Having heard our class discussion on Medea tonight, I am again struck with surprise at our tendency to inflict our context on the context of what we read. It happened in my Chaucer course, too. Is that a valid form of response to literature?

Students (including me) did the same thing in my Chaucer course. We talked about the social impact of The Canterbury Tales, forgetting that it was published over 500 years ago. The difference in context is much greater for Medea, which was composed in 431 B.C. We talked about our own reactions to Jason’s decision to leave his wife, his role as a father, the morality and cultural taboo of Medea’s actions and empathy for these and other characters.

I don’t think it’s fair or productive to respond to literature as if it is the product of our own context and our own perspectives. I think literature like Medea has something to say and something to teach, if we are willing to surrender our opinions and beliefs (the products of our context) long enough to listen.

Sometimes, I think we analyze literature with a superficial form of reader-response criticism, which really lowers the intellectual potential for the discussion.

We should move beyond questions like, “What do you think about Medea’s actions?” and “Do you think it was okay for her to kill her kids?” The play gives us an opportunity for much deeper questions, and I think we have a responsibility to ask them, as English majors and college students in general.

So what questions ought we to ask? My Literary Criticism course has helped me learn more about this: We can choose a school of thought (like authorship, (authentic) reader response, psychoanalysis, feminism, Marxism, postcolonialism, etc.), as long as we are sufficiently educated on these critical perspectives. Or we can read what critics have said, and respond to them.

In summary, I think our discussions can be better, if we’re willing to put the work in for them. That means extra reading and extra intellectual effort.

I promise, the literature is worth it! Medea hasn’t lasted 2500 years for nothing. Let’s do it justice.

Source: Medea

This entry was posted in Topics in World Literature: Drama. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Medea

  1. rebeccascassellati says:

    Good point. I know I helped guide the discussion toward opinions rather than analysis. (Sorry about that; it’s easy to talk about.) How would you suggest wording questions so that general thought doesn’t go straight toward reader reactions?

  2. madeleinerobbins says:

    I wasn’t calling you out, Rebecca! I think we need questions that stick to the text and critical responses. Reader-response is good, but even that should stick to the text: We should be citing lines that generate reactions, and analyzing what it is about the lines and the experience of reading that make us react the way we do.

    I know it can be hard when the discuss is among a big class like ours. I’m actually pretty nervous to lead a discussion when my turn comes. I plan to bring in some background information so that we can have some context for what we’re reading and talking about.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.