Davit Leavitt’s «Gravity» from diverse critical perspectives.

David Leavitt’s “Gravity” seen from diverse critical perspectives.


This paper aims to approach Davit Leavitt’s “Gravity” from diverse critical perspectives, namely, Formalism, Structuralism, Marxism, Feminism and Psychoanalytic literary criticism. It is an academic task while it must be born in mind that reading is a versatile and many-layered activity that will never be fully accomplished by means of only one critical perspective but by a kaleidoscopic joint approach encompassing all of them. The story has been chosen from Joyce Carol Oates’ anthology The Oxford Book of American Short Stories because it is a superb example of how literature works: making language non-automatic, condensing in a few pages a universal myth, showing how feelings are translated into material commodities and finally depicting how people struggle to ultimately disembowel their identities, eventually discovering that they are far from the socially accepted canon and in desperate need of any small victory over universal gravity.

A Multi-critical Perspective of David Leavitt’s “Gravity”

For its study the story has been divided into four parts, the two initial paragraphs marked [1] and [2], a central body of mainly dialogue: [3] and the final paragraph: [4].

[1] In the opening of the story the reader is confronted with the choice Theo had to take. A STRUCTURALIST critic who analyses the units of a system and the rules that make that system work will notice the linear syntacmatic sequence of the two possibilities:

  1. a drug that would save his sight


  • a drug that would keep him alive

They are identical but for the last three words in both phrases which imply an opposition though using two verbs with similar meaning: save and keep. A logical analysis concludes that what will save his life will make him ‘not keep’ his sight.  The conflict was resolved by Theo choosing ‘not to go blind’. A FORMALIST critic will notice the antithesis and how the author makes the construction ‘unfamiliar’ by not repeating one of the propositions of the alternative, therefore increasing the difficulty and length of the perception because “the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged” (Shklovsky 18). Considering this same last phrase, a STRUCTURALIST critic will further argue that “not to go blind” is more than just the opposite of “to go blind” or ‘lose his sight’ for as “J. A. Greimas has illustrated with his squaring of the opposition any semiotic system of contrasting elements also imply the negation of each term in the binary” (Felluga, 3), a contradictory pair, which in this case would be “non-to go blind” and “non-not to go blind”. As the “bond between Signifier and Signified is arbitrary” (Sausurre, 79) thus there can exist more than one Signified for each Signifier, leading to multiplicity of meanings. In our case ‘ not to go blind’ meaning not only to retain sight but be able to see- possibly more than just the physical environment eventually grasping the ultimate reason of Theo’s circumstance.

He stopped the pills   

 and started the injections

these required the implantation of an ( ) above his heart

and within a few days

the clouds in his eyes started to clear up                             

he could see again.

A FORMALIST critic echoing Osip Brik would say that the rhythm and stress in Leavitt’s prose (which can be noted throughout the text) “are only the obvious manifestation of particular instances of basic euphonic laws” and that “the figures play an aesthetic role in its own right” (qtd. in Eichembaun, 9).

If we turn to what a PSYCHOANALYTIC critic would have to say, we will immediately highlight the fact that psychoanalytic literary criticism begins with Freud himself who “notices that literary texts are like dreams that express unconscious material in the form of complex displacements and condensations ( ) literature displaces unconscious desires, drives, and motives into imagery that might bear no resemblance to its origin but that nonetheless permits it to achieve release of expression” (Rivkin and Ryan, 125). For Freud, in ‘The Uncanny’, fear for castration takes the form not of a literal image, but of a metaphoric substitute that displaces the protagonist’s anxiety onto a fear of losing his eyes (160) and Theo’s choice can be taken as a flagrant example.

A STRUCTURALIST critic will note then that this opening paragraph refers to the first plot element – fright to lose his sight – as well as points out one basic “mytheme”(Lévi-Strauss, 104) in the laying out of the Oedipus complex-myth which the rest of the story will further develop and which the reader can predict due to Leavitt’s hermeneutic narrative: the reader knows from the beginning that Theo chose to die and for a FORMALIST critic the story will then keep the reader’s interest making him/her want to know how this will happen. The voice we hear is that of a limited omniscient narrator, the FORMALIST critic would also point out: the writer adopting the stance of an impersonal consciousness, itself not an agent in the events of the story but able to observe the thoughts of one of the characters. In our story it first seems to be narrating from Theo’s perspective. But soon we realize it is really Sylvia’s feelings which are put through from inside, while Theo is seen from an outer perspective. It will not be until the last paragraph of the story that we are to deepen in Theo’s thoughts while he is the one who tries to analyse Sylvia’s. The FORMALIST critic will also point out the use of analepsis or flashback taking us back to Theo’s childhood in the third sentence of this first paragraph.  The anecdote depicted presents Sylvia – his mother- for the first time. The Psychoanalytic critic will immediately observe the powerful mother-character shaping the Oedipus complex/myth. The boy does not want to admit he needs glasses and his mother, who gave him birth, who called him Theo (God)  shoves her own harlequin glasses onto his face (in the same impulsive way she will later toss the bowl to him) not caring what people would think because he can finally see.  A FEMINIST critic is bound to note the family-rearing role the story gives to Sylvia as well as her influence in Theo’s personality. Moreover, the same critic will abound in noting that Sylvia has suffered an inmasculating process taking on her back the task of further protecting her child as well as bringing him up. A FORMALIST reading of the last phrase of the paragraph: ‘he could see’ will highlight that it is a sort of antistrophe taking us back to the previous ‘he could see (again)’ and further clarifying it: Theo had been deprived of sight in an earlier stage of his life and it had been his mother who had given him sight. Thus the ultimate purpose of the analepsis is to let the reader know how it had been the same when Theo was twelve: his mother protecting him – enhancing his sight.  A PHYCHOANALITIC critic would argue that Theo had not been able to acquire his gender identity, not learning to give up his mother and identify with his father. It can be noted again how the idea of fear of castration takes the form of fear of losing his sight. Immediately a FEMINIST critic would point out that Sylvia feels it is her duty to deprive herself of her own sight during the projection of the film in order to allow her son to watch it. 


The same idea is further outlined in the second paragraph which starts: ‘Because he was dying again, Theo moved back to his mother’s house in New Jersey.’ A FORMALIST critic will point out the paradox of the situation. Cleanth Brooks explained in “The Language of Paradox” that paradox is the appropriate language of literature (58). The writer gives us a blurred impression that by helping him regain his sight once more Sylvia is provoking his death as well. And that is quite so. Paradox, though not a direct method, is the best to depict multiple implications. Sylvia will be his nurse because having had already gone through her own mother’s death she is fit to accomplish the same task with her son. Once more the FEMINIST critic will note the further female role of caring and seeing through her parent’s death in patriarchal society. The pipe stuck in his chest is the ‘constant reminder of how wide and unswimmable the gulf was becoming between him and the ever-receding shoreline of the well’. A FORMALIST criticism will justify the various metaphors and the subsequent contrast as a means to bring the reader to the conclusion that Theo is definitely dying and that realizes it. Immediately the contrast: Sylvia is cheerful – intricately though.  She takes him to the library and the museum and shields him when his thinness and cane draw stares. A PHYCOANALISTIC critic will continue composing the image of castrated youth, and a STRUCTURALIST critic will see as well in Theo’s use of a cane, another mytheme, one more constituent unit of the Oedipus myth that normally is associated with the unsteady walking when deprived of sight.


The central part of the story confronts the reader -the FORMALIST critic will notice- with another strange collocation of words in the first sentence: “they were shopping for revenge”. The skillful use of foil here is a crucial part of the writer’s repertoire. Setting things in systematic contrast to each other is one way of drawing intense attention to details the writer refuses to spell out because spelling things out would dilute the flow of events. A STRUCTURALIST critic will argue on his side, following Sausurre that because language is a system of interdependent terms in which the value of each term results solely from the simultaneous presence of the others, the reader must stop and think in all the weak meanings ‘shopping for revenge’ arises. But the most emblematic analysis could come from a MARXIST critic who will logically conclude that shopping refers to the act of acquiring a commodity, which by definition is “an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another” (Marx, 268). For Sylvia this want is ‘revenge’ and the MARXIST critic will further claim that as the utility of a thing makes it a use-value, therefore, the commodity to be bought by Sylvia will have a high use-value because revenge –for Sylvia- is very useful.

To Sylvia’s phrase “Ah, you live an learn” Theo replies ironically: “You live” The use of irony here will lead the PSYCHOANALISTIC critic to the conclusion that it is a symptom of Theo’s blaming his mother for his dying, and the fact that he makes her see him through his last days is a punishment.

Sylvia reminds Theo how Bibi had given him a ‘cheap little nothing’ for his graduation and, on his side,  Theo comments on his giving as a wedding present to his roommate Nick a five-dollar garlic press which  reflected exactly how much he felt his friendship was worth at that moment. The MARXIST critic will note the use, once and again, of commodities to express feelings. The interesting part of the question it poses is how people get to permeate commodities with such abstract characteristics. The analysis of both MARXIST and PSYCHOANALISTIC criticism come to be very close regarding this matter. “According to Lacan, it was none other than Karl Marx who invented the notion of symptom” (Zizek, 312). There is no doubt a fundamental homology between the interpretative procedure of Marx and Freud.  As Slkavoj Zizek puts it in The Sublime Object of Ideology “we must accomplish the crucial step of conceiving the hidden “meaning” behind the commodity-form, the signification “expressed” by this form; we must penetrate the “secret” of the value of commodities” (313). Sylvia had been looking a long time for “something heavy enough to leave an impression, yet so fragile it could make you sorry” and she found it materialized in a bowl worth four hundred and twenty-five dollars. What mattered least was if it was beautiful or ugly, that was not the case. Both the MARXIST and the PSYCHOANALYTIC critics will hint the “Fetishism” (Marx, 271) attached to the bowl.  While the latter will explain it as a part of a process of exorcism, the former will realize that “there is a definite social relation between men that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things” (Marx, 271).  Hence the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life and interacting in the world of commodities with the products of the men’s hands. And that Marx called “Fetishism”.

But it is not enough that Theo sees the bowl, he has to feel it – Sylvia suddenly argues -and unexpectedly tosses it to Theo like a football. She effects the sudden movement in the same manner twelve years before she had shoved her glasses onto his face. Her action obliges Theo to catch it and though it sinks his hands and makes his cane rattle in the floor, he succeeds in catching it. Our STRUCTURALIST critic is bound to find coherent that following the rules of the Oedipus myth, Sylvia, helping him not to go blind, is showing him with her action he can oppose gravity, that universal force. No need anymore for a cane that can be left, if even for a moment, rattling on the floor. That sole instant will prove the PSYCHONALYSTIC critic that unconscious forces can be defied; a person may defeat the psychic censorship if given the opportunity of “activating the repressed wishful impulse sending it into consciousness in a disguised and unrecognizable substitute”. (Baker).


A FEMINIST analysis of this last part of the story will notice how Sylvia is depicted through a number of characteristics that “phallocentric order” (Mulvey, 586) traditionally have awarded women with.  Sylvia “squeezed her eyes shut so tight the blue shadows on her lids cracked”; furthermore “on the surface things seemed right. She still broiled herself a skinned chicken breast for dinner every night, still swam a mile and a half a day, still kept used teabags wrapped in foil in the refrigerator”. Everything is right because Sylvia continues embarking herself in all the activities patriarchy has imposed women in order to give pleasure when looked at.  Laura Mulvey noted in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”: “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female” (589). A woman has, therefore, to be a passive image of visual perfection. It is basically what a MARXIST critic would call keeping the use-value of women and what one of  Lévi-Strauss’ theories would explain: “as the exchange of women is a fundamental principle of kinship, the subordination of women can be seen as a product of the relationships by which sex and gender are organized and produced” (qtd. in Rubin, 544).

The FORMALIST critic, on his end, would mark the use of the hyperbole for emphasis in “she squeezed her eyes shut so tight the blue shadow of her lids cracked” as well as the metaphor in “that gleam of flight and regret” when referring to the bowl which is so oblique it can only be wholly understood if referred back to “so fragile it could make you sorry” at the end of part [3].

Theo in a last and perfect state of clarividence understands that his mother was trusting “his two feeble hands, out of the whole world, to keep it from shattering. ‘What was she trying to test? Was it his newly regained vision? (.) that he hadn’t slipped past all her caring, a little lost boy in rhinestone-studded glasses?” A PSYCHOANALISTIC critic would argue that Leavitt has made his character act himself as a psychoanalist, wondering about both Sylvia and himself and there mutual close relationship, until he finally experiences an epiphanic instant which a FORMALIST critic would argue qualifies him as a dynamic character undergoing a radical change in his self-identification. The epiphany is in the closing of the story when Theo recalls the broad smile of his mother and he realizes that in that war, they were both engaged in, between heaviness and shattering, “he had helped her win some small but sustaining victory”. Our STRUCTURALIST critic would mark, once again, the use of foil but this time in an oblique and subverting way contrasting, as in the two sides of a war, heaviness and shattering when really one is but the consequence of the other. On his end the FORMALIST critic would claim that foils offer the writer interested in psychological or social realism a way of maintaining the illusion of reality while at the same time the crucial distinction between art and life is not lost, achieving as a result a much clearer situation in literature than what can be experienced in real life.

To conclude this multi-perspective literary criticism, we can turn to the FEMINIST criticism once more: Sylvia exercises the power the myths of sexism make available to her, and pushes Theo to oppose gravity, but that power is minimal because it only is the power of inducement. It is her son/male who really executes the action. The merit is his; Sylvia – the female- being just a tool, an object by which Theo- the dominant male- achieves victories. 

“Gravity”, as any other narrative, has as many readings as readers it may attract, and therefore, as many critical perspectives as existing theories can be drawn to discussion. In any case what cannot be denied is that it is a powerful and disturbing narrative that brings to surface many present questionings including such a delicate case as ‘AIDS’ which is only implied throughout the story but nonetheless very present.


Baker, Lyman A. “One of Freud’s Analogies for Explaining the Idea of Repression”

Critical Concepts. 30 April, 2000. Kansas State University. May 2, 2003. http://www.ksu.edu/english/baker/english251/cc-repression2.htm

Brooks, Cleanth. “The Language of Paradox” Rivkin and Ryan, 58-68.

Eichembaum, Boris. “Introduction to the Formal Method”  Rivkin and Ryan, 17-23.

Felluga, Dino. “Applications of Narratology”.  Introductory Guide to Critical Theory.

            April 22, 2003. Purdue University.  May 10, 2003


Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny” (1919). Rivkin and Ryan, 76-90.

Leavitt, David. “Gravity” (1990). The Oxford Book of American Short Stories. Oxford

            New York: Oxford University Press. 1994. 741-745.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. “The Structural Study of Myth”  Rivkin and Ryan., 101-118.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” Rivkin and Ryan, 585-595.

Rivkin, Julie, and Michael Ryan, eds. Literary Theory: An Anthology. Blackwell. 1998.

Sausurre, Ferdinand de. “Course in General Linguistics”  Rivkin and Ryan,  76-90.

Shklovsky, Victor. “Art as Technique”  Rivkin and Ryan, 17-23.

Zizek, Slavoj. ”The Sublime Object of Ideology”  Rivkin and Ryan, 312-325.

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