Lauri Copeland 

Critical Approaches to Literature 

Literature can be interpreted by using many different critical methods that point out different details within and outside the text. These critical approaches allow one to explore different ideas and theories that support a specific interpretation. Most people are unaware of what they can learn from different critical approaches and that there are ways to support an interpretation.  Some examples of different approaches to texts are as follows: feminist criticism, new historicism, psychoanalysis, and deconstruction. You may already be using these ideas in your analysis of literature, and yet you may not have known that your method was one of many formal approaches to literature. Within this article is a presentation of two of these approaches on different kinds of text. 

First, the feminist criticism approach is applied to a book called, The Awakening, by Kate Chopin. Second, the new historicism approach is used to analyze a short story, “Desiree’s Baby,” also by Chopin. 

Kate Chopin lived during the late 1800s in St. Louis. As she was growing up she learned how to be a strong woman and how to speak and read French. After her husband died, her friends encouraged her to publish some of her writings. Intellectual circles for women began to develop about this time. However, her novels At Fault and The Awakening were not accepted so highly because she portrayed women who went against the conventional woman’s role of the times. A half a century later The Awakening has become a standard of literary study. 

Feminist Criticism

In The Awakening, the main character, Edna Pontellier, is a young married woman who struggles with conventional role of woman in society and eventually defies the conventional roles.  Feminist criticism looks at literature and film texts from the perspective of women. One particular kind explores women’s socially-constructed roles by placing the interests of the narrative in its historical, patriarchal, social, medical, or legal perspectives. In addition, the literary conventions and methods used by the author, as well as the language and the culture in which the text is written, are examined. 
 
In the novel, the story can be interpreted through a  feminist criticism that focuses on societal norms. Edna Pontellier, the protagonist, struggles with the idea of womanhood and its inherent social constraints. She rejects her role as mother, wife and the social culture of her environment. According to Elaine Showalter’s feminist analysis, Edna is “beyond the bonds of womanhood, she has neither mother nor daughter, and even refuses to attend her sister’s wedding” (The Awakening, p. 178). In the novel, Edna grows up without a mother. Her mother died when she was three years old. Also, she has two sons and no daughters. It seems that her relationship with her sister is not a close one so she refuses to attend her sister’s wedding. In the time period in which she lived, marriages were arranged. However, Edna rejects her cultural role as wife, mother, and woman. In fact, Edna chooses her own husband versus her sister who marries the man her father chose for her. The times in which she lived defined the roles of woman. Throughout the novel, Edna thinks that she should not have to live according to what society expects from her. 
 
Feminist criticism might also contextualize Edna’s dilemma by examining the historical, patriarchal, and legal conditions of the society in which she lives. As a mother, Edna bears two sons. Historically, women of high class did not always participate in the rearing process of their children. Edna has nannies and servants to take care of the house and the children. Even though she loves her boys, she finds that the less time she spends with them the freer she feels to explore her own person. 
 
She begins to explore who she is one summer at a place called Grand Isle, a summer resort. Again, spending summers in resorts was common for those who could afford it. While there, she has time to share her deepest thoughts and feelings with those whom she meets. They are Robert, Adele Ratignolle, and Mademoiselle Reisz. 
 
Robert and, later, another man named Arobin affect Edna’s view on marriage because she falls in love with Robert and sexually desires Arobin. Adele Ratignolle becomes a mother figure for Edna. She is the epitomy of woman based on societal standards. She has learned to love her husband and loves her children tremendously. She stays within the confines of what a woman is allowed to do in art and how to speak and what to eat and what to wear. On the other hand, Mademoiselle Reisz is a fiery musician and pianist. She does not care what people think of her. The focus of her life is music and this is what influences Edna. The music of Chopin arouses her soul and she is moved to tears. Madame Reisz breaks the boundaries of women’s social constraints and instills in Edna a sense of independence. Furthermore, Edna's role in women’s culture makes her unhappy. She feels limited in her artistic ability and bound to her mundane chores of meeting people and conversing over matters that do not interest her. Again she rejects this social norm and decides to move out of her home and live in what she calls her “pigeon house.” 

The feminist approach reveals the underlying oppression and suppression of women and their views in different ways. The history of the times and literary conventions could reveal the author’s own life and feelings as well bring forth a message to the world. Also the medical, legal, and patriarchal views might reveal the limitations of women and their struggle to be independent and thoughtful. 

Historical Criticism

When using new historicism to interpret the short story, “Desiree’s Baby,” one can claim that the nameless baby is a product and a victim of his times. The new historicism approach to literature views literature as a web of interconnecting historical conditions, relationships and influences (The Awakening, p. 190). Its influence effects the political, social, and economical views of history. History is described as more like a web than a linear timeline. The history and culture of the 1800s in the U.S. included many prejudices. Anyone who was not male, white, and Christian was either ruled over, frowned upon, or rejected. 

For instance, in the story, “Desiree’s Baby,” the center of the web could be the baby. From the title and from the beginning of the story, the baby does not have a name. He is just called Desiree’s baby. Desiree, ironically, was once a nameless baby. Her mother, Madame Valmonde found her when she was a baby and raised her, it seems, in a loving home. Babies from Desiree’s point of view are blessings because she could not have one of her own. Desiree is described as “the idol of Valamonde.” 

As a woman and mother, she doesn’t carry much power even though she is white and beautiful. Women in those days did not have many rights or possessions of her own. In fact, women of the south who were privileged were indeed idolized. The story says that Arman Aubigny, her husband of French descent, marries her for her beauty and all of her becoming attributes that could add wealth to his home and name. He is the father of the nameless baby. He represents the rich and powerful of the south. His name carries a lot of weight because of its long history in Louisiana. Because he was a cotton farmer, he owned a lot of slaves to farm his land and to take care of his house. This was a time when the color of one’s skin mattered. 

Because the baby is a light-skinned black, a quadroon’s color (that is, one-quarter black), the baby is cursed and in the eyes of his father is a curse from God. Black-skinned people were viewed as cursed by God. Slaves became a needed commodity and were seen as less than human beings. In the story, Armand treated his slaves based on his feelings. Because of his narrow-minded thinking, he rejects his own baby. 

Other branches of the web can take the view of Armand’s parents. If Armand had been like his father who was a more open minded, loving and carefree man, maybe Desiree and the baby could have been sent to France. Armand’s own mother, who had lived in France,  was the one who carried the bloodline of the slaves in her. 

In this story, a baby represents either a blessing or a curse. It turns out that the baby is believed to be a curse by all the people in the story including Desiree. Societal values play a big role in this kind of thinking. Even today, the racial tensions between whites and blacks have not subsided. Children of mixed race continue to face an identity crisis and can face rejection, depending on where they live and social attitudes. 

Another branch in the web can be that the rights of children have not changed much. They are a product of their times and can fall prey to the falsehoods in history and culture of the times. Today’s cocaine addict baby is a victim of his or her times where illegal drug use exists among child-bearing women. The history of the past, including the time when Moses was a baby, have been dangerous times when children were killed because of their race. 
 
Feminist criticism and new historicism reveal two very different views within and outside of the texts, The Awakening and “Desiree’s Baby.” It is interesting to note that these two criticisms can support other points of view as well. Even though, it can be a challenge to go beyond the surface of a text and dig out the stuff underneath there are valuable lessons to learn. Literature is full of different views whether we like it or can see it. Thinking deeply requires our minds and that is what an awareness of the variety of critical approaches can allow us to do. 
 
References 

  1. Chopin, Kate, The Awakening (Boston: Bedford Books, 1993), p. 78 and 190. 
  2. Chopin, Kate, “Desiree’s Baby,” The Story and Its Writer An Introduction to Short Fiction, 4th ed., edited by Ann Charters (Boston: Bedford Books, 1995).
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