‘The Mother Who Lived’: Reflections on Reader Response

As loyal readers of this site know, I am not a fan of so-called Reader Response literary criticism. Taking the Wikipedia definition as just-about-right, as usual, it’s the relativism of it that I find demeaning to both writer and reader, not to mention the injured truth:

Reader-response criticism is a school of literary theory that focuses on the reader (or “audience”) and his or her experience of a literary work, in contrast to other schools and theories that focus attention primarily on the author or the content and form of the work.

I’m all in, of course, with not focusing on the author’s intentions rather than the intention implicit to the work and for neglecting the reflection of the author’s psycho-biography to look for the artistry and meaning that deliver a shared experience greater than the necessarily fragmented individual one. Accepting that Coleridge is right in his suggestion that we enter text by “suspending disbelief” i.e., that we read with our heart or noetic faculty more than our rational and ego persona, in an act of “poetic faith,” the idea that each reader creates the greater ‘meaning’ of poem, play, or novel strikes me as almost exactly upside-down. Hence our focus here in examining story structure, symbolism, and the supernatural referents that give better writing its power.

I’ll note that I am not entirely consistent in this rejection of Reader Response. C. S. Lewis suggested, for example, that a text has value in so much as it makes the reader or audience “better wiser, and happier” and if they “like it” (“George Sayer on C.S. Lewis’ Definition of a Great Book: Excerpts from our Conversation,” Mark Koonz, CSL December, 2006). Lewis decried, as I do, the Personal Heresy of pre-occupation with an author’s politics and private circumstances but allowed that faith shaped fantasy and the effect of artistry on readers was the point of it, in the end. In this it seems Lewis avoided both the Scylla of relativism and the Charybdis of the inaminate text sans living relationship with a reader’s heart.

Having said all that, I urge you read The Mother Who Lived by ‘Drinking Cocoa’ (PotterDelphian), a LiveJournal post forwarded to me by David. In brief, it is the a gathering of the reflections and experience of a nursing mother while reading Harry Potter and her identification with the author’s struggles with a baby she loves yet loathes because of the sacrificial obligations implicit in the demanding dependency.

No, I don’t think this is an invaluable key for understanding Ms. Rowling’s artistry and meaning akin to alchemy, soul triptychs, and ring composition. But, yes, I know I will never read the opening chapter of Goblet or Harry’s discovery of his mother’s letter in Prince the same way again — and that my appreciation of the work has been enriched in some fashion rather than diminished by this focus on Ms. Rowling’s probable experience as a mom and writer. I look forward to reading your thoughts.


  1. Arabella Figg says

    This was poignant, with wonderful insight, and I think it’s a meaningful lens through which to view the theme of motherhood in the series. I particularly like how drinkingcocoa brought in all the mothers and their burdens, including Petunia. I don’t feel she goes too far in assessing what may have affected Rowling at the time of writing, and how her experience of motherhood may have directly and indirectly played out in the story. Thanks for linking this!

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