Literary Theory

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Literary Theory

  • Literary Theory. Gender Studies.
  • M. H. Abrams,
  • The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition
  • (1953)
  • Introduction: Orientation of Critical Theories

The literary work in relation to:

The literary work in relation to:

  • Work of art – universe:
  • How art reflects / mirrors / represents the world
  • e.g., realism (or the effect of the real)
  • Work of art – artist:
  • How the artist creates, what it is the artist expresses

The literary work in relation to:

  • Work of art – audience
  • What effect the work of art has / should have
  • Work of art – in itself:
  • What it is like (formal, structural analyses)

Mimetic theories

  • Mimesis and imitation
  • rather: representation
  • Aristotle’s Poetics: dramatic plot as imitation of an action
  • Coleridge: imitation of nature in being an organic unity
  • Realistic imitation: recognizable
  • (it is like what the reader knows)
  • Aristotle: imitation: an internal relation of form to content, vs an external relation of copy and original
  • You are aware of the resemblance of tragic action to human behaviour and you are aware of the conventions of tragic drama as different from other forms

Pragmatic theories

  • 1970s: reader-response criticism, Literary
  • Pragmatics: reader’s contribution to text
  • reading actualizes potential meaning
  • 18th century: art has to be useful
  • "The end of writing is to instruct; the end of
  • poetry is to instruct by pleasing,“
  • (Samuel Johnson's Preface to Shakespeare)
  • Follows classical theory of rhetoric (= art of persuasion) 5 part process:
  • invention, arrangement, style, memory, delivery

Expressive theories

  • Art as an expression of feelings:
  • “For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” William Wordsworth in “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” (1800)
  • Art as an expression of the personal subconscious
  • Sigmund Freud, “The Interpretation of Dreams” (1900) → psychoanalytical criticism
  • Art as an expression of the collective unconscious C.G. Jung, archetypes, archetypal images

Objective theories

  • The work of art studied in itself, as a closed system: internal structure, form, internal consistency -  its "intrinsic" rather than "extrinsic" qualities.
  • art for art’s sake (l’art pour l’art)
  • No one theory can explain all works
  • (The essay is an introduction to his book on the Romantics: The Mirror and the Lamp, 1953

M.H. Abrams, “Orientation of critical theories”

textual criticism

  • The editorial art - establishing the text
  • “The aim of a critical edition should be to present the text, so far as the available evidence permits, in the form in which we may suppose that it would have stood in a fair copy, made by the author himself, of the work as he finally intended it.”
  • W. W. Greg, The Editorial Problem in Shakespeare
  • (rev. edn. Oxford 1954)

authorial intention

  • A design or plan in the author's mind:
  • “We argued that the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art, and it seems to us that this is a principle which goes deep into some differences in the history of critical attitude.”
  • “The Intentional Fallacy” by W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley (1946) In: The Verbal Icon: studies in the meaning of poetry
  • (also In: Lodge's 2Oth c. Literary Criticism)

impressionistic criticism

  • Recreate the poem while writing about the poem.
  • “The Affective Fallacy is a confusion between the poem and its results (what it is and what it does) [...] It begins by trying to derive the standard of criticism from the psychological effects of the poem an ends in impressionism and relativism. [...] Plato's feeding and watering of the passions was an early example of affective theory, and Aristotle's countertheory of catharsis was another”
  • “The Affective Fallacy” by W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley (1949) In: The Verbal Icon: studies in the meaning of poetry (also In: Lodge's 20th c. Literary Criticism)

value judgements

  • “Literary criticism has in the present day become a profession, - but it has ceased to be an art. Its object is no longer that of proving that certain literary work is good and other literary work is bad, in accordance with rules which the critic is able to define. English criticism at present rarely even pretends to go so far as this. It attempts, in the first place, to tell the public whether a book be or be not be worth public attention; and, in the second place, so to describe the purport of the work as to enable those who have not time or inclination for reading to feel that by a short cut they have become acquainted with its contents. Both these pojects, if fairly well carried out, are salutary.”
  • Anthony Trollope, Autobiography (1883), ch. xiv


  • “Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art... The temptation to interpret Marienbad should be resisted. What matters in Marienbad in the pure, untranslateable, sensuous immediacy of some of its images, and its vigorous if narrow solution to certain problems of cinematic form... In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation (1967)

deconstructing interpretations

  • We need to interpret interpretations more than to interpret things.
  • (Montaigne)
  • Quoted in Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”
  • [1967], Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (London: Routledge Classics, 2001) page 351-370:351.

An example: gender studies

  • Mimetic approach: the way the work represents gender issues in society
  • Pragmatic approach: the way the work can help raising awareness and show alternative models of relating to gender issues
  • Expressive approach: the way the author expresses the experience of being a woman, a man, a human being of a specific gender
  • Objective approach: e.g.,écriture féminine

(an aside about basic terms)

  • female ≠ feminine ≠ feminist
  • biological vs socio-cultural vs political
  • context and terminology
  • feminism ≠ gender studies
  • - political vs academic context and terminology,
  • - focus on women vs focus on gendered experience
  • of being human
  • feminist literary criticism
  • gender studies in literature
  • Judith Butler
  • Gender
  • Trouble,
  • 1990
  • Gender as performance
  • Bodies That Matter: On the
  • Discursive Limits of Sex, 1993

The language of literary criticism

  • “A statement may be used for the sake of the reference, true or false, which it causes. This is the scientific use of language. But it may also be used for the sake of the effects in emotion and attitude produced by the reference it occasions. This is the emotive use of language.” I.A. Richards, “The two uses of language” (ch. 34 from The Principles of Literary Criticism (1924) also in Lodge's 20th Century Literary Criticism
  • (10 X 1 POINT):
  • (2 X 3 POINTS):
  • A) TECHNICAL FOCUS. Please list 3 possible ways you could write a meaningful analysis of the following text. Mention the technical focus for each of your possible analyses and write a title for each. Make sure you choose appropriate approaches that would help toward an interpretation, since the next task will be to actually write one of the 3 analyses you suggest here. (3 X 2 POINT):
  • Argumentation (make points, prove them with quotes from text) 2 points
  • Use of critical terminology (apply terms learnt for the exam) 3 points
  • Use of course material (apply concepts discussed in lectures) 3 points
  • Essay format (one page, paragraphs, beginning, middle, ending) 2 points


  • What follows has not been discussed in the lecture but may provide useful - feel free to continue.

Literary criticism as a systematic study

  • “It is clear that criticism cannot be a systematic study unless there is a quality in literature which enables it to be so. We have to adopt the hypothesis, then, that just as there is an order of nature behind the natural sciences, so literature is not a piled aggregate of 'works' but an order of 'words'.”
  • Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (1957)
  • Vassilis Lambropoulos, David Neal
  • Miller , eds.
  • Twentieth-Century Literary Theory: An Introductory Anthology
  • David Lodge,
  • 20th century literary criticism: 
  • a reader (1972)
  • Terry Eagleton,
  • Literary Theory: An Introduction
  • (1983)
  • _ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false,
  • Raman Selden, Peter Widdowson, Peter Brooker,
  • A reader's guide to contemporary literary theory
  • (1985; 5th edition 2005)

From theories to Theory

  • English Literature as a discipline:
  • designed and consolidated 2nd half of 19th c (a consequence of the coming of the national dimension into prominence)
  • Canon construction, canon as a national narrative
  • Historical, biographical, moral and rhetorical considerations were blended
  • As an academic discipline it started to develop in a way to meet scientific criteria

From theories to Theory New Criticism

  • New Criticism was a movement in literary theory that
  • dominated American and had an impact on English
  • literary criticism in the middle decades of the 20th
  • century.
  • Its chief critical strategy was close reading, particularly
  • when discussing poetry, emphasizing that a work of
  • literature functions as a self-contained, self referential
  • aesthetic object.

From theories to Theory New Criticism

  • New Criticism developed in the 1920s-30s and peaked
  • in the 1940s-50s. The movement is named after John
  • Crowe Ransom's 1941 book The New Criticism.
  • New Critics focused on the text of a work of literature
  • and tried to exclude the author's biography and
  • intention, historical and cultural contexts, and
  • moralistic bias from their analysis.
  • Reader's response was not taken into account either.

From theories to Theory New Criticism

  • New Critics often performed a "close reading" of the
  • text and believed the structure and meaning of the text
  • were intimately connected and should not be analyzed
  • separately.
  • The main aim of New Criticism was to make literary
  • criticism scientific.

From theories to Theory New Criticism

  • One of the most common grievances against the New
  • Criticism, is an objection to the idea of the text as
  • autonomous; detractors react against a perceived anti
  • historicism, accusing the New Critics of divorcing
  • literature from its place in history.

From theories to Theory New Criticism

  • Another objection comes from the reader-response
  • school of theory, rightly claiming that the fundamental
  • close reading technique is based on the assumption
  • that the subject and the object of study - the reader
  • and the text - are stable and independent forms, rather
  • than products of the unconscious process of
  • signification.

From theories to Theory I. A. Richards

  • I. A. Richards (1893–1979) , English literary critic.
  • His books, especially Principles of Literary Criticism
  • (1924) and Practical Criticism (1929), proved to be
  • founding influences for the New Criticism.
  • The concept of 'practical criticism' led in time to the
  • practices of close reading, what is often thought of as
  • the beginning of modern literary criticism. Richards is
  • regularly considered one of the founders of the
  • contemporary study of literature in English.

From theories to Theory I. A. Richards

  • In Practical Criticism he advocated an empirical study
  • of literary response. He removed authorial and
  • contextual information from thirteen poems, including
  • one by Longfellow and four by decidedly marginal
  • poets. Then he assigned their interpretation to
  • undergraduates at Cambridge University in order to
  • ascertain the most likely impediments to an adequate
  • response. This approach had a startling impact at the
  • time in demonstrating the depth and variety of
  • misreadings to be expected of otherwise intelligent
  • college students as well as the population at large.

From theories to Theory I. A. Richards

  • The question arises, however, whether such
  • interpretations are misreadings or relevant varieties of
  • reading.

From theories to Theory

  • René Wellek and Austin Warren’s Theory of Literature
  • was much ahead of its time when it first published in
  • 1949.
  • By the 1970s and 80s the term “study of literature” was
  • getting to be substituted by the term “theory” and soon
  • taken over by “Theory” with capital T.

From theories to Theory

  • Theory has a history and is categorized into schools,
  • such as – roughly in the order of their appearance –
  • Liberal Humanism, New Criticism, Formalism,
  • Structuralism, Marxist, Psychological Approach,
  • Archetypal Approach, Myth Criticism, Cultural
  • Criticism, Post-structuralism, Deconstruction, New
  • Historicism, Reader’s Response Criticism,
  • Hermeneutic Approach, Phenomenological Criticism,
  • Postmodernism, Postcolonialism, Feminism, Gender
  • Studies, Queer Theory, Ecocriticism, etc.


  • Structuralism originated in the structural linguistics of
  • Ferdinand de Saussure and the subsequent Prague
  • and Moscow schools of linguistics. Just as structural
  • linguistics was facing serious challenges from the likes
  • of Noam Chomsky and thus fading in importance in
  • linguistics, structuralism appeared in academia in the
  • second half of the 20th century and grew to become
  • one of the most popular approaches in academic fields
  • concerned with the analysis of language, culture, and
  • society.

Marxist literary criticism

  • Marxist literary criticism is a loose term describing
  • literary criticism based on socialist and dialectic
  • theories. Marxist criticism views literary works as
  • reflections of the social institutions from which they
  • originate. According to Marxists, even literature itself is
  • a social institution and has a specific ideological
  • function, based on the background and ideology of the
  • author.

Marxist literary criticism

  • The simplest goals of Marxist literary criticism can
  • include an assessment of the political 'tendency' of a
  • literary work, determining whether its social content or
  • its literary form are 'progressive'. It also includes
  • analyzing the class constructs demonstrated in the
  • literature.


  • The structuralist mode of reasoning has been applied
  • in a diverse range of fields, including anthropology,
  • sociology, psychology, literary criticism, and
  • architecture.
  • The most prominent thinkers associated with
  • structuralism include the linguist Roman Jakobson, the
  • anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, the psychoanalyst
  • Jacques Lacan, the philosopher and historian Michel
  • Foucault, the philosopher and social commentator
  • Jacques Derrida, and the literary critic Roland Barthes.


  • Proponents of structuralism would argue that a
  • specific domain of culture may be understood by
  • means of a structure - modelled on language - that is
  • distinct both from the organizations of reality and
  • those of ideas or the imagination. In the 1970s,
  • structuralism was criticized for its rigidity and
  • ahistoricism.

New Historicism

  • New Historicism is a school of literary theory,
  • grounded in critical theory, that developed in the
  • 1980s, primarily through the work of the critic Stephen
  • Greenblatt.
  • New Historicists aim simultaneously to understand the
  • work through its historical context and to understand
  • cultural and intellectual history through literature,
  • which documents the new discipline of the history of
  • ideas.


  • Deconstruction is a term introduced by French
  • philosopher Jacques Derrida in his 1967 book
  • Of Grammatology.
  • Deconstruction refers to a process of exploring the
  • categories and concepts that history and tradition has
  • imposed on a word or a work. Deconstruction suggests
  • analysis with high precision.


  • In describing deconstruction, Derrida famously
  • observed that "there is nothing outside the text." That
  • is to say, all of the references used to interpret a text
  • are themselves texts, even the "text" of reality as a
  • reader knows it. There is no truly objective, non-textual
  • reference from which interpretation can begin.
  • Deconstruction, then, can be described as an effort to
  • understand a text through its relationships to various
  • contexts.


  • The post-structuralist movement may be broadly
  • understood as a body of distinct responses to
  • Structuralism. Structuralism argued that human culture
  • may be understood by means of a structure - modeled
  • after structural linguistics - that is distinct both from
  • the organizations of reality and the organization of
  • ideas and imagination.


  • The post-structuralist approach includes the rejection
  • of the self-sufficiency of the structures that
  • structuralism posits and an interrogation of the binary
  • oppositions that constitute those structures.

Reader-response criticism

  • Reader-response criticism is a school of literary theory
  • that focuses on the reader (or "audience") and his or
  • her experience of a literary work, in contrast to other
  • schools and theories that focus attention primarily on
  • the author or the content and form of the work.
  • Although literary theory has long paid some attention
  • to the reader's role in creating the meaning and
  • experience of a literary work, modern reader-response
  • criticism began in the 1960s and '70s, particularly in
  • America and Germany, in works by, Stanley Fish,
  • Wolfgang Iser, Hans-Robert Jauss, Roland Barthes,
  • and others.

Reader-response criticism

  • An important predecessor was I. A. Richards, who in
  • 1929 analyzed a group of Cambridge undergraduates‘
  • misreadings.
  • Reader-response theory recognizes the reader as an
  • active agent who constitutes meaning to the work
  • and completes its meaning through interpretation.
  • Reader-response criticism argues that literature should
  • be viewed as a performing art in which each reader
  • creates his or her own, possibly unique, text-related
  • performance.

Reader-response criticism vs. New Criticism

  • It stands in total opposition to the theories of
  • formalism and the New Criticism, in which the reader's
  • role in re-creating literary works is ignored. New
  • Criticism had emphasized that only that which is within
  • a text is part of the meaning of a text. No appeal to the
  • authority or intention of the author, nor to the
  • psychology of the reader, was allowed in the
  • discussions of orthodox New Critics.

Psychoanalytic criticism

  • Psychoanalytic literary criticism refers to literary
  • criticism or literary theory which, in method, concept,
  • or form, is influenced by the tradition of
  • psychoanalysis begun by Sigmund Freud.
  • Psychoanalytic reading has been practiced since the
  • early development of psychoanalysis itself, and has
  • developed into a heterogeneous interpretive tradition.


  • Ecocriticism is the study of literature and environment
  • from an interdisciplinary point of view where all
  • sciences come together to analyze the environment
  • and brainstorm possible solutions for the correction of
  • the contemporary environmental situation.
  • Ecocriticism is an intentionally broad approach that is
  • known by a number of other designations, including
  • "green (cultural) studies", "ecopoetics", and
  • "environmental literary criticism".

From theories to Theory

  • Delia Da Sousa Correa and W. R. Owens: The
  • Handbook to Literary Research. 2nd ed. London:
  • Routledge, 2010
  • Theory exerts an institutional pressure. Students of
  • literature are supposed to understand that their various
  • projects must demonstrate an awareness of Theory.
  • Theory is a dominant academic discourse, a body of
  • knowledge that should be acquired and applied.

From theories to Theory

  • Theory is not a given field of knowledge with many
  • ‘schools’ which has to be sampled and picked from
  • and applied, but is an institutional extrapolation from
  • an ongoing process of debating and thinking about
  • literature and criticism.


  • If so, can any work be analyzed by any method and
  • critical perspective
  • ↕ ↕ ↕
  • Certain works are more suitable for an analysis
  • according to a particular method or critical perspective

Robert Frost (1874-1963) Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

  • Whose woods these are I think I know.
  • His house is in the village though;
  • He will not see me stopping here
  • To watch his woods fill up with snow.
  • My little horse must think it queer
  • To stop without a farmhouse near
  • Between the woods and frozen lake
  • The darkest evening of the year.

Frost cont.

  • He gives his harness bells a shake
  • To ask if there is some mistake.
  • The only other sound's the sweep
  • Of easy wind and downy flake.
  • The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
  • But I have promises to keep,
  • And miles to go before I sleep,
  • And miles to go before I sleep.


  • New Criticism
  • Marxist
  • Cultural
  • Psychological
  • Archetypal
  • Ecocriticism

William Blake (1757-1827) The Chimney Sweeper

  • When my mother died I was very young,
  • And my father sold me while yet my tongue
  • Could scarcely cry 'weep! 'weep! 'weep! 'weep!
  • So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep.
  • There's little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,
  • That curled like a lamb's back, was shaved: so I said,
  • "Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head's bare,
  • You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair."
  • And so he was quiet; and that very night,
  • As Tom was a-sleeping, he had such a sight, -
  • That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack,
  • Were all of them locked up in coffins of black.

Blake cont.

  • And by came an angel who had a bright key,
  • And he opened the coffins and set them all free;
  • Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run,
  • And wash in a river, and shine in the sun.
  • Then naked and white, all their bags left behind,
  • They rise upon clouds and sport in the wind;
  • And the angel told Tom, if he'd be a good boy,
  • He'd have God for his father, and never want joy.
  • And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark,
  • And got with our bags and our brushes to work.
  • Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm;
  • So if all do their duty they need not fear harm.


  • Marxism
  • Cultural
  • New Historicism

Carol Ann Duffy (1955) Sit at Peace

  • When they gave you them to shell and you sat
  • on the back-doorstep, opening the small green envelopes
  • with your thumb, minding the queues of peas, you were
  • sitting at peace. Sit at peace, sit at peace, all summer.
  • When Muriel Purdy, embryonic cop, thwacked the back
  • of your knees with a bamboo-cane, mouth open, soundless
  • in a cave of pain, you ran to your house,
  • a greeting wean, to be kept in and told once again.
  • Nip was a dog. Fluff was a cat. They sat at peace
  • on a coloured-in mat, so why couldn’t you? Sometimes
  • your questions were stray snipes over no-man’s land,
  • bringing sharp hands and the order you had to obey. Sit –

Duffy, cont.

  • At – Peace! Jigsaws you couldn’t do or dull stamps
  • you didn’t want to collect arrived with the frost.
  • You would rather stand with your nose to the window, clouding
  • the strange blue view with your restless breath.
  • But the day you fell from the Parachute Tree, they came
  • from nowhere running, carried you in to a quiet room
  • you were glad of. A long silent afternoon, dreamlike.
  • A voice saying peace, sit at peace, sit at peace.


  • Cultural
  • Postmodernism
  • Feminism
  • Gender

John Donne (1572-1631) A Valediction: Of Weeping

  • Let me pour forth
  • My tears before thy face, whilst I stay here,
  • For thy face coins them, and thy stamp they bear,
  • And by this mintage they are something worth.
  • For thus they be
  • Pregnant of thee ;
  • Fruits of much grief they are, emblems of more ;
  • When a tear falls, that thou fall'st which it bore ;
  • So thou and I are nothing then, when on a divers shore.  

Donne, cont.

  • On a round ball
  • A workman, that hath copies by, can lay
  • An Europe, Afric, and an Asia,
  • And quickly make that, which was nothing, all.
  • So doth each tear.
  • Which thee doth wear,
  • A globe, yea world, by that impression grow,
  • Till thy tears mix'd with mine do overflow
  • This world, by waters sent from thee, my heaven dissolvèd so.                

Donne, cont.

  • O ! more than moon,
  • Draw not up seas to drown me in thy sphere;
  • Weep me not dead, in thine arms, but forbear
  • To teach the sea, what it may do too soon;
  • Let not the wind
  • Example find
  • To do me more harm than it purposeth :
  • Since thou and I sigh one another's breath,
  • Whoe'er sighs most is cruellest, and hastes the other's death.

Charles Tennyson Turner (1808-1879) Letty’s Globe

  • When Letty had scarce pass'd her third glad year,    And her young artless words began to flow, One day we gave the child a colour'd sphere    Of the wide earth, that she might mark and know, By tint and outline, all its sea and land.    She patted all the world; old empires peep'd Between her baby fingers; her soft hand    Was welcome at all frontiers. How she leap'd,    And laugh'd and prattled in her world-wide bliss; But when we turn'd her sweet unlearned eye On our own isle, she raised a joyous cry-- 'Oh! yes, I see it, Letty's home is there!'    And while she hid all England with a kiss, Bright over Europe fell her golden hair.

Charles Tennyson Turner (1808-1879) Letty’s Globe

  •    When Letty had scarce pass'd her third glad year,    And her young artless words began to flow, One day we gave the child a colour'd sphere    Of the wide earth, that she might mark and know, By tint and outline, all its sea and land.    She patted all the world; old empires peep'd Between her baby fingers; her soft hand    Was welcome at all frontiers. How she leap'd,    And laugh'd and prattled in her world-wide bliss; But when we turn'd her sweet unlearned eye On our own isle, she raised a joyous cry - 'Oh! yes, I see it, Letty's home is there!'    And while she hid all England with a kiss, Bright over Europe fell her golden hair.

Critical approaches

  • Wilfred L. Guerin, Earle Labor, Lee Morgan, Jeanne C.
  • Reesman, John R. Willingham:
  • A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. 4th
  • ed.
  • New York, Oxford: Oxford University Oress, 1999

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