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What is a Critical Theory?

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  • What is a Critical Theory?





    Follow the Link to Read "My Papa's Waltz" by Theodore Roethke

    My Papa's Waltz

    Start by reading the link to the left.  Pretend you’re sitting in a traditional English class.  As a class, you’ve just finished reading the poem on the left.  (Take a moment and read it now.) Then, the class has this discussion:


    Teacher:  So, what do you think this poem means?


    Student #1:  Well, I think it’s all about the relationships that are happening in the house.  The mom and son are obviously being abused by a drunk man who doesn’t care about their feelings.  The mom wants to fight back but doesn't feel like she can do anything but frown. It’s really sad how women are still put down in our society.


    Student #2:  It reminds me of a friend of mine who grew up in foster care.  Her dad was a drunk just like this guy so she wasn’t able to stay at home with her parents.  When the poem said, “You beat time on my head,” it made me think of all her stories and made the poem even sadder.


    Student #3:   I think the poem is more about power and power struggles.  Obviously, the little boy doesn’t have any power to improve his situation and he just gets dragged along, literally, by his dad.  The mom seems to want some power to change it but just frowns instead.  The dad has all the power and it’s really sad.


    Which student response do you identify with the most? Which student would you say has the “correct” interpretation? Ultimately, each student has their own completely correct way of analyzing the meaning of the poem.

    For one student, the most important part is the gender of the people in the poem and how gender impacts their story.  For another, it’s all about how the poem makes them feel and what it reminds them of from their own experiences.  For another, it’s all about power and the struggles between people.  Ultimately, any one of these ideas could be an interesting lens to use to examine what the poem means.  They’re all correct but they’re all different ways to examine the story.

    That’s what critical theory is all about.  It’s about looking at a piece of literature in a new way, using a particular set of beliefs.  In this scenario, student #1 was using gender theory to interpret this poem, student #2 was using reader response theory to interpret the poem, and student #3 was using Marxist or social class theory to interpret the poem.  We’ll study all three in the coming sessions.