Literary theory and schools of criticism What is literary theory? A very basic way of thinking about literary theory is that these ideas act as different lenses critics use to view and talk about art, literature, and even culture. These different lenses allow critics to consider works of art based on certain assumptions within that school of theory. The different lenses also allow critics to focus on particular aspects of a work they consider important. What is literary theory continued For example, if a critic is working with certain
Marxist theories, s/he might focus on how the characters in a story interact based on their economic situation. If a critic is working with post-colonial theories, s/he might consider the same story but look at how characters from colonial powers (Britain, France, and even America) treat characters from, say, Africa or the Caribbean. Hopefully, after reading through and working with the resources in this area of the OWL, literary theory will become a little easier to understand and use. Literary theory timeline (most of these overlap) Moral Criticism, Dramatic Construction (~360 BC-present) Formalism, New Criticism, Neo-Aristotelian Criticism (1930s-
present) Psychoanalytic Criticism, Jungian Criticism(1930s-present) Marxist Criticism (1930s-present) Reader-Response Criticism (1960s-present) Structuralism/Semiotics (1920s-present) Post-Structuralism/Deconstruction (1966-present) New Historicism/Cultural Studies (1980s-present) Post-Colonial Criticism (1990s-present) Feminist Criticism (1960s-present) Gender/Queer Studies (1970s-present) Critical Race Theory (1970s-present) Moral criticism and dramatic construction Plato Plato argues that literature (and art) is capable of corrupting or
influencing people to act or behave in various ways. Sometimes these themes, subject matter, or the actions of literary characters undermine religion or ethics, he warns that art must contain moral lessons. Moral criticism and dramatic construction Aristotle Aristotle believed that literature can instruct as well as corrupt. So care must be taken when writing or reading. This idea is picked up later by Samuel Johnson and Matthew Arnold who see literature as a good way to teach morality and probe
philosophical ideas. The underlying principle then is whether or not the text can be seen as A) moral, and B) FORMALISM 1930S-PRESENT Formalists disagreed about what specific elements make a literary work "good" or "bad"; but generally, Formalism maintains that a literary work contains certain intrinsic features, and the theory defined and addressed the specifically literary qualities in the text Therefore, it's easy to see Formalism's relation to Aristotle's theories of dramatic construction. Formalism attempts to treat each work as its own distinct piece, free from its environment, era, and even author. This point of view developed in reaction to forms of 'extrinsic' criticism that viewed the text as either the product of social and historical forces or a document
making an ethical statement. Formalists assume that the keys to understanding a text exist within "the text itself, and thus focus a great deal on, you guessed it, form . TYPICAL FORMALIST QUESTIONS Typical questions: How does the work use imagery to develop its own symbols? (i.e. making a certain road stand for death by constant association) What is the quality of the work's organic unity "...the working together of all the parts to make an inseparable whole In other words, does how the work is put together reflect what it is? How are the various parts of the work interconnected? How do paradox, irony, ambiguity, and tension work in the text? How do these parts and their collective whole contribute to or not contribute to the aesthetic quality of the work? How does the author resolve apparent contradictions within the work?
What does the form of the work say about its content? Is there a central or focal passage that can be said to sum up the entirety of the work? How do the rhythms and/or rhyme schemes of a poem contribute to the meaning or effect of the piece? PSYCHOANALYTIC CRITICISM (1930S-PRESENT) Psychoanalytic criticism builds on Freudian theories of psychology. Freud maintained that our desires and our unconscious conflicts give rise to three areas of the mind that wrestle for dominance as we grow from infancy, to childhood, to adulthood: id - "...the location of the drives" or libido ego - "...one of the major defenses against the power of the drives..." and home of the defenses : selective perception, selective memory, denial, displacement, projection, regression, fear of intimacy, and fear of death, among others. superego - the area of the unconscious that houses Judgment (of
self and others) and "...which begins to form during childhood as a result of the Oedipus complex" So what does all of this psychological business have to do with literature and the study of literature? Put simply, some critics believe that we can "...read psychoanalytically...to see which concepts are operating in the text in such a way as to enrich our understanding of the work and, if we plan to write a paper about it, to yield a meaningful, coherent psychoanalytic interpretation PSYCHOANALYTIC QUESTIONS Typical questions: How do the operations of repression structure or inform the work? Are there any oedipal dynamics - or any other family dynamics - are work here? How can characters' behavior, narrative events, and/or images be explained in terms of psychoanalytic concepts of any kind (for example...fear or fascination with death, sexuality - which includes
love and romance as well as sexual behavior - as a primary indicator of psychological identity or the operations of ego-idsuperego)? What does the work suggest about the psychological being of its author? What might a given interpretation of a literary work suggest about the psychological motives of the reader? Are there prominent words in the piece that could have different or hidden meanings? Could there be a subconscious reason for the author using these "problem words"? Marxist Criticism (1930s-present) Based on the theories of Karl Marx (and so influenced by philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel), this school concerns itself with class differences, economic and otherwise, as well as the implications and
complications of the capitalist system: "Marxism attempts to reveal the ways in which our socioeconomic system is the ultimate source of our experience Theorists working in the Marxist tradition, therefore, are interested in answering the overarching question, whom does it [the work, the effort, the policy, the road, etc.] benefit? The elite? The middle class? And MARXIST CRITICISM The Marxist school follows a process of thinking called the material dialectic. This belief system maintains that "...what drives historical change are the material realities of the economic base of society, rather than the ideological superstructure of politics, law,
philosophy, religion, and art that is built upon that economic base The continuing conflict between the classes will lead to upheaval and revolution by oppressed peoples and form the groundwork for a new order of society and economics where capitalism is abolished. According to Marx, the revolution will be led by the working MARXIST CRITICISM Typical questions: Whom does it benefit if the work or effort is accepted/successful/believed, etc.? What is the social class of the author? Which class does the work claim to represent? What values does it reinforce? What values does it subvert?
What conflict can be seen between the values the work champions and those it portrays? What social classes do the characters represent? How do characters from different classes interact or conflict? Reader/response criticism At its most basic level, reader response criticism considers readers' reactions to literature as vital to interpreting the meaning of the text. However, readerresponse criticism can take a number of different approaches. A critic deploying reader-response theory can use a psychoanalytic lens, a feminists lens, or even a structuralist lens. What these different lenses have in common when using a reader response approach is they maintain "...that what a text is cannot be separated from what it does reader-response theorists
share two beliefs: 1) that the role of the reader cannot be omitted from our understanding of literature and 2) that readers do not passively consume the meaning presented to them by an objective literary text; rather they actively make the meaning they find in literature" Reader/response Typical questions: How does the interaction of text and reader create meaning? What does a phrase-by-phrase analysis of a short literary text, or a key portion of a longer text, tell us about the reading experience prestructured by (built into) that text? Do the sounds/shapes of the words as they appear on the page or how they are spoken by the reader enhance or change the meaning of the word/work? How might we interpret a literary text to show that the
reader's response is, or is analogous to, the topic of the story? What does the body of criticism published about a literary text suggest about the critics who interpreted that text and/or about the reading experience produced by that text? Structuralism and Semiotics (1920s-present) The structuralist school emerges from theories of language and linguistics, and it looks for underlying elements in culture and literature that can be connected so that critics can develop general conclusions about the individual works and the systems from which they emerge. In fact, structuralism maintains that "...practically everything we do that is specifically human is expressed in language Structuralists believe that these language symbols extend far beyond written or oral communication.
Structuralism is used in literary theory, for example, "...if you examine the structure of a large number of short stories to discover the underlying principles that govern their composition...principles of narrative progression...or of characterization...you are also engaged in structuralist activity if you describe the structure of a single literary work to discover how its composition demonstrates the underlying principles of a given structural system" Structuralism and semiotics Typical questions: Using a specific structuralist framework (like Frye's mythoi)...how should the text be classified in terms of its genre? In other words, what patterns exist within the text that make it a part of other works like it? Using a specific structuralist framework...analyze the text's narrative operations...can you speculate about the relationship between the... [text]... and the culture from which the text emerged? In other words,
what patterns exist within the text that make it a product of a larger culture? What patterns exist within the text that connect it to the larger "human" experience? In other words, can we connect patterns and elements within the text to other texts from other cultures to map similarities that tell us more about the common human experience? This is a liberal humanist move that assumes that since we are all human, we all share basic human commonalities What rules or codes of interpretation must be internalized in order to 'make sense' of the text? What are the semiotics of a given category of cultural phenomena, or 'text,' such as high-school football games, television and/or magazine ads for a particular brand of perfume...or even media coverage of an historical event? New Historicism, Cultural Studies (1980s-present) This school, influenced by structuralist and post-
structuralist theories, seeks to reconnect a work with the time period in which it was produced and identify it with the cultural and political movements of the time (Michel Foucault's concept of pistme). New Historicism assumes that every work is a product of the historic moment that created it. Specifically, New Historicism is "...a practice that has developed out of contemporary theory, particularly the structuralist realization that all human systems are symbolic and subject to the rules of language, and the deconstructive realization that there is no way of positioning oneself as an observer outside the closed circle of textuality" New historicism cultural studies Typical questions: What language/characters/events present in the work reflect the
current events of the authors day? Are there words in the text that have changed their meaning from the time of the writing? How are such events interpreted and presented? How are events' interpretation and presentation a product of the culture of the author? Does the work's presentation support or condemn the event? Can it be seen to do both? How does this portrayal criticize the leading political figures or movements of the day? How does the literary text function as part of a continuum with other historical/cultural texts from the same period...? How can we use a literary work to "map" the interplay of both traditional and subversive discourses circulating in the culture in which that work emerged and/or the cultures in which the work has been interpreted? How does the work consider traditionally marginalized populations?
Post-Colonial Criticism (1990s-present) Post-colonial criticism is similar to cultural studies, but it assumes a unique perspective on literature and politics that warrants a separate discussion. Specifically, post-colonial critics are concerned with literature produced by colonial powers and works produced by those who were/are colonized. Post-colonial theory looks at issues of power, POST-COLONIAL CRITICISM Typical questions: How does the literary text, explicitly or allegorically, represent various aspects of
colonial oppression? What does the text reveal about the problematics of post-colonial identity, including the relationship between personal and cultural identity and such issues as double consciousness and hybridity? What person(s) or groups does the work identify as "other" or stranger? How are such persons/groups described and treated? What does the text reveal about the politics and/or psychology of anti-colonialist resistance? What does the text reveal about the operations of cultural difference - the ways in which race, religion, class, gender, sexual orientation, cultural beliefs, and customs combine to form individual identity - in shaping our perceptions of ourselves, others, and the world in which we live? How does the text respond to or comment upon the characters, themes, or assumptions of a canonized (colonialist) work? Are there meaningful similarities among the literatures of different post-colonial populations? How does a literary text in the Western canon reinforce or undermine colonialist
ideology through its representation of colonialization and/or its inappropriate silence about colonized peoples? Feminist Criticism (1960s-present) Feminist criticism is concerned with "...the ways in which literature (and other cultural productions) reinforce or undermine the economic, political, social, and psychological oppression of women This school of theory looks at how aspects of our culture are inherently patriarchal (male dominated) and "...this critique strives to expose the explicit and implicit misogyny in male writing about women" FEMINIST Theory
Though a number of different approaches exist in feminist criticism, there exist some areas of commonality. This list is excerpted from Tyson: Women are oppressed by patriarchy economically, politically, socially, and psychologically; patriarchal ideology is the primary means by which they are kept so In every domain where patriarchy reigns, woman is other: she is marginalized, defined only by her difference from male norms and values All of western (Anglo-European) civilization is deeply rooted in patriarchal ideology, for example, in the biblical portrayal of Eve as the origin of sin and death in the world While biology determines our sex (male or female), culture determines our gender (masculine or feminine) All feminist activity, including feminist theory and literary criticism, has as its ultimate goal to change the world by prompting gender equality Gender issues play a part in every aspect of human production and
experience, including the production and experience of literature, whether we are consciously aware of these issues or not Feminist theory Typical questions: How is the relationship between men and women portrayed? What are the power relationships between men and women (or characters assuming male/female roles)? How are male and female roles defined? What constitutes masculinity and femininity? How do characters embody these traits? Do characters take on traits from opposite genders? How so? How does this change others reactions to them? What does the work reveal about the operations (economically, politically, socially, or psychologically) of patriarchy? What does the work imply about the possibilities of sisterhood as a mode of resisting patriarchy?
What does the work say about women's creativity? What does the history of the work's reception by the public and by the critics tell us about the operation of patriarchy? What role the work play in terms of women's literary history and literary tradition? Gender Studies and Queer Theory (1970s-present) Gender studies and queer theory explore issues of sexuality, power, and marginalized populations (woman as other) in literature and culture. Much of the work in gender studies and queer theory, while influenced by feminist criticism, emerges from post-structural interest in fragmented, de-centered knowledge building , language (the breakdown of signsignifier), and psychoanalysis . A primary concern in gender studies and queer
theory is the manner in which gender and sexuality is discussed. Typical questions: What elements of the text can be perceived as being masculine (active, powerful) and feminine (passive, marginalized) and how do the characters support these traditional roles? What sort of support (if any) is given to elements or characters who question the masculine/feminine binary? What happens to those elements/characters? What elements in the text exist in the middle, between the perceived masculine/feminine binary? In other words, what elements exhibit traits of both (bisexual)? How does the author present the text? Is it a traditional narrative? Is it secure and forceful? Or is it more hesitant or even collaborative?
What are the politics (ideological agendas) of specific gay, lesbian, or queer works, and how are those politics revealed in...the work's thematic content or portrayals of its characters? What are the poetics (literary devices and strategies) of a specific lesbian, gay, or queer works? What does the work contribute to our knowledge of queer, gay, or lesbian experience and history, including literary history? How is queer, gay, or lesbian experience coded in texts that are by writers who are apparently homosexual? What does the work reveal about the operations (socially, politically, psychologically) homophobic? How does the literary text illustrate the problematics of sexuality and sexual
Ecocriticism (1960-Present) At the heart of ecocriticism, many maintain, is a commitment to environmentality from whatever critical vantage point (Buell 11). The challenge for ecocritics is keep[ing] one eye on the ways in which nature is always  culturally constructed, and the other on the fact that nature really exists (Gerrard 10). Similar to critical traditions examining gender and race, ecocriticism deals not only with the socially-constructed, often dichotomous ECOCRITICISM How is nature represented in this text?
How has the concept of nature changed over time? How is the setting of the play/film/text related to the environment? What is the influence on metaphors and representations of the land and the environment on how we treat it? How do we see issues of environmental disaster and crises reflected in popular culture and literary works? How are animals represented in this text and what is their relationship to humans? How do the roles or representations of men and women towards the environment differ in this play/film/text/etc. Where is the environment placed in the power hierarchy? How is nature empowered or oppressed in this work? What parallels can be drawn between the sufferings and oppression of groups of people (women, minorities, immigrants, etc.) and treatment of the land?
Critical Race Theory (1970s-present) Critical Race Theory, or CRT, is a theoretical and interpretive mode that examines the appearance of race and racism across dominant cultural modes of expression. In adopting this approach, CRT scholars attempt to understand how victims of systemic racism are affected by cultural perceptions of race and how they are able to represent themselves to counter prejudice. CRITICAL RACE THEORY What is the significance of race in contemporary American society?
Where, in what ways, and to what ends does race appear in dominant American culture and shape the ways we interact with one another? What types of texts and other cultural artifacts reflect dominant cultures perceptions of race? How can scholars convey that racism is a concern that affects all members of society? How does racism continue to function as a persistent force in American society? How can we combat racism to ensure that all members of American society experience equal representation and access to fundamental rights? How can we accurately reflect the experiences of victims of racism?
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