Intersectionality in literature: A reader’s responsibility

Image credit: RYAN DORSEY

Theories of intersectionality can be used to explore and understand how different forms of social inequality overlap and interact with each other to create multifaceted minority identities within social groups. It is a concept that is astonishingly relevant in the world in which we live today, with politics and discourses on race, class, sexuality, to name a few, being hugely enhanced and nuanced by the incorporation of an emphasis on intersectional thinking.

As an English student, I often find that I am encouraged to take a historicist approach when reading texts – to look at the literature I am reading and attempt to evaluate it from the standpoint that would have been assumed by a typical reader at the time. This is, of course, an incredibly merited way in which to read, allowing for the consideration of context and authorial intention, but I often find myself wondering whether students of literature should value intersectional readings just as much as their historicist counterparts.

It is now easier than ever to approach the study of literature from an intersectional perspective, with there being a multiplicity of schools of thought today that just didn’t exist fifty years ago: feminism, post-colonialism, queer theory…all of which serve to provoke and enrich academic or even recreational readings of texts. One of the things that excites me most about studying English is the idea that I can take my own beliefs, my ideologies and my views on the world, and apply them to texts written hundreds of years ago to create an entirely idiosyncratic interpretation.

Arguably, it is the twenty-first century reader’s responsibility to assess the prose, poetry or drama they are reading in an intersectional fashion. For we live in an intersectional world, and one in which the voices of minority groups who are afflicted by these interlocking forms of social inequality are finally – albeit slowly -  being listened to, making it only right for such a development to be reflected in academic assessments of literature also. Is it still entirely justifiable to dismiss, for example, evidence of misogyny and racism in the work of early modern writers and poets on the grounds that, at the time, such attitudes were widespread and accepted? Or should instances of such discrimination instead be identified and analysed in accordance with the heightened understanding of social inequality in its many forms that is available in the present day?

Intersectionality in literature is, of course, a difficult topic to navigate. Literature, and particularly literature that is categorically more archaic, is a piece of the past, a piece of history. Instinct instructs us to preserve it, to mummify it and keep it in perfect condition, to be read in the way it was intended to be read. But I feel it is possible to preserve and maintain the literature of ages past whilst still holding it to account on the basis of the intersectional thinking and analysis available to us in the present.

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