What is literature?
Any work with a unique aesthetic
Texts that have stood the test of time?
Works of the imagination/creative
Works with a particular set of qualities—
e.g., plot, character, tone, setting, etc.?
Works that emphasize universal themes
(i.e., transcend the merely social or
Works that fit the parameters of literary
genres: poem, essay, short story,
Anything that is written?
Mr. Nishant Pandya,
Assistant Professor of English,
Parekh Arts, Commerce, and Science College,
What is literary theory?
The capacity to generalize about phenomena
and to develop concepts that form the basis
for interpretation and analysis—in this
instance, of a “literary” text.
What is literary criticism?
The disciplined application of theoretical
principles for the purpose of analyzing,
interpreting, and evaluating literary texts.
1. The World
2. The Author
3. The Text
4. The Reader
Formalism: the TEXT (as art)
Structuralism: the TEXT (as language
READER/TEXT/community of readers
THE 4 CRITICAL VARIABLES of
LITERARY THEORY &
Gender Studies: WORLD/author/text/reader
Territorial: TEXT/[reader/ author/world])
SOME TRADITIONAL APPROACHES
Historical—author’s historical moment is key
to understanding a literary text
Biographical—author’s personal experiences
are central to understanding the text
Social realism (?)—social transparency is
key to understanding the text…
Hippolyte Taine (1828-1893)
Applying the scientific method to art—assumes
language is factual, reality is absolute, the “truth” can
Taine’s three major factors for interpreting a text:
Race—i.e., national characteristics of the artist’s
historical place and time
Milieu—i.e., sum total of artist’s experience
Moment—intellectual & philosophical currents of artist’s
historical place and time
Wellek and Warren
Theory of Literature (1949)
Key issues to understanding a text:
The writer’s heredity & environment (Taine’s
The fictional world of the text vis-à-vis the
world outside the text (Taine’s “race” &
The audience for which the text was intended
Irresolvable problem with traditional (pre-1970)
social approaches to literary interpretation
Practitioners assumed that historical, biographical,
and social information could be accurately gathered
and verified. They viewed language as transparent,
facts as reliable, history as objective.
Poststructuralist theories about the ideological
appropriation of language by dominant groups &
postmodernist disillusionment with objective reality
both undermine old-style criticism.
Meaning resides in the text—not in reader,
author, or world
Texts may contain numerous messages,
but must have a unifying central theme
created by the perfect union of all artistic
Texts are artistic creations
Close reading is the basis of new critical
The methodology for finding meaning is
clear-cut; the tools are unique to literary
*one type of formalism
Text has many interpretations—text & reader interact
to create meaning
Meaning ultimately resides in the reader’s mind
or the consensual “mind” of a community of readers
(this class, for example)
A text’s truth is relative
Readers may reach the same conclusions about a
work--but approach the task quite differently
Meaning resides in the structure of language, not in
art nor in the reader’s mind
Scientific approach to literary analysis:
structure of language as a logical sign system
Two levels of language: langue (“the King’s English”)
& parole (everyday speech)
Interpret a text or part of a text by taking its language
apart (study word derivations, sentence syntax, etc.)
Texts—composed of language, an unstable sign
system that always “defers” meaning.
Truth is constructed, not “given,” so there’s no
such thing as A correct interpretation
Look for an apparent meaning of some aspect of
the text ; show how the text undermines
(deconstructs) it; look again & show how the text
undermines the latest interpretation, etc.
Look for oppositions: good vs. evil, e.g. Show how
the text undermines first one, then the other so that
good and evil are exposed as “empty” concepts
Literature is one among many socially constructed texts. If there is
a difference, it’s the intentional use of the imagination to convey
History is every bit as subjective as intentionally imaginative texts
Purpose of analyzing literature is to locate hidden social
messages, especially those that promote oppression.
Texts have no final interpretation
Language, though socially constructed, is stable enough to be
Find a small intriguing or odd piece of the text and interpret it by
comparing it to contemporary sign systems—magazines,
newspapers, fads, laws. Try to locate uses & abuses of power.
Meaning resides in text, history, and ideology
Literature is a political tool—those in power
decide what is “art”
Truth is relative
Study the author’s (and reader’s) life & times; locate
tensions between conflicting cultures; explore the “double
consciousness” of colonized & postcolonized writers;
observe how colonizers “refashion” the colonized;
Meaning resides in text, history, & ideology: messages of
oppression & class conflict
Texts are commodities, not timeless works of art
Truths are socially constructed.
Look for evidence of oppressive ideologies of the dominant
social group; look for uses & abuses of power
What workers look like to a
Meaning is socially constructed.
Texts have more than one interpretation
Texts are commodities (products of
Truth is relative, highly dependent on
arbitrary categories of difference, esp.
those based on “sex” and “gender”
Look for systems of containment; for evidence
of repression, oppression, suppression,
subversion, & rebellion in texts by women;
study women’s unique ways of understanding
and writing about the human condition.
Possessions (objects of desire) are metaphors for who we are
or how we wish to be perceived—aspects of the “self.”
Possessions may be tangible or intangible (my car or my idea,
They occupy mental space: cognitive, affective, and conative.
These spaces strongly resemble territories—with rights of
ownership, markers, boundaries, rules of “in” and “out,”
defensive strategies, etc.
Look for territorial behaviors; determine the “object(s) of
desire”; what aspect of self is in play? Who owns the object?
Who wants it? Why? Identify the territorial act: acquisition,
management, or defense? How does this information improve
our understanding of the text?
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