Theory of Literature
3. Review: Introduction to Literary
• Literary theory is a tool box of strategies to help
us read, interpret, and understand the many
facets of a literary work. The ideas used in theory
act as different lenses we can use to view and talk
about art, literature, and even culture. These
diverse lenses give us new ways to consider
works of art based on certain hypotheses and
conventions within that school of theory. They
also allow us to focus on particular aspects of a
work we consider important.
4. Review of Theoretical
• 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
• Psychoanalytical Criticism
– Trauma Theory
• Feminist Criticism
5. Discuss your ideas
about feminist theory,
Deconstruction was inaugurated by Jacques Derrida in the late 1960s
and became a major influence on literary studies during the late
1970s; yet, many students and faculty alike continue to misperceive
deconstruction as a superficial analysis of wordplay that destroys our
appreciation of literature and our ability to interpret it meaningfully.
Perhaps one reason deconstruction is frequently misunderstood
is that the writing by some of the biggest names in the field—
Jacques Derrida, Luce Irigaray, Geoffrey Hartman— as well as the
explanations offered by those who attempt to summarize the work of
these thinkers, frequently employ such unusual language and
organizational principles that they seem to defy our
understanding and acceptance.
Nevertheless, deconstruction has a good deal to offer us: it can
improve our ability to think critically and to see more readily the
ways in which our experience is determined by ideologies of
which we are unaware because they are “built into” our
language. And because deconstruction offers these advantages, it
can be a very useful tool for Marxism, feminism, and other theories
that attempt to make us aware of the oppressive role ideology can
play in our lives. (Tyson)
7. Typical Questions by
1. How can we use the various conflicting interpretations a text
produces (the ―play of meanings‖) or find the various ways in which
the text doesn’t answer the questions it seems to answer, to
demonstrate the instability of language and the undecidability* of
2. What ideology does the text seem to promote—what is its main
theme—and how does conflicting evidence in the text show the
limitations of that ideology? We can usually discover a text’s overt
ideological project by finding the binary opposition(s) that structure
the text’s main theme(s).
*To reveal a text’s undecidability is to show that the “meaning” of the text is really an indefinite,
undecidable, plural, conflicting array of possible meanings and that the text, therefore, has no
meaning, in the traditional sense of the word, at all.
8. Feminist Criticism
Broadly defined, feminist criticism examines the ways in which
literature (and other cultural productions) reinforces or
undermines the economic, political, social, and psychological
oppression of women. However, just as the practitioners of all
critical theories do, feminist critics hold many different opinions on
all of the issues their discipline examines. In fact, some feminists call
their field feminisms in order to underscore the multiplicity of points
of view of its adherents and offer ways of thinking that oppose the
traditional tendency to believe there is a single best point of view. Yet
many of us who are new to the study of feminist theory, both male
and female, have decided ahead of time that we are not feminists
because we don’t share whatever feminist point of view we have
found the most objectionable. In other words, before we even come
to the theory classroom, many of us have reduced feminism to
whatever we consider its most objectionable element and, on that
basis, have rejected it. This attitude reveals, I think, the
oversimplified, negative view of feminism that still persists in
American culture today. For it is from the culture at large—the
home, the workplace, the media, and so on—that we have
gathered the antifeminist bias we sometimes bring into the
classroom. (Tyson 83)
9. Typical Questions Asked by
1. What does the work reveal about the operations (economically, politically,
socially, or psychologically) of patriarchy? How are women portrayed? How do
these portrayals relate to the gender issues of the period in which the novel
was written or is set? In other words, does the work reinforce or undermine
patriarchal ideology? (In the first case, we might say that the text has a
patriarchal agenda. In the second case, we might say that the text has a
feminist agenda. Texts that seem to both reinforce and undermine patriarchal
ideology might be said to be ideologically conflicted.)
2. What does the work suggest about the ways in which race, class, and/or
other cultural factors intersect with gender in producing women’s experience?
3. How is the work ―gendered‖? That is, how does it seem to define femininity
and masculinity? Does the characters’ behavior always conform to their
assigned genders? Does the work suggest that there are genders other than
feminine and masculine? What seems to be the work’s attitude toward the
gender(s) it portrays? For example, does the work seem to accept, question, or
reject the traditional view of gender?
4. What does the work imply about the possibilities of sisterhood as a mode of
resisting patriarchy and/or about the ways in which women’s situations in the
world—economic, political, social, or psychological—might be improved?
10. 5. What does the history of the work’s reception by the public
and by the critics tell us about the operations of patriarchy? Has
the literary work been ignored or neglected in the past? Why?
Or, if recognized in the past, is the work ignored or neglected
6. What does the work suggest about women’s creativity? In
order to answer this question, biographical data about the
author and historical data about the culture in which she lived
will be required.
7. What might an examination of the author’s style contribute to
the ongoing efforts to delineate a specifically feminine form of
writing (for example, écriture féminine)?
8. What role does the work play in terms of women’s literary
history and literary tradition? (Tyson 120)
Feminist questions continued
11. Psychoanalytical Criticism
• If we take the time to understand some key concepts about
human experience offered by psychoanalysis, we can begin
to see the ways in which these concepts operate in our daily
lives in profound rather than superficial ways, and we’ll begin
to understand human behaviors that until now may have
seemed utterly baffling. And, of course, if psychoanalysis
can help us better understand human behavior, then it
must certainly be able to help us understand literary
texts, which are about human behavior. The concepts we’ll
discuss are based [largely] on the psychoanalytic principles
established by Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), whose theory of
the psyche often is referred to today as classical
psychoanalysis. We must remember that Freud evolved his
ideas over a long period of time, and many of his ideas
changed as he developed them. In addition, much of his
thinking was, as he pointed out, speculative, and he hoped
that others would continue to develop and even correct
certain of his ideas over time. (Tyson 12)
12. Typical Questions by New Critics
1. How does the work use imagery to develop its own symbols? (i.e.
making a certain road stand for death by constant association)
2. What is the quality of the work's organic unity "...the working
together of all the parts to make an inseparable whole..." (Tyson
121)? In other words, does how the work is put together reflect
what it is?
3. How are the various parts of the work interconnected?
4. How do paradox, irony, ambiguity, and tension work in the text?
5. How do these parts and their collective whole contribute to or not
contribute to the aesthetic quality of the work?
6. How does the author resolve apparent contradictions within the
7. What does the form of the work say about its content?
8. Is there a central or focal passage that can be said to sum up the
entirety of the work?
9. How do the rhythms and/or rhyme schemes of a poem contribute
to the meaning or effect of the piece?
13. Typical questions psychoanalytic critics
1. How do the operations of repression structure or inform the work?
That is, what unconscious motives are operating in the main
character(s); what core issues are thereby illustrated; and how do
these core issues structure or inform the piece? (Remember, the
unconscious consists of repressed wounds, fears, unresolved conflicts,
and guilty desires.)
2. Are there any oedipal dynamics—or any other family dynamics—at
work here? That is, is it possible to relate a character’s patterns of
adult behavior to early experiences in the family as represented in the
story? How do these patterns of behavior and family dynamics operate
and what do they reveal?
3. How can characters’ behavior, narrative events, and/or images be
explained in terms of psychoanalytic concepts of any kind (for
example, regression, crisis, projection, fear of or fascination with death,
sexuality—which includes love and romance as well as sexual
behavior—as a primary indicator of psychological identity, or the
operations of ego-id-superego)?
4. In what ways can we view a literary work as analogous to a dream?
That is, how might recurrent or striking dream symbols reveal the
ways in which the narrator or speaker is projecting his or her
unconscious desires, fears, wounds, or unresolved conflicts onto
other characters, onto the setting, or onto the events portrayed?
Symbols relevant to death, sexuality, and the unconscious are
especially helpful. Indeed, the use of dream symbols can be very
useful in interpreting literary works, or passages thereof, that seem
unrealistic or fantastic, in other words, that seem dreamlike.
5. What does the work suggest about the psychological being of its
author? Although this question is no longer the primary question
asked by psychoanalytic critics, some critics still address it, especially
those who write psychological biographies (psychobiographies). In
these cases, the literary text is interpreted much as if it were the
author’s dream. Psychoanalyzing an author in this manner is a
difficult undertaking, and our analysis must be carefully derived by
examining the author’s entire corpus as well as letters, diaries, and
any other biographical material available. Certainly, a single literary
work can provide but a very incomplete picture.
6. What might a given interpretation of a literary work
suggest about the psychological motives of the reader?
Or what might a critical trend suggest about the
psychological motives of a group of readers (for
example, the tendency of literary critics to see Willy
Loman as a devoted family man and ignore or
underplay his contribution to the family dysfunction)?
7. In what ways does the text seem to reveal
characters’ emotional investments in the Symbolic
Order, the Imaginary Order, the Mirror Stage, or what
Lacan calls objet petit a? Does any part of the text
seem to represent Lacan’s notion of the Real? Do any
Lacanian concepts account for so much of the text that
we might say the text is structured by one or more of
• Review the