Literary Theory: Crash Course
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Literary Theory: Crash Course

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Browse these common theories. When considered singularly and collectively, they're useful approaches to great works of literature for interpreting and finding meaning.

Browse these common theories. When considered singularly and collectively, they're useful approaches to great works of literature for interpreting and finding meaning.

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  • 1. The Wonderful World of Literary Theory: Shine a Light on Literature
  • 2. The Modes (well, the major ones… the ones you should know)
    • Reader Response
    • Formalist
    • Deconstructionist
    • Psychological
    • Gender (Feminist, Queer Theory)
    • Historical
    • Biographical
    • Cultural
    • Mythological
    • Sociological
  • 3. Myriad Approaches
    • Important: No single theory is necessarily correct or true above any other
    • Critical approaches usually derive from personal discretion or applicability
    • Some approaches naturally lend themselves to particular works
  • 4. For example…
    • Any work by Hemingway would naturally lend itself to a biographical approach
  • 5. Another example…
    • It would be tough to talk about Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried without understanding the historical context…
  • 6. Reader Response Theory
    • Attempts to describe what happens in a person’s mind when interpreting a text
    • Recognizes plurality of texts
    • Explores contradictions inherent in the problem this approach presents
  • 7. Formalist Criticism
    • Regards literature as a unique form of human knowledge to be regarded in its own terms
    • Apart from or above biographical, social, historical, or cultural influences
    • Literature is understood through its intrinsic literary features
    • TEXT-CENTERED: focus on words
  • 8. Formalist cont’d…
    • “ Close Reading”
      • Focus on intense relationships in a work
      • Form and content cannot be meaningfully separated
      • Interdependence of form and content make a text literary
  • 9. Biographical Criticism
    • Considers that literature is written by actual people
    • Understanding of author’s life helps comprehend the work
    • Author’s experience SHAPES the creation of the work
    • Practical advantage: illuminates text
    • Be judicious--base interpretation on what is in the text itself (Cheever, Plath, Fitzgerald examples)
  • 10. Historical Criticism
    • Investigation of social, cultural, and intellectual contexts that produced the work
      • Necessarily includes author’s biography and milieu
    • Impact and meaning on original audience (as opposed to today’s)
    • How a text’s meaning has changed over time
      • Connotations of words, images (1940, America)
  • 11. Psychological Criticism
    • Owes much to the work of Sigmund Freud
      • Analysis of Oedipus--considered Sophocles’ insight into human mind influential
      • Painful memories (esp. from childhood) repressed, stored in subconscious
      • Freud and followers (including Carl Jung) believed that great literature truthfully reflects life
  • 12. Psychological cont’d…
    • Three approaches
      • 1. Creative process of the arts
        • What is genius and how is it related to mental functions?
        • How does a work impact the mind of the reader?
      • Psychological study of artist
      • Analysis of fictional characters
        • Freud’s analysis of Oedipus is the prototype
        • Attempt to apply modern insights to fictional people
    • All psych criticism seeks to DELVE
  • 13. Mythological Criticism
    • Seeks recurrent universal patterns
    • Combines insights of many disciplines:
      • Anthropology
      • Psychology
      • History
      • Comparative religion
  • 14. Mythological cont’d…
    • Explores artist’s common humanity (as opposed to individual emphasis in pysch. crit.)
    • THE ARCHETYPE
      • A symbol, character, situation, or image that evokes a deep universal response
      • Carl Jung (Swiss psychologist)--lifetime student of myth and religion
        • “ collective unconscious”
        • Set of primal memories common to the human race (existing below conscious mind)
        • Archetypal images (like sun, moon, fire, night, blood) trigger the “c.u.”
    • Important to link text to other texts with similar or related archetypal situations
  • 15. Sociological Criticism
    • Examines literature in the cultural, economic, and political context in which it is written or received
      • Art not created in a vacuum
      • Relationship between author and society
        • Social status of author
        • Social content of a work (values presented)
        • Role of audience in shaping literature
  • 16. Sociological cont’d…
    • Marxist criticism
      • Economic and political elements of art
      • Explores ideological content of literature
      • Content determines form; therefore all art is political
      • DANGER: imposing critic’s politics on work in question can sway evaluation based on how closely (or not) the work endorses ideology
      • VALUE: illuminates political and economic dimensions of literature that other approaches may overlook
  • 17. Gender Criticism
    • Examines how sexual identity influences the creation and reception of literary works
    • Began with feminist movement
      • Influenced by sociology, psychology, and anthropology
      • Feminist critics see a world saturated with “male-produced” assumptions
      • Seek to correct imbalance by battling patriarchal attitudes
  • 18. Gender cont’d…
    • Feminist criticism analyzes how an author’s gender influences ideas
    • Also, how sexual identity influences reader
      • Reader sees text through eyes of his or her sex
    • Examination of social forces responsible for gender inequality
  • 19. Gender cont’d…
    • Gender criticism expands beyond original feminist perspective
      • Different sexual orientations
      • Men’s movement
        • Not rejection of feminism, but a contemporary rediscovery of masculinity
  • 20. Deconstructionist Criticism
    • Rejects traditional assumption that language can accurately represent reality
      • Language fundamentally unstable
      • Literary texts, therefore, have no fixed meaning
    • “ Signs” cannot coincide with what is “signified”
      • i.e., the actual expression ≠ what’s being expressed
  • 21. Deconstructionist cont’d..
    • Attention shifts from what is being said to how language is being used in a text
    • Paradox: Deconstructionist criticism often resembles formalist
      • Both involve close reading
    • BUT: decon. critics break text down into mutually irreconcilable positions
  • 22. Deconstructionist cont’d..
    • REJECTION of myth that authors control language
      • Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault call for the “death of the author”
        • No author, no matter how brilliant, can fully control the meaning of a text
        • They have also called for death of literature as a special category of writing
          • Merely words on a page; all texts equally untrustworthy
          • Therefore, literature deserves no status as art
    • No truths; only rival interpretations
  • 23. Cultural Studies
    • Relatively recent interdisciplinary field of academic study (not solely associated with literary texts)
    • Not a study of fixed, aesthetic objects, but of DYNAMIC SOCIAL PROCESSES
      • Challenge: to identify and understand the complex forms and effects of the process of culture
  • 24. Cultural Studies cont’d…
    • DEEPLY anti-formalist
      • Investigates complex relationship among history, politics, and literature
      • Rejects notion that literature exists in an aesthetic realm separate from ethical and political categories
    • A political enterprise that views literary analysis as a means of furthering social justice
    • Commitment to examining issues of race, class, and gender as well as “shifting” the canon
  • 25. Credits
    • Kennedy, X.J. and Gioia, D., eds. Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama . Eighth edition. New York: Longman, 2002.
    • All images courtesy of Google Images
  • 26. THE END
    • Deconstructionist, Jacques Derrida
    • 1930-2004
    • Or is it…?