ideologies circulating (unintentionally as well as intentionally) through any text.

    The author’s “message” is always mediated by the discourses that make him/her up–not what we might think of as a kind of “free” agency.

    Our goal in 541 is to move beyond simple readings of any text–and to learn ways to complicate the readings so that our young readers see that they can bring many lenses/many interpretations to texts.

    We can help them best do that by learning ourselves how to ask better (than “how does the author create this character?) questions and how to see texts in new ways. I would be very interested in your sharing how your mulitcultural lit class takes up these issues. KES

  9. sfarah19

    I would never suggest completely erasing the author’s bio. I wonder, however, if our students will confuse the author’s personal experiences (ideologies included) with the “point of view” of the narrative. This is confusing to me sometimes. Especially if the point of view is third person omn. I suppose that is why it is important to practice reading texts from multiple theoretical perspectives. If we do incorporate the author’s bio into our teaching of the text I think it is important that our students have an understanding of New Criticism to avoid this confusion.


  10. jmdegan

    I’d go that far. Look, if we become bogged down in how a particular author sees their work and authorize that as the “correct” (or leading to the “correct”) meaning, then literature would be a static product. I tend to think of literature as a dynamic exchange of ideas between the reader, the text, and (importantly) the contexts (historical/
    cultural/racial/gendered/economic) in which that encounter takes place. I’d argue that there are multiple contexts emerging at any given time when this encounter occurs. I just don’t see a place where the author’s view is given more weight than any other. I would also disagree that formalism is essential (although it is for English majors) to reading critically. Texts are not self-contained meaning-bearing objects, verbal icons (as Wimsatt would call them) but, as I’ve said, dynamic spaces that can support multiple meanings. Although we must be cautious in noting that the text should play an equal part in this exchange with readers and contexts (the trap that many teachers have fallen into when encouraging students to take on a reader dominated strategy).

    We all ask certain questions of literary/cultural texts we encounter. Theories provide frameworks to begin answering those questions, but it’s still about what goes on between the three forces above.

    J. Degan

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