the literary theories

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Literary theory.

“Literary theory” is the body of ideas and methods we use in the practical reading of literature. By literary theory we refer not to the meaning of a work of literature but to the theories that reveal what literature can mean. Literary theory is a description of the underlying principles, one might say the tools, by which we attempt to understand literature. All literary interpretation draws on a basis in theory but can serve as a justification for very different kinds of critical activity. It is literary theory that formulates the relationship between author and work; literary theory develops the significance of race, class, and gender for literary study, both from the standpoint of the biography of the author and an analysis of their thematic presence within texts. Literary theory offers varying approaches for understanding the role of historical context in interpretation as well as the relevance of linguistic and unconscious elements of the text. Literary theorists trace the history and evolution of the different genres—narrative, dramatic, lyric—in addition to the more recent emergence of the novel and the short story, while also investigating the importance of formal elements of literary structure. Lastly, literary theory in recent years has sought to explain the degree to which the text is more the product of a culture than an individual author and in turn how those texts help to create the culture.

Table of Contents

  • What Is Literary Theory?
  • Traditional Literary Criticism
  • Formalism and New Criticism
  • Marxism and Critical Theory
  • Structuralism and Poststructuralism
  • New Historicism and Cultural Materialism
  • Ethnic Studies and Postcolonial Criticism
  • Gender Studies and Queer Theory
  • Cultural Studies
  • General Works on Theory
  • Literary and Cultural Theory

1. What Is Literary Theory?

“Literary theory,” sometimes designated “critical theory,” or “theory,” and now undergoing a transformation into “cultural theory” within the discipline of literary studies, can be understood as the set of concepts and intellectual assumptions on which rests the work of explaining or interpreting literary texts. Literary theory refers to any principles derived from internal analysis of literary texts or from knowledge external to the text that can be applied in multiple interpretive situations. All critical practice regarding literature depends on an underlying structure of ideas in at least two ways: theory provides a rationale for what constitutes the subject matter of criticism—”the literary”—and the specific aims of critical practice—the act of interpretation itself. For example, to speak of the “unity” of Oedipus the King explicitly invokes Aristotle’s theoretical statements on poetics. To argue, as does Chinua Achebe, that Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness fails to grant full humanity to the Africans it depicts is a perspective informed by a postcolonial literary theory that presupposes a history of exploitation and racism. Critics that explain the climactic drowning of Edna Pontellier in The Awakening as a suicide generally call upon a supporting architecture of feminist and gender theory. The structure of ideas that enables criticism of a literary work may or may not be acknowledged by the critic, and the status of literary theory within the academic discipline of literary studies continues to evolve.

Literary theory and the formal practice of literary interpretation runs a parallel but less well known course with the history of philosophy and is evident in the historical record at least as far back as Plato. The Cratylus contains a Plato’s meditation on the relationship of words and the things to which they refer. Plato’s skepticism about signification, i.e., that words bear no etymological relationship to their meanings but are arbitrarily “imposed,” becomes a central concern in the twentieth century to both “Structuralism” and “Poststructuralism.” However, a persistent belief in “reference,” the notion that words and images refer to an objective reality, has provided epistemological (that is, having to do with theories of knowledge) support for theories of literary representation throughout most of Western history. Until the nineteenth century, Art, in Shakespeare’s phrase, held “a mirror up to nature” and faithfully recorded an objectively real world independent of the observer.

Modern literary theory gradually emerges in Europe during the nineteenth century. In one of the earliest developments of literary theory, German “higher criticism” subjected biblical texts to a radical historicizing that broke with traditional scriptural interpretation. “Higher,” or “source criticism,” analyzed biblical tales in light of comparable narratives from other cultures, an approach that anticipated some of the method and spirit of twentieth century theory, particularly “Structuralism” and “New Historicism.” In France, the eminent literary critic Charles Augustin Saint Beuve maintained that a work of literature could be explained entirely in terms of biography, while novelist Marcel Proust devoted his life to refuting Saint Beuve in a massive narrative in which he contended that the details of the life of the artist are utterly transformed in the work of art. (This dispute was taken up anew by the French theorist Roland Barthes in his famous declaration of the “Death of the Author.” See “Structuralism” and “Poststructuralism.”) Perhaps the greatest nineteenth century influence on literary theory came from the deep epistemological suspicion of Friedrich Nietzsche: that facts are not facts until they have been interpreted. Nietzsche’s critique of knowledge has had a profound impact on literary studies and helped usher in an era of intense literary theorizing that has yet to pass.

Attention to the etymology of the term “theory,” from the Greek “theoria,” alerts us to the partial nature of theoretical approaches to literature. “Theoria” indicates a view or perspective of the Greek stage. This is precisely what literary theory offers, though specific theories often claim to present a complete system for understanding literature. The current state of theory is such that there are many overlapping areas of influence, and older schools of theory, though no longer enjoying their previous eminence, continue to exert an influence on the whole. The once widely-held conviction (an implicit theory) that literature is a repository of all that is meaningful and ennobling in the human experience, a view championed by the Leavis School in Britain, may no longer be acknowledged by name but remains an essential justification for the current structure of American universities and liberal arts curricula. The moment of “Deconstruction” may have passed, but its emphasis on the indeterminacy of signs (that we are unable to establish exclusively what a word means when used in a given situation) and thus of texts, remains significant. Many critics may not embrace the label “feminist,” but the premise that gender is a social construct, one of theoretical feminisms distinguishing insights, is now axiomatic in a number of theoretical perspectives.

While literary theory has always implied or directly expressed a conception of the world outside the text, in the twentieth century three movements—”Marxist theory” of the Frankfurt School, “Feminism,” and “Postmodernism”—have opened the field of literary studies into a broader area of inquiry. Marxist approaches to literature require an understanding of the primary economic and social bases of culture since Marxist aesthetic theory sees the work of art as a product, directly or indirectly, of the base structure of society. Feminist thought and practice analyzes the production of literature and literary representation within the framework that includes all social and cultural formations as they pertain to the role of women in history. Postmodern thought consists of both aesthetic and epistemological strands. Postmodernism in art has included a move toward non-referential, non-linear, abstract forms; a heightened degree of self-referentiality; and the collapse of categories and conventions that had traditionally governed art. Postmodern thought has led to the serious questioning of the so-called metanarratives of history, science, philosophy, and economic and sexual reproduction. Under postmodernity, all knowledge comes to be seen as “constructed” within historical self-contained systems of understanding. Marxist, feminist, and postmodern thought have brought about the incorporation of all human discourses (that is, interlocking fields of language and knowledge) as a subject matter for analysis by the literary theorist. Using the various poststructuralist and postmodern theories that often draw on disciplines other than the literary—linguistic, anthropological, psychoanalytic, and philosophical—for their primary insights, literary theory has become an interdisciplinary body of cultural theory. Taking as its premise that human societies and knowledge consist of texts in one form or another, cultural theory (for better or worse) is now applied to the varieties of texts, ambitiously undertaking to become the preeminent model of inquiry into the human condition.

Literary theory is a site of theories: some theories, like “Queer Theory,” are “in;” other literary theories, like “Deconstruction,” are “out” but continue to exert an influence on the field. “Traditional literary criticism,” “New Criticism,” and “Structuralism” are alike in that they held to the view that the study of literature has an objective body of knowledge under its scrutiny. The other schools of literary theory, to varying degrees, embrace a postmodern view of language and reality that calls into serious question the objective referent of literary studies. The following categories are certainly not exhaustive, nor are they mutually exclusive, but they represent the major trends in literary theory of this century.

2. Traditional Literary Criticism

Academic literary criticism prior to the rise of “New Criticism” in the United States tended to practice traditional literary history: tracking influence, establishing the canon of major writers in the literary periods, and clarifying historical context and allusions within the text. Literary biography was and still is an important interpretive method in and out of the academy; versions of moral criticism, not unlike the Leavis School in Britain, and aesthetic (e.g. genre studies) criticism were also generally influential literary practices. Perhaps the key unifying feature of traditional literary criticism was the consensus within the academy as to the both the literary canon (that is, the books all educated persons should read) and the aims and purposes of literature. What literature was, and why we read literature, and what we read, were questions that subsequent movements in literary theory were to raise.

3. Formalism and New Criticism

“Formalism” is, as the name implies, an interpretive approach that emphasizes literary form and the study of literary devices within the text. The work of the Formalists had a general impact on later developments in “Structuralism” and other theories of narrative. “Formalism,” like “Structuralism,” sought to place the study of literature on a scientific basis through objective analysis of the motifs, devices, techniques, and other “functions” that comprise the literary work. The Formalists placed great importance on the literariness of texts, those qualities that distinguished the literary from other kinds of writing. Neither author nor context was essential for the Formalists; it was the narrative that spoke, the “hero-function,” for example, that had meaning. Form was the content. A plot device or narrative strategy was examined for how it functioned and compared to how it had functioned in other literary works. Of the Russian Formalist critics, Roman Jakobson and Viktor Shklovsky are probably the most well known.

The Formalist adage that the purpose of literature was “to make the stones stonier” nicely expresses their notion of literariness. “Formalism” is perhaps best known is Shklovsky’s concept of “defamiliarization.” The routine of ordinary experience, Shklovsky contended, rendered invisible the uniqueness and particularity of the objects of existence. Literary language, partly by calling attention to itself as language, estranged the reader from the familiar and made fresh the experience of daily life.

The “New Criticism,” so designated as to indicate a break with traditional methods, was a product of the American university in the 1930s and 40s. “New Criticism” stressed close reading of the text itself, much like the French pedagogical precept “explication du texte.” As a strategy of reading, “New Criticism” viewed the work of literature as an aesthetic object independent of historical context and as a unified whole that reflected the unified sensibility of the artist. T.S. Eliot, though not explicitly associated with the movement, expressed a similar critical-aesthetic philosophy in his essays on John Donne and the metaphysical poets, writers who Eliot believed experienced a complete integration of thought and feeling. New Critics like Cleanth Brooks, John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren and W.K. Wimsatt placed a similar focus on the metaphysical poets and poetry in general, a genre well suited to New Critical practice. “New Criticism” aimed at bringing a greater intellectual rigor to literary studies, confining itself to careful scrutiny of the text alone and the formal structures of paradox, ambiguity, irony, and metaphor, among others. “New Criticism” was fired by the conviction that their readings of poetry would yield a humanizing influence on readers and thus counter the alienating tendencies of modern, industrial life. “New Criticism” in this regard bears an affinity to the Southern Agrarian movement whose manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand , contained essays by two New Critics, Ransom and Warren. Perhaps the enduring legacy of “New Criticism” can be found in the college classroom, in which the verbal texture of the poem on the page remains a primary object of literary study.

4. Marxism and Critical Theory

Marxist literary theories tend to focus on the representation of class conflict as well as the reinforcement of class distinctions through the medium of literature. Marxist theorists use traditional techniques of literary analysis but subordinate aesthetic concerns to the final social and political meanings of literature. Marxist theorist often champion authors sympathetic to the working classes and authors whose work challenges economic equalities found in capitalist societies. In keeping with the totalizing spirit of Marxism, literary theories arising from the Marxist paradigm have not only sought new ways of understanding the relationship between economic production and literature, but all cultural production as well. Marxist analyses of society and history have had a profound effect on literary theory and practical criticism, most notably in the development of “New Historicism” and “Cultural Materialism.”

The Hungarian theorist Georg Lukacs contributed to an understanding of the relationship between historical materialism and literary form, in particular with realism and the historical novel. Walter Benjamin broke new ground in his work in his study of aesthetics and the reproduction of the work of art. The Frankfurt School of philosophers, including most notably Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse—after their emigration to the United States—played a key role in introducing Marxist assessments of culture into the mainstream of American academic life. These thinkers became associated with what is known as “Critical theory,” one of the constituent components of which was a critique of the instrumental use of reason in advanced capitalist culture. “Critical theory” held to a distinction between the high cultural heritage of Europe and the mass culture produced by capitalist societies as an instrument of domination. “Critical theory” sees in the structure of mass cultural forms—jazz, Hollywood film, advertising—a replication of the structure of the factory and the workplace. Creativity and cultural production in advanced capitalist societies were always already co-opted by the entertainment needs of an economic system that requires sensory stimulation and recognizable cliché and suppressed the tendency for sustained deliberation.

The major Marxist influences on literary theory since the Frankfurt School have been Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton in Great Britain and Frank Lentricchia and Fredric Jameson in the United States. Williams is associated with the New Left political movement in Great Britain and the development of “Cultural Materialism” and the Cultural Studies Movement, originating in the 1960s at Birmingham University’s Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies. Eagleton is known both as a Marxist theorist and as a popularizer of theory by means of his widely read overview, Literary Theory . Lentricchia likewise became influential through his account of trends in theory, After the New Criticism . Jameson is a more diverse theorist, known both for his impact on Marxist theories of culture and for his position as one of the leading figures in theoretical postmodernism. Jameson’s work on consumer culture, architecture, film, literature and other areas, typifies the collapse of disciplinary boundaries taking place in the realm of Marxist and postmodern cultural theory. Jameson’s work investigates the way the structural features of late capitalism—particularly the transformation of all culture into commodity form—are now deeply embedded in all of our ways of communicating.

5. Structuralism and Poststructuralism

Like the “New Criticism,” “Structuralism” sought to bring to literary studies a set of objective criteria for analysis and a new intellectual rigor. “Structuralism” can be viewed as an extension of “Formalism” in that that both “Structuralism” and “Formalism” devoted their attention to matters of literary form (i.e. structure) rather than social or historical content; and that both bodies of thought were intended to put the study of literature on a scientific, objective basis. “Structuralism” relied initially on the ideas of the Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure. Like Plato, Saussure regarded the signifier (words, marks, symbols) as arbitrary and unrelated to the concept, the signified, to which it referred. Within the way a particular society uses language and signs, meaning was constituted by a system of “differences” between units of the language. Particular meanings were of less interest than the underlying structures of signification that made meaning itself possible, often expressed as an emphasis on “langue” rather than “parole.” “Structuralism” was to be a metalanguage, a language about languages, used to decode actual languages, or systems of signification. The work of the “Formalist” Roman Jakobson contributed to “Structuralist” thought, and the more prominent Structuralists included Claude Levi-Strauss in anthropology, Tzvetan Todorov, A.J. Greimas, Gerard Genette, and Barthes.

The philosopher Roland Barthes proved to be a key figure on the divide between “Structuralism” and “Poststructuralism.” “Poststructuralism” is less unified as a theoretical movement than its precursor; indeed, the work of its advocates known by the term “Deconstruction” calls into question the possibility of the coherence of discourse, or the capacity for language to communicate. “Deconstruction,” Semiotic theory (a study of signs with close connections to “Structuralism,” “Reader response theory” in America (“Reception theory” in Europe), and “Gender theory” informed by the psychoanalysts Jacques Lacan and Julia Kristeva are areas of inquiry that can be located under the banner of “Poststructuralism.” If signifier and signified are both cultural concepts, as they are in “Poststructuralism,” reference to an empirically certifiable reality is no longer guaranteed by language. “Deconstruction” argues that this loss of reference causes an endless deferral of meaning, a system of differences between units of language that has no resting place or final signifier that would enable the other signifiers to hold their meaning. The most important theorist of “Deconstruction,” Jacques Derrida, has asserted, “There is no getting outside text,” indicating a kind of free play of signification in which no fixed, stable meaning is possible. “Poststructuralism” in America was originally identified with a group of Yale academics, the Yale School of “Deconstruction:” J. Hillis Miller, Geoffrey Hartmann, and Paul de Man. Other tendencies in the moment after “Deconstruction” that share some of the intellectual tendencies of “Poststructuralism” would included the “Reader response” theories of Stanley Fish, Jane Tompkins, and Wolfgang Iser.

Lacanian psychoanalysis, an updating of the work of Sigmund Freud, extends “Postructuralism” to the human subject with further consequences for literary theory. According to Lacan, the fixed, stable self is a Romantic fiction; like the text in “Deconstruction,” the self is a decentered mass of traces left by our encounter with signs, visual symbols, language, etc. For Lacan, the self is constituted by language, a language that is never one’s own, always another’s, always already in use. Barthes applies these currents of thought in his famous declaration of the “death” of the Author: “writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin” while also applying a similar “Poststructuralist” view to the Reader: “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.”

Michel Foucault is another philosopher, like Barthes, whose ideas inform much of poststructuralist literary theory. Foucault played a critical role in the development of the postmodern perspective that knowledge is constructed in concrete historical situations in the form of discourse; knowledge is not communicated by discourse but is discourse itself, can only be encountered textually. Following Nietzsche, Foucault performs what he calls “genealogies,” attempts at deconstructing the unacknowledged operation of power and knowledge to reveal the ideologies that make domination of one group by another seem “natural.” Foucaldian investigations of discourse and power were to provide much of the intellectual impetus for a new way of looking at history and doing textual studies that came to be known as the “New Historicism.”

6. New Historicism and Cultural Materialism

“New Historicism,” a term coined by Stephen Greenblatt, designates a body of theoretical and interpretive practices that began largely with the study of early modern literature in the United States. “New Historicism” in America had been somewhat anticipated by the theorists of “Cultural Materialism” in Britain, which, in the words of their leading advocate, Raymond Williams describes “the analysis of all forms of signification, including quite centrally writing, within the actual means and conditions of their production.” Both “New Historicism” and “Cultural Materialism” seek to understand literary texts historically and reject the formalizing influence of previous literary studies, including “New Criticism,” “Structuralism” and “Deconstruction,” all of which in varying ways privilege the literary text and place only secondary emphasis on historical and social context. According to “New Historicism,” the circulation of literary and non-literary texts produces relations of social power within a culture. New Historicist thought differs from traditional historicism in literary studies in several crucial ways. Rejecting traditional historicism’s premise of neutral inquiry, “New Historicism” accepts the necessity of making historical value judgments. According to “New Historicism,” we can only know the textual history of the past because it is “embedded,” a key term, in the textuality of the present and its concerns. Text and context are less clearly distinct in New Historicist practice. Traditional separations of literary and non-literary texts, “great” literature and popular literature, are also fundamentally challenged. For the “New Historicist,” all acts of expression are embedded in the material conditions of a culture. Texts are examined with an eye for how they reveal the economic and social realities, especially as they produce ideology and represent power or subversion. Like much of the emergent European social history of the 1980s, “New Historicism” takes particular interest in representations of marginal/marginalized groups and non-normative behaviors—witchcraft, cross-dressing, peasant revolts, and exorcisms—as exemplary of the need for power to represent subversive alternatives, the Other, to legitimize itself.

Louis Montrose, another major innovator and exponent of “New Historicism,” describes a fundamental axiom of the movement as an intellectual belief in “the textuality of history and the historicity of texts.” “New Historicism” draws on the work of Levi-Strauss, in particular his notion of culture as a “self-regulating system.” The Foucaldian premise that power is ubiquitous and cannot be equated with state or economic power and Gramsci’s conception of “hegemony,” i.e., that domination is often achieved through culturally-orchestrated consent rather than force, are critical underpinnings to the “New Historicist” perspective. The translation of the work of Mikhail Bakhtin on carnival coincided with the rise of the “New Historicism” and “Cultural Materialism” and left a legacy in work of other theorists of influence like Peter Stallybrass and Jonathan Dollimore. In its period of ascendancy during the 1980s, “New Historicism” drew criticism from the political left for its depiction of counter-cultural expression as always co-opted by the dominant discourses. Equally, “New Historicism’s” lack of emphasis on “literariness” and formal literary concerns brought disdain from traditional literary scholars. However, “New Historicism” continues to exercise a major influence in the humanities and in the extended conception of literary studies.

7. Ethnic Studies and Postcolonial Criticism

“Ethnic Studies,” sometimes referred to as “Minority Studies,” has an obvious historical relationship with “Postcolonial Criticism” in that Euro-American imperialism and colonization in the last four centuries, whether external (empire) or internal (slavery) has been directed at recognizable ethnic groups: African and African-American, Chinese, the subaltern peoples of India, Irish, Latino, Native American, and Philipino, among others. “Ethnic Studies” concerns itself generally with art and literature produced by identifiable ethnic groups either marginalized or in a subordinate position to a dominant culture. “Postcolonial Criticism” investigates the relationships between colonizers and colonized in the period post-colonization. Though the two fields are increasingly finding points of intersection—the work of bell hooks, for example—and are both activist intellectual enterprises, “Ethnic Studies and “Postcolonial Criticism” have significant differences in their history and ideas.

“Ethnic Studies” has had a considerable impact on literary studies in the United States and Britain. In W.E.B. Dubois, we find an early attempt to theorize the position of African-Americans within dominant white culture through his concept of “double consciousness,” a dual identity including both “American” and “Negro.” Dubois and theorists after him seek an understanding of how that double experience both creates identity and reveals itself in culture. Afro-Caribbean and African writers—Aime Cesaire, Frantz Fanon, Chinua Achebe—have made significant early contributions to the theory and practice of ethnic criticism that explores the traditions, sometimes suppressed or underground, of ethnic literary activity while providing a critique of representations of ethnic identity as found within the majority culture. Ethnic and minority literary theory emphasizes the relationship of cultural identity to individual identity in historical circumstances of overt racial oppression. More recently, scholars and writers such as Henry Louis Gates, Toni Morrison, and Kwame Anthony Appiah have brought attention to the problems inherent in applying theoretical models derived from Euro-centric paradigms (that is, structures of thought) to minority works of literature while at the same time exploring new interpretive strategies for understanding the vernacular (common speech) traditions of racial groups that have been historically marginalized by dominant cultures.

Though not the first writer to explore the historical condition of postcolonialism, the Palestinian literary theorist Edward Said’s book Orientalism is generally regarded as having inaugurated the field of explicitly “Postcolonial Criticism” in the West. Said argues that the concept of “the Orient” was produced by the “imaginative geography” of Western scholarship and has been instrumental in the colonization and domination of non-Western societies. “Postcolonial” theory reverses the historical center/margin direction of cultural inquiry: critiques of the metropolis and capital now emanate from the former colonies. Moreover, theorists like Homi K. Bhabha have questioned the binary thought that produces the dichotomies—center/margin, white/black, and colonizer/colonized—by which colonial practices are justified. The work of Gayatri C. Spivak has focused attention on the question of who speaks for the colonial “Other” and the relation of the ownership of discourse and representation to the development of the postcolonial subjectivity. Like feminist and ethnic theory, “Postcolonial Criticism” pursues not merely the inclusion of the marginalized literature of colonial peoples into the dominant canon and discourse. “Postcolonial Criticism” offers a fundamental critique of the ideology of colonial domination and at the same time seeks to undo the “imaginative geography” of Orientalist thought that produced conceptual as well as economic divides between West and East, civilized and uncivilized, First and Third Worlds. In this respect, “Postcolonial Criticism” is activist and adversarial in its basic aims. Postcolonial theory has brought fresh perspectives to the role of colonial peoples—their wealth, labor, and culture—in the development of modern European nation states. While “Postcolonial Criticism” emerged in the historical moment following the collapse of the modern colonial empires, the increasing globalization of culture, including the neo-colonialism of multinational capitalism, suggests a continued relevance for this field of inquiry.

8. Gender Studies and Queer Theory

Gender theory came to the forefront of the theoretical scene first as feminist theory but has subsequently come to include the investigation of all gender and sexual categories and identities. Feminist gender theory followed slightly behind the reemergence of political feminism in the United States and Western Europe during the 1960s. Political feminism of the so-called “second wave” had as its emphasis practical concerns with the rights of women in contemporary societies, women’s identity, and the representation of women in media and culture. These causes converged with early literary feminist practice, characterized by Elaine Showalter as “gynocriticism,” which emphasized the study and canonical inclusion of works by female authors as well as the depiction of women in male-authored canonical texts.

Feminist gender theory is postmodern in that it challenges the paradigms and intellectual premises of western thought, but also takes an activist stance by proposing frequent interventions and alternative epistemological positions meant to change the social order. In the context of postmodernism, gender theorists, led by the work of Judith Butler, initially viewed the category of “gender” as a human construct enacted by a vast repetition of social performance. The biological distinction between man and woman eventually came under the same scrutiny by theorists who reached a similar conclusion: the sexual categories are products of culture and as such help create social reality rather than simply reflect it. Gender theory achieved a wide readership and acquired much its initial theoretical rigor through the work of a group of French feminist theorists that included Simone de Beauvoir, Luce Irigaray, Helene Cixous, and Julia Kristeva, who while Bulgarian rather than French, made her mark writing in French. French feminist thought is based on the assumption that the Western philosophical tradition represses the experience of women in the structure of its ideas. As an important consequence of this systematic intellectual repression and exclusion, women’s lives and bodies in historical societies are subject to repression as well. In the creative/critical work of Cixous, we find the history of Western thought depicted as binary oppositions: “speech/writing; Nature/Art, Nature/History, Nature/Mind, Passion/Action.” For Cixous, and for Irigaray as well, these binaries are less a function of any objective reality they describe than the male-dominated discourse of the Western tradition that produced them. Their work beyond the descriptive stage becomes an intervention in the history of theoretical discourse, an attempt to alter the existing categories and systems of thought that found Western rationality. French feminism, and perhaps all feminism after Beauvoir, has been in conversation with the psychoanalytic revision of Freud in the work of Jacques Lacan. Kristeva’s work draws heavily on Lacan. Two concepts from Kristeva—the “semiotic” and “abjection”—have had a significant influence on literary theory. Kristeva’s “semiotic” refers to the gaps, silences, spaces, and bodily presence within the language/symbol system of a culture in which there might be a space for a women’s language, different in kind as it would be from male-dominated discourse.

Masculine gender theory as a separate enterprise has focused largely on social, literary, and historical accounts of the construction of male gender identities. Such work generally lacks feminisms’ activist stance and tends to serve primarily as an indictment rather than a validation of male gender practices and masculinity. The so-called “Men’s Movement,” inspired by the work of Robert Bly among others, was more practical than theoretical and has had only limited impact on gender discourse. The impetus for the “Men’s Movement” came largely as a response to the critique of masculinity and male domination that runs throughout feminism and the upheaval of the 1960s, a period of crisis in American social ideology that has required a reconsideration of gender roles. Having long served as the de facto “subject” of Western thought, male identity and masculine gender theory awaits serious investigation as a particular, and no longer universally representative, field of inquiry.

Much of what theoretical energy of masculine gender theory currently possesses comes from its ambiguous relationship with the field of “Queer theory.” “Queer theory” is not synonymous with gender theory, nor even with the overlapping fields of gay and lesbian studies, but does share many of their concerns with normative definitions of man, woman, and sexuality. “Queer theory” questions the fixed categories of sexual identity and the cognitive paradigms generated by normative (that is, what is considered “normal”) sexual ideology. To “queer” becomes an act by which stable boundaries of sexual identity are transgressed, reversed, mimicked, or otherwise critiqued. “Queering” can be enacted on behalf of all non-normative sexualities and identities as well, all that is considered by the dominant paradigms of culture to be alien, strange, unfamiliar, transgressive, odd—in short, queer. Michel Foucault’s work on sexuality anticipates and informs the Queer theoretical movement in a role similar to the way his writing on power and discourse prepared the ground for “New Historicism.” Judith Butler contends that heterosexual identity long held to be a normative ground of sexuality is actually produced by the suppression of homoerotic possibility. Eve Sedgwick is another pioneering theorist of “Queer theory,” and like Butler, Sedgwick maintains that the dominance of heterosexual culture conceals the extensive presence of homosocial relations. For Sedgwick, the standard histories of western societies are presented in exclusively in terms of heterosexual identity: “Inheritance, Marriage, Dynasty, Family, Domesticity, Population,” and thus conceiving of homosexual identity within this framework is already problematic.

9. Cultural Studies

Much of the intellectual legacy of “New Historicism” and “Cultural Materialism” can now be felt in the “Cultural Studies” movement in departments of literature, a movement not identifiable in terms of a single theoretical school, but one that embraces a wide array of perspectives—media studies, social criticism, anthropology, and literary theory—as they apply to the general study of culture. “Cultural Studies” arose quite self-consciously in the 80s to provide a means of analysis of the rapidly expanding global culture industry that includes entertainment, advertising, publishing, television, film, computers and the Internet. “Cultural Studies” brings scrutiny not only to these varied categories of culture, and not only to the decreasing margins of difference between these realms of expression, but just as importantly to the politics and ideology that make contemporary culture possible. “Cultural Studies” became notorious in the 90s for its emphasis on pop music icons and music video in place of canonical literature, and extends the ideas of the Frankfurt School on the transition from a truly popular culture to mass culture in late capitalist societies, emphasizing the significance of the patterns of consumption of cultural artifacts. “Cultural Studies” has been interdisciplinary, even antidisciplinary, from its inception; indeed, “Cultural Studies” can be understood as a set of sometimes conflicting methods and approaches applied to a questioning of current cultural categories. Stuart Hall, Meaghan Morris, Tony Bennett and Simon During are some of the important advocates of a “Cultural Studies” that seeks to displace the traditional model of literary studies.

10. References and Further Reading

A. general works on theory.

  • Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • During, Simon. Ed. The Cultural Studies Reader . London: Routledge, 1999.
  • Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory . Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
  • Lentricchia, Frank. After the New Criticism . Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.
  • Moore-Gilbert, Bart, Stanton, Gareth, and Maley, Willy. Eds. Postcolonial Criticism . New York: Addison, Wesley, Longman, 1997.
  • Rice, Philip and Waugh, Patricia. Eds. Modern Literary Theory: A Reader . 4 th edition.
  • Richter, David H. Ed. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends . 2 nd Ed. Bedford Books: Boston, 1998.
  • Rivkin, Julie and Ryan, Michael. Eds. Literary Theory: An Anthology . Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1998.

b. Literary and Cultural Theory

  • Adorno, Theodor. The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture . Ed. J. M. Bernstein. London: Routledge, 2001.
  • Althusser, Louis. Lenin and Philosophy: And Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971.
  • Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Trans.
  • Willard R. Trask. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1953.
  • Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1981.
  • Barthes, Roland. Image—Music—Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1994.
  • Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text . Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1975.
  • Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex . Tr. H.M. Parshley. New York: Knopf, 1953.
  • Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1988.
  • Brooks, Cleanth. The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry. New York: Harcourt, 1947.
  • Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology . Trans. Gayatri C. Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1976.
  • Dubois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches. Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co., 1903.
  • Fish, Stanley. Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities. Harvard, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980.
  • Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Volume 1. An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1981.
  • Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Vintage, 1973.
  • Gates, Henry Louis. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism . New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
  • hooks, bell. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism . Boston: South End Press, 1981.
  • Horkheimer, Max and Adorno, Theodor. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments . Ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002.
  • Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One . Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985.
  • Jameson, Frederic. Postmodernism: Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.
  • Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits: A Selection. London: Routledge, 2001.
  • Lemon Lee T. and Reis, Marion J. Eds. Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1965.
  • Lukacs, Georg. The Historical Novel . Trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1962.
  • Marcuse, Herbert. Eros and Civilization . Boston: Beacon Press, 1955.
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Genealogy of Morals . Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1969.
  • Plato. The Collected Dialogues. Ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1961.
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Author Information

Vince Brewton Email: [email protected] University of North Alabama U. S. A.

An encyclopedia of philosophy articles written by professional philosophers.

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10 Literary Theories for Understanding Literature

by Cole Salao | 21 comments

Literary Theories blog post image

Every piece of literature conveys meaning, but understanding its message can be a complicated process. In many cases, unless stated otherwise by the author, the message can be subjective. This means each of us might interpret the same text in a slightly different way.

This is why scholars have devised ways to understand how people interpret a text. These ways have since become known as literary theories.

What Is Literary Theory?

Literary theory is a school of thought that provides readers with the logical means to critique the concepts, ideas, and principles of a certain piece of literature. Essentially, the question that it seeks to answers is: What is literature?

A basic way of looking at literary theories is that each of them is a specific lens through which you can view a piece of literature. This allows you to focus on particular aspects of a work that the literary theory thinks is important.

Let’s say you’re reading a novel set during World War II. If you chose a Marxist approach, you’ll probably look at how the characters interact based on their economic and social standing. But if you view it through a feminist lens, the experience of being female during the war becomes your focus.

Literary Theory vs. Literary Criticism

Literary theory and literary criticism are two terms that are often used interchangeably, but while they have a close relationship, they are not the same.

Literary theory is a framework of ideas that guide you in understanding a particular work of literature. On the other hand, literary criticism is the study, evaluation, and interpretation of literature. The former is theoretical, the latter practical.

Thus, literary theory provides the methods for how you look at the meaning of literature, while literary criticism is how you use those methods to understand the work’s meaning.

Schools of Literary Theory

There are many schools of literary theory, each designed to view literature from a different angle. This can range from the time period, to the writer’s background, geographic location, and more. As perspectives change, new schools are established while existing ones are reinforced.

Below are some of the most common theories being used for literary criticism. Do note that the explanations below are only meant as an overview. They are by no means the only way of distinguishing each separate school of literary theory.

1. Archetypal Criticism

Archetypal criticism is the interpretation of a text based on the archetypes that appear time and time again in a wide variety of literature. Psychologist Carl Jung postulated that these elements come from humanity’s “collective unconscious,” a kind of universal psyche.

By tracing these elements from classic works to modern texts, we can gain an understanding of humanity’s universal conflicts and desires. Literature is then what links all human experience regardless of time and space. An archetype will elicit the same response from someone in Asia 500 years ago and someone in Europe today.

In his work The Hero with a Thousand Faces , Joseph Campbell lays out his theories about the narrative archetype called the hero’s journey or the monomyth. While cultures may be separated by time and space, their mythologies all seem to follow the same basic structure.

In many myths, religious and spiritual texts, and literary classics, the hero sets out on a quest, surpasses many obstacles, and finally reaches their goal.

Some examples are Odysseus, Huang Ti, King Arthur, Neo, Frodo, and Harry Potter. Even religious figures such as Jesus, Muhammad ibn Abdullah, the Buddha, Anansi, and Osiris exhibit traits of the monomyth.

2. Feminist Criticism

Feminist criticism uses the principles and ideals of feminism to critique literature. It suggests that civilization is largely patriarchal and that history and literature are largely written and studied through the male point of view.

In doing so, it aims to uncover the implicit and explicit misogyny that may be contained in writing about women, the exclusion of women in the literary canon, and other types of marginalization.

Common feminist criticisms in literature are weak female characters, idealized female representations written by male writers, and female characters in positions that are always beneath males. In resorting to these stereotypes, writers fail to present the true complexity of the female gender.

Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew has been a subject of fierce debate. The arguments vary, but the most common issues being discussed are sexism, the subjugation and objectification of women, and cruelty.

A specific scene that’s often quoted is Petruchio’s soliloquy in Act 4 Scene 1. In it, he likens himself to a falconer that must teach Katherina, a wild hawk, to obey and “come to know the keeper’s call.”

3. Marxist Criticism

Based on Karl Marx’s doctrines, this theory emphasizes class, socioeconomic situations, the power relations among different segments of society, and how these segments are represented.

Marxist criticism supposes that literature can be analyzed through the social and material conditions that it was created. So a writer’s social situation determines what characters, political ideas, and economic declarations will develop in their text.

The Hunger Games has strong Marxian undertones. Most of the population is beset with poverty and scarcity. And while the districts (the proletariat) have varying levels of wealth, they are ultimately at the mercy of the Capitol (the bourgeoisie). The plot centers on the struggles between these two sides and the social transformation it will bring.

4. Reader-Response Criticism

In reader-response criticism, to understand a text, the processes that the readers use to create meaning and experience must be considered. This is in contrast to most other schools that focus more on the author or content of the work.

It believes that literature has no objective meaning. Readers bring their own thoughts, emotions, and experiences into a work that they’re reading. Thus, whatever they take from it is based on their own expectations and ideas at the time of reading.

Reader-response criticisms are of a personal nature. For example, reading The Parable of the Prodigal Son can have different responses from people with different backgrounds. A parent with a rebellious child might focus on the father and the significance of his forgiveness. Someone with a checkered past might sympathize more with the son.

5. Deconstruction

Deconstruction recognizes that literature has no fixed meaning (and thus can mean anything) because meaning itself is unstable. Language is ever-changing so attaching static meanings and ideals to a text is impossible.

Instead, it tries to demonstrate that any text is not a unified and logical whole, but has a variety of irreconcilably contradictory meanings. Put simply, language in a text cannot describe any truth and any criticism of language will not get to the truth because language is flawed to begin with.

For example, take a look at the sentence, “This is light.” Judging on the context given, there’s no way to know whether “light” is being used as an adjective or a noun. Therefore, the sentence is unstable and can mean either.

6. Formalism

Formalism treats a work of literature as its own distinct piece, separate from its cultural, social, historical, and even authorial context. As such, its focus is purely on its form, including grammar, syntax, meter, and rhythm.

The true meaning of a text can only be determined by analyzing the formal elements of a text and seeing how they work to create a cohesive whole. Non-formal elements only create false impressions that jeopardize a reader’s interpretation.

A formalist would then analyze Kafka’s The Metamorphosis purely on the text, through the parts told in a limited third-person POV and only Gregor’s thoughts and emotions are revealed unless the other characters show theirs through action or dialogue.

7. Psychoanalytic Criticism

Psychoanalytic criticism is based on Sigmund Freud’s theories in psychology, including those of the consciousnesses and the unconscious. It argues that much like dreams, literary texts are a manifestation of the author’s neuroses, revealing their unconscious desires and anxieties.

A character from a text may be psychoanalyzed, but the usual assumption is that all characters are a projection of the author’s psyche. The author’s traumas, fixations, guilts, and conflicts many be traced through how these characters behave.

The story of Oedipus Rex is perhaps the most commonly psychoanalyzed piece of literature, started by Freud himself. He introduced the concept of the Oedipus complex, a purported universal phase of boys where they hate their fathers and want to have sex with their mothers.

8. Postcolonial criticism

Postcolonial criticism concerns itself with literature written by colonizers and those who were/are colonized. In particular, it looks at issues of culture, religion, politics, and economics within the text and how these relate to colonial hegemony (the colonizer’s act of controlling the colonized).

Put simply, it addresses the problems, consequences, and challenges that a decolonized country goes through. Specifically, it looks at these countries’ struggles with political and cultural independence, racism, and colonial mentality.

The destructiveness of British colonization is a central theme in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart . Thus, he points out the negative effects of the imposition of Western culture, beliefs, and economics on Nigerians during colonial rule.

Conversely, a critic from the West might focus more on glorifying the exploratory feats of European powers during that time.

9. Queer Theory

Queer theory explores the representation of gender and sexuality in literature. It challenges the assumption that heterosexuality is the preferred or normal mode of sexual orientation—a notion that is reinforced by certain social institutions such as marriage, employment, and adoption rights.

It argues that sexuality is fluid and plural, not a fixed identity. Thus, queer theory is interested in the breakdown of binaries such as gay/straight, masculine/feminine, and mother/father. Queer theorists are then primarily concerned about those who don’t fit in conventional categories such as intersex, bisexuals, and trans people.

Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is a favorite of queer theory critics, with some calling it early evidence of the emerging homosexual identity in Victorian London. Much of its text may contain innuendos that indicate something other than heterosexuality.

For example, Basil’s attraction to the titular character is evident in how he describes Dorian as having a strong influence on his art. This is followed by him professing to Lord Henry that “As long as I live, the personality of Dorian Gray will dominate me.”

10. New Historicism

New Historicism acknowledges that literature isn’t only influenced by the history of the author, but also that of the critic. Put simply, the writer’s circumstances shape their writing, their work reflects their time, and the critic’s circumstances and environment affect their criticism.

This theory then reveals that literary criticism is impermanent. Current criticisms are colored by current prejudices, social environments, and beliefs much like literature affects and is affected by its historical context. As times change, so will the understanding of a particular work.

Many argue that Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic. New Historicists understand that this can’t be resolved with a simple yes or no answer. The work must be studied along with its context. New Historicists will also admit that the resulting criticism is “tainted” by their own culture and environment.

The Importance of Literary Theories

All literary theories are starting points from which we can better understand a piece of literature, learn more about the author’s intentions, and improve the quality of said literature for both the author and the critic. One theory is not better than the others, each is just a different way of seeking an answer to a question.

You’re not required to follow one particular theory in your criticism. Many people often use multiple theories to gain a broader appreciation of the literature they’re studying. Plus, it’s sometimes fun to delve into a text with different theories as you often end up with a whole new perspective.

Many of these theories are not only applied in literature, but also in other facets of humanity, including other types of art, psychology, sociology, philosophy, and language. In studying these theories and applying them to your criticisms, you’ll often encounter ideas that take you in different directions.

There are definitely more literary theories than the ones listed above. Some are old and out of use, others are updated to keep up with today’s literature, and still others are being created based on social and cultural movements.

Did you find this post helpful? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

If you enjoyed this post, then you might also like:

  • Western Literary Movements: A Brief History of 9 Essential Periods
  • The Literary Canon: What’s In It, and Who Makes the List?
  • How to Write a Literary Analysis: 6 Tips for the Perfect Essay
  • Literary Trivia: 40 Fun Facts About Your Favorite Books and Authors

Cole Salao

Cole is a blog writer and aspiring novelist. He has a degree in Communications and is an advocate of media and information literacy and responsible media practices. Aside from his interest in technology, crafts, and food, he’s also your typical science fiction and fantasy junkie, spending most of his free time reading through an ever-growing to-be-read list. It’s either that or procrastinating over actually writing his book. Wish him luck!



Literary theories simplified. Thumbs up Cole

Khadija Ashfaq

Very helpful and informative article. Thanks for this effort.


Loved this article. It cleared my mind as well, same as the other commenter. I would like to get to know other literary theories as I’m studying the subject of death on some female writer’s works and I think it need to be backed up with a theory. What would you recommend?

Mutie grace

The article was very helpful thank you


A very helpful article. Many thanks writer.

Kaelyn Barron

We’re so glad you found cole’s post on literary theories helpful! :)


This post is really helpful and it cleared my mind.

We’re so glad you found the post helpful, Kone!

Sunayana Bajaj

It is simple and helpful too

We’re glad you found Cole’s post helpful! :)


Very timely since I’m taking up my Masters degree and it’s one of our subject Theories of Language and Literature. Thanks so much for this relevant piece that I could use as my guide and reference. Can I have a soft copy for this piece. Thanks


The article was very helpful. I was to take exams on this topic and you made my work easier.Thankyou!

We’re so glad it helped you prepare for your exams! :)

Hi Rommel, we’re so glad you found Cole’s post helpful for your studies!


Quite succinct and clear. Helpful. Thank you.

Thanks Ben, we’re glad you enjoyed Cole’s post! :)


Literary theory presented in a simple and unambiguous manner. Thank you, this is useful.

We’re so glad you found Cole’s post on literary theories helpful! :)

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Different types of literary theories: An Introduction

Literary theory and criticism Series Alok Mishra Literature English

What are the types of literary theories?

In the previous article, I have written about the basics or an introduction to literary theory. In this article, I will be writing about the different types of literary theory or the different schools of literary thought. Keep in mind that literary theories are established by critics from time to time. However, there are the established theories which remain popular and in practice for long compared to a few theories which fade away within years of their proposition. So, without doing the creative work of protracting this introductory paragraph, let’s get directly into finding out different types of literary theories.

Popular Literary Theories:

Though the chapters in the famous books on literary theories and criticism date back to the days of Plato and even Socrates, I will suggest you all read the book by Peter Barry. This will be best for you if you are a beginner and good for you if you know the basics already. Most relevant and the most reliable for your learnings in this field! Below, I will list the literary theories which are popular, academically discussed and debated and also the topics of many recent research works in the field of English literature. Here are some of the well-known literary theories and their basic idea:

  • Structuralism: The theory of structuralism deals with the idea that any literary work follows a certain structure. To an extent, it is right but most of the time the theory has been erroneously extrapolated. This theory is majorly limited to academic research and scholarly discussions. Before I write a detailed article for this platform, you can read my old article which details this theory: Structuralism Literary Theory
  • Deconstruction: Well, this is a theory that will be the most fascinating once you get hold of the basic tenets that Derrida tossed a random day in a seminar. It tells you to deconstruct things to zero and look for the subconscious, the loopholes, the white patches and colour them with your imagination… Once again, the theory is perhaps of no practical use when it comes to analysing a text every day. However, it is very popular among scholars and academic corridor debaters.
  • Feminist & Gay-Lesbian-Queer Theory: Do I need to say anything else? The name is apparent enough and you can have a basic idea about this theory. Though the theory basically channelised itself with feminist roots, it gradually mutated to contain lesbian, gay and queer values. This is a very popular theory as far as understanding the literary texts from women-centric perspectives is concerned. Many research works are conducted every year by scholars with their theories at the centre of their propositions.
  • Eco-Criticism: This theory became popular in the 1970s and 80s. In the 21st century, with the rise of global concerns about global warming and many other problems that our environment is facing globally, Ecocriticism is in demand once again. Many universities are encouraging their research scholars to find suitable research topics having Ecocritism as their base. You can learn more about Ecocriticism by reading this article: Ecocriticism
  • Modernism & Postmodernism: As the name speaks for itself, this theory is mostly applied to the literary works that display the impacts of modernism and post-modernism movements in Europe (and the world). It traces out the cultural changes that began in the early 20th century and continued for 2-3 decades and the aftermath that the world saw after the wars. Post-modernism can be seen, at the outset, as a late re-looking into the lifestyle that was initiated in the 1970s and continued for almost two decades. Though drying the inks of publishers on the pages of books on literary theory, Modernism and Post-modernism have lost their relevance as we have already crossed two decades in the 21st century.
  • Narratology: Though the name also connotes many aesthetic aspects of a work of literature, the theory mainly concerns with the study of various aspects related to the narrative in writing. For example, remember when the last time you were reading a novel. What do you remember? You must remember the main characters, major episodes or a few twists in the plot. However, now focus on who was telling you the story in that novel. That person was your narrator! And whether it was an interesting tale narrated or not, the art was narrative!
  • New Historicism & Marxist Criticism: Though these two theories are distinctly possible, it is wise to understand them together. New Historicism concerns with the study of literary text and non-literary or reference text together. This is done in order to get a hold of the context that may have inspired the text or some events in the literary text. In other words, New Historicism concerns chiefly with the study of literary works in a given historical context. For example, you will try to find out how was the condition of society when Jane Austen was writing her novels. And on the basis of that, you will try to find out the social references in Austen’s work that may directly be influenced by the society she lived in. At times, this study becomes very helpful for students in understanding a literary text in context. Marxist Criticism, in the same line, tries to highlight only the events or references in any literary work by any author (Victorian and Modern authors are their soft targets) which gives them an opportunity to expose the class struggles, exploitation against the deprived and the poor section of society and so on.
  • Colonial & Post-colonial Criticism: As the name aptly hints, this school of criticism is sharply focused on the study of literary texts (mostly written during the era of European colonial ventures itself) to unfold the confusions, chaos and deprivation brought by the uncalled for, irrational and lustrous invasions of the countries and societies, physically, culturally and consciously. The famous theory of cultural hybridity comes to play in this study. Post-colonial criticism deals with a special study of the texts that portray how the societies braced the changes after the end of colonial rules and their struggles in returning back to the normal and the leftovers or the residues of the colonial rules.

Though there might be other additions or subtractions to the list above, in its current form, the list with the best suitable divisions of literary theories is complete and the most relevant in the modern context of literary criticism practices. The next step will be understanding different kinds of literary theories one by one with their definitions, applications and relevance today. I will begin with the first on the list, Structuralism and I will continue writing until I reach to the bottom of this list. I am sure this series on literary theory and criticism by English Literature Education will be useful for the students of literature. Once the article comes live, you will see a link to the next article in the series below. Those who have come to this article directly and want to read the previous article, introduction to literary theory, can click the link to the previous one below:

Previous article in the series (introductory): Literary Theory

Next article in the series: Structuralism

Written by Alok Mishra for English Literature Education

Read related articles from this category:

Structuralist Theory Structuralism in Literature Details Examples Books

Structuralism Theory in English Literature Details of the Structuralist Approach & Key Theorists

Langue and Parole Meaning Saussure English Literature Explain Alok Mishra

Langue and Parole in Structuralism with Examples – Alok Mishra

Best books to study literary theory and criticism English

Best Books to Study Literary Theory and Criticism – List by Alok Mishra

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Literary Criticism: Literary Theories

  • Introduction
  • Steps to Literary Criticism
  • Resources to Use

Literary Theories

  • Citing Sources
  • thesis examples

Need a refresher about literary theory? The following web sites provide descriptions of literary theories, tips for applying the theory to a work, and additional resourses you may wish to consult.

  • Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism
  • Introduction to Modern Literary Theory
  • Literary Theory

Richard Wright

the literary theories

Virginia Woolf

the literary theories

Edgar Allan Poe

the literary theories

Flannery O'Connor

the literary theories

What is Literary Theory?

"Literary theories were developed as a means to understand the various ways people read texts. ... All literary theories are lenses through which we can see texts." Deborah Appleman

"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." Literary Theory and Schools of Criticism


Below or just a few of the many literary theories or lenses that you can use to view and talk about art, literature, and culture.

To help you decide on a literary theory and to begin analyzing your chosen text, consider the questions presented below:

Feminism: Questions for Analysis

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" (Tyson).   Purdue OWL

Is the author male or female?

Is the text narrated by a male or female?

What types of roles do women have in the text?

Are the female characters the protagonists or secondary and minor characters?

Do any stereotypical characterizations of women appear?

What are the attitudes toward women held by the male characters?

What is the author's attitude toward women in society?

How does the author's culture influence her or his attitude? Is feminine imagery used? If so, what is the significance of such imagery?

Do the female characters speak differently than to the male characters? In your investigation, compare the frequency of speech for the male characters to the frequency of speech for the female characters.

Bressler, Charles.  Literary Criticism: An introduction to theory and practice.  New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2003.

Marxism: Questions for Analysis

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.

​ Is there an outright rejection of socialism in the work?

Does the text raise fundamental criticism about the emptiness of life in bourgeois society?

How well is the fate of the individual linked organically to the nature of societal forces? What are the work's conflicting forces?

At what points are actions or solutions to problems forced or unreal?

Are characters from all social levels equally well sketched?

What are the values of each class in the work?

What is valued most? Sacrifice? Assent? Resistance?

How clearly do narratives of disillusionment and defeat indicate that bourgeois values - competition, chauvinism - are incompatible with human happiness?

Does the protagonist defend or defect from the dominant values of society? Are those values in ascendancy or decay?

Cultural Poetics or New Historicism: Questions for Analysis

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 .

​ What kinds of behavior, what models of practice, does this work seem to reinforce?

Why might readers at a particular time and place find this work compelling?

Are there differences between my values and the values implicit in the work I am reading?

Upon what social understanding does the work depend?

Whose freedom of thought or movement might be constrained implicitly or explicitly by this work?

What are the larger social structures with which these particular acts of praise or blame might be connected?

Gender Studies: Questions for Analysis

Gender studies and queer theory explore issues of sexuality, power, and marginalized populations (woman as other) in literature and culture.

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 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 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?

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?

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The Oxford Encyclopedia of Literary Theory

Literary theory is the practice of theoretical, methodological, and sociological reflection that accompanies the reading and interpretation of literary texts; it investigates the conceptual foundations of textual scholarship, the dynamics of textuality, the relations between literary and other texts, and the categories and social conditions through which our engagement with texts is organized. If the study of literary texts produces a kind of knowledge, it asks what kind of knowledge that is and on what grounds its claim to authority and distinctiveness might be based.

Since around the turn of the century literary studies has turned against the “high theory” moment of the previous three decades, and more generally against its privileged model of textuality or of cultural or linguistic mediation. It has also been marked by a structural reaction against the dominance of the US academy and toward a recognition of “world” literature. The effect of these shifts has been the development of new forms of engagement with theory: a new pragmatism; ethical criticism; affect theory; the critique of critique; the “new materialism”; the rise of ever more fine-grained forms of identity politics; the rise of new models of formalism and new models of political engagement; and a return to or reinvention of poetics or rhetoric.

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Literary Theory will illuminate the dynamic and constantly-developing aspects that have made literary theory an indispensable tool for thinking about how texts (whether written, iconic, or socio-cultural) are read. This ambitious project will promote a global and trans-disciplinary approach to fields as varied as literature, history, cultural studies, linguistics, philosophy, psychoanalysis, sociology, and the social sciences. All of the articles will appear online as part of the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature .

Volume Editor

John Frow , The University of Sydney

Associate Editors

Mark Byron , The University of Sydney

Pelagia Goulimari , University of Oxford

Sean Pryor , The University of New South Wales Sydney

Julie Rak , The University of Alberta

Formal Concepts



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46 Understanding Literary Theory

Dr. Karen Palmer

The next step in your writing journey is to choose a literary lens, also known as a critical lens or critical theory, through which to view your story.

Literary studies have been around long enough that like-minded readers and scholars have gravitated toward basic common positions as they engage in dialogue with each other. As a result, there are a number of widely-recognized critical approaches to literature, from formalists (who focus on how an author employs strategies and devices for a particular effect) to psychoanalytical critics (who explore texts to better understand humans’ psychological structure and their typical responses to particular experiences). As you consider a poem or story, you might choose one of these approaches, called literary theories, as the general lens through which to examine that work.

Imagine putting on a pair of 3D glasses in a movie theater—suddenly things start popping out at you. Though the film hasn’t changed, the way you see it has. Think of applying a literary theory to a text as putting on a pair of 3D glasses that help certain themes to pop out at you and amplify the meaning of the story.

Though there are many different literary theories, we will look at just six: Formalist or New Criticism, Marxist Criticism, Feminist Criticism, Psychological Criticism, New Historical Criticism, and Environmental/Eco Criticism.

Formalist Criticism

Also known as New Criticism, aesthetic criticism, or textual criticism, this theory first emerged in the 1920s at Vanderbilt University as a response to the emphasis placed on using biographical and historical context when analyzing literature at that time.  It was largely influenced by TS Eliot, who emphasized the high place of art as art, the emotion expressed in art, and the form, close reading, and appreciation of order within a text.

This approach considers a literary work as an entity separate from its author and its historical context. The formalist explores a work as a mechanic would explore an engine. The mechanic would assume that the engine’s parts and function can be studied without any understanding of the maker’s life and/or the history of the period in which the engine exists. Similarly, to assess a poem’s impact and understand its meaning, a scholar might “take it apart,” considering its separate elements—the form, line length, rhythm, rhyme scheme, figurative language, and diction—and how those pieces make up the effect of and shape the meaning of the whole. The purpose of this type of criticism is to investigate every detail for connection to the whole–how do all the parts affect each other and fit together?

A formalist criticism will focus on form , diction , and unity in the work of literature.

Form grows out of the work’s recurrences, repetitions, relationships, and motifs.  According to formalism, what a work means depends on how it is said.  Look at how events of plot are recounted, the effect of the story’s point of view, foreshadowing, and progressions in nature that suggest meaning.

Diction looks closely at the word choices the author makes.  Pay attention to denotation vs connotation. Denotation is simply what a word means, while connotation conveys a certain feeling about the word. For example, thin and skinny are both words that imply a slim figure. However, skinny often has a negative connotation. Another thing to look for is the etymology or history of a word. Pay attention to allusions to other words and symbols. Sometimes, a character’s diction will tell readers something important about the person.

Unity refers to how all the aspects of a work fit together in significant ways that create a whole.  Pay attention to imagery, irony, and paradox.

The point is to look at how the various elements of the text work together to create a theme.

A sample thesis:

In “Everyday Use,” the author unveils how family dynamics can influence decisions through point of view, diction, and imagery.

Marxist Criticism

Karl Marx was a 19th century German philosopher who believed that inequitable economic relationships were the source of class conflict.  Marxism was meant to be a set of social, economic, and political ideas that would change the world.

The main principle of Marxist criticism is that, to explain any context, you have to look at both material (economic) and historical situations.  It is based on the idea that the bourgeoisie (wealthy) and the proletariat (working class) are involved in a constant class struggle. The main goal is to explain a text by looking at the ways economics influences the characters.

It is important to note that Marxist criticism is not a promotion of socialist government, but rather a close study of how invisible economic forces underpin, and often undermine, authentic human relationships.

Some things to think about:

  • Commodification–Explains how things are valued for power to impress or resale value rather than for their usefulness.
  • Materialism vs spirituality: The belief that the material world is reality and that, if you look at the relationship among socio-economic classes, you will find insight into society.
  • Class conflict:  The idea that the bourgeoisie controls the proletariat by determining what is of value in society.
  • Art, literature, and ideas point out injustice of society.

By looking at the short story, “A&P” by John Updike, through a Marxist lens, the coming-of-age story of a young man working at a supermarket north of Boston transforms into a tale about repression, class conflict, and consumerism in a capitalistic society.

Feminist Criticism

Feminism is based on the assumption that culture is fundamentally patriarchal and that there is an imbalance of power that marginalizes women and their work.  Feminist theory began to be applied to literature in the 60s.  The goal is to find misogyny (negative attitudes about women) in the text.

It’s important to note that there are many kinds of feminism, but there are similarities among them.  For example, though we often think of Christianity as one religion, there are over 30,000 different denominations. They are all different, but have the same roots. Likewise, though all feminisms are rooted in the idea that women deserve to be treated equally to men, there are many different types of feminism.

Feminists look for ways to define the female experience, expose patriarchy, and save women from being the “other.” Using this approach, one examines a literary work for insight into why and how women are subjected to oppression and, sometimes, how they subvert the forces that oppress them.

Expanding on feminist criticism, gender studies explore literature for increased understanding of socially defined gender identity and behavior and its impact on the individual and on society. It includes study of sexual orientation and how non-heterosexual identities are treated by mainstream ideology, a dynamic sometimes reflected in, sometimes critiqued by, literary works.

Things to think about:

1)  Studies of difference–assume gender determines everything.  How are men and women depicted differently?

2) Power:  views of labor and economics, ie  who holds the power in the text?

3) What roles do women play?

A Sample Thesis:

“The Day it Happened” reveals a new perspective by showing women as being powerful and men being quite pathetic in unmistakable and also subtle ways.

Psychological Criticism

Psychological criticism attempts to explain growth, development, and the structure of human personality as demonstrated in a text. Based on the theories of Freud and others, this approach examines a text for signs and symbols of the subconscious processes, both of the characters and of humans in general.

There are two basic types of psychological criticism based on the work of Freud and Jung.

The focus of this type of criticism is the idea that the unconscious plays a major role in what we do, feel, and say.  Based on Freud’s Tripartite Psyche, characters are analyzed based on their subconscious, namely the id, ego, and superego, in an attempt to discover why they make the decisions they do.

  • Id: psychic energy, hunger for pleasure.  Lawless, asocial, amoral.  No thought to consequences, morality, ethics, etc.
  • Ego: Reality–changes desires by postponing action or diverting it into a socially acceptable form.
  • Superego: Sense of guilt/conscience.

Jungian or Archetypal

This approach focuses on common figures and story-lines that reveal patterns in human behavior and psychology.  Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, key figures in the development of this approach, found that in the many stories they collected from cultures all over the world, these figures and story lines emerged over and over again. Their conclusion was that these figures and story lines are etched into the human psyche (or subconscious), and as we recreate them in our stories, our audiences recognize them as symbolic of their own experience. Jung believed that we all have a personal consciousness, a personal unconsciousness, and a collective unconsciousness , which enables us to identify with universal symbols he calls archetypes.

Common Archetypes

Well-known archetypal characters are the hero, the outcast, the scapegoat, the Earth mother, the temptress, the mother, the mentor, and the devil figure.

Some common archetypal story lines are the journey, the quest, the fall, initiation, and death and rebirth.

Common image archetypes include Colors (red= passion, green=life, blue = holiness, light vs dark); Numbers (3=religion, 4=seasons, elements, 7=whole/complete); Water (creation, birth, flowing water=passage of time); Gardens (paradise/innocence); Circles (wholeness/union); Sun (passage of time)

Sample Thesis Statement:

In “A Rose for Emily,” William Faulkner uses archetypes, foreshadowing, timeline disruption, and unknowing to portray the danger of loneliness, and the lengths humans will go to feel a connection.

New Historical Criticism

The New Historical approach seeks to illuminate a text’s original meaning by uncovering details of the text’s historical context.

Modifying the historical approach, the new historicist assumes that material factors interact with each other. While this approach seeks to understand a text through its cultural context, it also attempts to discover through the literary work insight into intellectual history. For example, a new historicist might consider Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass as a product shaped not only by Douglass’s experience as a U.S. slave, but also by Douglass’s challenge of finding a publisher (most of whom were white), and by his primarily Christian readership. These factors, according to the new historicist, would interact to shape the text and its meanings.

New Historical critics are concerned with social and cultural forces that create or threaten a community.  To them, culture  is the beliefs, institutions, arts, and behaviors of a particular people in time. They believe that history is subjectively set down–it’s colored by the cultural context of the recorder.  There is no single true history/worldview.  The main point is to look at how the text reveals and comments on the different voices of the culture it depicts.

Ideas to consider in a text:

1)  What were the formative experiences, significant people, texts, religious influences, political stance, and social class in the author’s life?

2)  What were the major events, controversies, people of the time?  Who represented the power bases?  Who opposed power and influence?

3)  What voices do you meet in the text?  Which ones are powerful?  What are the social rules observed?  Is the text critical/supportive of them?  What does the text imply about the culture it depicts?

Sample Thesis:

In the short story “Marriage is A Private Affair,” by Chinua Achebe, the author’s own experiences, historical time period, and culture illuminate the struggles of the main character.

Environmental/Eco Criticism

Ecocriticism investigates what a text says about nature or the environment. It is particularly effective for looking at texts with a man vs nature type of conflict, but, like any of the literary theories, can be applied to any text. Because ecocriticism is relatively new and still developing, it is often referred to by different names, including American Studies, regionalism, and pastoralism.

An ecocritic might look at the perception of wilderness in a text or the way nature is portrayed.  They might also look at the differences in the ways humans and/or animals are portrayed in a text. They might question anthropocentrism (the idea that humans are central and nature exists to serve us).

In this video, Patrick Howard explains Ecocriticism:

Step 4: Choose a Literary Lens


  • Content created by Dr. Karen Palmer. Licensed under CC BY NC SA .
  • Content adapted from Writing and Literature , licensed under CC BY SA .

The Worry Free Writer Copyright © 2020 by Dr. Karen Palmer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Literary Theories

A Case Study in Critical Performance

  • Julian Wolfreys ,
  • William Baker

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  • Table of contents

About this book

About the authors, bibliographic information.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution .

Table of contents (10 chapters)

Front matter, introduction.

  • Julian Wolfreys, William Baker

[‘Edie’s Avalanche: Snowed Up’] ‘Snowed Up: A Mistletoe Story’

  • Richard Jefferies

A Biography of Jefferies and a Note on the Manuscript

  • David Blomfield

Formalist Concerns

‘snowed up’: a structuralist reading.

  • Julian Cowley

Snow Me Again: A Poststructuralist Narratology of ‘Snowed Up’

  • Mark Currie

Does Edie Count?: A Psychoanalytic Perspective on ‘Snowed Up’

  • Jill Barker

‘Snowed Up: A Mistletoe Story’: Feminist Approaches

  • Ruth Robbins

Political and Ideological Accounts

Agriculture and anarchy: a marxist reading of ‘snowed up’.

  • Jessica Maynard

Power and its Representations: A New Historicist Reading of Richard Jefferies’ ‘Snowed Up’

  • John Brannigan

An ‘Economics’ of Snow and the Blank Page, or, ‘Writing’ at the ‘Margins’: ‘Deconstructing’ ‘Richard Jefferies’?

  • Julian Wolfreys

Back Matter

  • Interpretation
  • literary theory

Book Title : Literary Theories

Book Subtitle : A Case Study in Critical Performance

Editors : Julian Wolfreys, William Baker


Publisher : Red Globe Press London

eBook Packages : Palgrave Literature & Performing Arts Collection , Literature, Cultural and Media Studies (R0)

Copyright Information : Macmillan Publishers Limited 1996

Edition Number : 1

Number of Pages : XI, 272

Additional Information : Previously published under the imprint Palgrave

Topics : Literary Theory

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