Reader Response Essays

An important tool for analyzing literature is known as reader response theory, and from time to time you will be called upon to write reader-response essays in my English classes. I also encourage students to use reader response as a technique for analyzing literature, because it helps you keep your focus on what the work means to you instead of regurgitating the standard Hamlet-is-a-play-of-revenge type of drivel that all too often passes for literary analysis. Reader response originates with an educator named Louise Rosenblatt, who defines it like this:

The special meaning, and more particularly, the submerged associations that these words and images [in a literary work] have for the individual reader will largely determne what the work communicates to him. The reader brings to the work personality traits, memories of past events, present needs and preoccupations, a particular mood of the moment, and a particular physical condition. These and many other elements in a never-to-be-duplicated combination determine his response to the peculiar contribution of the text. (Qtd. in Church)

Among other things, reader response theory frees you up from having to guess at the "hidden meaning" an author may or may not have been thinking about when he or she wrote a story, poem or play. In fact, many writers refuse to say what their works “mean.” As novelist Bobbie Ann Mason told students: "I don’t think I should decide what a story means and then tell you what to think. Instead, I think you should reach your own conclusions. A story should stand on its own; besides, the author can’t always be around to explain it. (KET) Instead, you create your own meaning. That doesn't mean you don't have to read the work carefully, and it doesn't mean you can plug just any old meaning, or message, into a work. (Hamlet isn't about stock car racing, no matter what personality traits, memories, needs and preoccupations we may bring to our viewing of the play!) But it does mean you are free to find a meaning in the work that makes sense to you instead of parroting somebody else's interpretation.

The best way to do reader response is to ask yourself three questions:

  1. What about this story, poem or play stands out in my mind?
  2. What in my background, values, needs and interests makes me react that way?
  3. What specific passages in the work trigger that reaction?

Here, from Robert E. Probst of Georgia State University, are some more detailed questions you can ask yourself as you create an interpretation that works for you: "Read the text and record what happens as you read -- what do you remember, feel, question, see ... ? Afterwards, think back over the experience. What is your own sense of the text . . . does it recall memories; does it affirm or contradict any of your own attitudes or perceptions? What did you see happening in the text? . . . What image was called to mind by the text? Describe it briefly. . . . Upon what did you focus most intently as you read -- what word, phrase, image, idea? What is the most important word in the text? Does this text call to mind any other literary work (poem, play, film, story -- any genre)? If it does, what is the connection between the two? How do the circumstances -- this room, this group, other events in your life -- help shape the reading?" (43-44) Think it through, and craft a thesis statement giving your overall response to the work. Then support your thesis by quoting and analyzing the passages you identified.

A Handy Format

If you're writing a reader response essay, here's a good two- or three-part format to follow.

To see an example of how I might draft a reader response essay, click here. Note how I use the sources as a stepping stone to my own interpretation -- one that nobody else has ever written before.

-- Pete Ellertsen, Becker L-9, Springfield College in Illinois

Work(s) Cited

Church, Gladdys Westbrook. "The Significance of Louise Rosenblatt on the vield of Teaching Literature." Inquiry 1 Spring 1997. 26 Sept. 2000.

Mason, Bobbie Ann. Interview. Kentucky Educational Television. KET SignatureLIVE: Mason Messages. 13 Sept. 1998.

Probst, Robert E. “Reader-Response Theory and the English Curriculum.” English Journal March 1994: 37-44.

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