Thursday, 15 January 2009

Loving Hearts?

The aim of this blog is to share some of my experience in the classroom. I would not, however, have had this experience without having spent endless hours in the reading rooms at the University of Oslo. I graduated from the university in 1998 with a Cand. Philol. degree in English. My main focus during the final year at the university was Charles Dickens and three of his novels. I do not see myself as a person who brags a lot about my own achievements (if you do not get me started talking about my two precious princesses that is...), but I must admit that I am still quite proud of my thesis, called "Loving Hearts?", almost 11 years after I completed it. Therefore, I just felt the urge to write a very, very short summary of my thesis here.

The aim of my study was to highlight some of the differences between psychoanalytically and reader-response oriented readings of father-daughter relationships in Dickens's novels Dombey and Son, Little Dorrit and A Tale of Two Cities. It makes sense to apply psychoanalysis to the study of literature, because the reader of a narrative can be seen as doing a job similar to that done by a psychoanalyst in the meeting with a patient: both reader and analyst have to make sense of experiences retrospectively. However, psychoanalysis has its limitations when it comes to the study of literature. It simply cannot be applied to all kinds of narratives. In my opinion, reader-response criticism is a more general applicable approach. This school focuses on the process of reading and on the psychology of the reader. Reader-response critics are also eager to highlight aspects in the texts which guide the reading experience.

Much of my study was a response to Dianne F.Sadoff's reading of the father-daughter relationships in the three novels mentioned above. Heavily influenced by Freudian psychonanalysis, Sadoff sees Florence Dombey as a "dangerous daughter" wishing for her father's death, and as a girl killing the people who love her with her love. Sadoff sees the father-daughter relationship in Little Dorrit as incestuous, claiming that Amy Dorrit's ministering to her father is an expression of sexual desire. I, on the other hand, see both Florence Dombey's struggle to win the love of her father, and the care Little Dorrit shows the "Father of the Marshalsea" as love. I also believe this love is what saves the fathers.

When it comes to A Tale of Two Cities and the relationship between Lucie and Alexandre Manette, Sadoff's reading did not differ radically from my own. This relationship is a less promising hunting ground for Freudian interpretations, and this fact seems to leave Sadoff with no theoretical underpinning at all. Her reading of A Tale is also an illustration that psychoanalysis cannot be applied successfully to all kinds of narratives.

So how is this useful for me in the classroom of 2009? One of the things I stress the most is that the students have to meet literary texts with an open mind, and that there is not one correct reading of literature. We all meet a short story, a novel or a poem with our own frame of reference, and therefore we also understand the texts in our own ways. This can cause debates and discussions in the classrooms, and that is what we want, is it not?

Photo: Wikipedia

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