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Reader Response Theory involves the idea that the text of a book only acquires meaning from the reader's reaction to it. That is, the real meaning of a literary work evolves from the personal (intellectual and emotional) and cultural responses to the text. Of course, then, individual responses differ; however, often the cultural responses of a group are similar.
For instance, in Victorian England at the time that Dickens wrote his novel, cultural responses of his readers would involve awareness of the plight of the poor, the imprisoned, the efforts of a rising middle class (represented by the merchant Pumblechook and others) to attain wealth and some position. In addition, readers would notice the adulation given to the aristocracy--no matter how eccentric they may be--by such characters as the pretentious Pumblechook and the absurdly vacuous Mrs. Pocket. Of course, the depiction of the aristocracy as trivial and frivolous, completely unconcerned with social and economic problems, especially the plight of the many poor filling the streets of Industrial London, would not be missed by Victorian readers.
Now, the student's response to Great Expectations will certainly differ from that of Dickens's contemporaries; however, as is true of all great literature, this novel is timeless in its humanity. So, the reader response must include some similar feelings to others of time gone by. Certainly, Miss Havisham is an absurd creature still, but sympathies for her now are probably greater than those of Dickens's times who experienced more want than contemporary readers.
So, in writing responses to the narrative, the student records his/her personal reactions to what is read. While there are no wrong answers, in writing the response, it is a good idea to support one's opinion with substantive citations from the text. For example, regarding the passage about "Tickler," Mrs. Joe is physically abusive to Pip, and the reader would normally have an emotional response to this, experiencing sympathy for poor Pip who has been orphaned and is but an innocent child. In addition, the student may also write such questions as these: "Why is Mrs. Joe so cruel? Does she resent having to care for Pip? Does he remind her that she herself is childless? Is she envious of the affection her husband gives to this boy and not to her? What was the purpose of Dickens including such scenes. Does he wish readers to be aware of the plight of orphans in his society?"
In conclusion, the reader's responses to Great Expectations can involve anything from emotional and purely personal reactions to more thoughtful ones about what Dickens is critiquing about society through his character Pip. Also, there is nothing wrong with expressing a personal enjoyment of a certain passage. For example, in the passage in which Pip first encounters Miss Havisham, the reader may be pleased that Pip appears to demonstrate a natural sympathy for people. Also, when Pip is bothered by Trabb's boy's ridiculing of him when he goes to town for his new clothes, this situation is not dissimilar to modern-day bullying. The reader may, then, wish to respond in such a way that he/she demonstrates an understanding of the universality of literature.
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