English Literature Death in Venice - Cultural Case Study

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English Literature

Death in Venice - Cultural Criticism & Reader Response Criticism

Reader-Response Criticism is a legitimate, proven method for readers to use when digging into the deeper meaning of a piece of literature; it's always a good idea to broaden one's understanding of literature by gaining a grasp at how others view the same work. And meantime, employing the use of Cultural Criticism as research into the meaning of literature is an intelligent formula, as well. In this paper, the two, Reader-Response Criticism and Cultural Criticism, will be examined in terms of reaching a fuller understanding of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice.

Cultural Criticism

What is Cultural Criticism and why is it an important tool for comprehension and understanding? One thing it is not, according to author Naomi Ritter (172), is a structured university department established in order to examine "high brow" cultural activities such as ballet, symphony, opera, or art. Indeed, a big part of the misunderstanding novice observers may fall into as regards Cultural Criticism is when they see that loaded word, "culture." The first thing a student needs to do is get it out of his or her head that "culture" only applies to great literature, plays, great art works or classical music. "Contemporary cultural critics are as willing to write about Star Trek" as they are willing to write about "James Joyce's Ulysses," Ritter writes. In fact, Ritter continues (172); an authentic cultural critic is fully comfortable contrasting a comic strip or a recent film with a work of art by Picasso or a classic by Charles Dickens.

One of an alert observer's duties with regards to Cultural Criticism, Ritter explains (173), is to "combat old definitions" about what culture really is; in other words, one should question, at every turn, why some cultural works are revered, and why other cultural works are frowned upon, even scorned, as not being "Great Works.
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In its online promotional literature about the Cultural Criticism courses offered, Cardiff University (in the UK) claims that "Cultural Criticism is a new subject, available only in Cardiff...[which offers] a whole range of cultural materials..." from modern films to poetry and "conceptual art" (Cardiff 2002). "Is it interesting?" headlines one section of the promotional page. "Of course: it's about you!" The school replies to its own rhetorical question. "[It's also about] People's beliefs and values, their behavior and their assumptions..."

That description of Cultural Criticism may contain a smidgen of fluff, just to get the potential student interested in the course work, but when examining literature or any other aspect of historical or contemporary culture, in terms of reader understanding, it is "about you" indeed.

Reader-Response Criticism

According to author Ritter (142), Reader-Response Criticism (RRC) aids "our understanding of texts and the reading process." And in fact, RRC is not a new concept; indeed, she points out, the ancient Greeks and Romans were adept at involving the audience in responses to literature. Aristotle, she asserts, believed that one of the strengths of tragedy was based on its "cathartic" power to "cleanse or purify" audience members' emotions.

Death in Venice

Lillian R. Furst points out (158-169) that since a reader can be deceived by various interpretations of Thomas Mann's book, it is instructive to look closely at the main protagonist, Gustav von Aschenbach. Furst notes that near the conclusion of the novel, the "central issue" of the book becomes "betrayal and deception" - since the narrator has launched into a "blatant treachery" - through the "unexpected conduct" of a narrator that the reader believed to be "honorable." In fact, readers who are paying close attention must sense….....

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