Introduction to Literary Criticism: Reader Response Criticism

Reader Response Criticism

Reader response criticism is a huge departure from New Criticism, and it’s probably something you already do for fun. It’s essentially just looking at a text closely and determining your response to it, and then listening to others’ theories and coming to a general consensus.


Don’t be so cold

Reader Response (RR) is generally considered to be in response to New Criticism for three reasons:

  1. New Critics are basically saying the same thing about every text – “it has warring tensions that eventually unify.” You can say it in different ways about different texts, but it’s essentially the same thing.
  2. New Criticism is too scientific, in a time when even science was beginning to question the assumption that you can subject the world around you to vigorous objective observation. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, the theory of relativity, and other advances were causing us to question what is “knowable.” I personally think this point is a bit of a stretch, but wanted to convey it.
  3. New Criticism ignores the reader’s role in the process. The text is just words on a page until someone reads it and filters it through his/her paradigms and memories and imparts meaning through his/her interpretation, so isn’t this worth considering? In addition, though it can sometimes be confusing, isn’t it worth considering overwhelming outside (non-textual) evidence?
Thus, in the 1960s and 1970s, RR emerged.

What is Reader Response criticism

Theoretically, RR criticism assumes that the text has no objective meaning apart from what the reader interprets. Someone oridignally wanted to call it “subjective criticism” before RR criticism won out, and for good reason. In addition, it assumes that literature is not words on a page – those are just markings, after all, until you interpret them – but rather your own interaction and interpretation of what is going on. Literature is a form of performance art to RR critics, and can’t exist without the reader.

RR is someone doing a “close reading” of the text – considering it piece by piece – and mapping out how you respond to it. Your responses can take any form. For example, you might jot down memories about your significant other when reading a love poem, how you feel when a character dies, or how nice the sweet release of death would be while reading Twilight. Nothing is off limits, and every response you have toward the work is valid.

You are, however, seeking to find your own personal meaning in the work, whatever that is. That being said, should be able to support it from the text. No matter what it makes you think of, you can’t say, for example, that the Sherlock Holmes story “A Scandal in Bohemia” is a perfect metaphor for the execution of the Rosenbergs in the 1950s. That would be an impossibility, and you need to reign it in a little bit and find an interpretation the text supports. You can’t just write anything.

Also, in the spirit of RR criticism, you can’t assume your interpretation is the interpretation. You were able to look at the text, experience it based on your memories, values, and assumptions, and come up with a theory on the meaning, and others have that right as well. No matter how well-supported your interpretation is, it is not correct, because there is no “correct” interpretation. Welcome to the 21st century, baby.

This might sound bad – if there’s no right interpretation, what is the point? The point, my straw man friend, is that in the same way that we come to our own interpretations based on our own values, and other on theirs, we also can adjust how we think about a work based on others’ interpretations and theories. Part of RR criticism, after you’ve looked closely at a work and have come up with a personal idea of what it means, is that you need to participate in community discussion. You’ll try to convince people of your interpretation, sure, but you should also listen and try to understand where they are coming from, if they are right, and how that affects what you think about the work. Participation in RR is participation in a community of ideas, where everyone’s interpretation is valid and warrants a listen, provided it is supported by the text.

Don't worry about that guy who disappeared here or the horrible smell. It's probably nothing (photo by blmiers)

An example Lynn gives is when he had a student provide an interpretation of “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner. If you don’t know this story, (I’m going to spoil it, and it’s really great, so read it first if you have time), it’s about a woman who isn’t allowed to marry by her old-fashioned father, but after he dies, she takes up with a man who, after a while, disappears from town. In the end, you learn that she poisoned him and had been laying next to his decomposed corpse every night. The general consensus is that Emily, the woman, is a sad, deeply disturbed old murderer. One of Lynn’s students, though, talked about how Emily reminded her of her grandmother – kind, loving, and strong. On its face, this seems ridiculous, but Lynn talks about how he began to see this story in a new light. He was capable of seeing how Emily bucked conventions of her town and went against her father in taking up with this man, going against gender and cultural restrictions. She also truly loved the man, but that was obviously poorly expressed. The point is that the sharing of ideas in RR criticism can open us up to interpretations we might not have ever considered.

Know Thyself

Finally, one of the most valuable benefits I see with RR criticism is not even involved with literature, but how learning more about yourself via your interaction with what you read. If something makes you mad, why does it make you mad? If something makes you cry unexpectedly, well, it’s just you and the book, so you can look deeper into why it makes you feel that way and let that inform how you interpret what the book is saying. In RR criticism, that is not only a valid approach, but encouraged.

How to do Reader Response criticism

Well, you read and respond. Section completed.

Just kidding. You want to go through with a fine tooth comb on the first read, going by chapter for a long novel, by paragraph/sentence depending on the short story, and by word/sound for poems. You want to just get your first impressions on what everything means.

To illustrate this, I’m going to look at the poem “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? (1919)

To start working through this text, you’ll want to look at everything in order, bit by bit. No doubt you’ll have an idea of what the poem means, sort of a vague gestalt, but you’ll really want to work through it to define what you think. The reason is because the poet sets up certain things that unfold over the course of the poem, and if you read it in reverse – the second stanza first – you’d end up with a completely different outcome. I’ll go through and list some of my observations as I was reading it.

Turning and turning…widening gyre: This gives me the feeling that things are out of control, that we have not drowned yet, but are turning in the gyre, about to be consumed by the ocean.


Falcon cannot hear: The voices of authority are drowned out in the din, and the falcon, a bird of prey is loose. It is not helpless, it is a hunter. But it is also domesticated, so its freedom could also bring its death.

Mere anarchy: anarchy and nothing more – it feels almost neutral here.

Blood-dimmed tide: This poem was written in 1919, close to the Bolsheviek revolution in Russia – could the “red” here paired with “anarchy” be in reference to that?

Ceremony of innocence: Innocence itself is not drowned, but the show of it. Perhaps whatever is happening doesn’t even have the pretense of legitimacy.

Best lack all conviction, worst full of passionate intensity: Kind of bad, I suppose, but I think of terrorists when I hear this line. I would rather someone lack conviction than be full of intensity.

Revelation/Second Coming: Biblical imagery. Things are getting so bad that the world needs a savior.  Questions arise about whether or not this is the end of the world.

Spiritus Mundi: I guess spirit world? I don’t know what this term means and Google is not a huge help.

Sands of the desert: I see images of John the Baptist heralding Jesus. Also Egypt and ideas of people coming out of bondage.

lion body/head man: An Egyptian sphinx, which unlike the Grecian one is considered to be benevolent and an emblem of Egypt. Also a beast.

Gaze blank and pitiless as the sun: makes me think of this line from the show Mad Men: “Well, I hate to break it to you, but there is no big lie. There is no system. The universe is indifferent.”

Moving slow thighs: A hulking brute, but powerful.

Twenty centuries: a two-thousand year old beast

Vexed to nightmare: it viewed things as bad and was troubled, probably by the events in the first stanza, so it woke.

Beast/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born: I see this in two ways – a teenager slouching out of reluctance, and a monster or ugly thing slouching because it is built that way. I think the poem supports the latter. Bethlehem fits with the Biblical imagery and the second coming, though I’m surprised that it is not a second coming in the way prophesied in the Bible, but rather by being born again.

In addition, the fact that it is a poem written in the early 20th century should in some way frame how you look at it. This is true of every time you engage in RR criticism – the context of the work matters and should inform how you interact with it. You have different expectations when looking at an episode of Star Trek vs. How I Met Your Mother, or Shakespeare vs. Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Even this meta-information about the work will play in to how you respond.

Bringing it all together

The next step is to bring all of these disparate observations together into a coherent understanding of the poem. Remember, there is no right answer here, but everything must work together. If you opinion of something changed later on, feel free to go back and revise what you thought.

Here’s my interpretation of the poem:

“I think this poem is about how the world is slowly slipping out of control, and the unappealing nature of what it will take to save it. We are about to be sucked down into the ocean, and people can’t hear those in control, so they are going to go on the hunt. The issue is, their freedom might be their downfall, since they are domesticated animals and not used to self-government. Anarchy in the form of revolution (particularly the Russian revolution) is resulting in chaos, and people are revolting without legitimacy, fervently believing in their causes.

This is answered in the second stanza when the poet talks about the second coming. We need a savior for the world, but what will that savior look like? What do we need to counter this freedom that destroys? We need the symbol of Egypt, a male Sphinx. The Biblical imagery leads us to understand him in the context of the Old Testament – a ruler. The Sphinx’s benevolent nature can’t be forgotten, though. So the thing that will combat the evils of this new world – the freedom that destroys – is a ruler that will come from the old one, quite possibly with a form of oppression to stamp out the anarchy. It will be benevolent, but not peaceful, pretty, or kind. It is not an attractive solution, but it was one set in motion by the birth of these revolutions.

Sharing is caring

The next step in this process is to share your ideas with others, as well as listen to what others have to say. By nature, your subjective interpretation of the work is just one possible interpretation, and you are not “right” because there is no “right” in this situation. So go out there, share what you think, and hear what others have to say. No doubt, this will color how you think of the poem.

Another interpretation of Yeats

I did a quick Google search for interpretations of this poem, and one that came back was an analysis from Sparknotes. In this analysis, the writer goes into depth regarding Yeats’s philosophical musings on the nature of societies and periods of history. Basically, Yeats talked about two different trends of society, science and mysticism, and described them as gyres that interact with each other. The writer uses this to justify a reading of the poem where Yeats is talking about the end of the scientific age and the coming of an age of mysticism. This is the revelation and second coming.

This is not an interpretation I would have guessed, but on a re-read, I can see how it fits in to the poem. Having knowledge of Yeats’s other writings, and this different reading of the poem, modifies how I think of it, and on subsequent readings it will shape my response to it.

Click to view on Amazon


 Reader Response criticism is something you’ve probably been doing all your life without even knowing it. It mainly consists of doing a close read of a text, formulating your opinions based on what you read, and then sharing it with others and modifying it based on new evidence. Regardless, it’s good to know how it works and how it relates to other criticism methods.

Once again, I’m going from Steven Lynn’s book Texts and Contexts. There’s even more there than I was able to go into for this post, so check it out!

Top photo by Mary(n_n)West