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Erin’s paper presented here adopts Holland’s notion that literature taps into each reader’s identity theme, which directs the way that readers will respond to and interpret a literary work. This paper breaks a bit from the traditional thesis-support structure as Erin describes her research project and makes general observations about the four readers at the end of the paper.
After great pain, a formal feeling comes—
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs—
The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?
The Feet, mechanical, go round—
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought—
A Wooden way
A Quartz contentment, like a stone—
This is the Hour of Lead—
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow—
First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—
Erin Huebner Gloege
Literature and Theory
November 7, 20–
Identity Themes in Dickinson: Four Students Reading
When reading the same poem, two readers will ultimately come to different interpretations of which neither one is necessarily more correct than the other. Because of the inevitable variance of responses, some literary critics have abandoned the notion that an “objective” reading exists. Reader-response critics agree that all readings are “subjective” because they must be filtered through the reader. Each reader brings a unique background and approach to the work that he or she will read. In the words of Norman Holland, “As readers, each of us will bring different kinds of external information to bear. Each will seek out the particular themes that concern him. Each will have different ways of making the text into an experience with a coherence and significance that satisfies” (123). Critics, such as David Bleich, go so far as to say that “it is the reader who determines whether a piece of writing is literature” (1254). If it is assumed that the reader is essential to the distinction of a work as literature and each reader approaches the work differently, then how do we understand and evaluate different interpretations of a work.
Norman Holland presents a strategy that correlates any interpretation to the individual personality of the reader: “interpretation is a function of identity” (123). When a reader interprets a text through his or her identity theme, he or she first fits the text closely to his or her way of adapting to difficult situation; he or she approaches the work as he or she would approach life. Secondly, the reader unconsciously associates the work to his or her desires and experiences. Lastly, the reader moves from the desires to significance where he or she can share and communicate a meaning with others (Holland 126–27). These steps are all taken in accordance with the person’s identity theme, the way he or she approaches life. Thus, an interpretation of a text can be analyzed and explained by understanding the reader’s approach to life, his or her identity theme.
My goal for this paper is to apply Holland’s theory of identity themes to particular readers and their interpretations. I will show that indeed each of the interpretations that I present are related to the reader’s approach to life. With the four interpretations that I collected, I will first give a brief profile of the reader and his or her approach to life followed by a generalization of this profile, which I see as the identity theme for this person. Secondly, I will relate, as was written by the reader, his or her interpretation, which is often in the form of scattered notes. When helpful, I will also relate the reader’s verbal comments, which usually show a judgment by the reader of his or her ability to interpret literature. Finally, I will explain the connection between the reader’s approach to life and his or her interpretation. As assumed by Holland’s theory, the following examples demonstrate a direct correlation between the reader’s identity theme and his or her interpretation.
In order to give a full understanding of this project, I will present my methods for collecting the interpretation. First, I chose a poem by Emily Dickinson called “After Great Pain.” I printed copies of the poem without the author’s name on it. I then gave the poem to four readers, which I tried to pick from various academic fields. In addition, I know all of the readers personally; I found this necessary under the time restraint and my need to create a profile of the reader without developing an extensive process of getting to know the person. I asked the readers to write their responses on the sheet of paper and to answer the following questions: 1) what is the poem about or what does it mean? and 2) do you like it and why or why not?
The only task that remains is the heart of the matter, to present the profiles and interpretations and link them in a way that demonstrates that the interpretation is the result of the identity theme.
Profiles, Interpretations, and Their Connection
All of the readers are resident on a Catholic liberal arts college campus either as students or professors. Additionally, all are of Caucasian decent. The profiles attempt to provide general additional information as well as the essential background for an understanding of the person’s identity theme.
Reader A is a twenty-one year old female majoring in religious studies and with a minor in peace and justice studies. Because of her academic area as well as her commitment to service, she is keenly aware of pain and need and the issues of justice involved in helping those in need. She has been closely touched by the plight of abused people especially children. Through conversations with her, I have learned that she is specifically interested in how sexual and physical abuse affects victims throughout their lives. She desires very much to understand the struggle and healing process that an abused person undergoes; understanding is the key to facing such a struggle. I would state her identity theme as follows: when faced with difficulty, an understanding of its effects on the person as a whole is essential to that person’s ability to cope with the difficulty.
Reader A’s Interpretation
Interpretation as the Result of Identity Theme
Reader A’s interpretation first and foremost is immediately connects the “great pain” with abuse and “Yesterday, or Centuries before” with childhood. Immediately following the connection to childhood abuse, she describes some stages of dealing with the pain that are not particularly connected to any one line of the poem but seem to be an overall feeling. The stages are apparent in her note: “pressing on, living Numbly so as not to feel/acknowledge feeling.” Her understanding of the response to abuse as expressed in the above note ends her interpretation, leading me to think that having gained an understanding of the response, she is satisfied with her interpretation. She has applied her identity theme of needing understanding in order to cope; she copes with the abuse she finds in the poem by understanding and identifying a reaction to it. Being satisfied, she moves on to her feelings towards the poem. She like it because she “can identify” with it or in other words she connects with the author’s understanding of the reaction to pain; reader A finds that the author, just like her, seeks an understanding of the reaction to pain. Yet she dislikes the some of the capitalization because she “cannot see significance of their capitalization.” Her lack of understanding is the only disturbing point. Reader A’s final conclusion as should be expected is positive because she has found her identity theme of understanding difficulty.
Reader B is a twenty-year-old female majoring in music and education with a minor in chemistry. Probably due to her musical and scientific background, she is aware of how things work together. For her, everything has a proper place and explanation. She would agree with my description of her as a “neat freak.” She finds disorder disturbing and responds to unsettling events by putting other things in her world into place, like lining up books or always making her bed. I would state her identity theme as follows: when faced with difficulty, organization is the key to maintaining sanity and staying in control.
Reader B’s Interpretation
Interpretation as the Result of Identity Theme
Reader B is organized about her interpretation. She takes each stanza and tries to find some meaning in it. With each partial interpretation, she cites particular lines, words, or feelings that led her to her conclusion of meaning. For example, when she suggests that the poem could be about “remembering an abortion,” she calls on “stiffness,” which is probably connected to “stiff Heart.” The most interesting thing about Reader B’s response is not her interpretation but her reaction to the poem. She says that the poem “doesn’t really make sense” and then comments on her dislike of the fragmentation of the poem. Her identity theme of organization ties her inability to understand to the lack of organization in the poem. Fragments seem unconnected and disorganized to her; thus, she is left without the ability to cope with the difficulty that the poem presents her because she cannot find order in the “madness.” Unable to find order, she cannot identify with the author’s description of a reaction to pain and therefore dislikes the poem. She finds her identity theme incompatible with the poem and thus abandons it.
Reader C is a nineteen-year-old male majoring in philosophy and political science. Over the past two years, much of his life has been centered on the development of his faith. He includes God as a constant in his picture of life especially when presented with any difficulties. He is also aware that personally he has been faced with only minor difficulties. Sometimes he feels inadequate in relating to others who have experienced more traumatic events in their lives. He has also been impressed by his friends’ ability to include faith in their difficulties. I would state his identity theme as follows: when faced with difficulty, turning to God is essential to coping and surviving.
Reader C’s Interpretation
[noted on text] Line 4: “He”–Christ, “bore”–Jesus bearing sins
Interpretation as the Result of Identity Theme
Reader C immediately identifies “great pain” as a trauma. Then, he reacts as his identity theme would dictate: he brings God into the picture. He identifies a question that is often directed towards God: “Why did this happen to me?” His next step is to specify the question as a relation to God; he includes God as a supporting figure. His idea of God as a supportive figure does not seem to stem from any one part of the poem but more from some of the images that Reader C has identified with God such as “He bore” as Christ bearing sins. As Reader C continues with his interpretation, he admits that he cannot fit the second stanza into his interpretation. Even so, he does not abandon his interpretation but comes back to it in the third stanza. Reader C’s final paragraph does not mention God but talks of a person dealing with difficulty. To me, it seems as though Reader C finds no need to further back up his interjection of God into the poem. He deciphers difficulty, inserts God as support, and goes on dealing with the difficulty. This response is consistent with his identity theme, which calls for the presence of God whenever presented with a difficulty.
Reader D is a late middle-aged male mathematics professor. Being mathematically minded, he expects a solution or a “right answer” to any presented problem. In addition, he has been exposed to more losses than my previous readers because of his age and experience with a large student and faculty body. Experience of death and loss always increase with age. I would state his identity theme as follows: when face with difficulty, one must seek the “right answer” in order to find resolution.
Reader D’s Interpretation
The poem describes the feeling after a tremendous loss (perhaps the death of someone very close). The person suffering the loss becomes numb, going through life in a listless manner, oblivious to everything; focusing only on the pain. If a person survives this pain, it is remembered as a central event in his or her life. The last line brings to mind the stages of anger, denial, and resolution.
Interpretation as the Result of Identity Theme
Reader D identifies the “great pain” as a loss probably due to death. I ascribe this interpretation as coming from his experiences with death. He then describes the person’s reactions to the death. This interpretation probably grows out of his observations and personal experience of the difficulty of dealing with death. Although his interpretation does not seem directly related to his identity theme, his comments concerning his interpretation do. After I had read his response, he asked me if he had got it right. He wanted to know if he had come up with the right answer. He assumed that there was a correct solution to the problem I had proposed of interpreting the poem. So, rather than using his identity theme to interpret the poem, Reader D uses his identity theme to approach the poem. Reader D, it appears, struggles to understand the poem, and he responds, according to his identity theme, by trying to find the “right answer.”
Although I began this project with some doubt about the relation between a person’s approach to life and their interpretations to a poem, I have been convinced by the above examples that there is definitely a correlation between the two. Even so, I also believe that this project fails to show a direct and undeniable cause and effect relationship between a person’s identity theme and his or her approach to literature. Holland’s theory in this preliminary investigation holds up, but I still have doubts about its strength under a more vigorous examination because the correspondence found in the above examples does not have the “tight fit” described by Holland.
Bleich, David. “Feelings about Literature.” The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. David H. Richter. New York: St. Martin’s P. 1989. 1254–71.
Dickinson, Emily. “After Great Pain.” Emily Dickinson. Ed. Lilia Melani. Dept. of English, Brooklyn College, 2009. Web. 12 July 2012. <http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/formal.html>.
Holland, Norman. “Unity Identity Text Self.” Reader Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism. Ed. Jane P. Tomkins. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP. 1980. 118–32. Print.