Study Guide

Reader-Response Theory Texts

  • Paradise Lost by John Milton (1667)

    It's Milton's epic about Adam and Eve's fall from grace. Getting kicked out of the Garden of Eden sure hurts.

    How do you respond to the character of Satan as a reader? Do you find Satan as seductive as Stanley Fish says he is? 

    To what extent do you think John Milton, as an author, controls our reactions as readers? Do authors have any control over the reactions of their readers?

  • Endgame by Samuel Beckett (1957)

    Is it the end of the world? Maybe, maybe not. It all depends on how you read Beckett's famous play Endgame.

    What sort of "blanks" do we find in Endgame? And what effect do these blanks have on us as readers or viewers of the play?

    Endgame has been read as a tragedy, a comedy, or a tragicomedy. Why do you think there is so much debate about what genre the play falls into?

  • Hamlet by William Shakespeare (1603)

    Hamlet, the prince of procrastinators, can't get his act together to avenge his father's murder. Makes us feel better about procrastinating on our school work!

    Question 1: Why do you think critics of different times and ages have found this play so fascinating? Why, from a Reader-Response perspective, do you think the play has such a hold on its readers?

    Question 2: Hamlet's been the focus of psychoanalytic readings that emphasize the Oedipal Complex. Where does an Oedipal reading of the play leave women readers? Do you think that women readers relate differently to the play than men do? If so, how and why?

  • "A Rose for Emily" by William Faulkner (1930)

    Emily Grierson did not appreciate being jilted by her fiancé. So she killed him and kept his corpse in her house for decades. Of course we want to read this story.

    In what ways can readers interpret this story differently? For instance, do you read Miss Emily as a victim or a villain? Or is she both? 

    What kind of an "implied reader" does Faulkner's story suggest? Do you think that the story implies a Southern American reader, for example? A reader who is a stranger to the town?

  • Religio Medici by Sir Thomas Browne (1642)

    In this work, Browne muses on various topics including religion, spirituality, and how to live the good life. It's like a self-help manual from the 1600s.

    Browne is a great prose stylist. Following Stanley Fish's lead, consider what Browne's prose style in the Religio Medici does to you as a reader. How does the prose style shape your reading experience?

    As readers, how do we classify the Religio Medici? Is it diary? Is it religious confession? Is it a prose poem?

  • Literature as Exploration by Louise Rosenblatt (1938)

    Rosenblatt pioneered Reader-Response theory with this study, in which she considers how the reader's response is critical to our understanding of a literary work.

    What is the difference between "efferent" and "aesthetic" reading, according to Rosenblatt?

    Why is it that a reading experience can never be "duplicated," according to Rosenblatt?

  • Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost by Stanley Fish (1967)

    Fish shows us just how seductive Satan is in John Milton's epic poem. Not only does he manage to seduce Adam and Eve, he also manages to seduces us readers.

    According to Stanley Fish, in what ways does the character of Satan "seduce" the reader in Paradise Lost?

    What's the significance of the reader's response to Satan? How does this response shape our understanding of the poem?

  • "Literature in the Reader: Affective Stylistics" by Stanley Fish (1970)

    In this essay, Fish insists that we must start with our own personal response to a literary work in order to understand it.

    What does Fish mean when he says that meaning is an "event"?

    According to Fish, why should an analysis of the reader's response be a central concern of literary criticism?

  • Is There a Text in this Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities by Stanley Fish (1980)

    At a later stage in his career, Fish decides in this book that it ain't just readers who are important. Interpretive communities are, too.

    How do "interpretive communities" shape the way that individual readers read?

    How do interpretive communities limit or expand the number of possible readings that a given literary text can generate?

  • The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett by Wolfgang Iser (1972)

    Wolfgang Iser helped change the course of literary studies by bringing attention to the reader, as opposed to the author, in this famous study.

    In what ways do texts imply a reader? And what does this suggest about the importance of the reader in the understanding of a literary text?

    According to Iser, what does the interaction between the reader's mind and the text look like? How does the text act on the reader's mind, and vice-versa?

  • "Unity Identity Text Self" by Norman N. Holland (1975)

    We can't escape who we are—even when we're reading. In this essay, Holland argues that our identity shapes the way that we respond to and understand literary texts.

    How do psychoanalytic ideas frame Holland's approach to literary criticism?

    What's the relationship between "unity" and "identity" as Holland explains it in this essay? Why is this relationship so important?

  • The Nature of Literary Response: 5 Readers Reading by Norman n. Holland (1975)

    Holland gives five readers the same texts to read, and guess what? They come up with all kinds of different responses. That's what this one is all about.

    To what extent is Holland "reading" not only texts, but readers in this study? What are the advantages of his approach? What are some of the disadvantages?

    How does Holland speak about his own reading practice and perspective in this book?

  • Subjective Criticism by David Bleich (1978)

    There's no such thing as objective criticism, people, so let's just stop looking for it. At least according to Bleich in this book.

    Why is Bleich so opposed to "objective" criticism? Is an objective critical perspective ever possible, according to him?

    In what ways does the reader's psychology influence his or her reading of literary texts? What, according to Bleich, is the relationship between psychoanalysis and literary criticism?