Literary Theory

Literary theory is:

  • the body of ideas and methods we use in the practical reading of literature.
  • a description of the underlying principles and tools, by which we attempt to understand literature.

All literary interpretation is informed by and grounded in a literary theory that provides a lens through which the work of literature is examined.  These lenses can lead to very different kinds of critical activities and, consequently, readings of the same work of literature.

Literary theory can help readers and critics understand:

  • relationship between author and work;
  • the significance of race, class, and gender (of the author and thematically within texts)
  • the role of the historical context of the text
  • the relevance of linguistic structures of the text
  • the relevance of the unconscious to the text
  • the history and evolution of different genres and forms e.g. narrative, dramatic, the novel, the short story
  • the importance of formal elements of literary structure
  • how texts are more the product of a culture than an individual author

In the process literary theory answers the questions:

  • What is literature?
  • How do readers of literature interpret literature?

Download the presentation “Literary Theory: A Crash Course”

One of the first and longest lasting issues in literary theory (from Plato on and especially relevant in 20th century theory of structuralists and post-structuralists) focuses on the question, “Is there any objective relationship between words and the things they refer to?” Plato, structuralists and post-structuralists argue that that relationship is arbitrary. The sound “dog” could mean anything.  It is only our common culture and acceptance of the conventions of Modern English that result in those sounds successfully carrying that meaning.  For most of the history of western civilization though the common belief has been that words refer to things.  Art “mirrored” nature – an objective reality that exists independently of the one observing it.

Much of what was proposed by earlier schools of criticism has endured, even as these traditions have been superseded to varying degrees.  Some examples of schools of criticism and the alternate perspectives on literature that differentiate them are:

  • Leavis School (UK) – Literature holds all that is meaningful and ennobling in the human experience – this (and institutional inertia) is why there are still English departments in schools, colleges and universities
  • Deconstructionism – “The indeterminacy of signs” suggests that readers cannot say for certain exactly what a word means when used in a given situation and consequently what a text “means” is problematized.
  • Feminism – Gender is socially constructed and as a result so are texts.  Understanding and appreciating texts is therefore at least in part an exercise in identifying how a text responds to or reflects the society’s prevailing mysogynistic or androcentric attitudes.

Traditional Literary Criticism

  • track influence
  • establish the canon of major writers in the literary periods
  • clarify historical context
  • clarify biographical context
  • clarify allusions within the text
  • aesthetics of genres
  • define the canon

Critics & Theorists

  • Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Sir Philip Sidney, John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Matthew Arnold

19th Century Literary Criticism

  • Germany “higher criticism” biblical – analyzed biblical stories in context of comparable stories from other traditions and lead to a questioning of traditional interpretations.
  • France: Charles Augustin Saint Beuve: literature can be understood entirely as a product of the life of the author. Proust refuted – author is transformed by the work of literature.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche: facts are not facts until they are interpreted – revolutionized and inspired much of 20th century literary theory.


Emphasizes (or more accurately exclusively examines):

  • literary forms (function of motifs, techniques, themes)
  • literary devices (poetic, narrative, lyric, epic etc)
  • “to make the stones stonier” “defamiliarization” – ordinariness erases uniqueness and particularity of objects and the point of literary language is to through its unusualness, make the reader aware of the extraordinariness of ordinary experience

Critics & Theorists

  • Roman Jakobson, Viktor Shklovsky

New Criticism

  • Close reading of the text (most often poetry)
  • Text is independent of historical or biographical context
  • Humanize readers and counter alienation of modernity
  • Intellectually rigorous (but not so mathematical as the Formalists)
  • Scrutinized paradox, ambiguity, irony, metaphor, rhyme, meter, assonance, dissonance, etc

Critics & Theorists

  • Cleanth Brooks, John Crowe Ransom, W.K. Wimsatt, Robert Penn Warren (USA, 1930s & 1940s)

Marxism & Critical Theory

  • representation of class conflict (upper, middle and lower classes defined in terms of the relation of each to the means of production – you’re either an owner – bourgeoisie or worker – proletarian, either you own the factory or you work in it)
  • use the traditional techniques but aesthetic is less important than the political/economic
  • champion authors who sympathetically represent the working class or criticize economic inequalities resulting from capitalist mode of production
  • foundation of New Historicism and Cultural Materialism

Critics & Theorists

  • Georg Lukacs, Frankfurt School – Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, Raymond Williams, Terry Eagleton, Frederic Jameson – cultural critics – commodification at the core of late capitalism


  • usually comes with a warning along the lines of: “Note:Structuralism, semiotics, and post-structuralism are some of the most complex literary theories to understand. Please be patient.”
  • like Formalism: scientific, objective focus on the text – only more complex – like calculus is to algebra
  • everything we do is expressed in language codes e.g. musical notation, traffic, fashion, finance, body “language”/gesture
  • Ferdinand de Saussure (Swiss linguist) – signified vs signifier, langue vs parole
  • Lévi-Strauss: the mind and cultures operate based on structures of pairs ofbinary oppositions such as hot-cold, male-female, culture-nature, cooked-raw, or marriageable vs. tabooed women
  • Roland Barthes: “writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin”
  • examine the structure of a large number of short stories to discover the underlying principles that govern their composition, principles of narrative progression, of characterization etc, or
  • describe the structure of a single literary work to discover how its composition demonstrates the underlying principles of a given structural system (e.g. the folktale)

Critics & Theorists

  • Claude Levi-Strauss, Tzvetan Todorov, A.J. Greimas,

Reader Response

  • the role of the reader cannot be omitted from our understanding of literature
  • readers do not passively consume the meaning presented to them by an objective literary text; they actively make the meaning they find in literature

Sample 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?

Critics & Theorists

  • Stanley Fish, Jane Tompkins, Wolfgang Iser


  • literature is constructed within historical, self-contained systems of understanding. There are no “metanarratives” from which a theorist can observe literature.
  • structures are theoretical fictions, constructions of the theorist and the post-modern theorists’ project is to deconstruct these to reveal the “play” in the system and undermine the authority that has built the structure.
  • Derrida : “Deconstruction cannot limit or proceed immediately to a neutralization: it must…practice an overturning of the classical opposition and a general displacement of the system. It is only on this condition that deconstruction will provide itself the means with which to intervene in the field of oppositions that it criticizes”
  • Non-linear narrative, no master or metanarratives
  • Barthes : “the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted …  the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.”
  • Foucault: knowledge is constructed in concrete historical situations in the form of discourse; knowledge is not communicated by discourse but is discourse itself
  • Foucault’s “genealogies,” deconstructs the unacknowledged operation of power and knowledge to reveal the ideologies that make domination of one group by another seem “natural.”

Sample questions

  • How does the work undermine or contradict generally accepted truths?
  • How does the author (or a character) omit, change, or reconstruct memory and identity?
  • How does a work fulfill or move outside the established conventions of its genre?
  • How does the work deal with the separation (or lack thereof) between writer, work, and reader?
  • What ideology does the text seem to promote?
  • What is left out of the text that if included might undermine the goal of the work?
  • If we changed the point of view of the text – say from one character to another, or multiple characters – how would the story change? Whose story is not told in the text? Who is left out and why might the author have omitted this character’s tale?

Critics & Theorists

  • Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault
  • Yale School – Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller, Geoffrey Hartmann

New Historicism & Cultural Materialism

  • accepts the necessity of making historical value judgments.
  • we know the textual history of the past because it is “embedded” in the textuality of the present and its concerns.
  • Interested in non-traditional and non-literary texts (e.g. mass media, popular culture), marginal/marginalized groups, non-normative behaviours (witchcraft, cross-dressing, peasant revolts), “the Other”

Sample questions

  • How does a work of literature reveal the economic and social realities, especially as these produce ideology and represent power or subversion?

Critics & Theorists

  • Raymond Williams: “the analysis of all forms of signification, including quite centrally writing, within the actual means and conditions of their production.”
  • Louis Montrose: “the textuality of history and the historicity of texts.”
  • Michel Foucault: power is ubiquitous and should be the focus of analysis
  • Antonio Gramsci: “hegemony”: domination is achieved through culturally organized consent instead of force

Ethnic Studies & Postcolonial Criticism

  • focus on literature produced by ethnic minorities that have been marginalized in relation to a dominant culture or colonized populations in the post-colonial period
  • limitations of applying Euro-centric paradigmsto non-European texts and traditions
  • new strategies for understanding vernacular traditions (common speech)

Critics & Theorists

  • W.E.B. Dubois: “double consciousness” as “American” and “Negro”
  • Frantz Fanon, Chinua Achebe champion suppressed, underground ethnic literary activity
  • Edward Said: Orientalism concept of “the Orient” was produced by Western scholarship and instrumental in the colonization and domination by non-Western societies
  • Homi K. Bhabha: questioned binary thought: center/margin, white/black, and colonizer/colonized used to justify colonial practices

Feminist Theory

  • literature exists within the framework that includes all social and cultural formations as they pertain to the role of women in history.
  • originated in Feminist tradition
  • the rights of women in contemporary societies
  • women’s identity
  • the representation of women in media and culture
  • emphasized study of and inclusion of works by female authors, depiction of female characters in male-authored canonical texts
  • sexual categories are products of culture and as such help create social reality rather than simply reflect it
  • First Wave: 1700-1900s initial statements of equality (Vindication of the Rights of Women, 1792) to Suffragettes secure the vote for women, 1918.
  • Second Wave: 1960s-1970s built on progress gained as workers in WWII, dovetailed with Civil Rights movement.
  • Third Wave: 1990s-present critical of heterosexual, white middle class focus of Second Wave to expand on marginalized populations’ experiences.

Sample 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?

Critics & Theorists

  • Mary Wollstonecraft, Simone de Beauvoir, Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous, and Julia Kristeva, Elaine Showalter

Queer Theory

  • questions the normative fixed categories of sexual identity and the cognitive paradigms
  • to “queer” is to transgress, mimic or critique stable boundaries of sexual identity
  • standard histories of western societies are presented exclusively in terms of heterosexual identity: “Inheritance, Marriage, Dynasty, Family, Domesticity, Population,” and this makes it difficult to conceptualize homosexual identity

Sample 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 does the work contribute to our knowledge of queer, gay, or lesbian experience and history, including literary history?
  • How does the literary text illustrate the problematics of sexuality and sexual “identity,” that is the ways in which human sexuality does not fall neatly into the separate categories defined by the words homosexual and heterosexual?

Cultural Studies

  • uses an array of perspectives—media studies, social criticism, anthropology and literary theory— to study entertainment, advertising, publishing, television, film, computers and the Internet and the politics and ideology that make contemporary culture possible
  • 1990s emphasized pop music icons and music video in place of canonical literature
  • examines transition from a truly popular culture to mass culture in late capitalist societies
  • borrows ideas and tools from linguistics, anthropology, psychoanalysis, and philosophy.
  • criticized for abandoning literary tradition e.g. the canon wars of the 1980s.

Critical Lenses: the condensed notes

Archetypal Criticism

  • Collective Unconscious
  • Societal roles: Great Mother; Questing Hero
  • Situations: Quest Journey, Life/Death
  • In The Passion: female temptors: Queen of Spades: Villanella – female, Napoleon – male.


  • Underlying system of language (?)
  • Two parts of language: signifier (word), signified (meaning) – these are not concerned with the plot, character etc
  • Parole, langue (a closed system)

Feminist Criticism

  • Gender equality, sex, gender, violence, social roles, autonomy, discrimination, lived experience, authority
  • Examine texts for traces of gender inequality

Reader Response Criticism

  • Interpretive communities: groups that will have the same response to given literature
  • No single meaning in texts: as average reader changes the text meaning changes

Biographical Criticism

  • Examines how the text relates to an author’s life, to further understanding of the author
  • Variables involved: gender, class, social/family situation, education and time period

Historical Criticism

  • Examine the period and movements and the relation to and the dependencies of the author

Psychological Criticism

  • Analyses of characters and author looking at repetition of actions with modern psychology and psychiatry
  • Unconscious/conscious
  • Expression of unconscious mind, e.g. symbols
  • Sexuality as a motivating force

Poststructuralist Criticism

  • Jacques Derrida: deconstruction of text leads to rejection of universal meaning and the intended meaning is secondary
  • Signs gain meaning from the other signs in a text
  • Examine the gap between the signifier and the signified, there is no one to one connection it is open to reader differences

New Criticism

  • Everything a reader needs is contained in the text
  • Things should not be said straightforwardly
  • Good literature contains many layers of paradox

Sample essay topic

Discuss the destabilization of traditional notions of the “love narrative” in Winterson’s and Roy’s texts.

Recommended Websites

Literary Criticism:

Jeannette Winterson:

Writing Literary Research Papers:


Brewton, Vince. “Literary Theory.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Martin, TN: University of Tennessee, Martin, 2015.  Web.

Eagleton, Terry.  Literary Theory: An Introduction, 2nd ed..  Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. 2003. Web.

Fry, Paul.  “English 300: Introduction to Theory of Literature.” Open Yale Courses.  New Haven, CT: Yale University, 2015. Web.

“Guide to Literary Theory and Schools of Criticism.”  Online Writing Lab (OWL). West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University, 2015.  Web.

Meister, Kristin. “Literary Theories for AP English.” Como Park Senior High School.  St. Paul, MN: Como Park Senior High School, 2014.  Web.

Moxley, Joseph. “Literary Criticism.” Writing Commons: The Home for Writers, n.d.  Web.


Other course resources

Stories and Lectures:

Plays, Poetry and Novels:

  • Waiting For Godot, Samuel Beckett
  • The Passion, Jeanette Winterson
  • The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
  • The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje
  • Anil’s Ghost, Michael Ondaatje
  • In the Skin of a Lion, Michael Ondaatje
  • Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels
  • The Underpainter, Jane Urquhart
  • The Stone Carvers, Jane Urquhart
  • Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood
  • Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
  • Modern poems: a Norton introductions
  • King Lear, William Shakespeare