Psychological Reader‑response Theory

Psychoanalytic critic Norman Holland believes that readers’ motives strongly influence how they read. Despite his claim, at least in his early work, that an objective text exists (indeed, he calls his method transactive analysis because he believes that reading involves a transaction between the reader and a real text), Holland focuses on what readers’ interpretations reveal about them‑ selves, not about the text. Given his analyses of the subjective experiences of readers, he is sometimes referred to as a subjective reader-response critic. However, because Holland employs psychoanalytic concepts and focuses on the psychological responses of readers, many theorists think of him as a psychological reader-response critic, which is probably the most useful way for us to think of him, too.

Holland believes that we react to literary texts with the same psychological responses we bring to events in our daily lives. The situations that cause my defenses to emerge in my interpersonal life will cause my defenses to emerge when I read. To use a simple example, if I am quick to dislike new acquaintances who remind me of my alcoholic father, then I probably will be quick to dislike any fictional character who reminds me of him. Or if my overriding psychological trait is my need to control my world, then I probably will be threatened by literary texts that undermine my sense of control, for example, texts in which I can’t find a powerful character with whom I can identify or in which I can’t find the kind of orderly, logical world in which I feel comfortable. My defense in these situations might be to dislike the text, misunderstand it, or stop reading it altogether. Given that virtually all literary texts will in some way arouse my defenses by tapping some unconscious fear or forbidden desire, I must have a way to cope with texts if I am going to read them at all. According to Holland, that coping process is interpretation.


Norman Holland

The immediate goal of interpretation, like the immediate psychological goal of our daily lives, is to fulfill our psychological needs and desires. When we perceive a textual threat to our psychological equilibrium, we must interpret the text in some way that will restore that equilibrium. Imagine, for example, two readers who, at some point in their lives, have felt victimized—perhaps “picked on” by siblings, rejected by peers, or neglected by a parent—for reasons beyond their control. These readers’ defenses probably would be raised by the character of Pecola in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970) because they would perceive her as a victim as they themselves had been. In other words, reading about Pecola would probably remind them of their own painful childhood isolation. The first reader might cope with this textual threat by interpreting the novel in a way that condemns Pecola instead of the characters who torment her: for example, Pecola instigates her own victimization by behaving in such a passive manner and refusing to stand up for herself. In this way, the reader identifies with the aggressor, rather than with the victim, and temporarily relieves his own psychological pain. The second reader for whom victimized characters threaten to stimulate painful childhood memories might cope with Pecola by minimizing the character’s suffering, focusing instead on some positive quality Pecola retains intact: for example, Pecola is the only character in the novel who never hurts anyone, and she will remain forever in a state of childlike innocence. This reader denies Pecola’s psychological pain in order to deny her own. Other readers upon whom victim figures have a personal psychological impact would have to cope with Pecola, too, and they would do so in the same ways they cope with their relationships to victimization in their own lives.

Holland calls the pattern of our psychological conflicts and coping strategies our identity theme. He believes that in our daily lives we project that identity theme onto every situation we encounter and thus perceive the world through the lens of our psychological experience. Analogously, when we read literature, we project our identity theme, or variations of it, onto the text. That is, in various ways we unconsciously recreate in the text the world that exists in our own mind. Our interpretations, then, are products of the fears, defenses, needs, and desires we project onto the text. Interpretation is thus primarily a psychological process rather than an intellectual one. A literary interpretation may or may not reveal the meaning of the text, but to a discerning eye it always reveals the psychology of the reader.

The reason why the psychological dimension of our interpretations is not readily apparent to ourselves and others is that we unconsciously couch it in aesthetic, intellectual, social, or moral abstractions to relieve the anxiety and guilt our projections arouse in us. For example, the two hypothetical readers who react to Pecola as described above might interpret the character—respectively, as the representative of self-destructive human frailty, like the biblical Eve, or in contrast,as the representative of spiritual innocence—without realizing that their inter‑ pretations emerged from their own unconscious psychological conflicts.

Holland’s definition of interpretation can thus be summarized as a process con‑ sisting of three stages or modes that occur and recur as we read. First, in the defense mode, our psychological defenses are raised by the text (for example, we find Pecola threatening because she reminds us of our own experience of victimization). Second, in the fantasy mode, we find a way to interpret the text that will tranquilize those defenses and thus fulfill our desire to be protected from threats to our psychological equilibrium (for example, we minimize Pecola’s pain by focusing on the childlike innocence that will remain forever hers). Third, in the transformation mode, we transform the first two steps into an abstract interpretation so that we can get the psychological satisfaction we desire without acknowledging to ourselves the anxiety-producing defenses and guilt-producing fantasies that underlie our assessment of the text (for example, we decide that Pecola represents spiritual innocence). Thus, in the transformation mode, we focus on an intellectual interpretation of the text in order to avoid our own emotional response to it, and we ignore the fact that our intellectual interpretation grew out of our emotional response.

Of course, the possible value of Holland’s method seems evident for facilitating therapeutic psychological self-knowledge. But with adequate training, one might also use it as a biographical tool for the study of an author. Holland provides an example of such an application in a brief analysis of Robert Frost. Holland doesn’t analyze Frost the writer, but Frost the reader. That is, the focus of analysis is Frost as a person reading the world in which he lives, reacting to and interpreting it. Holland studied the poet’s informal remarks; his letters; his tastes in literature; his personality traits; and his expressed attitudes toward science, politics, his own poetry, and himself in order to discover Frost’s identity theme. According to Holland, Frost related to himself and to the world in terms of his need to “manage” the “huge unknown forces of sex and aggression” through the means of “smaller symbols: words or familiar objects” (127). Once this identity theme was established, Holland notes, it could be traced as well in Frost’s poetry, which might itself be taken as the poet’s interpretation of his world.

For Holland, the purpose of such an analysis is an empathic merger with the author. Whether we’re analyzing a person or a literary text, every act of interpretation takes place within the context of the interpreter’s identity theme, which, as we have seen, sets up defenses against as well as desire for such a merger. It is therefore the interpreter’s task to break through the psychological barriers that separate self from other. Understanding an author’s identity theme, Holland believes, allows us to fully experience, as a “mingling of self and other” (132), the gift the artist offers us.


Source: Critical Theory Today:A User-Friendly Guide, Loistyson Second Edition, Routledge.

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