Identity themes, reader response, and the critical lens

imagesA conversation with a student last night sparked this post, which covers wide swatches of literary theory as well as some personal issues. Read on if you dare.

A few decades ago I took a course on Japanese literature that included some psychoanalytical theory. We focused intensively on Norman Holland’s The Dynamics of Literary Response (1968) and how identity themes influence a reader’s understanding of a text — these form the critical lens through which we read and interpret any text.

When I took this course, I was familiar with Reader Response theory (an offshoot of the intentional fallacy, which posits that it doesn’t matter what an author intended; what matters is what the reader comprehends): essentially there is no one correct interpretation of a text, but as teachers we want to help move students towards more sophisticated and complex interpretations that don’t conflict with textual evidence (e.g., Moby Dick is definitely not about a peaceful around-the-world cruise, but it also isn’t just about hunting an angry whale). Holland took Reader Response theory and added the concept that one’s identity will influence one’s response. It may even be possible to locate a readers’s identity themes in that person’s responses to a text. A new kind of Rorschach test: give a person a book and ask her to tell you what she sees in it.

In my final paper for that course, I considered my response to Tanizaki’s Diary of a Mad Old Man in the light of my own identity themes and realized that my decision to identify the protagonist with my grandfather (dead for less than a decade at that time) was a denial that this protagonist was closer in age to my father (still alive and lively, at age 91, as I write this). Is that clear? I’m far from knowledgeable about Freudian psychology, but that shift of identification seems very much like displacement: reluctant to think about my father’s death, I shifted to connect this dying old man with my already dead grandfather. So much easier to deal with.

Last night this all came back to me in a discussion of Elizabeth Borton de Treviño’s I, Juan de Pareja. One student said that he hated the book for its Fascist, anti-gay, pro-slavery, pro-human trafficking stance and averred that the author was purposely promoting these goals.

Juan de Pareja, by Velazquez

Juan de Pareja, by Velazquez

I knew already that I, Juan de Pareja is a problematic novel. This tale¹ of Diego Velazquez’s slave, Juan de Pareja, published in 1965, doesn’t give us an enslaved person who rebels and resists at every moment, yearning for freedom and hating his owners. Pareja is not happy with his lot, he certainly feels the constraints on his life (especially since, as a slave, he is forbidden to paint), but he accepts his situation, is grateful for having a kind master, and uses every opportunity to learn what he can about painting. He befriends Velazquez and other painters, takes initiative to find portrait clients for his master, influences Velazquez’s artistic decisions, and plays a critical role in the artist’s family and political life. Eventually he becomes Velazquez’s close friend.

This novel is Borton de Treviño’s effort to explore not just an historical period (the first half of the 17th century in Spain) but also a creative relationship that begins as slave-master and ends as friend-colleague. Narrated by Pareja, the novel’s language draws attention to light and color (Pareja has an artist’s eye, so this comes as no surprise), without drawing it away from the narrator’s situation in society: the fate of two gold earrings, the only tangible reminders of his mother who died when he was young, symbolizes Pareja’s movement towards freedom and self-actualization. One is stolen, and Pareja helplessly mourns its loss — he is powerless at this point, possibly his lowest in the novel. Years later he sells the other to purchase art supplies — here Pareja regrets the loss but willingly makes this sacrifice. This is his first free decision after starting to paint in secret, but because he makes it while still Velazquez’s property it announces his taking a large step towards freedom.

Portrait of a Monk, Juan de Pareja

Portrait of a Monk, Juan de Pareja

Only in conversations with Lolis, another person enslaved by the Velazquez family, does his enslavement become an explicit problem. She has already told him she will never marry another slave, and he loses hope of ever winning her. After his manumission, he tries again. He asks Velazquez for permission to marry Lolis. Velazquez grants this wish, but it’s Lolis who refuses, explaining, “I do not wish to bear any children into slavery.” Even before replying, Lolis must ask permission to give an honest answer. This simple exchange says much about the utter cruelty of slavery, even if the owners are “kind”.

That the scene isn’t more explicitly didactic may be what made my student respond so negatively to the novel. He wasn’t the only dissatisfied reader in the class. They appeared to want a main character who flails against the world and fights hard for his freedom. To them, Pareja’s acceptance seemed too much like complicity. That complicity, however, is an important point to make about enslavement. To paraphrase Henry H. Garnet (as quoted in David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, 2013), when slavery has made the slave blind to his own situation, it has “done it’s perfect work.” Pareja himself explains his acceptance: Slavery is “an injustice. But I am a religious man. I do not expect justice here on earth, but only in heaven.” Probably not a statement one wants to hear from the protagonist.

This dissatisfaction with Pareja’s complicity in his enslavement came as no surprise, but hearing about an anti-gay message stumped me. I needed evidence. The student pointed to a series of events: Pareja escapes Don Carmello, a brutal trader who is taking him to his new master, and travels for a few days with a “blond and handsome” young man. When the young man leaves him, Pareja is discovered by Don Carmello, who beats him senseless; his blood-caked clothes have to be peeled from his body. My student saw this as an instance of punishment for the few days of implied homosexuality. As the student correctly pointed out, it isn’t Don Carmello who inflicts the punishment — it’s Borton de Treviño. Thus her anti-gay agenda.

All right. Let’s assume that this is, indeed, a scene of retribution for same-sex attraction (whether the relationship was consummated or not is irrelevant — in fact, Pareja sleeps each night in the barn with the handsome young man’s horses). But in the larger story, there are other same-sex relationships which reward Pareja, first and foremost his comradeship with Velazquez. Setting that aside, I’ll focus on his friendship with visiting artist Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, who appears one day to study with the Master and befriends the slave. The young, merry (perhaps even lusty — when he first meets Pareja, he pats his “bulging sash”) Murillo provides oil paints, brushes and canvas so that Pareja no longer need steal them from the Master. Murillo also calms Pareja’s fears that his soul is in mortal danger because he hasn’t confessed that he paints. “Painting is no sin,” Murillo explains.

Is it too much to extrapolate from the forbidden “painting” to any forbidden behavior that endangers the soul? Am I reaching too far to hope that here Borton de Treviño implies that homosexuality is no sin?

I’d argue that, if the three days traveling with the handsome blond man (whose name we never learn) symbolizes a homosexual one-night-stand (pardon the bald crudity of this term), then Pareja’s deeper and longer lasting friendship with Murillo must be allowed to represent a committed homosexual relationship.

So, now I’m back where I started: identity themes and the critical lens. I can’t tell my student that his response is wrong. There’s no such thing: his identity themes control his critical stance and he is a careful reader who was paying attention (as an openly gay man, he is perfectly right to use a lens that points to any justification of anti-gay violence). But I want to go back to him and challenge him to return to the text and find more evidence of anti-gay messages, while also taking into account anything that can be interpreted as pro-gay. To convince me that Borton de Treviño had an anti-gay agenda when she wrote I, Juan de Pareja will be difficult; it might not even be important (that intentional fallacy again). But I can be convinced that the novel has undertones that are easy to miss if one is reading only for the story of a slave who yearns to paint more than he yearns for freedom².

Never let anyone tell you that children’s literature is simple and flat. The really good stuff, like this novel, can lead to sudden realizations, self-recognition, and even heavy duty thinking. I want to thank my student for bringing this interpretation to my attention. I’ll keep that particular lens at hand, the next time I read the book.

¹Borton de Treviño explains in an afterword that little historical information was available. She writes, “It is known that Velázquez inherited Juan de Pareja from relatives in Seville; it is known that he gave him his freedom, and in the way in which my story sets it forth. It is known that the great portrait of Pareja was painted by Velázquez in Italy, at or about the time he painted Pope Innocent X.” The rest is what she terms “biographical fiction” — working from the “recorded ‘conversations'” Velázquez left us in his paintings.

²Perhaps yearning to paint is Pareja’s displacement of his desire for freedom, since he would need to be free in order to paint without fear of breaking the law.

About Lizzie Ross

in no particular order: author, teacher, cyclist, world traveler, single parent. oh, and i read. a lot.
This entry was posted in Critical lens, Identity themes, Newbery Award, Reader response theory, reading, Slavery and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Identity themes, reader response, and the critical lens

  1. calmgrove says:

    What a splendid discussion, and one that for me reveals my deep ignorance of literary theory (even though the way you describe Reader Response theory strikes a chord of recognition). It just reinforces my understanding that every book review, being what one hopes a reflection of personal perceptions, is largely going to be both unique and valid, even if I disagree with it!

    I, Juan de Pareja sounds a fine novel, one I’d not heard of before.


    • Lizzie Ross says:

      Reader response theory walks a thin line. To what extent is it necessary to know anything of the author’s background and era? Or does the text stand on its own, to be interpreted according to local knowledge/culture (aka ‘interpretive communities’)? How closely tied to the original next must the interpretation be? Or, as Stanley Fish queried, “Is there a text in this class?”


      • calmgrove says:

        As you know, I try to analyse the books I review, and this involves a bit of research which I hope will inform the text. One can look at a Renaissance painting for example and have a personal reaction to it — Yay! or Meh or Ugh! — but knowing the religious or political context or having an inkling of technique or compositipn can add so much more pleasure and appreciation to the experience.

        What little I know of child development suggests that showing babies a picture of a face with features such as eyes in unexpected places doesn’t engage them, so quickly do conventional faces imprint themselves on their core recogition systems.

        Reader responses to a text will of course be informed by their own experiences and expectations, but without some experience how really valid, relativism aside, can their critiques be if, like those babies shown a late Picasso type portrait, there is little they can relate to?


  2. colonialist says:

    I believe it is an error for writer or reader to try and implant modern more enlightened ideas (where, indeed, they exist!) on period pieces. Some characters might have questioned some of the morality or accuracy of then current beliefs, but their thinking would still have been largely shaped by them. Thus, for any such character to ring true, they must have some inherent characteristics currently regarded as repugnant.


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