It’s been almost a year since I left graduate school. I left for a lot of reasons, but one of the big ones was my general dissatisfaction with the program.

It felt like there were times that the students were lost in the weeds and instead of guiding them out, the professors were equally clueless. Not that this is a critique related to the quality of the program, the rigor and scholarly knowledge were there, but rather that it seemed to suggest a problem with the study of literature as a whole.

I hate to bag on this class, but it was one explicitly showed a lot of the flaws that were present in lesser degree across all my other classes.

It was a class on Chaucer. More specifically, it was a class on Chaucer, his works (likely) derived from Italian sources, and whether he was a feminist or not. Don’t get me wrong—I totally believe the first half of that is a totally worthy pursuit, and to her credit, the professor presented compelling evidence that the critical consensus regarding Chaucer’s sources was likely wrong.

However, that wasn’t a “meaty” enough topic to last an entire semester. Hence the inclusion of feminist theory.

Let me say now the one thing that bothered me all semester, but I didn’t feel it was safe to say: Chaucer isn’t a feminist.

I have two reasons behind the this.

The first is that, by modern standards, Chaucer is a horrible degenerate. People were able to build the cast that Chaucer was a feminist because he was marginally nicer to the women in his stories. One of his sources might have had a woman beaten, raped, and killed, whereas Chaucer would “only” have them beaten and killed. Being marginally nicer doesn’t make you a feminist.

Or, Chaucer may have portrayed a woman with more agency than his source. In my humble opinion, that is equally explained by the fact that Chaucer was a better writer, such that all of his characters were more fleshed out and had more agency.

The second reason is that Feminist theory is rooted in conflict theory, which dates back to Marxism. Karl Marx lived in the mid-19th century, while Chaucer died in 1400, so more than 400 years of intellectual thought separates the two. If you want to make the claim that Chaucer is a feminist, you need to be able to show that he was somehow at least 400 years ahead of his peers in intellectual thought.

And yet, somehow, we spent an entire semester on this, and as far as I could tell, I was the only one dissatisfied. Not everyone ate it up, but everyone made an effort to engage with the ideas, at least in part as because they were rewarded for finding ways to further prove that Chaucer was a feminist.

I was stuck wavering between two competing feelings: “none of this matters,” and “none of this matters as much as most people here seem to think it does.”

And maybe I was alone in those thoughts, or maybe I wasn’t, but it wasn’t something that anyone could come out and say, if it was true, and for a long time now, I haven’t been sure if that was the case.

But, I’ve had time to mull over it, and I think I have a better handle on what caused those feelings.

It all comes down to theory.

Us literary types need theory because books are long. Your average novel has tens of thousands of words in it. Long ones could have hundreds of thousands of words, and a series of long books could dip into the millions range. Obviously, it would be very difficult to comment on the book in its entirety.

So, theories tell you which words to focus on and consequently cut down on the number of words you have to deal with. It’s not that they aren’t important, but you only need the relevant parts of the story.

For instance, someone applying Feminist theory is going to focus on women, their relative power, and their interactions with other characters. New Historicists are going to try to contextualize the work within history so that it is understood as a natural outgrowth of its times. Formalists approach the text systematically, and reject any information from outside the text, instead focusing more on structure, narrative, and symbolism.

Three different theories, three radically-different approaches.

So, here’s the thing that bothered me so much: people make absolute truth statements while operating within theory.

It’s a classic forest-tress problem. The words are the trees, the forest, the book, and truth statements, like “Chaucer was a feminist,” make up the whole world.

We’re operating at the tree level, but we’re making statements about truth at a much higher level. This is a huge problem.

Here are two reasons why:

  1. Operating in different theories could lend two opposite conclusions that are true within their respective theories. Both cannot be true at the level of truth, even if they are at the level of theory. We often fail to make this important distinction, meaning that we get an overinflated sense of what we’re actually doing.
  2. Theories, at their outset, exclude certain parts of the book. Understand that this is necessary; as explained above, books are too big to analyze in whole. However, this does mean that relevant, and even important information is left out. Not important to the theory, but important to our understanding of the book.

I guess you could ask what the effects of getting this wrong are. It would be hard to draw a line and say this is where it falls but being wrong in this could explain some of the behavior I’ve seen. Many of my professors, both in literature and in philosophy, rewarded orthodox students by giving praise and punished those who disagreed by challenging their ideas. Even when working in theory, these professors were acting as though they believed they had truth, or as though they believed they were right-right.

And I guess what I’m calling for is humility. If you’re not interested in seeing where the limits of theory are and finding the places where it fails, you’re not progressing, you’re just standing still. And students don’t learn how to think in environments that reward agreeing with the teacher instead of building their own arguments. And class gets boring when everyone just agrees.

What I truly believe is that the best work happens at the edge of the theories (which might even invalidate it), but few people these days seem willing to wander out there and take a look at what’s going on.