Lecture: Introduction to
Theory of Literature
Discussion: Literary Theory
Introduction to Literary Theory
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.
Some Theoretical Approaches
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
What is the difference between literary
theory and traditional modes of literary
What might literary theory serve to
reveal about a literary text that
traditional criticism cannot?
Which major school of literary theory
interests you and why?
Q: Why are there so many theories surrounding
the concept of Literature?
Q: What is the importance of understanding the
branches of Literature Theory?
Q: How do numerous lenses and theories with
which to view texts help to better understand
Q: What causes the transition from one literary
theory to the next, or how does a new literary
Q: Do the literary theories exist parallel to each
other or are they more like movements that
transition from one particular theory to the next?
Q: What theory is absent and why is it
Q: Why do we find it necessary to analyze and
Q: Why do we find it important to learn from our
Q: Should Literature and History be taught as one
Q: How is literary theory stifling, or restrictive on
understanding literature, if at all?
Formalism and New Criticism
New Criticism occupies an unusual position in the field of literary
studies today. On the one hand, it is no longer practiced by literary
critics, so it can’t really be called a contemporary theory. On the
other hand, New Criticism, which dominated literary studies from
the 1940s through the 1960s, has left a lasting imprint on the way
we read and write about literature. Some of its most important
concepts concerning the nature and importance of textual
evidence—the use of concrete, specific examples from the text itself
to validate our interpretations—have been incorporated into the way
most literary critics today, regardless of their theoretical persuasion,
support their readings of literature. In fact, if you’re an English
major, you probably take for granted the need for thorough textual
support for your literary interpretations because this practice, which
the New Critics introduced to America and called “close reading,”
has been a standard method of high school and college instruction
in literary studies for the past several decades. So in this sense,
New Criticism is still a real presence among us and probably will
remain so for some time to come (Tyson 135).
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?
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)
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.
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)
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
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
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?
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
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)
Typical questions psychoanalytic
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 these concepts?
Read: Bedford/St. Martin’s “Definition of the New
Criticism” and “Definition of Formalism (Course readings;
theory texts; formalism/new criticism)
Post #3: Choose one
What made New Criticism new? What is the critical focus of
New Criticism? Of Formalism?
Bring: Copies of “My Papa’s Waltz” (a link) and “My Papa’s
Waltz: A New Critical Approach”(Course readings; theory
texts; new criticism; “My Papa’s Waltz: A New Critical