Analyzing Literature: The Reader-Response Theory Catherine Wishart Adjunct Instructor

Analyzing Literature:
The Reader-Response Theory
Catherine Wishart
Adjunct Instructor
Copyright © 2010. All rights reserved.
The Reader-Response Answer to
• In the 1930s, students and authors became
disenchanted with the supposition that the reader was
not important in evaluating a piece of literature.
• In 1938, Louise Rosenblatt thought that criticism
should “involve a personal sense of literature”; a
“spontaneous and honest reaction” (Lynn 68-9).
• Reader-Response focuses on how and why a reader
responds to a specific text in a specific manner.
• Reader-Response embraces the idea that one text can
mean something vastly different to each reader.
The Tenets of Reader-Response
• Reader-Response theory allows for inferences and insights
by the reader.
• Reader-Response theory accepts that a reader’s
background knowledge and experiences impact his/her
interpretation of a text.
• “A response paper expresses what you experienced in reading
and think about the assigned text…. [and] should reflect your
background, values, and attitudes in response to the work, not
what the instructor thinks about it” (Kennedy 1397).
• Reader-Response Theory encourages the reader to explore
his/her emotional response to a literary work.
• Reader-Response Theory also expects readers to work as a
community to share ideas and seek common ground (Lynn
The Role of the Reader in ReaderResponse Theory
• A reader should not passively accept a text, but
should actively make meaning of the work.
• No work of literature ever comes alive until it is
read and contemplated by the reader. The reader
“completes” the work.
• The reader builds a connection with the text by
reflecting on his/her mental perceptions based
upon the text.
• The reader seeks common ground with other
readers while learning from each person’s unique
response to the literature (Lynn 69).
The Role of Literature in ReaderResponse Theory
• Any literary work cannot be enjoyed unless a reader
becomes actively involved in the words woven
• Instead of a literary work standing alone, a literary
work is coordinately as important as the reader.
• The literary work depends upon the reader to
assimilate and actualize the text.
• The literary work serves as a vehicle with a built-in
GPS, while the reader drives the work to the final
destination. Both work in concert to arrive at an
Readers Must Contemplate Their
• The reader needs to reflect on his/her reaction to a text
throughout the process of reading it. Why did I think
that? What in my past made me interpret that scene the
way I did? How has other pieces I’ve read influenced the
way I react to this text?
• The reader needs to determine how believable the
author is. Is there reliability in the narrator? Is the
author attempting to manipulate my thinking?
• The reader needs to reinterpret each section of text as
he/she continues to read. Now that I have read this
chapter, do I need to rethink what I thought about the
previous chapter?
• Readers must be able to defend their responses –
– Reader-Response does not allow for “anything goes”
response. The response must be based on close and
careful reading of the text.
Readers Reflect on Response, Not
• What is my emotional response to the text? Why do I
have this response?
• What does the text mean to me?
• What has happened to me in my life that helps me
understand this text?
• Does this work change the way I see the world? My
life? My goals?
• What impact does the text have on me?
• Does this text make me re-evaluate perceptions of
what has happened to me in the past?
• How can I personalize my connection to this text?
Evolving Responses
• Reader-Response Theory allows for a reader to
respond differently to a text each and every time
he/she reads the text.
• As personal experiences and exposures to literature
grow, a person’s response to a text changes.
• Readers focus on the aesthetic – the emotional
response rather than the efferent – the informational
component – of reading.
• Aesthetic reading also calls for empathy – the reader
puts himself/herself in the place of characters to
determine if the way a character reacts is realistic or
morally similar to the reader’s response.
You May Choose to Answer These
Questions in Your Reader Response Paper
• What does the text have to do with you, personally?
• How much does the text agree or disagree with your
view of the world and what you think is right and
wrong? Cite specific lines from the text to prove your
• How well does the text address things that you
personally care about and consider important in the
world? Cite specific lines from the text.
• What other texts does the this text remind you of? Cite
lines from the text and explain the connection.
• What is your overall reaction to the text?
Resources & Works Cited
• DiYanni, Robert. Literature Approaches to Fiction, Poetry,
and Drama. 2nd ed. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2008. Print.
• Kennedy, X. J. and Gioia, Dana. Literature: An Introduction
to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. Revised edition for
Burlington County College. NY: Pearson, 2011. Print.
• Lynn, Steven. Texts and Contexts: Writing About Literature
with Critical Theory. 5th ed. NY: Pearson, 2008. Print.
• PowerPoint:
• How to Write a Reader Response Paper: