Literary theory

From LitWiki


According to the Collins English Dictionary, literary theory is defined as "the systematic analysis and study of literature using general principles". A common misconception about literary theory is that it is focused on the meaning of a work of literature, whereas the actual study involves the tools by which people attempt to understand literature. [1] With different schools of theory critics of different literary works can focus on those works through different aspects they consider the most important(for example a Marxist theory may focus on how characters in a story react to an economic situation). [2] Critics use more than one school of literary theory when analyzing a work.

Types of Literary Theory

Archetypal/Myth Criticism

Archetypal/Myth critics, such as C.G. Jung and Joseph Campbell, view the genres and individual plot patterns of literature, including highly sophisticated and realistic works, as recurrences of certain archetypes and essential mythic formulae.[3] Archetypes are "repeated types of experience in lives of ancient ancestors which inherited the collective unconscious of the human race and are expressed in myths, dreams, religion, and private fantasies, also in the work of literature." - C.G. Jung

Examples of Archetypes: the sun, the moon, circles, colors, Wise Old Man, the Great Mother, etc. Another archetype would be the color white, signifies death and is associated with innocence.

Archetypal/Myth Authors:

Psychoanalytic Criticism

Psychoanalytic criticism, is one of the initial approaches within the school of literary criticism. This concept is used by critics to analyze the unconsciousness of the mind; which consists of desires, fears, enjoyments or anything that causes human to be driven without knowledge of their actions. Psychoanalytic method was originally constructed by Sigmund Freud, when he was studying patients in an asylum.

The Introductory Guide to Critical Theory says, Freud began his researches into the workings of the human mind in 1881, after a century during which Europe and America saw the reform of the insane asylum and an ever-increasing interest in "abnormal" psychological states, especially the issue of "nervous diseases" (which was the first phenomenon that Freud studied, examining the nervous system of fish while gaining his medical degree at the University of Vienna from 1873 to 1881).[4]

Holland says, the psychoanalytic literary critic's primary job is to foreground that psychological element in what he or she says about books. In other words, the psychoanalytic critics should be interpreting their own, if you will, counter-transference to the text or whatever else they are describing.[5]

For example if the literary critic wants to apply the psychoanalytic approach to a specific piece of work or literature, the theory is applied directly with the following the concepts:[6]

  1. Consider the author’s personality to explain and interpret a text
  2. What psychological theories are present in the characters (Oedipal complex, obsessive compulsive, sexual repression, denial, guilt)?
  3. What repressed material is expressed in imagery or symbols?

The literary critic will then be able to exhibit to the reader the images that are needed to properly interpret and grasp the message of the writer.

Feminist Criticism

Feminist Criticism is the analysis of the thoughts on feminism, feminist theory, or feminist politics. Authors use this to change the way literature portrays woman characters. Feminist theory has raised questions towards society. It asks if the world values male characters over females or if they feel that females are not as strong as males.[7] When feminist criticism began is focused on politics of women authorship and the representation of woman’s conditions in literature.[8] Currently, feminist criticism focuses on certain aspects of society with women; such as education, politics, and the work force.

Feminist Writers:

Marxist Criticism

In literature, Marxist criticism focuses on money and power.[9] It was founded on the ideals of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The story lines are usually affected or influenced by the economy or social classes. This criticism usually exposes the way a socioeconomic system is the ultimate source of our experience.[10] The notions of Marxism places emphasis on the convergence between the dominant and repressed classes. Also, Marxism encourages art to imitate what is often termed an "objective" reality. Contemporary Marxism is more general in its desired goal and views art as simultaneously reflective and autonomous to the era in which it was produced.[3]

Marxist Authors:

New Criticism

New Criticism is a literary movement beginning in he late 1920's and 1930's. This movement derived from the reaction to traditional criticism that new critics believe were considered highly important, such as the biography or psychology of the author or the work's relations to the history of literature. The notion of New Criticism is that a work of literary art should be considered autonomous so that it is not judged, or stereotyped, by reference to considerations beyond the work.[3]

Major New Criticism Figures:

Formalist Criticism

Formalist criticism is an approach that emphasizes literary form and and studies the structural purposes or literary devices of a text. Formalism seeks to study literature on a scientific base using objective analysis from the motifs, devices, techniques, and other functions. The literariness of the text served the Formalists the most importance. It was what they considered to separate their literary aspects from all other types of writing. They cared most that their narrative had meaning and displayed the "hero function." [11]

Civic Criticism

Civic Criticism looks into the social and political ideas and attitudes of literature. Those factors are determined whether it is progressive or not.[12]

Modernism/ Post-Modernism

Modernism is the rejection of traditional forms of literature. It turns the work into a new experimental form. Modernism writing usually consists of several allusions. Modernism tends to focus around enlightenment ideas[6]

Post-Modernism follows the same suit as modernism, but with a twist. It forms a new framework. Post-Modernism tends to consist of free-play and disclosure. Theorist, Ihab Hassan, created a list of to show some difference between the two.[3]

Modernism Post-Modernism
Purpose Play
Design Chance
Hierarchy Anarchy
Totalization Deconstruction
Presence Absence
Root/Depth Rhizome/Surface


Post-Colonialism is a collection of theoretical and critical strategies that is used to examine culture like in literature, politics, history, etc., and their relations with the world. Post-colonial writers want to resurrect both their culture and to combat preconceptions of their culture.[3]

Major Post-Colonialism Figures:


Existentialism is a philosophy that views each person as an isolated being and who sees the world as no value or meaning. This philosophy was promoted by Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Sartre saw human beings as being free to choose whatever conscious decision that they wanted to. "Man/Women are condemned to be free," -Jean-Paul Sartre. Most defined existence as absurd and anguished because there would be a world without sense and people are free to do whatever they want.[3]

Major Existentialism Figures:


Structuralism is the concern for descriptions and perceptions of structures. Human activity is constructed, not natural or essential, according to Structuralist. This means, in any situation has to have some reasoning/meaning behind it.[3]

Major Structuralism Figures:


Ross Murfin states that “deconstruction involves the close reading of texts in order to demonstrate that any given text has irreconcilably contradictory meanings, rather than being a unified, logical whole.”[13] J. Hillis Miller, the preeminent American deconstructor, also described how deconstruction does not involve the dismantling of a structure, but rather highlighting the fact that the text dismantles itself.

Jacques Derrida, a French philosopher, first coined deconstruction. He demonstrates how in Western Culture, there is a heavy reliance on “binary oppositions”. This occurs when two concepts are given, one that is inherently superior, the other slightly inferior (even slightly). Some examples include black vs white, feminine vs masculine, beginning vs end, etc. Deconstruction is the method used by Derrida to break down these oppositions and display the inevitable hierarchies within them.

Reader Response

Reader response criticism is a method through which authors are able to receive real feedback about how their work is experienced by readers. In essence, a reader is given a work, the reader actively experiences the work, and then they provide a response to the author. The advantage to this process, is that every reader will experience the work in their own way, influenced by their experiences and psychological needs. This provides the author with an authentic response every time, as no two readers will experience the work in the same way.

Louise Rosenblatt is credited with the creation of this approach. In 1969, she defined reader response criticism as, “A poem is what the reader lives through under the guidance of the text and experiences as relevant to the text…the idea that a poem presupposes a reader actively involved with a text is particularly shocking to those seeking to emphasize the objectivity of their observations.” Opposition to this idea was very heavy. Formalists had no interest in what a reader goes through, and claimed the idea of a reader’s response being relevant to a work as a fallacy.

In recent years, with the redefinition of literature into something the readers’ minds experience, the process of reader-response has been adapted. The most common form of response is done with college classes. The students read the work and describe their experiences at key points throughout the work. This can be done even while the work is still being written, which makes it particularly powerful.[14]



External Links

  1. 1.0 1.1 “Literary Theory” by Vince Brewton, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ISSN 2161-0002, <>, accessed 16 April 2014
  2. 2.0 2.1 "Literary Theory and Schools of Criticism" by Allen Brizee, J. Case Tompkins. Purdue OWL, <>.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 "Introduction to Modern Literary Theory" by Dr. Kristi Siegel, <>, accessed 22 April 2014
  4. 4.0 4.1 "Modules on Freud: On Psychosexual Development." by Felluga. Dino.Introductory Guide to Critical Theory.<>. July 12, 2002. accessed 21 April 2014
  5. 5.0 5.1 The Mind and the Book: A Long Look at Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism by N Holland, Norman. University of Florida, <>.1998. accessed 21 April 2014
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Literary Theories: A Sampling of Lenses by Daniel Mesick.Como Park Senior High School, <>, accessed 21 April 2014
  7. 7.0 7.1 Napikoski, Linda. Feminist Literary Crticism. <>, accessed 21 April 2014
  8. 8.0 8.1 Allen Brizee, J. Case Tompkins . 2010-04-21. Feminist Criticism (1960s-present).<>, accessed 21 April 2014
  9. 9.0 9.1 'Literary Theories: A Sampling of Critical Lenses.' <>, accessed 21 April 2014
  10. 10.0 10.1 Allen Brizee, J. Case Tompkins . 2010-04-21. "Marxist Criticism (1930s-present)."<>, accessed 21 April 2014
  11. 11.0 11.1 "Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy" by Vince Brewton, <>, accessed 22 April 2014
  12. 12.0 12.1 Cuddon, J. A. (2013). "Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory."
  13. 13.0 13.1 “Critical Approaches” by Ross Murfin, VirtuaLit Interactive Poetry Tutorial, <>, accessed 23 April 2014
  14. 14.0 14.1 “Critical Approaches” by Ross Murfin, VirtuaLit Interactive Poetry Tutorial, <>, accessed 23 April 2014