Kolodny – Propositions of Feminist Literary Theory (Bite-Sized Study Guide)



Kolodny sees the embroilment of feminist theory in the issues of literary criticism as essential, because embedded within the aesthetics of each text are a set of definable ‘social beliefs, conventions, attitudes and ideologies’[1] that are operational throughout the whole of society and are often left unquestioned, although requiring the analysis and refinement of theoretical minds.

She sees the current literary works acknowledged to be considered ‘exemplary enough to study only hold that position because of the opinions of a few select individuals who subscribe to one particular method of assigning aesthetic value and importance. Therefore, it is important for feminist criticism to ascertain how their aesthetic value is assigned, in order to evaluate the ‘normative’[2], socially learned reading patterns influencing their value judgments. Kolodny believes that feminism has a responsibility to implement changes in cases of ‘value disagreements’[3].

Kolodny sets forth three theoretical axioms that she believes coincide with the ideas and concepts concurrent with feminist literary theory in the 1980s, when she wrote her most influential essay, ‘Dancing Through the Minefield’. The first of her three propositions of feminist literary theory is that ‘literary history… is a ‘fiction’’[4]. The ‘fictions’ Kolodny regularly speaks of in her essay are roughly equivalent to what modern theorists would now refer to as ‘social constructions’[5], and their shifting, unfixed nature causes her to contest the seemingly static position of ‘great’ literature.

The second theoretical axiom addresses the limitations that social constructions can place on our interpretations of a literary text, stating that readers ‘engage [with] paradigms’[6] rather than with the texts. They are unable to avoid their own inherent biases, ‘critical assumptions and predispositions’[7] that they inevitably bring to the reading process.

Leitch observes how Kolodny’s third axiom ‘strives to undo the unconsciousness of readers identified in axiom two’[8]. In it, she stresses that a re-examination of ‘the inherent biases and assumptions informing the critical methods which… shape our aesthetic responses’[9] is needed in order to reinstate the changes she envisions.

This has brought much criticism from fellow critics for a variety of reasons, including her failure to ‘recognise the seismic transformation that would be required’[10] to enable individuals to identify, and break free from, their inherent biases and assumptions.



[1] Vincent Leitch, ‘Annette Kolodny’, in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (first edition), ed. by V. Leitch, W. Cain, L. Finke & B. Johnson (London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001), pg2145

[2] Leitch, ‘Annette Kolodny’, pg2144

[3] Leitch, ‘Annette Kolodny’, pg2144

[4] Annette Kolodny, ‘Dancing Through the Minefield: Some Observations on the Theory, Practice, and Politics of a Feminist Literary Criticism’, in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (first edition), ed. by V. Leitch, W. Cain, L. Finke & B. Johnson (London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001), pg2153

[5][5] Leitch, ‘Annette Kolodny’, pg2145

[6] Kolodny, ‘Dancing Through the Minefield’, pg2153

[7] Kolodny, ‘Dancing Through the Minefield’, pg2155

[8] Leitch, ‘Annette Kolodny’, pg2145

[9] Kolodny, ‘Dancing Through the Minefield’, pg2153

[10] Leitch, ‘Annette Kolodny’, pg2145


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