Arguably, ‘theory’ just means applying a certain kind of thinking to a text and normally if you’re analysing a text, you are applying a theory such as Marxist theory or feminist theory. Often, we may feel that we are forcing a text to fit into the principles of a theory, when it doesn’t really fit.
A Doll’s House is one text to which feminist theory is, with some debate, often applied. Whilst Ibsen has said before he didn’t write it as a feminist text, what Ibsen says is only relevant if we believe the author to be the most important or if we believe there to be one exclusive answer to texts. Not all critics agree with this approach, and some argue that the author is not the person who holds the answers. Rather it’s up to the readers to decide on the meaning of the text and it depends on what they get from it. If the author really is irrelevant, then perhaps theory such as Marxism is also not important, as we can read a text the way we wish.
It’s important to look closely at the text, rather than jumping straight in with theory
However, assuming we accept there is one right answer – or at least there are some ‘wrong’ answers – then how do we go about finding it? How can we apply theory suitably, rather than forcing it? Firstly, it’s important to focus on the text itself. When writing an essay, you should read the text with an open mind, writing down any notable themes and ideas about the text, rather than only picking out evidence to back up one theory. Only once you have done that, should you consider whether there is a theory that can be applied. It’s important to look closely at the text, rather than jumping straight in with theory, because there’s no point in referring to a theory if you have no evidence to support it.
Once you’ve closely examined your text, you should do some research on the context of when it was written and when it is set. This can give you clues to the ‘true’ meaning(s) of the text. You can decide whether the historical context is really relevant by combining it with the observations you have made about the text, whilst reading. For example, if the text was written during the Second World War and is set in a contemporary world, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that the text is a reaction to this event. We can also consider looking for evidence outside the primary text – for example, looking at letters or diary entries written by the author – in order to gain a better understanding of the author’s intentions.
We also should remember that there are many different theories out there and new ones are constantly emerging
We may shy away from theories sometimes because we don’t want to ‘over-interpret,’ and it is something with which we need to be careful. However, theories can provide useful ways for understanding a text and decoding its meaning. While we may not completely agree with a theory, it can still at least provide a starting point and encourage us to look at a text from different perspectives. We also shouldn’t have to feel a text can only be examined through the lens of one theory, but rather that several theories can be combined. We also should remember that there are many different theories out there and new ones are constantly emerging.
Overall, we shouldn’t think excessively about theory and forget about the text itself. Some writers have said that their works, such as absurdist theatre, have ‘no meaning’. Some postmodernist texts use unusual techniques to confuse and mock the idea that all texts have this ‘hidden’ meaning. Although, to assume that it is the reason for the unusual format is a ‘theory’ in a sense, as we are still interpreting the technique and deciding on its significance. The key to using theory is to have a balance – notice the details of a text and see if they provide clues to understanding it, but don’t overread into something. At least that’s how it should be, in theory.